Time for more old school Dungeons & Dragons, compiled from the threads I post on twitter! Without further ado, let us begin:
Lords of Darkness, by Ed Greenwood et al. (1988). This is another one of those reference books that underwhelmed me as a teenager, but that I really love now!
Lords of Darkness, REF5, follows in the proud tradition of The Book of Lairs I (REF3) and II (REF4), published in 1986 and 1987, respectively. These books provided short little adventures that could be dropped into a campaign quickly and easily.
Lords of Darkness is basically an undead-specific Book of Lairs, providing 9 short adventures against various types of undead, from the weakest to the most powerful.
When I originally got this book in 1988, I was oddly unexcited about it. A reread today, though, shows this to be a lovely little supplement with some clever adventures providing a twist on undead encounters, which can get rather stale.
The first adventure, Skeletons, involves a natural necromancer who decides to get revenge on the acolytes of a temple that she feels wronged her. It basically turns into a Night of the Living Dead assault on the temple, but with skeletons!
The Zombies adventure is a curious one, in which the PCs encounter a necromancer who has fallen in love with a long-deceased hero and is determined to bring him back to life. She can be played as good or evil, depending on the DMs taste.
As that example shows, the adventures often try to shake up player’s usual expectations of the undead. The adventure on Mummies features the mummies of lizard-people, with a skeletal t-rex thrown in to shake things up! (This adventure was, unsurprisingly, written by the legendary Jennell Jaquays.)
New rules are provided for various undead, including the steps to become a lich! There are also crude rules for “sanity” ala Call of Cthulhu, and each adventure is combined with a cute little short story to highlight its featured undead.
The book concludes with “The Night Gallery,” which highlights each of the main villains of each adventure and gives them some personality. Here, for example, is Kendra the Mad, the natural necromancer in Skeletons.
Overall, the book is a really lovely attempt to give the undead a bit more personality and make them a bit more scary. I don’t know that it fully succeeds (cleric turning is still way too powerful), but it is a book filled with nice ideas!
Forgotten Realms Comic, by Jeff Grubb (1989-1991). Let’s do something a little different and look at one of the D&D comic book series!
Forgotten Realms was the third Dungeons & Dragons comic series licensed by DC Comics. The first was Dragonlance, and the second was Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The AD&D comic was set in the Forgotten Realms, and it served as a launching point for the Realms comic.
The characters include Priam Agrivar, who came from the AD&D comic, a paladin with past troubles with alcohol, Vartan Hai Sylvar, an elven cleric who worships the elven god Lebalas, Ishi Barasume, a fighter from Kara-Tur, Dwalimor Omen, a southern mage and captain of the magical ship the Realms Master, that can fly and teleport nearly anywhere, Foxilon Cardluck, Omen’s halfling rogue assistant, and Minder, a mysterious (at first) iron golem that possesses a soul.
The premise of the comic: Dwalimor Omen seeks out dangerous and evil artifacts throughout the Realms, in order to banish them from our plane to keep them from doing harm. The first four issues feature the “Hand of Vaprak,” with some familiar guest stars.
Yep, that’s Alias and Dragonbait from the Azure Bonds novels, which Jeff Grubb co-authored with Kate Novak. It appears that Grubb wanted to bring in his popular characters to give the comics an early boost.
The second four-part series was much more compelling, and featured the Realms crew trying to find out who has been murdering dragons and stealing their heads! Panic among the dragons might cause them to flee into the populated areas of the Realms, causing great destruction.
The evil magic-user behind the plot has been stealing dragon heads to use in a ritual to summon an all-powerful tarrasque, which the crew battles in the finale! (The comic didn’t last long enough for us to learn the identity of the masked wizard.)
After that, things get surprisingly dark. The comics tied into the Avatar trilogy of novels and AD&D adventures, which served as an official transition and explanation from 1st to 2nd edition AD&D! (And we will talk about later in this post.)
In the “Time of Troubles,” an unknown god steals the powerful Tablets of Fate from the Overgod Ao, causing Ao to banish the gods to the mortal plane until the tablets are returned. Vartan is targeted to be the host of his deity Labelas.
For brightly-colored comics, the events of the Time of Troubles are very dark. Labelas murders innocents with impunity, threatens to foist his attentions on Ishi, and manipulates the Realms crew into a truly insane plan.
Labelas’ plan? Use the Realms Master, which can fly between dimensions, as a literal battering ram to kill Helm, who guards the gates of heaven, and smash back his way to his home.
The crew manages to banish Labelas, but are unable to prevent Helm from striking their ship down, stranding them in the desert on the mortal plane. Minder was shattered by Labelas, and this leads to one of the most haunting end pages of a comic that I can recall.
The crew are utterly broken in mind and body, and things in fact get worse when they are rescued by human-eating were-cats. Fighting to survive brings them all a bit back to themselves, though Ishi ends up being the star of this four-part story.
Every character gets their chance to shine, and reveal their secrets a little. I’ve mentioned Agrivar’s alcohol addiction, but we also learn that Omen is dying of an incurable disease and that Foxilon is a former addict of a halfling drug. Minder is a former dwarven companion of Omen who suffered a fatal wound in an adventure, and Omen transferred her soul to a nearby iron golem.
The Forgotten Realms comic was used in turn as a launching point for the Spelljammer comic, introducing early on the winged rogue Jasmine, who would join the Spelljammer crew.
There seems to have been a lot of ambitious planning for the D&D comics, but alas they would not last. It’s not clear what happened, but I’m guessing they simply weren’t popular enough for DC to maintain the license.
The Realms comic managed to end in a touching and satisfying way. During a wake for their destroyed ship, Vartan is approached again by Labelas, now a full god again and restored to sanity.
He wishes to make amends, but Vartan refuses to even acknowledge him unless he grants wishes to each member of the crew, as he has wronged all of them. Labelas reluctantly agrees, only to find that almost nobody will take the easy divine solution to their problems.
But the fact that Labelas even tried suggests to Vartan that Labelas has learned a bit about compassion for mortals, and though their relationship is not healed, they part for the moment on more amiable terms.
I had a lot of fun reading the D&D comics again! They weren’t perfect, but they had some standout moments that have stuck with me through the years. (Minder’s head begging for help in the desert, yikes.)
The Complete Book of Humanoids, by Bill Slavicsek (1993). Time for another one of the 2nd edition character expansion books, and this one was groundbreaking!
It is also a bit timely, as Wizards of the Coast recently released Monsters of the Multiverse, which provides a significant expansion of the number of playable character races!
(The Monsters of the Multiverse cover is inspired by the 1987 cover of Manual of the Planes, but that’s another story.)
The Book of Humanoids was the first major supplement to allow AD&D players to play something other than one of the ‘big five’ races: human, elf, dwarf, halfling, half-orc. It recognized that these creatures are not necessarily one-dimensional villains.
(Presumably there were Dragon magazine articles that allowed playing monsters, but it wasn’t an “official” rules supplement.)
The variety in the BoH is quite impressive, ranging from familiar enemies like Bugbears and Gnolls to more exotic options like Centaurs and Ogre mages.
One striking option is the Wemic, which is basically a lion centaur. This color image is one of the impressive full-color pages in the book.
A stranger option is the Swanmay, which is basically a seemingly ordinary human who can turn into a swan!
Bringing humanoids into a campaign could be a challenge, since most are considered adversaries. The book provides a number of scenarios where a regular party could incorporate a humanoid, such as the party saving the humanoid, or vice-versa.
One particularly challenging choice is the Mongrelman, essentially a cursed hybrid of a bunch of other races and species. This race is guaranteed to run into a lot of trouble trying to hang out in demihuman society.
The BoH also includes special character kits for humanoids, such as the Mine Rowdy, who specializes in underground combat.
The Complete Book of Humanoids seemed like a pretty big deal at the time, and it was — it was the first step for D&D to become more creative, more complex, and even more sympathetic!
The Avatar series (1989), by various authors. This one is a biggie: a massive multi-adventure campaign that had tie ins to books and comics (mentioned earlier)! No, this isn’t about the blue aliens, or the boy who can control the elements. The Avatar trilogy was created to answer a question that most people didn’t ask: how to explain the transition from first edition AD&D to second edition?
The answer? An epic storyline that would shake up the pantheon of gods, change the rules of magic, and transform the existing character classes. And this epic trilogy was given the names… of towns in the Forgotten Realms: Shadowdale, Tantras, and Waterdeep.
This already seems like an odd choice of titles for epic adventures, and as a young man I didn’t even notice them. They seemed like supplements describing the cities, not adventures! The modules got their names from the companion novels.
Here’s where things get wild: the adventures hew super-closely to the novels, so closely in fact that they are probably the most “railroad” D&D adventures I’ve ever seen.
So, the background of the adventures: a god has stolen the Tablets of Fate from the Overgod of the Realms Ao, and as punishment Ao has banished the gods to the mortal plane until the tablets are returned.
This banishment means that a lot of half-crazed deities are wandering the Realms, and that magic has gone haywire. Any spellcaster has a significant chance of having really significant blowback in casting.
The first adventure, Shadowdale, really plays as an introduction to the chaos in the Realms caused by the fallen gods. It also gives an introduction to several key NPCs, who cannot be killed under any circumstances, because they are key to the whole adventure.
One of these is a mysterious spellcaster named Midnight, one of the only casters who seems to be able to control her spells.
Another is Cyric, who begins as an ally but turns to evil as he is seduced by the possibility of becoming a new god himself.
Shadowdale is really a sequence of connected events. Along the way, the characters meet the avatar of the Goddess of Magic, Mystra, and accompany her as she attempts to force her way back into the divine realm, and is slain by its guardian, Helm.
Eventually, the characters meet Elminster (the famed wizard of the Forgotten Realms), who explains about the missing Tablets of Fate, and basically tasks the adventurers to recover them.
This first adventure culminates in Shadowdale, as the characters must lead a defense of the city against Bane, the evil god of terror and oppression. Bane is repelled by the end, but Elminster is apparently slain in the process (again: the whole thing is a railroad).
In the second adventure, Tantras, the PCs are accused of killing Elminster, and must break out of prison (again accompanied by Midnight and Cyric). Here the railroad is almost literal, as half of the adventure is just floating down the river towards Tantras!
Here’s an example of an encounter. The PCs are floating along and see an ambush up ahead that they must escape. The players spend more time reacting to events than acting of their own accord.
The adventure Tantras culminates in the PCs collecting one of the Tablets, and ringing a magical bell that tips the tide of battle between titanic avatars of Bane and Torm in Torm’s favor. Bane is finally destroyed.
Finally, in Waterdeep, the players travel to the titular city in search of the second Tablet of Fate. Along they way, they encounter many more choreographed encounters.
In this adventure, they help in destroying another god of evil, Myrkul, the God of Death. Bhaal, the Lord of Murder, is also slain “off camera,” leading to the end of the group (with Bane) known as the Dead Three.
Finally, the PCs manage to get the second Tablet, and bring them to the Overgod Ao himself, ending the Time of Troubles.
In the end, Midnight is revealed to hold some of Mystra’s essence, and she becomes the new Goddess of Magic. Cyric, for all his evil efforts, becomes the new Lord of Death (though it is implied this is really a curse, not a reward).
So what’s with all the dead gods in these adventures? There were at least two motivations. One: people had complained that there were too many gods in the Forgotten Realms pantheon, and this was an opportunity to clean it up. Two: D&D was still trying to clean up its image after the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s. One major change was to remove the assassin class from the 2nd edition. The deaths of Bane, Bhaal and Myrkul was used to explain the absence of the class in the new rules.
Many people (like me) were also still using Gary Gygax’s original Greyhawk campaign setting, incidentally, and a different adventure, Fate of Istus, was used to explain the transition for that campaign world.
(I’ll probably say more about Fate of Istus later. For now: Istus decides to test the inhabitants of Oerth, making a test for each character class. But the tests end unexpectedly before assassins are tested, wiping their class from the rules.)
All told, though, the Avatar Trilogy of adventures is the most railroad-y set of adventures I’ve ever seen! The PCs have little effect on the overall course of events, and are really just carried along for the ride.
I guess, though, some folks might enjoy these adventures just for the opportunity to “witness” the major changes for the Forgotten Realms with their own characters?
Okay, that’s it for this edition of Old School Dungeons & Dragons! Tune in again soon for more D&D goodness.
PS almost forgot to mention that of course Elminster didn’t die after all