Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

When Dungeons & Dragons fans rate adventures, the ones published early get the most accolades. In 2004, Dungeon magazine listed the greatest adventures of all time. Of 30 adventures, 20 came from 1985 or earlier. TSR started publishing adventures in 1978, so this represents just a 7 year slice of D&D’s 45-year history. Three more entries from after 1985 simply collected earlier adventures.

Why do early adventures gain so much praise?

Part of the stature of early adventures comes from their influence. Those classics showed every D&D fan how to create scenarios. They offered a template for many styles of dungeon: The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief became the first stronghold, Tomb of Horrors the first deathtrap, and White Plume Mountain the first funhouse. The drow adventures invented dark elves, the Underdark, and planar adventures. Such early modules implied a setting that serves as a foundation for every D&D campaign, even the ones that aim to be distinctive.

But much of the high ratings come from the years of attention these adventures’ gained. From 1978 to 1982, TSR published an average of fewer than 7 adventures a year, and all the adventures were short enough to play in a day or so. So most D&D fans played the same small set of adventures, and then traded their stories with other fans. Those early adventures remained in print for a decade or more, capturing the attention of a generation of players.

Over the years, the gamers who played those early adventures introduced new players to the old favorites. These adventures spawned conversions and sequels. For example, every edition of D&D generated at least one reprise or sequel to Tomb of Horrors. And of course, the panel that ranked Dungeon magazine’s 30 greatest adventures all started playing with the early favorites that dominated the list.

In 1983, the few adventures produced for D&D turned into an avalanche. Through the middle years of D&D’s history, gamers could only play a fraction of the adventures produced for the game. Everyone played a different subset, so even the best adventures failed to garner much attention. (For a deeper look into this topic, see Return of the Classics by Teos Abadia.)

Still, many adventures rated as good as or better than any of the old classics. After all, experience taught adventure designers more ways to write fun scenarios. For example, no one published an event-driven adventure until 1982. See How N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God Changed D&D Adventures For Good.

To shine attention on the newer classics, my next posts will count down the 10 greatest adventures published after 1985. Why 1985? Because the middle 80s mark a steep increase in adventures published, yet 1985 marks a steep decrease in the rate of those 30 greatest adventures reaching print. Also in 1985, Gary Gygax left TSR forever. Gary’s departure didn’t mark a sudden drop in quality—his last solo classic debuted in 1982—but 1985 still marks a turn in D&D history.

Who decides on the 10 greatest? On dmdavid.com, DM David decides. But I don’t rely entirely on my own judgement. I’ve drawn from ratings, reviews, and appraisals from D&D fans, and then I used my completely unscientific aggregation of opinions to rank the 10 entries. Ask me again in a week and I’ll probably put the list in a different order. For my sanity, I limited the list to adventures sold as products under the D&D brand. That excludes great independent and Dungeon magazine adventures. Someday, I aspire to posting a list of the best adventures from Dungeon magazine. I invite nominations.

Does my list miss a great adventure? Yes. Take to the comments and set me straight, but first double check your favorite’s publication date. When I called for nominations after 1985, many fans suggested adventures that proved older than expected.

Starting tomorrow, I’ll post one entry every weekday but Friday, until I reach number 1.

Next: Number 10

21 thoughts on “Why Did So Many Classic Adventures Come From 7 Years of D&D’s 45-Year History?

  1. Bryce Lynch

    I note that the use of the word “greatest” avoids the implication that they are actually good. 😉
    Usability at the table. Interactivity. Evocative.

  2. EvilDan

    The lost city is one of the most overlooked, but most formative ones. It made dungeon ecology, culture and progression a main stay in many adventures to come as well as showed young gamers how to home brew an entire dungeon society. Plus, if your band of 5-10 pcs made it, they were level 6ish and prime to run bigger adventures.

  3. Beoric

    Ignoring for the moment arguments that the earlier TSR modules were just better than the later TSR/WotC adventures, one thing that gives them staying power is that their open ended nature allows them to be used again and again. Partly as ongoing sites within the same campaign, the way Hommlet could be a home base for other adventures even before ToEE came out, but also because you could run them again and reasonably expect different results. Even Ravenloft had variation between campaigns.

    On the other hand if you run an event based railroad, there is nothing left to get from it after the first time.

    So the old modules were used more in part because they *could* be used more. And they are thus better remembered, and more talked about, and have become part of the collective experience.

  4. Derek

    The answer is: “Before 1985, D&D was run by the guy that really understood D&D. After Lorraine, then Peter, then the Black Hole of All Gaming IP, not do much.”

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