Old School Dungeons & Dragons: Part 27

Keeping up my epic long-running series looking at classic Dungeons and Dragons of the TSR era!

The Complete Book of Necromancers (1995), by Steve Kurtz. This one is a rarity, and relatively pricey! I finally sucked it up and ordered myself a copy.

This one is curious: it is a book dedicated to a character class, but is not part of the PHBR (Player’s Handbook Rules) series, but instead part of the DMGR (Dungeon Master’s Guide Rules), featuring a blue cover instead of a brown, like the Fighter’s Handbook.

There were two reasons for this difference. The “official” stance is that a player running a necromancer character would be too powerful and unbalance the game, and thus such characters should be “in general” be limited to the Dungeon Master.

The unspoken second reason is again the Satanic Panic of the 80s that targeted D&D as a source of demonic evil! In the second edition AD&D, TSR eliminated explicit reference to devils and demons and removed the assassin class to try to blunt controversy and clearly, they didn’t want to make the religious scolds think they were encouraging children to dig up corpses!

Certainly, though, the restriction against playing necromancers was done with a nod and a wink, and complete detailed rules for necromancers were provided.

As in all the 2nd edition rules expansions, subclasses were provided, such as the anatomist, who focuses on understanding the body with magic.

Even in the subclasses, you can see tacit approval of player character necromancers. The Deathslayer, who hunts down and destroys undead, is much more of a heroic type, and is even likened to Batman!

Along with new subclasses, the necromancer has access to new, death related, skills, such as the intriguing Netherworld Knowledge.

A necromancer practicing their art will inevitably draw the attention of a dark power, who may seek to make a pact with the mage and/or bestow sinister gifts upon them.

Necromancy comes at a price, however, and necromancers will pick up illnesses, compulsions and curses as they progress in their field.

New spells are, of course, also included. My favorite is the horrifying bone blight, which causes a person’s bones to dissolve over the course of days, leaving them a puddle of dead fleshy goo if not treated!

The book is not just about magic-users; there are chapters dedicated to death priests, who worship gods that cover the domain of death. They have their own new spells and abilities.

Of course, it would hardly be a D&D book if it didn’t include some new magic items!

The back of the book includes a mini-campaign to ease both players and DMs into dealing with necromancers: an island that is home to a handful of necromancers that the PCs can fight or bargain with.

Some of these “Necromancer Kings” are frighteningly powerful! Vermissa, the most powerful, is a level 24 lich priestess, and can present a challenge to even the most powerful parties!

Original copies of The Complete Book of Necromancers are hard to find these days, but you can probably see why: a huge amount of material on one of the most unusual and compelling character types in D&D!

For Duty & Deity (1998), by Dale Donovan. Here’s one of the late stage TSR products!

The plot is intriguing, and why I needed to read it: it is a mission to rescue a literal goddess, namely Waukeen of the Forgotten Realms, who is trapped by the Demon Lord Graz’zt!

A little background is needed: you may recall from previous posts that TSR introduced a major universe-shaking event to mark the transition to 2nd edition AD&D, and in the Forgotten Realms this was the “Avatar” series. In that series, some evil gods steal the Tablets of Fate, and that sends the Overgod Ao to banish all the gods to the mortal world until the tablets are returned. Most did not take well to this.

This was also an opportunity at the time for TSR to clean up the massive number of deities that they had in the Forgotten Realms pantheon, with a number of gods dying or disappearing along the way. Waukeen was one sacrificed.

Waukeen was originally a player invention in Jeff Grubb’s original D&D game, and based on a character that worshipped the Walking (“Waukeen”) Liberty Half Dollar. When helping with the Realms, Grubb added the deity to the pantheon.

In sources released soon after 2nd edition, it was suggested that Waukeen had been destroyed during the Time of Troubles. But by 1996 a retcon had been introduced, suggesting that she had instead been captured by a Demon Lord.

The full story, introduced in For Duty & Deity: Waukeen wanted to get back to her realm, but nobody with godly power could pass into the divine realms. So she entrusted her powers to her goddess friend Liira, allowing her to be smuggled home.

She then made a deal with the Demon Lord Graz’zt, giving him the location of lots of treasure hordes, in exchange for safe passage through his realm on the Abyss and to the divine realm. Of course, as a Demon Lord, Graz’zt welched on the deal, and took her prisoner.

Graz’zt’s plan was not well-thought out, but he reckoned that in time he would figure out a way to trick Liira into inadvertently passing along Waukeen’s godly powers to one of his disciples. So he held her prisoner and waited for the right opportunity.

Enter the players! A priest of Waukeen (who still exist, because Liira gives them divine powers) has visions of the Lady of Trade being held in a demonic place. The likely location is found, and the players are hired to go rescue her.

The players take the Infinite Staircase, which bridges all the planes of existence, as a passage to Graz’zt’s realm. This ends up being a deliberate crossover with Tales from the Infinite Staircase, a Planescape product released around the same time.

After some hijinks on the staircase, the PCs end up in Azzagrat, Graz’zt’s realm. There are some nice descriptions of the realm and its major cities and its mind-boggling geometry.

(Incidentally, I can’t help but think that the designer was inspired by the mathematical concept of a Riemann surface in complex analysis: a multiply-connected, multi-level surface.)

For me, sadly, the rest of the adventure doesn’t live up to its premise. Once in the demon realm, the PCs end up largely wandering, asking around various demon towns until they finally get a hint of where Waukeen is held.

It is quite inferior compared with The City of Skulls, a Greyhawk adventure that is a nail-biting journey into a demigod-held land to rescue a nobleman. In that adventure, there are many more opportunities for the players to be really clever (or really screw up).

The realm of Graz’zt does have some nice touches. The River of Salt flows through it, a literal river of salt crystals that somehow flow and will grind to pieces anyone who accidentally falls within.

Graz’zt, incidentally, is one of the oldest personalities in D&D! He was introduced in The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth by Gary Gygax, and is known for being the lover (and prisoner) of the powerful sorceress Iggwilv.

For Duty & Deity came out at the very end of the TSR era, and it is striking to see how things started to be “rolled back” from the 2nd edition changes. Not only did they bring back a goddess, but they started referring to demons as “demons” again!

In the beginning of 2nd edition, the words “demon” and “devil” had been scrubbed to placate the religious right. In the start of 2nd edition, “demons” had become “tanr’ri.”

Anyway, though I didn’t find the adventure details to be very compelling, For Duty & Deity is a major event in D&D history, and one of the few where the PCs can end up earning a favor from a goddess!

Rahasia (1984), by Tracy and Laura Hickman. We go from a late stage TSR adventure to one of the true early classics!

Rahasia is one of two adventures that the Hickmans originally self-published, along with the other classic Pharaoh. It was originally published by their Daystar West Media in 1980, in a run of no more than 200 copies.

The Hickmans originally wrote and sold D&D adventures to fund their own interest in the hobby. However, they ran into financial difficulties and sold their first two adventures to TSR, who also hired Tracy Hickman as a writer.

Both adventures had what was at the time a revolutionary philosophy: that adventures should be about something more than just killing and looting (which was the point of a lot of early D&D adventures).

Rahasia throws the characters right into a rescue operation: they receive a letter from the elven maiden Rahasia, who seeks their help to rescue two other maidens, kidnapped by an evil wizard who has also enchanted the elves at a local temple to serve him.

In a sense, the entire adventure is a puzzle: most of the defenders of the temple are these Siswa who have been ensorcelled by the evil wizard Rahib. Assuming they are halfway good characters, they will have to find ways to take down the defenders without hurting them.

There are many other clever puzzles, including a rather classic puzzle in which the path through a magical maze is hidden in plain sight on the labels of wine bottles.

The temple complex is quite massive and elegant, and shows another Hickman design philosophy: that dungeons should have some architectural sense to them.

There are some genuine fights in the adventure, but even some of these are puzzles. A bone golem guards one passage, and it is unlikely to be defeated by the low-level adventurers; they need to find another way past it.

(Spoiler about the plot of Rahasia follows, in case you don’t want to know!)

The biggest puzzle comes in the rescue of the elven maidens! It turns out that Rahib is seeking new bodies for a trio of powerful witches trapped in stone ages ago. The PCs must figure out how to drive the witches from the bodies of the innocent maidens.

The interior art of the adventure is excellent, by some of the classic artists. This skeletal warrior woman is a particular favorite of mine.

The adventure also introduces a number of potential allies to aid the players in their quest — if they aren’t hasty and start a fight with them!

Rahasia is considered one of the really great early D&D adventures. The Hickmans, of course, would go on to create some of the most popular series in D&D of all time: Ravenloft and Dragonlance!

PS as always, I got a lot of useful information from DriveThruRPG’s resident historian! More there.

Moonlight Madness (1998), by Skip and Penny Williams. This is one of those fascinating adventures that I had never heard of until I bought it recently!

This is one of those publications on the very end of the TSR era. In fact, TSR was already taken over by Wizards of the Coast and this adventure was one of the early WotC releases. So this seems to be borderline ‘old school’, but in fact it is an RPGA (Role Playing Game Association) adventure that was first used in GenCon in 1986, so it is *very* old school!

Like most adventures designed to be run at a convention as part of a tournament, Moonlight Madness is a series of strange and clever encounters intended to test the wits as well as the might of an adventuring party.

The setup is simple: most or all of the characters have recently been infected with lycanthropy. Now they must race to find a cure before the change is permanent and they turn evil.

Perhaps to its credit, the writers don’t bother giving an explanation for *how* the characters are infected. That’s up to the Dungeon Master to figure out! But to start, the PCs are stuck in a walled city undergoing a werewolf panic (probably caused by them!).

One of the first challenges for the players is a moral one: the city is in such a panic that they’re about to murder a trapper who had the misfortune to be wearing furs! They can prevent his unjust execution, but risk becoming targets themselves.

The PCs finally get a good excuse to leave the city — to escort some silver weapons to a paladin, Sir Lance Vandric, WHO IS HUNTING THE WERECREATURES. Again, they must make tough choices in how they want to handle the situation without arousing suspicion.

The final race to the cure involves finding a hidden monastery where they might get the healing they need, if they are worthy. But of course there are a lot of weird obstacles along the way, including very big proto-birds.

The book also contains additional rules for lycanthropy, including an explanation for why lycanthropes are typically evil — the curse, after progressing far enough, causes an alignment change.

So what’s with the title, “Moonlight Madness?” DriveThruRPG suggests that it could have been taken directly from an unreleased Berry Gibb album or a Spectrum ZX videogame, both in 1986. I would also like to suggest an alternate theory…

1980 saw the release of the movie “Midnight Madness,” featuring Michael J. Fox’s first role and a movie I have a weird fondness for. It is about contestants racing through the night to beat each other to a prize, kinda like the adventure!

Of course, that’s just my theory, which I am fond of!

******************

Okay, that’s four threads, so we’ll wrap up this post! Until next time!

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