Let’s recap four more old school Dungeons & Dragons threads that I’ve been posting to Twitter and Mastodon! No time to waste:
Death’s Ride (1984), by Garry Spiegle. This is one of those books that I have owned since I was a teen but curiously never really read in detail before!
Death’s Ride is the second in the CM series of modules, designed for the Companion Rules for D&D. The original Basic Set covered levels 1-3, Expert Set levels 4-14; The Companion Set covered levels 15-25.
The Companion Set has a lot of focus on characters who are prestigious enough to rule their own kingdom; the Set includes rules for combat between armies. The early CM adventures were intended to give an idea of how Companion level adventures could be played.
In Death’s Ride, the characters are sent to investigate the barony of Two Lakes Vale, which has cut off all communication with the outside world. On arrival, the PCs find the lands swarming with undead, and a deadly cloud hanging low over the countryside.
Eventually, the PCs find that a portal to the Negative Energy Plane has been opened by a trio of evildoers, and can only be closed by destroying an object called the Deathstone. They end up wandering the barony collecting the tools needed to achieve the quest.
Along the way, they find a village named Gollim that is under attack by an undead army, thus giving them an excuse to break out the mass combat rules!
The striking thing about Death’s Ride is how straightforward it is. There really aren’t any surprises or clever twists to the adventure. The party arrives, does battle with a bunch of powerful but familiar enemies, gathers magical items, and closes the portal.
There are no new monsters, no clever puzzles or traps, no unexpected obstacles in completing the quest. It is pretty much a generic adventure! It at least has a nice color map of Gollim.
One notable thing is the module encourages the DM to let the main bad guys escape. It appear this adventure is intended to function as a way for powerful PCs to claim their own lands, and a collection of powerful enemies at the same time!
U1: The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (1981), by Dave J. Browne with Don Turnbull. This one is a classic, though in order to discuss it we will need to give some major spoilers!
It is almost impossible to talk about this module without giving such spoilers. This normally wouldn’t be an issue, but Saltmarsh is still in use today, as Ghosts of Saltmarsh was released for 5e in 2019, revamping the adventure for the modern system.
The adventure is broken into two parts: in the first part, the players visit the coastal town of Saltmarsh, and learn of the nearby house of a sinister alchemist that is supposedly haunted. So the PCs are tasked with investigating the strange lights seen there.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this adventure: almost no description of the Town of Saltmarsh is given! In what may be considered genius or madness, the authors leave it up to the Dungeon Master to fill in key details of the settlement.
Compare this with the 2019 revision Ghosts of Saltmarsh, which gives a full-color map of the town, with detailed descriptions of locations!
I suggest that the original approach was “genius” because it forced DMs to work on a bit of their own world creation. In the old days of D&D, everyone was still trying to figure out how things worked, so Saltmarsh gives a little “push” to the DM to be imaginative.
Okay, spoiler time! Are you ready? If you don’t want Saltmarsh spoiled, *skip to the next product*!
Honestly, Saltmarsh has one of the most famous twists in a D&D adventure ever. The house is not haunted; it has become the base of operations for a group of smugglers working through Saltmarsh. An illusionist has used spells and other tricks to scare away the curious.
What is particularly funny about this is that the twist is spoiled RIGHT ON THE FRONT COVER OF THE ADVENTURE. The cover clearly shows a sinister figure (a smuggler) using a lantern to signal accomplices in a boat off shore (a bright dot of light).
By the end of the first part of the adventure, the PCs have worked their way through the traps and natural hazards of the house and fought the illusionist and his accomplices in a sea cave.
The second part of the adventure involves the PCs being tasked by the leaders of Saltmarsh to go assault the Sea Ghost, the ship of the smuggling organization. It is basically “sailing ship as a dungeon.”
I find it very funny that this part of the adventure is SPOILED ON THE BACK COVER OF THE MODULE. An attentive player who glanced at the module in the store could figure out pretty much the entire story.
So why is Saltmarsh a classic? It was really innovative in having a mystery to be solved by the players, and in having “not-dungeons” as the locations to be explored. The module also emphasizes the smugglers as a dynamic organized force that will fight against PCs intelligently.
Art design in Saltmarsh is top notch. All the illustrations are relevant to the adventure, and well done. There are even a couple of handouts as puzzles, such as this crude map showing the location of the smugglers’ drop-off point.
The emphasis on thinking and clever strategy over hack and slash was a hallmark of the UK modules produced by TSR at the time, such as Beyond the Crystal Cave, which can be played to the end with no fighting at all! (I’ve posted about this one before.)
The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is followed by Danger at Dunwater and The Final Enemy, which involve the players following the trail of the smugglers to a dangerous conspiracy against the surface world! Overall, a classic series of adventures.
Cities of Bone (1994), by Steven Kurtz. This one was sitting on my nightstand unread for months, so I’m glad to finally write about it!
Cities of Bone is the sixth adventure box that was released for the “Arabian Adventures” series of D&D products, which started with Arabian Adventures in 1992.
These Arabian Adventurers were inspired by real-world Muslim Caliphates as well as legends and folklore of the region and Hollywood interpretations of them. They provided a flavor of adventure distinct from the familiar medieval Europe taste of ordinary D&D.
The full campaign region of Zakhara, in the Forgotten Realms, got a general overview in Al-Qadim: Land of Fate, also released in 1992.
Al-Qadim, as I recall, was always intended to be a limited run of products, and this didn’t change even after it became quite successful. But a setting foreign to most players needed a lot of support, so adventure boxes were published to give lots of settings and adventures.
Cities of Bone describes three dead and ruined cities in Zakhara, each with its own dangers and tale of woe. The Campaign Guide gives a general overview of these cities.
It also describes general dangers, and curses, that accompany any attempts to rob tombs. Zakhara has a greater taboo on stealing from the dead, and many of the adventures in Cities of Bone focus on the bad consequences.
One such consequence is found in the City of Eternity, Sokkar, which was once ruled by giants but became abandoned due to a curse. However, a living supernatural storm, Al-Amzija, surrounds the city and will destroy anyone who attempts to leave even with a single copper coin.
The second city, Ysawis, angered the gods and was destroyed by them. However, its remains were found by a pair of powerful necromancers, who have raised its former inhabitants and turned it into a literal city of the dead. Their palace is laid out in detail.
The inhabitants of the third city, Mordask, City of the Sun, grew decadent and greedy and waged wars to claim more wealth. They were invaded in turn, however, and the inhabitants all fled to underground catacombs, where they died and untold wealth remains.
Cities of Bone comes with a hefty Adventure Book featuring adventures in these abandoned realms; the one that struck me the most was the PCs being led by a spectral horse to its tomb in Sokkar, where they must restore the horse’s destroyed tomb at great risk to themselves.
The set also includes a number of printed map cards showing the lands around the different cities; like most of the TSR D&D stuff of the time, they are really well made.
The final piece of the box is a booklet featuring the stats of the powerful NPCs of each city. In the image you can see Princess Ophidia, who basically runs Sokkar, and who might form a deadly infatuation with a PC.
It’s really nice to see D&D settings and themes that subvert expectations. Cities of Bone presents adventuring areas where collecting treasure may be the worst idea the PCs have!
Country Sites (1995), by Robin Jenkins. Last topic for today is another 2nd edition product of the 90s!
Country Sites followed City Sites (1994) and Castle Site (1995) as supplements that provided detailed, um, sites for use by DMs as launching points for adventures. They are somewhat reminiscent of the Book of Lairs (1985), except with more a focus on locations.
The locations are actually quite varied and not just simple dungeon crawls! There are 7 major locations given, and 4 minor ones. Let’s take a brief look at each major location…
First up is a Japanese-style temple that is apparently haunted by the ghost of a priest and a child. There is much danger here, but also a hidden backstory and a chance for PCs to put the good ghosts to rest (without a brawl).
Next is “The City of Hope,” a Middle East style tent city set in the crater of a dormant volcano. A great place for intrigue and a base for future adventures.
The City of the Dead is an Egyptian-themed series of mastabas (tombs), but with a twist that the descendants of the tomb builders will not take kindly to grave robbing! Adventurers here may instead end up helping the villagers repel tomb desecrators.
A fun little addition: City of the Dead includes some actual hieroglyphic warnings! My ancient Egyptian is a little rusty, but from what I remember these glyphs are accurate.
Perhaps the most entertaining setting is a Sargasso Sea, filled with a graveyard of trapped ships. PCs can wander out to search for treasure abandoned by fleeing crews.
Darian’s Wall, modeled after Hadrian’s Wall, is an extended defensive fortification that PCs might have to guard or wander beyond to seek out threats in the wilds beyond.
The Island of Lost Souls is an inescapable swamp prison that the PCs might have to rescue someone from, or escape from themselves.
Finally there is the Place of Broken Dreams, a castle that serves as a refuge for elvish sufferers of an incurable disease.
Country Sites is, overall, a nice collection of creative locales, clearly inspired by real-world locations. It is a nice book to stimulate new and unusual stories for players!
Okay, that wraps up this quartet of old school D&D products! More to come in the future!
All kinds of good stuff in this post. I have no recollection of Death’s Ride whatsoever.
Just picked up a copy of Al-Qadim list year but never realized they produced so many adventures for it.
The city of Ysawis and its denizens borrows HEAVILY from a Clark Ashton Smith tale, The empire of the necromancers.