Category Archives: Role-playing game history

How Character Death Lands D&D in a Tug-of-War Between Game and Story

Character death has always torn Dungeons & Dragons between game and story. The threat of death makes the game exciting, but actual death brings a character’s story to an unsatisfying end that can disrupt a campaign.

Without characters facing the potential of dying, the game lacks tension and stakes. Decisions lose consequences because however characters act, they emerge unharmed—stronger thanks to experience. At his crankiest, D&D co-creator Gary Gygax railed against players who wanted campaigns that never threatened characters. “How I detest namby-pamby whiners that expect to play a real RPG without threat of character death or loss of a level, stat points, or even choice magic items! Without such possibilities, what it the purpose of play, a race to see which character can have the greatest level, highest stats, and largest horde of treasure? That is just too flaccid for words.” (See The Game-Design Trends That Turned D&D Into a Game Gary Gygax Disliked.)

The D&D Open moments before my character (lower left) died to a Marilith

My favorite D&D sessions came in the D&D Open, tournaments where long odds made casualties almost inevitable. (See Why the Awesome Dungeons & Dragons Championship Should Return.) The peril adds a weight and urgency to play that made ordinary game sessions pale. In D&D campaigns, the threat of death makes the characters feel like heroes because they brave real risks that can end their imaginary lives.

But while the threat of character death adds excitement and vitality to D&D, actual character deaths usually sour the game.

In those tournament games, dying meant dropping from the session. One player’s fun ended. In campaign games, death proves much worse. We players invest time in our characters. Creating one takes a half hour or more of effort to build, and then to invent a history, personality, and so on. Playing a character to higher levels demands hundreds of hours. A dead character seems to waste that investment. (Funny how we simply stop playing characters without feeling the same loss.) We become emotionally attached to our characters. We imagine story arcs for them where they grow and change and reach a meaningful conclusion to their journey. Death stifles those plans. Losing a character hurts.

Character deaths can also hurt campaigns. Today’s roleplayers foster connections between characters in a party. Dungeon masters strive to link a campaign world and its conflicts to characters. A death cuts all those connections and stalls story threads without resolution. The group faces the problem of introducing a new character into play and possibly reviving broken plot threads.

Through the years, D&D’s designers coped with the problem of death by making characters harder to kill. Originally, in the Blackmoor campaign that led to D&D, a single hit killed a character. “It didn’t take too long for players to get attached to their characters,” D&D co-creator Dave Arneson said. He introduced hit points. (See The Tangled Origins of D&D’s Armor Class, Hit Points, and Twenty-Sided Die Rolls To-Hit.)  In the 1974 D&D game, a character reduced to 0 hit points dropped dead, beyond healing. By the release of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1979) characters fell unconscious at 0 hp, and only died at -10 hp.

Even in original D&D, spells like raise dead often made death into a brief setback rather than a permanent loss. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary wrote, “Death due to combat is no great matter in most cases, for the character can often be brought back by means of a clerical spell.”

Resurrection magic spares characters from dropping out of play, but to hold some stakes, death must keep enough sting to make it feared. The original raise dead forced characters into two weeks of rest. In busy campaigns like Gary’s, that sidelined a character and forced players to bring one from the bench. (See Dungeons & Dragons and the Dream of the Grand Campaign.) Still, a two week break rates as a trivial setback, especially when few campaigns keep a calendar. AD&D added a risk of failed resurrections and a limit to the number of resurrections. Third edition features the best version of raise dead: Revived characters lost a level. This consequence adds enough fear of death to lend tension to the game, while limiting the chance of removing a character from the game.

AD&D’s reincarnation spell rates as the worst example of resurrection magic. Players would have characters kill themselves until they reincarnated as an ogre mage. Clearly, those campaigns featured very little role playing.

Fifth edition suffers from D&D’s most namby-pamby version of raise dead. After a long weekend, resurrected characters shake all the effects of death. Further, most characters can afford resurrections without a loan. (See Dungeons & Dragons Stopped Giving XP for Gold, but the Insane Economy Remains.) This lack of risk can drain the game of excitement. No wonder the designers of the Tomb of Annihilation adventure felt a need to make death more threatening. The circumstances of the adventure temporarily blocked raising the dead and imposed a risk of permanent death. Gary would be proud.

While raise dead can benefit the game, resurrection magic must give D&D novelists fits. How do you place characters in peril when rules-savvy readers know how easy resurrection should be? I’m told most D&D writers just ignore such easy miracles in their tales. Who can blame them for looking away and whistling past the empty graveyard?

Fifth edition’s forgiving rules for character death make characters above 4th level just about impossible to kill. Because fallen characters usually survive if anyone stands to revive them, total party kills have become more common than individual deaths.

In modern D&D, only new characters typically die. The designers embrace this quirk. To them, a new character represents a small enough time and emotional investment to feel disposable. Still, new players typically play new characters, so the design risks distressing potential converts by dealing abrupt deaths. (See Sly Flourish on Building 1st Level Combat Encounters. Hint: Have a kindly priest cast aid on your players’ 1st-level party.)

While the risk of character death has shrunk, the threat of death has always remained part of D&D. Despite ranting against players who failed to risk characters’ lives, Gary saw the tension between needing death in the game and the pain of actually losing characters. In the Dungeon Master’s Guide, he writes, “It is very demoralizing to the players to lose a cared-for player character when they have played well,” and then he suggests ways to avoid killing a character. But in the same paragraph, he warns DMs to never tamper with the system shock roll that a character must make to be successfully raised from the dead. “There MUST be some final death or immortality will take over and the game will become boring because the player characters will have 9+ lives each.”

Next: Death, stakes, and bargaining. How letting characters opt out of death might improve a D&D game and its story.

8 Fast Facts About D&D’s Magic Missile Spell

1. Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax introduced the Magic Missile spell in the original game’s first supplement, Greyhawk (1975). “This is a conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage (2-7 points) to any creature it strikes.” After that sentence, the description tells how higher-level magic users shoot extra missiles.

2. Gary took the idea for Magic Missile from the 1963 movie The Raven. The movie ends with a wizard duel between Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. Karloff flings bolts of energy at Price, who brushes them aside with a flick of his hand.

3. The exchange that inspired Magic Missile also led to the Shield spell, so the original Player’s Handbook (1978) explains, “This shield will totally negate magic missile attacks.” This property remains in fifth-edition D&D.

4. The original description of Magic Missile led players to dispute whether casters needed to make a to-hit roll. J. Eric Holmes, the editor of the 1977 Basic Set, opted for yes. His rules explain that casters must roll the same missile attack as a longbow. TSR editor Tim Kask helped Gary plan Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “The only thing that I won was that Magic Missile always hits for 1 to 3 points of damage,” Tim said. “It took me two-and-a-half weeks of arguing. I kept telling him that that’s the only thing the little guy gets and if it’s hit or miss, then he’s dead.”

Magic missiles always hit without allowing a saving throw, even though in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979) Gary stresses the importance of saves. Player characters “must always have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction.”

5. D&D’s fourth-edition designers seemed uncomfortable with a spell that always hit without a save, so the edition’s original version required an attack roll. When D&D fans griped that fourth veered too far from the game’s roots, the designers appealed to nostalgia by again making the missiles always hit. The 2010 rules update announces the change.

6. In fifth edition, wizards can add missiles by casting Magic Missile with a higher-level spell slot. In earlier editions, higher-level casters gain extra missiles for free. Back then, magic users started as weak characters who only launched one missile when they cast their day’s only 1st-level spell. But wizards steadily gained more spells, and higher-level spells, and even their first-level spells like Magic Missile gained strength. At higher levels, wizards boasted much more power than any other class. Gary Gygax felt comfortable with dominant, high-level wizards so long as they suffered through lower levels as feeble magic users. Today’s designers strive to match the power of every class at every level. Part of that balance comes from attaching a price to extra missiles.

7. In fifth edition, the missiles strike simultaneously. This means the strikes count as a single source of damage for things like resistance and that 3 magic missiles striking a character at 0 HP does not count as 3 failed death saves. A concentrating spellcaster hit by multiple missiles makes one Constitution save against a difficulty class set by the volley’s total damage. See 9 More Fifth-Edition D&D Rules Questions Answered by the Designers.

Update: In a newer answer to the same question, lead-designer Jeremy Crawford reversed the answer given at the convention Q&A. He now says the make separate concentration rolls for each missile. This makes Magic Missile an efficient way to break concentration.

8. Strictly by the fifth-edition rules, when you cast Magic Missile, you roll 1d4 and use the result to set the same damage for every missile. This stems from a rule on page 196 of the Player’s Handbook. “If a spell or other effect deals damage to more than one target at the same time, roll the damage once for all of them.” The interpretation comes from lead-designer Jeremy Crawford. In practice, Jeremy allows players to roll separate damage for every missile, just like Gary did in 1975.

How Dungeons & Dragons Got Its Ability Scores

The earliest character sheet for the game that inspired Dungeons & Dragons includes 8 character traits: Brains, Looks, Credibility, Sex, Health, Strength, Courage, and Cunning. The character comes from Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor campaign, which launched in 1971. See A History of D&D in 12 Treasures from author Jon Peterson.

The sheet organizes these traits under the heading, “Personality,” and measures of personality dominate the list more than abilities like strength and health. The Blackmoor campaign represented Charisma with three scores—Credibility, Looks, and Sex, as in “sexual prowess.”

Blackmoor evolved from miniature wargame campaigns. These games only represented individuals when they served as commanders for military units or as leaders of countries. When the referee needed to determine how well a commander followed orders or honored an alliance, measures of personality such as courage and loyalty mattered. One early campaign adopted a system for generating life events such as marriages and sickness for important characters. You can imagine how health and even sexual prowess could factor in such a game. Abilities like strength never figured in play.

Blackmoor started with players controlling single characters who would act in political intrigue and as leaders in battle, so the game emphasized traits for personality and leadership. The characters could fight solo or learn magic, so Strength, Health, and Brains found a place in the game.

In the Blackmoor campaign, Dave used ability scores as the basis of tests that resemble modern saving throws or ability checks. “Players would roll against a trait, Strength for example, to see if they were successful at an attempt,” writes Blackmoor scholar D. H. Boggs. For example, on page 28 of The First Fantasy Campaign (1977), Dave describes how characters had to roll under their Dexterity score to remove their armor before drowning in Blackmoor Bay.

That example cites D&D’s Dexterity attribute, a score the original Blackmoor characters lacked. If Dave and his players used ability scores for saves, how did the rules omit a score for dodging? For his game, Dave also borrowed the saving throw categories from Chainmail—a 1971 set of rules for miniature-figure battles. Boggs speculates that these types for Dragon Breath, Spider Poison, Basilisk Gaze, and Spells covered enough cases to make a Dexterity attribute unnecessary.

How did Blackmoor’s personality traits turn into D&D’s six ability scores?

In 1972, Dave introduced his Blackmoor campaign to Gary Gygax, the author of Chainmail. Dave’s game transformed bits of Chainmail into something new and irresistible—something that broadly resembled D&D.

Based on Dave’s demonstration, feedback, and notes, Gary added his own contributions to make the D&D game that reached print. Dave recalled that Gary and his Lake Geneva group “had a lot more spare time than I did and they had a lot of ideas, so they came up with their own version of the rules.”

In the case of ability scores, Gary reworked the Blackmoor attributes into D&D’s. For example, Gary never favored simple, informal terminology like “Brains” and “Health,” so he opted for Intelligence and Constitution.

Gary consolidated Credibility, Looks, and Sex into Charisma. (Later, Unearthed Arcana and other roleplaying games would experiment with splitting Charisma back into traits for charm and beauty.)

Gary’s early games paired players with gangs of followers, so Charisma helped recruitment and retention. As play styles turned away from henchmen and hirelings, Charisma became less important. The 1977 Basic Set provided no rules crunch for Charisma.

On the Blackmoor character sheet, Cunning looks like a late addition. In both Dave and Gary’s pre-D&D campaigns, Cunning became the prime requisite for clerics. “Cunning” suggests a faith-healing charlatan more than a priest who’s spells worked. Still, the first cleric character, as played by Mike Carr in Dave’s Blackmoor game, had working spells. So eventually Cunning turned to Wisdom and became a measure of spirituality.

Unlike fighters, wizards, and thieves, the cleric lacks a clear archetype in the fantasy tales that inspired D&D. Instead, the class draws inspiration from bits of Christian priest and crusader, from Friar Tuck and Van Helsing. These clerics made an awkward fit in the pulp-fantasy world of D&D and lacked a place in other games. In 1975, when TSR adapted the D&D rules to different settings to create Metamorphosis Alpha and Empire of the Petal Throne, the games dropped clerics and their Wisdom attribute.

Instead designers saw a need to measure a character’s mental toughness with a sort of mental counterpart to Strength and Constitution. Metamorphosis Alpha swaps Wisdom for Mental Resistance. Empire of the Petal Throne replaces Wisdom with Psychic Strength.

Apparently, these games led Gary to see a need for a similar rating for D&D characters. Instead of adding a new attribute, Gary broadened Wisdom to include willpower. The Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook grants characters with high wisdom a bonus to saves against “mental attack forms involving will force.” Only a strained definition of wisdom includes willpower, but until then Wisdom only served clerics. The broader scope gave Wisdom similar weight to the other attributes.

Years later, Wisdom would gain an association with perception. Games without Wisdom tend to associate perception with Intelligence.

Dexterity arrived to the game last. Gary must have felt that Strength needed a counterpart for characters wielding crossbows, so Dexterity showed aptitude for ranged weapons. After the original books reached the public, the Thief entered the game and took Dexterity as a prime requisite.

Even though the original D&D release turned the scores from measures of personality into measures of ability, the game still says that the scores aid players “in selecting a role” like one of those personality tests that help students select a career.

When Gary wrote D&D, he never explained how to use ability scores for checks. In his own game, Gary preferred a loose method where he decided on a character’s chance of success and improvised a die roll to match. For saves, Gary just elaborated on the system from the Chainmail rules.

So according to D&D’s original rules, ability scores counted for little. The abilities barely deliver any game effects: At most a +1 to hit or an extra hit point per die.

These slight effects mean that early D&D characters in the same class all played much the same. But ability scores ranging from 3 to 18 seemed to promise bigger game effects than a mere +1. With the release of the Greyhawk supplement in 1975, Gary began linking more game effects to the scores: High strength meant more damage, high Wisdom and Intelligence yielded more spells, and so on.

With that development, D&D started down the road to the modern game, which builds on ability scores as the foundation for every check and save.

Related:
The awkward role of Wisdom in fantasy role playing.

Ability Checks—From the Worst Mechanic in Role-Playing Game History to a Foundation Of D&D

For 25 Years, D&D Put Saving Throws In Groups Made For Just 3 Creatures and 2 Spells

The Media Furor that Introduced the “Bizarre Intellectual Game” of Dungeons & Dragons to America

Today, the number 1 rule imposed by Gen Con 17 in 1984 seems ridiculous. “Live action events are not allowed.” Today, that would forbid an entire track of live-action roleplaying, any sparring with foam swords, and the immensely popular True Dungeon.

Game Master letter from Gen Con 17 in 1984

To gamers in 1984, the rule seemed just as silly, but we understood why it existed. Live-action role playing fueled a toxic misunderstanding of Dungeons & Dragons among non-gamers. D&D’s publisher, TSR, owned Gen Con and the company forbade live-action gaming to avoid alarming parents and journalists.

At Gen Con in the 80s, any live action gaming came from the match between players of Steve Jackson’s Killer and the convention administrators fighting to stomp out this rebellion.

What toxic misconception led to rule 1?

This story begins five years earlier on August 15, 1979 when a 16-year-old college student and computer nerd named James Dallas Egbert III disappeared from Michigan State University. His parents hired private detective William Dear to find their missing boy. (If this tale were fiction, the name Egbert would seem too on the nose.)

Dallas Egbert played D&D, a game that seemed strange enough to becomes Dear’s key lead. “Incredibly, there were more than one hundred dungeons in the East Lansing area alone when Dallas disappeared,” Dear wrote in his 1984 account, The Dungeon Master. His phrasing makes D&D dungeons seem like real locations hidden from polite society. The investigation uncovered rumors that some students played live-action D&D in the steam tunnels under the university. One contact explained, “If you’re familiar with the game, you’ll know that the tunnels are as close to the real thing as you can get.”

The detective focused his hunt on the notion that Egbert had played D&D in the eight miles of steam tunnels and remained lost, hidden, or trapped. Dear wondered if D&D had broken the “fragile barrier between fantasy and reality.” Perhaps D&D left Egbert so deluded that he believed he was a wizard exploring the dungeon. Perhaps his attempt to make the game real had left him hurt or even dead in the tunnels. “Dallas might actually have begun to live the game, not just to play it.”

Dear asked to search the steam tunnels, but the university refused. To force action, he turned to the press and the story fired a media furor. “Within a week, reports on Egbert had appeared in virtually every major American media outlet, as well as many international sources,” Jon Peterson writes in Playing at the World.

In Dragon magazine 30, editor Tim Kask wrote, “As I am writing this (11 Sep), Dungeons & Dragons is getting the publicity that we used to just dream about, back when we were freezing in Gary’s basement in the beginning. If we had our druthers, it would not have happened in such a fashion. Whatever the circumstances of the incident, it has been a nightmare for his parents and family, as well as for TSR Hobbies, Inc.”

Under the media spotlight, the story grew. University police took anonymous phone calls from a woman who claimed Egbert and others had played D&D in the tunnels. She said if anyone found Egbert, he would be found dead.

Egbert’s disappearance introduced Dungeons & Dragons to America. The reports painted the game as “bizarre” and its players as a “cult.” A story in The New York Times speculates that Egbert became lost “while playing an elaborate version of a bizarre intellectual game called Dungeons & Dragons.”

“Students at Michigan State University and elsewhere reportedly have greatly elaborated on the game, donning medieval costumes and using outdoor settings to stage the content.”

On September 9, The San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner published an article titled, “Fantasy cult angle probed in search for computer whiz.”

“Police hunting for a missing 16-year old computer whiz, yesterday completed a futile search of tunnels beneath the Michigan State University campus where fantasy lovers acted out roles in a bizarre game.”

Reporters consistently painted D&D as a “bizarre” game enjoyed by “secretive” and “cultish” players. Under the story lies the notion that D&D pulls players so deeply into fantasy that they lose touch with reality—that the game lures players to play out the fantasy in real life.

Dear’s account gives an example. “If the dungeon master believes that a particular character is weak, he can send that character off on his own. Not just in the game, not just in his head. He can send him on a real mission. ‘You have to prove you’re worthy to play with us,’ the DM might say. ‘You have to show your mettle. I have a mission that you must complete.’ Usually the mission is something like spending a night in a haunted house, but it’s not hard to imagine that it could be much more demanding.”

Dear showed a talent for chasing fanciful tales. Later, he would appear in a 1995 broadcast showing an alien autopsy that Fox Television teased as possibly real.

On September 13, less than a month after the disappearance, Egbert called and revealed his location. The teen’s attempt to flee depression had led him on a trek that took him to the home of an older male “admirer,” to Chicago, and then to Morgan City, Louisiana. During his trek, he survived two suicide attempts.

Egbert had turned to D&D for respite from his other troubles. He faced intense academic pressure from parents who had pushed him to skip two grades. He was gay at a time when few people accepted or tolerated the trait. (Later, he would beg Dear to keep this secret hidden.) In the book Perfect Victims, journalist Bill James writes, “Egbert was living among older kids who had nothing in common with him and who didn’t particularly like him. He was regarded as an irritating little twerp. He was 16, but looked 12. He got involved in numerous campus activities and groups, each of which devised a new kind of rejection for him.”

In a press conference, Dear said the teenager’s disappearance was not related to Dungeons & Dragons. But the detective still sees D&D as a bad influence. “You’re leaving the world of reality into the world of fantasy,” Dear said. “This isn’t a healthy game.”

Three years later, the group Bothered About Dungeons & Dragons would start promoting the notion that D&D encouraged devil worship. The satanic panic began. But the premise that D&D unhinged kids from reality inspired wider concerns. My community was closer to Lake Geneva than the Bible Belt, so no one took the threat of Satanism seriously. Still, plenty of parents felt that D&D players showed an unhealthy detachment from reality.

The story of James Dallas Egbert ends sadly. In 1980, he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Perhaps if he had lived just a little longer, his tale could have led to a happier ending. The intelligence that isolated him could have become an asset. The secret that tormented him became more accepted. It gets better. Perhaps, in more time, D&D could have helped him find his people.

In 1984, neither Gen Con nor TSR wanted to risk letting wizards and warriors blur fantasy and reality in live action games—not where parents, journalists, and other concerned citizens might see.

Cast members of the live D&D interactive held at Gen Con 2019 (Photo by Eric Menge)

Since then, D&D’s reputation has improved, and not just because society turned to blaming video games instead.

Today, instead of seeing D&D as a break from reality, parents see real-life connections. Ethan Schoonover hosts a D&D club at the all-girls middle school where he teaches. To sell the game to parents, he offers a simple formula: “You just say, ‘no screen time’ and parents’ eyes light up.”

D&D makes a game of the cooperation and problem solving skills that kids need to succeed. More to the point of this tale, D&D teaches social skills and empathy, two assets everyone should develop.

Empathetic D&D players can see a measure of our own struggles in Egbert’s tragedy. Now we know that D&D isn’t the game that dooms geeks like Egbert. Sometimes, it’s the game that saves us.

A Butcher, a Baker, and Naughty Nannies in D&D’s First Setting Book: City State of the Invincible Overlord

In December of 1975, TSR had yet to publish any Dungeons & Dragons setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog qualified as the only published adventure, although the armies housed by the temple made the place unsuitable for a dungeon crawl.

So when Decatur, Illinois gamers Bob Bledsaw and Bill Owen visited TSR that December, they brought a new idea. Bob asked TSR for authorization to make a line of play aids for D&D players and judges.

Shannon Appelcline, author of Designers & Dragons, recounts what happened next. “Bledsaw told them about his ideas for gamemaster supplements…and the result was laughter. The TSR staff explained to Bledsaw and Owen that gamers wanted games, not supplements, and told them they were more than welcome to publish D&D supplements (and lose money) if they wanted to.”

A quarter of the city map

A quarter of the city map

City State of the Invincible OverlordBledsaw turned his drafting skills to map a huge city that would become the City State of the Invincible Overlord. He brought the poster maps to Gen Con in 1976. There he canvassed the convention goers, sold out of maps, and offered memberships to the Judges Guild, a subscription to future play aids. Shortly after Gen Con, charter subscribers received a package including the Initial Guidelines Booklet I (I as the Roman 1). The next package included Guidelines Booklet J (J as the letter after I). The guidelines supported the City State with encounter charts, information on social tiers, supplemental rules, and descriptions of a few streets.

In 1977, a retail version of the City State reached stores. The $9 package includes a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

A baker

A baker

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each. The locations offer a treasury of fantasy names. Just the roster of the Mercenaries Guild provides 20 names, and the city has 300 more locations.

The City State resembled the dungeon adventures of the time, densely packed locations with little natural order. The place has 5 bakers, but lacks a miller, brewer, fuller, glazier, wheeler, cooper, fletcher, mason, as well as many other popular boys’ names. Humans dominate the population, but trolls, ogres, and other monsters hold jobs. A shop’s proprietor could be a shapeshifted ogre mage or dragon. The undertaker employs undead. A god lives at his local temple.

Have you found god?

Have you found god?

Even though a modern product with similar scope might sprawl over 500 or more pages, the City State’s descriptions take fewer than 80 pages. The terse descriptions provide seeds for improvisation rather than details.

Despite the product’s tremendous scope—or perhaps due to it—I struggled to figure out how center a game around the City State. I looked for guidelines booklets A through H, but never found them. Did I need them?

Bledsaw’s grandson, Bob Bledsaw III, explains the missing letters. “Initial Guidelines Booklet I was supposed to be I as in a roman numeral one. However, when it came time for the second Guidelines Booklet to come out, my grandfather told the typist to continue the series from before.” The typist followed I with J rather than II. “For the sake of consistency, they continued to use letters, much to my grandfather’s chagrin. So that’s why there are books I, J, K, L, M, etc.”

Nowadays, urban adventures tend to be narrative based, with clues leading characters from one location to the next. This allows a focus on key locations. In 1977, no one played D&D that way. Instead, players entered the dungeon or wilderness to explore room by room, hex by hex. The original D&D rule books explained how to conduct dungeon and wilderness adventures, water and aerial adventures, but nothing about cities. Cities served as a base to heal and gather supplies before you left for the next adventure. Cities were for bookkeeping.

So how did a DM run a game in the City State? The guidelines seem to imply that characters will wander the city, either shopping for adventuring gear or pursing rumors that will lead to their next adventure. In the course of wandering, they can trigger random encounters, often keyed to the neighborhood.

Basing a night of gaming on shopping or rumor gathering presents a lot of difficulties, mostly for reasons I described in Avoiding the Awkward D&D Moment When a Priest, a Wizard, and a Dwarf Enter a Bar and Nothing Happens. Typically these activities offer the players few challenges—except for the rare cases where a level-6, chaotic-evil butcher attacks the party’s dwarf.

A butcher

A butcher

The optimal session in the City State finds the players quickly uncovering a rumor and chasing it to a dungeon, or to a plot hook involving a giant, hairy stalker.

The best—and most intimidating—part of the City State came from the rumors. Many provided exciting invitations to adventure. Every storefront seemed like a launching point for an adventure.

As a dungeon master, the rumors made the city even more challenging to run. All the rumors inspired, but they led to adventures that demanded either preparation or more improvisation than I care to attempt. Every rumor promised an adventure that the DM needed to make good. In the Pig & Whistle tavern players learn that a mountain disappeared 120 miles south of the city. I want to play that adventure, but if I’m DM, I don’t want to ad lib it.

For all the product’s creative energy, its seamy side disagreed with my tastes. Even the map shows a goblin reservation. I prefer my monsters dangerous, rather than downtrodden. I do not want to invite analogies between monsters and real human beings who suffered a history of mistreatment.

In addition to a slave trade and many bordellos, the city has a Park of Obscene Statues (no kidding) and Naughty Nannies (still not kidding).

I'm not kidding

I’m not kidding

Even the book had a seamy side: It includes tables to determine womens’ measurements. The text makes distinctions between amazons, vixens, houris, and courtesans. I don’t understand the categories—I guess I’ll never understand women.

Still not kidding

Still not kidding

My 1977 copy of the City Sstate still contains the pencil marks noting elements I liked. I cherry picked the bits that captured my imagination while I toned down the patchwork insanity and the sordid bits.

Despite the product’s challenges, it scored as an outstanding map and a trove of ideas. As the first role-playing setting, the City State of the Invincible Overlord became a hit. That proved a mixed blessing: In a year, TSR would reverse its stance and demand licensing dollars from Judges Guild.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits Opened Dungeons & Dragons to the Planes

In Dragon magazine issue 8, published July 1977, Gary Gygax proposed the Dungeons & Dragons cosmology, a great wheel of planes surrounding the prime material. The existence of infinite planes “will vastly expand the potential of all campaigns which adopt the system—although it will mean tremendous additional work for these DMs.”

planes in Dragon magazine number 8

Diagram of planes from Dragon magazine number 8

The countless planes showed how D&D could go beyond the dungeon and the wilderness and into new worlds. The system revealed exciting potential, but Gary set an ambitious goal. “Different planes will certainly have different laws and different inhabitants (although some of these beings will be familiar). Whole worlds are awaiting creation, complete invention, that is.” The outer planes offered so many possibilities that setting an adventure in them made a formidable challenge. Players would wait years for any product to go beyond the prime material.

Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits CoverIn 1978, Gary published module D3 Vault of the Drow. At its conclusion, the players locate a strange mural. “The mural itself is a scene resembling a starry sky, but a tunnel of webs stretches into space.” This vortex is a gate “to the plane of the Abyss, where Lolth actually dwells.” The text explains that this journey to the Abyss will be handled in module Q1 Queen of the Demonweb Pits. (For those who do not plan to play the sequel, Gary suggests that characters passing the gate be considered slain. Suggested dialog: “You could be taking your character on another thrilling adventure, but it’s not released yet. So instead, you’re dead.” In 1978, Gary could be capricious when he drew the line between the correct action and, “Wrong move—you’re dead!”)

Rereading Gary’s promise of letting PCs travel to the Abyss to confront Lolth, I remember the anticipation I felt in 1978.

But Gary seemed deterred by his own ambitious goals for planar adventures. Instead of completing Queen of the Demonweb Pits, he set the project aside “until a considerable period of time could be spent addressing it.” Soon, work on the Dungeon Master’s Guide demanded all his time. For two years, characters entering Lolth’s gate faced summary execution.

The Demonweb

The Demonweb

The delay ended when artist David C. Sutherland III pitched his own finale. Gary wrote that the adventure “was taken out of my hands by [TSR executive Brian Blume] when Sutherland discovered the ‘Demonweb’ pattern in a hand towel and talked Brian into using it as the main theme for the concluding module. I had no creative control over it.” (Although many sources report that the Demonweb pattern came from a placemat, Sutherland confirmed that his inspiration was a towel.)

The adventure reached print in 1980. Now players could venture to Lolth’s own level of the Abyss—the Demonweb. For the first time, TSR demonstrated adventure on the outer planes.

Queen of the Demonweb Pits gets some criticism for its execution. The creatures in the Demonweb—even those in Lolth’s stronghold—fail to match the setting. Players encounter ogres, trolls, ettins, bugbears, and even a roper, but no drow. In an rpg.net review Lev Lafayette describes her stronghold as a “boring zoo.” In the god-slaying finale, any dungeon master who makes cunning use of Lolth’s abilities will annihilate parties in the module’s recommended levels. On the other hand, she only has 66 hit points, so a careless DM could see her slain in a round. The module spends pages describing changes to the effects of spells cast on the Abyss, but no one liked dealing with all the changes.

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. The Demonweb captured an unsettling and chaotic feeling that suited the demon queen of spiders.

Along the path, unsupported doors open into extra-dimensional 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 a look at the module, James Maliszewski wrote, “A key to portraying planar travel effectively is grandeur—the sense that one’s home world is just a tiny speck floating on a giant ocean and you’ve only just begun to plumb its unknown depths.” The Demonweb and its portals delivers this sense of grand scope.

In the Abyss, some spell effects change in evocative ways. For example, restoring an arm with the Regenerate spell may regrow a limb demonically twisted.

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. 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.

The adventure’s plot may not have matched Gary’s plan, but I suspect the Demonweb surpassed any of Gary’s ideas for the setting. In 1980, before the Manual of the Planes, before Planescape, Queen of the Demonweb Pits showed the way to the planes. Fans of Planescape can find its roots in the Demonweb.

Are you still curious about Gary’s original plan for the adventure? He wrote, “My concept was that Eclavdra was aiming at dominance of the drow through using the Elder Elemental God to replace Lolth. She, as the chief priestess of the elemental deity, would then be the mistress of all. The final scenario was to have been one in which the adventurers got involved in the battle between the evil entities and made it so that both lost and were tossed back to their own planes, relatively powerless in the Mundane world for some time to come.” Gary had an ambitious plan, heavy on intrigue, but without the vision—and hand towels—that led to the Demonweb.

19 Adventures in the Running for 10 Greatest Adventures Since 1985

For my list of the 10 greatest adventures since 1985, nominations, reviews, and reputation led me to consider many more excellent adventures than fit a list of 10. Today’s post reveals the adventures that fell short of my 10 greatest, but merited consideration.


Treasure Hunt (1987) is a first-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Aaron Allston.

Raw characters with no class levels wash up on the lost island of the pirate Sea King. They advance to first level and beyond.

“As a first adventure for initiates, this can’t be beaten. For old hands who may be tiring of AD&D, it will be a welcome change.” – Carl Sargent in White Dwarf issue 93.


King’s Festival and Queen’s Harvest (1989) are basic Dungeons & Dragons adventures by Carl Sargent.

A pair of adventures that introduces new players to D&D with a variety of linked missions.

“Absolutely the best introductory adventures in print for D&D-game-style fantasy role-playing games (FRPGs). Presented simply and clearly enough for young folks, these adventures are also challenging and entertaining enough for experienced gamers.” – Ken Rolston in Dragon 171.


Ruins of Undermountain (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Ed Greenwood.

The first three levels of the mega-dungeon under the city of Waterdeep presents its content with different levels of detail: Some rooms have complete descriptions, while others have terse notes. Most sections remain empty, a canvas for the dungeon master’s creation.

Rated 17th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

Ruins of Undermountain was as much stuff from Ed Greenwood’s original gaming sessions as he could fit into a box. I give Ruins of Undermountain an A+. It will make you a better DM regardless of your skill level. This is a glimpse behind Ed Greenwood’s screen, giving the reader a chance to study his methods, which are very sound.” – Advanced Gaming and Theory


Vecna Lives! (1991) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by David “Zeb” Cook set in Greyhawk for characters of level 12-15.

After the Circle of Eight, Greyhawk’s legendary adventurers, die trying to stop Vecna’s return, their successors hunt the villain in a chase the across the world of Greyhawk.

Vecna Lives! is one of my favorite adventures from second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and I’m ecstatic that it’s been made available on dmsguild.com. Even if you never play the adventure, you should go out of your way to read/download/borrow it just to see what an incredible example of storytelling and adventure writing it is.” – Die Hard Game Fan


Night of the Walking Dead (1992) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft adventure by Bill Slavicsek for characters of level 1-3.

Characters investigate a series of murders an disappearances in a village plagued by walking dead.

“The actual adventure is one of the better blends of plotted adventures and old-school adventuring found in the ’90s. Though, there’s a deep, underlying story, it’s not a railroad. Instead, players must investigate and interact with NPCs to figure out what’s happening. Some events act as set encounters, but there’s also a big dungeon (cemetery) to crawl through at adventure’s end. The result maintains player agency while still telling a real story.” – The Fraternity of Shadows


Merchant House of Amketch (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dark Sun adventure by Richard Baker for characters level 4-7.

In an event-driven adventure, characters work to end a trade in beetles with a bite that neutralizes psionic power. The quest pits the party against the most powerful merchant house in Tyr.

“This adventure has everything for me: intrigue and adventure coupled with the potential to save the world from a great threat that has just been exposed. So it’s 5 out of 5 stars.” – Warpstone Flux


City of Skulls (1993) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent for characters of level 9-12.

Players infiltrate the demi-god Iuz’s nightmare capital to free a military commander needed to defend the Shield Lands.

Rated 26th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Periods of stealth and quiet punctuated by short bursts of terrifying combat.” – Retro Gaming Magazine


Night Below: An Underdark Campaign (1995) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Carl Sargent that takes characters from 1st level to as high as 14th level.

Billed as the “ultimate dungeon adventure,” this campaign goes from a ruins crawl, to a mine crawl, to a long journey through the Underdark.

“Night Below won’t be to some peoples’ taste, but the vast majority will absolutely adore it. Quite simply, it’s one hell of an adventure.” – Cliff Ramshaw in Arcane magazine.


Return to the Tomb of Horrors (1998)  by Bruce Cordell.

Years after adventurers gutted the original Tomb of Horrors, a dark community has built a city of necromantic evil on the tomb’s site. Even the inhabitants of this fell city have no idea of the true evil that waits beneath them.

Rated 10th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“The new material is really excellent. Return is a whole mini-campaign, not some rehash of previous work … It offers more by far than the old Tomb of Horrors, and it is more deadly too.” – Gary Gygax


Dawn of the Overmind (1998) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for characters of level 8-10.

To stop a resurgent mind flayer empire, character visit a world of ancient ruins in search of an artifact of Illithid manufacture. This adventure brings a taste of Spelljammer and sword and planet adventure to conventional D&D.

“This is the third part of the Mind Flayer Trilogy, which was pretty much awesome from start to finish. One of the best D&D adventures of all time.” – Power Score


Die Vecna Die! (2000) is a second edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Adventure for characters of level 10-13 by Bruce R. Cordell & Steve Miller.

Die Vecna Die! takes the heroes from the Greyhawk campaign to the demiplane of Ravenloft and then to the Planescape city of Sigil in a quest to claim the Hand and Eye of Vecna—the key to stopping the evil demigod Iuz.

Die Vecna Die! pulls out all the stops, and the result is a massive but tightly constructed adventure with a truly apocalyptic feel. I’m surprised I’m recommending Die Vecna Die! as strongly as I am, but it’s just that good. It’s a great high-level adventure for any campaign.” – Fearful Impressions


Forge of Fury (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 3-5 by Richard Baker.

In a dungeon that captures the flavor of some of D&D’s original, classic adventures, characters battle though five levels of a dwarven stronghold overrun by evil.

Rated 12th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“I’ve always been impressed with the adventure; for my money it’s one of Wizards of the Coast’s best 3rd Edition era modules. As a basic, flavoursome dungeon crawl I think Forge of Fury is particularly well executed.” – Creighton Broadhurst


Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (2001) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons by Monte Cook designed to take 4th-level characters as high as level 14.

Power rises again in the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Characters battle the power of darkness in Hommlet and beyond, forging their way through hundreds of encounters before reaching the fiery finale.”

Rated 8th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

“Go out and buy the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. You will not regret it, and it will become a valuable part of your D&D library. It is one of the best adventure modules ever written.” – Talon on ENWorld


City of the Spider Queen (2002) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt designed to take 10th-level characters up to level 18.

“Daggerdale is reeling from a sudden series of murderous drow raids. As a grave threat to the entire surface world develops in the war-torn dark elf city of Maerimydra, intrepid heroes must discover its source and destroy it, if they can.”

Rated 24th greatest adventure by Dungeon magazine.

City of the Spider Queen is an excellent addition to anyone’s Forgotten Realms campaign or with modifications, any Dungeons and Dragons third-edition game.” – Mania.com


Reavers of the Harkenwold (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters of level 2-4 by Richard Baker.

In an adventure patterned after Red Hand of Doom, the characters join the resistance and take missions to thwart the army of evil that invaded the Duchy of Harkenwold.

“Definitely one of the best 4E adventures. – Will Doyle.

“I would love to see a 5E update of Reavers of Harkenwold.” – Chris Perkins


The Slaying Stone (2010) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for 1st-level characters by Logan Bonner.

Years after goblins overran and occupied a town once settled by humans, the characters enter seeking a lost Slaying Stone, the last of the magic stones created to protect the settlement.

“This is an adventure you won’t want to miss: Not only is it fun and non-linear, but it shows a DM how to better design her own adventures, and that’s something worth reading for any DM, no matter how experienced.” – Kevin Kulp


Dreams of the Red Wizards: Dead in Thay (2014) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for characters level 6-8 by Scott Fitzgerald Gray.

Teams of adventurers cooperate to explore a massive dungeon in search of the keys to a phylactery vault held by the evil Red Wizards of Thay.

“A ton of fun. Things get more and more hectic as the alert level of the Doomvault rises. It’s got good pacing, a narrative to it, and some fairly challenging encounters.” – Bell of Lost Souls


Cloud Giant’s Bargain (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for level 6 characters by Teos Abadia.

Led by a talking skull, Acquisitions Incorporated interns enter a cloud castle floating over Neverwinter to determine what threats it holds. This superb adventure combines combat, exploration, and interaction with interesting choices into a single session of play. Plus it adds a touch of humor and an unforgettable guide.

Making the List of 10 Greatest D&D Adventures After 1985

In 2004, Dungeon magazine published a list of the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures. I saw few reasons to quibble with the choices, but the list favored early adventures. More than a third of the magazine’s picks came from 1985 and earlier—from just 7 years of the then 30-year history of D&D.

Extraordinary adventures come from throughout the history of D&D, but overall adventure authors have learned from the past and improved the quality of published adventures.

Why did early adventures dominate the list? Part of their stature comes from their influence. Those early modules implied a setting that serves as a foundation for every D&D adventure and campaign. But much of the high ratings come from the years of attention these adventures gained. During D&D’s early years, TSR published few adventures, and then kept those few modules on sale for a decade or more. Just about everyone who played D&D played those early classics. See Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?.

The years after 1985 produced more great adventures than those in the 2004 list, and the last 15 years yielded even more classics. I decided to look past the early classics and find the best adventures published during the decades when modules fought for attention among a flood of releases.

I found great adventures from D&D history, but I limited my list to 10. Ranking adventures led me to ponder what makes an adventure great.

Recipes and ingredients

Modules serve as both the ingredients for fun adventures and recipes for dungeon masters to mix and serve at the gaming table.

Great adventures tend to combine evocative ingredients with recipes that DMs can follow to foster fun and exciting tales. The ingredients include the memorable characters and fantastic locations, the fearsome monsters and magical treasures that make the adventure. The recipe includes the hooks, clues, events, goals, and obstacles that enable a DM to draw players through the adventure.

To DMs accustomed to re-purposing and remixing the ingredients of adventures, recipes hardly matter, but most DMs running published adventures want help for running the scenario at the table, even if we sometimes change the recipe.

The fifth-edition adventures boast consistently outstanding ingredients. They pick the best from decades of D&D lore and then add new inspiration. For example, Tomb of Annihilation builds on the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, and the deathtrap dungeon in Tomb of Horrors. Curse of Strahd builds on Ravenloft, the adventure that might be D&D’s best ever. Based on ingredients alone, all the hardcovers rank with D&D’s greatest adventures. But the recipes tend to falter. In Are the Authors of the Dungeon & Dragons Hardcover Adventures Blind to the Plight of DMs?, I described these shortcomings.

As a recipe, Curse of Strahd doesn’t succeed completely. The DM needs to nudge players toward level-appropriate areas, but the Tarokka card reading hints at the means to Strahd’s defeat and provides clues that guide the adventure.

Rating Tomb of Annihilation presents more challenges. I found the ingredients irresistible, but the adventure challenges DMs. The death curse creates urgency when the players may want to try dinosaur racing in Port Nyanzaru. As written, the hex crawl will exhaust players with random encounters. The Tomb of Nine Gods features expert design, but six levels of unrelenting deathtraps may weary players. Still, I loved the Tomb’s mix of inspiration and the dungeon so much that I originally slotted the adventure at a higher rating, but its flaws led me to drop the adventure to 8th just before posting. Reader reaction to the Tomb’s rating left me comfortable with my new ranking.

Meanwhile, many readers voiced support for Storm King’s Thunder, a chimera that’s part gazetteer, part assortment of lairs, and part plotted adventure. The reputation of Storm King’s Thunder has grown, but not enough to merit a spot on the list.

How much do players value a variety of settings and activity?

Six adventures from Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list fell short of ranking on my list.

If my list included 20 entries, most of these adventures would rank, but none reached my top 10. With only 10 slots, and newer adventures to fit, many had to go just because they weren’t quite as good.

Reviews and play accounts of faulted some of these adventures for their intense focus on one mode of play: the dungeon crawl.

Reviewers praised Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil for delivering a great dungeon, and then warned that the amount of crawling could prove exhausting.

When I ran Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury back-to-back, the Citadel stood out for its interaction with a memorable cast and for its story line. The Forge felt like more of a grind.

I compared Ruins of Undermountain to Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. The new hardcover easily rates as the best mega-dungeon I’ve played or run. It delivers a better version of Undermountain than Ruins of Undermountain. Each level brings a strong theme that adds variety. The factions and sympathetic residents open the dungeon to interaction. And yet, I grew to crave changes of setting and my players thirsted for a larger plot than the classic bid for treasure. Neither adventure made the list.

I love dungeon crawling like Groucho loves a good cigar, but too much of a good thing sometimes tires me. I suspect many—perhaps most—current D&D players share my take. Critics of Tomb of Annihilation often call the six, uninterrupted levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods wearying. Even longtime D&D and Pathfinder designer James Jacobs seems to share my trepidation. In an interview promoting Red Hand of Doom, he contrasts his adventure with City of the Spider Queen and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil. “Working on Dungeon (and in particular, the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths) taught me a lot about designing huge adventures. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned there: don’t succumb to the lure of the enormous dungeon. They may be fun to design, but dungeons with 100 rooms are a bear to adventure through.”

None of this disqualifies pure dungeons from my list. Many still managed to place, but I favored adventures that play to all three pillars and tour a variety of environments.

Attention and recency bias

Lost Mine of Phandelver may rank as the most disputed entry on my list. Fans cite how well the adventure introduces various tropes and styles of play to new players and DMs. Critics cite a lack of anything new or wondrous. Both fans and critics make fair claims.

Lost Mine’s reputation benefits from two advantages that make the adventure complicated to rate. As the starter set adventure for a new edition, Lost Mine gained the attention of every D&D fan. And because Lost Mine introduced the most recent edition, it may benefit from recency bias, our tendency to overestimate newer things in our memory.

When I placed Lost Mine at number 3, I rated the adventure based on how well it suits its purpose of introducing new players to D&D. As a launch into D&D, the scenario may succeed better than any prior intro. Because many old fans of D&D love the adventure too, it vaults near the top of the list.

What happened between 1986 and 1996?

My list includes Night’s Dark Terror from 1986 and then no other releases until The Gates of Firestorm Peak in 1996. Were the years between 1986 and 1996 really starved of quality adventures?

I considered several adventures from these years for my list. During that period, TSR split development between D&D and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and between numerous campaign settings. Perhaps a flood of releases aimed for shrinking segments of a divided D&D market meant that no adventures gained enough attention to grow in reputation. But perhaps a focus on campaign settings instead of adventures led TSR to produce solid but unexceptional modules. Teos “Alphastream” Abadia writes, “Entire lines, such as Dragonlance or Spelljammer, are often solid but not exceptional, even for their time. (I do personally like Spelljammer’s Under the Dark Fist).”

Short, high-level, and setting-specific adventures published near the end of an edition

Because my ratings drew on recommendations, reputation, and reviews, the list may overlook great adventures that failed to gain attention for reasons unrelated to quality.

Short adventures seem to lack the weight needed to make an impression. Most of the adventures on my list span 100 or more pages. Releases that include extras like poster maps, counters, and cards also seem to make a bigger impact.

No high-level adventures made my list. Most D&D play focuses on lower levels, especially in past editions when play above level 9 or so exposed flaws in the game. This means low-level adventures tend to win the most sales and attention. What high-level adventures escaped attention?

In my list, Dead Gods is the only setting-specific adventure branded for a particular setting or campaign. The proliferation of campaign settings in the late 80s and 90s takes some blame for diluting the sales of D&D products below profitability. For instance, DMs running games set in Mystara ignored adventures set in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Spelljammer, Dark Sun, and so on.

Adventures shipped near the end of an edition tend to languish on shelves, unnoticed by fans looking ahead to the new edition. When Milwaukee hosted Gen Con, I made annual visits to one of the city’s used bookstores. For years, I spotted the same stack of remaindered copies of The Apocalypse Stone, the final second-edition adventure.

My list of greatest adventures proved fun to create and unveil, so I feel inspired to create other lists that find overlooked classics.

  • The greatest short adventures published after 1985
  • The greatest high-level adventures from any era
  • The greatest adventures branded for a campaign setting
  • The greatest Dungeon magazine adventures

Don’t look for these lists anytime soon. I mulled my after-1985 list for years, off and on.

Help me out. What are your favorite short adventures? What are your favorite high-level adventures? What are your favorite adventures branded with a campaign setting?

Related: The 10 Greatest D&D Adventures Published After 1985

Next: Honorable mentions: The adventures that merited consideration for the top 10

The 10 Greatest Dungeons & Dragons Adventures Since 1985

This list of the 10 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures since 1985, draws from ratings, reviews, and appraisals from D&D fans, and then uses my completely unscientific aggregation of opinions to rank the 10 entries. The list only includes adventures printed as stand-alone titles under the D&D or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons brands. For more on why I chose to rank adventures published after 1985, see Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

10. The Gates of Firestorm Peak
The Gates of Firestorm Peak (1996) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 5-8. The adventure that introduced the Far Realm to D&D starts as a well-crafted dungeon crawl, and then builds into an unsettling confrontation with Lovecraftian monstrosities. See the full review.

9. Tomb of Annihilation
Tomb of Annihilation (2017) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Chris Perkins. Will Doyle, and Steve Winter for levels 1-11. Tomb of Annihilation mixes the dinosaurs and lost world of Isle of Dread, with the overgrown jungle ruins of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, with a deathtrap dungeon inspired by Tomb of Horrors. Every one of those influences appears on the Dungeon magazine’s 2004 list of 30 greatest adventures, and the mix plays better than any of them. See the full review.

8. Sunless Citadel
The Sunless Citadel (2000) is a third-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Bruce Cordell for levels 1-3. As the introductory adventure to third edition, Sunless Citadel delivers the monsters, treasures, and even the dragon that new players expect from D&D, but the adventure serves much more than D&D comfort food. Start with a deeply evocative location: a castle dropped into a rift by some cataclysm. Add a lost dragon wyrmling, a tainted tree at the heart of the ruin, a fresh humanoid monster, and one of D&D’s most unforgettable characters, Meepo. See the full review.

7. Vault of the Dracolich
Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters. Vault of the Dracolich rates for its outstanding execution of a multi-table adventure. By design, a team of dungeon masters runs several tables of players who explore different parts of a dungeon at the same time. As the adventure runs, groups can interact, briefly gathering, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. The event ends with all the groups fighting a climactic battle. See the full review.

6. Madness at Gardmore Abbey
Madness at Gardmore Abbey (2011) is a fourth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by James Wyatt with Creighton Broadhurst and Steve Townshend for levels 6-8. Madness at Gardmore Abbey combines the best qualities of fourth edition’s encounter design with a sandbox of adventure locations, villains, and a single powerful thread that binds them all together. That thread comes from the scattered cards of a Deck of Many Things, perhaps the most irresistible artifact in D&D. See the full review.

5. Dead Gods
Dead Gods (1997) is a second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Monte Cook for levels 6-9.
Dead Gods boasts more than the best title of any D&D adventure, it features the most audacious storytelling. For example, in one chapter, players create temporary characters to play out past events. The adventure spans the planes, ending in a climax that brings the party to the astral plane where they battle atop the 4-mile-long corpse of the demon lord to stop the creature’s resurrection. See the full review.

4. Curse of Strahd
Curse of Strahd (2016) is a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure for levels 1-10 by Chris Perkins with Adam Lee, Richard Whitters, and Jeremy Crawford. Curse of Strahd captures everything great about I6 Ravenloft and expands it into a full campaign. While Ravenloft mainly stayed in a castle, Curse of Strahd gives players the freedom to roam the cursed land of Barovia. Although Curse of Strahd features a strong design, the vampire Strahd and the fearful gloom of his domain make the adventure’s best parts. See the full review.

3. Lost Mine of Phandelver
Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) is fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins for levels 1-5.
The adventure that introduced fifth edition serves D&D’s expected and favorite ingredients. To longtime fans, the elements may be familiar, but superb execution makes the adventure a winner. After the first encounter, players experience samples of dungeon crawls, quests, and mini-adventures. The adventure provides enough clues to keep even new players from feeling lost. See the full review.

2. Red Hand of Doom
Red Hand of Doom (2006) is a 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and James Jacobs for levels 6-12.
Red Hand of Doom starts with the fantasy trope of an army of evil sweeping the land, and then casts the characters as heroes working to slow the march. Their missions span the landscape and vary from diplomatic meetings to dungeon delves. Along the way, the adventure accounts for the players choices, successes, and failures. See the full review.

1. Night’s Dark Terror
Night’s Dark Terror (1986) is Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher for levels 2-4. The adventure starts strong with a widely-imitated episode where the characters defend a freehold against a goblin attack. The events of the siege make the night of terror. After the first episode, the adventure’s scope expands. Players explore more than a wilderness, with eighteen locations, including a number of mini-dungeons, a ruined city, a riverside village, a frontier town, and a lost valley, while active villains oppose the characters. See the full review.

Night’s Dark Terror (1986): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 1

Night’s Dark Terror (1986) is Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher for levels 2-4.

B10 Night’s Dark Terror contents

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) rates number 3 on this list of great adventures for introducing D&D’s most compelling elements in a mix that gives players freedom to roam and dungeon masters an easy scenario to run.

Night’s Dark Terror ranks number 1 because it succeeds on all those counts, plus it adds innovative episodes, poster maps and counters, and more flavor of the fantastic. Make that “flavour,” because Night’s Dark Terror came from TSR UK.

The similarities between adventures were by design. D&D Creative Director Mike Mearls calls Night’s Dark Terror one of the best D&D adventures ever made. It inspired Lost Mine of Phandelver.

When TSR decided to support the D&D Expert Set (1981, 1983) with an adventure, the TSR UK team of Jim Bambra, Graeme Morris, and Phil Gallagher drew the assignment. Since the Basic Set introduced players to dungeon adventures, the new adventure needed to introduce the wilderness.

“As a team we brainstormed the plot outline, and carved up the work between us,” Phil Gallagher said in an interview. “Jim worked especially hard to coordinate the adventure elements, Graeme and I obsessed over the language and grammar, I took charge of the lay-out and design, and we all wrote stuff and swapped it back and forth between us.

“We felt we could create something unique—a Basic-Expert crossover with an open-ended structure, different from the rather linear dungeon crawls that were around at that time.”

The team succeeded. In a product history, Shannon Appelcline describes the achievement. “To date, most wilderness adventures had either been largely freeform hex crawls, like X1: The Isle of Dread (1981), or else tight railroads, like N2: The Forest Oracle (1984). Instead, Night’s Dark Terror deftly combines fixed locales and ongoing events with a multi-episodic structure. The result allows for a lot of sandbox play while still supporting a strong narrative—a very difficult mix in roleplaying adventures and one that’s seldom been matched.”

The adventure starts strong with a widely-imitated episode where the characters defend a freehold against a goblin attack. The events of the siege make the night of terror.

After the first episode, the adventure’s scope expands. “The PCs then explore more than 20,000 square miles (52,000 km2) of wilderness, with eighteen locations, including a number of mini-dungeons, a ruined city, a riverside village, a frontier town, and a lost valley, with the minions of the Iron Ring slavers waiting for the PCs at every step,” writes Gus L.

Even with a grand scope, players will always see options for their next move. “The entire adventure is laid out not as a linear progression, but rather as a huge area where many bits of information are gathered, and many different clues and hints lead to the same climax.”

Unique, fantastic elements give the adventure a sense of wonder uncommon at low levels. Among many touches, I like the shapechanging horse who becomes a patron and the goblin lair built in stone trees in a forest petrified by magic.

On release, Night’s Dark Terror seemed to attract little interest in game stores. Perhaps the title misled potential buyers by suggesting a horror scenario. Also, in the United States, D&D fans tended to spurn basic D&D material in favor of Advanced content. But over time, the adventure’s reputation spread. Before the adventure became available as a PDF, copies fetched hundreds of dollars.

Still, reviewers took notice. In his 1991 book Heroic Worlds, Lawrence Schick describes Night’s Dark Terror as an “outstanding wilderness scenario.” In a review for White Dwarf issue 78, Graeme Davis writes that he can’t imagine a better module to match with the Expert Set box. In a Dragon 124, reviewer Ken Rolston calls this “the best-illustrated and best-designed module I’ve ever seen—and the adventure and campaign material is every bit as remarkable as the graphic presentation. A classic.” Agreed.

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