Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 2

As long as I’m still on an old school kick, let me try and catch up with all my posts from twitter! Part 1 of Old School Dungeons & Dragons on the blog can be read here.

Without further ado, here’s part 2!

N4: Treasure Hunt (1986), by Aaron Allston. The first thing you may notice when looking at the cover is that this module is unusual in that it is for 0th level characters! What is the deal with that?

N4 was the first module to try an innovative approach: the characters are just “ordinary” people with no experience who are forced into an adventure (at -500 experience points)! Along the way, the actions they take will determine their class and alignment. If the player fights a lot, they’ll end up a fighter! If they sneak a lot, they’ll end up a thief! If they study the magical scrolls they find, they’ll be a magic user! And if they treat a goddess with respect, they’ll be a cleric!

The adventure starts with the players abducted from their homes into slavery, and stuck below deck on an orc slave ship. But weather and an incompetent captain cause the ship to crash on a remote island. The players must first struggle to survive and wend their way to shelter between warring groups of orc and goblin pirates. Eventually, they end up at a desecrated temple of a goddess, where a player can start down the cleric path… but there’s a problem! The goddess is angry that the orcs and goblins have trashed her temple, and she’s going to destroy the whole island! The players have 24 hours to find a way to escape, by exploring the ruins of an old palace nearby.

The module has lots of twists and surprises, and the interior art is quite charming! The module also has extensive advice on what to do if the players exhibit game-breaking stupidity. Or die, as they are very, very weak characters!

The monsters have a bit more “oomph” than the characters.

This idea, of running weak characters through a dungeon to define them, has been adopted by the excellent old school D&D-type game, Dungeon Crawl Classics (2012), which I recommend!

In DCC, the recommended character creation process is known as the “character funnel”: each player makes 4 0th level characters, and runs them through a dungeon! The survivor(s) become 1st level!

But this all started with N4: Treasure Hunt! PS: the module was one of the first set in the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, though it was assigned as such retroactively.

PPS Dungeon Crawl Classics rules are really fun! They are an excellent synthesis of old school AD&D atmosphere and modern RPG rules that properly balance character classes and give everyone something to do.  I will come back and describe DCC in later posts, because the adventures are deliberately old school.

Lich Lords (1985), by Lynn Sellers. Next up is another non-TSR product, another module produced by Mayfair Games for their Role Aids line of game supplements!

So Mayfair Games started the Role Aids RPG line in 1982, as one of their partners was an avid D&Der. They were not officially licensed – Gygax was in favor but outvoted at TSR – so they were careful to make clear the lack of endorsement.

They ended up getting sued by TSR anyway in 1993, but were not successful, so TSR bought the rights to he line to stop it. Along the way, though, they produced a lot of adventures and supplements.

The quality of Role Aids products is quite nice, and they used great artists – note that the Lich Lords cover is a Frank Frazetta piece! Frazetta did a lot of art for Conan novels and other pulp adventure books.

I bought Lich Lords as a teen because I loved anything undead, especially liches! And this high-level adventure gives players one of the most brutal challenges they can imagine!

The plot, in short: five wizards turned into liches ages ago and were destroyed for their hubris. Now they have risen up, and the players must race to their ruined city to end them before they are too powerful!

And the adventure is really best described as “brutal.” No breaks are given to the players, and many of the opponents and traps are genuinely nasty! This one is a particular favorite.

One more example: the cursed city is surrounded by energy-draining darkness which will turn careless characters into desiccated husks in seconds!

And the liches freely use limited wishes and full wishes to eff you up. One that has always stuck with me: “I wish you were all my helpless prisoners.”

The maps and encounters are quite well done, culminating in battling the liches one by one in their ruined city.  It is an adventure to give the players their fill of liches — they’ll never want to see a lich again after it!

I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this adventure! I actually ran it for my group and enjoyed kicking them around – though they triumphed in the end. When I wrote this, I only owned one other Role Aids product – Undead, of course. I now own more…

Vecna Lives! (1990), by David “Zeb” Cook.  The next classic marked the first “live” appearance of one of Dungeons & Dragons’ most infamous villains, and it is an adventure that lives up to the reputation!

In D&D history – the Greyhawk campaign setting, in particular – Vecna was a powerful wizard who became an undead lich. He was betrayed by his lieutenant, Kas, who managed to remove Vecna’s eye and hand. Vecna nevertheless attained demigod status and his removed hand and eye became potent, nearly indestructible artifacts that could be “used by” (read: “grafted onto”) a humanoid to give them powerful magic.

Vecna’s hand and eye first appeared in the Eldritch Wizardry supplement to the original Dungeons & Dragons, and then resurfaced in the 1979 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. But Vecna himself didn’t appear until Vecna Lives!

A spoiler for the adventure follows, so skip over this section of the post if you want to play the 30 year old module…

Vecna Lives! starts with a delightfully cruel twist: players start by playing members of the Circle of Eight, the most powerful wizards in Greyhawk. They have been sent to an ancient tomb to investigate disturbing hints of an awakening power…

When the Circle arrives, they are quickly all massacred by the undead form of an ancient tyrant, who possesses the Eye and Hand and has come to believe that *he* is Vecna! He’s wrong, but the Eye and Hand apparently corrupt their user like Tolkien’s One Ring.

So the powerful wizards are all killed in an event that will reverberate through the whole world! … and the players are handed new character sheets. They now play the much weaker assistants of the wizards who were just pwned in about 5 combat rounds.

In the rest of the adventure, they seek to find out what happened to their masters, and eventually stop the Cult of Vecna’s plans. What they don’t know is that the *real* Vecna is manipulating things behind the scenes, to reclaim his lost parts and become a greater god…

The Cult of Vecna is awesomely creepy, with members and leaders named after parts of Vecna himself. In some cases, this is quite a literal description!

In the end, Vecna is cast out of Greyhawk and temporarily defeated. But a good villain can’t be kept down, and he next appears in the demiplane of Ravenloft in Vecna Reborn

But Vecna’s most sinister plot would appear in the multi-world adventure Die, Vecna, Die! released in 2000 by Wizards of the Coast. This is one of several adventures designed to permanently change the world and “explain” the shift to 3rd edition D&D.  We’ll talk about this one in a later post in more detail, as it is amazing.

I will always be fond of Vecna Lives!, though. It was one of the few 1990s D&D products I bought, because I love Greyhawk and I love Vecna!

PS Vecna was named after fantasy author Jack Vance, whose work was an early influence on D&D.

Dragon Magazine #100 (1985). Let’s do something a little different and take a look at an important milestone in Dungeons & Dragons publishing: the 100th issue of D&D’s flagship magazine, Dragon!

For such a big issue – which was August 2, 1985, by the way – it needed to be big, and that started with the cover! A paper sculpture of a faerie dragon was the design, which was then photographed and embossed for the actual magazine cover.

What about features in the issue? There were three special attractions written up in Dragon #100: the first of these was a story by Gary Gygax himself about his Gord the Rogue character.

This story was set to build excitement for the Gord the Rogue novels, the first of which, Saga of Old City, was released in November of that year. (I still have my copy. It was Gygax’s first novel. And actually surprisingly dark, considering how early D&D tended to emphasize “fun.”)

The second feature in Dragon #100 was Dragonchess, a chess-like game designed by Gygax that featured play on a three-tiered board. Being that it wasn’t D&D, I never paid it much attention…

The third feature was the best – a very unusual AD&D adventure in which the players much enter a perilous dimension to reclaim the Mace of St, Cuthbert. See if you can figure out where they have to go…

Yep, it’s London! The players must bumble their way from Battersea Park to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the Mace is on exhibit.

Along the way, the players might try to use some modern tech, and rules are given to determine if they use it successfully or blow off their own head.

The whole adventure is, naturally, played a bit for laughs. Note the “special encounter” the adventurers can have if they roll in the 80s…

In the end, the players must return with the Mace to their home dimension… but not without one last fight with any police or gang members they may have angered along the way!

Old issues are also fun to see what sort of things were bothering/interesting players at the time. For example: in Dragon #96, Gary Gygax suggested a dual-class ranger/druid for demihumans… even though rangers MUST be good and druids MUST be neutral! Mentzer to the rescue…

The ads are also an interesting peek at the industry at the time. For example, even unlicensed Role Aids were able to advertise in Dragon…

For those interested, the whole issue can be read online in pdf form!  I figured this out halfway through my thread, which is why half the images are bad photos of my own copy, and half are good grabs from the pdf.

PS it’s not so unusual to see The Doctor appear in an RPG. Also in 1985, FASA released the Doctor Who RPG!

An ode to accessories! Beyond the games themselves, TSR and others sold lots of products that made gameplay easier, like this DM screen to keep vital stats on hand and secrets hidden from snooping players…

It so happens I still own a lot of these, in good condition! In the pre-laser printer era, character record sheets could be purchased, saving a lot of time handwriting the names of stats, etc. I still think fondly of these old D&D green sheets.

Advanced D&D had more advanced sheets, specialized to different character classes. Who needs room for a lot of spells if you’re a “stab them and take their stuff” kind of character?

BTW, there is something very wrong with the abs and chests of those adventurers.

And, being the D&D hoarder I am, I also had the 2nd edition pack. I have very clear memories of going to the local convenience store copier to make more record sheets and save precious originals…

But other sorts of paper were also sold! Wilderness hex paper wasn’t common back in the day, so TSR sold sheafs of it. I ONLY NOTICED RECENTLY THAT THE MAPPER ON THE COVER IMAGE IS MAPPING ON A HEX GRID HOW IMPRACTICAL IS THAT

But ready-made information was just as important as ready-made pages. TSR released a number of assortments of monsters, treasure, and NPCs for DMs to plop into their games. I am honestly amazed that I own this.

A few others exist that I don’t own, but wish I did. For example: NPC record sheets, the analogue of PC record sheets, the Rogues Gallery, with ready-made NPCs, and the Adventure Log, to help the DM track the players’ stats! I really want the latter.

(Update: of course I bought it.)

One last one I completely forgot about – the Monster Cards! I owned at least one set of these at one time, but have certainly lost them.

It’s fascinating to see how much tech has changed the way we play RPGs. Let me conclude by giving a shoutout to Wayne’s Books, where I borrowed images of some of these products. Check out his RPG reference, and I recommend him as a seller, too!

PS if you look at all the products I shared, you can see almost every iteration of the TSR logo!

The God That Crawls (2012), by James Raggi. The next adventure falls well outside of the era of official “old school” adventures, but captures that old school feeling of “holy crap, I am totally screwed here.”

The adventure is part of the Lamentations of the Flame Princess product line, and the company was founded by Raggi in July 2009. It is based in Helsinki!

Why do I consider them “old school?” I can do no better than quote the company website itself…

The statement about the books being “beautiful, high-quality artifacts” is accurate: I’ve bought a number of them, including their own RPG rule set.

The company was launched, and gained fame, from Raggi’s adventure Death Frost Doom, which first appeared in 2009 and was revised in 2014 with the help of the talented Zak Smith Sabbath and others.

Death Frost Doom set the tone for a lot of LotFP adventures: they provide a severe metaphorical kick in the ass to complacent players, exposing them to unique and unexpected challenges. The first time I read DFD, for example, I giggled for a long time at how screwed the characters in the adventure could end up. And I don’t mean this maliciously- the adventure is a genuine thrill for players who feel they have seen it all!

The same holds true in The God That Crawls. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that the characters find themselves trapped underground and on the run from a deadly horrifying threat that they cannot possibly overcome. To borrow a little from Raggi’s introduction:

This is my impression of a number of LotFP products and adventures: they aim to disrupt the “business as usual” feeling of traditional D&D adventures. They’re a lot of (deadly serious) fun!

UK1: Beyond the Crystal Cave (1983), by Dave J. Browne, Tom Kirby, and Graeme Morris.  This is an early module that very effectively forced players to get out of their usual dungeon crawl habits!

It was the first in a long line of new modules designed by the TSR UK office, but not the first published via that office, it seems: the U (underwater) series came a few years earlier.

In Beyond the Crystal Cave, players are hired to find and bring back a couple that, facing the scorn of their feuding families, eloped some two years ago and disappeared into the legendary Garden of Porpherio. The players must basically give “Romeo and Juliet” a happy ending!

The Garden was created by the mage Porpherio as a haven for him and his love, Caerwyn. When Caerwyn died, Porpherio encased the garden in a nearly impenetrable wall of force and made it both a wildlife refuge and final resting place, where he died soon after. The Magic of the garden is so powerful that the only way in is through a cavern of crystals – hence the title – and through a very strange waterfall which seems frozen in time.

In fact, time in the garden, and at the waterfall, runs 700 times slower than outside! The lovers, gone two years in the outside world, have only passed a day inside. And, if the players dawdle in the garden, they could find many, many years have passed outside!

The module is quite unique in that there are no truly evil creatures in the garden – it was created as a haven for nature! The challenges are in the form of puzzles and social interactions. The only danger the players face in the garden comes from their own violent tendencies.

Don’t disturb the wildlife.

I must admit that when I bought this module as a young teen, I didn’t “get it.” The lack of evil monsters to fight seemed strange and pointless. Now I really appreciate the change of pace and strategy required to succeed.

The players might end up in fights in self defense, but only to a point: a literal demigod lives in the garden – The Green Man – and he can ruin the players’ day if they’re out of line!

By the end of the module, the adventurers must convince the eloped lovers that it is safe to return home, which turns out to be a diplomatic and magical challenge. The “magical” part of the challenge is that the lovers have been enchanted to want to stay, no matter what!

Sloppy, stupid and cruel players can screw up the mission COMPLETELY, in fact, with no hope of success! It truly is a thinking person’s adventure, and the lack of combat makes it an almost unique one!

Okay, that’s enough old school for one post! More to come!

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