Okay, time for a round of Old School Dungeons & Dragons, taken from my twitter posts! Things are moving a little slower due to the craziness of the world distracting me, but let’s look at a few classic items!
Cardmaster Adventure Design Deck (1993), by Rich Borg. One of the most fascinating categories of items in the pre-internet days is game aids, designed to help DMs run and organize adventures. The Cardmaster Deck is one that I hadn’t heard of until I saw it for sale recently.
So the idea of Cardmaster ADD, or CADD, is to be able to play quick, randomly-generated games of AD&D! Several options are provided for play: One can use CADD as a way to fill in a random dungeon for a traditional AD&D campaign, if one needs material on the fly, or one can use “quick rules” in the set, which provide a streamlined one-shot dungeon crawl experience.
Basically, two room templates are provided, at a size suitable for miniatures. One can add decor/doors/details based on the randomly drawn room card.
Three decks of cards are provided for the game: the room cards give layouts that can be randomly drawn to fill in a dungeon.
Monster cards present, of course, monsters that can be randomly generated for a room. Traps are included as part of the “threats” in the monster deck.
The treasure deck gives you your rewards for beating various monsters in game. (These can also include traps for the unwary.)
See the colored dots on the cards? The game is designed for characters of levels 3-5, and colors represent dungeon levels of varying difficulty. One can only get “red” treasures on a “red” level, for instance. This adds a bit of structure to the randomness.
A few scenarios are provided as overall quest objectives to motivate the adventure and determine “victory.” These are of the “rescue the prisoner,” “defeat the monster,” “find the treasure” variety.
This seems to have been TSR’s answer to games like Heroquest (1989), which allowed semi-random dungeon romps.
Overall Cardmaster was clearly a miss for TSR. Ahead of its time a little, perhaps, but also I think it was missing a bit of a creative spark to give it enough personality to stand out!
The Awful Green Things From Outer Space (1979), by Tom Wham. Let’s look at a product that isn’t a roleplaying product, but is closely tied to the early history of TSR!
Why do I include this in my old school thread? Because it first appeared in issue 28 of The Dragon, precursor to Dragon Magazine, in 1979, as an in-issue novelty…
And it turned out to be so popular that TSR published a boxed set the next year! After TSR stopped publishing it, Steve Jackson Games bought the rights and continued to publish it in numerous editions through the years.
The game is for two players: one of whom controls the crew of the exploration ship Znutar, and one of whom controls the awful green things, accidentally brought on board ship.
The game is a battle for control of the Znutar, with the crew trying to find an effective weapon to use against the green things, while the things attempt to multiply and overwhelm the crew. Here’s the board:
The twist, which makes the game different each play, is that the effects of weapons on the green things is determined randomly — a given weapon may hurt the green things OR CAUSE THEM TO GROW. The crew player has to hope they can find an effective weapon before it’s too late.
The game comes with a short comic and illustrations by Tom Wham, setting up a backstory and adding some humor to the whole creepy situation.
If the crew team is losing control, they can opt to abandon ship! Then there is a VERY random minigame that determines whether or not they make it home. The “winner” of the game is determined by a point system based on how many crew manage to survive.
The inspiration for the game is often apparently thought to be the movie Alien. However, as Tom Wham notes in the rule book, his inspiration was rather different: the cheesy 1968 movie The Green Slime!
Both game and movie feature scientists bringing a rock back to their spacecraft that turns out to be a rapidly multiplying, nearly indestructible organism. The movie poster makes the inspiration pretty obvious.
The movie also has the most bizarre theme song of any science fiction movie ever, as this edited video shows. The first time I heard this, I laughed my ass off for pretty much ten minutes.
Al-Qadim: Arabian Adventures (1992), by Jeff Grubb and Andria Hayday. This is one of the products that I bought way back in the day when it first came out, but never quite appreciated until I started doing these old school posts!
From the title, it should be obvious what Arabian Adventures is all about: introducing a Mideast fantasy setting for Dungeons & Dragons, which had long been largely centered on medieval Europe (though “Oriential Adventures,” published in 1985, was ahead of the game).
It was certainly long past due for the Mideast, with its rich history of fantastic tales, to get the fantasy RPG treatment. Early D&D was inspired in many ways by One Thousand and One Nights, so things in a sense came full circle!
(Fun trivia I just learned: two of the most famous tales in 1001 Nights, Aladdin and Ali Baba, were added in the 18th century by a translator who learned the tales from a Syrian storyteller.)
The Al-Qadim supplement introduces the basic details of an Arabian-like peninsula, The Land of Fate, for players to adventure in. They could create local characters, or import their “foreign” PCs. It was given an official location in the Forgotten Realms.
A big part of the book focuses on creating new characters. Players still choose from the four main archetypes – warrior, wizard, priest, and rogue – but could use special Mideast-flavored “kits” to make them fit the setting.
Such “kits” were introduced in the 2nd edition “Complete” handbooks, such as the one pictured here. They used nonweapon proficiencies and special abilities to give players more variety and PCs more flavor.
The Thief’s Handbook, for instance, reintroduced assassins as a kit, rather than a class. TSR, feeling the heat from rightwing religious groups, had purged mention of demons, devils and assassins in the basic 2nd edition rules.
Probably the most unique kit in Al-Qadim is the wizard class Sha’ir, who do not cast spells in the usual manner, but instead negotiate with higher powers like the djinn for their magical abilities.
(This class would anticipate, and maybe be the inspiration for, the warlock class in 5th edition D&D, where the magic-user gets their powers from communing with an “Eldritch Being.”)
Al-Qadim was clearly a major move for TSR, which is clear from the amazing full-color art that filled the book. For 1992, this was pretty amazing.
Overall, it is a pretty wonderful departure from grimy medieval times! I understand that originally it was only intended to be supported for two years, but its popularity made TSR extend it another year!
PS I should note that the authors play pretty fast and loose with genuine Islamic Era customs and culture. They note three major inspirations: actual history, fantasy stories like 1001 Nights, and absurd Hollywood interpretations of such stories!
PPS I have learned that “medieval” is one of those words that I can never spell properly on the first try.
PPPS I credit Andria Hayday as a co-author, because she is curiously credited with additional writing on the inside title page, but not on the cover!
X4: Master of the Desert Nomads (1983), by David Cook. This is one of the nostalgic favorites from my childhood!
This adventure was the first of two in the “Desert Nomads” series, which would culminate in The Temple of Death published later that same year. In an era before TV cliffhangers, this module left me desperate to see the conclusion!
The adventure is largely a desert wilderness adventure. The PCs start as reserve forces of the army of the Republic of Darokin, guarding a sleepy village while the main army fights invaders from the nation of Hule across the desert.
They are thrust into action when they rescue an agent of Darokin from assassination, who magically quests them to cross the desert, go through the Great Pass, and find “the Temple of Death,” whatever that is.
What makes the adventure stand out are the imaginative encounters in it! They must outwit an immaterial evil force that traps them in the swamps, must join a caravan across the desert and defend it from attack, and must even sneak through the advancing enemy army when it happens to overtake them!
They even find an ancient temple in the desert, where they can inadvertently awaken a sinister scorpion god, as shown on the inside cover of the module!
Manscorpions would become a bigger part of the D&D Mystara world, becoming an official race in the wild areas to the west, as discussed in the later Red Steel gaming supplement!
(And scorpion men are some of the earliest fantasy monsters in history, appearing for instance in the Babylonian version of the Epic of Gilgamesh.)
Once the PCs get through the desert, they end up at a seemingly safe haven where things are not quite as they seem, and they encounter folks like this fine fellow.
The adventure introduces a number of really lovely new monsters, including the creep in the previous image, an evil vulture man, and the aforementioned sinister swamp spirit. It does a good job of throwing unexpected surprises and challenges at players.
But it ends on a cliffhanger! Though the PCs are tasked with going through the Great Pass and seeking the Temple of Death, the module ends before even entering the pass! Both the pass and the Temple would be handled in the sequel, along with the evil land of Hule.
Curiously, when TSR started to publish the official Gazetteers of the world Mystara, X4 and X5 didn’t fit in “contemporary” times. The modules were officially set some 200 years ahead of the “present.”
The same applies to the only other module to handle the Great War, as it was called: Red Arrow, Black Shield (1985). This was a Battlesystem adventure that allowed PCs to lead large-scale battles against the Master of Hule. (I still have not read or played it.)
But I will always have a special fondness for the original Master of the Desert Nomads duology, X4 and X5! Very clever and imaginative adventures.
Okay, that’s all for today! Before I forget, let me give a shoutout to Wayne of Wayne’s Books, where I have procured a lot of classic stuff! He’s a trustworthy seller, and also blogs about these classics.