Time for another compilation of my twitter OldSchoolDungeonsAndDragons threads! I’ve done 22 posts of these and still have tons of things to talk about.
To begin: a small riddle! What are these mysterious, faux-leather bound tomes, inscribed with the TSR logo?
Encyclopedia Magica (1995), compiled by Dale “Slade” Henson. They are volumes 2 and 3 of the Encyclopedia Magica, an ambitious project that consisted of four volumes compiling every magical item that was published for Dungeons & Dragons up to that date!
And I mean *every* magical item: there are likely a few exceptions, but they draw from every rulebook, module, and magazine article published by TSR!!!
It is really wild how many items there are: the books even cover different versions of items that appeared over the years, like Dust of Sneezing. And those aren’t the only dusts — there are many, many dusts alone!
There are many fascinating and super-specific items that you won’t find anywhere else, like the Elixir of Zorbo Fingers, which basically turns you into the Absorbing Man like the Marvel comics villain.
And check out explosive devices like this Dimensional Mine!
The books are really high quality, among the best that TSR produced during their existence. The faux leather covers are great! And they include lovely illustrations, many in full color. (And yes, that’s a ship that can sail underwater.)
A few years later, TSR released volumes of the Wizard’s Spell Compendium, with every wizard spell; however, the book quality wasn’t quite at the same level (or as fun) as the Encyclopedia Magica!
PS totally hoping to score volumes 1 and 4 at some point, but they’re reeeeally hard to find!
Divine Right (1979), by Glenn A. Rahman and Kenneth Rahman. This is honestly one of my “holy grail” products from TSR, so when I saw even a battered copy appear on Wayne’s Books, I knew I had to grab it!
Many old school gamers, including myself, only knew of Divine Right from seeing it advertised in the classic 1981 TSR catalogue.
As the description says, Divine Right is a board game, not an RPG — though it contains clever diplomacy rules that make it feel somewhat like an RPG.
One surprisingly forward thinking feature along the RPG lines: each player picks a leader for the game, and one can play either a king or a queen for each nation — and the choice has no effect on gameplay!
The goal, of course, is to conquer and defeat your neighbors. The conflict is waged on this gorgeous campaign map.
What really strikes me about Divine Right is how Game of Thrones-y it feels, long before the novels appeared. One can use diplomats to make or break alliances, enlist mercenaries or barbarians, kill other diplomats or even murder an enemy ruler! Here are some diplomacy cards.
Every country has tons of military units, represented by the cardboard cutouts that were standard at the time. Here are a few of them.
One can lay siege to the cities of one’s enemies, and if the siege is successful, any rulers present can be murdered and the city will be sacked, permanently losing its defensive bonus.
The game is divided into basic and advanced rules. In the advanced game, sinister magical clans can join in the conflict: The Black Hand and The Eaters of Wisdom. Each brings its own unique powers to the table.
The Black Hand, for instance, are necromancers, and can summon these absolute beauties. The Colossus is a great concept.
Like I said, diplomacy is key in Divine Right — you might bring another country into battle as your ally, only to find that another player has turned them against you at a key moment!
The game definitely has a roleplay feel to it, and this is reflected in the detailed description of the campaign world that is given in the rule book, of which the text below is but a sample.
The setting of Minaria was even expanded upon in detail in 20 articles that appeared in Dragon magazine, the first article appearing in The Dragon 34.
The game was only sold for a few years, but apparently made a lasting impression — a 25th anniversary edition was released in 2002 which made improvements on the original rules. The cover art, however, was not quite as spectacular.
Getting this game was very much a longtime goal of mine, and I was delighted to get even a beat-up copy to read and explore. One day, I may build up the courage to play such a rarity!
PS bad rolls for ambassadors could lead to horrific consequences: they could be burned at the stake by barbarians, or added to the stew by ogres!
Jakandor: Isle of Destiny (1998), by Botula, Donovan and Mohan. This is one of the late TSR era products, right as TSR was folding and being bought out by Wizards of the Coast. Apparently the setting was created by TSR icon Jeff Grubb, but the books were written by others. It is one of those products I had never even heard of until I found a used copy!
From the DriveThruRPG historian, Grubb pitched the idea before he left TSR in 1994. It was always intended to be a four-product limited run, to avoid adding to the problem of too many published campaigns that TSR already was suffering under. (As I understand it, part of TSR’s collapse was caused by being a victim of their own success. They had introduced so many campaign worlds that they had diluted their own customer base.)
But what is the Jakandor setting? It is basically a clash of cultures: the “civilized” Charonti, a magic-using necromantic nation, and the “barbaric” Knorr. The two groups are at all-out war for the island. The idea was really different for TSR: presenting a war where both sides are right… and both sides are wrong. The two cultures misunderstand each other and their intentions. The first two products, Island of War and Isle of Destiny, give each perspective.
Isle of Destiny explains the background of the necromantic Charonti and how to play a campaign from their side. Did I say necromantic? Yes — necromancy is accepted and normal in Charonti society!
A week ago or so, I saw a TikTok where the user posed the game question: is necromancy ever good? The Charonti seem to be geared to answer this in the affirmative. Moreover, necromancy is portrayed as a natural extension of the idea of ancestor worship — why not keep their physical form going? This necromancy is a big part of the hostility between the Charonti and the Knorr. In fairness, it’s hard to make a good first impression if you’re walking around with an animated corpse.
The Charonti society is based on magic. Their queen is even given a geas to rule fairly and justly (though the fantasy author in me thinks there’s a great story in how vague such a geas is and how it could be abused).
Isle of Destiny introduces a lot of mundane magic items that are available to pretty much anyone, stressing how magic permeates the society.
But although they Charonti worship magic, they don’t have a lot of powerful magic! A lot of familiar spells, such as fireball, aren’t even available at the start of a Charonti campaign! Why?
The Charonti were once a super-powerful magic society, but they ran into a problem: a wasting plague that could be spread through any spell or magic item. Thousands of years earlier, this plague decimated the Charonti and caused the collapse of their civilization.
The threat of the invading Knorr caused the warring remnants of the civilization to band back together, and now they seek to reclaim lost magical knowledge. Lots of dungeon explorations as Charonti would be hunts for old magic — a neat idea.
The book contains lots of character options, including one of the early uses of the artificer as a specialist wizard, before it became a class of its own in 3rd edition.
To make up for lots of spells not being available, there are new spells provided, lots of them focused on necromancy.
My favorite part, though, is the set of undead transportation machines! Yes, that’s a dirigible made out of the skeleton of a whale.
I should of course note that Isle of Destiny comes with an excellent map of Jakandor.
I don’t think Jakandor caught on much — probably lost in the flood of campaign settings and the crash of TSR — but it has some intriguing ideas!
Final Challenge (1984), by Matthew J. Costello. Here’s another one from Mayfair Games’ Role Aids line, which was introduced as an unofficial series of supplements for Dungeons & Dragons. (They had no permission from TSR to do so, but reasoned that they couldn’t be legally stopped.)
Role Aids products were often very good — I’ve talked about quite a few of my favorites in past threads. Final Challenge is different, in that it is a *solo* D&D adventure! You play it yourself, with no Dungeon Master!
The story is simple: you play as a fighter who is visited by a dead friend with a warning: a former colleague, Gwdion the mage, is raising an army to take over the land. You must go alone to stop him. (If you fail, an alternate character is provided to carry on the mission.)
The module is presented, in essence, as a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but with occasional dice rolling and combat! Based on your choices, you are guided through the book.
This approach was much more reliable than TSR’s own earlier attempts at solo adventures, using invisible ink (Maze of the Riddling Minotaur) or red cellophane encoded messages (Midnight on Dagger Alley). We’ll come back to those in future threads…
I was curious… so I actually “played” through the adventure. Except I didn’t do all the combats and dice rolling and just chose the results that looked interesting. And I found a surprisingly fun adventure!
You start by exploring a local town, looking for clues to defeat Gwdion. The different buildings are keyed to different numbered entries in the book. After a few investigations, you are directed to an automatic encounter with unfriendly town guard.
With your clues to the location of Gwdion’s tower, you are directed to the wilderness, and must explore — and fight — your way to your destination, following additional leads as they appear.
The adventure culminates at Gwdion’s tower. If you’ve amassed the right clues, you are treated to a very satisfying and clever victory. If you don’t have those clues, you’re in for a fight!
Final Challenge is a surprisingly fun time. I suspect that all these solo adventures were concocted to find a way to get people to play and buy *more* D&D, as everyone who plays knows how hard it can be to get a group together!
Okay, hope you’ve enjoyed this roundup of old school D&D products! More in a future installment!