Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 1

In recent months, I’ve been somewhat obsessed with my early years of Dungeons & Dragons. I got into the hobby around 1981, the year that the red box Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set came out, and was a pretty hard core roleplayer until about 1994, when I went into grad school.  (And I still played some RPGs in grad school, but not with the intensity of those early years.)

The 1981 D&D Basic Set.

To get my nostalgia fix, I’ve been tweeting about “old school” Dungeons & Dragons products.  There’s already been a hint of it on this blog, in my Ode to the Tomb of Horrors post from April.  But I never seem to be able to do anything halfway, and my simple reminisces have turned into the purchasing of new products and increasingly detailed historical threads on old products.

At this point, it would be a shame to not include these thoughts somewhere more permanent than twitter, so here we are!  This is the first in a series of who knows how many posts on my #OldSchoolDungeonsAndDragons reminisces and insights.

First, let me clarify what I mean by “old school.” Different people will have different definitions, but I take it to be the era of from the beginning of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974 to the end of the 2nd edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, when Wizards of the Coast released the 3rd edition. 2nd edition AD&D is relatively unchanged from 1st edition, so I think this is a fair way to define the era. Also, if I were to restrict myself to only 1st edition AD&D, there wouldn’t be that much to talk about!  And a lot of strange and wonderful products came out in those last few years before TSR was bought out by Wizards of the Coast.

So here, in order, are some of the first reminisces. I’ve kept them largely in the tweet form, so descriptions may seem somewhat abbreviated, and my style evolves as I do more editions.  You’ll also see that I depart in interesting ways from my original criteria, as interesting new historical — and modern — products came to my attention.

The Crypt of Lyzandred the Mad (1998), by Sean K. Reynolds. This is one of those adventures I missed back around 2000, when I wasn’t involved with D&D or playing RPGs. (I was playing PhD.) It’s the second in a trilogy of modules based on exploring dangerous tombs.

What’s cool about this module is that the villain isn’t completely a villain. Lyzandred is described as a powerful wizard who, after a tragedy involving a powerful magic item, decides that such items must be locked away so they cannot be used for evil. Lyzandred creates a hideaway on a demiplane and, knowing that adventurers will try and take his stash, creates a maze of monsters and riddles to thwart them.

Lyzandred himself goes slightly mad from the demiplane’s influence, and ends up making himself a lich so as to continue his work endlessly. But not an evil lich! He is officially Lawful neutral. So, if they players successfully navigate the maze to meet the lich himself, they don’t have to fight! He will reward them with some select items and knowledge for their cleverness, and they can even work for him as an artifact-hunting team, if they want!

I love the concept of the module, which presents a dangerous dungeon but one that is missing a true villain! It upends expectations for such adventures in a clever way.

Dark Tower (1979), by Jennell Allyn.  This is an example of an adventure that I wasn’t familiar with when I was younger, and only came across when I got on my old school kick. It is a good example of a stunningly good module that wasn’t produced by TSR at the time (we will see more going forward).

For those not familiar: Judges Guild licensed the rights to produce D&D supplements and adventures in the 1970s, and released a number of high-quality products. Dark Tower has the distinction of being the only non-TSR adventure ranked as one of the 30 best by Dungeon in 2004!

The adventure itself is superficially a straightforward high-level dungeon crawl in the buried remains of the towers of the gods Set and Mitra, along with interconnecting levels. But it stands out, to me, for a number of reasons. One reason is that it features a very active feud between surviving members of the Mitra religion and cult of Set. In fact, reckless characters could get themselves targeted by both the good and evil sides of the feud! Also, the adventure strikes me for being one of the earliest to be “non-static.” Most early adventures feature monsters in rooms, just waiting to be picked off at leisure. Dark Tower has events, such as the disappearance of figures from the village above, that adds urgency. It also has unique monsters and truly devious traps. My favorite is a perpetually rolling – and magically silenced – metal sphere reminiscent of Raiders of the Lost Ark!

The architecture of the dungeon is creative itself, with the two towers only accessible through specific connection points in the dungeon levels, and the dungeon itself only accessible through certain hidden points in the village above.

Finally, let me note that the history of the Gods’ feud and the calamity that led to the dungeon itself is well-written and detailed. This feels like a dungeon with history to it!

The module is so classic that a 3.5 edition version was released in the early 2000s, and a reprint of the original first edition version is still in print today! It is fun to read, and an obvious challenge for adventurers!

PS Jennell wrote another classic Judges Guild adventure, The Caverns of Thracia, which is quite rare and ridiculously expensive to buy used – I saw a copy for $360!

WG4, The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (1982), by Gary Gygax.  This is the sort of module most people think of when thinking of “old school” D&D: an adventure by the creator of the game itself, written in the glory days of TSR. It is a fun mixture of action and creepy horror.

This is module WG4; you may ask: what are WG1-3? Well, technically, they don’t exist. T1, The Village of Hommlet, was supposed to be WG1, and T1-4, The Temple of Elemental Evil, was supposed to be WG2. S4, The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, was supposed to be WG3. Somehow, the numbering of all these planned “World of Greyhawk” (WG) modules changed, so WG4 ends up being the start of the series!

The adventure is, however, basically a sequel or extension to S4, The Lost Caverns. In a gnome village encountered on the way to the caverns, the characters can be asked to help deal with a raiding party of vicious norkers (pictured below). This leads to the temple, their base of operations.

A norker, from the Field Folio.

The norkers are an obnoxious humanoid race introduced in the 1981 Field Folio, and WG4 acts as a sort of introduction to a lot of Fiend Folio monsters. Gary Gygax was apparently trying to push the new monster book hard?

The Fiend Folio, which became infamous for having a bunch of “one-trick” monsters that were not fun to reuse in adventures.

But the norkers only live at the temple, and don’t worship, as the original servants of forgotten Tharizdun have long passed away. So the adventure is, for the most part, a dungeon crawl in a ruined temple. Except the hidden inner sanctum of the Temple, called the Black Cyst, lies sealed and untouched. In fact, Gygax plays a dirty trick because it is quite possible that the players could miss this secret area, the most interesting in the adventure, entirely!

This temple area is filled with supernatural cold, and is deadly without the characters figuring out the rituals of the Tharizdun cult and properly donning the appropriate ceremonial gear! The reward is treasure, and a glimpse at what may be the sleeping god himself!

Image from WG4 of the characters all geared up to survive the cold of the Black Cyst.

But who is Tharizdun? The meta-answer, according to Wikipedia, is that he is Gygax’s ode to Lovecraftian horror, an unfathomable dreaming deity who will seek to destroy all of he awakens… Tharizdun, god of Eternal Darkness, Decay, Entropy, Malign Knowledge, Insanity, and Cold.  In Gygax’s Greyhawk campaign setting, Tharizdun was imprisoned by a coalition of other gods to keep him from destroying the world. But no good villain will stay down forever…

In 2001, fresh off of taking over the D&D line, Wizards of the Coast released a number of sequels to classic modules and among them was Return to The Temple of Elemental Evil.

I have owned this module since it came out in 2001 and only read it this year!

Set years after the events of the original Temple module, it is revealed that the Temple, thought to be the work of the demoness Zuggtmoy, was actually a front to facilitate the release of Tharizdun. The players must work to stop this from happening.

“Return” is a surprisingly fun adventure: it recycles old locations, like the moathouse of The Village of Hommlet, but adds secret, previously undiscovered areas within it, with the fun implication that characters walked right by the secret years earlier and missed it!

So Tharizdun lives on, and has become even more significant as years of gaming have passed! But he got his real start in The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, a somewhat conventional adventure hiding the coolest secret area!

The Town of Baldemar (1987), by Robert J. Blake.  Next up we have a product, and a company, that most gamers are probably unfamiliar with, despite the Gygax seal of approval at the top!

There isn’t much information on “Fantasy Master” online, surprisingly. It is clearly one of the RPG projects that Gygax supported after TSR cruelly booted him in 1985 from the company he founded. (More about how much that pisses me off another time.)

I’ve come across only a handful of Fantasy Master products online, and it seems that the line didn’t last long. The Town of Baldemar is excellent, though; it is a supplement that describes a complete fantasy town in incredible detail!

The supplement comes with a full color map of the entire city, though this map is not coded, and is intended for the players to view…

The “magic” is that every building is described in the book itself – homes, shops, taverns, tombs, and more! Each district of town has its own chapter for easy reference.

And all the important citizens of the city are also described. A small sample is shown below. No stats were given for any characters; not sure if this was a legal D&D issue or just a way to make the book appeal to people using different rules.

In addition, the history of the city is given, as well as a description of the justice system, the political system, annual festivals, and political and commerce activities that could be used as adventure hooks.

By the way, the political system is actually given a rules system of its own; this is the mysterious “PR” number given in each resident’s bio: their political ranking.

I haven’t verified any info about the author Robert J. Blake, though Amazon seems to think he’s the same author who writes and illustrates children’s books.

In any case, Town of Baldemar is a pretty cool supplement. It is reminiscent of, and likely inspired by, City State of the Invincible Overlord, published by Judges Guild in 1976. Baldemar is somewhat a smaller scale project with a similar organization. More on CSIO later!

Part of the magnificent City State map. This is a topic for another time.

The Volturnus series (1982), by Mark Acres and Tom Moldvay. Let’s go even farther afield in our old school investigations and look at something that isn’t even D&D — the Volturnus trilogy of modules for TSR’s Star Frontiers!

For those unfamiliar, Star Frontiers was TSR’s science fiction roleplaying game — basically, “D&D in space.” I always loved the box art and would probably frame a poster of it just because of the vibrant colors.

My friend Scott Sutherland in fact pointed out that you can buy a print of this scene on Larry Elmore’s website!

In addition to humans, one could play a number of aliens races: the Yazirians (ape guy on the cover), the Vrusk (mantis-like insectoids) and my favorite, the Drasalites (amoeba like beings who could change their squishy shape somewhat).

The Volturnus series was the main set of adventures produced for Star Frontiers, and everyone who owned it got a taste, as SF-0, Crash on Volturnus, came with the boxed set. (Hence the lack of fancy cover – the cover was used instead for a spaceship interior map.)

The trilogy is epic in scope, and has a wonderful arc to it: in the first module, the players are crash-landed on an alien planet, fighting to survive. By the end of the trilogy, they are organizing an epic battle to save the whole world!

SF-0, Crash on Volturnus, starts off the plot with a bang. En route to another port, their spacecraft is hijacked by pirates, and they’re forced to crash land on the unknown Volturnus, struggling to survive with almost no supplies, and being hounded by the whole way.

Eventually, the players encounter the Ul-Mor, an intelligent but primitive race of octopus-like creatures with a tribal culture. In order to get aid from the Ul-Mor, they must become members of the tribe by fighting a deadly predator in ritual combat!

After joining the tribe, the players are informed by the Ul-Mor that humans have been seen with another race on the planet, the Kurabanda, a tree-dwelling monkey-like species. The players bond with the Kurabanda by joining them in a hunt via hang-gliders!

I love the rollers that you hunt, btw, which are a delightful example of the strange naive biology of Star Frontiers. The rollers live in fields of sharp glass-like plants, and crush them with their nose rollers to feed!

The Kurabanda tell the players that the humans living with them were recently captured by the pirates. The players then assault the pirates’ base, located by the village of a third primitive native race, the Edestekai, which look like Lovecraftian horrors but are quite nice!

With the pirates crushed, the players rescue the other humans on the planet, survivors of an earlier expedition to Volturnus. But they also learn of another mysterious and technologically advanced race on the planet, the lizard-like Eorna, and set out to find them! After surviving many tests, including one very clever improvisational logic puzzle, the players meet the Eorna, who are almost extinct due to an ages-old attack on the planet by the evil Sarthar, a worm-like alien species. Even worse, all the space travel from the pirates and players may have activated a Sarthar beacon, which will bring their armies back to attack. The players destroy the beacon, but it is too late – the Sarthar are coming!

I neglected to note that all actions from the meeting with the Kurabanda to the attack on the beacon takes place in SF-1, Volturnus, Planet of Mystery. In SF-2, Starspawn of Volturnus, the players must attempt to unite all the races on the planet as an army to repel the Sarthar! This includes contacting the Mechatrons, a robotic race that is none too fond of humans. Also, the players must return to the other tribes and convince them of the threat. With the Ul-Mor, the players must win the “Great Game,” a deadly riding sport, in order to earn trust.

Map used for the Great Game of the Ul-Mor.

Finally, with as many allies as they could muster, the players must repel the Sarthar invasion and defend the Eorna base. It is really well done, mechanics-wise, as the players must defend several key locations in the battle to help turn the tide!

The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out…

Finally, if they survive and win, the players can at last depart Volturnus for new adventures. I really love the pacing of the trilogy. Part 1 is survival. Part 2 is exploration. Part 3 is using all you’ve learned to save the world! Overall, a lovely trilogy.

I3: Pharaoh (1982), by Tracy and Laura Hickman. Back to some actual official Dungeons & Dragons, with one of the greatest modules of all time: Pharaoh!

This module was written by Tracy and Laura Hickman, and was originally published through DayStar West Media. However, when they ran into financial trouble, they sold their modules to TSR to pay the bills. Not only did TSR publish them, but they hired Tracy Hickman as a designer!

The original version of Pharaoh.

The module features a fun and unusual premise: after being ordered to hunt for bandits in the desert by a local monarch, the players encounter the ghost of a pharaoh, cursed because of his greed and hubris. To break the curse, the pharaoh begs them to rob his own pyramid!

The Pharaoh’s monologue.

The pyramid is filled with unusual enemies, traps, and puzzles. One of my favorite is the struggle to claim a key item from a magical barge floating 10,000 feet above the pyramid, and only reachable through a magical portal!

One other joy to the adventure is the effort to make areas truly three-dimensional. For several areas, vertical maps are provided to show the non-trivial connection of different levels.

Something that always stood out to me about this adventure and its sequels is the clarity of presentation. Each room has important features – monsters, treasures, traps, and lore – in its own section and marked in bold for easy reference.

Did I mention sequels? Pharaoh was the first in the Desert of Desolation series, and each module is excellent – though the latter two don’t have quite as much atmosphere as the cursed pharaoh’s tomb!

One awesome thing about the sequels, however: on the way to the pyramid in Pharaoh, the players can stumble across a ruined city and accidentally release an evil Efreet. The Efreet flies off, vowing vengeance upon the world, and is not spoken of again in Pharaoh

… but this Efreet becomes the MAJOR VILLAIN in the second and third parts of the trilogy. Yes, the players have inadvertently threatened civilization itself! They must collect three Star Gems – one from the pharaoh, and two others – to avert the catastrophe.

I only got around to buying and reading the two sequels about a year ago, some 30 years after buying Pharaoh! I was really drawn to Pharaoh due to my love of ancient Egypt, inherited from my dad. Here we are enjoying the Egypt exhibit at the Field Museum early in March.

Pharaoh is a lovely module, filled with fascinating characters and a compelling story. It was a hint of the magnificent work the Hickmans would do on the Dragonlance series only a few years later. But that is another story

I will end this compilation here! Keep an eye out for more Old School Dungeons & Dragons posts in the near future!

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2 Responses to Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 1

  1. Justin says:

    I think discovering Carse and Tulan of the Isles (both also City State riffs) prior to Baldemar ruined Baldemar for me. (I absolutely recommend the Chaosium reprints of both those city modules.)

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