Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 5

Trying to keep my game of catch-up on old school D&D alive, so here’s part 5!

WG5: Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure (1984), by Robert J. Kuntz and Gary Gygax. This adventure is reeeeeally old school, even though it was published in 1984!

The name sounds a bit silly, but don’t let it fool you: this adventure was first written in 1972/1973 by Robert Kuntz in order to challenge the skills of none other than Gary Gygax, who used his wizard Mordenkainen! It is a quite punishing dungeon.

This appears to have the distinction of being the oldest D&D adventure which ever made it to print! This is distinct from the earliest printed adventure, Temple of The Frog, which was first published in 1975 as part of the Blackmoor supplement.

For nostalgia buffs, Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure (MFA) includes stats for the original party that went through it: Mordenkainen, Yrag, Bigby and Riggby!

In an intro, Gygax even summarized how the original adventure went for his party (they succeeded, but barely). This published version of MFA is a revised version with input from both Kuntz and Gygax.

The story is simple enough: the party is drawn by stories of a mysterious underground door that cannot be opened (which is true: only a wish can do it from the outside)! Inside, they find a growing cult, let by a powerful wizard with an evil book and demon servant!

And the enemy encounters are NASTY. This is explained by the wizard’s access to the secrets of the evil book. In short, if you see this trio of statues: RUN.

There is so much left as hooks for future adventures, including a mysterious City of the Elders! It is somewhat tragic that Gygax had such huge plans for his Greyhawk setting before being ousted from TSR, the company he founded. In MFA, a mysterious set of symbols are discussed.

MFA gives a hint and taste of the freewheeling early days of D&D, when characters would go explore a strange place just for the heck of it, and face really strange creatures and defend themselves with even stranger magic.

This is another module I owned but probably never read in detail as a kid because of the silly name! Now it is a nostalgic dream, showing us what D&D was like at the very beginning.

Dragons of Weng T’Sen (1983), by Delbert Carr, Jr. and Cheron. The more I explore early non-TSR adventures such as those from the Role Aids line, the more I find fascinating gems!

This adventure is not a particularly spectacular one, but it caught my eye for two reasons. One of the reasons is the spectacularly lovely cover by artist Judith Mitchell.

The other reason? Because it is a rare early adventure with a setting inspired by Imperial China! Dungeons & Dragons did not approach that setting until Gygax’s Oriental Adventures of 1985, which was mainly Japan-inspired at first.

In fact, TSR’s Oriental Adventures didn’t cover China until the 1987 module Ochimo the Spirit Warrior, which described the AD&D equivalent, Shou Lung.

So what of Dragons of Weng T’Sen? It can be used as a launching point for characters to be introduced to the China setting, and provides an intro in which PCs offend their local ruler and are offered essentially as a diplomatic gift for the Chinese Emperor.

The PCs are asked by a local warlord to visit the Valley of Weng T’Sen, a powerful wizard who vanished from human contact years ago. But now damaging storms and horrible monsters are emerging from the valley, and it must be investigated. However, the Emperor had decreed that none of his subjects may enter the valley! The PCs are a loophole in that ruling as outsiders, and must enter and learn what has gone wrong.

In fact, Weng T’Sen was accidentally driven mad by one of his experiments, and he drugged four powerful elemental dragons into eternal sleep. Now evil forces are taking advantage of the Dragons’ absence to wreak havoc. The players must find them and the secret to awaken them.

The valley itself is reminiscent of the garden in Beyond the Crystal Cave, a safe haven for good creatures and an area where many of the problems the PCs face will be due to their own attitude.

However, there are evil elemental forces in the valley to fight, as well, such as the new monsters known as mist giants.

In addition, a power-hungry rival wizard has entered the valley, and the PCs must either stop him or bargain with him to help complete the quest.

Interestingly, and very culturally appropriate, the wizard Weng T’Sen is not evil, and can be saved and returned to health. Careless adventurers, however, could kill him and even bring about a minor apocalypse. The module is overall straightforward, but I respect its willingness to leave open the possibility of the PCs completely ruining everything and even making it worse!

It took some time for other games to use an Imperial China setting. GURPS did a supplement in 1991, and Palladium did Mystic China in 1994.

Mayfair Games’ Role Aids supplements were very hit or miss in terms of quality, but Dragons of Weng T’Sen is a charming little adventure ahead of its time!

H4: The Throne of Bloodstone (1988), by Michael Dobson and Douglas Niles. This module was an attempt to define “epic” adventure in a way that had never been tried before — or since!

The module is the 4th in the Bloodstone series, combining high-level dungeon adventures with epic mass scale battles!

The Bloodstone series, overall, was designed to show a different type of D&D adventure for high-level characters, in which they secure, build, and defend their own kingdom! In the first adventure, their exploits put them in favor with the local ruler.

But it turns out that Bloodstone Pass is coveted by none other than Orcus, the demon prince of undead, and the modules involve an escalating series of encounters with his minions and, eventually, with him.

In The Throne of Bloodstone, the PCs must break Orcus’ hold on the region once and for all: by traveling into Orcus’ own throne room in the demonic Abyss and stealing his powerful wand, which can kill anything living with a touch.

That is a pretty tall order for any adventuring party. You may have noticed that the adventure has a rather unusual range of recommended levels: 18-100. It is the only adventure ever to go that high, by far!

There were no official AD&D rules for levels above 25, though they can be extrapolated. But to run an adventure for characters of level 100 requires extra consideration, which the module explains. First, note that character improvement is rather incremental above level 25.

The authors also include two more guidelines, which are basically: follow the rules strictly and don’t give characters any breaks. They’re supposed to be tough, so they don’t need any help.

And the adventure is BRUTAL. The PCs will be overwhelmed by sheer numbers of monsters and monsters that have optimized their powers to be as deadly as they can be. The first battle with a lich and a dragon is supposed to be a warning to players to tread carefully.

In addition to powerful monsters, the adventure overwhelms the PCs with sheer numbers. They’re basically wandering around hell, after all! A sample:

And it isn’t easy to get to Orcus’ abode. The PCs are basically dumped onto a random level of the Abyss and find, by trial and error, the right portal to his lair. And many of the portals lead to instant death sorts of places!

Other portals lead to the homes of other demon lords, some of whom might “help” the players, others of whom will just try and kill them. I was always fond of Yeenoghu’s mansion, pulled by thousands of slaves.

And Orcus’ castle is well defended. It even has “bone cannons,” which are basically magical artillery pieces. Any players trying to fly right to their goal will be blasted out of the sky.

The adventure climax is negotiating Orcus’ palace, and its many traps, to get his wand. The module treats it right, with a lovely full color map, of which I show only a portion.

Oh, did I mention that Orcus is the lord of undead, and that there’s a city of 100 liches and 12 demi-liches in his realm? PCs have to be verrrrry careful or they will get messed up.

I love the fact that The Throne of Bloodstone is basically a “caper.” The PCs are going to steal and item, and can make all sort of unlikely allies and try all sorts of schemes to grab the wand without a fight. Wise, because Orcus is deadly.

One thing I don’t love: the module basically exacts a harsh punishment for anyone making a deal with a demon to accomplish the mission: a permanent shirt of alignment one step towards chaotic evil. This seems harsh, because many of these deals are in service to the “greater good.” If I ran the adventure, I would make the punishment more subtle and less severe.

The NPCs are well thought out in the adventure. One particularly powerful demon can be dealt with by appealing to his hobby.

Success at this adventure makes the characters, and players, truly legendary. They will have secured their realm of Bloodstone and the module provides more hooks for further “adventures of landowners.”

B6: The Veiled Society (1984), by David Cook.  After that last epic adventure, it seems wise to go back and look at one on the other end of the experience level!

This module is special because it was the first urban adventure for the standard D&D rules. Set in the city of Specularum, the capitol of the Grandy Duchy of Karameikos, the PCs get wrapped up in murder and intrigue between the city’s warring factions!

One of the three ruling families – Vorloi, Radu, and Torenescu – runs the titular Veiled Society, which increases its power through assassination and fear. The PCs, new to the city, stumble across one of their victims and thus become targets of the Society. One of the fun things about the adventure is that the players may be targeted by the Society as either enemies or allies, depending on their actions. Even better, different players may end up on different sides of the conflict, and accidentally meet in combat!

Some nice atmosphere to the adventure is provided through little dramatic passages, hinting at the intrigues of the Society and their plots.

This adventure is notable also because it included card stock buildings and figures, allowing gamers to play out many of the dramatic encounters with miniatures. Layouts like the one below show how to set up the scenes with the paper buildings.

I no longer have the paper buildings – apparently I actually built them in the past – but I do still have the miniature paper figures!

Paper buildings were apparently being pushed at that time to encourage miniatures use in play. Two other supplements came out in 1984 and 1985 that also provided different settings.

It’s worth taking a look at the history of urban adventures in D&D, which were pretty rare in the early days. Such adventures create extra challenges for the DM, because it isn’t possible, in general, to keep track of every location and character the PCs might encounter.

The earliest adventure of this form I can recall by TSR is Lenard Lakofka’s The Assassin’s Knot (1983), where players must solve a series of murders in the town of Garroten.

But the earliest city adventure supplement, and probably still the greatest, is Judges Guild’s City State of the Invincible Overlord, first published in 1976!

The City State was not a structured adventure, but a fully detailed city supplement where the players could wander around for hours, looking for mischief. Every shop was detailed on the map & in the book, and players could just point to where they wanted to go!

I never owned a copy of City State (I would kill for one now), but my DM friend had one, and I remember spending long hours exploring the city freely.

The Veiled Society, in contrast, only hints at a small part of the city of Specularam, but gives a rather unique and fast-paced tale of political intrigue!

Tegel Manor (1977), by Bob Bledsaw. Let’s take a look at another Judges Guild product that was groundbreaking for its time!

Tegel Manor was published in the early “Wild West” days of D&D, when original D&D was still the main product, basic D&D had just been released, and only the Monster Manual of AD&D had been released! The rules it draws from are a mishmash of all three.

The Judges Guild company, started in 1976, gained official license to publish supplements for D&D, many of which were of incredible quality and are now considered classics. Tegel Manor is one of them.

Tegel Manor’s premise is simple: the Tegel family has owned the Manor for generations, but it has fallen into disrepair and sinister reputation. The PCs go in to clear it out. And they have a HUGE area to explore, as seen in this beautiful map.

The dungeon has been described in non-flattering terms as a “funhouse dungeon”: a collection of rooms with more or less random encounters within. This is true, and the details are sparse, but the ideas are often fun.

To run this dungeon today would require a bit of work to make it make some sense! There is one area, for instance, where a “liche” is referenced but it takes some effort to figure out who the adventure is talking about!

There are some really fun touches. Portraits of the “Rump” family are spread out in the house, often with magical effects. And the undead forms of former family members can be encountered anywhere, to keep players on their toes!

Judges Guild is famous for their amazing maps. Not only is the detailed map given for the DM, but also a blank players’ map and a map of the surrounding wilderness.

Tegel Manor is so popular that it has been reprinted in its original form in recent years! My copy is a reprint by Goodman Games, that also includes a newly written adventure set in the temple on the wilderness map, designed to be as random as the Manor itself!

And last year, a VERY successful kickstarter was launched to update the Manor to fifth edition!

In summary, Tegel Manor is a true classic that you can still buy today (without spending a fortune on a used copy). It is the very first “haunted house” adventure ever published for D&D!

B8: Journey to the Rock (1985), by Michael Malone.  Not every old school adventure is a winner, and it’s time we talk about one that I find rather disappointing!

The adventure is in fact primarily a wilderness adventure, though a very stripped down one: players can choose between one of three paths to get to their goal of The Rock!

The players are hired to go solve the mystery of the rock. Little do they know that they will bring back an ancient relic that can help restore the lost city of Tuma (shown on the map).

The encounters are… okay, I guess, but rather straightforward. All of them are intended to prep the players for the “secret” of The Rock, which is: not everything is as it appears to be! If they make obvious simplistic choices, they can fail completely! It is a rather simplistic message, though, and a rather obvious one. I suspect this adventure was deliberately tailored for very young kids playing for the first time. Anyone over 10 years old will find it a bit unsubtle.

So: Journey to the Rock is a bit of a miss for me, but a nice introductory adventure for very young new gamers!

PS there’s an air of being rushed about The Rock. If you look at the map above, encounter W1 is labeled, and then… nothing until W5!

I2: Tomb of the Lizard King (1982), by Mark Acres.  Let’s end tonight on one of the less-appreciated classics of the old school!

Lizard King tends to get lost in the incredible and lengthy I (Intermediate) series of adventures, which includes classics I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City, I3: Pharaoh, and I6: Ravenloft.

Also, at least when I was young, the title sounded pretty lame. “Lizard King?” Yawn! But, as we will note, the King is a nasty piece of work.

The players are hired by the Count of Eor to investigate and stop a bandit party that has been raiding the area around the small village of Waycombe. The adventure gets off to a fiery start when there is an assassination attempt during the mission briefing!

This is one of the striking aspects about this adventure, unlike many older ones: the Lizard King and his minions proactively defend themselves with traps, ambushes, and misdirection. A careless party can get into a lot of trouble!

This makes the encounters surprisingly fun and unpredictable, however, and there are a number of well-characterized NPCs that can both help and hinder the adventurers. And some really tough encounters. See the image below? Those are energy draining wights. A lot of them.

There are also nice atmospheric touches. The PCs can learn more about their enemy when a helpful minstrel sings a song about the legendary lizard king. Okay, not a great song, but still: atmosphere!

The Lizard King himself is a pretty powerful piece of work. Without giving too much detail, let’s just say that he’s not a living creature anymore, and has abilities farrrr beyond any lizard, man or king. And he’s got killer fashion sense.

The module combines a wilderness trek, fun roleplaying opportunities, and a tough four-level dungeon complex! It isn’t listed as one of the greatest modules of all time, but it is pretty great!

Okay, let me stop there for the night! More old school D&D to come, and more physics posts and China posts as well!

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