****Geek Alert!**** If you don’t play Dungeons & Dragons, much of what I discuss below will be meaningless to you. You have been warned…
Writing D&D adventures is what finally allowed me to break into the publishing industry. I remember my first freelance paycheck: I contributed 2 (yes, TWO!) monsters to White Wolf’s Creature Collection II, and I was rewarded with a whopping $54! (For those of you playing the home game, I authored the Tuscar and the Sundered Mage.) Well, that was just the beginning of my (notably brief) RPG writing career, but as of late I’ve tapped into some geeky Mojo while I’ve been re-writing City of Scars.
Working on an epic fantasy novel has got me thinking quite a bit about the genre as of late, both the works that inspire me (I’ve blogged about those before) and the adventures I’ve enjoyed as both a Dungeon Master and as a writer looking for inspirational material.
It’s been said before (but I’ll repeat it anyways): role-playing is a great way to develop story-telling skills. Playing D&D (or another RPG game) is all about the details. What does something look like, smell like, and feel like? What happens if you do this certain thing, or that certain thing? What does a character love, hate, orfear? Running a good game means developing your world-building skills, because unless you play one-shot games in a vacuum (which some do, and that’s just fine), you have to consider spatial and world relationships (how is it the orcs live there, and where do the giants living in the dungeon get their water?), and you have to constantly think about how a world, a real world, would exist with all of these fantastical elements and still make some degree of sense.
But most of all, you have to tell a good story, and here are ten adventures that do just that. They’re from several different editions of the game. You might have to go out of your way to find them, but I highly recommend you do, because they’re well worth the trouble. I’m not going to bother with classics like The Tomb of Horrors, Isle of Dread and Keep on the Borderlands; enough has been written about those already. Here’s some you may or may not have heard of.
10. Heart of Nightfang Spire: I love a good dungeon crawl, and Bruce Cordell writes great ones. This incredibly straightforward adventure (Plot: “Kill the Vampire”) is a deadly trek from the top of a tower down to its depths, and essentially is just one fight scene after another. There’s no story to speak of, very little role-playing opportunities, and the chances for survival are slim. And yes, IT IS AWESOME! Bruce comes up with some of the vilest and most creative uses for otherwise common monsters in the game (such as the Vampiric Gibbering Mouther, the Half-dragon Flesh Golem, and I’m willing to bet no one prior this adventure ever dared imagine Girallons could so damned dangerous), and his ability to take down PCs is unparalleled. The perfect gift for the cruel DM.
9. City of the Spider Queen: I’m a fan of “mega-adventures” (you’ll find several on this list): massive and sprawling mini-campaigns that take characters across several levels of experience and through a myriad of settings as they try to work through a specific plot. There isn’t much to be said for said plot of this adventure (evil albino Drow priestess plans to destroy the surface world) and the structure itself is fairly generic (fight bad-guys, collect treasure, repeat), but one thing James Wyatt does very well is construct exciting encounters and unique situations, and City of the Spider Queen is chock full of memorable visuals, interesting places to do battle, and some truly frightening monsters. I’ve never run this adventure through from start to finish, but there are tons of individual sections that make worthy encounters in a campaign.
8. The Apocalypse Stone: Need an adventure to end your campaign? The Apocalypse Stone is it! A unique tale about the end of the world, this adventure is literally designed to end both your world and your game. Manipulative? Yes. But this series of short scenarios, which leads characters to accidentally initiate the end of the world and then gives them a chance to undo their actions, is dark, original, and chock full of gruesome moments. I also like how the authors walk you through how to destroy your campaign effectively…it’s like the guidebook for the cranky DM. ;D
7. Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress: It seems silly to put two of Bruce Cordell’s adventures so close together (he has three on this list), but the extra-dark and very well-written Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress shares a few traits with Numbers 9 and 10: a great story idea that essentially turns into a string of combat encounters. This one, however, is set in the Plane of Shadow, and Bruce’s penchant for original bad guys, well-designed combat encounters and dismal imagery has rarely been better. The bare-bones plot and excessively linear path to what is essentially a “Kill the Dragon” adventure may not score points for originality, but the unique setting and the myriad of memorable opponents make this adventure worth checking out.
6. The Red Hand of Doom: Shocker, another mega-adventure! Few modules handle war effectively – they either overuse complicated mass combat systems (Red Arrow, Black Shield, discussed below, is certainly guilty of this), or else they relegate the PCs to observers who only tangentially take part in the action. The Red Hand of Doom, a terrific quest that pits the heroes against a hobgoblin army, does an efficient job of presenting the fighting from a “ground’s eye” view – the PCs are involved in plenty of mass combat scenarios, but everything is kept in perspective, so they feel like they’re a part of the greater conflict while still staying grounded in easy-to-understand encounters. Of course the PCs are given a greater role and are sent off on a special mission to facilitate the end of the war, but it’s Richard Baker’s and James Jacob’s approach to how the big battles are handled that has always impressed me about this one.
5. Red Arrow, Black Shield: A unique political/mass combat adventure using the short-lived “Battlesystem” and “War Machine” rules from Basic D&D, this adventure was decidedly different: the PCs are emissaries trying to recruit the various nations of the known world (Mystara) to join their cause against the armies of the Desert Nomads. While the “West vs. the Middle-East” theme dates the adventure a bit, this module manages to make a series of diplomatic adventures interesting, as the approach the PCs need to take to convince each of the different nations to join them varies: in some situations they have to engage in mass combat or duels, while in others they just have to make it through a drinking game or clear out a local dungeon. In the end the PCs get the chance to lead their armies to victory and sneak in to take out the Master of the Desert Nomads himself. Good stuff.
4. The Banewarrens: Another mega-adventure. This one is from RPG “wunderkind” Monte Cook, and it’s one of his better offerings. Unlike most of the adventures listed above, Banewarrens is very open-ended in its approach, especially during its opening acts: the path the characters need to take is by no means clear, and there’s plenty of room for them to determine the course of the adventure thanks to the Banewarren’s unique structure. Monte also does a nice job spicing up the adventure with dozens of unique elements: rival creatures scouring the Banewarrens for artifacts, traitorous NPCs, jaunts into wilderness areas and other dimensions, and complicated in-city encounters, all of which prevent things from getting monotonous and help keep the characters engaged. I’ve run this adventure several times, always to great results.
3. Three Days to Kill: One of the early 3E adventures, Three Days to Kill sadly does a horrible job with the game mechanics, but that’s easy to forgive because it manages to do just about everything else right. This open-ended, short and shady tale sees the characters hired to stop a meeting between local crime factions, and the adventure is a classic example of “Murphy’s Law”. It also proves it’s possible to have a memorable gaming experience without having to launch right into a dungeon crawl. Not so much a series of encounters as one giant encounter with a lot of instructions on how to run it, Three Days to Kill captures the excitement of a good heist or action movie in a magical medieval setting, and the means by which John Tynes allows the DM to keep introducing elements to muck up the works as things progress became something of a staple for how I ran games.
2. Return to the Tomb of Horrors: D&D fans all around the world had their characters killed by Gary Gygax’s original dungeon crawl, but I’ve always preferred the sequel. Bruce Cordell constructs a veritable campaign around Acerak the demi-lich, wherein the PCs have to contend with dangerous wilderness, a city of necromancers, a cursed city of towers (“The City That Waits” is one of the finest creations in D&D), and one of the deadliest, most visceral dungeons ever (“The Fortress of Conclusion”, wherein many a character shall be…concluded.) Dark, gritty, epic, and supplied with some terrific mood-setting artwork, this epic creation remains one of my favorite adventures of all times (even though converting it to 3rd edition proved to be an almost full-time task).
1. The Shackled City: This is kind of a cheat, because this isn’t an adventure…it’s a dozen adventurers woven into a campaign. It takes characters from 1st level to 20th level, and does so in convincing fashion. A well-plotted epic story about a planetary gate being opened to the dark realm of Carceri, this adventure path presents the characters with opportunities to engage in everything from dungeon crawls to wilderness treks, from in-city investigations to inter-dimensional travel. The cast of supporting characters is massive and diverse, the plot twists and turns like a psychotic river, the setting (a city called Cauldron, nestled within a supposedly inactive volcano) is unique and original, and the story is compelling, flexible, engaging and never becomes stale. This is top-notch stuff.
What are your favorite D&D Adventures?