Jan 292014

Ruminations on Dungeons and Dragons, brought on by the game’s 40th anniversary

Originally there were no pre-designed adventures, just a couple of pamphlet-style rule books that described the Greyhawk and Blackmoor campaigns in broad detail. But no pre-fab dungeons; you had to roll your own.

Against the GiantsAs far as I know, the first professionally-designed, pre-created adventures (called “modules”) made their appearance shortly after the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was released, and were the “Against the Giants” series where players faced, in turn, hill giants, then frost giants, then fire giants.

The concept of having a module made sense; creating an adventure from scratch was hard and time consuming. One needed to have the prerequisite burst of creativity to come up with the adventure – something that is not always easily done on demand – but a good adventure was more than just a series of individual encounters. It was something with a theme, where encounters relate to one another, where everything makes sense.

Or one could just make crap up on the fly and hope everyone had fun anyway.

Technically there was another way, the Dungeon Master’s Guide had a section that described how to randomize a dungeon as you go, but a dungeon is not the same as an adventure, and the randomization guaranteed a series of unrelated encounters with no theme. I do not recall any of the DMs I knew who ever felt led to try random dungeon generation.

Four different styles of adventure creation, each appealing to a different style of dungeon master.

I personally sort of looked down on the modules, it felt too easy. The best adventure is a unique adventure, hand-crafted for this specific party. Not that I always had the time, but still, when I could, which was most of the time, I wrote my own. Meticulous notes. Lots of graph paper.

My friend Dell on the other hand, Dell loved to be the Dungeon Master, but did not love to be the dungeon designer. When it was Dell’s turn to DM we would play a module. Always. Dell didn’t like to read ahead much either, and there were many times where we would be deep into an adventure and suddenly, we’d hear “huh” from Dell, or “oh wait, you weren’t supposed to have that already”, or something similar that meant he had learned something about the adventure that he should have known several hours ago and we were about to have some kind of time-warping reset.

My friend Dave couldn’t be bothered with modules or design work and completely fabricated everything as we went. He took a rather loose view of the whole idea of “rules” too, referring to the various source books as “Junior Woodchuck Manuals” that he considered to be more guidelines than anything else. Dave-based gaming sessions were often a series of each of us each doing things that we thought would amuse each other more than anything else. In Dave’s world, we might spend the entire night in the tavern or especially, in the magic shop.

Castle AmberCertain modules stand out for me. My cousin Mark ran us through Against the Giants very early in our D&D lives – and the sequels where we descended into the land of the (stupidly!) magic-resistant Drow and their goddess Lolth. I mainly remember that we always set off the alarm, whatever the alarm was in each module, and ended up facing most of the module’s content all at the same time in a crazy super-melee.

Dell inflicted a particularly painful module on us in the form of “Castle Amber”, which I can only remember as the one module everyone disliked so much we walked away from it, abandoning the poor characters within, never to return. Simply seeing the cover of the module again makes me angry although I no longer remember the details of why. We must have had some seriously bad times in there.

Ravenloft was completely different from anything that had been released up to that point; it had really useful and ground-breaking 3D maps, but more, it was a story more than a series of encounters in a way that the other modules simply did not attempt. A gothic horror vampiric love story, but still, a story. Ah, if only I’d been a teenage girl.

RavenloftMy biggest problem with Ravenloft is that bad things happened to your characters that you could not prevent with skillful play; they were designed to happen. Just being drawn to the Ravenloft world was a bad thing. But it was immensely popular, so much so that it became an entire campaign setting. One I avoided (due to the bad things happening to your characters thing) for 20 years.

After all that time, I allowed myself to get sucked into a Ravenloft campaign, and the very first thing that happened was all our characters were killed, and later awoke to find that they were each just a head, body-less, in large glass jars in some mad scientist’s laboratory. Sigh. Typical. And I really liked the character I’d created for the campaign too.

My favorite module of all time is – by far, without even a close second place – White Plume Mountain. It is the perfect tactical adventure, and embodies everything I believe about dungeon creation. Running this module is to confront a series of raw problems that must be puzzled out with pure, problem-solving creativity. Some of the problems are monsters of course, but some are magic and some are physics and everything is laid out so cleanly and interestingly.

White Plume MountainLike all good adventures, the encounters tie together; it all makes sense. And is hard! But eminently do-able. You win this adventure with skill. Not armor class, not the best sword, skill. Pure playing ability.

Supposedly, Tomb of Horrors is like that too but I never played it.

Plus, due to a series of convoluted events, my players ended up creating a monster from the White Plume Mountain module that became a big part of my game world: the legendary Huge Undead Crab, terror of the Sailor Peaks!

One interesting thing I found out – no, make that awesomely wonderful – while looking for images for this article, is that the Against the Giants series was re-released in 1999 as a special edition called …

… Wait for it! …

Against The Giants: The Liberation Of Geoff

The liberation of Geoff! How awesome is that? And here I didn’t even know I was being repressed.

🙂 😀 🙂

  7 Responses to “Of Modules And Home Brew”

Comments (7)
  1. Both ways are good I’ve done it both an I’ve used some of a d&d in a custom game

  2. Never played Tomb of Horrors?!!?

    Should really give that one a go – it is one of THE best Mods IMO.

  3. I don’t think we ever used a module. Heck, I’m not even sure I knew that modules existed. But then, I was a late comer to our group. Our primary DM was (and probably still is) a genius at creating his own maps. Maps of all sorts and scales; from town layouts to global representations (i.e. entire hemispheres and continents) and everything in between. But he was also creative with various other elements. His adventures were always the best. We had other DMs, and they did a good job (I even managed to run one – not as good as the others, mind you, but I think eveyone had fun), but we always look forward to running a “T J” dungeon. And he was happy enough to oblige, most of the time. He even ran a PC with us while DM-ing. But every now and then, he say (something to the effect of), “Guys, I’m tired of DM-ing and I just want to play.” so someone else would DM for a while.

    He kept detailed records of his adventures in binders – I’d bet he still has them all, too. I wonder if he ever thought of making (un)official modules from them…


  4. I’ve still got my White Plume Mountain module. 🙂

  5. As do I Jerry! White Plume, Expedition to Barrier Peaks, Tomb of Horrors, and Lost Caverns Of Tsjocanth to name a few. Had to save some of my favorite modules for posterity…

  6. I was a lazy DM, no imagination I guess, I used to draught up a lot of maps and half back stories, but I could never run PCs through half of a quest 😛 So, yes, I used boxed sets etc 😉

    I totally prefer to be a PC than the DM, the DM knows everything, there’s no mystery or adventure for them (Well, they don’t know what the mysterious PCs will do, nor what sort of adventure that might lead a DM on…)

  7. Tomb Of Horrors usually sorted the wheat from the chaf. One of my faves. Also remember Hommlet and T1-4 Temple Of Elemental Evil fondly. Greyhawk had such scope.

What do you think?

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