Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Retrospective: Quest for the Heartstone

1984 marks a significant turning point in the history of both TSR Hobbies and its most popular and successful game, Dungeons & Dragons. By my reckoning, it's the start of D&D's Silver Age. It's a year marked by the advent of Dragonlance and the continued exile of Gary Gygax to Hollywood. 1984 also sees the increased brandification of D&D, as well as its kiddie-fication, much to the chagrin of my snobbish adolescent self.

The latter point is what's most relevant to this post, because the D&D module Quest for the Heartstone was self-avowedly "designed to be compatible with the ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® Action Toys from LJN, Ltd." Indeed, there are multiple passages in the adventure where the text suggests things like "You may use the HOOK HORROR™ Monster produced by LJN Toys, Ltd. for this encounter." Likewise, all of the module's pre-generated characters, like STRONGHEART™, MERCION™, and RINGLERUN™ are "based on the Official ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® Action Toy figures produced by LJN Toys, Ltd." 

If you're already tired of seeing all the needless capitalizations, trademark symbols, and references to LJN Toys, Ltd. in this post, just try to imagine what it's like reading the entire text of this 32-page adventure, where they appear again and again. Even by the low standards of grasping corporate brand-building, this is beyond ridiculous. I can't help but feel a deep sympathy for Michael L. Gray, who had the dubious honor of having to write this, no doubt with the brief that he find a way to shoehorn in every Action Toy from LJN, Ltd. 

The scenario presented in Quest for the Heartstone is an odd one. King Ganto of Ghyr died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 82 without an heir. His widow, Queen Leahra, is still a young woman – in her mid-thirties, according to the text – and is expected to remarry in order to provide Ghyr with a successor to her deceased husband. However, she has no desire to do this, since her "heart belongs only to Gantos." For that reason, she has rejected numerous suitors from among the nobility of the kingdom. Patriarch Loftos communes with his deity, He Who Watches, and learns the location of the legendary heartstone, which true to its name, enables its possessor to "see into the hearts of men." If the heartstone could be recovered, the queen could find an appropriately worthy man to marry and thereby make the king of Ghyr. Naturally, Loftos decides to enlist a party of adventurers to retrieve the heartstone and save the kingdom.

The module's set-up leaves me with a lot of questions that are probably best not asked. In the end, the initial situation exists solely to provide an excuse for the characters to travel from Castle Ghyr across the Northern Marsh to the Mountains of Ice, where Loftos says the heartstone lies. This is an Expert Rules adventure, intended for characters of levels 5–10, so a wilderness trek is therefore obligatory before reaching the dungeon proper. The dungeon itself is interesting in that it becomes more difficult as one ascends it, since the whole thing is a sort of tower built into the mountainside. As dungeons go, it's nothing special, but it's neither is it awful. The whole thing is a vaguely funhouse affair, with little rhyme or reason to its contents beyond being a "challenge" for those who wish to retrieve the heartstone.

The bigger issue for Quest for the Heartstone is its audience. Who was this module written for? The D&D toys it regularly references were likely aimed at children younger than even the ages 10 and up favored by TSR's D&D line. Meanwhile, regular players of D&D, including older children, would probably find all the references to the toys more than a little annoying – never underestimate the desire of older kids to distance themselves from anything they deem to be "baby-fied." And so I ask again: who is this for? What did TSR think they were doing by publishing this module and how did it advance even their ill-considered mid-1980s plans to turn Dungeons & Dragons into a multimedia property?

These questions are even more baffling to me, given that the module is pretty well made. The maps of the dungeon are nicely executed isometric ones by David "Diesel" LaForce. Likewise, the adventure is profusely illustrated by Jeff Easley. Easley provides not only the interiors of many of the rooms of the dungeon but also his takes on several iconic AD&D monsters that have been converted for use with D&D, like the dragonne and roper. Whatever the wisdom in making this adventure, it is not a low-quality effort on the part of TSR. Quest for the Heartstone looks every bit as good as any other TSR publication of the era.

As I said, 1984 is something of a turning point for TSR. The successes of the late '70s and early '80s enabled increasingly foolhardy decisions that put the company in a very precarious situation whose ultimate outcome was handing control of the company over to Lorraine Williams, a woman whose decisions were no better than those of Gary Gygax or the Blume brothers, even if her errors of judgment were of a very different kind. Given the current state of affairs regarding D&D and its current corporate master, this is an instructive reminder that the game has rarely been well managed for long and yet it has somehow endured despite it all.


  1. In addition to the toy thing - the romance plot set up seems aimed at people much older than fans of the action figures would be at the time.

  2. try to remember that the company is having what would later be called Hypergrowth, with no one having any idea what they were doing, and the company changing every month...

  3. At the age of 13, as I was in 1984, I was actually excited by the prospect that TSR was making modules featuring characters from the toys. What bothered me though was that the module featuring the Official ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS® Action Toy figures produced by LJN Toys, Ltd. was actually made for BASIC D&D and not ADVANCED D&D. I didn't play Basic D&D so, ultimately, I gave the module a miss.

  4. I got this for a $1 in the barging bin at mall toys store maybe 1987 or 88. I would have been 13 probably and saw it as for kids but why the heck not at a $1.

    It's better than some of the other D&D modules I own.

  5. I guess I would have been in the target demographic for this, if I'd known the module had stats for the LJN action figures and occasions to deploy the monsters. I guess I would've been about ten; I'd already started playing - Moldvay Basic, graduating to Mentzer Expert - but I was also avidly collecting the action figures as fast as my allowance would permit. I remember being frustrated that the action figures' names and descriptions suggested, tantalizingly, some kind of backstory, but I didn't know how to find out any more about it. Since I've been grown, I've also discovered that there were some early-reading level books published that also had some of the same characters.

  6. Nice to see Warduke on the cover. Thanks James.