Before Curse of Strahd and Ravenloft came Palace of the Vampire Queen, a dungeon written by California gamers Pete and Judy Kerestan and distributed by TSR Hobbies.
1. Palace of the Vampire Queen may count as the first Dungeons & Dragons adventure module published, but only after a few disqualifications.
Book 3 of the original D&D game devoted two pages to a dungeon level, but the sample falls short of a complete dungeon. Supplement II Blackmoor (1975) includes Temple of the Frog, but that location plays as a Chainmail scenario rather than a dungeon. As Palace reached print in June 1976, Jennell Jaquays published Dungeoneer issue 1. The magazine including a dungeon called F’Chelrak’s Tomb. So Palace of the Vampire Queen rates as the first standalone D&D adventure in print.
2. D&D co-creator Gary Gygax thought no one would buy published dungeons, because dungeon masters could easily create their own.
The key to Palace makes dungeon creation seem trivial, so you can see Gary’s point. Each room appears as a row on a table with a monster quantity, a list of hit points, and a line describing the room’s contents. Anyone with enough imagination to play D&D could create similar content as quickly as they could type.
3. TSR Hobbies distributed Palace because they found success reselling blank character sheets from the same authors.
In February 1976, Strategic Review announced the Character Archaic, a set of character sheets for D&D and Empire of the Petal Throne.
4. Palace came as a collection of loose 8½ by 11 pages tucked into a black folder with a copyright notice taped inside the cover.
Adding to the low-budget feel, TSR fixed missing pages in some kits by adding Xerox-streaked duplicates from the office machine.
5. Most of the adventure’s text comes in a 1-page background.
The page tells of a beloved queen, slain by a vampire, and entombed on the dwarvish island of Baylor. She rises to bring terror to the night.
In addition to launching the standalone adventure, Palace gives D&D players their first shot at rescuing the princess. The vampire queen has abducted the king’s only daughter. “The people wait in fear at night. The king wanders his royal palace, so empty now without his only child. Neither the king nor his people have hope left that a hero or group of heroes will come to rid them of the Vampire Queen. For surely the Vampire Queen lies deep within the forbidding mountains, protected by her subjects, vengeful with hate for all truly living things and constantly thirsting for human blood on which to feed.”
In the early days of the game, when players raided dungeons for treasure and the experience points it brought, this qualified as an unprecedented dose of plot.
6. Palace shows a dungeon designed before anyone worried about making things plausible.
Even though the dungeon’s background presents it as a tomb for a queen-turned-vampire, it features assorted monsters waiting in rooms to be killed. In any natural underground, the creatures would wander away for a meal. And the bandits in room 23 would search for a safer hideout near easier marks. And the Wizard selling magic items in room 10 would find a store with foot traffic that doesn’t creep or slither.
7. In 1976, nobody worried about dead characters much.
When someone opens a chest on level 2, a block drops and kills the PC and anyone else in a 3×6’ space. No damage rolls, no save—just dead. The dungeon’s threats escalate quickly. Level 2 includes orcs and a giant slug; level 5 includes 35 vampires and a balrog.
Despite these menaces, players in 1976 stood a better chance than they would now. The balrog was just a brute with 2 attacks and 41 hit points, not the modern balor with 262 hit points and a fire aura. Vampires suffered significant disadvantages: “Vampires cannot abide the smell of garlic, the face of a mirror, or the sight of cross. They will fall back from these if strongly presented.” Level 4 even includes a Garlic Garden so players can stock up.
When the players reach the vampire queen’s tomb, she flees their garlic and crosses, and tries to take the dwarf princess hostage.
8. In 1976, no one knew how to present a dungeon—or agreed on how to play the game.
The key sketches just the most essential information: a quantity of monsters, their treasure, and an occasional trick or trap. The text lists no stats other than hit points, but lists them as Max Damage. Apparently, D&D’s terminology remained unsettled. Back then, DMs rolled hit points, so pre-rolling counted as a time saver.
In one room, a PC can adopt a lynx kitten as a pet, which lets him “add 3 to his morale score.” D&D lacked morale rules for player characters, but in those days popular house rules spread though regions. Folks writing about D&D regularly confused their regional practices for canon.
Each level of the dungeon includes a keyed and unkeyed map. “The Dungeon Master may give or sell the player map to the players to speed game play.” Even in 1976, players saw mapping as a chore.
9. The dungeon master needed to work to bring the Palace to life.
Palace of the Vampire Queen isn’t called a “module” or “dungeon adventure,” but a “Dungeon Masters Kit.”
The authors realized that dungeon’s brief descriptions fell short of adventure. “Feel free to use your imagination for dialog or any extra details you feel would add to more exciting play. The kit itself is only a basic outline—you can make it a dramatic adventure.”
The kit uses fewer words to describe 5 levels than some modern adventures lavish on a single room. Nevertheless, it presents some charming bits. On level 4, PCs find a petrified lammasu missing a jewel eye. Replacing the eye causes the creature to come to life as an ally.
On level 3, room 24 holds 3 sacks of sand. Room 25 says, “Sand alarm rings in room 26 when door is opened.” I searched the web for “sand alarm” to determine if it were some kind of widely-known trick, perhaps requiring a supply of sandbags. Finally, I realized room 26 holds a sound-making alarm.
One room holds an Invisible Chime of Opening. I have no clue how the PCs might find the thing unless they literally sweep the floor. Just for kicks, I would have put a broom in the room.
Just a couple of years after Palace of the Vampire Queen reached gamers, the D&D community forgot about it. But this first adventure showed Gary that adventure modules could attract buyers, so he rushed to publish the giant series.