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 all-time 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 all 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 hideous 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.