Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 9

I have almost caught up with all the old school Dungeons & Dragons posts I’ve been doing on twitter! So, without further ado, here’s part 9!

Die, Vecna, Die! (2000), by Bruce R. Cordell and Steve Miller. This module has the curious distinction of being perhaps the last “old school” adventure ever published!

Die, Vecna, Die! was one of two mind-bogglingly epic adventures released with universe-spanning ramifications, allowing DMs to have a reason for transitioning from 2nd edition AD&D to Wizards of the Coast 3rd edition D&D. The other is The Apocalypse Stone (2000).

A similar strategy had been used in the 1st-2nd edition transition. In The Fate of Istus (1989), a deity presents a series of tests on the intelligent creatures of the world. The tests go wrong, leaving permanent world and rules changes.

A transition to a new edition would require an epic event, and what would be more epic than a plot by one of D&D’s oldest and most infamous villains, the lich-god Vecna?

Illustration of Vecna from the Greyhawk fandom wiki.

Vecna really does go back to the beginning of D&D. In the third supplement, Eldritch Wizardry (1976), co-author Brian Blume invented two magical artifacts, the Eye and Hand of Vecna, the seeming only remains of the powerful lich.

I personally first encountered the Eye and Hand in the AD&D 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide, where Vecna is considered a legend and his history mysterious.

In later books, it was explained that the lich Vecna was the ruler of an ancient and terrible kingdom. His power was uncontested, until he was betrayed and destroyed by his lieutenant, Kas, using a sword that Vecna had made for him. Only his Eye and Hand seemingly survived.

To use the powers of the Hand or Eye, one must remove one’s own body part of the same type, and replace it with Vecna’s. It immediately grafts itself to the user, and grants great power, but at a price — it corrupts its user and turns them evil.

(This was the basis of a really dirty gaming trick by DM Mark Steuer, recounted in a 12/6/1996 post. He introduced the “Head of Vecna,” which would grant incredible powers, but only to those who first removed their own head. But it was a hoax artifact.)

Vecna himself finally made an appearance in the 1990 Greyhawk adventure, Vecna Lives! In that adventure, which itself caused major changes to Greyhawk, the now-demigod Vecna makes an attempt to become a greater god…

He is, however, defeated, and trapped in the sinister dimension of Ravenloft. He would attempt to break free in the 1998 Ravenloft adventure, Vecna Reborn.

In Die, Vecna, Die!, Vecna has come up with an even more devious scheme to become a greater god and escape Ravenloft, and even become the reshaper of the entire multiverse! The story begins at the site of his defeat in Vecna Lives!, an ancient circle of standing stones…

The PCs come to investigate disturbances at the circle, which became an unstable series of interdimensional portals after Vecna’s defeat in, uh, 1990. They find that Vecna’s rival Iuz has entered the portals in search of Vecna, with the goal of becoming a greater god himself!

Entering the portals after Iuz, the PCs find that Vecna’s disciples have stabilized some of them, making a temple out of various circles in various demiplanes. They must negotiate this maze, getting past Vecna and Iuz cultists along the way.

They find that Iuz and Vecna have sealed the final portal behind them. The only way the PCs can get through is to use some of Vecna’s… lesser body parts to grant them magical passage. Yes, basically every PC has to graft a part of Vecna on themselves.

(This turns out not to be a completely bad thing, as when Vecna acquires the powers of a greater god, their Vecna parts give them immunity to the brunt of his power.)

Vecna’s temple in Tovag Baragu also contains scenes from his life and undeath. It is a nice opportunity to learn more about the monstrous being’s history.

The players pursue Iuz into Vecna’s home in Ravenloft: the Citadel Cavitus, a skull-shaped city inhabited by the most powerful undead as well as living humans trapped and struggling to eke out a pathetic existence.

The PCs can pass through the city largely unopposed, if they behave. However, the adventure is well-written to try and coax the PCs into rescuing others, even people they know personally who were recently trapped in Vecna’s world…

… but, as you might expect, the PCs’ actions and even Iuz’s acts are part of Vecna’s plan! Vecna seeded the world with false info to trick Iuz into attacking and, while the players watch, he steals Iuz’s power, becoming a greater god and escaping Ravenloft!

The PCs must pursue Vecna to a third world: the Planescape city Sigil, which is the very center of the multiverse. From that central location, Vecna aims to undo creation and build his own twisted reality.

Here, the adventure has to reach a little bit. Part of the rules of Planescape is that deities cannot enter Sigil! The explanation of how he manages this trick stretches credibility, but this is the price to pay when making an epic adventure that will literally break the rules.

Nobody in Sigil, including its demonic goddess, the Lady of Pain, can enter the armory where Vecna is completing his mission, thanks to death wards he has placed. It falls on the PCs, with their pieces of Vecna, to stop him: the only ones who can!

At last, the players face Vecna, now a greater power, in one last attempt to stop him! Though protected from his magic by their Vecna bits, they aren’t protected from his giant fists. (Or from his deadly servants, the Eye and Hand.)

If they succeed, it still comes with a cost: Vecna’s meddling has permanently changed the fabric of reality. As the adventure concludes: Nothing will ever be the same again.

Going forward, from 3rd edition onwards, Vecna has been elevated to the status of a lesser god, appearing as one member of the pantheon of gods. Though his plan didn’t succeed, he has still grown in power, and will no doubt cause more mischief in the future.

PS it was later retconned that one of Vecna’s servants, before his betrayal by Kas, was none other than a wizard named Acererak, who would later become infamous in his own right.

This image is obligatory.

GA1: The Murky Deep (1993), by Norman B. Ritchie. Not every old school D&D can be a winner! I recently read through GA1: The Murky Deep, so let’s take a quick look at it.

This was the first in a trio of “General Adventures” (GA), which were not set in any specific campaign setting like Greyhawk or the Forgotten Realms and could thus be stuck in anywhere. I’ve previously talked about the lovely GA3: Tales of Enchantment.

In The Murky Deep, the PCs are hired by the clerics of a seaside town to find two missing men. The men had been investigating recently found artifacts thought to be from the legendary sunken city of Carsall, and the disappearance is thought to be related.

As one can see from the cover, this is all an opportunity to get the PCs involved in an underwater adventure, a pretty rare thing in D&D modules. The GA series seems to have focused on different biomes: GA1, ocean, GA2, swamp, GA3, forest.

Though a full underwater adventure seems quite intriguing, IMHO the adventure itself doesn’t quite fulfill the promise. It is a rather straightforward dungeon crawl, and even the dungeon maps themselves are uninspiring.

One fun twist at the very end, though, is a final attack by the sahuagin on the boat that reminded me of the freakiest scene from “Aquaman.”

I would’ve been a little bummed about this purchase, but — it came with a 1993 TSR catalog still included! I kind of love looking through old gaming catalogs, both to see old and forgotten products as well as improvements in graphic design.

Often you can spot intriguing details. For example, the catalog cover of The Murky Deep is completely different from the final one. This is also true of Swamplight.

One can also see what products were being pushed hard in the catalog’s era. In this case, Dark Sun was pretty big. (And I need to talk about it in a future thread.)

I have other TSR catalogs to share in the future. Apparently I’m not the only one who likes them — I’ve actually seen them for sale on used book sites! So, sometimes even disappointing vintage D&D products can carry nice surprises.

Dungeon Geomorphs (1981), by Gary and Ernie Gygax.  Let’s tackle an unusual early D&D product — not an adventure, but a tool to make adventures!

Technically, the original publication of geomorphs, individually, is earlier. Set One was released in 1976, and Sets Two and Three in 1977. They were compiled and printed together in 1980, and reprinted in 1981.

So what are “geomorphs?” Back in the early days of D&D, there was a lot of effort to make it as easy as possible for Dungeon Masters to learn how to run a game. Fantasy roleplaying was strange and new. Geomorphs gave a way to easily make a dungeon map.

Each page could be cut into two square sections and one rectangular section, allowing construction and arrangement in any number of ways. It also gives a brief tutorial on populating the dungeon. Oh, heck, here’s the explanation from the book.

The “basic dungeon” set (shown below) provides simple corridors and rooms to populate.

The “caves and caverns” set gives natural passages to fill in.

The “lower dungeons” pages provide a bit more twisty and turny passages to explore.

Interestingly, there was also a Set 1 of “Outdoor Geomorphs” released in 1977, but the planned Sets 2 and 3 were never published. Evidently Set 1 gives some fascinating Gygax-penned details about the City of Greyhawk, never released elsewhere!

Interestingly, there was also a Set 1 of “Outdoor Geomorphs” released in 1977, but the planned Sets 2 and 3 were never published. Evidently Set 1 gives some fascinating Gygax-penned details about the City of Greyhawk, never released elsewhere!

Thanks to modern software and printing technology, such geomorphs are pretty much obsolete. But they provide a fascinating glimpse at the way the game used to be played and prepped!

DCC #6: Temple of the Dragon Cult (2004), by John Seavey.  In looking at old school D&D, it would be negligent to not look at some of the products of the more recent old school revival, such as the Dungeon Crawl Classics line of adventures.

For those not familiar, Goodman Games was started in 2001 by Joseph Goodman to take advantage of Wizards of the Coast’s d20 system that they allowed to be licensed by other publishers.

He published a number of games and game supplements early on, but in 2003 he started the Dungeon Crawl Classics line, which was 3rd edition D&D compatible and catered to the nostalgia of older gamers.

The intro to early DCCs gives the idea: “Remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level? Those days are back.”

Some adventures were designed to closely mirror specific vintage adventures. For example, DCC 28: Into the Wilds has a similar structure to B2: Keep on the Borderlands: a base, wilderness to explore, and a big dungeon to focus on.  Even the cover is tailored to remind the reader of the earlier adventure.

(This has become an even more overt connection in recent years, as Goodman Games is now doing 5e conversions of many of those classic TSR adventures.)

Goodman Games produced an impressive 66 adventures for 3rd and 4th edition D&D before releasing their own Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG in 2012, which they continue to produce adventures for.

Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG is a really nice system, by the way. It has lots of really well thought out rules to make characters and games memorable, including unique modifications to spells for each wizard and the ability for warrior to perform glorious feats!

It also suggests starting a new campaign with a “character creation funnel”: each player makes 4 0th level peasant characters, most of whom get ground up in the first dungeon. Those who survive move on to become the new 1st level characters!

But the DCC RPG is an evolution beyond the Dungeon Crawl Classics module we’re talking about here, Temple of the Dragon Cult! The adventure takes a fun twist on dragon hunting: the players are tasked to track down an evil red dragon wounded by the king’s army. But they’ll find that the dragon, though injured, is ready for them! Years earlier, a cleric became convinced that the dragon was a servant of the gods, and attracted followers to worship it. Now, due to experiments with dragon blood, they have become dragon-human hybrids!

Each of the cultists is a powerful and unique adventurer with a definite combat strategy and traps set out for the unwary.

The author of the adventure puts in extra effort to make things interesting: each major encounter comes with “cool ways to make this fight interesting.”

Temple of the Dragon Cult was apparently well-received, because it was later combined with three others in 2007 into a boxed set supermodule, Saga of the Dragon Cult, which could take characters from 1st level to 10th!

Overall, it is a charming adventure. Interestingly, these early DCC adventures are now often more expensive to buy than the ORIGINAL TSR D&D adventures! I’ve seen some of them for well over $100.

The Book of Treasure Maps (1979), by Jennell Jaquays. Let’s wrap up tonight’s post with another classic Judges Guild supplement, written by the masterful Jaquays!

The Book of Treasure Maps contains five independent scenarios, each of which is sparked by the discovery of a treasure map leading to the place. All the maps are illustrated and included in the book, such as this back cover one for Willchidar’s Well.

The maps are all unique and clever, and add to the plot and atmosphere of the adventure. One is presented on the back of a magical shield, only visible in moonlight. Another one leads players not to the treasure in the dungeon, but to the place where the holder of the actual map to the treasure died!

The dungeons are all located on the official Judges Guild campaign maps, but reading through the treasure maps, it would be quite easy to place them in any campaign world desired.

All of them are exceedingly atmospheric and possess clever traps, tricks, and twists. One trap in particular made me giggle at its incredible nastiness! I won’t spoil it here, but here’s another example showing the excellent storytelling.

All of the maps and illustrations were also done by the multi-talented Jaquays, such as this powerful demon lord that the PCs might have the misfortune of unleashing. One thing I love about Jaquays’ adventures is that they really mercilessly punish careless characters — if the players do not pay attention, their characters will suffer for it!

The live-action cover was really unique for that era of gaming, as well! I’m twitter friends with Jennell, and she kindly shared some history about its creation:

I put together all the costumes out of bits and pieces of clothing, costuming, and gear that my room mate and I owned, like the cape, the swords, the wizard’s bathrobe, the monk’s karate gi and staff. A friend took the pic on an instant camera in back of my apartment building.

The Book of Treasure Maps is another acknowledged classic of D&D! It was followed up by The Book of Treasure Maps II by other authors, which is not as well remembered.

The idea, though, carried on to other products. In 1992, TSR released Treasure Maps by Slade Henson, containing 16 adventures with a map for PCs and DM for each adventure.

Dungeon Crawl Classics also got in on the action with DCC #46: The Book of Treasure Maps, featuring 6 adventures!

These follow up products, and many others, show what an influential product the first Book of Treasure Maps is!

Okay, I will stop there fore this post — expect more old school Dungeons & Dragons fun soon!

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