Last year I did my Dungeon Magazine picks, and now it’s time for the best modules from Dragon magazine. I came up with nine. Rereading them gave me an itch to play again; they’re even better than I remember.
1. The Dancing Hut, by Roger Moore. Issue #83, March 1984. Levels 10-14. In the halls of RPG infamy, The Dancing Hut stands proudly alongside Tomb of Horrors and Dol Guldur as impossible challenges. Like the demi-lich Acererak and the Nazgul Khamul, the witch Baba Yaga is for all practical purposes invincible. If you run into her, you don’t stand a chance of surviving (unless you come as a very polite supplicant); the way to survive her is by avoiding her. There are 48 rooms inside her hut, some as big as palace halls, many of which can deliver a TPK in a few rounds. Baba Yaga is aware of what is going on in almost every room at any time (through scrying), is free to teleport around at will and bring enough of her minions to slaughter those whom she deems a threat. As for why anyone would venture into the hut, the module supplies some hooks. The PCs may want a magical artifact owned by the witch. More likely they need to stop the bitch from terrorizing the country-side and kidnapping kids for her midnight supper. Baba Yaga never plants her hut in the same place for long. The hut travels far and wide (across planes, let alone vast distances) and rests somewhere deep in a forest or a sparsely populated region. Animals in a five-mile radius instinctively flee in terror, and people living in a ten-mile radius had best not let their kids out of sight. The Dancing Hut inspired a novel I wrote, and it’s my favorite Dragon module by far.
2. Death of an Arch-Mage, by Michael Selinker. Issue #111, July 1986. Levels 7-9. I love murder mysteries in RPGs, the masterpiece being Traveller’s Murder on Arcturus Station (1983). Some are let-downs, however, like the D&D classic The Assassin’s Knot (1983). Dragon issue #111 finally provided an excellent whodunnit for the D&D game. It occurs at a wealthy mansion and has a precise 4-hour time limit that plays out in real time; it has an ongoing plot line that unfolds with specific events going on in the house as the PCs conduct their investigation. The key to running this module is that the DM must have at his fingertips every detail the characters may never receive. Fortunately, the module presents all the detail wonderfully. A wealthy arch-mage has been murdered in his own home, and there are six suspects. Two of them will appear very likely ones; the actual murderer less so, depending on how shrewd the players are. There’s a thoroughly detailed timeline specifying what all the NPCs are doing in the house between 8:00 AM-12:00 PM (the period the PCs have to solve the mystery). I used this module in southern Middle-Earth, in the city of Korlan, and changed some of the NPCs to reflect the triangular politics of the Koranande, Tanturak, and Mumakan regions. Put simply, this is the absolute go-to module if you want a D&D murder mystery, one that demands intelligent players, and one that has every potential to end on a lethal showdown.
3. The Temple of Poseidon, by Paul Reiche. Issue #46, February 1981. Levels 7-9. The year 1981 was the peak of D&D’s golden age, and so it’s no surprise that three of my nine favorite Dragon modules come from that year (the others are at #5 and #7). This one is thoroughly indebted to the pulps. In another couple of years it would be hard if not impossible to come by D&D modules like this — Tom Moldvay’s The Lost City (1982) and Gygax’s The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (1982) were the last of such efforts. The influence of Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft can be felt in every room of Reiche’s dungeon. It starts with earthquakes rocking a coastal area, unnatural births occurring, and farmers finding their farm animals crucified and left on their front porches. This leads the PCs to investigate the nearby underground Temple of Poseidon. The dungeon starts out as one thing and then takes a hard left into horror and insanity (like Tharizdun), meaning that PCs will think they have it hard enough dealing with the Poseidon temple, until they realize the temple has been built over something horrifically worse. The worse — the priesthood of Ythog-Nthlei — has wiped out the Poseidon cultists, and are now preparing for their Cthulhu-like deity’s release. A grade-A module with dangerous combat, creative traps and puzzles, and more than enough weirdness (like a conniving and manipulative efreeti)… put simply, this is the best dungeon crawl that Dragon ever published.
4. Aesirhamar, by Roger Moore. Issue #90, September 1984. Levels 9-12. I may rank it fourth, but of all the Dragon modules this is the one I got the most mileage from. (And was Roger Moore on a roll in ’84, or what? First Baba Yaga and now the Norse gods.) In addition to the Aesirhamar adventure module itself, Moore wrote a preface article that maps the outer plane of Gladsheim like a mini-gazetteer. The Norse pantheon was my favorite back in the day, and so this issue of Dragon became something of an obsession — my most heavily used issue, worn and torn within weeks. I dreamed of going to Gladsheim. The adventure involves a war hammer as powerful as Thor’s Mjölnir, forged by a dwarf at the behest of a vengeful giant who wants to kill Thor. (The giant is an entertaining villain named Hargnar Left-Hand, fond of quoting the proverb, “Two eyes for an eye, with a rock through the head as well.”) The Aesir gods get wind of the weapon’s existence and decide to recruit some powerful mortals (the PCs) to retrieve the weapon before it falls into the hands of the giants. I never ran this particular adventure though; I came up with a far nastier plot in the Jotunheim mountains involving the precipitation of Ragnarok itself — it was quite an adventure. Roger Moore’s vision of Gladsheim is one that has stayed with me for many years.
5. The Chapel of Silence, by Mollie Plants. Issue #50, June 1981. Levels 2-3. A creative module — and a rather terrifying one — for beginners. Once a chapel dedicated to benign deities, it’s now been revived by a cult led by a vampire. Yes, the module is for 2nd-3rd level characters, but if the PCs are shrewd, they will find a certain magic item that enables them to kill the vampire. And believe it or not, the vampire is actually the secondary danger; halfway through the chapel the PCs will in all likelihood be struck dumb with such terror that they won’t be able speak for the rest of the adventure (until they put a couple of souls to rest at the very end). That makes for an interesting dynamic, as players won’t be allowed to communicate with each other vocally; they have to use gestures or pictures, or by writing things down which takes time. There are all sorts of terrors waiting in this chapel — paintings of beings that come to life and attack, undead lairs, and more. I wish I’d gotten use out of it back in the day.
6. The House in the Frozen Lands, by James Adams. Issue #110, June 1986. Levels 4-8. For my money, this is one of the best “hostile takeover” modules ever designed for an RPG. (The very best is the abbey in X4: Master of the Desert Nomads.) A matriarchal cult (the Sept of Infamy) has taken over a teaching house (the Scholia). The scholars and priests of the house have either been imprisoned (in a mirror of life trapping), tortured, raped, and/or enslaved — save for one of them, who prowls the house (wearing a ring of invisibility), though he’s a pacifist who refuses to harm any of the cultists as they damn well deserve. The house is way out in an arctic wilderness, and so no one knows about the terror that has fallen on these poor scholars, including the PCs, who are on their way to get a rude surprise. The dynamic that drives the adventure is top-notch, as the PCs work their way through the Scholia, rescuing those they can while learning the best way to overcome the terrorists — the worst of them being a mage/were-tiger (the lead matriarch and full-blown sadist), a fanatical priest, an illusionist, two female warrior twins, and a male warrior. It’s a suspenseful module demanding brains as much as combat ability, as well as the skills of many character classes (ranger, thief, fighter, magic-user, cleric), and one that I’d love to run again.
7. The Garden of Nefaron, by Howard de Wied. Issue #53, September 1981. Levels 7-10. This one punishes good-aligned PCs (even compromising their alignments) while rewarding evil ones — a big plus right off the bat. The premise involves the trapped soul of a high-level mage-warrior (Malakon) possessing ruthless psionic abilities. The thing is, Malakon’s soul was trapped long ago by an alliance and his cage is still secure and guarded by wards and powerful spells (as well as by a ki-rin). He’s as powerless as ever, and so there’s no need to venture into the dungeon and try to destroy the psychogem that has him trapped (an exceedingly difficult task in any case). The party is misled — by a damaged scroll that reveals only fragments of information — into thinking that Malakon or his spirit is somehow responsible for evil shenanigans going in a village by a forest, and so they venture into the dungeon where he was imprisoned. To kill Malakon permanently requires destroying the psychogem that holds his soul while also preventing him from possessing any of the PCs and gaining his freedom. It’s a horribly difficult task set in a ruthless dungeon that abuses the players’ trust left and right. It’s fantastic.
8. Citadel by the Sea, by Sid Fisher. Issue #78, October 1983. Levels 1-3. The premise to this one may seem a bit mundane: orcs have taken over the ruins of an old fort, and they are searching for a spear that allows an orc to wield mighty power. It’s the plot that elevates Citadel by the Sea and makes it a favorite among Dragon readers: the orcs are led by a half-orc disguised as a human archeologist who is “friendly” to the nearby town full of superstitious people, half of whom who have fled their homes. Everyone is convinced (thanks to the “archaeologist”) that a plague is coming out of the old ruins, and that the plague was caused by elves. The townspeople will distrust any elvish PCs as a result. The half-orc wants to find the spear-artifact and become king of the orcs, and make the orcs a mighty and feared race once again. The fun of the adventure is learning exactly what’s going on as the PCs descend deeper into the dungeon of the old ruins.
9. The City Beyond the Gate, by Robert Schroeck. Issue #100, August 1985. Levels 9-12. Every once in a great, great while you can get away with bastardizing D&D, if you know what you’re doing. Gary Gygax did it in Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, giving us robots and laser guns on a crashed spaceship. It shouldn’t have worked but it did. The centennial issue of Dragon does something similar. There are no spaceships or robots, but 20th-century planet Earth qualifies as science fiction by D&D standards. There’s even a flowchart modeled on Barrier Peak’s die rolls for PCs to figure out how alien technology works — guns, cars, computer terminals, flashlights, etc. The PCs’ mission is to find a magical artifact (The Mace of St. Cuthbert), which has been hidden on our prime material plane, and put on display in a London museum in the year 1985. So it becomes a fishbowl experience as the PCs bustle about London and run afoul the law, for the medieval weapons they carry and the outrageous way they’re dressed… and for who knows what kind of hell they end up raising in our world.