Time again for another compilation of old School Dungeons & Dragons posts from twitter! I am still not tired of exploring the history and mechanics of classic RPGs and the adventures written for them.
Bughunters (1993), by Lester Smith. We begin with a look at a non-D&D roleplaying game produced by TSR in the early 90s, whose core conceit is pretty much given away in the title!
Bughunters was one of numerous worlds designed for use with the Amazing Engine gaming system, released by TSR in 1993. The basic idea: from a single core set of rules, multiple RPG settings could be supported.
As I understand it, at the start of the 90s TSR ended all their separate non-AD&D games such as Gamma World and even Basic D&D, and Amazing Engine was the de-facto replacement. I imagine the logic is much like the logic behind licensed game engines for videogames these days, such as Unity: why dump endless resources into reinventing the wheel if you can come up with one platform? Shortens development time as well as costs.
And there was already precedent: Steve Jackson Games introduced GURPS – Generic Universal Role-Playing System – in 1986, which allowed for play in multiple settings, and it turned out to be a reasonably popular system. (And it still exists today, in fact.)
(An aside: my favorite GURPS supplement was GURPS The Prisoner. I still have my copy.)
Amazing Engine attempted to make a splash with multiple settings released within a single year. This included For Faerie, Queen and Country (magical Victorian England), Tabloid! (quirky supernatural setting), and of course Bughunters.
The Amazing Engine system had an interesting meta-concept: you created a sort of a generic character archetype (smart, strong, sneaky, etc.) and built characters for each world based on that archetype. Four main characteristics influenced 8 specific character attributes.
Looking back, I think this system was limited, in that there was no ‘meta-story’ explaining why you would use the same archetype for each world: it was just a rules thing. I suspect it might have worked better if there was some multiversal explanation.
So let’s talk Bughunters: it was obviously and blatantly inspired by the 1986 movie Aliens, even using one of the movie’s most memorable lines for inspiration.
The PCs are synthetic humans — synners — cloned in order to fight against horrific alien threats that humanity had recently encountered in its colonization of the galaxy.
A cool concept, but Bughunters — and the whole Amazing Engine line — were over in a year. At least in Bughunters‘ case, I can speculate a little as to why, and it comes down to the aliens themselves. Anyone playing would be expecting terrifying inexplicable xenomorphs. Instead, this is one of the two main alien races that the players must face off against. A bit of a let-down, no?
To be fair, they don’t all looks quite so silly. Below are the Shapers, the other major race, who look a lot more ominous.
And other alien depictions were suitably creepy, but I feel that they suffered under the weight of comparison to H.R. Giger’s visionary work.
Overall, Bughunters is a fun idea, and Amazing Engine was also clever, but it just didn’t have enough of a spark to capture folks’ attention in the crowded RPG market of the 90s.
Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986), by Douglas Niles. I haven’t addressed many of the hardcover D&D books in this series of posts, so it’s time to rectify that!
The DSG was a major rules expansion introduced for AD&D, intended to give lots of additional details that can liven up any underground adventure. It included sections for both players and DMs.
For players, the book begins with a lot of information on how natural caves form, what sights can be seen in them, and a bevy of natural dangers that can be encountered, from cave-ins to toxic gas.
Fortunately, along with these dangers, players are given new abilities to help them survive and round out their characters: non-weapon proficiencies, such as blind-fighting, boating, gem-cutting, mining, mountaineering, and more!
Non-weapon proficiencies first appeared in the Oriental Adventures hardcover the year before, but the idea was intriguing enough to be moved to the “western” AD&D setting.
Personally, I found the early parts of the DSG a bit of a drag when I was young. All the sections that made underground exploration filled with natural perils seemed to ruin a bit of the magic for me.
The DM section of the guide is much more exciting: it introduces an entire campaign zone, called “Deepearth,” and overall introduced the concept – and name – of the Underdark, an entire underground ecosystem and societies.
The Underdark became a MAJOR setting for AD&D. Unofficially, one can argue that D1-D2, Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, introduced the concept, but the DSG popularized it and made it “official.”
The DSG contains a wide variety of rules, from mass combat Battlesystem rules to actual tips on how to physically draw maps. It was evidently not as successful as TSR hoped, which may be due in part to the scattershot collection of information.
One thing I always wondered about the DSG cover: was it inspired by Dirk the Daring from Dragon’s Lair, which came out in 1983? You be the judge!
The Shattered Statue (1988), by Jennell Jaquays. I’ve shared quite a few posts about the amazing work of Jennell Jaquays in this series, and I’ve now been looking to cover her entire oeuvre, which never disappoints.
This is an unusual and unique module, as it is designed for use with both Dungeons & Dragons and the DragonQuest RPG, which first appeared in 1980.
I’m not sure why this module was made in this way, but TSR basically acquired all the assets of DragonQuest maker SPI in 1982. They would produce a DQ 3rd edition in 1989, and The Shattered Statue might have been a test of the system’s popularity.
The Shattered Statue consequently includes stats for all the monsters in both D&D and DQ, most of which are helpfully compiled into tables in the module cover.
In the text, rules-specific variations are highlighted with special fonts and shading, to make it easy to track down the proper stats.
What about the adventure itself? Some spoilers will follow, so mute this thread if you don’t want to hear them! As the title suggests, the PCs are hired to track down several pieces of a massive stone golem, 30′ tall, that was destroyed ages ago.
The golem was originally created to be able to do major construction tasks, a boon for any kingdom, and the PCs’ employer wants to restore it to its glory. But nobody realizes that the golem was originally destroyed because it was possessed by a demon… which still is within!
There’s a wonderful irony to the whole adventure — if the PCs go along and fulfill their task without question, *they* are creating the main villain of the story. (If they don’t do it, there is an evil wizard who is secretly also trying to finish the job.)
The PCs must explore a village, two ruined colleges of magic, and the ruined temple of a dragon cult in order to claim the massive chunks of statue. Along the way, they’ll run into some fearsome enemies, like a dragonwight!
Inevitably, the golem is revived, and it goes on a rampage that the PCs must stop. In the aftermath, they will need to do some clever negotiating for their reward. After all, though they saved the town, they likely created the threat, too!
(You may notice from the previous images that Jaquays did all of the lovely interior art for the module, as well!)
There are a lot of fun and whimsical touches in the adventure, including a controllable flying glass elevator that might seem familiar! Overall, The Shattered Statue is another charming and unconventional fantasy adventure.
A Fabled City of Brass (2017), by Anthony Huso. Though I primarily talk about genuinely *old* old school D&D,many of the new products of the old school revival (OSR) are really worth looking at too, for quality and creativity.
Two things caught my attention about this product and led me to buy it: First, the amazing art and color scheme of the cover, which really make it stand out. Second, the fact that it is a reimagined version of a legendary location, The City of Brass.
The City of Brass is a location in the classic One Thousand and One Nights, and the focus of one of the tales. In the story, a king hears tale of Jinns imprisoned in bottles, and his quest to see them takes him to the long deserted city.
In Dungeons & Dragons, the City of Brass has canonically been the capital city of the Efreet on the Elemental Plane of Fire. It first even got mention in the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide, and was later fleshed out as a full setting.
Anthony Huso, in contrast, went back to the source material to define his City of Brass: it is a dead city, filled with the corpses of a doomed people, their magical wonders, untold riches, and deadly traps.
Huso’s vision works REALLY well. It is bolstered by a bevy of new monsters and magical items, which appear in a separate book of appendices about the setting.
Why a require a separate book for appendices, you ask? As far as I can tell, it’s because the actual adventure book is an incredible full-color affair, with original art and detailed maps; the appendices are in B&W and separate to save costs.
Here’s a part of a page that gives an idea of some of the lovely illustrations within. Also, note the incredibly powerful “God Beetle.” This is not an adventure for casual explorers: it is filled with powerful monsters and super-deadly traps.
The lost inhabitants of the city were technologically and magically advanced, and careless adventurers can really screw themselves. In fact, in one of my favorite parts, PCs can inadvertently destroy THE MULTIVERSE if they behave rashly. They may end up stuck in the city forever!
The strange tech of the lost inhabitants adds to the mystique of the setting. Here’s one of my favorite examples: a “velvet gun.”
For science and nature lovers, this description will ring a bell: it is a gun inspired by the velvet worm, which uses a stream of mucus to trap its prey!
The City itself has a tragic history, with a terrible secret behind its fall. This secret has potentially deadly consequences for PCs exploring the City, and it is a really satisfying revelation for the players… if they survive long enough to uncover it.
One of my favorite things about the adventure is that it uses elements from the original Arabian Nights stories. For example: to find the City, one first must pay tribute to the brass statue of a horseman, who will then point the way. This is taken directly from the Arabian Nights.
One other fun bit of trivia related to the original City of Brass story: if you’ve watched the recent Witcher series, or read the original The Last Wish story, Geralt fishing for a bottle containing a Jinn comes DIRECTLY from the City of Brass tale.
The creator of A Fabled City of Brass, Anthony Huso, is also an author and video game designer, and his knowledge of both fields helps make it quite a unique and compelling adventure.
Let me end by providing a link to the Lulu page for A Fabled City of Brass. It is also available in pdf form. If you get it, be sure to get the Appendices book, too!
PS I should note that AFCoB is a somewhat unique OSR product, in that it is actually written for first edition AD&D, not for one of the more modern OSR rules sets. Not a huge deal to convert, but a curious bit of trivia.
PPS I already provided the link, but let me note again that the original Arabian Nights story is worth reading. I don’t think I’d ever read it before!
N3: Destiny of Kings (1986), by Stephen Bourne. Now, back to original TSR-published D&D adventures!
The “N” series is the “Novice” series of modules, designed to be easy to run for Dungeon Masters and easy to play. N3 very much fits the series: a straightforward set of encounters in uncomplicated locales, tied to a tale of political intrigue.
When the King of Dunador dies in what seems to be a hunting accident, the kingdom waits for the Crown Prince to return from a pilgrimage to stabilize the land. But allies fear the King was assassinated, and that the Crown Prince is in danger, too. The player characters are hired, secretly, to mount an unofficial search for the Crown Prince, supplementing an official search. They must act quietly, though, because their actions could be mistaken for an assassination attempt.
The catch is that there is a conspiracy afoot, from the exiled relative of the late king! The PCs must reckon with multiple factions, with differing goals, in their quest to bring back the heir safely.
As I said, things are set up very simply: this is a well-written, but not a particularly memorable adventure! The adventure maps are quiet simple, easy to map and for novice players to navigate.
Most encounters take place in human settlements, and involve conflicts with humans, so DMs don’t need to figure out the rules for a lot of tricky monsters.
This is another one of those adventures that I wasn’t interested in when I was younger. I think I was only intrigued by adventures set in weird locales, with fantastic beasts! The strange and vague cover image didn’t help, but it does, in fact, represent a key scene in the adventure! The art on module covers did not always have anything to do with the content, so it is nice to know it matches.
I, however, had a lot more fun imagining an alternative title for the cover image, though!
Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook (1981). Let’s take a look at one of the oldest of old school D&D products next!
The D&D Basic Set was the second iteration of the D&D boxed set, the first of which came out in 1977. It was intended as an introduction to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which began publication that same year.
However, it didn’t quite work out that way! The Basic Rules became their own thing, and the 1981 Basic Set was followed the same year with the Expert Set, which allowed players to advance their characters using the same rules.
The 1981 Basic Set was my first introduction to the world of Dungeons & Dragons, and since a new version came out in 1983, I can trace my start in the world of roleplaying to about age 10-12! (Likely closer to age 10.)
I used this set so much, all the images and rules are pretty much burned into my brain! For example, there’s this image that accompanies the rules explaining how the dice work.
The sample character sheet is just adorable. A character named “Borg.”
One famous image is the one accompanying the explanations of alignments in D&D. Even without the text, one can figure out pretty easily how alignments work.
In the early days of D&D, one was expected to roll characters “straight,” using 3 six-sided dice for each stat, without any adjustments to make a character more of a hero. This required some rules for when those roles just didn’t work out at all.
(Of course, me and my friends just cheated and kept rolling up characters until we got one we liked.)
For those who wonder if it was even possible to survive original D&D at early experience levels, let me present to you the most useful spell: sleep. It turned deadly encounters into murder-fests of napping orcs.
One thing that has changed dramatically from the early days to today: an obsession with encumbrance, i.e. how much crap a character is carrying. We used to spend a lot of time calculating *exactly* how much stuff we were weighted down with. And I always remember this image of Morgan Ironwolf.
Many of the famous D&D monsters make an appearance here. Fun trivia: some of the strange monsters, like the rust monster, had their designs ripped off from plastic “prehistoric monster” toys that were sold at the time.
Here’s an image of one of those original sets, including what became the rust monster and what became the bullette.
The Basic Set Rulebook, unlike the AD&D rulebooks, contained ALL the game rules in one book: characters, monsters, magic, treasure. This image of a potion of gaseous form always stuck with me, especially considering that you would apparently be naked after the potion wore off.
One thing I really miss from those old D&D editions were the 1-2 pages of examples of play, to show readers how the game is supposed to work! They were quite charming.
The Rulebook also included a short snippet of a sample dungeon, to give DMs an idea how to plan an adventure. In a nice bit of consistency, the sample dungeon expedition shown above is a snippet of what happens after the PCs go beneath the Haunted Keep. Note that Morgan Ironwolf is a party member!
One last fun thing about the early books: the lists of source material that could be used to inspire adventures! One can see the origins of D&D in these lists.
One thing I only noticed today: one inspirational source listed in the D&D Basic Rulebook is my favorite horror author Ramsey Campbell, whose writing I would only discover years later!
I12: Egg of the Phoenix (1987), by Frank Mentzer and Jennell Jaquays. Here we have one of the forgotten masterworks of old school D&D modules!
I12 was the last great module of the I-series of adventures, which included greats such as I3: Pharaoh and I6: Ravenloft. The series went on for two more modules, but those were anthologies of short adventures, not a single story. I12 may have been intended to be the same, as it collects RPGA tournament modules R1-R4 by Mentzer, originally unrelated to each other. Jaquays helped stitch them together into one epic “super module.”
The result is one of the wildest rides in any published D&D adventure, I would say! Things start small, but grow in scope and follow some unpredictable twists and turns! What starts as a simple investigation ends with the PCs battling literal gods!
Some spoilers follow, so skip the rest of this entry if you’re interested in reading — or playing — Egg of the Phoenix yourself. But I have to share a bit about this module. It’s rare that I read an adventure module like a book and am genuinely excited to see where it leads!
The adventure is set in the kingdom of New Empyrea, and begins with the PCs hired to investigate the origins of slinks, passive magical creatures that are being sold as slaves throughout the land, and whose sellers are unknown.
The slinks are part of a plan by forces of Evil to corrupt the land, basically a fifth column lying in wait in the heart of the kingdom. The PCs disrupt the slaver base of operations, but several of the masters escape to cause later trouble.
The work of the PCs doesn’t go unnoticed. They are nearly assassinated the night they return to town, but don’t have time to rest — they learn that 5 potions of dragon control have been stolen by a vampire servant of Evil, and must be recovered immediately! This mission leads the players into a crypt, where they must contend with the vampire and his servants. The twist in this adventure is that they only have until dusk to act, before the vampire awakens and uses his potions on good-aligned dragons.
Surviving this event, the players learn that it was all a diversion — while the forces of good were distracted, the Egg of the Phoenix, a powerful magical artifact, was stolen from its resting place by darkness, and spirited away to a demiplane of death. This is where the module really starts to shine! There is no known portal to the demiplane in the present, so the PCs must travel through the Caves of Time to travel back to a point where a portal existed! Along the way, they’ll run into dinosaurs and prehistoric people.
But the real star is the demiplane Sepulchre, a five-mile diameter planet of the undead, covered in gravestones that constantly update with the newly deceased and orbited by a MALEVOLENT LIVING MOON. Check out that map — that’s the whole planet, in 20-sided polyhedron form, unfolded!
See that line down the middle? That’s the zone of destruction where the moon can launch a magical psychic attack upon any unwary living creatures that pass underneath it.
The demiplane Sepulchre is a really cool, imaginative, and creepy place! It is the highlight of Egg of the Phoenix, but the PCs troubles are not finished even after retrieving it from a guardian firebird.
(There’s a bit of unstated irony in the title of this adventure: the Egg is not an actual egg, but a magical item, and its guardian on Sepulchre is not a phoenix, but a different firebird.)
After retrieving the Egg, the heroes must return it to its resting place on Doc’s Island, the home of a legendary hero. Along the way, they are attacked by numerous forces trying to reclaim it. Once on Doc’s Island, they are treated to a hero’s welcome, and the Egg is seemingly secured. This leaves the PCs the opportunity to accomplish a quest on the island — trying to recover a paladin’s sword from a dangerous ruin. The sword is difficult to reclaim, but the PCs end up with new allies who can help, like a female titan! I love the somewhat comedic image here of the titan cradling a hero like a toy as she prepares to heal him.
Once they have the sword, however, they learn that the Egg is not yet safe! There are several unexpected revelations, followed by a desperate chase and a cataclysmic battle to secure the safety of New Empyrea once and for all!
Overall, Egg of the Phoenix is a wild ride. It can feel disjointed at times, but the clever imaginations and writing of Mentzer and Jaquays makes it work and ties everything together. It is rather nice that it is hard to predict where it is going! A number of heroes and villains recur throughout the super module, giving it extra continuity. Characters switch sides, turn traitor, disappear and reappear, even die and come back in really surprising forms! New Empyrea feels “lived in,” if very strange.
Incidentally, according to DriveThruRPG, Mentzer’s campaign world, including New Empyrea, was planned by him and Gygax to be incorporated as a continent east of Greyhawk. Gygax left TSR before this happened, though, and Mentzer went with him.
So Egg of the Phoenix is a real treat! I’ve been trying to get a copy for years, though they tend to be very expensive — now I know why. Fortunately, a friend getting rid of his collection sent me his copy!
Evil Ruins (1984), by Stephen Bourne and Martin King. As a last entry today, we take a quick look at another product in Mayfair Games’ Role Aids line, one which I (jokingly) consider to be my personal nemesis!
Why do I call it my nemesis? Well, the title is stupid and annoying as heck, but also: look at the dude in the artwork. He’s wearing JEANS. This offends me greatly, but the Role Aids line used artwork licensed from other sources. As I’ve noted in a previous post, this image originally was done for Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber, where it presumably made more sense.
What of the module itself? The PCs are hired to purge an ancient ruined castle of, well, its evil! They set out on a quest that first takes them through a sinister forest and finally to the castle, where they must break the spell of whatever corrupts it and the land.
The castle, incidentally, is named Tintagel, and the authors were inspired by the real Tintagel Castle in North Cornwall, which legend holds is the original site of King Arthur’s castle!
The adventure itself is quite straightforward, to be honest. The most distinguishing feature for the players is trying to uncover the horrible crime that led to the castle being cursed in the first place. They must piece together clues to solve the puzzle.
So, overall, Evil Ruins is a well-written, but rather mundane, adventure. Probably a good one for new DMs and players, but doesn’t hold a lot to challenge experienced groups!
Okay, that’s it for this edition of Old School Dungeons & Dragons! Lots more to come in a future post!