I wish I had the time to DM like I used to. I still read D&D gaming material and even design adventures, but rarely can find the time or people necessary to get a good campaign off the ground. But what if? What if I could take, say, a three-month vacation from life, assemble a dream team of players, start them green, and turn them into deadly heroes assuming they can survive?
This is how I’d do it: my dream campaign run. Those familiar with my ranking of the Golden Age modules won’t be surprised to see the familiar choices, though I’ve reworked some of their plotting and titled the adventures accordingly. I base them all in the world of Mystara (click on upper right), which is suitably reminiscent of medieval Europe, and vastly superior to Greyhawk. The titles hint how I’ve modified things in some cases, and #8 is almost entirely my own module and design. These are all punishing adventures, and some of the high-level ones are nasty and not for kids.
It’s fun to dream like this, and who knows, maybe I can make a massive D&D campaign like this happen someday.
(1) The Invasion of Saltmarsh. Levels 1-3. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, Danger at Dunwater, and The Final Enemy. I’d run this campaign almost exactly as presented in the module trilogy, and place the town of Saltmarsh on the eastern coast of Karameikos. It’s less traditional than the Caves-of-Chaos way of starting out new PCs, but an excellent thinking person’s adventure that builds non-stop suspense. A later version of the first module adds a brilliant twist, and is the one I’d use: the haunted house that’s really not haunted is haunted after all, which ends up confounding the smugglers as much as the PCs. The second module is the underrated part, where nothing is as it seems either, and a hack-and-slay approach will backfire. The third module explodes into a bloodthirsty conflict that demands all of the PCs resources, not least because the true enemies are amphibian and live in underwater caverns. They do nasty things there, like sacrificing their own babies to sharks, and torturing every other race they can get their hands on. If the PCs survive the entire mission, they reach 4th level.
(2) Crimson Nails. Levels 4-5. The Lost City, modified for higher levels and with some new plotting. My title rips off the Conan classic (“Red Nails”), which the module of course is inspired by. To make an even stronger connection I build the plot around the Usamigaras cult gaining incremental power through the ritualistic slaying of rival cult members, whilst under a secret alliance with the Zargon priesthood. The Lost City has always been my favorite module for epitomizing the pulp fantasy roots of D&D, and it still fires my imagination on every page. The underground civilization that’s been corrupted by a Cthulhu-like creature is brilliantly conceived, the Cynidiceans who obsess masks and costumes and get baked on acid. The three renegade factions stay clean of this and adhere to the old gods, but they dislike each other, and will invariably use PCs as pawns in their covert agendas. As for its location, I’d place it in the Ylaruam desert between the cities of Parsa and Sulba, per the module’s suggestion. Slaying its challenges should get the PCs to 6th level.
(3) Amber Fire. Levels 6-7. Castle Amber, in conjunction with The Principalities of Glantri gazeteer. I start things in Glantri City, where streets are waterways, religion is heresy, and wizardry saturates the atmosphere. Prince Stephen Amber was murdered by his insane relatives, as per the module, but they were unwitting pawns of another prince. PCs will probably narrow it down to two of the ten princes — the Flaem and the Alphatian, as each covets knowledge of the Radiance, which Stephen guards access to — but can easily mistake the true culprit. As for Castle Amber itself, it remains the best example of a module offering so much in short space. First, there’s the castle with two large wings, an indoor forest, and a chapel; second is the underground dungeon with well-planned surprises, ending at a magical gateway to -; third, the old home of the Ambers on an alternate world resembling medieval France, where the PCs must acquire four artifacts to return to – ; fourth, Stephen’s tomb, where lies the means to return him to life. The insane Ambers are a terrific cast, probably the best NPCs ever created. Obviously, I’d place the castle where the module has it, in the Amber principality of New Averoigne. Rescuing Stephen and exposing his true enemy puts PCs at 8th level.
(4) Whirlwind. Levels 8-9. Master of the Desert Nomads and Temple of Death, with little modification. I flesh out the evil theocracy a bit more, since the modules are vague about what these clerics believe or why, and imagine something unique in D&D: a monotheistic religion comparable to fundamentalist Islam. The region of Hule calls to mind Khomeini’s Iran, with the Master an Ayatollah equivalent, and fanatical monotheists can resonate well with post-9/11 D&D players. I title the adventure after James Clavell’s novel, which depicts the emergence of Iran’s fundamentalist state in the ’70s. The rest is as is, including the Great Waste location (west of Sind), and these modules contain some of the greatest encounter areas in the history of D&D. The first 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 strange undead-like creatures who show their true hideous forms when the sun goes down. The second is a mountain pass of wild obstacles leading to the nation responsible for desert raids and holy wars. If the temple can be infiltrated and the Master killed, 10th level is a sure bet for the PCs.
(5) The Harrowing. Level 10. Vault of the Drow, in conjunction with material from Dragon #298, and a modified version of The Harrowing published in Dungeon #84. It takes place after the Eilservs rebellion and priestess wars, when Eclavdra is pardoned by Lolth and allowed to resume leadership over the Eilservs clan. She appears to be in the highest of divine favors, but in fact is still working against Lolth: she was impregnated by the demon lord Graz’zt in a foul rite, and the sacrifice of this offspring will give Eclavdra the power to challenge and kill Lolth. The child is a mental juvenile but a physical adult, and has been living in the Alabaster Slab (the brothel of the dead), employed as a whore who deals out lethal sex. She is further cursed with lawful good alignment as required by the ritual, and has no idea what’s in store for her. The Harrowing takes place in the Demonweb Pits on the Abyss, but before entering this death zone the PCs must navigate the legendary underworld where dark elves betray, rape, and kill each other (most of the rapists and killers being women); spiders, demons, and undead walk the streets; and torture parlors, drug saloons, and other obscenities thrive under a weird purple-black atmosphere. If the PCs stop or prevent the Harrowing, they will have saved the surface world (the Broken Lands and Glantri) from a dire invasion, and richly earned their 11th level.
(6) The Rains of Ragnarok. Level 11. Modified version of the Aesirhamar module published in Dragon #90, in conjunction with The Northern Reaches gazeteer. Most of the adventure takes place on Gladsheim (Ysgard) and Niflheim (Hades), and has the Norse gods using the PCs to do their dirty work. A war hammer as deadly as Thor’s Mjolnir has been created, in fact even deadlier: Aesirhamar can initiate Ragnarok in the hands of Loki, and if merely touched by a good deity it will turn him evil. Mortal PCs thus need to retrieve the hammer and destroy it with powerful magics. On top of this they are being hunted by forces sent by the queen of Ostland, who is outwardly a religious progressive but secretly a follower of Loki; she will do anything to counter the high priests of Odin and Thor who sent the PCs to Gladsheim in the first place. The awful thing about the Norse apocalypse is that the forces of evil are destined to win, and should the PCs fail, that means the obliteration of Odin, Thor, Frey, Heimdall, etc — and a flood of chaos on the nations of Ostland, Vestland, and Soderfjord. Even worse: destruction of the hammer can start the apocalypse if the PCs aren’t careful, and reversing that requires exceptionally shrewd thinking. Success propels them to 12th level.
(7) Dark Tower. Level 12. The module by the same name, with a modified timeline that aligns with events in Mystaran history: circa 1500 BC (with the Nithian Empire on the rise), Mitra builds his sanctuary in the obscure mountain pass, and leads his crusade against the snake demon Set; they both perish in battle and become gods; c. 1000 BC (when Nithia hits its peak), Mitra’s priests build the White Tower over the prospering sanctuary village; c. 500 BC (as the gods destroy Nithia), Set attacks the sanctuary with his Dark Tower, his minions devastate the area, and the village and both towers are buried deep underground; later treasure seekers settle in the mountain pass, go digging, and awaken the Dark Tower’s evil; they are driven to slay their children in a night of hell-possessed fury. Fourteen centuries later (c. 1000 AC, the Mystaran present) these same inhabitants remain, cursed by immortality and unable to leave the mountain pass (which I locate between the northern highlands of Ylaruam and Soderfjord). What keeps them there? What lies beneath the earth? The buried village, of course, along with the White and Dark Towers; rival priesthoods warring in close quarters; sadism and sacrifice opposed by paladins; artifacts needed to slay the Sons of Set. If Dark Tower doesn’t bury the PCs (a big if), they’ll attain 13th level.
(8) The Blinding Claw of Torremor. Levels 13-14. The Village of Hommlet plus two locales designed by me. It’s a three-part module that breaks down as follows: The Crippled Village (Hommlet, which I locate in the Emirate of Nithia in Ylaruam), where the PCs attempt to exorcise a possessed girl and investigate a local chapel dedicated to Osiris. The investigation uncovers The Buried Temple which was used in decades past by a sacrificial cult of Pazuzu, and which in turn leads to Torremor, the 503rd layer of the Abyss. Here the characters ascend The Lord’s Rook and attempt to destroy Pazuzu’s throne. The plot steals shamelessly from The Exorcist and its prequel Dominion, and focuses on The Blinding Claw, an artifact detailed in Dragon #329 and which gives Pazuzu ridiculously easy access to the Prime Material Plane and makes him an unbearable foe to confront, whether in his true form or through a possessed victim. It’s a module that offers a bit of everything: a horrifying ritual in a village setting, a dungeon layered with traps and suffocating evil, and finally a showdown on the Abyss where the stakes are as high as they get (and damn near impossible to overcome). If all these segments are conquered, the PCs get two levels, putting them at a well earned 15th. (Note: the entire module is available here.)
(9) Circles of Hell. Levels 15-16. Inferno, Fight-On #3, and The Gazeteer of Hell. This design of Hell has been 33 years in the making, and based on an astounding vision of The Divine Comedy. In that spirit I follow Dante’s plot structure: the PCs are geased by a sage named Virgil to guard him as he goes through all nine circles of Hell, the only escape from which comes at the bottom of the ninth. Virgil is writing a tome on the devils, and wants to document everything first hand. Volunteers for such a suicide expedition are non-existent, so he resorts to using others (the PCs) by force. The mission is to survive and escape, and “enjoy” the wonders of Hell — sadistic wastelands of contrapasso torture. Despite the Christian source material, this vision of the damned translates brilliantly to a pagan D&D context, even the first circle which in Dante was for virtuous souls whose only crime was not knowing Christ; here, likewise, it isn’t a place of torment like the other circles, rather a state of shadowy bliss for “noble atheists” who had the simple misfortune of existing before the gods made themselves known. I put Virgil in Thyatis City (the Rome of Mystara), and if the PCs can survive his foul geas, they will emerge from Hell at 17th level.
(10) Against Acererak. Levels 17-18. Return to the Tomb of Horrors. If they’ve made it to this point, the PCs have proven to be unstoppable, but that’s about to change. If the classic Tomb of Horrors is virtually impossible to get through, its sequel is completely impossible: three times as long and ten times as outrageous. I deny that any PCs in the history of D&D have prevailed against Acererak’s Phylactery without the DM fudging, dumbing down, or making allowances here and there. This is a module that can kill on every bloody page, and the tricks to staying alive are ludicrously out of reach. But that’s the whole point, much as it was in Gygax’s original. Those who object to the Tomb of Horrors don’t realize that old-school gamers thrived on challenges that were unfair, because dungeons were something to “beat” in the way video games were, unlike the group therapy games that pass for dungeons today. This final chapter of the PCs lives — for that’s what Return to the Tomb of Horrors will surely be — takes them off the main continent, east to Alphatia and the Isle of Dawn. Skull City lies hidden in the swamps near Edairo, and from there, it’s to the Negative Material Plane where Acererak’s fortress humbly awaits. The demi-lich will succeed in his plot to annihilate the prime material world, but at least the PCs will go down fighting the fight of their lives.