Thursday, March 3, 2011

My 11 Favorite Dungeons and Dragons Modules

For those that don't know, I'm a giant D&D nerd. I'm sure most of you are aware, but in case someone stumbled onto my page looking for great deals on medical supplies or pictures of girls in their underwear, well, that's not what we do here.

A Dungeons and Dragons module is basically a short story that you play through as a group with one person running the story and everyone else playing major characters. Modules were all the rage when I played in the 80's and early 90's, usually written by guys who worked for TSR (including Gygax, himself) and some of them were well crafted stories, and others were just series of monsters and bad storytelling mushed together and sold for $5.95 (yes, I'm old enough to remember when modules cost about six bucks).

Here then is my list of the favorite modules I ever ran or played in.


I will be ruining the end of some of these, so if you never played them or you don't want to know the twist ending for some reason, just check the names and the pictures and don't read my descriptions.

11. The Isle of Dread

The Isle of Dread was the module you got if you bought the box-set of  Expert Dungeons and Dragons, which contained a rule book for characters levels 6-10 and this module. Ostensibly the idea was to introduce players to adventures that were outside rather than a dungeon crawl, and the island was basically covered with monsters, dinosaurs and randomly large animals (mostly snakes). The players were sent to the island based on a scrap of a note that they found showing the island's approximate location in the sea and the teaser text that told them that the island was actually covered with fabulous treasure!

The story itself wasn't very cohesive, and really you just went from one monster encounter to the next until you'd covered the entire island, but it was different and new and didn't take place underground so it had all kinds of cool things like weather and swimming and mountain climbing and what have you. Basically things kids playing D&D would never do in real life.

My favorite story about the Isle of Dread though was that in another campaign that some friends of mine played, one of the characters, a high level Fighter named Draygon, had actually chartered a boat to the island, killed everything on it, and claimed it as his own. Thus it became the Isle of Draygon in most of our campaigns after that, and I always thought that was cool.

Quick! Send the natives to slow it down!

10. Mad Monkey vs. the Dragon Claw

I didn't get to play as much Oriental Adventures as I'd have liked. OA was an add-on book for Advanced Dugeons and Dragons (1st Edition) that let you play Ninjas, Samurais, and everyone's favorite class: The Bushi. Why was it everyone's favorite? They just liked saying "Bushi". Bushi were just fighters, they didn't have any special magic abilities or anything, but it's fun to say. Bushi. Bushi. Bushi. Ok, I'll stop now.


The story of Mad Monkey vs. the Dragon Claw was a great read though. Basically Dragon Claw, who is one of the immortal powers of the Oriental game setting, has challenged all the other Immortal powers by telling them that his fighting style is the best. He's also made a bet that if his followers, using his fighting style, can beat everyone else, then the Immortal Powers have to let him rule over the world (or part of the world at least) however he wants to.

Dragon Claw, however, is being a jerk, and he hasn't told the other Immortals that one of the reasons his guys are the best is that he's supplied them all with magic weapons. One of the other immortals, Mad Monkey, has figured it out, and has approached the adventurers with the information and is supplying them with powers and magic items of their own to go out and destroy Dragon Claw's disciples. It's like a Saturday Afternoon Kung Fu movie as a playable game, and how could you not love that?
Aaaah! The ground is gone!

9. Vault of the Drow

A classic module that almost all old school D&D nerds are familiar with, Vault of the Drow was the player's first opportunity to fight Lolth, the Goddess-Queen of the Drow.

The Drow, if you were wondering, were this wonderfully horrible evil race of dark elves who were totally awesome in a "if they show up, you run" kind of way. They were sort of like the Agents in the first Matrix movie, and just mentioning Drow, or finding Drow weapons laying around could terrify a group of level 10 adventurers back in the day.

Of course then someone (*cough* R.A. Salvatore *cough*) wrote some terrible books about the Drow, basically told us all about them, including how their society worked, which pretty much destroyed any fear they ever instilled in anyone in a "Wait, Darth Vader's a whiny little kid?" kind of way.

But still, it was a fun module.

If there's anything more horrifying than giant spiders, it's giant FABULOUS spiders.

8. The Rod of Seven Parts

This is kind of cheating because Rod of Seven Parts is less a module than it is an entire campaign, but I liked it because it had a great back story about the war between the Dukes of the Wind and the Queen of Chaos, it had lots of adventure hooks while your group tried to find all seven parts, and it just felt epic.

You had to go to other planes of existence to find certain parts. You had to battle the ghosts of the Generals of the war that was fought over the Rod long ago, and if you managed to find all seven parts it became a very powerful artifact called the Rod of Law.

It was also the only magic item in D&D history that got it's own novel, written by Douglas Niles, who wrote several Dragonlance novels, and the next Module on the list.

Not pictured: The Rod.

7. Horror on the Hill

Horror on the Hill is just a straight forward little story, but it exemplified, for me at least, exactly what a D&D module should contain: A snippet of story, a setting, some bad guys, a cool ending. Horror on the Hill started with the players gathering at an old abandoned fort, and heading into the hill to fight whatever horrors were there (even the name works to explain everything you're doing).

There are rumors that a witch lives in the hill, but it's mostly filled with goblins and hobgoblins, and then, right at the bottom SUPRISE! A red dragon. A neat little addition that let you introduce your low level characters to fighting dragons, and pretty well capped off an interesting little adventure. Nothing too special, just a well done romp through dungeon land.

No, the Horror is on that Hill! Over there!

6. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks

This one is a classic. The players start the game being told by the Duke that a bunch of monsters keep coming out of this cave and attacking his lands, and the players are sent to deal with the problem. They head to the mountains, enter the cave, and discover that it's even more bizarre than they imagined.

The players have to deal with strange armored men, bizarre lights, hallways made of materials they've never seen before, doors that slide open and closed. It's all very intriguing in a "What the heck is going on" kind of way.

Turns out, the players are actually on a spaceship that crashed onto this fantasy planet. The DM was instructed to keep that secret until the last possible moment, describing the "shiny metal armored men" who turned out to be robots, and describing the fluorescent lighting as "magic like you've never encountered before". It was a nice twist to find out that you were on a spaceship the whole time.

Two things of note about Barrier Peaks: Stephen Colbert listed it as one of his favorite modules, and it introduced an idea that was later used profusely in video games, namely that to get to certain parts of the ship you had to find different colored keycards to open the doors. I'm sure the game described them as magic door opening scrolls, but in games like Doom and Quake and other First Person Shooters this became the standard way to progress through the game. So good for them on both counts.
Surprised that it's not Japanese? Me too.

5. Baltron's Beacon

This one is probably one of my favorites less for the module itself than it was for the enjoyable time I had playing it. In the middle of a swamp is a giant green light that fires up from this keep, and the players are sent in to find out what it is and destroy it, since it's calling all the monsters in the area to head to the keep, and nobody likes it when all the monsters get together. It just never ends well.

I remember the keep as kind of fun to explore, but mostly what I remember is that at the beginning this creepy Druid guy who lives in the swamp gives you these black seeds that you have to put into the green glow at it's base level in order to destroy it, and that's how you finish the game, you have to get to where the green glow starts and toss the black seeds in.

Now I was playing a thief in this game, so I was sneaking off by myself all the time and getting in trouble, and at one point I got captured by the BIG BAD GUY, who tied my character to a metal chair, drenched me in water and started casting shocking hands spells on me to torture me in an effort to find out why our party was here.

I did the typical action star thing at first and refused to talk, thinking I'd be awesome, but then a little actual role playing kicked in. See, I realized that my character wasn't the tough guy, he was thief! And I didn't know the rest of the party that well (I mean, in real life, sure, but my character had just met their characters) so I said, forget it, I'm not getting killed for these people I barely know. So I spilled the whole thing to the evil wizard, the black seeds, the green glow, tossing them in, the whole bit.

I'll never forget that moment, one of my all time favorite role playing game moments as the DM looked at me, and then in character for the evil wizard said, "You expect me to believe that you traveled all the way across a dangerous swamp and fought through dozens of monsters to get into my keep so you could MAKE POPCORN!"

It was a great moment, and I remember looking back and realizing that was the point in time that I realized how much fun you could have with an RPG, and that being the super awesome action star was never as much fun as playing a flawed character (like a thief willing to sell out his "friends" to save his own life). I've never looked back. The first thing I try to do when I make a character now is figure out how he's flawed. Cause that's the fun part.

What is SHE looking at?

4. The Keep on the Borderlands

Here's an example of where a module becomes popular just through sheer volume. When you bought the Basic Dungeons and Dragons box set, chances were you got this module. I heard rumors from other people that they got B1 Search for the Unknown, but I never actually saw that happen, and I bought dozens of these over the years, all of them containing Keep on the Borderlands. I always thought it was weird that the module they gave you to start with was labeled B2, and made you feel like you had already missed something.

The module itself isn't that great, as I recall. It reminds me a lot of Horror on the Hill: the characters show up at the eponymous keep and then just keep exploring the caverns nearby that are full of monsters. I remember there were some kobolds, and some lizardmen, and there was an evil priest in the keep itself who had allied himself with some of the bad guy monsters.

But what I really remember about it is that for years and years, and even to this day if you find someone that played the first Basic D&D, they all had or remember this module. That's pretty impressive if you ask me, so out of sheer nostalgia I'm ranking it 4th on my list.

Smallest.War. Ever.

3. Temple of Elemental Evil

First of all, kudos to these guys for having a cool name. Temple of Elemental Evil just sounds cool. Second, this module was huge. Much bigger and more full of stuff than any of the other modules I ever remember buying. I think it might be bigger than the Rod of Seven Parts, which was a full on campaign setting. I guess technically Temple of Elemental Evil qualifies as a campaign setting as well, since you could run, I believe from level 1 to 8 without actually leaving it.

Basically it was this giant temple built by an evil horde, and even though humans and elves and dwarves and gnomes had eradicated most of the evil horde of monsters, the Temple was still there and became sort of a base for bad guys to do bad things. So the players have to show up and beat them down again, but it turns out that underneath the evil temple, there's layer after layer of dungeon that goes down miles into the ground.

So players can just keep going back to town, then heading back to the temple to dig further and further down, defeating evil as they go. Kind of a cool way to run a campaign if you just decided you didn't want to bother with politics or overland maps or introducing any sort of NPC mystery to solve. You have dungeons, you explore them, you kill monsters you take their stuff. Rinse, repeat. Great stuff.

Never buy the creepiest house in the neighborhood.

 2. Ravenloft

It may just be that I liked Dracula so much, but Ravenloft was always one of my favorites. Strahd, the evil vampire, has a castle and a nearby village full of ravishing young women to satiate his bloodlust, and the players have to show up and put a stop to it.

It's cool, because you get a lot of the Dracula feel, there's gypsies and wolves and people with names like Tatiana and Ilsa, and a creepy vampire castle full of undead things to fight, but it also has a full story, and you may actually start to feel some sympathy for Strahd when you find out all the horrible things that happened to him. It's really well done, and also contains the Sunsword, where my friend Anthony got his alter ego name from.

Plus, really good artwork and giant maps of the castle, always a bonus. Plus, again, Ravenloft is just a cool name. I like things with cool names.

Standing on his balcony, Strahd surveyed his lands and decided, "I live in a Hell hole."

1. Castle Amber (Chateau D'Amberville)

So any of the old school gamers I ever played with know this is my favorite module. I used to run it all the time, every time we started a new group, and really, I can't even explain why. I'll give it a shot though. The game starts with the players on their way somewhere, they stop to camp, they wake up in the morning in a foggy mist, and suddenly they're at Castle Amber.

If they try to leave they get killed in the mist (the module helpfully points this out to them by having a mule run off into the mist with a rope tied around it, and you hear it scream and if you pull the mule back by the rope you find a mule corpse). Basically you have to go inside the castle or die in the fog, so right there you're already off and running.

But to me, the great thing about it, is that the Castle is just full of the Amber family, who are all bat guano insane in various different ways. One of them has been buried alive by the others and she's become a ghoul out to kill anyone who comes across her. One has set up a boxing match where players can fight his flesh golem boxer. One is dead, and the only way to get out of the castle is to find his tomb and leave through there.

It 's also filled with great little puzzles that I love, like the dinner party where the players can pick and choose what dishes they want to eat that all have random magical effects on them. Eating the green beans with slivered almonds might give you a +1 strength boost until you leave the castle. Eating the cheese soup might turn you into a rabbit. It had a great little setup where these ghosts bring out every course and you asked all the players "Are you eating the braised lamb?" And only after everyone decided and the plates were taken away would you tell the players what the effect was. So it was basically just this random Russian Roulette of "Do I want to eat that?"

Another puzzle had a room with letters on the floor, and you had to cross the room in 7 steps, so you would always spell out a word (a nonsense word, usually) so whatever the first 7 letters you stepped on were would light up, and when you got across the room each of the words you could spell out would have some magical effect on you. You might get a forcefield that protected you from damage, or you might get frostbite. You just never knew.

So, for the great story, the interesting characters and the totally awesome puzzles, Castle Amber has always been my favorite Dungeons and Dragons module.

When giants are swinging trees at you and crushing your towers in their bare hands it's time to move.