Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 11

Well, I’ve finally done enough old school Dungeons & Dragons posts on twitter to fill a blog post again! So here’s an update to my long-running series of classic D&D.

Earthshaker! (1985), by David “Zeb” Cook. The exclamation point is deliberate: it’s in the original title!

This one’s pretty wild, and the cover is for once a pretty accurate description of the adventure itself. But before we get to the details, let’s say a little about “Companion Level” adventures. D&D bifurcated early in its existence, with the original D&D becoming “Basic” D&D in 1977 and Advanced D&D being released in several volumes over 1977-1979. The basic set was revised several times. In its first revision, in 1981, an “Expert” set was also released…

The Basic Set covered play at character levels 1-3, and the Expert Set extended this to cover character levels 4-14. Of course, players wanted more! When Basic D&D was revised again in 1983, a plan was initiated to include more sets for higher level play. The Companion Set came out in 1984, covering levels 15-25…

The Master Set came out in 1985, covering levels 26-36. And Immortals Rules came out in 1986, focusing on characters who had essentially become gods.

The Companion Set placed a strong emphasis on characters establishing their own dominions to rule over, and included rules on the costs of construction and maintenance of such dominions. So the Companion adventures focused a lot on defense of such territories.

Earthshaker! (I can never get used to that exclamation point) can be set in the player’s own dominion, or in the barony of Vyolstagrad if they don’t have one yet. In the latter case, the PCs are tasked with managing the region while the baron is away on a mission. Among the things they must do: prepare a celebratory festival for the farmers, who have had a rough harvest year. Opportunity arrives in the form of Magister Formiesias’ Traveling Exhibition of Wonders!

Assuming they accept the Exhibition, they get a surprise: its main exhibit is a massive, titanic, absolutely HUGE mechanical man called Earthshaker!

Earthshaker is an ancient machine, powered by coal and steam. It is the home of a clan of gnomes, who maintain it and keep its secrets out of the hands of wrongdoers.

The module ends up, in essence, being a dungeon crawl inside of a gigantic, moving, mechanical man! The author spends quite some time giving the DM ideas on how to convey its massive size to the players.

Of courrrrrrse things end up going wrong! Some evil miscreants have a desire to use Earthshaker to conquer a kingdom for themselves, and have a secret weapon: an ancient gem that possesses the soul of the machine, and allows it to run semi-autonomously, without gnome aid! The PCs will have to get inside (or they may already be inside), and work their way through the confusing mechanisms of the machine to defeat the baddies and stop Earthshaker’s rampage! And it is a big machine, with many levels.

Time is of the essence! Unlike most dungeons, Earthshaker is moving, and has a destination in mind. While the PCs fight their way through inside, the peasantry will try and stop the machine their own way. More lives will be lost the longer the players dawdle.

Earthshaker! is an unconventional module. It gives the players a taste of a higher responsibility to the lands they live in and/or rule over. And it features a big, smashy robot!

N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God (1982), by Douglas Niles. This is another underappreciated classic, I think. It is not talked about with the same reverence of many of its contemporaries, but it incredibly clever.

“Reptile God” was the first in the N (novice) series of modules, designed for players and gamemasters new to RPGs. However, it turns out to be a quite rich and intricate adventure!

The story begins as the PCs arrive at the village of Orlane, seemingly a nice peaceful farming village. But it holds a secret: it is being infiltrated by an evil cult that is slowly turning all residents into members!

The first part of the adventure is thus an intriguing detective case: the players must figure out what is going on in the village through investigation, and come up with a plan to save the villagers! The village is fully detailed, with a list of who’s a cultist and not.

This makes the module surprisingly advanced for a “novice” adventure. The players (and DM) have to have a lot of conversations, and the DM has to keep track of how the whole town reacts to the PCs actions! Fortunately the book gives tips on how to handle things.

And yes, if the PCs stay in the wrong inn, they could find themselves become the cult’s newest members/victims! I kinda love this illustration of this.

After learning of the cult’s base of operations, and hopefully gathering a few powerful non-cult village allies in the process, the PCs then do a wilderness adventure, trekking to the swampy lair of the cult, a two-level dungeon. The dungeon itself isn’t spectacular, but it’s really the whole journey – village, wilderness, dungeon – that makes the adventure special. I also like this illustration of a captured villager not being the stereotypical helpless damsel in distress.

The other twist of the adventure is that the head of the cult is a verrrrry powerful monster — much more powerful than the PCs can handle! This is where getting allies earlier in the story is important, and pays off.

Like a lot of introductory adventures, Reptile God ends with some suggestions on how to continue adventures in Orlane — it makes for a nice adventuring base of operations!

Castle Book I (1978), by Judges Guild. If you’ve followed my posts, this book should look familiar: it’s a castle version of their Village Book! Basically, it gives maps and rules for producing a random castle practically on the fly.

The Castle Book gives lots of rules. For instance, if you want to know how the walls are defended, there’s a table for generating that!

If you want to know what type of leader the castle has, and what their personality is, there are tables!

There can also be non-humanoid leaders and occupants of the castle, classified as “special.”

The real star, of course, is the maps: some 50 maps of castles and their surroundings, laid out on a hex grid for easy insertion into a campaign map!

The Castle Book I (and yes, there is a II) are good enough to still be used today, which is a real testament to their quality. I may use them in future adventures!

Greyhawk Adventures (1988), by Jim Ward. You know what I haven’t done yet for #OldSchoolDungeonsAndDragons? One of the hardcover books!

This volume is a bit curious: there had already been multiple Greyhawk supplements published over the years, including the 1975 Greyhawk supplement, the 1980 Greyhawk folio, and the 1983 boxed set. Why publish another Greyhawk book?

The answer: because the fans demanded it! Folks were clamoring for more Greyhawk information, so author Jim Ward solicited suggestions from fans about what to include in the book. The result is a collection of enhanced rules and details, not a full campaign setting.

For example: there is a detailed section about the deities of Greyhawk, including stats. For the first time, the concept of an ‘avatar’ of a god is introduced: if you fight & kill the god on Oerth, you’ve just killed one of its bodies.

There are also new monsters, of course, though I find most of the selections not terribly inspiring or useful. For example: camprats are introduced, which are rodents that steal your stuff. Cute, but not campaign-rejuvenating.

The description of important figures is much more compelling. If you ever wanted to know the history and stats of the Lord Mayor of Greyhawk, this book has you covered.

Even cooler are new spells, written by the great mages of Greyhawk! Unsurprisingly, the author of Otto’s Irresistible Dance has a lot of music-themed magics…

… and the author of the infamous Bigby’s Crushing Hand is big into hand and force-based spells! (Including a 1st level spell for keeping your magical tomes from getting worm-eaten.)

The Greyhawk-specific magic items are pretty cool. In Greyhawk history, the Suel Empire was destroyed by a rain of magic fire. The players have a chance to possess the magical item that may have been used to cause the destruction.

One other example, the Crown of Blackmoor, not only pays an homage to Dave Arneson’s campaign (Gygax named part of Oerth Blackmoor in his honor), but also seems inspired by the only original Conan novel, in which an evil wizard is brought back to life with a powerful item.

Perhaps the nicest part of the book, however, is a description of unusual locations in Greyhawk, each of which can serve as a campaign basis! The Pits mentioned below were formed by a falling star, which cursed the region where it landed.  The book contains a delightfully eerie history of the doomed attempts to recover the star’s remains.

The book also contains a handful of mini-adventures, largely designed to get the PCs involved in Greyhawk-related mischief.

Note the mention of zero-level characters? Greyhawk Adventures contained new rules for playing such characters, and growing them to 1st level.

However, these zero-level rules seem rather artificial and clunky, compared with the more organic play of module N4: Treasure Hunt, published the year before. In Treasure Hunt, a PC has normal stats and develops a class based on their actions.

Overall, Greyhawk Adventures contains some nice ideas, though! It is, curiously, another book that I never really read in detail back when I first bought it in 1988.

Masque of the Red Death (1994). This may be the strangest old school Dungeons & Dragons product ever!

Waitaminute — guns? trains? the 1890s? Edgar Allan Poe references? How can this even be D&D? Well, it is — it is the gothic horror of the Ravenloft setting stretched to an entire world. Basically: our world, in the 1890s!

A little background is probably helpful. “Ravenloft” had its start in the classic module of the same name, released in 1983. It was so successful that it spawned a sequel in 1986…

… and its gothic horror setting proved so popular that it spawned a boxed set campaign setting, Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990)!

Ravenloft was reimagined from the original modules as a demiplane ruled over by unfathomable beings called Dark Powers. These powers basically award individual Darklords their own dominions in the Demiplane of Dread, and these lords are both tyrants and prisoners. This demiplane was a nice way for TSR to connect to other campaign settings, so it not only included the vampire Strahd, but the lich Vecna (from Greyhawk) and the death knight Lord Soth (from Dragonlance).

Ravenloft became a major setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with many supplements and adventures published. But they were all focused on the Demiplane of Dread, a series of small, horror-filled kingdoms isolated by a magical mist. Masque was a big departure!

So the “Red Death” of the title is not synonymous with Poe’s plague: it is a near-omnipotent, formless, supernatural being that was released onto Earth in ancient Egypt, when experiments in providing immortality went awry.

Over the centuries, the Red Death has corrupted Earth, giving form to all sorts of supernatural monsters (ghosts, vampires, werewolves) and encouraging very human atrocities. It also has slowly weakened the force of magic on Earth, making it rare and almost unknown.

Very few spells are available to spellcasters, and perhaps the most terrifying thing in the entire boxed set is the following simple statement.

Secret societies of heroes arose several times in the past, attempting to stop the Red Death and even banish it from our reality, but all of those groups, to date, have been destroyed utterly, from both the Red Death’s corporeal forces as well as corrupted traitors in their ranks.

In short: you can imagine Masque of the Red Death as an AD&D version of “Call of Cthulhu“: investigators going up against unspeakable horrors while at a complete disadvantage.

Classes are modified, of course. Instead of fighters, you have “soldiers.” Instead of magic-users: “adepts.” Instead of clerics: “mystics.” And instead of thieves: “tradesmen.”  Fortunately, to compensate for weaker magic, PCs now have guns and explosives. And they are sufficiently deadly to make up for a lot.

The box set includes lots of goodies to get players and Dungeon Masters up to speed. In addition to the map I showed earlier, there is a DM screen. The main book is “A Guide to Gothic Earth,” which gives the history and all the new rules.

There are three adventures provided, as well, of increasing level, which tie into real and fictional horror of the era. The first, Red Jack, has PCs investigate the seeming reappearance of London’s terror in Boston.

The second, Red Tide, has PCs hired to investigate the cause of a shipwreck off the coast of San Francisco. This will bring them into direct conflict with the most famous monster of them all!

The third, Red Death, puts the PCs in the party of one Prince Prospero. The players must uncover the secret of the Masque before the clock strikes midnight, or the red death will make a catastrophic appearance!

(In a bit of meta-fun, the Masque here is *not* Poe’s, but is inspired by Poe’s writing. The Prince Prospero here makes his party like Poe’s to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Poe’s death. But all is, of course, not what it appears to be.)

Though Masque is a Ravenloft supplement, it is not directly connected with the Demiplane of Dread. The official connection is that Ravenloft rules are used. One suspects, however, that the Red Death may be an escaped Dark Power from the Demiplane.

The book hints that mystics have had visions of horrible events being caused by the Red Death in the 20th century. Masque is an opportunity to roleplay attempts to stop two world wars and the atomic bomb!

The graphic design of the books is, in my opinion, absolutely beautiful. This was TSR at the top of its game, before its financial troubles caused it to fold.

Financial troubles may have spurred the creation of this product in the first place. TSR was struggling in the 90s, and they appear to have gotten more imaginative in efforts to find the “next big thing” in RPGs. Masque wasn’t it, but it is a damn fun and unique product!

TSR didn’t publish any more products for Masque, other than a pair of modules in Dungeon Magazine. But White Wolf’s imprint Arthaus published a d20 version of the setting in 2004!

This is another hidden gem of the TSR era of D&D. I’m so happy that I managed to snag a good copy online for a fair price! This goes into the highly treasured part of my collection.

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Okay, that’s it for this week’s edition of old school Dungeons & Dragons!

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3 Responses to Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 11

  1. Great rundown! You managed to hit titles I didn’t know well. I’m glad you collate these posts on your blog.

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