Tomb of Horrors (1978)
In the early days, I enjoyed plenty of time to create my own adventures, so I had little interest in playing the published ones. But I still drew inspiration from them. Nothing inspired like Tomb of Horrors.
Before the tomb, dungeons tended to lack personality. Dungeon masters followed the examples in the rule books, serving players bland tunnels, square rooms, and monsters waiting to be killed.
The tomb overflowed with the personality of its fictional creator and its real-world author. Gary Gygax admits to “chuckling evilly” as he developed the tomb. His wicked fancy suffuses the dungeon. The tomb brought a menace unmatched by other dungeons. Its legend still draws players, despite its reputation for dead characters and tedious play.
The best part of the adventure might be the keyed illustrations that revealed its locations. The illustrations transported me into the tomb and tantalized me with potential clues to its the mysteries. I think writers sometimes avoid locations that demand long and unwieldy explanations, so adventurers encounter too many conventional 10’x10’ rooms with a pile of debris in the corner. With the tomb, Gary and his artists loosed their imaginations, and the place came to life. See Picturing the dungeon – keyed illustrations.
For more, see Tomb of Horrors tests patience, but still ranks as Dungeons & Dragons’ best villain.
Queen of the Demonweb Pits (1980)
You can fault some details in Queen of the Demonweb Pits, but not its big ideas. This adventure took the scope of Dungeons & Dragons and blew it wide open.
Start with the Demonweb, a web of pathways floating through impenetrable fog. The material of the path moves slightly. “Close examination will reveal faces, twisted and tortured, pressed against some invisible barrier, silently mouthing screams and howls.” These are the lost souls of the Abyss. Along the path, unsupported doors open into extradimensional spaces. At first, these doors lead to Lolth’s creatures. On the last level of the web, the doors open on alternate material planes that she targets for attack or other schemes. In unlocking these planes, the adventure made the world of Greyhawk and its kin seem like specks floating an a sea of creation.
Once players leave the web, they find Lolth’s stronghold, a colossal, steam-powered spider that walks across an alien desert. Many players disliked the spider-ship for its collision of fantasy and steampunk, but I loved it. A diet of Michael Moorcock books and Arduin had already shattered my reservations about mixing such elements. The spider-ship seemed like a fitting creation for a goddess whose power spanned a multiverse. The ship’s inscrutable purpose and destination suited her chaos.
Lolth’s spider-ship, the Demonweb, and its portals suggested a D&D game with a scope that felt breathtaking.
For more, see How Queen of the Demonweb Pits opened Dungeons & Dragons to the multiverse
Escape from Astigars Lair (1980)
In 1980, Judges Guild published Escape from Astigar’s Lair, a slim module that sold for just $2. The adventure so charmed me that after I ran it, I created a similar challenge of my own to unleash on players.
The action starts when the wizard Egad dons a cursed helm and becomes possessed by the evil spirit of the mighty Astigar. Players take the roles of the druid Danier and the ranger Therain, who begin shackled to a wall in Astigar’s dungeon complex. The escape encourages shrewd problem solving. How can you cross a chamber swarming with flying lizards as voracious as piranha? How can you force Egad to remove the cursed helm? The obstacles in the lair inspired challenges that I would add to my own game.
I loved how Escape from Astigar’s Lair showed that combining oddball powers with ingenuity could prove more fun than blasting away.
For more, see Little-known D&D classics: Escape from Astigar’s Lair.
In 1981, my buddies and I, at our first Gen Con, stumbled into the Fez tournament and had a blast, more fun than we had in that year’s AD&D Open. For several years, even as our interests wandered from AD&D to other role-playing games, Fez remained the Gen Con event we most eagerly anticipated.
In this blog, I’ve shown how a reliance of skill checks tends to encourage players to focus on their character stats and to take focus from the game world. When a skill check solves any problem in the game world, the details of the problem become unimportant.
When I played Fez, little seemed to demand a roll. Behind the dungeon master’s screen, Fez was a D&D game complete with AC and HP. From my perspective, Fez factored rules out of the game, making immersion the game world all important. Normally, I would not want to play battles without character stats, but in Fez, the objective seemed to be to avoid fights.
Fez featured a play style different from the typical D&D game, and it blew my impressionable mind.
For more, see Little-known D&D classics: Fez.
Dungeons & Dragons third edition (2000)
Game historian Shannon Appelcline calls D&D’s original design chaotic modeling, with inconsistent game systems handling different parts of the game world. So Strength has a range of 3-17, and then 18/01 to 18/00, while other attributes range from 3-18. Thieves roll under a percentage to gain success, attackers try to roll high on a d20, and (in some versions) ability checks require a d20 roll under an ability score. “The fact that the game couldn’t even keep its core range straight (was it yards or feet?) says a lot.”
In Thirty Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons, Steve Winter wrote, “By 1987, the science and/or art of roleplaying game design had progressed significantly since AD&D’s first appearance. Games such as Runequest, The Fantasy Trip, Chivalry & Sorcery, Paranoia, Pendragon, Warhammer Fantasy, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, and many others showed that there were innumerable ways to build a quality, innovative RPG.”
Second edition designers Steve Winter and David “Zeb” Cook did their best to sort out D&D’s “ugly little systems that didn’t integrate with each other,” but the system’s core remained mired in the RPG stone age. In a D&D podcast episode examining the second edition, Steve Winter said, “There were all kinds of changes that we would have made if we had been given a free hand to make them—an awful lot of what ultimately happened in third edition. We heard so many times, ‘Why did you keep armor classes going down instead of going up?’ People somehow thought that that idea had never occurred to us. We had tons of ideas that we would have loved to do, but we still had a fairly narrow mandate that whatever was in print should still be largely compatible with second edition.” So D&D held to chaotic modeling.
In 1997, Wizards of the Coast took over TSR and new head Peter Adkison set the direction for a new edition of D&D. In Thirty Years of Adventure, he wrote, “After twenty-five years D&D was due for a major overhaul, but that the changes to the game should make the games rules more consistent, more elegant, and support more possibilities for different styles of play.” Adkison gave lead-designer Jonathan Tweet and the rest of his team the freedom to bring 25 years of innovation into D&D. The centerpiece of the revamp came in the form of the d20 core mechanic that became the name of the game’s foundation.
In addition to the chaotic rules, D&D’s characters suffered from limitations Gary had created either for game balance or just to make humans the dominant race. “My biggest beef with the older rules were the consistent limitations on what characters could become,” Adkison wrote. “Why couldn’t dwarves be clerics. Why could wizards of some classes only advance to some pre-determined level limit? Why couldn’t intelligent monster races like orcs and ogres pick up character classes? In my mind these restrictions had no place in a rules set but should be restrictions established (if at all) at the campaign-setting level.”
I shared Peter Adkison’s beefs. When Wizards of the Coast made their big announcement leading to the third edition, they produced a shirt giving a taste of the barriers that the new edition shattered. For me, this shirt showed how third edition would embrace 30 years of role-playing game design ideas, and how it swept away senseless limitations. After years often away from D&D, mostly playing other games, third edition welcomed me back.