Old School Dungeons and Dragons: Part 19

Have I really done enough twitter threads of old school Dungeons and Dragons to fill 19 posts? Yes, I have, and there’s more to come!

Let’s jump right in…

The Book of Lairs (1986), by Jim Ward and Michael Breault. This next product was a big deal when it first came out, as I remember!

The Book of Lairs served as something somewhat new for TSR: instead of a single adventure, the volume contained over sixty mini-adventures that could be inserted into a campaign on relatively short notice.

(I should say that this was somewhat new for TSR, but not for D&D: the 1979 Book of Treasure Maps by Jennell Jaquays published by Judges Guild had five really nice mini-scenarios.)

The Book of Lairs, however, is really designed to allow quick drop-in adventures, giving suggested levels, terrain type for the adventure, and multiple ways the PCs can be brought into it.

The encounters range from rather simple fights to things that are quite… intense. The most infamous is the one pictured below. The “876” is the number of undead you face in the encounter. Twelve of them are liches.

Personally, I find the scenarios rather hit-or-miss. There are some rather bland ones, and others that are quite unusual. In the latter, for example, is an encounter with a man who has trained a LOT of animals as his guards.

But it is overall a really nice volume, and good for sparking new ideas, even for gaming in 5th edition today! I’ve been pondering modifying some scenarios for my own use.

Each adventure is 1-2 pages, and very few of them come with maps. But there are a handful of scenarios with maps included, such as an adventure where the PCs must help a village defend itself against a horde of brigands, “Magnificent Seven” style.

The book was successful enough that a Book of Lairs II came out in 1987, with a larger roster of writers. Unsurprisingly, considering her role in The Book of Treasure Maps, Jennell Jaquays was one of them!

PS the idea is still around! Kobold Press has released a “Book of Lairs” for 5th edition D&D play, and the scenarios are quite good.

DL1: Dragons of Despair (1984), by Tracy Hickman. This is one I suspect a lot of people have been waiting for!

I’ve hesitated to do a thread on the Dragonlance series of modules, because they are truly epic: there were 14 modules in the original storyline (plus two extra sets of mini-adventures at the end of the series)!

As I recall, the Dragonlance series was created in part to fill a curious absence: for a game called “Dungeons & Dragons,” it featured a lot of dungeons but not as many dragons! The original idea was conceived by Laura and Tracy Hickman in 1981 as they traveled to Wisconsin for Tracy to take a job at TSR. Once they arrived, they found the idea meshed with Gary Gygax’s idea for a series of adventures each of which featured one of the major dragons.

Dragonlance became the first D&D adventure series to be coupled with a series of novels, to be written by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman.

Dragonlance is more than a series of adventures, however: it is a new fantasy world, distinct from the Greyhawk setting that early players of D&D were familiar with. By the end of the series, a rich history and culture of the world of Krynn would be revealed.

The world was deliberately designed to “shake things up.” With its history of dramatic upheaval, there is no standard of currency in Krynn. Gold, in fact, is typically useless! Also: at the adventure’s start, clerical powers have not been seen for 300 years.

Dragons of Despair begins with this idea — the characters have reunited after spending 5 years searching for any hint of the true gods, and not finding any. Their discussion is interrupted by some evil nasties looking for a mysterious staff…

The first baddie they meet — Fewmaster Toede, a loathsome hobgoblin — would survive to become a regular antagonist in the series of modules, and eventually the star of his own novel.

After this first encounter, the characters meet a mysterious woman named Goldmoon who carries the staff the baddies seek. But they also encounter the advance of a new army of dragon-like humanoids, and they must flee towards the ruins of an ancient city, Xak Tsaroth…

In this ancient city, they will bring the first light of the good gods back into the world… if they can survive an encounter with Khisanth, an ancient black dragon!

The ruined underground city itself has one of the most beautiful maps ever produced for D&D, an isomorphic map showing multiple levels, from the surface to the deepest depths! This was the start of an isomorphic map trend in D&D adventures.

Like many adventures before it, Dragons of Despair contains pregenerated characters. As the Dragonlance series progressed, however, these characters became less optional and ended up integral to the overarching story.

In DoD, the pregenerated characters are presented as an option; very quickly, however, the modules stop even pretending that it makes sense to use any others!

The Dragonlance adventures introduced a new class of monsters — draconians — which are dragon-like humanoids that serve as the army of the Dragon Highlords, who act under the direction of the Dark Queen Tahkisis (basically Tiamat)!

An image of some draconians can be found on the Dragonlance wiki. These draconians harbor a dark secret, which also ties to the absence of good dragons in the world as the series unfolds.

And what about the title, “Dragonlance?” The dragonlances are a series of ancient weapons that can slay dragons, and end up being key to defeating the armies of darkness!

In Dragons of Despair, though, there is only a hint of the epic adventure to come. But it is a beautiful, detailed, and haunting adventure well worth playing. It even includes music — the Song of Goldmoon!

Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998), by Bruce R. Cordell. This is an infamously dangerous adventure, and one of the toughest in D&D history!

Return to the Tomb of Horrors was one of a series of nostalgic returns to classic modules published by TSR in its waning days before being taken over by Wizards of the Coast. This also included returns to White Plume Mountain and Keep on the Borderlands.

RToH, of course, focuses on the most infamous dungeon in all of D&D: the Tomb of Horrors, first published in 1978. The original tomb is a stunningly deadly deathtrap dungeon where players push to find the hidden lair of the demilich Acererak.

RToH takes place decades after the tomb was first presumably discovered, and multiple adventuring parties have met their doom within. But it is revealed that Acererak’s tomb is only the first stage of a diabolical test to sift out the most powerful characters!

The adventure starts with the PCs hanging out in a tavern (of course). A fog descends on the town, filled with murderous undead, and the PCs learn that such outbreaks of undead are becoming more common. They pledge to track down and stop the source.

The trail inevitably leads them towards the original Tomb of Horrors. But on the way, they meet retired adventurers who were permanently scarred by their brushes with the Tomb, and those were the lucky ones. Some lovely mood-setting foreshadowing.

(A few general spoilers provided about the rest of the adventure, so skip ahead if you think you might try and play it sometime.)

When the players arrive at the original Tomb, they find the area is no longer deserted. It has become a pilgrimage site for necromancers, and an elaborate “Skull City” has been built around it. The first challenge is to infiltrate this massive city and the Black Academy inside.

Then the kicker: the PCs learn that there is a secret path *beyond* the tomb that can be accessed directly from the entrance. However, to access, this secret path, they must traverse the *original* Tomb in its entirety to get the item they need to open this path!

The original Tomb of Horrors is reprinted in its entirety in the RToH boxed set, because the DM must run them through it. If they survive, and get the item they need, they can progress to the next stage of Acererak’s deadly playground…

Did I mention how deadly everything is in RToH? There is a mix of combat and traps in this sequel, though both are exceedingly deadly, and merciless. One early encounter, for instance, has the PCs ambushed in camp by vampires. The vampires might kill 1/2 the party before stopped.

Past the original Tomb, the PCs end up in my favorite part of the adventure: The City that Waits (whose official name is Moil). Moil was an advanced but decadent city on a distant world that worshipped the demon lord Orcus. The hubris of the Molians grew with their power, however, and they turned to worshipping the sun instead of Orcus. In retaliation, Orcus put the entire city under a magical sleep, where they would only awaken when exposed to the light of the sun. But in a demonic twist, Orcus then moved the entire city to the Negative Energy Plane, which produces undead. In its eternal night, the Molians all died in their sleep, and became unique and exceedingly deadly undead.

Acererak found Moil to be the perfect place for his second round of deathtraps, and magically preserved a number of towers to populate with terrors. The PCs must survive this area and unlock its secrets to move on.

Part of the diabolical brilliance of the adventure is that many of the puzzles and traps are instantly deadly, but they absolutely *must* be navigated in order to proceed. Wits and careful movement are essential to survive.

There are also many opportunities to do “good” things, such as acts of mercy. Some of these will be beneficial to the party, whereas others will blowback on them in a spectacularly horrific fashion. It is almost impossible to know which is which.

But The City that Waits is not a place for PCs to wait around. They will be stalked by the restless undead residents of that cursed realm, leaving them with little opportunity to rest or collect their thoughts. Below is just one of the beasties that can wipe out a careless party.

Succeeding in The City That Waits allows players to move on to Acerak’s final lair, the Fortress of Conclusion. There they find even more deadly traps (more like the original tomb), and find themselves the potential final victims in Acererak’s latest diabolical scheme!

One of the great things about the ending: assuming the PCs survive the final battle (a big “if”): they are faced with a pretty difficult moral choice that has been implications for the future. Sort of Acererak’s last laugh.

So RToH is almost *four* Tombs of Horrors altogether! Skull City, the original ToH, The City That Waits, and the Fortress of Conclusion. It would be amazing if a party managed to make it through this at all, much less intact.

A nice closing touch: all the book illustrations feature the same characters facing off against Acererak’s horrors. The final illustration pays tribute to those who made it and those who didn’t.

This would not be Acererak’s last stand, of course. He would reappear again in the 4th edition sequel, Tomb of Horrors, and again in the 5th edition Tomb of Annihilation! Note the face of “The Devourer” on each cover.

Giants (1987), by Bruce Humphrey. Role Aids produced a lot of intriguing and imaginative products for D&D.

I’m a big fan of Role Aids, which were unauthorized supplements for D&D, published without TSR’s consent. Some of them are quite good, and even those not-so-good have interesting ideas.

A lot of their publications were seemingly “generic” supplements, but which often contained a wealth of ideas! I’ve talked about “Undead” before, which features an entire nation taken over and ruled by the undead!

“Giants” gives us a whole fictional history of all the giant races, and detailed descriptions of 12 types of giants, their allies, their enemies, their magic, and their lairs! There are many familiar giants from the Monster Manual, but also new types that only appear here.

For example: the Titans are the progenitors of all giant races, and the largest, most powerful, and most advanced. Their civilization fell, however, and now they are very rare.

Another new group are the Chaos Giants, former Titans twisted by evil forces! They can cast a lot of spells and strike fear into those who face them.

As I said, many of the giant types also list their most dangerous enemies. In the case of Forest Giants, they have to content with ravenous rampaging swarms of red caterpillars, called the Red Devastation!

The homes of each giant type is unique as well! Frost giants dig burrow homes deep into active glaciers.

For some reason, the Forest Giant description includes an image of a giant squirrel, which I include for no other reason then: giant squirrel.

The enemies of the giants are often quite intense! Whereas the Forest Giants deal with the Red Devastation, the Ocean Giants deal with the Leviathan, which is so huge that nobody has ever seen it in its entirety, only its swarms of deadly tentacles!

Oh, wait, I mean they’re “Sea Giants.” The artwork is quite lovely in this book, and comparable to or exceeding comparable stuff published by TSR at the time.

My favorite new giant, however, is unique: the Death Giant. There is only one of them, and it exists simply to take the lives of all the other giant types when their time comes. It is extremely dangerous to any living creature, but its touch is instant death for any giant.

With the Death Giant, I am struck by how very old school mythological a lot of the Role Aids supplements are. They bring some delightful bizarreness to fantasy RPGs, like the “Dragons” supplement, which describes how dragon dreams can change the weather!

The book also allows for players to make giant characters, if they want! Of course, thanks to the power of giants, by old D&D rules one was severely limited in how high of a level the character could achieve.

The book even provides an eerie setting for adventure: a largely abandoned city of the giants! Its lower circles are still used for occasional meetings, but the upper circles are cursed and filled with danger… and nobody has ever returned from them!

“Giants” is not considered one of the best of the Role Aids supplements, but like all of them, it provides more ideas and atmosphere than its bland title would suggest!

Reverse Dungeon (2000), by John D. Rateliff and Bruce R. Cordell. So here I’m really stretching the “old school” criteria, which I’ve usually reserved for 1e and 2e TSR D&D products, and Reverse Dungeon is one of the first Wizards of the Coast D&D products (though still 2e). But it’s so cool, we’ll make an exception!

In Reverse Dungeon, the players take on the roles of the monsters for once, defending their lair(s) against rotten trespassing adventurers! In level 1, they play members of a goblin tribe, in level 2, monsters guarding a lich’s trove, and in level 3, undead guardians of the lich!

In level 1, the players are pretty powerless goblins. They’ll have to work together carefully to repel and defeat intruders. Direct combat isn’t as safe as setting traps and otherwise being sneaky.

It’s nice to see that this adventure was already showing a more inclusive approach to gaming. Though goblins are typically depicted as a male-dominated society, players and DM are encouraged to ignore this notion and do whatever makes everyone have the most fun.

Level 2 is my favorite! In the lich’s museum of treasures, the players can play some of the most iconic monsters of D&D, protecting rare, unusual, and genuinely fun magical artifacts.

My favorite of the artifacts? A complete set of magical teeth! Each tooth provides a specific magical power, though one has to be careful, because some teeth have some VERY bad side effects. A humanoid can socket in as many teeth as they dare.

The monsters are all given fantastic backstories, which can be changed if the players like, though they are absolutely delightful. My favorite is the anti-paladin, hiding out in the dungeon after her scheme to steal a throne backfired!

On level 3, which is the lich’s inner sanctum, the players take on the roles of his undead guardians. The invading characters are also more powerful, so care must be taken to survive… or whatever undead do that is equivalent to “survive” for the living!

As one example of the delightful backstories of the bad guys the players play, this one cracks me up!

The “heroes” also have backstories and personalities. After fending off the heroes, the players can take the fight to the source: raiding the local village and monastery!

Reverse Dungeon seems like a very challenging adventure to run: the DM has to be very proactive for once, planning out the assault on the monster’s lair! But it seems really fun to try, and I may use it as a filler one of these days when I’m DMing!

PS one of the cool things about Reverse Dungeon is really forcing the players to get into the minds of the enemies they usually face. It’s good for the players and the DM to ask themselves: why do the “bad guys” do what they do?

PPS the co-author of Reverse Dungeon and many other amazing adventures, @BruceCordell, is on twitter and also has a Patreon, so be sure to check it out!


Okay, that’s a wrap for this edition! More soon!

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