Old School Dungeons and Dragons: Part 20

Wow, have I been doing these threads forever? Yes, yes I have! The first one was in August of 2019!

Anyway, here are some more old school Dungeons & Dragons posts, compiled from my twitter threads.

Night Below, an Underdark Campaign (1995), by Carl Sargent. This one is a truly epic D&D product!

Night Below was billed as the “first epic campaign adventure for the AD&D game,” though that it certainly a bit of an exaggeration, considering the whole Against the Giants -> Queen of the Demonweb Pits series of modules. But Night Below may have been one of the first campaigns designed as a single product to take players from first level all the way to 10th level and beyond, and it is truly epic!

The Night Below campaign comes in three books: in “The Evils of Haranshire,” 1st level PCs arrive in the remote region of Haranshire and learn of a wave of mysterious kidnappings — and are almost abducted themselves!

Seeking out the kidnappers leads them to “Perils of the Underdark,” where they find that the kidnap victims are being taken into the depths of the earth. The PCs follow, finding new allies (and potentially enemies) along the way as they descend to a city of evil Kuo-Toa, who are assisting in the scheme.

Finally, the PCs track the ultimate destination of the victims, a city on the underground Sunless Sea. Here, they must launch attacks on the city’s evil masters and disrupt a plot that threatens the entire surface world!

The campaign is really designed for advanced players and DMs. For DMs, the book leaves a lot of Underdark encounters to fill in: there is no way for the PCs to level up enough to survive just with the main campaign events! In fact, lots of allies that the PCs meet will provide a constant reminder that they need to be smart and also build up their strength in order to take on the ultimate foes. (Though the book also stresses that PCs can go on an insane doomed attack *if they want*.)

The PCs are faced with a lot of dangerous challenges, but of the “strategy” variety, not the “tricks and traps” variety. Because they will be assaulting *two* cities filled with evil monsters, they need to plan careful hit-and-run assaults to wear down defenses but also be prepared for reinforcements to arrive and for the bad guys to adjust their strategy! (Another challenge that requires an experienced DM to run properly.)

Help is present, however, including a lost clan of underground elves that can manipulate stone! A major quest in the campaign is reuniting these Rockseers with their long-forgotten brethren on the surface.

And there are, of course, a lot of ridiculously dangerous fights to be had, though the rewards are well worth the dangers. This is a campaign where stockpiling lots of powerful magic items is essential.

The Underdark is really well depicted in this adventure: there are lots of twisting tunnels and often multiple paths to an objective, each with its own dangers, that gives players options. They can ‘choose their own poison,’ so to speak. The dangers not only include monsters but also natural hazards, like sharp rocks, dangerous chasms to be crossed, and more. The adventure is designed to really give the players the feeling that they are traveling miles and miles underground.

Night Below is a massive box set: it includes beautiful player handouts, area maps, Monstrous Compendium pages, and even battlemaps and paper tokens to use for strategic fights.

Here is a sample of some of the tokens…

… and here is a small sample of a map! One downside of this format: maps are not included in the books, so a DM will have to sit at a table to plan out how the adventure goes, and won’t be able to sit in bed and comfortably read everything in one book.

By the mid-90s, D&D was suffering from having too many campaign worlds: Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, Mystara. Night Below is designed as a “world agnostic” campaign, that can be stuck easily into any setting.

Overall, Night Below is an amazing D&D campaign! There’s lots of freedom for players to choose their own path through the adventure (for their own good or ill). I might be tempted to run a 5e modified version of it in the future.

PS I didn’t realize that this was one of writer Carl Sargent’s last RPG writing projects before he somewhat mysteriously withdrew from the field, cutting all connections. He passed away in 2018, but left a lasting legacy.

PPS it is worth noting that Night Below is clearly inspired by, and a modern reimagining of, Gary Gygax’s classic D series of modules, Descent Into the Depths of the Earth.

FRC2: Curse of the Azure Bonds (1989), by Jeff Grubb and George MacDonald. This next one is one I’d been eager to get ahold of for quite some time!

This module was part of the second entry in a grand experiment: releasing a related novel, videogame, and D&D module! The first experiment is most known from its videogame adaptation: Pool of Radiance (1988).

Azure Bonds began as a novel by Kate Novak and Jeff Grubb, also published in 1989. The computer game and D&D adventure are designed as a sequel to the novel, similar in structure but with some differences in the details.

This relationship is hyped significantly in the beginning of the printed module.

In the adventure, the characters are ambushed one night and knocked unconscious. They awaken with strange blue magical sigils tattooed on their arms.

The tattoos are magical bonds of control, put together by five powerful groups. The groups want to manipulate the characters to accomplish dangerous tasks for their own evil ends. The characters must find these groups and break their hold, one at a time. This makes the adventure quite entertaining, as the PCs often wander right into the trap while hunting their controllers, forcing them to fight the magical control — and possibly each other!

The maps of the adventure are quite strange. Here’s one; see if you can figure out what I mean.

Notice how blocky it is? All the adventure maps are like that! I’m guessing that they’re taken directly from, or heavily influenced by, the very crude maps of the video game, which could only handle very simple right angle buildings!

In the original novel Azure Bonds, a woman named Alias (which I believe is pronounced “ah-lee-ahss” instead of “ay-lee-ess”) wakes up with a similar set of bonds and no memory of her past or how she got them.

She has also been marked for control, and in the course of tracking down the markers, she makes new allies. In the end, the conspiracy is defeated, but a new group decides to test the bonds on a new group — the PCs.

All the main characters of the novels show up in the adventure, including Alias, and stats are provided for them.

Alias made powerful friends during her adventure, and its funny to read how she refers to the powerful wizard Elminster.

The adventure is a whirlwind introduction to an area of the Forgotten Realms that hadn’t been discussed much in that era, and is overall a pretty entertaining concept (outside of those annoying maps).

This was the last “triple-play” that TSR indulged in. The next “gold box” videogame, Secret of the Silver Blades, had no novel or module tie-in.

The story of Alias continued in the novels The Wyvern’s Spur and Song of the Saurials, which I read when they were released and enjoyed a lot!

Overall, Curse of the Azure Bonds is an interesting historical relic, showing the efforts of TSR to adapt to the changing landscape of gaming, which was becoming more computer-focused!

WGR6: The City of Skulls, by Carl Sargent (1993). This next one could be considered a true forgotten masterwork, as I suspect that most old school D&D players are unaware of it.

The City of Skulls is set in Gary Gygax’s original world of Greyhawk, still my favorite setting. Furthermore, it is set in the earthly empire of the evil demigod Iuz, who rules on the mortal plane, making it a fascinating and treacherous adventure.

The adventure is set after there was a major world-altering shakeup on Oerth: a war started by Iuz that eventually affected every nation on the planet.

Officially, the “From the Ashes” campaign setting was an attempt to revitalize Gygax’s campaign world, but I can’t help but wonder if this was partly a spiteful decision to trash the place, after Gygax had left TSR and started his own gaming efforts.

But anyway, the adventure: the characters are recruited by the Kingdom of Furyondy to rescue Earl Holmer, Knight Commander of the Shield Lands, who had been captured by the forces of Iuz and long thought dead. Recent evidence, however, indicates he is a prisoner.

The catch? He is being held in the dungeons of the capitol city of the Empire of Iuz! This city, Dorakaa, is known as the City of Skulls. The characters must wander right into the center of enemy territory and pull of an insanely difficult rescue.

In order to have any hope of success, the PCs must be as stealthy as possible and move very, very fast. The adventure stresses the need for many one-shot healing potions and scrolls. There won’t be much time to take an 8-hour rest to memorize spells anew.

The game introduces a fascinating point system for notoriety in Dorakaa: the more noise and trouble the PCs cause, the more likely they are to draw hostile forces to hunt them down. And as notoriety increases, the forces get more powerful. In fact, if the PCs are very reckless, they will draw the most elite of Iuz’s forces to them, and eventually cause Iuz himself to make an appearance. At that point, it is effectively “game over.”

In modern gaming, Notoriety would just be handled organically by a DM, but there’s a certain charm to having a rigid system of points. With this hanging over the PCs heads, they know that they’re not going to have any breaks from the DM if they are careless.

The adventure takes the characters through a number of twists and turns and tense situations. They end up wandering through part of the city to find a way to access the deepest part of Iuz’s dungeons, where their target is being guarded by fierce demons.

Provided they succeed, they will find their accomplishments ironic and bittersweet, in a way that I won’t spoil in detail here. But it’s neat how the adventure throws one final twist after extreme tension and peril.

The City of Skulls is an adventure designed for experienced players who know how to take full advantage of their abilities and magic. Novice and/or careless players will see their characters eaten up quickly in Dorakaa.

Oh, did I mention that the PCs can’t use magic to enter or exit the city? Because Iuz maintains a portal to the Abyss in the city, any attempt to teleport or plane shift within 20 miles has a high chance of dumping the party into the Abyss instead of their destination.

The City of Skulls was written to support an earlier product, WGR5: Iuz the Evil, also written by Sargent, which details Iuz’s empire. WGR6 gives DMs something to do with all the information given in WGR5!

Overall, The City of Skulls is a really cool adventure, and very different from your standard dungeon crawl fare.

The Art of the Dragonlance Saga (1987), by Mary Kirchoff (and, of course, the artists). It should be clear by this point that I have a fondness for the art as well as the gaming of D&D, and this next product is a wonderful treat in both respects.

The early art of Dungeons & Dragons was a mixed bag: a mixture of professional artists and whomever they could get to do some art for them. By the time the Dragonlance saga was created, however, they had a massive pool of talent to draw from.

Dragonlance itself was created, as described in the book, to fix an awkward problem: for a game called “Dungeons & Dragons,” it didn’t have many dragon adventures!

The new setting was created by Tracy and Laura Hickman, and it immediately drew excited interest from the art folks at TSR, who let their imagination run wild. Larry Elmore famously finished the first 4 Dragonlance drawings on a single weekend; one is shown below.

Dragonlance became a huge success for TSR, including adventures, boardgames, calendars, miniatures, and — for the first time — novels. The novels were bestsellers.

The Art of Dragonlance, of course, shares the art created for the series, including concept art and sketches, and tells some interesting behind the scenes tales of the creation.

Dragonlance, incidentally, was predicted by many to be a massive failure, because — again for the first time — it was strongly recommended that the pregenerated characters be used for the adventure. The prediction was very wrong, however, and the characters were very popular.

I really love art books for games, and get a kick out of the concept sketches. Larry Elmore, for example, worked very hard on designing a dragon saddle that would be practical and not inadvertently crush or kill the human rider in combat.

Something about Dragonlance really inspired the artists, and the art for the series really stands out. I will only share a couple of images here.

Dragonlance also introduced the death knight Lord Soth, and his design doubtless increased his popularity. He made the jump to Ravenloft for a number of years, so that players in all realms could appreciate his villainy.

Overall, another great art book! I’ve really come to appreciate the art of TSR as I’ve gotten older. And, FYI: most of these artists are still active and you can find prints of their work for sale online!

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Okay, that’s it for this edition! See you soon with more old school D&D!

This entry was posted in Entertainment, Fantasy fiction, role-playing games. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Old School Dungeons and Dragons: Part 20

  1. Dragonlance had some awesome artwork… That Beholder on the Greyhawk cover though. Wetting myself at it. It’s almost as bad as my concept sketches for my artists… and I mean ALMOST.

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