If I had to sum up the attraction of old-school Dungeons & Dragons in a single phrase, it would be: “simple rules, great modules”. Nowadays things are so backwards. There’s a D&D rulebook, it seems, for everything under the sun, and modules aren’t even close to what they used to be. You certainly don’t hear gamers rhapsodizing about modules like I did back in the day, when we couldn’t wait to get to the store to buy the new temple of darkness penned by Gary Gygax, or the coastal haunted house that masked a nefarious business. James Maliszewski has written extensively about the evolution of D&D modules, one of my favorite posts being Locale and Plot.
Essentially, as Maliszewski contends, the D&D modules of the late ’70s & early ’80s focused on presenting locales with minimal plotting. Any plot resulted from a dynamic unfolding of what happened to the PCs once they were there, not something the module authors scripted in advance. Dragonlance (in 1984) changed that focus, introducing heavy-handed plotting on prepackaged narratives, with the result that PCs became increasingly consigned to enacting preordained roles. In fact, as far as I’m concerned, it got to the point that modules weren’t really “modules” anymore — things you could pick up and drop into your own adventure with ease. They became the adventures themselves, which defeated the whole concept of interchangeability that was inherent to a “module”.
And of course, by the time of 3rd edition D&D (in 2000), the term “module” had indeed been officially dropped in favor of “adventure”. But that switch in terminology should have occurred sometime in the mid to late ’80s, prior to the release of even 2nd edition D&D. Story supplanted design to the extent that role-playing felt more and more like script-slavery. This isn’t to say (as Maliszewski emphasizes) that old-school gamers didn’t create their own stories; far from it. The point is that they were their own stories, not the module authors’, and more importantly, the stories grew by the spontaneity (and often unpredictability) of the players’ seat-of-the-pants actions. Post-1983 modules were, to use the old-school cuss word, “railroady”, meaning they forced players on too many paths or plots to make the module “work”. There’s obviously some degree of railroading to any D&D campaign (otherwise it could be hard to get one off the ground), but the ratio of PC free will to DM predestination was large by design in the old days. DMs were trained to expect the unexpected from their players, and to shift gears accordingly.
Dragonlance ushered in nothing less than a lazy breed of gaming, often justified by the insistence that DMs no longer had as much free time to develop plots on their own and prepare for counterplots. Maliszewski rightly refutes this: creating a plot/story is the easiest part of being a DM, not the hardest. It’s the modular parts — maps, room descriptions, treasures, monsters, encounter areas, game stats — that are a pain in the ass and so bloody time consuming for the referee to develop. And it’s this stuff that need to feel inspired. Dungeons, cities, and wilderness locales are where creative energy need to be poured, and where we relied so heavily on the genius imaginations of Gary Gygax, Tom Moldvay, David Cook, and Roger Moore — and believe me, I’m the first to admit that my own self-designed modules weren’t nearly as inspiring as theirs. The overarching plot and adventure, however, is more basic, and what I want to be my own. Just as I want my characters to be my own as a player. (Pre-generated characters, except in tournament settings, are as anathema to the spirit of D&D role-playing as pre-packaged adventures.)
Let’s be frank: there haven’t been awesomely inspiring modules like Tomb of Horrors, The Lost City, Castle Amber, and Vault of the Drow in a long time. They succeeded so well, and remain classics, because they detailed as much as they inspired, around minimal plotting. They were suitable as self-standing isolated affairs, but could just as easily be worked into larger campaigns — adventures, that is, determined by the interactive dynamic between DMs and players.