The Best D&D Encounter Areas

Having ranked the Best Dungeons & Dragons Modules, I’ve now done the same for encounter areas. For purposes of this exercise, “encounter area” is an elastic term. It can be a single room, a series of rooms, an entire dungeon level, a building, a wilderness space, sometimes even an entire city. It depends on the module’s focus and often how much is left for the DM to flesh out. Dungeon crawls where every room is made to count (like Tomb of Horrors and Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan) are obviously designed differently than underground cities that have many architectures (like The Lost City and Vault of the Drow). Some encounter areas are focused on dynamic events more than content (like the intrigue throughout the Evil Abbey in Master of the Desert Nomads). Then there are wilderness areas, boundaries of which can be ambiguous.

Because of this, my rankings should be taken as a rough order of preference. Unlike my module list, there’s a slight apples-to-oranges feel in this texture, as encounter areas can be hard to compare. It’s a descending order based on gut intuition; the higher they place, the higher they rate, but in many cases it’s a close tie. For instance, any of #s 1-4 could count as my top choice depending on my mood, and I’ll be damned if I can really choose between #s 18 and 19, or others that rub against each other. Enjoy, and feel free to comment with rankings of your own.

1. The Revolving Passage & the Cult Factions. Encounter areas 11-12, 14-16, 21-23 in The Lost City. I could talk about The Lost City for days, and could choose almost any encounter area — the trio of rooms on tier 5 where masked Cynidiceans are tripping on acid; the burial chamber of Queen Zenobia on tier 4, who is now something unpleasant; Zargon’s lair at the bottom, where he lurks like a Cthulhu-deity. But my favorite is the revolving passage on tier 3 which connects to the worship outposts of the three cult factions (spread across tiers 2 and 3) who oppose the rule of Zargon below in the underground city, but also can’t stand each other. The result is a sharp dynamic of political intrigue: “The bickering between the three factions, and their attempts to restore sanity to Cynidicean society, give the DM the chance to add character interaction to the adventure. While the factions can be played as simple monsters with treasure, the DM and players can have a lot of fun with the plots and feuding of the factions.” The cults have colorful personalities — the lawful-neutral priests of Gorm, the true-neutral warrior maidens of Madarua, the chaotic-neutral magi of Usimagarus — and PCs can join forces with any one of them, or even convert. It elicits good role-playing, and the module emphasizes that the DM shouldn’t steer the players toward any predetermined outcome. Everything depends on how they decide to interact with the cults, if they do at all. The Cynidicean cults did more to inspire me than anything else in any D&D module, and for that reason hold pride of place on this list.

2. Erelhei-Cinlu. Encounter area 9 in Vault of the Drow. If a city is an unusually large encounter area, Vault of the Drow is an unusual module, and Erelhei-Cinlu is in fact keyed as a single point: “The alien and disturbing buildings of Erelhei-Cinlu are crowded together in a welter which confuse any not born and bred to the place. Its crooked streets and alleys are dimly illuminated by signs scribed in phosphorescent chemicals and occasional lichen growths or fire beetle cages. Not even the Drow are certain what horrors lurk in the sewers beneath, but the rooftops are home to many sorts of huge spiders. The main ways of this depraved city are thronged with as unlikely a mixture of creatures as can be imagined. Ghosts and ghouls roam freely, and an occasional shadow or vampire will be seen. The place reeks of debauchery and decadence, and the most popular places are the gambling dens, bordellos, taverns, drug saloons, and even less savory shops. The back streets and alleyways too boast of brothels, poison shops, bars, and torture parlors. Unspeakable things transpire where the evil and jaded creatures seek pleasure, pain, excitement, or arcane knowledge, and sometimes these seekers find they are victims.” I should note that issue #298 of Dragon did an amazing job fleshing out this city with perversions that suit the dark-elves perfectly — my favorite example being The Alabaster Slab, which is a brothel of the dead, operated by a demonic madame whose mission is to “provide dark oblivion to her clients and customers, while seeing that her favored employees are always well fed”. The drow city is thoroughly evil, but a paradox — gross and beautiful, cruel and civilized, nauseating and intoxicating — and Gary Gygax’s most brilliant creation.

3. The Noble Castle in Hell. Circle 1 of Inferno. The most tragic encounter area in the history of moduledom takes inspiration from Dante: the first Circle of the Nine Hells. It isn’t a place of torment, rather a state of shadowy bliss for “virtuous atheists” who had the simple misfortune of existing in a time long past. The Noble Castle is their pocket paradise in an ashen wasteland — inside are gardens, trees, clean water, benign wildlife, even music. Whether or not this can be considered damnation is hard to say. The souls are consigned here in Hell for eternity, benign and hospitable, happy for the most part, yet aware on some level that their fate is blighted. “The people inside will welcome the party with feasting, good drink, and healing draughts. While inside the castle the party will be safe from any attack/detections; they will be allowed to stay for 3 days to rest. The occupants are fair men and women and they keep a Grecian decor; they are the just and good peoples from the Days Before the Gods and live in relative bliss and comfort — however, they are restrained from leaving their Circle or giving out weapons to travelers. They will in general tell the players whatever they ask about the physical make-up of Hell, but only in reply to specific questions.” The Noble Castle haunts my imagination more than any of the infernal torments suffered by sinners on the lower circles. It was a bold move to follow Dante by putting good souls in Hell, and it pays off.

4. Green Devil Faces & Misty Archways. Encounter areas 5, 6, 10A, 14B, 25A, 25B in Tomb of Horrors. There are three of each, and they still unnerve me, especially the devil faces. Looking at the Erol Otus drawing, I want to shout at the poor fool poking his torch around the mouth (encounter area 6, the sphere of annihilation). Whether it’s instant oblivion, nude teleportation, sex/alignment change, hopeless imprisonment, the green faces and color-stoned archways remain the most iconic symbol of evil in D&D, and summon a world of outrageous unfairness, irrevocable death, and sadistic DM’ing that made the old-school so fun. Here’s the 14B archway description: “The skeleton on the floor is outstretched and pointing to the arch. The vivid orange mists cannot be penetrated with any sort of vision or magic. The skeleton misleads the party, for any character passing through the portal will enter a 10′ x 10′ room where their sex and alignment are reversed by a terrible curse. Reentering the archway will restore original alignment, but 1-6 hit points of damage will be sustained in so doing. Going back a 3rd time will reverse sex again, but the individual will be teleported all the way back to the beginning of the tomb, while non-living matter is teleported simultaneously to the end (i.e. characters will appear at the start totally nude, while all their possessions go to the crypt of the demi-lich; cruel, but most entertaining for the DM). Only a wish or alter reality will restore both alignment and sex. However, if alignment is restored by entering the orange portal, remove curse will then restore original sex.”

5. Kitchen of Horror. Encounter area C in The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga. It takes an incredibly demented mind (like my own) to come up with something like this: “One of the doors in the kitchen is dimensionally folded to give access to the intestines of the first person who opens it. The magic cannot be dispelled. The ‘corridor’ it opens onto appears to be a twisting hallway with walls of soft, red material and a floor that is knee-deep in putrid sludge. The sludge eats through organic substances such as flesh and leather, causing 2d6 points of damage per round of immersion. The intestine leads gradually upward from the door for 200 feet. It eventually reaches the stomach, a ‘cavern’ filled with a ‘lake’ of digestive juices. Any damage done to the walls of the ‘corridor’ affects the character who opened the door (for example, a fireball cast into the corridor would explode inside the character). There are warnings, however. As soon as any object or character touches the corridor, the affected character must save vs. poison or suffer mild stomach cramps. If the person who first opened the door tries to enter the corridor, the character feels some kind of invisible barrier. The character must make a bend bars/lift gates roll to enter. Should the roll succeed, the character is dimensionally folded (turned inside out) and must save vs. death magic at a -4 penalty. Failure results in messy death, and the character still suffers 10d6 points of damage if the save succeeds.” Now that’s a horror show.

6. The Evil Abbey. Final encounter area in Master of the Desert Nomads. This one is about deception and intrigue: “The monks who live here are actually bhuts. During the day, they will behave like perfectly normal holy men, doing nothing that will give the player characters any reason to suspect they are not what they claim. At night, they become evil and murderous. For several years they have lived in the abbey, maintaining this deception to slay unwary travelers who stay the night. To add strength to their deception, the bhuts pretend that the monastery is under a powerful curse. As they explain it to visitors, this curse only affects the monks and those visitors who do not heed their warnings while they stay. The bhuts will warn the visitors not to leave their rooms at night under any circumstances, even if they hear screams or other sounds. The the bhuts explain that, to battle the curse, the monks must be more active at night, praying in the temple, drawing mystic signs, and burning incense in the different buildings.” There’s mystery, kidnapping, combat, and curses, and it all plays like a nail-biter in the hands of a good DM. The bhuts made a heavy impression on me, especially the way they really look when the sun goes down and become ravenous flesh eaters (effectively were-ghouls). It’s easy to be fooled by these “monks” and their half-truths about the local “curse”, and the “reward” PCs receive should they volunteer to defeat the curse.

7. Konah the Dissenter, Manahath the Chosen, Pnessutt the Lich. Encounter areas K18-19, L20-22 in Dark Tower. The best climax, or end point, of any module is surely that of Dark Tower. It even beats the demi-lich’s crypt in Tomb of Horrors (see #12), and that’s saying something. The Sons of Set and the lich are horrible foes, and even if PCs manage to slay them, the outcome is tragic: “If Pnessutt is killed, all the undead in the entire dungeon will discorporate. All monsters in the Dark Tower itself will either die or stop functioning (Sons of Set excepted). All persons whose lives have been unnaturally prolonged by the presence of the Dark Tower will begin to age at the rate of 10 years per turn unless a potion of longevity is administered simultaneously with a cure disease spell. The dungeon itself will begin to crumble in 12 turns after the death of the lich, starting with the 4th level and working up at a rate of 1 level per 6 turns, totally collapsing in 36 turns (6 hours). Only the two towers will remain standing with their tops poking above the ruined country side. The only way out of the Dark Tower once the dungeon caves in will be by passwall through the roof.” And there is the ominous forecast that history will inevitably repeat itself in the village of Mitra, and the Tower of Set rise again…

8. Rude Flowers. Encounter area B in The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. By far the most gratifying encounter area I’ve ever run, it pisses off players big-time when played to maximal effect: “These flowers are vain, silly, and rude. Whenever anyone approaches within 10′ or less, the flowers in the bed will turn their faces towards the creature and demand to know why he or she is there, make disparaging remarks about the individual’s appearance, insult his or her intelligence, and so on. Play this to the hilt, and be as irritating as possible to the players so that they will have their characters react with as much anger as possible. These flowers will also demand that characters leave, claim that their odor is offensive, and bait them by stating boldly that one step onto their beds will not be tolerated. Any move that puts a character into the ‘bed’ area — a distance of 5′ or so from any given flower — will bring a chorus of immediate shrieks and screams from all the flowers. This cacophony will be interspersed with shrill insults, raucous vulgarity, and rude noises directed at the transgressors.” If you love insults and degradations, then you’ll have a blast with these obnoxious flowers.

9. The Underground City. Lower realm of The Lost City. I obsessed this place like nothing else in my gaming years, along with the main dungeon feature of the step pyramid above it (see #1). It epitomizes the Golden Age of D&D which was based on pulp fantasy settings, depicting an ancient underground civilization that’s been corrupted by a Cthulhu-like deity monster. The three renegade sects adhere to the old gods, but they don’t like each other (again, see my top choice), and are capable of using the players as pawns. The influence of Howard’s Red Nails is everywhere, and the hallucinogenic drug-addicted devotees of Zargon are exactly the sorts you’d find in a Conan novel. “Generation after generation of Cynidiceans have lived out their lives underground. Though still human, their skin has become very pale and their hair is bone-white. Every Cynidicean wears a stylized mask, usually of an animal or human face. Some are made of wood, some of paper mache’, and some of metal. They are decorated with beads, bones, feathers, and jewels. Most Cynidiceans wear

fancy clothes, flashy jewelry, and carry short swords. Some paint their bodies with bright colors. They have forgotten that an outside world exists, living their lives in weird dreams. The times when they seem normal, tending fields of giant mushrooms and herding subterranean beasts, are becoming fewer and fewer as the dreams replace reality. Their unusual costumes and masks only strengthen their dream worlds. The dreams are the result of water poisoning by the priests of Zargon, who use elixir of fantasy to keep the population under control. Only the small sects of Gorm, Madarua, and Usimagarus escape this fate, and hope to restore the worship of their gods and regain the past glory of Cynidicea.” This underground city was later revisited in issue #315 of Dragon, and back in the day I outlined an entire series of adventures for it.

10. The Colossus. Encounter area 59 in Castle Amber. It was playing a cleric through the insane world of the Ambers that I realized life couldn’t be any better; I even pitied those who didn’t play D&D. There are so many great encounters in this module, but the one that rules is the colossus. The Erol Otus cover still freaks me out, and seriously, how often do 4th level characters get thrown against monsters tall as buildings with 350 hit points? This titanic horror is the creation of an exiled wizard hell-bent on revenge: “The evil black magician, Nathaire, whom the citizens drove out of Vyones, specializes in necromancy, magic involving the dead. He has taken great numbers of bodies and created a golem-like colossus (AC 8; HD 100*; hp 350; #AT 1; D 10-80; MV 240′ (80′)). It towers one hundred feet tall and uses an entire tree for a club. Only magical weapons can harm it, and it is controlled by Nathaire who has magic jarred into the body. His own body rides in a basket strapped to the back of the beast. The colossus attacks as a 21+ HD monster. The arch-bishop will make enough magic powder to allow five separate attempts at hurling it in the face of the colossus. The powder must be hurled from 10′ or closer into the colossus’ face to work. If the party does not have the means of flying, it is still possible to hurl the powder from the top of the tallest building in Vyones (the cathedral) when the colossus comes within 10′ of the tower.” A lot easier said than done, as I recall; this monster wreaked plenty of death and destruction before we managed to bring it down.

11. Chapel of Possession. Encounter areas 16-20 in The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. This chapel disturbed me so much it inspired me to design my own four-part module involving possession and ancient evils. It’s from Gary Gygax’s most underrated work: “The walls and floor of this chapel are of the deepest purple, although the ceiling remains black. If the walls are actually touched, the character will feel a tingling and his or her vision will go black for a fleeting moment, then sight will be restored. Tactile sense will discover that there are strange, indiscernable convolutions here which form mind pictures when touched. These impressions are pleasurable and unsettling at the same time. Any person failing to save versus magic after experiencing this sensation will attempt to return and feel the sensation again. If this happens, that individual will automatically experience the following things: (1) his or her vision in total darkness will seem normal, but any light brighter than a hooded lantern will be disgusting to him or her, and he or she will immediately ask that it be extinguished or else he or she will go elsewhere. (2) Strange desires will begin to flood the individual’s mind during times of quiet. These desires will be unwholesome at first, then absolutely strange. (3) The name of Tharizdun will rise unbidden to the individual’s lips whenever he or she is under stress and needs aid.”

12. The Crypt of the Demi-Lich. Encounter area 33 in Tomb of Horrors. The ultimate death zone. What DM doesn’t practically have the following memorized: “The skull of Acererak rises into the air and slowly scans the party. There are 2 jewels set into the eye sockets (50,000 gp rubies) and there are 6 pointed (marquis cut) diamonds set as teeth in the jaw (each diamond worth 5,000 gp). The demi-lich can tell which member of the party is the most powerful, and it will usually select a magic-user over a fighter, fighter over a cleric, a cleric over a thief. The soul of the strongest will be drawn instantly from his or her body and trapped within the right eye jewel, and the gem- eye will gleam with wickedly evil lights as the character’s body collapses in a mass of corruption and moulders in a single round — totally gone. The skull will then sink down again, sated. If struck or touched again, it will rise and drain the soul of the next strongest character into its other eye. This process repeats through all 6 of the diamond teeth (so a total of 8 souls can be stolen) and if the skull is still intact and still molested, it will pronounce a curse upon the remaining characters which will teleport them randomly in a 100-600 mile radius, each cursed to some fate similar to (a) always be hit by any attacking opponent or (b) never making a saving throw or (c) always losing all treasure without gaining any experience from it.”

13. The Ambers. Encounter areas 2, 9, 20, 25, 30, 32, 34 in Castle Amber. I think of the Amber family as a warped human version of Tolkien’s elves. Through magic they’ve prolonged their lives but are thoroughly bored for it, and they can only relieve their boredom through cruel entertainment. There’s the librarian Charles who buried his sister Madeline alive; the soul of Princess Catherine waiting to possess someone; the evil priest Simon; Madam Camilla itching to tell fortunes; and so on: “The personalities of the lost Amber family members set the mood for the adventure. They range from slightly eccentric to completely insane. For the most part, the family is chaotic neutral/evil. While they are proud of their name, they seldom cooperate with each other. Most of the family members believe they can do anything once they set their mind to it. The Ambers live magically lengthened lives, but they have seen too much and are bored. They seek anything to relieve this boredom. On top of their other traits, they possess a bizarre sense of humor. It amuses them to watch adventurers battle obstacles which the Amber family members place in their way. The Ambers are equally amused whether the adventurers succeed or fail. A good spectacle is more important to them than defeating the adventurers. Eccentricity, chaotic individualism, great pride and a warped sense of humor are the main Amber family traits.”

14. The Kuo-Toan Ziggurat. Encounter areas 2-4 in Descent into the Depths of the Earth. I used to stare at the cover of this module for long periods of time, I was so transfixed by it. The ziggurat and stadium structure accommodates 2000 humanoid-sized beings, who can observe the activities in the central shrine which is surrounded by a salt-water pool. PCs will likely engage in either an epic battle or a bizarre pilgrimage, depending on levels of brain and brawn, and either way makes for an spectacular encounter area. The Kuo-Toa are evil (and they’re into slavery and sacrifice), yet it’s possible to make it through their shrine as penitent supplicants, and with the right offerings can receive the appropriate “passes” on each tier/altar (snail shells, crab claws, and live lobsters). They can even dance perilously with the lobster goddess herself: “Upon the summit of the ziggurat, over the three altars, stands a malachite statue 20′ tall. It appears to be a nude human female body, with articulated shell covering the shoulders, and a lobster head and claws in place of the expected human head and arms. The right claw is open and raised, the left is open and held out. The idol will not move or come to life, but it is possible to be gated to her on the Elemental Plane of Water. Blibdoolpoolp’s name is carved into the base of the statue in Kuo-Toan characters. If the extended left claw is grasped while the individual stands upon the altar, and her name is pronounced correctly (Blibbb – doool – pooolpp) the creature is immediately transported to deep waters of the plane where Sea Mother holds court.”

15. The Room of Pools. Encounter area 31 in In Search of the Unknown. This is a fan favorite of beginners, and frankly the only decent thing about the dungeon it comes from. Others disagree, but I think In Search of the Unknown is a bland module (one of the very few disappointments of the old school). But I absolutely adore the pool room and created spin-offs for my own dungeons. Here are the original 14: (A) healing, (B) acid, (C) sickness, (D) green slime, (E) drinking water, (F) charm wine, (G) empty (with a secret door to the dungeon’s lower levels), (H) boiling water, (I) allows the drinker to converse with spirits, (J) sleep-inducing, (K) fish-bowl, (L) dry ice, (M) hidden treasure, (N) muting – liquid kills speech and writing ability. These were my upgrades for a high-level dungeon: (A) blue – healing (all wounds, poisons, diseases, and insanities), (B) brown – brandy causing gutwrench, (C) chocolate syrup – raging bi-sexuality (both hours either side of midnight, character will crave sex with a man and woman of his/her own race, and will resort to rape if no one will consent), (D) clear – true seeing (if save), irrevocable blindness (if fail)

(E) gold – mead of powerhouse endurance (able to run 25 miles/hour and gain 4 constitution pts), (F) purple – wine of scurrilous insults (character becomes outrageously insulting, and can only stop this nasty behavior, ironically, by drinking booze), (G) deep red – viscous blood (the Blood of the Earth, allows an ultra-powerful unlimited wish, i.e. the Power of Command in the Thomas Covenant chronicles), (H) orange-red – causes internal fire (smells of herbs and cinnamon, the odor of which makes it impossible to resist drinking within 5′ unless a save at -2 is made), (I) creamy foam – bestows the ability to dreamwalk at will, (J) pink bubbling – megalomania (believes oneself to be a god) (K) silver – liquid silver-fire (eyes turn silver and dispel fear and exhaustion of anyone looking at the character, but when angered the character’s eyes turn crimson and turn people to stone instead), (L) clear – gain 4 charisma points, but inflicted with extreme shame sensitivity (will become infuriated and go berserk at the slightest rudeness, insult, or interruption), (M) blinking green and red dots – gate to the Seven Heavens (if save) or to the Nine Hells (if fail), (N) ice blue – detect all lies and deceptive subtexts, but can speak only pure truth. No spells or magic of any sort will reveal anything about the pools; it’s a true grab-bag depending on luck; all effects are permanent.

16. The Forbidden City. Central area in Dwellers of the Forbidden City. If this module hadn’t been so rushed out of the gate, it would have been a top favorite of mine, perhaps even competing with The Lost City and Caverns of Thracia. As it is, I still really like it, and I adore the city inside the mountain valley, which is vaguely sketched and left mostly for the DM to flesh out. Like the Underground City of the Cynidiceans (see #9), it takes direct inspiration from the Conan story Red Nails and about a hidden realm fallen from glory, its inhabitants at each other’s throats: “There are three major factions in the city — the yuan ti (snake men), bugbears, and tasloi; the mongrelmen; and the bullywugs. Of these, the yuan ti are the most powerful. Within the city, they assume the position of lords, attempting to direct activities and maintain their power. They are the organizers of the caravan raids and are assisted by a powerful human magic user, Horan, who has convinced them to rebuild their empire. The bugbears act as the ‘bully-boys’ for

the yuan ti. They carry out the actual physical work and organize the lesser creatures of the valley. All but the yuan ti and the magic-user hold them in great respect and fear. The tasloi are native to the jungle of the area. They will do nothing to directly harm the yuan ti, although they will steal from them when possible; they hate the bugbears. The bullywugs migrated here many years ago after being driven from other lands. Bringing with them a small ‘god-egg’, they settled in the ruins around the swamp. They are very tribal and are attempting to rebuild their race. The mongrelmen are the descendants of the slaves once kept in the city. Now, through in-breeding and association with the other city creatures, they have only a trace of their original humanity. The yuan ti capture them for slaves and breeding programs. The bugbears hunt them for food. The bullywugs use them for food and sacrifices when other sources run low. This treatment by the other groups has made the mongrelmen vindictive and full of hate. Under certain circumstances they may actually assist a party.”

17. The Incarnation of Death. Encounter areas 9-13 in The Caverns of Thracia. There aren’t many low-level dungeons haunted by an entity like this, and practically right through the entrance on the first level: “In this section, there is one special wandering monster, the Incarnation of Death. This is a minor, physical manifestation of the death god, Thanatos. The creature appears as a tall, gaunt man in flowing black robes. He has a darkly beautiful face, but appears morbidly sad. He will gesture to severely wounded characters that they should step forward and embrace him. The Incarnation of Death will only appear to characters who are within 3 hit points of death. The presence of the creature will lower the saving throws and morale of all who can see it by 2 points. Once a living being dies in the presence of the Incarnation, the creature will snatch the soul of the dead one, making any form of resurrection or reincarnation impossible without a wish.” These rooms — the Chapel of Thanatos, Crypt of the Walking Dead, the Preserved Priest, Oracular Skulls, and Moldy Bones — offer some pretty rude surprises, and PCs can unwittingly become servants of Thanatos if they become too inquisitive. This module has challenges around every corner, but the Incarnation of Death is the most memorable.

18. Hobgoblin Torture Chamber/Playroom. Encounter area 24 in The Keep on the Borderlands. The Caves of Chaos were my initiation into the world of D&D, and it was this room in particular (along with the snake-staff priest’s temple area, see #19) that hooked me. Racing through caverns and killing kobolds and orcs was fun enough, but when I barged in on this room of hobgoblin sadism, it took things to a new level. My DM role-played the hobgoblins effectively, relishing their torture, and the fact that the victims included “evil” humanoids from the other caves in addition to the “innocent” humans from the Keep, made things a bit complex to sort out: “There are 2 very large, ugly hobgoblins here. One also has a whip, as well as a sword, so that he can strike at opponents up to 15’ distant, and if a hit is scored, the whip will jerk the victim off his or her feet and stun (paralyze) him or her for 1-2 melee rounds. However, once closely engaged, the hobgoblin cannot make use of his whip, so he will cast it aside. The hobgoblins guard 6 prisoners who are chained to the walls: (1) a plump, half-dead merchant, scheduled to be eaten tonight in a special banquet, (2) an orc who will fight goblins and hobgoblins gladly, (3) a man-at-arms who formerly served as a guard for the merchant, (4) the merchant’s wife who is also slated for the big feast, (5) a crazy gnoll who will snatch up a weapon and attack his rescuers if he is freed, and (6) another man-at-arms.”

19. The Temple of Evil Chaos. Encounter areas 58-59 in The Keep on the Borderlands. Along with the hobgoblin torture room (see #18), this place shaped my earliest perceptions of D&D. Priests with snake staffs and evil temples became cliche very quickly in my campaigns — they were endless fun. “The floor is of polished black stone which has swirling patterns of red veins through it. A great bell of black iron stands near the entrance point. There are three stone altars and then a dais of black stone, with four lesser chairs on its lower tier and a great throne above. The walls are covered by draperies of deep purple with embroidered symbols and evil sayings, done in scarlet and gold and black thread. As soon as the party enters, black candles in eight great candelabras on either side of the place will come alight magically, shooting forth a disgusting red radiance. Shapeless forms of purple, yellow and green will dance and sway on the western wall, and if anyone looks at them for more than a moment, they must save versus spells or be mesmerized into chanting a hymn to chaotic evil. Should three or more voices be so raised, the iron bell will sound automatically by magic, but even one such chant will alert the priest. The priest attacks with a snake staff: on command the staff will turn into a snake and coil around the person hit; the person is held helpless for 1d4 turns, or until the cleric recalls the staff; the staff then crawls back to the cleric on command.”

20. The Nereid. Encounter area 13 in The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. This is the closest you’d come to getting raped to death in a TSR module (or at least, based on what TSR supplied in the design). For an adolescent male, this was obviously a favorite encounter area, and truth told, one of my characters was almost raped to death by this lovely (old-school DMs didn’t hold back just because TSR did): “This creature is a nereid, a being of pure water. She is chaotic evil and possesses an insidious and clever mind, hidden beneath her alien beauty and seeming naivete. She will retreat from close combat and conceal herself in the water. Out of the water she will assume the form of a beautiful woman. However, in the water she is 95% undetectable, and then only as a golden mantling of angel seaweed, for she is virtually transparent therein. Men are particularly vulnerable to this creature, for her naked form is poison to them, and those looking at her will find themselves incapable of causing her harm. Though her kiss brings sweet bliss it may also bring a watery doom. Each time a character is kissed by a nereid, he must save versus breath weapons at -2 or drown instantly. If the character succeeds, he will experience the ultimate in pleasure; but if he fails, then his lungs will take fire, his throat will seize up, and a greyness will overtake his senses as the end comes.”

21. The Golden Grain Inn. Encounter area 6 in Against the Cult of the Reptile God. The headquarters of cult activity in the village of Orlane is a great encounter area, and a dangerous one that can easily result in the kidnapping and separation of PCs. “The owner, Bertram Beswill, has modified the inn over the last year to serve the needs of the cult. He carries a dagger beneath his apron at all times. He will greet strangers cheerfully and offer them a drink, since his instructions from the cult direct him to behave thus. He will attempt to learn why the party is in Orlane, and if his suspicions are aroused, he will try to persuade them to stay for the night. If he feels they are a threat to the cult, he may even offer a reduced rate in order to arrange an ambush. He may also offer free drinks that have been drugged by his cook.” Then there is the upstairs assassin who organizes the kidnappings, though he is actually not even in the cult’s power: “Derek Desleigh is the meanest person in Orlane; he considers a murder rushed if less than three hours elapse between the first wound and the coup de grace. He uses a slim dagger for this work, carrying the blade in a sheath at the nape of his neck. He is the only person to somehow mask the fact that he was not charmed in his meeting with the reptile god. He masquerades as a cult member, but his first priority always concerns himself. He follows the orders of the innkeeper in abducting persons from the upstairs bedrooms, but he has been siphoning off many of the funds gathered by the cult.”

22. Haunted Corpse. Encounter area 23 in The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh. The later revision of this module actually improved on the classic with a twist: the house on the cliff is haunted after all. The smugglers relied on trickery until their mage started doing his job too well and summoned a hideous spirit that destroyed him and took over the house. Under this premise, the smugglers are still using the cave areas below but don’t dare enter the house itself; so their loot is trapped. Thus Ned (in room 15) is no longer a planted assassin but a former smuggler now possessed, crawling backwards up the wall like a spider and shrieking like a madman. As for cellar room 23 (empty in the classic version), it’s where the corpse of Olandar (the smuggler mage) now lies in a demonic diagram: “If either the corpse or diagram is disturbed, a gravemist forms from Olandar’s body and will try to kill the PCs. If it fails, then Olandar’s body bends backwards with a crunching sound like bones being ground to powder, and from his bowels pours a swarm of spiders. If they are destroyed, all is quiet for nearly a full turn — just enough time to almost break the diagram. Then two feral haunts appear and attack. Each turn two more will be summoned, until the diagram is broken. When the diagram is finally broken, the corpse’s mouth opens and a deep, rushing sigh is heard, the lights flicker and blow with a wind, and a thousand distant screams can be heard to disappear into the distance: the haunting of the mansion is ended.”

23. Lizard Kids. Encounter area 11 in Danger at Dunwater. The lizard-man throne room is vacant save for two things — stray kids and trophy heads — which have the potential to diffuse PC aggression and help them figure out the lizard men aren’t the enemy. (None of the trophy heads are human, elven, etc., and the kids, while obnoxious pests, may turn out endearing despite themselves.) “The children are equivalent to human children of about four years old; they have wandered in here from the female quarters. They have no treasure and are quite harmless and unafraid; on encountering the party they will evidence great curiosity for these, to them, strange beings. Unless very firmly discouraged, they will attach themselves to the party and follow them wherever they go; they will be virtually impossible to lose and will make a general nuisance of themselves. The trophy heads are: west wall going north to south: giant crayfish, carrion crawler, hippopotamus, gnoll, sahuagin; east wall going north to south: brown bear, lion, shark, giant. The DM should not name the creatures but simply give a detailed physical description, leaving the party members to make the identifications.” This is a thinking-person’s encounter area, and an amusing one if the DM role-plays the kids right.

24. Baby Sacrifice. Encounter area 37 in The Final Enemy. Two scenes of sacrifice loom over my D&D landscape. The first comes from Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which my friend and I worked completely to death. Every time we put an evil priest in our dungeons, he would surely rip out someone’s heart and laugh like a lunatic until the thing exploded in his fist. The second scene is less comical and comes from the module The Final Enemy. It takes place in an underwater lair. “There is a nasty ceremony taking place here. Four sahuagin priestesses stand with their heads bowed, emitting a low droning sound. They each hold a small, squirming sahuagin in their left hand and a short staff in their right, their arms upraised. The hatchlings emit thin, pitiful wails. Above the priestesses, circling the altar area, is a huge white shark some 20 feet in length, revered by the sahuagin and considered by them to be a direct representative of their deity Sekolah. The wriggling hatchlings are young sahuagin who do not measure up to the rigorous physical standards of the sahuagin race. They are therefore being sacrificed to the shark. The ritual is a lengthy one, the sacrifices grisly affairs and will make any non-evil character observing them sick at heart.” Sacrificing infant members of one’s own race is a concept that chilled me as a teen and painted a whole new dimension of the sahuagin race.

25. Charred Remains. Encounter area 25 in Tomb of Horrors. The green devil faces are the most terrifying and iconic parts of the tomb, and the crypt of the demi-lich the killer climax. The pillared throne room, however, is the place where you can taste Gygax’s malicious delight in every sentence. First there is the room of dancing swords which wards the Chamber of Hopelessness. Then there is the the crown and scepter, whereby touching the wrong ends to each other snuffs you into dust with no resurrection possible. But it’s this last I really love, the orange gem sitting on top of charred remains in the southeast corner: “The gem is a cursed wish magic item, and no matter what is desired by the character daring to touch it and wish, a reverse or perversion will bring doom to that character and all named in the wish. Immediately after causing the evil wish to transpire, the gem begins to pulse with reddish lights, growing progressively stronger, brighter and hotter. Count to 10 as usual. The stone then explodes, absolutely killing any character within a 15′ radius with a wave of searing radiations and flames. The gem remains as a noisome mass of stinking purplish mold which bubbles and chuckles. In 1 week the mass will reform as a glowing orange gem.”

26. The Great Pass. First encounter area in The Temple of Death. The mountain pass into Hule is so good it overshadows the Temple of Death itself. All of these caverns add up to what I consider one of the most creative pulp fantasy lairs: there’s a zombie palace made entirely of fungus, a flying ship manned by skeletons, a cyclops, and (wait for it) a ladder of light that ascends to a Kingdom of the Moon. The fungi palace is probably my favorite part, but all these rooms and caverns work in tandem. Here’s the palace: “Ahead the tunnel opens into a huge cavern. The scene in the cavern is hideous — giant fungi dripping with glowing mold, streams of black and green water scummed with white puffy spores, and moldering little creatures that move around the floor of the fungi forest. Mold-covered bones lie propped against the base of huge trunks. In the distance stands what appears to be a tumbled structure of black, green, gray, and blue fungus. It rises above the surrounding forest, almost like a castle. A leaning opening that may have once been a door leads into a gloomy chamber, strung with mold and oozing foulness.” And that description only applies to PCs who make a save; those who fail succumb to the hallucination of a beautifully alluring palace and are in for a rude surprise.

27. The Black Cyst. Encounter areas 1-4 at the bottom of The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. The climax of this underground temple is anti-climactic for some, but it leaves me spellbound. PCs must enact ancient evil rituals to reach their goal — wearing purple robes, waving balls of incense, and blowing a special horn: “This place is COLD. Exposed flesh immediately takes 2-12 points of damage, 3-18 if it also touches metal (such as a sword or the like). In the center of the room there is a stone block. It is about 12′ long, 4′ high, and 6′ wide. On it rests a shape wrapped in black haze. Under the haze is something so black that all light is lost to it. The eyes hurt to look at it, and the gaze avoids doing so. An occasional ripple seems to pass through the lightless, haze-swathed form. Is it stirring? One can’t be sure. The horn must again be sounded, but only after the mouthpiece has been warmed in a torch cone for 1 round, otherwise cold/metal damage will be taken. When the blast sounds, the whole place will tremble, and the secret door to the south which allows entry to area (4) will sink downwards for 6 rounds. It will rise automatically on the seventh round, and the horn must again be sounded to reopen the portal. A second horn sounding will make the cyst tremble violently, throwing characters to the floor. Those not saving versus magic will have torn their robes.”

28. The Leprechaun Woods. Encounter areas G1-G2 in Beyond the Crystal Cave. A perfect encounter for DMs who revel in mischief and pranks: “The leprechauns will tease the party by appearing and disappearing, attempting to steal things from them, polymorphing their possessions into ridiculous items (for example changing a sword into a stuffed toy animal) and generally being as obnoxious as possible. The DM should not underplay these creatures or their polymorph ability.” It’s fun for the DM and fury for the players, who must also solve limerick puzzles (if they can even think in their furious state). The limericks offer critical clues for PCs to get what they need in Porpherio’s Garden, except for the last which is a red herring, clued by the fact that it doesn’t rhyme properly. Here’s one of the valid limericks: “There are leaves in the garden to trace; and a maze with a clear central space; with a leaf in your hand, you could stand and stand; but to leave, leave the leaves in their place.” If you know how to run encounters like this, you can really get players fired up and pissed off.

29. The Drow Underworld. Encounter area 1 in Vault of the Drow. The entry into the vault is just atmosphere, but keyed with some of the best descriptive writing Gygax ever put on paper, and for that reason I have to include it. Its effect on old-school players is legendary: “The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, an incredibly huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. The radiation from unique minerals gives the visual effect of a starry heaven, while near the zenith of this black stone bowl is a huge mass of tumkeoite — which in its slow decay and transformation to lacofcite sheds a lurid gleam, a ghostly plum-colored light to human eyes, but with ultravision a wholly different sight. The small ‘star’ nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large ‘moon’ of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres, vermillions, russets, citron, and aquamarine shades. (Elsewhere the river and other water courses sheen a deep velvety purple with reflected highlights from the radiant gleams overhead vying with streaks and whorls of old silver where the liquid laps the stony banks or surges against the ebon piles of the jetties and bridge of the elfin city for the viewers’ attention.) The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland.”

30. Strahd von Zarovich. Encounter areas 84-88 in Ravenloft. And finally, the famous Strahd. The vampire can be encountered in many rooms of his castle, but the most dramatic place to show him down is down in the catacombs. It’s a huge deadly cavern filled with 40 crypts, and Strahd’s is protected by a nasty teleport trap: “There are transpositional teleports between crypts 37 and 38, between crypt 37 and the wall south of it, and between crypt 38 and the wall south of it. These teleports form a protective ring around the obvious entrance to Strahd’s coffin. These teleports exchange a living body passing through them for the undead body of a wight from crypt 14. Since the transfer is practically instantaneous, and since only living and undead matter is teleported, the teleported character’s armor, clothing, etc, becomes suddenly occupied by a wight.

The teleport puts the wight into the same pose the character it is replacing had. The teleport exchange appears to others as though the character who was walking through the crypt passage suddenly turned into a wight. The wight turns and attacks the party with the original character’s weapons. A wight appearing in a PC’s clothing and armor is not damaged by any holy symbols that PC had (because the symbols are not forcefully presented). The teleported character finds himself lying in a dark, confined space (the interior of the wight’s coffin) wearing ragged, rotting cloth.” Yeah, that’s vicious.

Classic D&D Modules Ranked

Here are the classic D&D modules ranked from best to worst. I hold a classic to be a module published between the late ’70s and the middle of 1983. These were the days of brilliant sandbox designs, before the concept of adventure paths took over and railroaded players into pre-determined stories. In the old-school, plotting was mostly left to the DM and stories grew spontaneously in game play. Players could make their own decisions, and DMs were trained to expect the unexpected. This was also the era of pulp fantasy, when D&D was under heavy influence of writers like Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd & Grey Mouser), Robert Howard (Conan), H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu), Michael Moorcock (Elric), Clark Ashton Smith (Averoigne), and Jack Vance (The Dying Earth). In simple terms, pulp fantasy involves morally ambiguous heroes who tend to face personal or localized threats out of self-interest. This is opposite high fantasy (some would say cheese fantasy), where heroes are worldly saviors, the most obvious example being Dragonlance which took over the game in 1984. Mixed in with the TSR classics are three Judges Guild modules and a Roger Moore special from Dragon magazine.

(1) Tomb of Horrors. 5+ stars. Gary Gygax, 1978. Levels 10-14. The mother of all killer dungeons is revered by everyone, even victims who insist otherwise. It gave DMs a license to be punishing off the scales, and players the okay to be masochistically thrilled by impossible challenges. Today’s gamers accuse it of being ridiculously unfair, and they’re right, but they don’t realize that’s a compliment. Multi-layered traps and demonic snares are in play everywhere, and some of the rooms have acquired mythic status: The Forsaken Prison, The Chapel of Evil, The False Crypt, The Chamber of Hopelessness. I get chills thinking of them and the disturbing illustrations provided in the special booklet. No other dungeon has called forth the level of commentary that continues to this day, ranging from the outraged to the venomous to the heapingly sarcastic (my favorite is the cover parody carrying the label “For Advanced Sadists & Masochists”), but what’s interesting is that the only reason Tomb of Horrors even exists is because players were complaining that the game was getting too easy. It’s hard to imagine how D&D would have evolved if not for those complaints, but there’s no question that Gygax is remembered for his response to them, this module, more than any other. When he died in 2008, it was even suggested as a tribute to start a fund for a mausoleum based on the tomb’s layout, and I can’t imagine a more appropriate honor. The ’90s sequel, Return to the Tomb of Horrors, is frankly just as good (and twice as deadly), and may be considered an honorary tie at first place.

(2) The Lost City. 5+ stars. Tom Moldvay, 1982. Levels 1-3. A close second on my list, and I could almost award it the top slot for being a beginner’s module. It’s hard to come up with top-notch low-level adventures, but The Lost City is so inspired that I never resented the fact that the city itself leaves much for the DM to develop; I bought into the pyramid so much that the rest flowed without thinking. The module in many ways epitomizes what the Golden Age of D&D had to offer: pulp fantasy at its purest, depicting an ancient underground civilization that’s been corrupted by a Cthulhu-like deity monster. The three renegade factions adhere to the old gods, but they don’t like each other, and will use the PCs as pawns in their covert agendas. The revolving passage on the third tier of the pyramid is a terrific dungeon feature, and the personalities of the cult leaders, their costume attire and masks, are spot on, meshing perfectly with the decadent culture of the Cynidiceans. The influence of Howard’s Red Nails is often talked about, and the hallucinogenic drug-addicted devotees of Zargon are exactly the sorts Conan would find himself going against. I’ll never forget my friend’s reaction when his characters confronted the high priest beside the underground lake, and I had the fanatic cast an earthquake spell. (I think he thought I was as psychotic as the priest.) There is endless potential in The Lost City for follow-up adventures, and at one point I harbored ambitions to develop an entire series out of it.

(3) Castle Amber. 5+ stars. Tom Moldvay, 1981. Levels 3-6. Another Moldvay treasure, but in this one I was the player. The Amber family are a lot like a warped version of Tolkien’s elves: “The Ambers live magically lengthened lives, but they have seen too much and are bored. They seek anything to relieve this boredom.” Equally amused by the success or deaths of anyone working against them (for “a good spectacle” is more important than victory or defeat), their chaotic indifference disturbs more than the evil of traditional foes. No other module on this list boasts so many colorful and psychotic characters: the librarian Charles who buried his sister Madeline alive; the soul of Princess Catherine waiting to possess someone; the evil priest Simon; Madam Camilla who is itching to tell fortunes. Also, no other module offers so much with such effortless economy. First, there’s the castle itself, with two large wings, an indoor forest, and a chapel, and not a room is wasted; second comes a challenging dungeon with well planned surprises, ending at a magical gateway to -; third, the old home of the Ambers on an alternate prime material plane resembling medieval France, where the players must acquire four artifacts to return to – ; fourth, the tomb of Stephen Amber himself, where lies the means to break the curse of the castle. Moldvay hit a home run like he did with The Lost City, and I would probably call Castle Amber the most rewarding D&D adventure I ever experienced as a player.

(4) Vault of the Drow. 5+ stars. Gary Gygax, 1978. Levels 10-14. Some modules don’t age well as you get older, and Queen of the Demonweb Pits is the best example of this. Others do the opposite, and for me Vault of the Drow has appreciated in value more than any module in the history of D&D. I never got proper use out of it for two reasons. First because it falls in the worst place possible in a long series, penultimately trailing five dungeon crawls, and by this point characters are burning to get to the Abyss to which Vault of the Drow serves as a mere doorstop. The second reason feeds into the first. This is an underground city, not a dungeon, and with enough care can be mostly sidestepped by those not interested in lingering. And that’s a shame, because this is a realm to be milked and savored for all its worth. The descriptive writing on display is nothing less than brilliant, and DM’s who know what they’re doing can serve up an incredibly haunting world where factions of dark elves plot against each other, demons and undead walk the streets, and obscene sacrifices are offered to the goddess Lolth — all under the purple glow of phosphorescent fungi and a bizarre “moon” of shimmering amethyst. There are torture parlors, bordellos, and drug saloons, but everything is ironically civilized and disturbingly beautiful. If I were running this today I’d use it as a stand-alone, with the aid of the amazing background provided in Dragon issue #298. It’s a module I wish I’d known how to manage better, and appreciate better, in my gaming years. It’s brilliant, and I get chills just reading it.

(5) Inferno. 5+ stars. Geoff Dale, 1980. Levels 12-16. There aren’t many old-school modules set in the outer planes, and what DM doesn’t want to send his players straight to Hell? This is actually a half module that was completed 34 years later. It covers Hell’s first four circles, and the updated version covers all nine circles in a hugely expanded package. Even as a half-product Inferno remains a favorite of mine. The descriptive writing on display is staggering, especially some of the scenes of souls being tortured. As a Judges Guild product, it’s old-school to the core and sets an absolutely perfect tone. The leering devil who rapes female PCs before killing them is a typical reminder of how faithful modules were (especially JG ones) to the essence of pulp fantasy before D&D became so sissified. Some of the most vile magic items can be found here, many cursed, as well as hidden talismans that can be used against the dukes. Inferno obviously owes to Dante, especially in terms of the tour-guide approach (devil rulers can be receptive enough to show PCs around torture pits where souls labor in degrading tasks), and I adore the medieval Christian overtones; they complement D&D’s ancient pagan mythology instead of clashing with it.

(6) Dark Tower. 5+ stars. Paul Jaquays, 1979. Levels 7-11. I wish I’d been exposed to more Judges Guild products in my teen years; they remain the strongest reminder of how authentic D&D was before the game became so Disneyfied in the mid-’80s. According to Jaquays, JG gave him freedom to design modules as he pleased, while TSR had a stiffer code of ethics regarding “adult content”. Dark Tower and Caverns of Thracia are his mighty achievements, and I’m hard pressed to say which is better, though the former tips the scales. Here we have a history of warfare between two priesthoods, the towers of both buried under a creepy village isolated from the rest of the world. It’s a punishing underground of sadism and sacrifice, and even the village is saturated in horror: its inhabitants are over 300 years old, cursed by immortality and unable to leave the mountain pass; dominated by the Set cult, hardly able to recall a time of law and goodness under Mitra’s power. Avvakris the Merchant (who is actually the high priest of Set) is one of the most memorable villains from any D&D module, his son a half-reptilian, and his concubine a ravishing beauty who can either be found making love to him or as a half-eaten corpse with her heart removed. The juxtaposition of evil and good forces in the underground lends such power to Dark Tower in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s one of those modules that captures a unique air with uniquely demented rooms, like the Hall of the Warring Doors, and the throne hall where Set’s own son awaits… along with the lich who has cursed the village.

(7) Caverns of Thracia. 5 stars. Paul Jaquays, 1979. Levels 2-4. Again we have rival factions warring within enclosed spaces, and this one evokes Red Nails. Like Moldvay’s Lost City and Cook’s Dwellers of the Forbidden City, it presents a clash of civilizations in an underground realm layered with chaotic history. Lizard men attempt to reclaim their kingdom, strangely reminiscent of the Silurians in Doctor Who; their human rivals evoke the warrior culture of ancient Greece. There’s a revived shrine, hidden tombs with undead, beastmen serving a minotaur, and even an incarnation of Thanatos (Death) prowling about to claim the unwary. It’s a dungeon of ancient atmosphere and hidden knowledge, with brilliantly detailed maps (both 2D and 3D) of maze-like connections (stairs, shafts, and chutes) that PCs must figure out. Frankly the mapwork remains the most intricate created for any module I’ve ever seen, although apparently the remake edition for 3e tampers with it to make things a bit easier on the players. In any case, it’s the sort of convoluted layout that really makes you feel like you’re in a dungeon, with perilous gaps in the floor lurking everywhere, some leading to levels below, some not, some which can exploited but will probably get PCs lost. I really wish there were more modules like Caverns of Thracia.

(8) Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. 5 stars. Gary Gygax, 1980. Levels 8-12. Robots and laser guns come to D&D. There are some who decry any injection of science fiction into fantasy, and I tend to be like that myself, but when done just right — when the sci-fic elements are treated as weirdly alien and in a non-glitzy way — it can work. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks works wonders. I could go on about the mileage I got out of this module, especially as a player in taking over the crashed ship, by acquiring the color-coded cards that key open restricted areas and give one authority over the robots. It’s essentially about fantasy characters going wild with their fantasies of super technology, and the stunning visual aids help tremendously on this point. The uniquely designed blaster pistols, blaster rifles, laser pistols, laser rifles, needle guns, paralysis guns, various grenades, and powered armor are etched in mind forever, and you pretty much need a lot of this stuff to have any hope in taking on the alien forces infesting the ship. Provided you can figure out how to use them: there are flow-charts determining this, and high intelligence scores are much advised to guard against shooting oneself. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks represents a clash of genres that only Gary Gygax could have pulled off without it playing like a bastardized version of Star Frontiers.

(9) Ravenloft. 5 stars. Tracy and Laura Hickman, 1983. Levels 5-7. The middle of ’83 is when everything changed: inferior cover designs, railroady adventures, the inception of the dreaded Silver Age. But before ruining everything with Dragonlance, the Hickmans came up with this little terror, and as much as I hate to include them on a list of favorites, there’s just no denying that Ravenloft is plain awesome. In the opinion of many, in fact, it’s the #1 module of all time. It’s Dracula in a D&D setting and saturated with gothic menace. The premise involves an isolated community under terror, and anyone who enters the vale cannot leave: once you breathe Barovia’s enchanted atmosphere, your life depends on it, and killing the vampire Strahd is the only way to dispel the fog. The castle of Ravenloft itself is superb, infested with bats, wolves, and various undead in thrall to the vampire, and the teleport trap protecting Strahd’s coffin is genius (exchanging someone who passes through the crypts for the undead body of a wight who then assumes the character’s attire and possessions, while the poor fool goes inside the wight’s coffin; to the other players, it simply looks like the character has turned into a wight). As with Stoker’s classic, there’s a tragic backdrop to the vampire’s story, and if the players succeed in killing him, it’s a true mercy. The module makes good use of “fortune” through the gypsies of Barovia, whose card readings result in different scenarios each time the module is used. The black-and-white visuals evoke the mood perfectly. Beyond doubt, Ravenloft is the best undead adventure ever made.

(10) The Dancing Hut of Baba Yaga. 5 stars. Lisa Smedman, 1995. Levels 7-20. Any pick list that doesn’t include Baba Yaga is instantly disqualified — which pretty much means every list out there. I don’t know if it’s because it was officially published in The Dark Age of D&D that it gets overlooked, but Roger Moore’s original version did come out a decade earlier (1984), in Dragon magazine #83. Both versions are excellent, and while Moore’s will always be close to my heart, Smedman’s is the rare remake that’s even better. I can’t fail to mention the wonderfully perverse trap in which players walk into their own intestines and can be digested by themselves. The hut is basically a TARDIS for fantasy instead of science-fiction, meaning that its interior is huge and dimensionally folded to allow seemingly impossible interconnections. There are 48 rooms (in Moore’s version) or 33 rooms (in Smedman’s), some as big as palace halls, built around a four-dimensional structure, and a lot of twisted ingenuity went into populating them. The plot can be dramatic, in which Baba Yaga seeks control of daylight and darkness on any world she visits in her quest for immortality, or it could be that she is simply terrorizing random country-sides to kidnap and eat kids. The Dancing Hut is punishing, ruthless, and one hell of a rollercoaster ride.

(11) The Village of Hommlet. 5 stars. Gary Gygax, 1979. Levels 1-3. At first blush this is just a village serving as a base for an expedition to an evil temple described in another module. But there’s nothing “just” about anything by Gary Gygax, and I can understand why people like James Maliszewski and Joe Bloch rhapsodize about Hommlet to no end. Says Maliszewski: “There’s something powerful about this perfect set-up for a new campaign. I share with Tolkien the conception of history as a ‘long defeat’ and The Village of Hommlet touches on that theme obliquely — the notion that each generation must stare Evil in the face and bar the way of its advance, even if it’s ultimately just a holding action, for Evil can never truly be defeated in this life.” And Bloch thinks it’s literally the best D&D module of all time. I love it too, and designed a terrifying module that begins in Hommlet. There’s something about a Gary Gygax module that’s so richly subterranean even when focused on the mundane; this village wouldn’t carry a fifth of its effect had it been penned by anyone else. It’s certainly superior to what was supposed to be a smash sequel, The Temple of Elemental Evil, which frankly left me cold. And I even place it over Keep on the Borderlands, though I have a difficult time choosing between them.

(12) The Keep on the Borderlands. 5 stars. Gary Gygax, 1979. Levels 1-3. Pure classic, this is the module DMs and players cut their teeth on back in the Golden Age, when it came packaged in the introductory boxed set. Everyone played the Caves of Chaos, and there’s something fundamentally “D&D’ish” about a castle on the edge of civilization providing a base to launch forays into a network of lairs populated by various humanoids — orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, gnolls, bugbears, even an owl bear and ogre, and an evil priest with a pet medusa to boot. By later standards (the mid-’80s and beyond), the Caves of Chaos seem almost like a videogame, in that there is no story behind the caves’ inhabitants, no over-arching motivations behind the priest in the evil shrine… they’re all just there, sitting in their rooms, as if obligingly awaiting D&D adventurers who want to fight them, take their treasure, and gain experience points. But these were the days when DMs took the initiative to develop their own backstories and let them develop organically, by accommodating unpredictable players who could actually decide what they wanted to do without playing into some pre-determined arc. Keep on the Borderlands sits right below Village of Hommlet, but it’s really a tie; these low-level Gygax gems shine in different ways.

(13) Beyond the Crystal Cave. 4 ½ stars. Dave Browne, Tom Kirby & Graeme Morris, 1983. Levels 4-7. Sinfully underrated, even unheard of in some circles. I can’t believe it’s not on more favorites lists. Porpherio’s Garden is the closest thing TSR ever came to Tolkien: a Lothlorien-like domain that never sees winter, where time passes 700 times more slowly on the inside, and where an attitude of hacking and slaying will get you swiftly killed. This module was a milestone for me in showing the full potentials of role-playing that leans on verbal skills and crafty intelligence. The plot centers around a pair of aristocratic lovers who apparently got lost in the garden, haven’t been seen in years, and the players are hired to find them and get them out. The problem is that the lovers have drunk from a fountain that makes them want to stay forever, and nothing, short of using force or a wish, will persuade them to leave, forcing questions about the ethics of trying to finish the job. Druids will feel like they’re in heaven, as they automatically gain a level in the garden, and will naturally bond with the resident wildlife (satyrs, centaurs, unicorns, etc.). Warriors are a bit useless, and mages will be frustrated to find that many of their spells (especially fire related) won’t work. And since a day inside the garden translates to two years outside, time is of the essence… or the players will be returning to a much different world. Beyond the Crystal Cave teaches some serious humility and deserves more recognition than it gets.

(14) Descent into the Depths of the Earth. 4 ½ stars. Gary Gygax, 1978. Levels 9-14. Resonating with Cthulhu-like myths and Mesoamerican architecture, the Kuo-Toan shrine is the real feature here. The first installment in the D-series is rather bland, which is no doubt why it was eventually released as a package deal with the Kuo-Toa module, under the title of the first and given cover art for the second. That cover (click on the image to expand) remains one of my favorite of all time; I love the way the blues and greens and yellows mix, and bathe the lobster-goddess statue in a weird spiritual candor. The kuo-toa made nearly as much impression on me as the drow of the next module, with their highly regimented society of priests and assassins and brutally exotic culture; as amphibians this makes them even more intriguing. For all their practices of slavery and sacrifice, it’s possible to negotiate with them if characters are shrewd. And there’s a pathos to this race of fish-men clinging to their obscene sanctuary, way below the earth, raising their “fingerlings” (baby kuo-toans who can’t survive outside water), carrying on worship of the Sea Mother. Gygax did a good job coming up with treasures, altars, traps, and other peculiarities one might expect to find in such a peculiar place, and I have especially fond memories DM’ing this product.

(15) The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. 4 ½ stars. Harold Johnson & Jeff Leason, 1980. Levels 5-7. The format copies Tomb of Horrors to a tee, as if the authors wanted to come up with the same kind of thing for lower level characters who at least stand a chance. Players stumble on an abandoned shrine in the middle of nowhere, loaded with traps, light on treasure, and with few but formidable monsters (including a vampire). It’s a great dungeon that tests the players’ mettle around every corner, in memorable rooms like The Chapel of the Feathered Servant (one player fights an imaginary foe while the others are forced by a winged serpent to solve a puzzle), the Hall of the Smoking Mirrors (look into them if you dare), and the Hidden Room of the Alter-Ego (a statue duplicates the looks of one of the players and comes to life while that player turns to stone). The visual aids are splendid, and again in the same design as those in Tomb of Horrors, though with clear Central & Southern American features that give a distinctly exotic vibe — it even puts one in mind of an Indiana Jones adventure. A quintessential example of a module from the Golden Age: there’s no pre-packaged story; the dungeon itself is the exclusive platform on which the players (and DM) can build their own story, and as such it can be inserted into almost any wilderness campaign; most importantly, every room counts and contains the unexpected.

(16) Against the Cult of the Reptile God. 4 ½ stars. Douglas Niles, 1982. Levels 1-3. This body-snatching adventure has sharp intrigue, and is even better than I remember. The village of Orlane has Hommlet vibes, but without feeling like a copycat, and fleshed out with remarkable detail. The plot involves a serpent cult (it seems that snake worshippers are always a hit in D&D) taking over the village by an unpleasant brainwashing process that’s been going on for about a year. PCs must determine which villagers have been converted, and they can be given quite a bum steer depending on whose suspicions they take to heart: the mayor is convinced the hermit is the cause of the village’s distress, and others suspect the newly arrived elves; there are plenty of wrong guesses to keep players on their toes. The village drama is nothing less than a horror-mystery thriller, and a superb prelude to the swamp dungeon full of lizard men and crocodiles (and the insidious naga with hypnotic powers). In fact, the villagers are so well fleshed out that I brandish this module as a first-rate example of how to create NPCs with compelling hidden motives. Against the Cult of the Reptile God requires a lot out of beginning players, brains as much as brawn, and the beauty is that any or all of the PCs are fair game for kidnapping and brainwashing — they could well be up against themselves.

(17) Dwellers of the Forbidden City. 4 ½ stars. David Cook, 1981. Levels 4-7. Like The Lost City, a wonderful homage to Red Nails, this time set in a jungle instead of a desert, with factions split by race rather than religion. The module tends to divide fandom, its detractors emphasizing the lack of cohesion and sections that seem tacked on without much thought. It’s true this isn’t the masterpiece Lost City is, and the mountain passages into the city aren’t as impressive as the Cynidicean step pyramid. Worst of all, there are no layouts for yuan-ti strongholds, and they’re the star creatures of the module. But it’s incredibly inspiring for all the deficiencies, and we at least get the snake-men in the mountain passes. They’re as iconic as drow, and their allies (the tasloi and bugbears) work well in tandem, lording themselves over the mongrelmen and bullywugs. Of course, I’m a sucker for hidden exotic cities populated by lethal groups at each others’ throats, which so clearly emulate the Conan classic. Ironically, I never got a chance to DM this product (staying obsessed with Moldvay’s lost city), but had rewards as a player; my friend seemed to have a thing for snake-priests and as a Howard fan, no doubt, tapped into the pulp-fantasy essence with ease. This is also the module that introduced the aboleth, from which the TV series Stranger Things took inspiration for the Shadow Monster of season 2.

(18) The Isle of Dread. 4 ½ stars. David Cook & Tom Moldvay, 1980. Levels 3-7. Of all entries on this list, this one is an anomaly in the sense I hardly remember specifics about it as a DM or player, only that it was a lot of fun on both counts. Rereading it today I can see why. Players basically sail off to a tropical island to go treasure hunting, and how things unfold depends entirely on where they choose to go exploring. There are King Kong homages, notably the village of Tanaroa, and plenty of prehistoric creatures, not to mention pirates waiting to pounce near the coast. The high point is a ruined temple controlled by amphibious mind-controlling creatures, much of it submerged — and this is the part I remember most, especially the underwater corridor with the black pearl. The Isle of Dread is one of the least plot-driven modules I can think of, a product that almost epitomizes the Golden Age, and the wilderness adventure we cut our teeth on after The Keep on the Borderlands served as our tutorial dungeon. I don’t recall ever running into the dragon turtle displayed on the front cover, and that’s a good thing: they’re a bit beyond the combat reach of 3rd-7th level characters. Per James Maliszewski, this island is a perfect setting for Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and no surprise, since David Cook is the author of each.

(19) The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun. 4 ½ stars. Gary Gygax, 1982. Levels 5-10. This one may not excel with content, but it’s one hell of a mood piece and inspired one of my own dungeons similarly premised on a dormant evil that has the power to possess and drive people insane. The temple itself is a two-tiered pyramid with dungeons beneath, and a secret mini-level harboring potent treasures and nasty traps. The idea that characters must enact twisted rituals to progress through the temple is creepy as hell; the temple itself is the chief antagonist, defending itself against assault and penetration in insidious ways. And while some consider the final room of the Black Cyst to be anti-climactic, I love it for the non-traditional endgame involving a subtle energy force — which of course is Tharizdun himself, trying to manifest and be set free. An efficient DM can really work on player’s emotions throughout the temple, as Tharizdun’s essence seeks to elicit sympathy, but also lust and greed, before killing people or driving them insane. The possibility of being trapped forever underground is very real. As a mood piece, it’s the kind of module that requires some thoughtful planning before running it. It’s full of dark secrets and an overlooked gem.

(20) Aesirhamar. 4 ½ stars. Roger Moore, 1984. Levels 9-16. Did I have a blast with this one. Published in Dragon magazine #90, it takes place on the outer plane of Gladsheim, and has the Norse gods recruiting high level mortals to do their dirty work whilst Odin is MIA. The plot centers around a war hammer as deadly as Thor’s Mjolnir, created by a couple of mischievous dwarves for a nasty-tempered giant bent on personal revenge, but I upped the ante by working this into an apocalyptic context. The hammer, if not destroyed or returned to the forces of good, would usher in Ragnarok, and Loki himself gets involved with the players. I don’t think my friend appreciated the innovations — and I know his mage thought twice about remaining a follower of Odin after this — but it was roaring fun, and I believe the only outer plane adventure I ever ran that wasn’t situated in evil regions like the Hells, Hades, or the Abyss. Moore supplemented his adventure with two additional articles about Gladsheim, one of which mapped out places like Asgard and Jotunheim, and detailed various things that were invaluable to running a scenario like this. Aesirhamar was a gift, for the Norse pantheon has always been my favorite, and the moral compass of its plane (chaotic neutral with good tendencies), is “the” alignment I have found most compelling.


(21) The Saltmarsh Trilogy. 4 stars. Dave Browne & Don Turnbull, 1981-83. Levels 1-5. This series scores big-time as thinking-players’ modules, since things aren’t what they seem until the end. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh is the fan favorite: a haunted house that’s not really haunted, and PCs ultimately become policemen when they find out that smugglers, not ghosts, reside on the cliff. It’s the build up to that realization that makes the module so exciting. DM’s can instill a lot of fear if they know what they’re doing, and keep players believing the supernatural is at large with the blinking lights, ghastly shrieks, and nauseating carrion. On top of this, the assassin plant in the upstairs bedroom has loads of potential, and if used subtly, can really sow confusion or even discord among the players. Danger at Dunwater may be less scary than the house on the cliff, but it’s more dangerous since it invites bloodshed when diplomacy is needed. It turns out that a colony of lizard men have been arming themselves, but not to attack Saltmarsh or any human settlement, rather to take back their own fortress from invading sahuagin, who are the true threat to humanity. It’s a tricky business: even PCs who reach a negotiating stage will more than likely have killed at least some lizard men before piecing clues together. dunwater-enemySome claim that Danger at Dunwater doesn’t measure up to the previous module, or that it’s a dungeon wasted on pacifist strategies, but neither is true and ignores that all but the most shrewd PCs will believe the lizard men to be the evil threat until they proceed far enough through the dungeon to piece clues together. The Final Enemy is the straightforward module and incredibly deadly. Underwater breathing is required in two-thirds of this dungeon, and woe to the fools who don’t swiftly kill any sahuagin before they can raise an alarm. But PCs aren’t supposed to seek out any combat, far less clear the dungeon (which would be a suicide mission), only to recon the three levels and report back to Saltmarsh officials who will launch war themselves. That’s easier said than done, for example in the temple on the middle level, where sahuagin priestesses sacrifice young infants to a shark. These are the hatchlings who don’t measure up to the rigorous physical standards of the sahuagin race, and the ritual on display is enough to sicken all good-aligned characters who in most cases won’t be able to stop themselves from intervening. Taken together, the Saltmarsh trilogy is a great example of an extended adventure that draws on players’ resources in unexpected ways.


(22) The Desert Nomads. 4 stars. David Cook, 1983. Levels 6-10. The cover design and trade dress should signal alarm, but for all the sins creeping into D&D in 1983, the Nomads series is very good, and perhaps that’s no surprise given David Cook’s pulp-fantasy genius. Master of the Desert Nomads is a desert wilderness of horrors, at the end of which waits an abbey run by (what appear to be) a benign group of monks who (in actuality) are hideous undead-like creatures who show their true forms when the sun goes down. The abbey is one of my favorite scenarios ever designed and it plays extremely well, with a lot of nail-biting tension. Temple of Death is a close tie, though against consensus I slightly favor the abbey over the temple. The deception behind the former adds another level of tension, appearing to be a benign sanctuary but in fact a death zone. The temple harbors no such illusions, and players know exactly what they’re getting into — the capital of a modern-Iran equivalent led by an “Ayatollah” responsible for desert raids and holy wars. There is some troublesome railroading, for example the town of Magden which instead of being a location on the map only becomes a location after the PCs visit one of the three nameless towns; i.e. to ensure that they reach “this” particular town. But it’s forgivable in light of the excellent encounter areas and dungeon designs. The mountain pass into Hule is wild pup fantasy come to life, with alluring caverns of hallucinations, and even a ladder that ascends into a Kingdom of the Moon. As for the temple of death itself, it can be counted on to kill all but the most shrewd PCs. And the decoy of the Master’s avatar is brilliant. The real Master’s inanimate body resides in one of the coffins of the huge crypt, and is actually fairly accessible; few PCs ever realize this.


(23) Dungeonland & The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror. 4 stars. Gary Gygax, 1983. Levels 9-12. These are well-loved spin-offs of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and their function depends on a good amount of meta-gaming — the use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one’s in-game decisions. Such strategies will work against players as often as for them. For instance, when the herald begins charging PCs by talking about “the Queen of Hearts”, players might be tempted to respond cleverly with rhymes about tarts or the knave stealing them, which will seal their fate as the King and Queen will demand to know how they even knew of the crime. Meta-gaming is one of the worst sins in RPGs, but Gary Gygax was like Mark Twain with the English language; he knew how to break the rules and come out ahead. He was also smart to make Dungeonland for high-levels; deadly and unforgiving. Like the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are supposed to be insidious, and so the Mad Hatter is an 8th-level monk who has an endless supply of cursed hats that he will attempt to throw on people’s heads — hat of occupation (PC believes himself to be a different class), hat of imprisonment (enlarges to cover the PC and make him immobile), hat of fools (makes the PC dance uncontrollably), etc. The March Hare is even more insane; the Cheshire Cat an omnipresent nightmare. Had Wonderland been translated into a beginner’s level adventure it would have been risible. Gygax made it a terror like Pan’s Labyrinth, a pocket universe feeding DM sadism and PC risk addiction, and to great effect.

(24) The Ghost Tower of Inverness. 4 stars. Allen Hammack, 1980. Levels 5-7. If there’s an award to be given for “most difficult and frustrating module that I enjoyed as a player”, Ghost Tower of Inverness would probably win. It’s a horror house of trapped puzzles and formidable beasts, with an emphasis on the former, and if you’re not quick at solving them you haven’t a chance. The warning at the start is quite apt: “the tower is designed for experienced players, and the mistake of equating experienced characters with experienced players should be avoided”. Obviously I wasn’t as experienced as I thought, because I was duly shafted, one of my characters killed, and obtuse enough that the DM had to offer some helpful steering at one point so I could at least have a chance. Considering my other hobbies at the time, I should have been able to do a lot better on the chess floor (where each player must move like a particular piece or take heavy damage), and given my intimate familiarity as a DM with the punishing surprises that come at the end of dungeons, you’d think I’d have taken a less cavalier attitude in the room of the soul-gem. It’s a very fun module for all its artificiality, and I especially like the premise of PCs being forced to retrieve the soul-gem to atone for crimes they didn’t even commit.

(25) White Plume Mountain. 3 ½ stars. Lawrence Schick, 1979. Levels 5-10. This one hasn’t aged well; in my teen years I would have easily put it somewhere in the top five (my extreme example of a module that has aged badly is Queen of the Demonweb Pits, which went all the way from #1 to the very bottom). Don’t get me wrong, I still have plenty of affection for White Plume Mountain, but there’s something artificial about it that rubs me the wrong way. Also, it plays like Tomb of Horrors lite. Almost every room involves a trap, puzzle, riddle, or deadly creature — but with an odd feel of levity, so you have PCs doing things like kayaking on a river suspended in mid-air. The premise involves recovering three magical weapons — a warhammer, trident, and sword — artifacts with memorable personalities, and powerful ones at that. It’s interesting how the module came into being: Lawrence Schick wrote it while applying to work for TSR, and he simply cobbled together the best parts of his previous dungeons. It definitely has a patchwork feel to it, and obviously the sword Blackrazor is a rip-off of Elric’s Stormbringer (which frankly I love). One of my players ran wild with the warhammer’s ability to inflict massive stun when thrown down; it became a running gag in my gaming group to threaten, “You better look out, I’m going to throw Whelm on the ground!”

(26) The Secret of Bone Hill. 3 stars. Leonard Lakofka, 1981. Levels 2-4. This one has an off-kilter premise which leaves some cold, but it’s a decent beginners module. Bone Hill looms over the nearby town of Resterford, and so the module combines a solid base with a deadly place. I still think of it every year at Halloween; as a teen I fancied my hometown in the countryside plagued by a similar menace — a hill controlled by humanoids (bugbears) during day, by undead by night, and it’s the twisted variations on the latter that really sell. There are normal skeletons and animal skeletons, standard zombies and “zombires” (who are fast unlike the regular but enjoy pretending to be slow at first), common ghouls and ghoulstirges (bloodthirsty birds), wraiths and “skelters” (the remains of evil magic-users). There’s good use to be milked out of this product, but the design is a bit awkward and leaves much to flesh out. The sequel module, The Assassin’s Knot, is curiously held in high esteem and even makes Dungeon’s top-30 cut, but I strongly disagree (as a late ’83 product it doesn’t place on this list, but for the record I’d give it a 2). Bone Hill is no prize, but it’s better than its reputation suggests.

(27) Palace of the Silver Princess. 3 stars. Jean Wells, 1981. Levels 1-3. This one fondly plays off The Silmarillion’s tale of Melian: a group of dwarves give a priceless jewel to a beautiful monarch, with calamitous results. Players are out to retrieve the gem or destroy it, depending on which version of the module is used, and this brings us to the infamous controversy. The green version became the official one after the orange copies were instantly recalled and destroyed, ostensibly because of sloppy design, actually because of “risque” artwork. Only a tight prude would have problems with this stuff, and you can read all about it here. The orange version is superior, above all for the premise: the gem is just a gem (though priceless) and the mysterious dragonrider was evil; his red dragon devastated the palace and surrounding lands with fire, and he succeeded in corrupting the princess; they are both now long dead (for centuries) and their ghosts haunt the palace and guard the gem. In the green version, the gem itself is evil, a magical artifact recently inflicting the countryside with a sickening blight, and the dragonrider is decent; his silver dragon, if rescued, is capable of destroying the gem with his frost breath; he and the princess are alive and trapped inside the gem, which must be destroyed to free them and break the curse of blight. The “evil must be vanquished” plot is cheap and cliche; the orange version is better for the haunting backdrop. (The green version would get only 2 stars from me, not only for the aforementioned reasons, but because it omits the geographical detail of the lands surrounding the palace.)

(28) Against the Giants. 3 stars. Gary Gygax, 1978. Levels 8-12. Even if this is little more than an extended dungeon crawl of hacking and slashing, it’s fun, and there’s also intrigue in play. I’ve written about the plotting of this series — minimalist and proof that it’s possible to conceive ambitious stories without resorting to the script slavery of post-Dragonlance modules — and it of course involves the drow priestess Eclavdra (from module D3) attempting to organize giants into an army to subjugate the surface world. What’s fascinating is how the PCs gradually discover this. At the start all they know is that giants have been attacking nearby human settlement, without a clue as to why. As they proceed through the abodes of hill, frost, and fire giants, they can, in the end, and if they’re shrewd, piece together a certain mentality that drives the drow. The disturbing abandoned temple in the hill-giant steading, and the collapsed tunnel in the frost-giant rift, would seem to indicate that the dark elves established bases there then tossed these giants aside when they found stronger and more effective tools (the fire giants). It points to the drow’s chaotic mentality that could be exploited against them when the PCs reach D3 and engage the backbiting factions, even the ones loosely allied with Eclavdra, never mind those against her.

(29) The Lost Caverns of the Tsojcanth. 3 stars. Gary Gygax, 1982. Levels 6-10. Of the ten Gary Gygax entries on this list, this one places lowest. It’s enjoyable enough, and I had fun going through it as a player, but I think it gets more praise than it deserves. The artifacts are the strongest point, especially Daoud’s Wondrous Lanthorn, which heals poison and disease to those who bask in its light, and produces spell effects like color spray, hold and flame strike depending on which prisms are used; it also (of course) curses the owner with possessiveness and paranoia. Then there are tomes and pentagrams for binding demons. The caverns are detailed with Gygax’s trademark naturalism — bat guano yielding rooms full of fungus, which is fed on by giant cave crickets, who in turn are eaten by trolls, etc. Ecology always came naturally to Gygax, but here it almost seems like his talents go to waste on a dungeon crawl that while good is hardly up to par with his usual standards. There’s also a notable shift in presentation, with boxed texts that foreshadow the hand-holding of post-1983 Dragonlance modules. I have fond memories of showing down Drelzna (the vampiric daughter of renowned archmage) and the lanthorn is one of my favorite artifacts I ever acquired. Everything leading up to that was fun, but nothing exceptional.

(30) In Search of the Unknown. 2 stars. Mike Carr, 1979. Levels 1-3. This one you like or dislike depending on how you judge its purpose. It was designed as an instructional aid for beginning DMs so they could be co-creators of the dungeon. In other words, it’s a half-finished product (I’m being charitable and not saying “half-assed”). Each room is described (library, laboratory, bedroom, etc) along with any traps, but monsters and treasure are left entirely to the DM. Some wax nostalgic over this tutorial function, but I’m not one of them, no doubt because I didn’t even acquire the thing until late in my gaming career. When I started playing (in late 1980), The Keep on the Borderlands had supplanted In Search of the Unknown as the module which came in the beginner’s boxed set, for which I’m eternally glad. I simply can’t imagine a better first-time adventure than the Caves of Chaos. All I see when I look at this product is a substandard dungeon crawl with little that inspires. The single exception is the famous Room of Pools, which I ripped off and used in my own dungeons. Aside from that one room, the Caverns of Quasqueton are boring.


(31) The Slavers. 2 stars. David Cook, Harold Johnson & Tom Moldvay, Allen Hammack, Lawrence Schick, 1980-1981. Levels 4-7. I never understood the love for the slavers modules; they shout mediocrity at every turn. Technically I should rank them in reverse order, as each gets slightly better, but that’s damning with faint praise. Unlike #1-#29 on this list, I wouldn’t run any of these for any reason. A big part of this has to do with the fact that they were scripted as tournament modules (notice the embarrassing fact that each is designed for the exact same level range, as if PCs never move up), but mostly they’re just plain uninspired. The slave lords themselves have colorful personalities (when you reach them in the last two modules), and there are a few nifty encounter areas here and there, but most of the dungeon crawling is a big yawn. The best parts can be summarized thus: in A1, the ant-like aspis; in A2, the abandoned section of the stockade inhabited by a madman whom the slavers believe to be a ghost (a wonderfully insane idea that only Moldvay could come up with); in A3, the showdown with the slavers who have been observing the PCs for a long time through a crystal ball and will probably kill them, and then raise them from the dead for interrogation; in A4, the myconids, or mushroom men, depicted wonderfully on the pink cover art by Erol Otus. And that pretty much exhausts my accolades for the slavers quartet.

(32) Queen of the Demonweb Pits. 1 star. David Sutherland, 1980. Levels 10-14. This was my #1 favorite back in the day. That it can drop from the highest point to the lowest requires explanation, and the explanation is that it fails on every level — design, concept, and premise. All of which was easy to overlook when suddenly given license to kill deities on their own plane, and of course what hormonal male wasn’t aroused by the suggestive sketches of Lolth in her humanoid form? I should make clear that I don’t have any theoretical problem with PCs killing deities: gods and goddesses are given statistics (armor class, hit points, etc.) implicitly for this possibility. But Lolth is too compelling a figure to allow to be killed off in this kind of adventure. Moreover, as I’ve written about here, the plotting of the giant-drow series doesn’t require a trip to the Abyss, because Lolth isn’t even the menace. (Her wayward priestess is the one trying to subjugate the upper world.) But what really offends me is the appalling design, which is basically a sci-fic dumbing down of the Abyss. I’m embarrassed that I liked the spider ship so much (no doubt riding the enthusiasm for Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the once-in-a-blue moon case where sci-fic elements work in D&D); it’s truly ludicrous. I’m sure that if Gary Gygax had finished his own series (he authored the G and D modules and was originally slated for this one), he would have come up with an appropriately abysmal domain fitting the queen of spiders — labyrinthine caverns, halls of webbing, a deeply horrific atmosphere, etc. Dave Sutherland was clueless.