Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 3

Working hard to make my old school D&D posts catch up to the ones I’ve done on twitter, which were a lot! Part 1 of Old School Dungeons & Dragons on the blog can be read here, and part 2 can be read here.

And as you can see, here’s part 3!

Dungeon Masters Adventure Log (1980). In my old school post, I mentioned the Dungeon Masters Adventure Log, which intrigued me. Well, soon afterwards, I got myself a copy, and it is charming!

A DM could use Adventure Log pages to keep track of characters and monsters, as the sample page shows! (Note: the player names are actually people, and some at least are original D&D designers and gamers!)

In addition to those working pages, it includes some important tables… and ADORABLE armor illustrations! HORSE ARMOR!

And WEAPONS illustrations! Not much more to say about this product, but I’m delighted to have it.

PS I love how every guy in armor looks like he’s doing a robot dance.

PPS Jean Wells is one of the names on the sample sheet, and she is famous for being thrown under the bus for her version of B3: Palace of the Silver Princess. She was the first woman hired at TSR and ended up being screwed over by the company.

Curse of Xanathon (1983), by Douglas Niles. This was one of the adventures written for the “non-advanced” D&D crowd, and it is one of my favorites, for reasons to be given below.

The adventure begins in the town of Rhoona, where the Duke has apparently gone insane and is issuing increasingly bizarre and impossible proclamations, such as…

This particular proclamation sets the dwarves on a path to war with Rhoona, while the players learn that the Duke’s madness may be due to a curse… the Curse of Xanathon!!! They must discover the origins of the curse and cure it before the war begins.

The adventure can be viewed as a sequence of mini-dungeons, going from the town guard barracks, to a temple in town, to a dungeon in the wilderness, and then finally to the Ducal Palace to save the Duke!

The module has been criticized as railroading the players too much, as they basically must pass through the different areas in order. However, I thought there was enough motivation to make the progression feel natural and also enough tricky problems to solve. For instance, to cure the plague, one must deal with its architect, the evil priest Xanathon, who is a scenery-chewing villain right out of melodrama. Xanathon is at first glance indestructible…

… but has a weakness hidden far away. Once the players find the magic to destroy him, they must bargain with him for the cure. And he will do anything he can to not give it up! Players have to be very clever to avoid being cheated.

One great thing about the adventure is the town of a Rhoona, which has important buildings listed and lesser buildings, like shops and taverns, can be filled in randomly if needed. It was one of the earlier city settings available for D&D!

Rhoona could be used for more city adventures, or as a base for other explorations. A number of good suggestions were provided at module’s end. One hilarious thing, though, which shows how naive early D&D was. The temple of Cretia, Xanathon’s home base, is openly dedicated to the chaotic alignment. Of COURSE they’re gonna be bad!

One last fun thing: the module introduced the new monster, the hypno-snake…

… and now, knowing that a lot of original D&D was inspired by literature, I suspect the hypno-snake came from Ambrose Bierce’s classic short story The Man and the Snake!

C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1981), by Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason. This module marked a couple of milestones for D&D publishing. It was the first adventure in the “C” (competition) series of modules, originally designed for the AD&D tournament at the 1979 Origins Expo! Because of this, it includes rules and pregenerated characters for use in tournament play.

The module was first printed in 1980 with a two color cover, and then reprinted in 1981 with a full color cover, the edition most people are familiar with!

The module was also a first for AD&D in that it is inspired by Aztec/Mayan culture! The players, seeking to explore a ruined temple of the Olman culture, have the judgment floor collapse under them, dumping them in the shrine. They must work their way out through the pyramid top! It is an inverted dungeon: they start at the very bottom, and must explore their way to the top.

Along the way, they will encounter deadly and devious traps, some set by the shrine builders, others the natural cause of ruin and decay. In fact, the whole dungeon has filled with toxic gas, forcing the players to hurry to escape! And there are some really clever and unique encounters along the way. A sealed tomb may be opened to reveal a cursed and deadly vampire, another chamber holds a giant, intelligent hermit crab, in another the players are forced into a magical version of the Mayan ball game!

The atmosphere is enhanced by illustrations for various encounters, and the whole dungeon is carefully designed to give a unique Mesoamerican feeling.

The Hidden Shrine really expanded the imaginative possibilities for AD&D, showing that fantasy gaming could be about more than just medieval Western Europe. But it wasn’t the first roleplaying game to draw from Mayan and Aztec culture. That honor and distinction goes to Empire of the Petal Throne, created by M.A.R. Barker and published by TSR in 1975!

Barker first started creating his fantasy world of Tékumel in the 1940s. Very much like Tolkien, he worked on every aspect of his world, including languages! He only made it into an RPG after being inspired by D&D, and then TSR agreed to publish it.

Barker’s science-fantasy setting included Mesoamerican, Egyptian, Indian, and Middle-Eastern elements, making it quite unique. Barker was a professor of Urdu and South Asian studies, giving him a rich knowledge base to draw on!

Though the original edition faded from sight quickly, it has a cult status and new editions appeared in 1987 and 2005. Barker also wrote several novels in his setting (I have one and must read it).

As for The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, it is considered one of the greatest D&D adventures of all time! It was reprinted for 5th edition D&D in Tales From the Yawning Portal in 2017.

PS I sooo want a 1st edition Empire of the Petal Throne boxed set. I will murder whoever you want in exchange for one. 😉

WG6: Isle of the Ape (1985), by Gary Gygax. This module represents one of Gary Gygax’s most brutal adventures, designed to stretch the player characters thin and make them struggle to survive. It also is a bit problematic when viewed from the context of modern culture, but we’ll get to that!

By 1985, Gygax must have been sick of players boasting of how their characters can handle anything. Like Tomb of Horrors, Isle of the Ape is intended to humble egotistical players with a truly deadly challenge…

As the above text notes, Isle of the Ape is a different challenge than Tomb of Horrors, as ‘Ape simply overwhelms the characters’ resources with continuous waves of deadly foes. On the tropical island, their equipment will be subject to decay and spoiling, as well.

Now, you ask: what’s the deal with the island? PCs are summonses by the famed mage Tenser to travel to a demiplane to retrieve a fabled artifact, the Crook of Rao, supposed to be especially effective against demons…

… the island was a playground of the mad mage, now demigod, Zagyg (remember that “X” is pronounced “Z” at the beginning of a word, and you can see who this is), known for his tendency to challenge and torment would-be adventurers…

There is no obvious way back from the island, so the PCs must take essentially a one-way trip and hope that Zagyg left some means of returning that they can find. Hence the stakes are much higher: there is no stepping back to rest if things get tough.

I kind of love that the intro description of the adventure heaps praise on the characters, perhaps deliberately lulling them into a false sense of confidence.

The island itself, as the name implies, is closely inspired by King Kong, and features multiple giant carnivorous apes, including Oonga, the biggest of them all. And I mean BIG. The stats on Oonga are terrifying.

The problematic part of the adventure is that it also borrows the “savage cannibalistic black tribe” trope from King Kong, even with bones in noses (on cover) and white woman being sacrificed.

But this isn’t essential to the plot, really. The island is supposed to be a big trap for adventurers; if I were to run it today, I would make the tribe a collected group of centuries of failed adventurers, regressed to a savage insane state to survive.

Because the plot is plenty fun, and a real challenge! This particular image shows the point when a magical supercharged t-rex appears and attacks. It gains the FULL HIT POINTS of any adventurer it kills, making it nigh unstoppable!

The adventure comes with a color map of the island that players can find. It is a HUGE island, that takes a long time to traverse.

A mild spoiler: if the PCs actually manage to acquire the Crook, their troubles aren’t over. Demons want it, and the finale is a massive battle between the forces of good and evil!

One neat thing I noticed in this adventure: in the intro, it notes the evil Iggwilv is behind the plot, and mentions her slain daughter…

… that daughter, Drelzna (seen below), is the final enemy in the classic module S4, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth! This may be one of the earliest adventures that specifically acknowledges a greater gaming world continuity.

The Isle of the Ape would itself figure indirectly in one of the biggest AD&D events in its history: the Greyhawk Wars. The Crook of Rao would play a key role post-war, by dispelling countless demons worldwide and weakening the demon Iuz.

In closing, it is worth noting that Tenser originally got to the Isle through Castle Greyhawk, and the portal is described in Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, published in 2007. Players could end up on the horrible island unprepared!

PS it is also worth noting that the Isle is not the only demiplane accessible from Castle Greyhawk. Gygax wrote two modules involving a demiplane inspired by Alice in Wonderland… but we’ll come back to those later!

I8: Ravager of Time (1986), by Graeme Morris and Jim Bambra. When I was a kid, I pretty much ignored the UK-written modules like Beyond the Crystal Cave, as they seemed too unconventional an weird. As an adult, I now really appreciate their imaginative twists on classic D&D adventures.  Another example of a wonderfully twisty adventure is Ravager of Time.

It was a TSR UK production co-written by Graeme Morris and Jim Bambra, the former of whom also co-wrote the clever UK1: Beyond the Crystal Cave. Some spoilers follow, so skip ahead if you must…

The adventure is somewhat an homage to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, I would say, with a delightfully wicked twist. The players are summoned to the swampy Ffenargh to serve as outside investigators in the seeming murder of a nobleman by his son…

What they don’t know is that the noble’s son inadvertently resurrected an evil sorceress with the power to duplicate people! She duplicated the son, and made him do the murder specifically to lure some strong adventurers in to duplicate to launch her new army…

Things go bad for the party when they are ambushed, trapped, and duplicated. The problem? Duplication steals the original’s life-force, leaving them incredibly aged and withered… (Image below from the horror movie Lifeforce.)

After escaping, the PCs must pursue the sorceress while in their frail forms, and try and defeat her, her armies, and their younger duplicates in order to save the day and get their vitality back!

This involves trekking all over the marsh, always one step behind. In fact, the players visit the same city three times: once basically spectators, once for a prison break, and once to liberate it from the sorceress!

The aging is a wonderful twist to challenge the players. They are not only physically much weaker, but almost nobody recognizes them in their elder form! And they must act intelligently to defeat their younger, more powerful duplicates.

Overall, it is a wild ride of an adventure with great twists and good opportunities for roleplaying and clever tactics!

PS as I said, I’ve owned this damn book for over 30 years and only now noticed that the reflection of the sorceress in the mirror is aged!

DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor (1986), by Dave L. Arneson and David J. Ritchie.  Because I played D&D when I was relatively young, I’ve always had a very fixed view of what the game is: wander dungeons, kill monsters, take treasure. But many modules published, even in that early era, were quite weird indeed!

Where to begin! Blackmoor is the original campaign setting of Dave Arneson, co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons. “Blackmoor” was one of the supplements for the original Dungeons & Dragons, and was release in 1975.

The original Blackmoor supplement didn’t *actually* detail Arneson’s setting, but included new rules, monsters, and — the very first published D&D adventure, The Temple of the Frog!

Arneson’s setting was next developed, curiously, by Judges Guild, who published his supplement The First Fantasy Campaign in 1977.

In the early 80s, Arneson left TSR in a dispute, but he would come back for the DA (Dave Arneson) series of modules, of which there were four! Adventures in Blackmoor outlined the history of the setting, and provided a vehicle to transport characters there. Why do PCs need to be transported? Because the official D&D game world had become Mystara; Blackmoor was retconned into a society that had existed thousands of years earlier, before being wiped out in an Atlantis-style catastrophe. So Mystara PCs have to time travel!

This is where things get really, really weird. A central location in Blackmoor is a place called the Comeback Inn, so incredibly enchanted that it has a magically permanent supply of food and drink and is, essentially, indestructible.

In fact, the Inn is so powerfully enchanted that it survives the Blackmoor apocalypse, even being buried in ice for a thousand years! By the PCs’ time, it is a legendary building alone in the wilderness somewhere, often rumored but never seen.

The PCs get a clue to its location, though, and go inside. But there’s a problem: the magic on the Inn makes it impossible to leave without outside help. The players are trapped! But there’s a mystery magical portal in the basement. Entering the portal, probably several times, the PCs bounce forward and backward in time, until they finally reach Blackmoor, where they find a contingent of troops waiting for them.

It turns out that the Blackmoor king was kidnapped inside the Inn by nefarious people who had learned to control the temporal gate, and have taken him to *another* future time period of the Inn to keep out of the way. The arrival of the PCs gives the Blackmoor officials hope, and they devise a plan where the PCs can trick the plotters into leading them to the King’s hideout. So, incredibly, this adventure takes place entirely inside a single Inn… in THREE DIFFERENT TIME PERIODS.

Success means that the PCs can stay on Blackmoor and are given plots of land, or they can return to their own time. Either way, they can participate in future Blackmoor adventures, including The Temple of the Frog

… and the science fiction/fantasy City of the Gods. Blackmoor was the first setting to mix science and fantasy, and it is strikingly different from Gygax’s classic Greyhawk.

Speaking of Greyhawk, Gygax even dropped Blackmoor into his world, and it appears on the maps, even though it is basically a “nod” to Arneson and not the canonical setting. This confused the hell out of me as a kid.

We can compare with the “official” Blackmoor map, which appeared in module DA1. Not much similarity, even if you squint.

One funny thing: as I said, the module takes place basically ENTIRELY inside a single inn. So that really awesome cover image? Uh, not really related. (Though it does capture the techno-magic aspect of the setting.)

BTW, time travel would later become a brief AD&D thing, with the publication of Chronomancer, published in 1995. I’ll say more about it in an upcoming post!

In closing, let me note that DA1 includes a nice touch: in the text, it describes two prominent paintings in the Comeback Inn. Without much fanfare or attention, the module includes illustrations of them. I’ll say more about Blackmoor soon!

PS the idea of Blackmoor being a lost civilization reminds me of Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Kull characters: Kull exists in the same universe as Conan, but ruled a kingdom thousands of years earlier, in the Atlantis era.

Okay, that wraps up this post! Will be back soon with more old school Dungeons & Dragons!

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3 Responses to Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 3

  1. kaleberg says:

    I remember when Dungeons and Dragons first came out. Since I was an MIT student at the time, it had a big following. D&D seemed to combine the cartography and complex accounting of the old Avalon-Hill war games with Will Crowther’s fantasy puzzle Adventure game. I could never get into the Avalon-Hill games. They were too complex. I did join some friends on a run-through of Adventure, but I was more interested in reading the code. Crowther made the most of the FORTRAN he had. (Interestingly, Adventure was a product of Crowther’s divorce. The map was based on spelunking Colossal Cave. That was the last great adventure he had with his wife before his marriage broke up.)

    I did play one round of Dungeons and Dragons. The wife of a friend was a dungeon master. I just couldn’t get into it. As much as I enjoy reading fantasy novels, my fantasy life just doesn’t cover the same ground. I’ll stand with Dr. Who: any magic sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from technology. If the story is about technology, I’ll enjoy the technology we have. Maybe that’s why I had more fun reading Crowther’s code than playing his game.

  2. JosephLot says:

    attentive words humankind

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