Here’s my latest wrap-up of twitter-posted old school Dungeons & Dragons threads! Going to post these more frequently, with fewer entries, because my last few posts were over 4000 words each! So without further ado…
The Dragonlance Game (1988), by Michael S. Dobson, Scott Haring and Warren Spector. Here’s a boardgame that was a huuuuge deal when it came out, but I was somehow unaware of until I saw a used copy come by recently! It probably wasn’t on my mind when I was a teen, as I was into RPGs, not board games.
The board game is based on the hugely successful Dragonlance novels and D&D modules that started in 1984 with the released of Dragons of Despair, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.
The Dragonlance adventures, as I recall, were partly created because TSR had noticed something big was missing from Dungeons & Dragons: namely, there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on the dragon part! Dragonlance brought all types of dragons front and center.
The board game clearly aimed to capitalize on the success of the series, and it is a huge, massive, beautiful undertaking: I love pretty games, and that made this purchase irresistible to me.
In the game, 2-6 players control one or more flights of dragons from the “good” (gold, silver, bronze) and “evil” (red, blue, green) sides, each trying to claim the Dragonlance and get it back to their home base.
A Dragonlance, BTW, is a powerful weapon that can easily kill dragons. Once a player has it, they have an advantage in defending themselves from those who would steal it away.
The combat system is innovative and simple: a player gets a random d10 of movement points to divide among dragons, including changing elevation. Attacks don’t do damage, but cause a dragon to lose elevation — hit level 0 and you crash!
Dragons can only enter a tower gate of their color, which is opposite to their starting position. This basically forces dragons to come into conflict along the way!
The rules are divided into basic and advanced, though both are really, really quick and easy to learn. In the advanced game, terrain features become important, and players take on individual characters and can acquire magic items.
In both basic and advanced games, players can acquire magic spells to use, from the D&D stable of spells. A low movement roll automatically gives a player a spell, to make up for having very little to do that turn!
The system is overall simple, perhaps a bit too simple, but a lot of interesting strategies come to mind while playing. And what other game allows you to fly around with a bunch of wee little dragon miniatures?
One thing I love: the boxed set was clearly intended to be a “flagship” item in the Dragonlance line. It comes with inserts that allow you to organize all the pieces, which does my little OCD heart good.
Though some uses of the box take precedence over others. This image from BoardGameGeek cracked me up!
I was curious to see how the game was advertised back in the day, and found this image from Dragon Magazine 136. You can see how the board design changed from concept to production.
GAZ13: The Shadow Elves (1990), by Carl Sargent and Gary Thomas. I pretty much ignored the long-running Gazetteer line in my youth, but now think that it is one of the most impressive works of old school D&D!
The Gazetteers examined in detail the world of Mystara, the setting of the Basic Rules D&D game. Mystara – the “Known World” – first made an appearance in X1: The Isle of Dread in 1981.
The setting was the creation of early D&Ders Lawrence Schick and Tom Moldvay, which they used for their own campaigns from 1974-1976. The Grand Duchy of Karameikos (1987) was the first Gazetteer released to provide official information on the world.
The Shadow Elves was one of the last Gazetteers released, after most of the Known World had been described in previous supplements. In fact, the land of the Shadow Elves lies underground, BELOW the “Broken Lands” on the map!
Despite the similar name and setting, the Shadow Elves are not like the Drow of the AD&D settings. First: they’re not (generally) evil. Second: they’re not dark-skinned. They are a tribe of elves forced underground by a massive cataclysm in the ancient past.
The elves were forced underground thousands of years previously, when a cataclysm destroyed the lands of Blackmoor and created a “Rain of Fire” that threatened all surface dwellers. Blackmoor was Dave Arneson’s original campaign setting retconned into Mystara’s past.
That cataclysm and rain of fire? That was caused by reckless experimentation with the power source of a crashed alien starship, which players could explore for themselves in module DA3!
The Shadow Elves took a long time to come back to the surface, because in their first attempt they went the wrong way and ended up in the dangerous “Land of the Red Sun,” i.e. the Hollow World campaign setting!
The Shadow Elves Gazetteer was in fact the first supplement to explicitly mention the new Hollow World setting, which was released that same year (and which I will talk about again in a future thread).
But how, you ask, could explorers get confused and go down to the Hollow World instead of up? Well, their capital city, the City of Stars, lies in a massive cavern in the gravity transition region between inside and out. The city is actually on the *ceiling* of the cavern! From the floor of the cavern, the lights of the city look like stars, hence the name.
But what about the elves themselves? The Gazetteer describes their culture, of course, which centers on the worship of the Immortal Rafiel, and focuses on an acceptance of hardship which is their fate living underground.
The Shadow Elves spend much time hunting for and harvesting soul gems, which their faith teaches them holds the souls of their past and future people. Shadow Elf Shamans can draw massive power from these soul gems to do incredible magic… but only underground.
As one might suspect, not everything is as it appears to be, however. The soul gems hide a secret, known only to a select few, and that secret is tied both to the magic of Glantri and the distant past of Blackmoor.
One thing I really love about these Gazetteers now is how they really do weave an intricate web of history, magic, and politics. Not all of it works or makes sense perfectly, but Mystara really feels like a world that is “lived in.”
In relation to the rest of the Known World, the Shadow Elves may be thought of as a sort of secretive ninja cult — a fanciful story to most people, but a deadly threat to those nations who stand in the way of their interests. The SEs have infiltrated most governments.
The Shadow Elves have a particular hatred for the Elves of Alfheim. When the SEs first realized that the upper world was safe, they attempted to join their brethren. But politics led to bloodshed, and now the SEs seek to destroy Alfheim through intrigue and claim their lands.
Overall, The Shadow Elves is another neat, detail-rich fantasy supplement. Rules exist for making SE characters, which is maybe one of the few ways to get a character who can ride a pterodactyl-like creature!
A Paladin in Hell (1998), by Monte Cook. The next selection is one of the last of the old school products, but ties back to some of the oldest!
This adventure is inspired by, and an homage to, the famous image of “A Paladin in Hell” done by Dave Sutherland and which appeared in the first edition Player’s Handbook.
That image instantly became a symbol of what a paladin stands for: fearlessly facing evil right in its very home, and an implied sacrifice of the paladin’s own life. But why is the paladin there in the first place? Monte Cook provided an answer to this question.
The adventure begins with the PCs invited to the funeral of the paladin Klysandral at the Temple of Neheod. But before they can arrive, the entire temple vanishes: sucked into the depths of the Nine Hells! Struggling to find an explanation for what has happened, and how to recover the temple, the PCs are contacted by the mysterious wizard Emirikol the Chaotic, a former companion of Klysandral, who invites them to his tower.
Emirikol the Chaotic is the subject of another compelling and classic AD&D illustration, which appeared in the 1st edition Dungeon Master’s Guide. In the adventure, he is described at last as an extremely powerful wizard who has dealt with demons and devils.
Emirikol offers the PCs the use of a magical ship that can take them directly to the location of the temple in Hell. The ship is itself a layer of the demonic Abyss in ship form, and the PCs must fight their way through it to exit at their destination. That trip through the bowels of the ship/demiplane of the Abyss is not easy, either, as this illustration of a big boi they will encounter shows!
The Temple they seek to rescue is underwater, beneath the River Styx in Hell. This is its own problem, as the Styx drains memories at a touch! So they need to use underwater devices… and watch out for sharks!
At last, the PCs must liberate the temple itself, which is the subject of a plot of both revenge against Klysandral and a power grab by a Duke of Hell. Klysandral’s spirit has defended the temple and his mourners tirelessly since its abduction, leading to the cover image!
The adventure is, overall, a rather straightforward one, IMHO. Historically, it is significant because it was one of the first Wizards of the Coast D&D products after they took over TSR. TSR had removed all mention of demons & devils from the 2nd edition of the game, replacing those terms with tanar’ri and baatezu in an attempt to placate religious right complaints. WotC wanted to bring demons & devils back in a big way, and Monte Cook was given the job!
It’s really a hoot seeing the classic images from 1st edition AD&D basically turned into canon. It shows how much every little bit of early Dungeons & Dragons influenced those of us who played it!
G1-2-3: Against the Giants (1981), by Gary Gygax. This one is a true oldie: one of the oldest, in fact!
This series, in its original form, was the oldest set of adventures published in module form by TSR. The three modules were published separately at first, with Steading of the Hill Giant Chief appearing in 1978. The modules are a trio of forays into the lairs of increasingly powerful giants: hill giants, then frost giants, then fire giants, with the goal of stopping their attacks on humans and figuring out what force is directing them from the shadows.
The modules are quite straightforward dungeon crawls — there aren’t a whole lot of clever traps and tricks, but a lot of fighting and mapping. And some amusing illustrations!
Gygax put a lot of work into laying out the whole giant’s living areas and organization, complete with servants and slaves.
It’s the little details that really make the adventure shine: like a table to randomly generate the contents of the giants’ bags! As a twitter friend commented: Gary Gygax really loved his tables.
The third module in the collection, Halls of the Fire Giant King, introduced one of the most famous D&D creations: the dark elves, or Drow. They are revealed to be organizing the giants’ attacks.
(The Drow were mentioned as legend in the Monster Manual, published in 1977. Turns out that was foreshadowing on Gygax’s part, as he also wrote that book.)
The PCs could pursue the Drow masterminds into the Underdark, in D1-2: Descent Into the Depths of the Earth…
… this culminated in fighting the Drow in their base in D3: Vault of the Drow, and then eventually doing battle with their evil spider goddess Lolth in Q1: Queen of the Demonweb Pits! Really, the very first modules released by TSR were also the first mega-fantasy campaign.
When Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR, they released a new edition called Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff, which included the original adventures plus additional linked content! This was released in 1999, as part of the TSR 25th anniversary.
Though the adventures are straightforward, they don’t have to be: in his intro to the adventures, Gygax suggests how the giants might prepare traps and counterattacks for the PCs when they return. It’s a nice peek at how he DMed himself.
PS I forgot to mention that the Giants series also appeared in the 1986 supermodule GDQ1-7: Queen of the Spiders, which combined all the aforementioned parts of the series.
Okay, that’s it for this round of old school D&D! More to come soon! I have some really wild products to share with you!
Great write-up! Especially the Dragonlance boardgame, and how it played.
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