When Dungeon issue 116 ranked the 30 greatest Dungeons & Dragons adventures, N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God landed at number 19. Ed Greenwood summed the 1982 adventure as, “Detective work, hunting for villains, some monster-bashing, and a settlement detailed enough to use beyond the scripted adventure; a quiet little gem that has it all!”
The adventure’s creation began when Kevin Hendrix wrote an encounter with a reptile cult to serve as an episode in Len Lakofka’s adventure L1 The Secrets of Bone Hill (1981). Lakofka chose not to include the cult, so Hendrix began expanding the idea into a full adventure. In 1981, TSR layoffs claimed Hendrix’s job. The core concept and title reached Douglas Niles for completion. When the module saw print, TSR management felt wary of helping designers gain the clout of name recognition, so Hendrix, now an employee of Metagaming Concepts, received no author byline.
Tracy Hickman and his Dragonlance adventures get credit (and sometimes blame) for moving D&D from aimless dungeon crawls to a story focus. But N1 came first, and it includes a stronger narrative than any of TSRs’ earlier adventures. Niles explained, “I liked settings that allowed the characters to play out a story.” N1 features a story with rising tension and a climactic showdown, but the plot still turns on the players’ choices.
A 1983 review in Imagine issue 3 praised Against the Cult of the Reptile God and touted its “innovative touches.” What made N1 innovative?
Early town adventures tended to stumble
The original Dungeons & Dragons rules say that if a referee makes a map of a town close to the dungeons, “players can have adventures roaming around the bazaars, inns, taverns, shops, temples, and so on.” Because imaginary revelry offers scant fun, roaming town typically focused on shopping and gathering “rumors, information, and legends,” which “lead players into some form of activity or warn them of a coming event.”
Actual town adventures tended to stumble. Typically, the party visits the market and someone tries to haggle: Best case, one player saves a few coppers while everyone gets bored—even the shopper. Later, the players gripe about the tiresome D&D session when the dungeon master stubbornly limited players to shopping.
That’s the best case. Usually, a restless thief picks someone’s pockets, leading to party strife or to a confrontation with the city guard. Such trouble drove D&D designers to rename thieves to rogues. See Why second-edition Dungeons & Dragons dropped thieves and assassins.
In the worst case, the players realize the townsfolk have no chance against a band of experienced killers, leading to murder and looting. See Two weird D&D questions no one asks anymore, answered by the City State of the Invincible Overlord.
The gulf between towns and the sites of adventure
When Gary Gygax wrote T1 Village of Hommlet (1979), he prepared for the worst case. Gygax lists the treasure found in shops and homes, and then discourages looting by inventing a social network able to punish murder hobos.
Gary populated Hommlet with colorful characters who might foster role playing, but I suspect most groups paid them little notice. The real action lay in the Moathouse, because for most players, the heart of D&D lies in crushing evil and winning treasure, not necessarily in that order. In town, evil keeps hidden and gold belongs to a rightful owner.
Unless some goal drives players to talk to villagers, most players have nothing to discuss. In D&D, as in fiction, the really interesting action happens when the characters have both an objective and an obstacle that stands in their way. See A priest, a warlock, and a dwarf walk into a bar and…nothing happens.
After Gygax, other D&D authors tried to connect towns to adventure. L1 The Secrets of Bone Hill provided another home base. U1 Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh suggests that some villagers might be involved with the sinister events at a haunted house, but leaves creating the town as homework for the DM. When I played U1, the DM dropped us at the door to the haunted house and Saltmarsh remained unseen.
N1 entwined a town into the adventure
In Against the Cult of the Reptile God, the characters investigate disappearances in the village of Orlane. Fear and suspicion grips much of the town, while other folk behave oddly. Players need to interact with townsfolk to solve the mystery. A wrong move in town could bring peril.
To modern players, the setup may seem conventional, but N1 became the first D&D scenario to feature an investigation and to bring adventure into town. Before Against the Cult of the Reptile God, a gulf separated towns from the wilderness and dungeons that offered adventure. Until N1 bridged that gap, players found little reason to interact with townsfolk.
Lesson: To capture players interest in role-playing, pair colorful NPCs with a goal that invites interaction.
N1 introduced the event-based adventure
Before N1, every published D&D adventure was site based. The choices that drove these adventures all amounted to a choice of doors or of adjacent hexes. See Why Dungeons & Dragons (and Role Playing) Took Years to Leave the Dungeon.
N1 introduced an event-based scenario where active NPCs affect the course of adventure. The 1983 review spotted the change. “A noteworthy feature is that the unknown adversaries do not tamely wait for the players to come and get them. They are active.” In Orlane, the kidnappings continue as time passes. Party members can even be abducted and compelled to spy for the cult.
This advance marked another milestone. Before Against the Cult of the Reptile God, when players weren’t watching, non-player characters only did one thing: They refilled dungeon rooms emptied by adventurers. In N1, even if the players do nothing, things still happen.
As in one of pulp fantasies that inspired D&D, the sinister events in Orlane lead to a rising sense of peril. Tension increased toward a climax.
Lesson: To make the villains come alive, let them act offstage, and then show their actions in the game world.
Making the most of N1 today
Early D&D adventures like Against the Cult of the Reptile God can still work with today’s rules. Just replace the printed monster stats with numbers from the fifth-edition Monster Manual.
Against the Cult of the Reptile God plays best when the its tension builds over days of game time. To get a sense of passing days, characters need to keep busy. If they focus on rooting out the cult, they tend to solve the mystery before pressure rises. To work best, develop the events of N1 alongside a second adventure that can dominate the characters’ attention. For example, while the PCs make a few forays to the Caves of Chaos, let the disappearances and weirdness in Orlane reach a boiling point. The Encounters-program adventure Against the Cult of Chaos (2013) took exactly this approach by combining elements of N1 with T1 Village of Hommlet and B2 Keep on the Borderlands (1981).
Some critics fault N1 for requiring a 1st-through-3rd-level party to ally with a 7th-level wizard for the final showdown with the cult’s “reptile god.” The wizard overshadows the PCs, but without the ally, the party may die to a single fireball. The adventure itself suggests a solution: Have the wizard give the party a scroll of Globe of Invulnerability for protection during the showdown. Make the elderly wizard too frail to venture into the swamp, but let his familiar guide the party. For more on the risks and benefits of allies, see The Surprising Benefits of Giving and Adventuring Party a Guide.
Among the greatest adventures
Based on quality, N1 merits the standing, but based on achievements, I might rate it higher. N1 set two milestones for published D&D adventures. Thirty-five years later, it still offers lessons to dungeon masters.
Thanks for your blog with advise and article about history of the game. I don’t write a reply for each one i read but i wanted to let you know that many of your article help me to make a better game. (the one about ” the benefice to say yes to the players ” just for example )
Article about history let me remember each time my first introduction to d&d in a game shop in 1980 !
I would also like to say thanks – I find the history posts particularly interesting.
I like N1 well enough, – and think the event based/calendar based plan you noticed may be it’s innovation – but I’m pretty sure Rahasia (the 1979 version) qualifies as the Hickman’s first foray into the sort of railroading (errr. narrative based adventure) that they made famous.
In a future post, I’ll probably discuss Rahasia and Pharaoh. I wish I had the original self-published versions.
Compare to L2: The Assassin’s Knot, published the next year, which tries to do an investigative scenario and mostly, in my opinion, fails. Though I’m not that fond of N1 either…
Before writing this post, I consulted your excellent reviews of N1 and L2. In a future post, I might discuss L2 Assassin’s Knot. L2 features some innovations, but also garnered negative reviews. Space Gamer called it “dull.”
Thanks for commenting!
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Hello! I just found this fascinating perspective on N1 while searching around for how to run the module. I’m one module in, and the PCs have already burned down the Cult’s inn and have a good idea what’s going on. I blame 1. my DMing and 2.the name of the module. The name pretty much solves the town mystery, right?
I’m curious how to encourage the investigation, because with Ramne as such a handy deus ex machina, I’m wondering what the point of investigation is.
Sorry, digression. Excellent post. I’m also in the middle of reading Ravenloft, and I’m so impressed with the Hickman/Wiess’ Innovations (randomization deck!) but their focus on railroading seems constantly at odds with the D&D game based on player freedom. It’s full of “its impossible for the PCs to…” without any explanation of why. It’s as if fictional authors, used to the omnipotence of storytelling, are designing a module… Digressing again. Looking forward to reading more of this blog.
* session. * the Hickmans – must’ve been thinking of Dragonlance.
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Just found your article and enjoyed it thoroughly. You confirmed something for me that made me feel just great: this one runs very well in parallel. My players are about to pass through a reskinned Orlane on their way to U2 and on the way back. They will clearly see the change in the townsfolk over that span of time, and will be of sufficient level on their way back to tackle the boss on their own.
Gonna go read some of your other stuff now. :o)