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A Butcher, a Baker, and Naughty Nannies in D&D’s First Setting Book: City State of the Invincible Overlord

Tue, 08/06/2019 - 12:05

In December of 1975, TSR had yet to publish any Dungeons & Dragons setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog qualified as the only published adventure, although the armies housed by the temple made the place unsuitable for a dungeon crawl.

So when Decatur, Illinois gamers Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen visited TSR that December, they brought a new idea. Bob asked TSR for authorization to make a line of play aids for D&D players and judges.

Shannon Appelcline, author of Designers & Dragons, recounts what happened next. “Bledsaw told them about his ideas for gamemaster supplements…and the result was laughter. The TSR staff explained to Bledsaw and Owen that gamers wanted games, not supplements, and told them they were more than welcome to publish D&D supplements (and lose money) if they wanted to.”

A quarter of the city map

Bledsaw turned his drafting skills to map a huge city that would become the City State of the Invincible Overlord. He brought the poster maps to Gen Con in 1976. There he canvassed the convention goers, sold out of maps, and offered memberships to the Judges Guild, a subscription to future play aids. Shortly after Gen Con, charter subscribers received a package including the Initial Guidelines Booklet I (I as the Roman 1). The next package included Guidelines Booklet J (J as the letter after I). The guidelines supported the City State with encounter charts, information on social tiers, supplemental rules, and descriptions of a few streets.

In 1977, a retail version of the City State reached stores. The $9 package includes a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

A baker

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each. The locations offer a treasury of fantasy names. Just the roster of the Mercenaries Guild provides 20 names, and the city has 300 more locations.

The City State resembled the dungeon adventures of the time, densely packed locations with little natural order. The place has 5 bakers, but lacks a miller, brewer, fuller, glazier, wheeler, cooper, fletcher, mason, as well as many other popular boys’ names. Humans dominate the population, but trolls, ogres, and other monsters hold jobs. A shop’s proprietor could be a shapeshifted ogre mage or dragon. The undertaker employs undead. A god lives at his local temple.

Have you found god?

Even though a modern product with similar scope might sprawl over 500 or more pages, the City State’s descriptions take fewer than 80 pages. The terse descriptions provide seeds for improvisation rather than details.

Despite the product’s tremendous scope—or perhaps due to it—I struggled to figure out how center a game around the City State. I looked for guidelines booklets A through H, but never found them. Did I need them?

Bledsaw’s grandson, Bob Bledsaw III, explains the missing letters. “Initial Guidelines Booklet I was supposed to be I as in a roman numeral one. However, when it came time for the second Guidelines Booklet to come out, my grandfather told the typist to continue the series from before.” The typist followed I with J rather than II. “For the sake of consistency, they continued to use letters, much to my grandfather’s chagrin. So that’s why there are books I, J, K, L, M, etc.”

Nowadays, urban adventures tend to be narrative based, with clues leading characters from one location to the next. This allows a focus on key locations. In 1977, no one played D&D that way. Instead, players entered the dungeon or wilderness to explore room by room, hex by hex. The original D&D rule books explained how to conduct dungeon and wilderness adventures, water and aerial adventures, but nothing about cities. Cities served as a base to heal and gather supplies before you left for the next adventure. Cities were for bookkeeping.

So how did a DM run a game in the City State? The guidelines seem to imply that characters will wander the city, either shopping for adventuring gear or pursing rumors that will lead to their next adventure. In the course of wandering, they can trigger random encounters, often keyed to the neighborhood.

Basing a night of gaming on shopping or rumor gathering presents a lot of difficulties, mostly for reasons I described in Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens. Typically these activities offer the players few challenges—except for the rare cases where a level-6, chaotic-evil butcher attacks the party’s dwarf.

A butcher

The optimal session in the City State finds the players quickly uncovering a rumor and chasing it to a dungeon, or to a plot hook involving a giant, hairy stalker.

The best—and most intimidating—part of the City State came from the rumors. Many provided exciting invitations to adventure. Every storefront seemed like a launching point for an adventure.

As a dungeon master, the rumors made the city even more challenging to run. All the rumors inspired, but they led to adventures that demanded either preparation or more improvisation than I care to attempt. Every rumor promised an adventure that the DM needed to make good. In the Pig & Whistle tavern players learn that a mountain disappeared 120 miles south of the city. I want to play that adventure, but if I’m DM, I don’t want to ad lib it.

For all the product’s creative energy, its seamy side disagreed with my tastes. Even the map shows a goblin reservation. I prefer my monsters dangerous, rather than downtrodden. I do not want to invite analogies between monsters and real human beings who suffered a history of mistreatment.

In addition to a slave trade and many bordellos, the city has a Park of Obscene Statues (no kidding) and Naughty Nannies (still not kidding).

I’m not kidding

Even the book had a seamy side: It includes tables to determine womens’ measurements. The text makes distinctions between amazons, vixens, houris, and courtesans. I don’t understand the categories—I guess I’ll never understand women.

Still not kidding

My 1977 copy of the City Sstate still contains the pencil marks noting elements I liked. I cherry picked the bits that captured my imagination while I toned down the patchwork insanity and the sordid bits.

Despite the product’s challenges, it scored as an outstanding map and a trove of ideas. As the first role-playing setting, the City State of the Invincible Overlord became a hit. That proved a mixed blessing: In a year, TSR would reverse its stance and demand licensing dollars from Judges Guild.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The Two D&D Feats Everyone Loves (For Someone Else’s Character)

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 11:15

In February, the folks at D&D Beyond shared the most popular feats among their users. The favorites included entries I would expect. The top three all appeal to risk-averse players building a wide range of characters.

Hate losing spells to failed concentration saves? Take War Caster. Hate damage? Take Tough and make damage hurt less. Hate flubbing rolls? Take Lucky.

Ranking 4th, Sharpshooter suits fewer character types, but it proves so powerful that it rates as the worst thing in D&D.

Well past the broadly useful and the overpowered, the list includes Sentinel and Polearm Master. These potent feats suit narrow character types—often characters built with the feats in mind.

For me, the surprise comes from two powerful feats that failed to rate.

Inspiring Leader lets your group finish every rest with temporary hit points equal to your level + your Charisma modifier. It grants something close to Toughness to everyone in the party.

Healer lets you spend one use of a healer’s kit to restore 1d6 + 4 hit points, plus additional hit points equal to the creature’s maximum number of Hit Dice. A creature can only regain hit points this way once between each rest, but this still counts as the cheapest healing in the game.

Why do so few players choose these outstanding feats? Perhaps because the character taking the feat only gets a small benefit for themselves. These feats’ strength comes from lifting the whole party.

Related: 10 Ways to Build a Character That Will Earn the Love of Your Party

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D (If the Rest of Your Group Doesn’t Mind)

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 11:15

The massive damage inflicted by characters built on the Sharpshooter feat can overshadow other characters and make potentially interesting encounters resemble an execution by firing squad. See Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, but That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition.

Sharpshooter lets characters exchange -5 to hit for +10 damage. Many players combine it with Crossbow Expert, which lets a character wielding a hand crossbow trade a bonus action for an extra attack.

This post reveals how to build on Sharpshooter to create characters able to deal the most damage. Before you play these characters, consider whether they fit your gaming group.

If your group likes pitting optimized characters against a dungeon master who thinks a Remorhaz makes a suitable first-level foe, these builds fit.

If you want to show off your min-maxing skills, skip the sharpshooter. Such easy builds may fail to impress.

Optimal sharpshooters shoot hand crossbows rapid-fire. Does the flavor of your campaign fit a character firing a toy crossbow with the manic speed of a Benny Hill clip? I suppose some players fancy a character who resembles a genre-bending gunslinger, but I suspect the build’s massive damage draws more players than its flavor. (In second edition, the highest damage came from muscle-bound characters throwing darts. No one played that for flavor either.)

In groups more interested in roleplaying and exploration, players might not mind letting your sharpshooter showboat during the battles. Or perhaps others in the group feel content in roles other than damage dealing. Perhaps the bard and wizard both enjoy their versatility, the druid likes turning into a beast and soaking damage, and nobody minds letting you finish encounters at the top of round 1.

Before playing an optimized Sharpshooter, ask your group.

Building a sharpshooter

The Sharpshooter feat is powerful because it makes each attack deal excessive damage in exchange for a manageable penalty on to-hit rolls. To make the most of Sharpshooter, create a character who (1) makes lots of attacks and (2) minimizes the penalty to hit.

Without feats or off-hand attacks, a rogue only gets one attack per turn. And with one sneak attack per turn, rogues want to be sure to hit. Taking a -5 to-hit penalty adds to the risk of losing a sneak attack. A ranged rogue can often reduce the risk by attacking from hiding to gain advantage, but Sharpshooter only makes a decent feat for a rogue, not a strong one.

Ranger and fighter make the best classes for sharpshooters. Both classes gain extra attacks through their careers, and both offer the Archery fighting style, which grants +2 to hit with ranged attacks.

Choosing a race

Most players interested in playing a sharpshooter opt for a human character. Humans can take Sharpshooter at level 1, and then Crossbow Expert at 4. Bring on the Remorhaz!

Still, levels 1-3 go fast, so an aspiring sharpshooter can choose another race without playing too long with a merely balanced character. An elf can more easily reach a 20 Dexterity while taking Sharpshooter at level 4, and then Elven Accuracy at level 8. When you have advantage on a Dexterity attack, Elven Accuracy lets you re-roll one of the dice. For most characters, this makes a weak benefit, but a fighter who chooses the Samurai archetype usually attacks with advantage. Oddly Elven sharpshooter Samurai make good characters. (But please invent an interesting backstory.)

For a crossbow-wielding sharpshooter, choose a human. At level 1, take Crossbow Master. At level 4, take Sharpshooter. (The fast advance to level 4 means a short wait for both feats.) At levels 8 and 12, increase your Dexterity.

For a longbow-wielding sharpshooter, choose a human or, for a samurai, an elf. Take Sharpshooter for your first feat, and then focus on increasing Dexterity to 20.

Building a fighter sharpshooter

Fighters can combine the Archery fighting style with more extra attacks than any other class. Action Surge lets fighters unload an extra round of attacks. Such bursts let sharpshooter-fighters kill legendary monsters in a turn, and lead the rest of the party to wonder why they showed up.

Conventional wisdom suggests that ranged attackers typically suffer weak defenses, but not fighters. Ranged fighters skip shields, but they have all the hit points and armor proficiency of a front-line fighter. Plus a crossbow expert proves deadlier in melee than a great weapon master.

The Battle Master and Samurai archetypes combine particularly well with Sharpshooter.

Battle masters gain four or more Superiority Dice that they can spend on combat maneuvers. The battle master’s Precision Attack maneuver helps make your sharpshooter attacks hit despite any penalties. “When you make a weapon attack roll against a creature, you can expend one superiority die to add it to the roll.”

Samurai gain 3 or more uses of Fighting Spirit. “As a bonus action on your turn, you can give yourself advantage on weapon attack rolls until the end of the current turn.”

Advantage from Fighting Spirit helps your Sharpshooter attacks hit despite any penalties. However, the feature takes a bonus action, which makes it a bad match for a crossbow expert. If your self respect prevents you from using a toy crossbow, play a Samurai.

For a longbow-wielding fighter, choose a human or elf. Choose the Samurai archetype. Take Sharpshooter for your first feat, and then focus on increasing Dexterity to 20. Elven characters can then opt for Elven Accuracy.

At level 15, the Rapid Strike feature often lets Samurai take as many attacks as a crossbow expert. “If you take the Attack action on your turn and have advantage on an attack roll against one of the targets, you can forgo the advantage for that roll to make an additional weapon attack against that target, as part of the same action.”

Building a ranger sharpshooter

Rangers can combine the Archery fighting style with an extra attack at level 5 and more attacks at higher levels.

For example, at level 11, rangers with the Hunter archetype use the Volley feature to launch attacks against every target in a 10-foot radius.

The best ranger sharpshooters choose the Gloom Stalker archetype. These rangers gain an extra attack on the first turn of combat, and also add an extra 1d8 to that attack’s damage. By level 5, a human with a hand crossbow can start every fight with 4 sharpshooter attacks. With a just a little luck, that amounts to 80-some points of damage. How many foes will live to the second round? Gloom stalkers can also add their wisdom to their initiative, so ask, “How many foes will live to their turn?”

At 11th level, the Stalker’s Flurry feature minimizes the chance of missing despite any penalty from Sharpshooter. “Once on each of your turns when you miss with a weapon attack, you can make another weapon attack as part of the same action.”

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, but That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition

Tue, 07/16/2019 - 11:15

What would you think of Dungeons & Dragons feats that gave these benefits?

  • You gain immunity to all melee attacks.

  • Before making a melee attack, you can teleport to within melee attack range of your target, attack, and then teleport back to your original position.

Overpowered? Absolutely. I’m not competing for worst D&D designer. My broken feat designs make a provocative way to show the big advantages of attacking from range.

When you attack from a distance, melee attackers can’t hit you. You can fire past obstacles that hamper movement. You can switch targets without having to move. No wonder melee attackers tend to be barbarians and paladins; no sensible person would opt for such inefficiency and risk.

Ranged attacks suffer drawbacks: Targets can gain cover. If foes move next to you, then your attacks suffer disadvantage and you stop being immune to their melee attacks.

Fortunately for ranged attackers, the game’s two most broken feats dismantle all these disadvantages. With Sharpshooter, you ignore cover. With Crossbow Expert, you can make ranged attacks while within 5 feet of enemies without suffering disadvantage. With these feats, melee attacks no longer endanger you because you inflict such massive damage that by the time a foe reaches you, it’s dead.

D&D’s designers seem to think ranged and melee attacks represent two different, but mostly equal styles, when really, ranged attacks offer massive intrinsic advantages. Why else would the game’s design so often reward ranged attackers with extra benefits that surpass anything melee combatants get?

Exhibit A: Ranged rogues can hide and then pop up to attack from hiding, gaining advantage and a sneak attack. Melee rogues almost never get to attack while hidden, but at least backstabbers can sneak attack without advantage when an ally stands next to a target. If that edge only applied to melee rogues, then the game would offer different but comparable boosts to archers and backstabbers. But archers benefit from adjacent allies too. Remember backstabbing? Now it rates as a strategy for players seeking the roleplaying challenge of playing an inferior character.

Exhibit B: The Sharpshooter feat offers more proof that D&D’s design favors ranged attackers. Compare Sharpshooter to its melee counterpart, Great Weapon Master. Both feats let characters exchange -5 to hit for +10 damage. But rangers and fighters—the classes most likely to take Sharpshooter—can also opt for the Archery fighting style, which grants a +2 bonus to attack rolls with ranged weapons. In practice, sharpshooters gain 10 damage for a mere -3 attack penalty. Great weapon fighters get no such boost to accuracy.

Also, great weapon masters must stand in harm’s way.

Also, great weapon masters usually must move to attack and to switch targets—so inefficient.

Sharpshooter rates as the strongest feat in the game, but the Crossbow Expert feat multiplies the power. Crossbow Expert nullifies the biggest weakness of ranged attackers—the disadvantage of attacking with an adjacent foe. Plus, by using a hand crossbow, the feat allows an additional attack. Sure, a hand crossbow averages a point less damage than, say, a longbow, but when each hit still deals 13-15 points of fixed damage, the damage die is just gravy.

On the occasional critical hit, great weapon masters get an extra attack. Crossbow experts get one every damn turn.

My exhibit C further proves the D&D designers’ brazen favoritism toward ranged attackers. Fifth edition drops the spell Protection from Normal Missiles, a spell that dates to the original little, brown books. The prosecution rests.

What makes sharpshooters the worst thing in D&D?

Before I explain, understand that by labeling sharpshooters as the worst, I’m aiming a backhanded compliment at the strength of the edition. In any other edition of D&D, a feat as overpowered as Sharpshooter would not even rate on a list of the system’s flaws. Old editions suffered cracks at the foundation. Fifth edition suffers from an absurd feat.

When compared to other character types focused on dealing damage, sharpshooters overshadow other characters. DM Thomas Christy has hosted as many online D&D games for strangers as anyone. He says, “I have actually had players complain in game and out about how it seemed like they did not need to be there.” In a Todd Talks episode, Jen Kretchmer tells about asking a player to rebuild a crossbow expert. “The character was a nightmare of doing way more damage off the top, and no one else could get a hit in.” Pity the poor players who thought playing a hulking barbarian swinging a 2-handed great sword seemed like a recipe for maximum damage. Every turn, they’ll be embarrassed by a pip-squeak who reaps monsters with a toy crossbow.

I don’t aim to slam archers. They make an evocative archetype. And if you want to play an archer, play a sharpshooter. Next week, I’ll explain how to build a good one. I rarely want my players to feel obliged to build weakened characters. Dungeon masters can adapt to make sharpshooters a little less dominant.

By including overpowered feats that erase all the disadvantages of ranged attacks, the D&D design collapses the options for martial characters to two: (1) pick Sharpshooter or (2) pick something plainly weaker. Anything another build can do, a sharpshooter does better. Crossbow Expert enables fighters to gain all the out-sized benefits of Sharpshooter while attacking from melee and sporting enough hit points and armor to serve as a front-line tank.

Sharpshooters deal damage so efficiently that they throw D&D’s encounter math in the trash. Potentially interesting encounters against low-hit-point foes like spellcasters resemble an execution by firing squad. The evil wizard never acts. Unless DMs want every encounter to become a romp, they need to toughen the monsters and adopt tactics that slow ranged attackers. Dungeon masters: Do both.

Toughen the monsters. Before encounters, use your prerogative as a DM to boost the monsters’ hit points. The hit point totals in the creatures’ stat blocks just represents an average. Giving the monsters an increase within the die formula falls within the D&D rules.

Slow ranged attackers. Setting up encounters to slow sharpshooters isn’t about thwarting them. It creates situations more tactically interesting, situations that give other characters more chances to shine.

Start by adding total cover to your encounters, and then play creatures with the good sense to duck between their turns. This hardly counts as high strategy. If you throw a rock at a rat, it runs for cover. Faced with melee and ranged attacks, many foes will stay out of sight and let intruders come into reach. That usually works. By reputation, treasure hunters are bloodthirsty and undisciplined.

Such tactics encourage characters to move to engage. Melee fighters get more to do. They deserve to shine.

Total cover takes just a few columns or stalagmites.

One caution: Newer players can find foes that duck behind total cover frustrating. You may need to dial down the tactic or explain the rules for readying actions.

Start some monsters out of sight—especially the boss.

In the typical D&D battle, all the party’s foes start in plain sight. This makes the strongest monster an easy target for focused fire. Too often the evil mastermind dies before acting, or even before mocking the foolish do-gooders who dare to oppose them. The players never learn of the fiendish plan that will end their pitiful lives. Start that climactic battle with the main foe positioned somewhere the players cannot see. Let the characters spread out to attack the guards and lieutenants, and then have the biggest threat move into view on its turn. In D&D, villains must fight and monologue at the same time.

When some enemies begin out of sight, fights benefit. First, this gives some total cover. Plus, the battle feels more fluid; the situation more uncertain. As characters move into the room, they spot unseen foes. As monsters emerge, the players wonder what other surprises wait.

Battles with movement and cover tend to play to the strengths of melee characters. The monk finally gets to flaunt her speed! That hopeless, sub-optimal backstabber gains places to dash, disengage, and reasons to engage. The paladin can drive foes from hiding. Sure, these sorts of encounters may frustrate and threaten sharpshooters, but that just adds an extra benefit.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 11:15

In Dragon magazine issue 8, published July 1977, Gary Gygax proposed the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, a great wheel of planes surrounding the prime material. The existence of infinite planes “will vastly expand the potential of all campaigns which adopt the system—although it will mean tremendous additional work for these DMs.”

Diagram of planes from Dragon magazine number 8

The countless planes showed how D&D could go beyond the dungeon and the wilderness and into new worlds. The system revealed exciting potential, but Gary set an ambitious goal. “Different planes will certainly have different laws and different inhabitants (although some of these beings will be familiar). Whole worlds are awaiting creation, complete invention, that is.” The outer planes offered so many possibilities that setting an adventure in them made a formidable challenge. Players would wait years for any product to go beyond the prime material.

In 1978, Gary published module D3 Vault of the Drow. At its conclusion, the players locate a strange mural. “The mural itself is a scene resembling a starry sky, but a tunnel of webs stretches into space.” This vortex is a gate “to the plane of the Abyss, where Lolth actually dwells.” The text explains that this journey to the Abyss will be handled in module Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits. (For those who do not plan to play the sequel, Gary suggests that characters passing the gate be considered slain. Suggested dialog: “You could be taking your character on another thrilling adventure, but it’s not released yet. So instead, you’re dead.” In 1978, Gary could be capricious when he drew the line between the correct action and, “Wrong move—you’re dead!”)

Rereading Gary’s promise of letting PCs travel to the Abyss to confront Lolth, I remember the anticipation I felt in 1978.

But Gary seemed deterred by his own ambitious goals for planar adventures. Instead of completing Queen of the Demonweb Pits, he set the project aside “until a considerable period of time could be spent addressing it.” Soon, work on the Dungeon Master’s Guide demanded all his time. For two years, characters entering Lolth’s gate faced summary execution.

The Demonweb

The delay ended when artist David C. Sutherland III pitched his own finale. Gary wrote that the adventure “was taken out of my hands by [TSR executive Brian Blume] when Sutherland discovered the ‘Demonweb’ pattern in a hand towel and talked Brian into using it as the main theme for the concluding module. I had no creative control over it.” (Although many sources report that the Demonweb pattern came from a placemat, Sutherland confirmed that his inspiration was a towel.)

The adventure reached print in 1980. Now players could venture to Lolth’s own level of the Abyss—the Demonweb. For the first time, TSR demonstrated adventure on the outer planes.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits gets some criticism for its execution. The creatures in the Demonweb—even those in Lolth’s stronghold—fail to match the setting. Players encounter ogres, trolls, ettins, bugbears, and even a roper, but no drow. In an rpg.net review Lev Lafayette describes her stronghold as a “boring zoo.” In the god-slaying finale, any dungeon master who makes cunning use of Lolth’s abilities will annihilate parties in the module’s recommended levels. On the other hand, she only has 66 hit points, so a careless DM could see her slain in a round. The module spends pages describing changes to the effects of spells cast on the Abyss, but no one liked dealing with all the changes.

You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.

Start with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. The Demonweb captured an unsettling and chaotic feeling that suited the demon queen of spiders.

Along the path, unsupported doors open into extra-dimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In a look at the module, James Maliszewski wrote, “A key to portraying planar travel effectively is grandeur—the sense that one’s home world is just a tiny speck floating on a giant ocean and you’ve only just begun to plumb its unknown depths.” The Demonweb and its portals delivers this sense of grand scope.

In the Abyss, some spell effects change in evocative ways. For example, restoring an arm with the Regenerate spell may regrow a limb demonically twisted.

Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk. I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.

The adventure’s plot may not have matched Gary’s plan, but I suspect the Demonweb surpassed any of Gary’s ideas for the setting. In 1980, before the Manual of the Planes, before Planescape, Queen of the Demonweb Pits showed the way to the planes. Fans of Planescape can find its roots in the Demonweb.

Are you still curious about Gary’s original plan for the adventure? He wrote, “My concept was that Eclavdra was aiming at dominance of the drow through using the Elder Elemental God to replace Lolth. She, as the chief priestess of the elemental deity, would then be the mistress of all. The final scenario was to have been one in which the adventurers got involved in the battle between the evil entities and made it so that both lost and were tossed back to their own planes, relatively powerless in the Mundane world for some time to come.” Gary had an ambitious plan, heavy on intrigue, but without the vision—and hand towels—that led to the Demonweb.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

19 Adventures in the Running for 10 Greatest Adventures Since 1985

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 11:16

For my list of the 10 greatest adventures since 1985, nominations, reviews, and reputation led me to consider many more excellent adventures than fit a list of 10. Today’s post reveals the adventures that fell short of my 10 greatest, but merited consideration.

Treasure Hunt (1987) is a first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Aaron Allston.

Raw characters with no class levels wash up on the lost island of the pirate Sea King. They advance to first level and beyond.

“As a first adventure for initiates, this can’t be beaten. For old hands who may be tiring of AD&D, it will be a welcome change.” – Carl Sargent in White Dwarf issue 93.

King’s Festival and Queen’s Harvest (1989) are basic Dungeons & Dragons adventures by Carl Sargent.

A pair of adventures that introduces new players to D&D with a variety of linked missions.

“Absolutely the best introductory adventures in print for D&D-game-style fantasy role-playing games (FRPGs). Presented simply and clearly enough for young folks, these adventures are also challenging and entertaining enough for experienced gamers.” – Ken Rolston in Dragon 171.

Ruins of Undermountain (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Ed Greenwood.

The first three levels of the mega-dungeon under the city of Waterdeep presents its content with different levels of detail: Some rooms have complete descriptions, while others have terse notes. Most sections remain empty, a canvas for the dungeon master’s creation.

Rated 17th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

Ruins of Undermountain was as much stuff from Ed Greenwood’s original gaming sessions as he could fit into a box. I give Ruins of Undermountain an A+. It will make you a better DM regardless of your skill level. This is a glimpse behind Ed Greenwood’s screen, giving the reader a chance to study his methods, which are very sound.” – Advanced Gaming and Theory

Vecna Lives! (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by David “Zeb” Cook set in Greyhawk for characters of level 12-15.

After the Circle of Eight, Greyhawk’s legendary adventurers, die trying to stop Vecna’s return, their successors hunt the villain in a chase the across the world of Greyhawk.

Vecna Lives! is one of my favorite adventures from second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and I’m ecstatic that it’s been made available on dmsguild.com. Even if you never play the adventure, you should go out of your way to read/download/borrow it just to see what an incredible example of storytelling and adventure writing it is.” – Die Hard Game Fan

Night of the Walking Dead (1992) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft adventure by Bill Slavicsek for characters of level 1-3.

Characters investigate a series of murders an disappearances in a village plagued by walking dead.

“The actual adventure is one of the better blends of plotted adventures and old-school adventuring found in the ’90s. Though, there’s a deep, underlying story, it’s not a railroad. Instead, players must investigate and interact with NPCs to figure out what’s happening. Some events act as set encounters, but there’s also a big dungeon (cemetery) to crawl through at adventure’s end. The result maintains player agency while still telling a real story.” – The Fraternity of Shadows

Merchant House of Amketch (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dark Sun adventure by Richard Baker for characters level 4-7.

In an event-driven adventure, characters work to end a trade in beetles with a bite that neutralizes psionic power. The quest pits the party against the most powerful merchant house in Tyr.

“This adventure has everything for me: intrigue and adventure coupled with the potential to save the world from a great threat that has just been exposed. So it’s 5 out of 5 stars.” – Warpstone Flux

City of Skulls (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent for characters of level 9-12.

Players infiltrate the demi-god Iuz’s nightmare capital to free a military commander needed to defend the Shield Lands.

Rated 26th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Periods of stealth and quiet punctuated by short bursts of terrifying combat.” – Retro Gaming Magazine

Night Below: An Underdark Campaign (1995) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent that takes characters from 1st level to as high as 14th level.

Billed as the “ultimate dungeon adventure,” this campaign goes from a ruins crawl, to a mine crawl, to a long journey through the Underdark.

“Night Below won’t be to some peoples’ taste, but the vast majority will absolutely adore it. Quite simply, it’s one hell of an adventure.” – Cliff Ramshaw in Arcane magazine.

Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998)  by Bruce Cordell.

Years after adventurers gutted the original Tomb of Horrors, a dark community has built a city of necromantic evil on the tomb’s site. Even the inhabitants of this fell city have no idea of the true evil that waits beneath them.

Rated 10th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“The new material is really excellent. Return is a whole mini-campaign, not some rehash of previous work … It offers more by far than the old Tomb of Horrors, and it is more deadly too.” – Gary Gygax

Dawn of the Overmind (1998) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for characters of level 8-10.

To stop a resurgent mind flayer empire, character visit a world of ancient ruins in search of an artifact of Illithid manufacture. This adventure brings a taste of Spelljammer and sword and planet adventure to conventional D&D.

“This is the third part of the Mind Flayer Trilogy, which was pretty much awesome from start to finish. One of the best D&D adventures of all time.” – Power Score

Die Vecna Die! (2000) is a second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Adventure for characters of level 10-13 by Bruce R. Cordell & Steve Miller.

Die Vecna Die! takes the heroes from the Greyhawk campaign to the demiplane of Ravenloft and then to the Planescape city of Sigil in a quest to claim the Hand and Eye of Vecna—the key to stopping the evil demigod Iuz.

Die Vecna Die! pulls out all the stops, and the result is a massive but tightly constructed adventure with a truly apocalyptic feel. I’m surprised I’m recommending Die Vecna Die! as strongly as I am, but it’s just that good. It’s a great high-level adventure for any campaign.” – Fearful Impressions

Forge of Fury (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 3-5 by Richard Baker.

In a dungeon that captures the flavor of some of D&D’s original, classic adventures, characters battle though five levels of a dwarven stronghold overrun by evil.

Rated 12th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“I’ve always been impressed with the adventure; for my money it’s one of Wizards of the Coast’s best 3rd Edition era modules. As a basic, flavoursome dungeon crawl I think Forge of Fury is particularly well executed.” – Creighton Broadhurst

Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (2001) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons by Monte Cook designed to take 4th-level characters as high as level 14.

Power rises again in the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Characters battle the power of darkness in Hommlet and beyond, forging their way through hundreds of encounters before reaching the fiery finale.”

Rated 8th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Go out and buy the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. You will not regret it, and it will become a valuable part of your D&D library. It is one of the best adventure modules ever written.” – Talon on ENWorld

City of the Spider Queen (2002) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt designed to take 10th-level characters up to level 18.

“Daggerdale is reeling from a sudden series of murderous drow raids. As a grave threat to the entire surface world develops in the war-torn dark elf city of Maerimydra, intrepid heroes must discover its source and destroy it, if they can.”

Rated 24th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

City of the Spider Queen is an excellent addition to anyone’s Forgotten Realms campaign or with modifications, any Dungeons and Dragons third-edition game.” – Mania.com

Reavers of the Harkenwold (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters of level 2-4 by Richard Baker.

In an adventure patterned after Red Hand of Doom, the characters join the resistance and take missions to thwart the army of evil that invaded the Duchy of Harkenwold.

“Definitely one of the best 4E adventures. – Will Doyle.

“I would love to see a 5E update of Reavers of Harkenwold.” – Chris Perkins

The Slaying Stone (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for 1st-level characters by Logan Bonner.

Years after goblins overran and occupied a town once settled by humans, the characters enter seeking a lost Slaying Stone, the last of the magic stones created to protect the settlement.

“This is an adventure you won’t want to miss: Not only is it fun and non-linear, but it shows a DM how to better design her own adventures, and that’s something worth reading for any DM, no matter how experienced.” – Kevin Kulp

Dreams of the Red Wizards: Dead in Thay (2014) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters level 6-8 by Scott Fitzgerald Gray.

Teams of adventurers cooperate to explore a massive dungeon in search of the keys to a phylactery vault held by the evil Red Wizards of Thay.

“A ton of fun. Things get more and more hectic as the alert level of the Doomvault rises. It’s got good pacing, a narrative to it, and some fairly challenging encounters.” – Bell of Lost Souls

Cloud Giant’s Bargain (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for level 6 characters by Teos Abadia.

Led by a talking skull, Acquisitions Incorporated interns enter a cloud castle floating over Neverwinter to determine what threats it holds. This superb adventure combines combat, exploration, and interaction with interesting choices into a single session of play. Plus it adds a touch of humor and an unforgettable guide.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 12:44

In 2004, Dungeon magazine published a list of the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I saw few reasons to quibble with the choices, but the list favored early adventures. More than a third of the magazine’s picks came from 1985 and earlier—from just 7 years of the then 30-year history of D&D.

Extraordinary adventures come from throughout the history of D&D, but overall adventure authors have learned from the past and improved the quality of published adventures.

Why did early adventures dominate the list? Part of their stature comes from their influence. Those early modules implied a setting that serves as a foundation for every D&D adventure and campaign. But much of the high ratings come from the years of attention these adventures gained. During D&D’s early years, TSR published few adventures, and then kept those few modules on sale for a decade or more. Just about everyone who played D&D played those early classics. See Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?.

The years after 1985 produced more great adventures than those in the 2004 list, and the last 15 years yielded even more classics. I decided to look past the early classics and find the best adventures published during the decades when modules fought for attention among a flood of releases.

I found great adventures from D&D history, but I limited my list to 10. Ranking adventures led me to ponder what makes an adventure great.

Recipes and ingredients

Modules serve as both the ingredients for fun adventures and recipes for dungeon masters to mix and serve at the gaming table.

Great adventures tend to combine evocative ingredients with recipes that DMs can follow to foster fun and exciting tales. The ingredients include the memorable characters and fantastic locations, the fearsome monsters and magical treasures that make the adventure. The recipe includes the hooks, clues, events, goals, and obstacles that enable a DM to draw players through the adventure.

To DMs accustomed to re-purposing and remixing the ingredients of adventures, recipes hardly matter, but most DMs running published adventures want help for running the scenario at the table, even if we sometimes change the recipe.

The fifth-edition adventures boast consistently outstanding ingredients. They pick the best from decades of D&D lore and then add new inspiration. For example, Tomb of Annihilation builds on the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and the deathtrap dungeon in Tomb of Horrors. Curse of Strahd builds on Ravenloft, the adventure that might be D&D’s best ever. Based on ingredients alone, all the hardcovers rank with D&D’s greatest adventures. But the recipes tend to falter. In Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?, I described these shortcomings.

As a recipe, Curse of Strahd doesn’t succeed completely. The DM needs to nudge players toward level-appropriate areas, but the Tarokka card reading hints at the means to Strahd’s defeat and provides clues that guide the adventure.

Rating Tomb of Annihilation presents more challenges. I found the ingredients irresistible, but the adventure challenges DMs. The death curse creates urgency when the players may want to try dinosaur racing in Port Nyanzaru. As written, the hex crawl will exhaust players with random encounters. The Tomb of Nine Gods features expert design, but six levels of unrelenting deathtraps may weary players. Still, I loved the Tomb’s mix of inspiration and the dungeon so much that I originally slotted the adventure at a higher rating, but its flaws led me to drop the adventure to 8th just before posting. Reader reaction to the Tomb’s rating left me comfortable with my new ranking.

Meanwhile, many readers voiced support for Storm King’s Thunder, a chimera that’s part gazetteer, part assortment of lairs, and part plotted adventure. The reputation of Storm King’s Thunder has grown, but not enough to merit a spot on the list.

How much do players value a variety of settings and activity?

Six adventures from Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list fell short of ranking on my list.

If my list included 20 entries, most of these adventures would rank, but none reached my top 10. With only 10 slots, and newer adventures to fit, many had to go just because they weren’t quite as good.

Reviews and play accounts of faulted some of these adventures for their intense focus on one mode of play: the dungeon crawl.

Reviewers praised Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for delivering a great dungeon, and then warned that the amount of crawling could prove exhausting.

When I ran Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury back-to-back, the Citadel stood out for its interaction with a memorable cast and for its story line. The Forge felt like more of a grind.

I compared Ruins of Undermountain to Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. The new hardcover easily rates as the best mega-dungeon I’ve played or run. It delivers a better version of Undermountain than Ruins of Undermountain. Each level brings a strong theme that adds variety. The factions and sympathetic residents open the dungeon to interaction. And yet, I grew to crave changes of setting and my players thirsted for a larger plot than the classic bid for treasure. Neither adventure made the list.

I love dungeon crawling like Groucho loves a good cigar, but too much of a good thing sometimes tires me. I suspect many—perhaps most—current D&D players share my take. Critics of Tomb of Annihilation often call the six, uninterrupted levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods wearying. Even longtime D&D and Pathfinder designer James Jacobs seems to share my trepidation. In an interview promoting Red Hand of Doom, he contrasts his adventure with City of the Spider Queen and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Working on Dungeon (and in particular, the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths) taught me a lot about designing huge adventures. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned there: don’t succumb to the lure of the enormous dungeon. They may be fun to design, but dungeons with 100 rooms are a bear to adventure through.”

None of this disqualifies pure dungeons from my list. Many still managed to place, but I favored adventures that play to all three pillars and tour a variety of environments.

Attention and recency bias

Lost Mine of Phandelver may rank as the most disputed entry on my list. Fans cite how well the adventure introduces various tropes and styles of play to new players and DMs. Critics cite a lack of anything new or wondrous. Both fans and critics make fair claims.

Lost Mine’s reputation benefits from two advantages that make the adventure complicated to rate. As the starter set adventure for a new edition, Lost Mine gained the attention of every D&D fan. And because Lost Mine introduced the most recent edition, it may benefit from recency bias, our tendency to overestimate newer things in our memory.

When I placed Lost Mine at number 3, I rated the adventure based on how well it suits its purpose of introducing new players to D&D. As a launch into D&D, the scenario may succeed better than any prior intro. Because many old fans of D&D love the adventure too, it vaults near the top of the list.

What happened between 1986 and 1996?

My list includes Night’s Dark Terror from 1986 and then no other releases until The Gates of Firestorm Peak in 1996. Were the years between 1986 and 1996 really starved of quality adventures?

I considered several adventures from these years for my list. During that period, TSR split development between D&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and between numerous campaign settings. Perhaps a flood of releases aimed for shrinking segments of a divided D&D market meant that no adventures gained enough attention to grow in reputation. But perhaps a focus on campaign settings instead of adventures led TSR to produce solid but unexceptional modules. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Entire lines, such as Dragonlance or Spelljammer, are often solid but not exceptional, even for their time. (I do personally like Spelljammer’s Under the Dark Fist).”

Short, high-level, and setting-specific adventures published near the end of an edition

Because my ratings drew on recommendations, reputation, and reviews, the list may overlook great adventures that failed to gain attention for reasons unrelated to quality.

Short adventures seem to lack the weight needed to make an impression. Most of the adventures on my list span 100 or more pages. Releases that include extras like poster maps, counters, and cards also seem to make a bigger impact.

No high-level adventures made my list. Most D&D play focuses on lower levels, especially in past editions when play above level 9 or so exposed flaws in the game. This means low-level adventures tend to win the most sales and attention. What high-level adventures escaped attention?

In my list, Dead Gods is the only setting-specific adventure branded for a particular setting or campaign. The proliferation of campaign settings in the late 80s and 90s takes some blame for diluting the sales of D&D products below profitability. For instance, DMs running games set in Mystara ignored adventures set in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and so on.

Adventures shipped near the end of an edition tend to languish on shelves, unnoticed by fans looking ahead to the new edition. When Milwaukee hosted Gen Con, I made annual visits to one of the city’s used bookstores. For years, I spotted the same stack of remaindered copies of The Apocalypse Stone, the final second-edition adventure.

My list of greatest adventures proved fun to create and unveil, so I feel inspired to create other lists that find overlooked classics.

  • The greatest short adventures published after 1985
  • The greatest high-level adventures from any era
  • The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting
  • The greatest Dungeon magazine adventures

Don’t look for these lists anytime soon. I mulled my after-1985 list for years, off and on.

Help me out. What are your favorite short adventures? What are your favorite high-level adventures? What are your favorite adventures branded with a campaign setting?

Related: The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Published After 1985

Next: Honorable mentions: The adventures that merited consideration for the top 10

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 11:10

This list of the 10 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures since 1985, draws from ratings, reviews, and appraisals from D&D fans, and then uses my completely unscientific aggregation of opinions to rank the 10 entries. The list only includes adventures printed as stand-alone titles under the D&D or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons brands. For more on why I chose to rank adventures published after 1985, see Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

10. The Gates of Firestorm Peak
The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 5-8. The adventure that introduced the Far Realm to D&D starts as a well-crafted dungeon crawl, and then builds into an unsettling confrontation with Lovecraftian monstrosities. See the full review.

9. Tomb of Annihilation
Tomb of Annihilation (2017) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Chris Perkins. Will Doyle, and Steve Winter for levels 1-11. Tomb of Annihilation mixes the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, with the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, with a deathtrap dungeon inspired by Tomb of Horrors. Every one of those influences appears on the Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list of 30 greatest adventures, and the mix plays better than any of them. See the full review.

8. Sunless Citadel
The Sunless Citadel (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 1-3. As the introductory adventure to third edition, Sunless Citadel delivers the monsters, treasures, and even the dragon that new players expect from D&D, but the adventure serves much more than D&D comfort food. Start with a deeply evocative location: a castle dropped into a rift by some cataclysm. Add a lost dragon wyrmling, a tainted tree at the heart of the ruin, a fresh humanoid monster, and one of D&D’s most unforgettable characters, Meepo. See the full review.

7. Vault of the Dracolich
Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters. Vault of the Dracolich rates for its outstanding execution of a multi-table adventure. By design, a team of dungeon masters runs several tables of players who explore different parts of a dungeon at the same time. As the adventure runs, groups can interact, briefly gathering, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. The event ends with all the groups fighting a climactic battle. See the full review.

6. Madness at Gardmore Abbey
Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt with Creighton Broadhurst and Steve Townshend for levels 6-8. Madness at Gardmore Abbey combines the best qualities of fourth edition’s encounter design with a sandbox of adventure locations, villains, and a single powerful thread that binds them all together. That thread comes from the scattered cards of a Deck of Many Things, perhaps the most irresistible artifact in D&D. See the full review.

5. Dead Gods
Dead Gods (1997) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Monte Cook for levels 6-9.
Dead Gods boasts more than the best title of any D&D adventure, it features the most audacious storytelling. For example, in one chapter, players create temporary characters to play out past events. The adventure spans the planes, ending in a climax that brings the party to the astral plane where they battle atop the 4-mile-long corpse of the demon lord to stop the creature’s resurrection. See the full review.

4. Curse of Strahd
Curse of Strahd (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 1-10 by Chris Perkins with Adam Lee, Richard Whitters, and Jeremy Crawford. Curse of Strahd captures everything great about I6 Ravenloft and expands it into a full campaign. While Ravenloft mainly stayed in a castle, Curse of Strahd gives players the freedom to roam the cursed land of Barovia. Although Curse of Strahd features a strong design, the vampire Strahd and the fearful gloom of his domain make the adventure’s best parts. See the full review.

3. Lost Mine of Phandelver
Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) is fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins for levels 1-5.
The adventure that introduced fifth edition serves D&D’s expected and favorite ingredients. To longtime fans, the elements may be familiar, but superb execution makes the adventure a winner. After the first encounter, players experience samples of dungeon crawls, quests, and mini-adventures. The adventure provides enough clues to keep even new players from feeling lost. See the full review.

2. Red Hand of Doom
Red Hand of Doom (2006) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and James Jacobs for levels 6-12.
Red Hand of Doom starts with the fantasy trope of an army of evil sweeping the land, and then casts the characters as heroes working to slow the march. Their missions span the landscape and vary from diplomatic meetings to dungeon delves. Along the way, the adventure accounts for the players choices, successes, and failures. See the full review.

1. Night’s Dark Terror
Night’s Dark Terror (1986) is Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher for levels 2-4. The adventure starts strong with a widely-imitated episode where the characters defend a freehold against a goblin attack. The events of the siege make the night of terror. After the first episode, the adventure’s scope expands. Players explore more than a wilderness, with eighteen locations, including a number of mini-dungeons, a ruined city, a riverside village, a frontier town, and a lost valley, while active villains oppose the characters. See the full review.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Night’s Dark Terror (1986): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 1

Thu, 06/13/2019 - 10:55

Night’s Dark Terror (1986) is Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher for levels 2-4.

B10 Night’s Dark Terror contents

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) rates number 3 on this list of great adventures for introducing D&D’s most compelling elements in a mix that gives players freedom to roam and dungeon masters an easy scenario to run.

Night’s Dark Terror ranks number 1 because it succeeds on all those counts, plus it adds innovative episodes, poster maps and counters, and more flavor of the fantastic. Make that “flavour,” because Night’s Dark Terror came from TSR UK.

The similarities between adventures were by design. D&D Creative Director Mike Mearls calls Night’s Dark Terror one of the best D&D adventures ever made. It inspired Lost Mine of Phandelver.

When TSR decided to support the D&D Expert Set (1981, 1983) with an adventure, the TSR UK team of Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher drew the assignment. Since the Basic Set introduced players to dungeon adventures, the new adventure needed to introduce the wilderness.

“As a team we brainstormed the plot outline, and carved up the work between us,” Phil Gallagher said in an interview. “Jim worked especially hard to coordinate the adventure elements, Graeme and I obsessed over the language and grammar, I took charge of the lay-out and design, and we all wrote stuff and swapped it back and forth between us.

“We felt we could create something unique—a Basic-Expert crossover with an open-ended structure, different from the rather linear dungeon crawls that were around at that time.”

The team succeeded. In a product history, Shannon Appelcline describes the achievement. “To date, most wilderness adventures had either been largely freeform hex crawls, like X1: The Isle of Dread (1981), or else tight railroads, like N2: The Forest Oracle (1984). Instead, Night’s Dark Terror deftly combines fixed locales and ongoing events with a multi-episodic structure. The result allows for a lot of sandbox play while still supporting a strong narrative—a very difficult mix in roleplaying adventures and one that’s seldom been matched.”

The adventure starts strong with a widely-imitated episode where the characters defend a freehold against a goblin attack. The events of the siege make the night of terror.

After the first episode, the adventure’s scope expands. “The PCs then explore more than 20,000 square miles (52,000 km2) of wilderness, with eighteen locations, including a number of mini-dungeons, a ruined city, a riverside village, a frontier town, and a lost valley, with the minions of the Iron Ring slavers waiting for the PCs at every step,” writes Gus L.

Even with a grand scope, players will always see options for their next move. “The entire adventure is laid out not as a linear progression, but rather as a huge area where many bits of information are gathered, and many different clues and hints lead to the same climax.”

Unique, fantastic elements give the adventure a sense of wonder uncommon at low levels. Among many touches, I like the shapechanging horse who becomes a patron and the goblin lair built in stone trees in a forest petrified by magic.

On release, Night’s Dark Terror seemed to attract little interest in game stores. Perhaps the title misled potential buyers by suggesting a horror scenario. Also, in the United States, D&D fans tended to spurn basic D&D material in favor of Advanced content. But over time, the adventure’s reputation spread. Before the adventure became available as a PDF, copies fetched hundreds of dollars.

Still, reviewers took notice. In his 1991 book Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick describes Night’s Dark Terror as an “outstanding wilderness scenario.” In a review for White Dwarf issue 78, Graeme Davis writes that he can’t imagine a better module to match with the Expert Set box. In a Dragon 124, reviewer Ken Rolston calls this “the best-illustrated and best-designed module I’ve ever seen—and the adventure and campaign material is every bit as remarkable as the graphic presentation. A classic.” Agreed.

Start at 10

 

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Red Hand of Doom (2006): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 2

Wed, 06/12/2019 - 11:14

Red Hand of Doom (2006) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and James Jacobs for levels 6-12.

Red Hand of Doom pits the characters against an overwhelming horde of hobgoblins and monstrous allies loyal to Tiamat. In an interview promoting the adventure, Rich Baker describes the concept. “My initial vision was to make my best swing at a challenge that comes in countless fantasy novels: The Army of Evil is trying to conquer everything. A lot of adventures use the orc horde as a backdrop and motivation, but then make the heroes go off and do ‘standard’ dungeon-delving to find the McGuffin that will then defeat the horde. I wanted to create and adventure that cast the heroes in the role of ‘captains of good,’ doing things that directly affected the course of the war.”

While engaging, this plot could mire characters in a series of battles against more and tougher hobgoblins. Few players would enjoy such a grind, so the design sets the heroes in a variety of missions that span the threatened region.

“The heroes face crucial tests in rallying allies, helping the local rules to determine strategy, spying on the Red Hand horde and scouting its movements, and directly confronting the bad guys on the battlefield. Some of that involves old-fashioned dungeon-delving, but a lot of the adventure takes heroes back and forth across the landscape, doing a hundred different things to stop the Red Hand march,” James Jacobs explains. “The PCs will find themselves in small towns and sprawling cities at either end of the adventure, and in between they’ll visit pastoral valleys, tangled forests, rugged mountains, and monster-infested swamps.”

Red Hand of Doom avoids serving a programed series of encounters where any failure derails the plot. Reviewer Jukka Särkijärvi writes, “In Red Hand of Doom, it’s fully possible for the party to royally screw up. There are many options open for the player characters and the writer have accounted for all the likely scenarios.” The adventure creates a sense of urgency as player race to evacuate a town, or cut off an invading force, or break down a road block.

The adventure doesn’t defy every expectation. “The first parts of Red Hand of Doom are the combat-heaviest D&D material I’ve played through, and they never once got boring,” Särkijärvi writes. “Each combat had a clear reason for being there, interesting enemies, and some tactical depth.”

Instead of pitting players against tougher and tougher flavors of hobgoblin, the adventure swaps in undead, hell hounds, giants, and other creatures. “Whenever we had the chance, we mixed things up by adding non-humanoid foes,” James Jacobs says.

The designers wrote Red Hand of Doom after Wizards of the Coast released two massive dungeon crawls in City of the Spider Queen and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. From those releases, Jacobs took a lesson: “Don’t succumb to the lure of the enormous dungeon. They may be fun to design, but dungeons with 100 rooms are a bear to adventure through. I tried to keep the dungeons in Red Hand of Doom fairly small and took pains to give each of them a unique theme, feel, and flavor.”

The book benefits from a series of designers’ notes. “These notes are intended not only to provide advice on how to run a particularly tough encounter, but to explain why we made some of the decisions we made,” Jacobs says.

The notes also help DMs run the adventure. “We decided to open up the design a bit and make an adventure that was friendlier and a little less work for the DM to run,” Baker says.

“In addition, they provide an insight into how adventures are designed, and should hopefully help DMs to design their own adventures.”

Ron Whitaker from the Escapist describes Red Hand of Doom this way: “The party can use guerilla tactics, spy on the advancing horde, venture into a lich’s lair to deprive the horde of its undead minions, and finally take on the horde itself, with the preparatory actions coming back to aid or haunt them. It’s a superb adventure, and one that any D&D fan should play.”

Next: Number 1

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Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 3

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 11:15

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) is fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins for levels 1-5.

Adventures created to introduce new dungeon masters to D&D must be simple to run. Sunless Citadel offered DMs an easy recipe by sticking to the dungeon, but Lost Mine of Phandelver brings a more ambitious design and succeeds brilliantly. The adventure rates so highly because it allows players freedom to roam while offering enough structure and guidance to ensure that a new DM succeeds.

For new players, the adventure serves D&D’s expected and favorite ingredients. To longtime fans like Mike “Sly Florish” Shea, the elements may be familiar, but superb execution makes the adventure a winner. “Even years after its release, Phandelver remains one of the most popular D&D adventures for 5e and is my personal favorite.”

The adventure takes place in and around the town of Phandalin. This setting introduces more of D&D than a dungeon crawl can offer. Alex Lucard describes the scope. “There’s a mix of straightforward dungeon crawls, fetch quests and even sandbox-style mini-adventures, so DMs and players alike get a sampling of various adventure tropes. It’s very well done!”

Merric Blackman explains the design. “Phandelver has a directed storyline, where you’re investigating the kidnapping of a dwarf and the secret of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, and a sandbox feel where many of the characters you meet have their own goals and can send you on missions not directly related to the main quest. This isn’t a linear quest: after the initial encounter, you can choose which way to proceed through the storyline. There’s enough clues and direction so that you’ll rarely feel lost.”

The individual encounters invite more approaches than combat, so players get chances to win friends and outsmart foes.

“Phandelver is a great adventure full of opportunities for you to relax, play loose, and let the story evolve from the choices of the players and the actions of the characters,” writes Mike Shea.

“Overall I have to say Lost Mine of Phandelver is fantastic,” writes Alex Lucard. “Not only is it a great way to introduce new gamers to Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s a very solid campaign in its own right.”

Merric Blackman rates the module this way: “This is an extremely well-designed and well-written adventure. It’s fun to play and run, and offers a lot of scope to the players and DM to make it their own, while still being accessible to newcomers.”

Next: Number 2

Start at 10

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Curse of Strahd (2016): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 4

Mon, 06/10/2019 - 11:15

Curse of Strahd (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 1-10 by Chris Perkins with Adam Lee, Richard Whitters, and Jeremy Crawford.

Fifth-edition hardcover adventures like Tomb of Annihilation pull inspiration from a catalog of classic modules. Curse of Strahd just draws from just one: Ravenloft (1983) by Tracy and Laura Hickman. Ravenloft’s 32 pages spawned a campaign setting, so it easily brings enough inspiration to fill a hardcover. Ravenloft ranked second on Dungeon magazine’s list of the 30 greatest adventures, beaten only by a compilation of 7 adventures.

Curse of Strahd captures everything we loved in I6 Ravenloft, and expands it into a full campaign,” writes Mike “Sly Fourish” Shea. “Of all of the published campaigns, this one is the most solid, with a clear motivation and excellent locations.”

While Ravenloft mainly stayed in a castle, Curse of Strahd gives players the freedom to roam the cursed land of Barovia. Most of the fifth-edition hardcovers aspire to play as a sandbox, but only Curse really succeeds as one. Credit a foundation borrowed from Ravenloft. To defeat Strahd, characters must collect 3 artifacts. Early on, the party gains clues to the items’ locations. This structure gives players a goal and a sense of direction.

Curse of Strahd borrows another brilliant device from Ravenloft. A card reading from Barovia’s version of a tarot deck reveals the location of the magic items and the roles of key non-player characters. This gives the story a random element that feels vital.

Although Curse of Strahd features a strong design, the vampire Strahd and the fearful gloom of his domain make the adventure’s best parts.

Strahd’s history sometimes makes him seem relatable—or even capable of redemption. But that lie just makes him more horrifying. Tracy Hickman calls Strahd “a selfish beast forever lurking behind the mask of tragic romance, the illusion of redemption that was only ever camouflage for his prey.”

The adventure never lets characters forget Strahd’s threat. “Stahd isn’t a villain who remains out of sight until the final scene. Far from it—he travels as he desires to any place in his realm. The characters can and should meet him multiple times before the final encounter,” the text explains. “When Strahd wants to terrorize the characters, he pays them a visit, either under cloak of night or beneath overcast skies. If they’re indoors, he tries to charm or goad a character into inviting him inside.”

Strahd’s presence taints his land with dread. “Many of the locations and towns seem to be quite ordinary or mundane at first glance…until you dig deeper,” explains Tyler Biddle. “The imagery is at times hauntingly beautiful and tragically grotesque. Barovia’s characters as well as its horrors will stay with you long after you’ve left the table.”

Wary of making the adventure too gloomy, the authors added notes of twisted humor. No player will forget Blinsky’s toys.

“Creepiness abounds, with locations and characters who just drip gothic horror,” Chris Stevenson writes. “Groups that hate being ‘railroaded’ will love the sandbox nature of Barovia. Curse of Strahd is the best 5E campaign book yet.”

After playing the adventure, the author of the Mindlands blog summarizes the experience. “Curse of Strahd is the best published adventure that I’ve ever played in. The atmosphere is fantastic, the locations, non-player characters, and villains are interesting, tragic and funny.”

Next: Number 3

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Dead Gods (1997): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 5

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 11:33

Dead Gods (1997) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Monte Cook for levels 6-9.

Dead Gods boasts more than the best title of any D&D adventure, it features the most audacious storytelling. To start, the book includes two scenarios. “Although the two adventures stand on their own, they can also be linked together. ‘Out of the Darkness’ and ‘Into the Light’ feature different characters, locations and storylines, but they both revolve around the same themes: the death and resurrection of gods.” The book includes a flowchart showing where to best cut between adventures. “By weaving the two plots together, the dungeon master gives the players a periodic change of pace and tone that allows each adventure to echo the primary theme of Dead Gods.” Also, the text includes interludes that reveal events behind the scenes to “help the DM better understand what’s going on as the story progresses.”

On top of the ambitious woven narrative, Dead Gods includes a chapter where the characters use magic to peer into the distant past, and then create temporary characters to play out those past events.

The narrative stunts might suggest a novelist forcing a story into the wrong medium, but Dead Gods plays as well as it reads.

“All too often, D&D adventures miss out on the sort of teeth-gritting, edge of your seat action that defines the world,” says EN World reviewer Alan Kohler. “This Planescape adventure by Monte Cook brings that spirit of adventure in a race against time to prevent the resurrection of a demon lord.”

That race spans the planes, starting in Sigil and visiting such fantastic locations as a walking wizard’s tower, the plane-spanning tree Yggdrasil, a fortress floating in the negative material plane, a traveling circus on Pandemonium, and the Vault of the Drow. The climax brings the party to the astral plane where they battle atop the 4-mile-long corpse of the demon lord to stop the creature’s resurrection. Does any other adventure imagine such a grand scope?

Within a tight plot, the adventure works to allow choices and account for the players actions. “Monte Cook did a wonderful job with this, and not only lays the material before the DM’s eyes, but explains his thinking in virtually every part and gives the DM ways to change things without ruining continuity,” Lucias Meyer explains in an an RPG.net review. “This was the most fun my group ever had and is still a campaign we talk about. A must for any Planescape fan.”

Dead Gods was amazing and it solidified for me a love for Planescape that has never faded,” Mitchell Wallerstedt says of his play experience. “It was probably over 15 years ago that we played through it and I’m still waiting for more.”

Dead Gods ranked 14 on Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list of 30 greatest adventures.

Next: Number 4

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Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 6

Wed, 06/05/2019 - 11:15

Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt with Creighton Broadhurst and Steve Townshend for levels 6-8.

Fourth edition’s early scenarios lavished attention on combat encounters strung into linear adventures designed to ensure no one missed a battle. But towards the end of the edition’s run, the D&D team wanted to grant players more freedom.

Madness at Gardmore Abbey combines the best qualities of fourth edition’s encounter design with a sandbox. “Gardmore Abbey is all about choices,” writes Mike “Sly Flourish” Shea. “It’s a large sandbox of adventure locations, villains, and a single powerful thread that binds them all together.”

That thread comes from the scattered cards of a Deck of Many Things, perhaps the most irresistible artifact in D&D. The adventure includes a real deck. “The Deck is interesting both in real life and in game, and one of the biggest reasons why Madness at Gardmore Abbey is awesome,” writes the Learning DM. Madness borrows the brilliant trick of drawing cards to determine aspects of the adventure from Ravenloft by Tracy and Laura Hickman, .

The adventure encourages choices by focusing on patrons, rivals, and the layout of the abbey. By scattering patrons who offer quests, the adventure gives the characters a steady sense of purpose.

The encounter design shines too. In a product history, Shannon Appelcline writes, “When Wyatt wrote out his order for the encounters, he told his designers that he didn’t want a ‘combat slog,’ but instead a ‘mix of combat, roleplaying, and skill challenges.’ Thus, Madness is one of the most varied of all the fourth-edtion adventures, even within the constraints of individual encounters.

Steve Townshend says that after he wrote up an encounter, he’d then go back and apply the ‘Lowell Kempf’ test, named after the longest-running player in his D&D campaign—who would often ignore the ‘direct’ solutions to problems, and instead look for the ‘interesting’ ones. Thus, Gardmore Abbey is filled with encounters that could be solved in many ways—not just with combat.”

Madness at Gardmore Abbey comes in a box packed with goodies, including the deck, battlemaps, tokens, and 4 adventure booklets.

Mike Shea calls Gardmore Abbey a “wonderful sandbox.” The Learning DM writes, “As it stands, Madness at Gardmore Abbey is the final pinnacle of adventure design in fourth edition, and I believe it deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest adventures in D&D’s rich history. Easily the best fourth-edition adventure.”

Next: Number 5

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Vault of the Dracolich (2013): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 7

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 11:15

Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters.

The Living Greyhawk organized-play campaign pioneered a popular new way to play Dungeons & Dragons at conventions. In Battle Interactives, multiple tables could join together in the same adventure. The effect of actions, successes, and failures at tables could ripple to others in the interactive.

To fuel excitement for D&D’s upcoming fifth edition, the D&D team planned a gameday for stores. Vault of the Dracolich co-designer Teos Abadia explains, “Wizards of the Coast wanted to see whether a gameday could be transformed from the typical adventure format into a very exciting event: a hybrid between a battle interactive and Lair Assault.” The event proved a huge success.

“The project’s approach was a new one for Wizards,” Abadia writes. “We designers were all freelancers acting as a team, instead of writing and submitting our work separately to WotC for them to put together. Mike was the author, I was the developer, and Scott the editor (and first draft cartographer). As a result, we all collaborated heavily and all took turns scheming, writing, developing, and editing.”

During the adventure, bands of heroes infiltrate a temple of the Cult of the Dragon to recover an ancient elven staff from the dracolich, Detchroyaster. Merric Blackman describes the setup. “Vault has a number of different groups investigating different parts of the dungeon at the same time. So, from one to seven tables can play at the same time, with a DM at each table, and one further person would act as the event’s coordinator, making sure everything worked smoothly and triggering the big events that affected several tables at once.”

“The lair of the Dracolich is large enough that it accompanies four sections, ranging from a Lizardmen commune to a temple of the dead god Bhaal,” writes Alex Lucard. “Each of the four locations offers a very different experience, so if you decide to run all four parts as a mini campaign or a single party, things won’t feel repetitive.”

The adventure encourages interaction between tables. Shannon Appelcline writes, “The coordinator moves about, threatening adventurers when the dracolich tracks them down; tables briefly come together and then separate, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. Even compared with similar adventures created for organized play, Dracolich stands out for the amount interaction possible between parties. Its game-store-sized scale lets everyone share the same dungeon.

“Groups that rely solely on one strategy, whether sneakiness or smacking monsters, will probably have some difficulty. The adventure is exceptionally well-designed, and various creative approaches are required for PCs to move through the complex safely. Enemies may be defeated, fooled, or co-opted with role-playing; regardless, it will take canny and aware players to succeed.”

In an RPG.net review, Vestige describes play. “There’s a breakneck rush through the dungeon to reach the staff, and then a massive climactic battle with even more to do than there are players. That’s a solid formula for a memorable day of D&D.”

In his account of running the adventure during a game day, Merric Blackman calls the experience “fantastic” and the scenario “something quite special.”

In a post, co-author Mike Shea offers advice for converting the adventure to fifth edition.

Next: Number 6.

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Sunless Citadel (2000): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 8

Mon, 06/03/2019 - 11:15

Sunless Citadel (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 1-3.

When Dungeons & Dragons started, creating an introductory adventure must have been easy. The adventure setting could stick close to the mundane: back alleys and caverns. New characters lack magic and abilities likely to derail an author’s plans. Choose goblins, kobolds, or bandits. Sprinkle in rats and overgrown bugs. Done.

Twenty-five years into D&D’s history, when Bruce Cordell penned the adventure that introduced third edition to new and returning players, he faced a more demanding audience. His Sunless Citadel rates as the 8th greatest adventure since 1985. In a dungeon crawl, the adventure serves the monsters, treasures, and even the dragon that new players expect from D&D. Plus dungeon delves make an easy start for new DMs.

But Sunless Citadel serves much more than D&D comfort food. The adventure includes sweet and spicy ingredients. Start with a deeply evocative location: a castle dropped into a rift by some cataclysm. Add a lost dragon wyrmling, a tainted tree at the heart of the ruin, and an evil druid with a plan. That plan adds a story element that gives characters a goal larger than looting, plus a climactic final battle. In addition to the usual low-level foes, Cordell adds a fresh humanoid monster.

While many dungeons exhaust players with fights while neglecting interaction, Sunless Citadel encourages players to ally with the kobold faction and with one of D&Ds most beloved non-player characters. “One of the surprise folk heroes of The Sunless Citadel was the hapless and pitiful kobold Meepo,” Shannon Appelcline writes in a product history. Meepo brings a compelling personality and often becomes a party mascot or guide. “Gradually the name Meepo became recognizable in D&D canon.”

Tales from the Yawning Portal updates Sunless Citadel for fifth edition.

Next: Number 7.

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Tomb of Annihilation (2017): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 9

Thu, 05/30/2019 - 11:16

Tomb of Annihilation (2017) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Chris Perkins. Will Doyle, and Steve Winter for levels 1-11.

Chris Perkins approach to adventure design seems to start with a collision of classic influences. Out of the Abyss mixes the Underdark with Alice In Wonderland. Storm King’s Thunder crosses Gary Gygax’s classic giant modules with King Lear. And Tomb of Annihilation mixes the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, with the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, with a deathtrap dungeon inspired by Tomb of Horrors. Every one of those influences appears on the Dungeon magazine list of 30 greatest adventures, and the mix plays better than any of them.

The story lands characters in tropical jungle land of Chult, a place with dinosaurs, volcanoes, pirates, and, well, frost giants. The players work to stop a world-spanning curse that blocks resurrection magic and wastes away anyone who returned from the dead.

“By far and away the ‘best bit’ of Tomb of Annihilation is the inclusion of some of the most fantastic and exotic locations seen in fifth edition so far,” writes Simon Yule for Geek Dad. “Most of these are stumbled upon as the party explores the thick jungles of Chult. They include the giant mud shrine at Dungrunglung, home of the frog-like grungs; the epic 300-foot-tall spire of Firefinger, patrolled by ferocious Pterafolk; the floating cave the Heart of Ubtao, complete with lich and zombie gorilla monsters; and the carnivorous garden of Nangalore.”

J.R. Zambrano from Bell of Lost Souls writes, “There’s a sense of adventure that pervades each of the book’s 5 Chapters. Everywhere you turn, there’s a cool location or a unique NPC or some sequence of events that makes you excited to get out there and play.”

Part of that flavor stems from the best, most evocative art of any D&D book. Pictures depicting the Port Nyanzaru street scene, the flametongue-wielding, snake-tailed villain Ras Nsi, and especially the overgrown first level of the tomb all make unforgettable calls to adventure.

The players’ quest leads to lost city, and then a multi-level deathtrap created by Acererak, the architect of the Tomb of Horrors. “Careful thinking, genuine puzzle-solving skills, and thorough trial-and-error exploration is something players will need to get through it all,” Jonbolds explains for Critical-Hits. “The dungeon beneath the city is a living environment with awesome links between areas requiring strategy and tactics from the players to overcome.”

Shawn Ellsworth reviewed the adventure for Tribality. “This is my favorite adventure to come out for this edition of D&D. Many of my favorite adventures have my players exploring deadly wilderness, searching ancient ruins full of puzzles and traps, and battling some mysterious lost people. If you are a fan of Indiana Jones, Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt, and Tomb Raider, this adventure brings a real pulp adventure feel to Dungeons & Dragons.”

“From beginning to end, this is a masterclass in adventure building,” writes J.R. Zambrano. “Tomb of Annihilation takes players into the forgotten lands of Chult and really brings it to life. If I had to pick the one thing this book does best: it captures the character of the setting.”

Next: Number 8.

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The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 10

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 11:15

The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 5-8.

When TSR introduced the second-edition Player’s Option books, new designer Bruce Cordell drew the job of writing an adventure highlighting the supplements.

The Combat & Tactics supplement introduced the maps-and-minis, grid-based style of combat that would come to dominate third and fourth edition. For that, the adventure packages monster tokens, and vivid—almost psychedelic—battlemaps for key locations.

For characters upgraded with Skills & Powers, The Gates of Firestorm Keep brings tough combat challenges against organized duergar resistance.

After passing the duergar guarding the gate, the party can continue through more combat, or stealth, or an alliance with a duergar usurper. Reviewer Will Mistretta writes, “Firestorm Peak is strongly non-linear, with more than one way to tackle the dungeon’s challenges.”

Never content to build a dungeon around a mere ruin or hole in the ground, Cordell begins with a evocative premise: “Once a generation, they say, a strange comet appears in the sky overhead and the gates of Firestorm Peak swing open.” One player has the option of casting their character as the offspring of an adventurer who disappeared in the mountain 28 years ago.

The adventure starts as a tactical challenge, but it veers into fresh territory. “Anyone who’s been a gamer long enough reaches a stage where he or she begins to feel like it’s all been done,” John D. Rateliff says. “This adventure is evidence that fresh talent will always come along and do the familiar with so much verve and so many personal touches that it all seems new again.”

As the party delves deeper and starts unraveling the peak’s mystery, the story creeps into the weird territory of things we’re not meant to know. “It positively oozes freaky flavor,” writes Mistretta. “The alien life forms infesting the depths of the dungeon are truly unsettling in their aspect and the gradual transition from a classic Underdark romp to the heart of an otherworldly foulness is handled quite deftly.”

Firestorm Peak introduced the Far Realm, a Lovecraftian dimension of insanity and horror. “It got a lot of attention because it was evocative and focused on one of D&D’s influences that had long been neglected—the Cthulhu mythos,” Shannon Appelcline writes in his product history. “The Gates of Firestorm Peak was also the adventure that changed the way people thought about D&D aberrations. Beforehand, they were wizardly experiments gone wrong, but afterward they were more frequently associated with Lovecraftian monstrosities.”

The Gates of Firestorm Peak ranked 11 on Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list of 30 greatest adventures.

Next: Number 9.

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Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

Tue, 05/28/2019 - 11:15

When Dungeons & Dragons fans rate adventures, the ones published early get the most accolades. In 2004, Dungeon magazine listed the greatest adventures of all time. Of 30 adventures, 20 came from 1985 or earlier. TSR started publishing adventures in 1978, so this represents just a 7 year slice of D&D’s 45-year history. Three more entries from after 1985 simply collected earlier adventures.

Why do early adventures gain so much praise?

Part of the stature of early adventures comes from their influence. Those classics showed every D&D fan how to create scenarios. They offered a template for many styles of dungeon: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief became the first stronghold, Tomb of Horrors the first deathtrap, and White Plume Mountain the first funhouse. The drow adventures invented dark elves, the Underdark, and planar adventures. Such early modules implied a setting that serves as a foundation for every D&D campaign, even the ones that aim to be distinctive.

But much of the high ratings come from the years of attention these adventures’ gained. From 1978 to 1982, TSR published an average of fewer than 7 adventures a year, and all the adventures were short enough to play in a day or so. So most D&D fans played the same small set of adventures, and then traded their stories with other fans. Those early adventures remained in print for a decade or more, capturing the attention of a generation of players.

Over the years, the gamers who played those early adventures introduced new players to the old favorites. These adventures spawned conversions and sequels. For example, every edition of D&D generated at least one reprise or sequel to Tomb of Horrors. And of course, the panel that ranked Dungeon magazine’s 30 greatest adventures all started playing with the early favorites that dominated the list.

In 1983, the few adventures produced for D&D turned into an avalanche. Through the middle years of D&D’s history, gamers could only play a fraction of the adventures produced for the game. Everyone played a different subset, so even the best adventures failed to garner much attention. (For a deeper look into this topic, see Return of the Classics by Teos Abadia.)

Still, many adventures rated as good as or better than any of the old classics. After all, experience taught adventure designers more ways to write fun scenarios. For example, no one published an event-driven adventure until 1982. See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures For Good.

To shine attention on the newer classics, my next posts will count down the 10 greatest adventures published after 1985. Why 1985? Because the middle 80s mark a steep increase in adventures published, yet 1985 marks a steep decrease in the rate of those 30 greatest adventures reaching print. Also in 1985, Gary Gygax left TSR forever. Gary’s departure didn’t mark a sudden drop in quality—his last solo classic debuted in 1982—but 1985 still marks a turn in D&D history.

Who decides on the 10 greatest? On dmdavid.com, DM David decides. But I don’t rely entirely on my own judgement. I’ve drawn from ratings, reviews, and appraisals from D&D fans, and then I used my completely unscientific aggregation of opinions to rank the 10 entries. Ask me again in a week and I’ll probably put the list in a different order. For my sanity, I limited the list to adventures sold as products under the D&D brand. That excludes great independent and Dungeon magazine adventures. Someday, I aspire to posting a list of the best adventures from Dungeon magazine. I invite nominations.

Does my list miss a great adventure? Yes. Take to the comments and set me straight, but first double check your favorite’s publication date. When I called for nominations after 1985, many fans suggested adventures that proved older than expected.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll post one entry every weekday but Friday, until I reach number 1.

Next: Number 10

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Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

Tue, 05/21/2019 - 11:00

I ran evil-themed D&D campaign once, but only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released Menzoberranzan City of Intrigue and promoted the book with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. Fourth edition’s Encounters program hosted drop-in games at local game stores. This season made the players evil drow and fostered backstabbing and intrigue. As an Encounters dungeon master, I questioned the wisdom of the theme, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. Still, I dutifully ran the campaign as intended.

My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If players’ actions defied their alignments, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Even so, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, the Greyhawk campaign run by D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it,” Gary wrote. “They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In a Dragon magazine issue 118 article outlining changes coming in second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook writes, “The assassin is a goner—virtually guaranteed. It is highly unlikely that any amount of appeal will save his neck. He is disruptive to party harmony and, more importantly, presents the wrong image about AD&D games.”

The thief also inspired in-party conflicts. Steve explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

“He’s a thief! He steals from everyone and ruins friendships,” Zeb wrote. But thieves reflected better on AD&D than assassins and offered a more popular archetype, so Zeb defended the class. “This is more a problem of how the player is using the thief, not the class itself.”

Nonetheless, the class name inspired thieving. Second edition started a rebranding by making thieves a type of rogue. The Player’s Handbook explains, “The character classes are divided into four groups according to general occupation: Warrior, Wizard, Priest and Rogue.” By third edition, “rogue” permanently replaced “thief” as a class name.

Related: The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Related: A role-playing game player’s obligation

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