Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 4

Time for another edition of Old School Dungeons & Dragons! I did soooooo many of these threads on twitter, I’m kinda amazed and appalled. Still have many to catch up on here…

DDA1: Arena of Thyatis (1990), by John Nephew. This more obscure module is one I’ve had in my collection for a long time, but only finally got around to reading once I started these threads!

What makes Arena of Thyatis interesting is that it is one of the few D&D modules set in and inspired by Roman history. The (non-advanced) Dungeons & Dragons world of Mystara was a bit more freewheeling that way: Dawn of the Emperors described the Thyatian Empire.

… and when I say “freewheeling,” I mean that TSR mixed in every existing culture like a D&D game of Civilization.

But back to Arena of Thyatis! It is an adventure for low-level characters that gets them mixed in all the infamous parts of Roman history: backstabbing Senate politics and gladiatorial battles! The adventure begins at a Senator’s lavish party, which the players have finagled an invitation to. However, they also draw the attention of folks who run the arena, and end up drugged and pressed into gladiatorial service!

(This is why the adventure is necessarily a low-level one: who would dare enslave a party of high-level adventures?)

But there is an initiation into gladiatorial service, which involves the characters being dumped into the monster-ridden caverns below the arena, from where they must then work their way back to the arena! So a dungeon crawl is included.

Then, after a key gladiator falls ill, the PCs must take his place and fight monsters in the arena itself! I should note that the arena is very well detailed in the module.

After the fight, the players get a chance to escape, thanks to political machinations. In fact, they are being released as a trap, and will have to escape twice, in a sense! In the finale, they can track down the manipulator who imprisoned them in the first place!

It is not the most creative or spectacular module, but it is nice to see a very different adventure setting than one based on Western Europe. The city of Thyatis is also outlined, for future player adventures!

In fact, there is a direct sequel to this module, Legions of Thyatis, which I need to pick up and read next!

It is worth noting that the concept of “PCs captured and enslaved, and must escape with limited resources” is reminiscent of the classic Slave Lords modules, which I will come back to another time…

A weird personal note: this is yet another module that I bought as a teen but never actually read until recently. Why wasn’t I reading these? I suspect my clinical depression was kicking in around that time, and leaving me unable to focus. But as a weird bright side, my depression as a kid left me with a collection of near-mint D&D books to enjoy nostalgically now!

FRQ1: Haunted Halls of Eveningstar (1992), by Ed Greenwood.  When the Forgotten Realms was first released to replace TSR’s standard Greyhawk campaign setting, I was pretty resistant — Oerth forever! But I did pick up a few products here and there that intrigued me, such as the following. It turns out that even though it is a later published module, it is actually one of the oldest adventures around!

Ed Greenwood is the creator of the Forgotten Realms, which became AD&D’s major campaign setting published by TSR in 1987. But Greenwood had originally started creating the setting pre-D&D, in 1967, as a setting for his childhood stories!

When he started running D&D games for teens at local libraries in 1979, Greenwood created the Haunted Halls of Eveningstar as a beginning dungeon, which he ran for multiple groups. The Haunted Halls evolved and changed with each group. One group’s forays served as the history of the place for the next group, who found it stocked anew with new dangers.

The Haunted Halls module was originally intended to by a 128-page campaign starter and super-dungeon, true to its really historical place in D&D. But TSR chopped it down to 32 pages, leaving room for only one level. The text still hints, with some frustration, at more…

As it was published, the Haunted Halls contains a low-level campaign starter set: the village of Eveningstar and a description of a single dungeon level.

In that sense, the adventure serves a similar purpose for the Forgotten Realms that T1: Village of Hommlet did for Greyhawk. Maybe not a coincidence, as Hommlet was published in 1979, the same year Greenwood started his Eveningstar adventures!

As it stands, Eveningstar is a nice adventure filled with nice atmosphere. It even provides a table of new touches to add to the dungeon in PCs return again, indicating that it is a “living” dungeon.

My favorite part of Haunted Halls, however, is that it introduces a new magical winged familiar, the Tressym. I think you can see why I like it.

“I wish a motherfucker would.”


X1: The Isle of Dread (1980), by David Cook and Tom Moldvay.  This next one is one of the most influential modules ever published!

X1 became particularly well-known because it was the module packaged with the Expert Dungeons & Dragons rules, first printed in 1981, and worked on by David Cook and Stephen Marsh.

It’s fascinating, in hindsight, to remember that there was a big focus in the early years of D&D to teach people HOW one actually plays such a strange, unstructured game. Where Basic D&D taught gamers how to run dungeon adventures, Expert D&D added wilderness exploration. Though the Expert rules explained wilderness adventuring, The Isle of Dread was designed as a tutorial on how a Dungeon Master might run such a game, as this quote illustrates.

As such, the adventure is quite straightforward. Players happen upon the secret map and log of an adventurer who stumbled across the Isle and heard legends of great treasure from the natives; the PCs hire a boat to see if those stories are true. The adventurer mapped the coast of the island, so PCs have this as a starting point. Not surprisingly, the most interesting stuff is at the island’s dead center.

See the peninsula in the lower left of the map? Like Gygax’s Isle of the Ape, The Isle of Dread is inspired by King Kong. The villagers live in relative safety behind a protective wall. Unlike Gygax’s module, the natives are friendly and not quite as stereotypical. They are a valuable support group while exploring the island. Curiously, though, a later issue of Dragon magazine retconned the idea that the Ape natives came from the Dread island.

Also unlike Gygax’s module, Dread doesn’t include a skyscraper-size ape. It does, however, include lots of dinosaurs, and many new versions were introduced just in this module.

At the island’s center is a ruined temple on top of a tall plateau, which serves as the climactic encounter and dungeon. I suspect the authors were also inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 The Lost World, which feature prehistoric animals trapped on a plateau.

One remarkable thing appears in X1: a map of most of the gaming world known as Mystara, showing the Isle’s location relative to it! This is the gaming world created by Tom Moldvay and Lawrence Schick in the mid-1970s, and eventually adopted as the “official” D&D world.

It is almost surreal to see all the places in the Isle of Dread, introduced basically in passing there, later developed into detailed campaign settings.

In 1983, when a new version of the Expert Set was released, a second edition of the Isle of Dread came with it. This edition had only very small changes from the original.

And the Isle lives on! In later years and editions of D&D, it was alternately retconned into being a location in Greyhawk as well as various demiplanes. At the end of 2018, a 5th edition conversion and homage was published by Goodman Games!

The Isle of Dread was also turned into an awesomely fun walkthrough map poster by my twitter friend Jason Thompson!  I encourage folks to check out his maps and other work.

In short: The Isle of Dread has become legendary, both in game and out! It is a fun, classic exploration adventure with no goal other than to survive and get rich!

PS I took the photos from my “play copy” of the module, not my good copy. Only when I started collecting recently did I realize that bad condition copies are referred to as “play copies,” because they can be used and abused.

Labyrinth of Madness (1995), by Monte Cook. Next we jump forward to the later years of TSR, with a module that really lives up to its name! For the 20 year anniversary of TSR, the company decided to celebrate by trying to kill everyone!

The adventure- which can be placed in any campaign setting – is set in the tomb of a lost race of evil & corrupted humans, the dyris. When a paladin who seeks out the tomb is returned imprisoned inside of a scepter, the players go on a quest to free him & defeat the tomb’s evil…

The name “Labyrinth of Madness” is not hyperbole, as it will likely drive players bonkers! To succeed, they will have to find 20 magical sigils cleverly hidden throughout the dungeon. Certain areas can only be entered – or even detected – once the right sigil is found. In order.

This means that, even though the dungeon is only some six levels deep, the players will have to backtrack multiple times. And one of the lords of the keep has a wand of resurrection, to bring back monsters the PCs have defeated, again and again…

And many of the traps are truly evil, and are permanent effects triggered on each pass through. One example: one area causes living creatures to have their minds switch bodies every round. Not so bad, until the monsters show up and you start switching with them, too…

The lost society of the labyrinth had also opened a portal to an evil force called the Lifebane, which twists any creatures exposed to it for too long into powerful new serpent forms. This includes previous trapped adventurers. The Lifebane also causes unexpected spell effects.

Okay, one more example of nastiness of the dungeon! In one area, PCs are ambushed by trolls wielding spears with glass spheres on the tips. The spheres contain black pudding monsters…

The adventure came out after TSR stopped numbering their publications, but other documents indicate that it is technically S6, the end of the S series that started with Tomb of Horrors. Like the Tomb, it includes illustrations for atmosphere…

The adventure is definitely one of the most nasty in TSR history! Even author Monte Cook said (as reported on DriveThruRPG), “Looking back at this module today, I don’t know if I’d personally run it as written anymore – it’s just too hard.”

Personally, I don’t think I’d run it myself, without a lot of changes! Otherwise, the players might spend hours wandering back and forth through the dungeon, looking for the next missing sigil that they need!

Torg (1990). Let me step away from Dungeons & Dragons a moment and tell you about a different game that I played while in my D&D years, one of my favorite RPGs of all time and one that changed my life!

So Torg is… hard to explain! It is set in a multiverse where multiple realities exist in different dimensions, each with there own axioms (rules) for what is and is not allowed. There are four different categories of advancement: technology, social, magical, and spiritual.

It so turns out that tyrants in some realities, called “High Lords,” have mastered the ability to harvest reality energy itself – “possibilities” – and six of them invaded our Earth to harvest its unusually large stockpile of possibility energy.

The invaders crashed into our world via Maelstrom Bridges, bringing armies and their own realities with them. Because our technology was often at odds with theirs, our weapons failed outright in many realities. Here’s an image of the territory conquered by the Aysle Realm.

Opposing the High Lords are people who found themselves transformed in the wake of the invading realities to be able to harness and control possibilities themselves: Storm Knights!

One immediate joy of Torg is that you can play pretty much any sort of character you want, from any of the realities – because of possibility energy, even seemingly mundane people can achieve the impossible and be heroes.

Torg was distinct from many other RPGs of its time in that you were automatically playing someone special! Your character has abilities not available to many ordinary folks, making you feel genuinely heroic. Not invincible, but really able to try anything.

And, unlike many games, Torg encouraged really, really ridiculous, long-shot actions – there is always a chance to succeed. Die rolls were open-ended: roll a 10 or 20, roll again and add on, indefinitely! (Torg came with a custom colored die, too.)

And Torg provided rules to try basically ANYTHING. For some indescribable attempt outside of any obvious rules, a table was provided to give a difficulty level to meet.

So, if you wanted to leap off the back of the dinosaur you’re riding as it goes off a cliff, grabbing a hanging rope to save yourself with one hand while you shoot at your pursuers with the other — go for it! We can calculate the odds!

There were several ways to boost one’s chance of success. The most straightforward was to spend a possibility point, like an experience point, which allows a bonus add-on roll to whatever you’re attempting.

The other way is through the use of cards: the Drama Deck. We need to talk about this, because there has never been anything like it, before or since. Here are four examples.

There are two sides to each card; ignore the complicated side a moment. Each player gets four cards at the start of an adventure. These are cards that can be used as a boost in combat or for any situation as needed.

Some cards are even more awesome. Subplot cards allow players to add a twist to the adventure, as regards their character. “Personal stake” for instance means the character learns that they have an extra personal connection to the story.

The subplot cards are kind of a request to the gamemaster, saying “I would like to have this complication added.” The player gets extra rewards for taking on a subplot. It is a nice way to add more unpredictability to the game!

Okay, the other side of the Drama Deck cards? Those are for combat, and a HUGE, HUGE DEAL. I didn’t appreciate Torg until I started using them. A card is drawn each round, and dictates the flow of combat…

First: H and V refer to heroes and villains, and the order of appearance is the order of initiative. S stands for standard encounter, D for dramatic (e.g. climactic battle with main villain). Any text next to H or V indicates a special effect that happens to them that round.

The “Act” part of the card is “approved actions.” Any player doing the approved action for the round gets a BIG reward. It is a strong motivator for players to do more than just keep whacking at a bad guy until they’re dead, and to make combat unpredictable.

The “dramatic skill” box is a way to add tension to complicated tasks, like defusing a bomb. If the action takes four steps – A, B, C, D – the characters may only attempt the steps listed on the card that round.

Again, let me say: Torg seemed kinda boring when I first played, without the deck. With the deck, I’ve never played a game with combat more enjoyable.

Torg introduced a lot of innovations that were rare or nonexistent in RPGs before. For example: character stats were on a logarithmic scale, with a factor of 10 increase for every 5 points, so huge ranges in abilities could be covered with a small number range.

Let me mention each of the invading realities, because theyuall so fun! Orrorsh is the horror realm, which invaded in Indonesia. Think Victorian era Call of Cthulhu, where the rules of reality are stacked against you.

Aysle is the fantasy realm, with elves, dwarves, magic and all, which invaded the UK, of course.

Then there’s Nippon Tech, which invaded Japan and is basically a futuristic dystopian tech realm. Espionage, ninjas, money and betrayal are the game there.

Then things get weird! The Cyberpapacy: think medieval Catholic Inquisition meets William Gibson cyberpunk.

One of my favorites is next: The Nile Empire! Ancient Egyptian aesthetic mixed with Indiana Jones style pulp adventure and weird science. This realm, over all others, encourages crazy stupid heroics.

Finally, The Living Land. A pre-civilization realm populated by dinosaurs and lizard men. The tech level is so low that spears are as advanced as you get, and the social level precludes even having cities!

The Living Land, developed by writer Chris Kubasik, actually inspired my own real-life philosophy! Spirituality is powerful in the Living Land, and the Edeinos worship a goddess Lalana who only experiences the world through her worshippers. In the worship of Lalana, any experience – good or bad – is valued, because it provides sensation to the goddess. I partially adopted this philosophy in my own life, trying to take the good and bad as positive experiences regardless (within limits).

But Torg changed my life dramatically, in an indirect way. Here I talk about my own personal experiences. In college, I was rather shy and depressed, but read a lot of comics and played a lot of games (like Torg). One day, I visited my local comic shop, and a guy was there running a Torg demo. Normally, I would have been far too shy to participate, but I loved Torg, so I joined a game. The guy running the game didn’t know the rules that well, so while we played, I explained some of the tricky stuff (like the cards). Afterwards, the guy, whose name is Eric, asked if I wanted to run demos for FASA at GenCon for him.

Eric ran a small company that subcontracted to run demos at cons for FASA. I agreed to help, and me, the shy, depressed kid, ended up running game demos for FASA at the biggest RPG con in the world, for about five years. I actually ended up managing the demos in later years.  Eric knew I was shy, but also suspected I was up to the challenge, he deliberately kept putting me in public roles where I had to talk to people. I credit him in no small part for me succeeding as a professor. Eric and I were best friends for many years.

Chris Kubasik and the creator of Torg, Greg Gordon, were also doing work for FASA at that time, so I got to tell both of them how much their work meant to me.

I have a lot of fun memories of my time at GenCon: it was a truly life-changing experience to work there. Here’s a photo of a few of us getting drunk with Klingons back in the day.

Anyway, thanks for indulging me on this long thread about a game that changed my life. Here are some of my GenCon badges from back in the day. I need to catch up with Eric soon. (He was the best man at my wedding.)

Whew! This blog post is already really long, thanks to all the reminiscing! Let me stop here for the day and pick up again tomorrow with more old school.

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