Though my fondness for Judge’s Guild’s Wilderlands has since eclipsed it, I still consider 1980’s The World of Greyhawk Fantasy World Setting to be the best campaign setting product TSR ever produced. I can already hear the chorus of disagreement rising in the background, as fans of Planescape and Dark Sun, Birthright and Ravenloft, even the 1983 Greyhawk boxed set prepare to show me the error of my ways. They’re welcome to try and make their case, but I’m not easily dissuaded on this point, as I’ll explain.
I try very hard not to be hyperbolic on this blog; I know I often don’t succeed. But I am hard pressed to think of any module published under the Dungeons & Dragons banner that was worse than 1988’s Castle Greyhawk. Consider: Gary Gygax’s legendary Castle Greyhawk had never seen publication except in snippets (such as Dungeonland, Land Beyond the Magic Mirror, and Isle of the Ape). There were occasional — unrealized — intimations by Gary that TSR might one day published this megadungeon in a more complete form. When module WG7 was released, as part of the World of Greyhawk brand, no less, I am sure many expected it to be the fulfillment of a long-held dream. I know I did.
1985’s Isle of the Ape is the last official D&D module by Gary Gygax published by TSR. That alone makes it fairly significant. Like its predecessor in the WG series, Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure, this module is, at least in part, a throwback to the early days of the hobby, since the eponymous Isle was a feature of Gary’s own (still-unpublished at that time) Castle Greyhawk. Though I have no firsthand knowledge to substantiate this supposition, I believe that these late Gygax modules were to some degree a reaction to the Hickman Revolution. I base my feelings on contemporary articles by Gary in Dragon, in which he makes the case that D&D had become too focused on “story” and that there was a need to “start pushing the pendulum the other way” back toward “action, rather than role playing, … [as] the major focus of gaming.” (Issue 102) Isle of the Ape has only the thinnest plot, being mostly a romp through an extremely deadly version of King Kong’s Skull Island, re-imagined as a demiplane, so, if I’m wrong in this supposition, I don’t do so without cause.
Let me state for the record that I absolutely hate the title of this module, which I think implicitly places far too much emphasis not just on the character of Mordenkainen but also on the adventure he and his companions had there in 1973. There are few people for whom the prehistory of Dungeons & Dragons is as important as it is for me. Had I the money and time to do so, I’d certainly be flying all over the country, interviewing people associated with the early days of the hobby in order to record their reminiscences for posterity. We’ve already lost far too many of our founding fathers as it is — and their memories along with them. Their experiences at the start of it all are important and ought to be preserved.
Over 25 years later, The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun still creeps me out.
I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect, even moreso than its quasi-Lovecraftian theme — a dark, imprisoned god — it’s the artwork that does it for me. The module is entirely illustrated by an artist otherwise unknown to me, Karen Nelson. This level of artistic unity was unusual in TSR modules, which tended to use several artists. Here, though, the consistent look contributes greatly to the feel of the thing. I find the cover image perfect: its unisex, featureless humanoid surrounded by writhing tentacles/serpents/arms being a superb evocation of the kind of “unfocused” uneasiness I feel about the module.
I hate the term “fantasy heartbreaker,” not so much for its original purpose — though I do have serious issues with it even in that form — but for the way it’s become shorthand in some quarters for simply dismissing a fantasy game without the need for rational discussion of its merits or flaws. Like “nerd rage,” it’s used as a substitute for both thought and empathy and I loathe it. That’s why, when I was asked by Jimmy Swill of Ye Olde Gaming Companye (YOGC) to read its new fantasy roleplaying game, Wayfarers, I agreed to do so. Though I already have D&D in various forms for my gaming needs, that doesn’t mean I can’t potentially learn a thing or two from other RPGs, particularly ones that explicitly tout their “old-school feel.”
It’s only fitting, therefore, that someone would create a RPG product that explicitly connects fantasy gaming with swords-and-sorcery comics — and what better someone than Green Ronin Publishing, whose superhero game, Mutants & Masterminds, is one of the most successful offspring of D&D 3e via the Open Game License? Their recently-released PDF product (with a print version coming in the summer), Warriors & Warlocks, is 142 pages of rules, advice, and examples on how to use the M&M rules to play in “the days of high adventure.” W&W is a full-color product that’s lavishly illustrated by excellent comic book-style art, some of it quite evocative. The writing is clear, for the most part, and the editing is solid. Writers Dale Donovan, Matthew Kaiser, John Leitheusser, and Aaron Sullivan certainly know the history of S&S comics and the text is peppered with useful references to influential titles in the genre, along with occasional quotes from writers like REH.
The first offering published by TSR UK, The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh set the standard for the installments that would follow it in the U and UK series. An introductory mystery-style module, the adventure writes the first chapter of a plotline that continues in U2 Danger at Dunwater and U3 The Final Enemy. Not surprisingly, the writing here is top-notch, the plot twists clever, and the atmosphere engrossing–traits that (IMHO) infuse all the modules this fantastic team presented. U1 is certainly suitable for experienced gamers beginning a fresh campaign, but it really shines in its potential for new DMs and Players.
What really stands out about U1 are two things. First, it takes the standard low-level D&D tropes — an isolated town beset by problems appropriate for 1st-level characters to deal with — and gives them a new spin. The town of Saltmarsh itself is given glorious life through its many NPCs, including criminals in league with smugglers who are using a nearby abandoned reputedly haunted mansion as their base of operations. What’s terrific is that the mansion is not in fact haunted at all but is only made to appear so through the use of illusion magic and other trickery. The vast majority of the enemies the PCs face initially are in fact human, which puts the module very much in line with the traditions of pulp fantasy.
Most gamers, I hope, know that Tom Moldvay was the editor of the 1981 Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rulebook, as well as the writer (co-writer) of two of the greatest D&D modules of all time, The Isle of Dread and Castle Amber. Some of them may also know that he wrote a RPG about world-hopping called Lords of Creation (which I hope to discuss in this space sometime soon). But how many realize that he wrote an 8-page restatement of AD&D in 1986 under the name The Challenges Game System? I was dimly aware of the existence of this game, although I can’t say for certain how I was made aware of it or precisely when. Regardless, I’d never actually seen a copy until this week, thanks to a reader of this blog.
First published in 1977 and revised in 1980 (and expanded in 1989) by Judges Guild, Tegel Manor is without a doubt one of Bob Bledsaw’s masterpieces. Describing a sprawling 240-room haunted castle, the module is a textbook example of a funhouse dungeon, utterly lacking in anything resembling an ecology and filled with many encounters for which the adjective “whimsical” is charitable at best. The contents and/or inhabitants of each room are random — in some cases literally — meaning that, here you might find nothing more threatening than some giant beetles but next door you might find a Type III demon polymorphed as a kindly old beggar.