This Book of Homemade D&D Modules Is Better Than Anything Anyone Has Ever Built on Minecraft

Habitation Cover 2013

Last year, when I featured Mikey Walters’ homemade D&D modules from 1981, I wondered how many similar old school epics were out there, buried in family attics and basements, one or two small-scale campaigns away from rediscovery. Was there a responsible way to solicit these now historic documents? More important, was there a responsible way to preserve them? The answer is yes, to both questions. The Play Generated Map & Document Archive (PlaGMaDA for short), founded and managed by Tim Hutchings, “collects, preserves and interprets documents related to game play – especially tabletop role playing games and computer games.” People like you and me donate our “play generated cultural artifacts,” and they’re stored in the archives—PlaGMaDA is partnered with The Strong Museum—for all time.

Gaius Stern’s Habitation of the Stone Giant Lord, written and illustrated by the 14-year-old author in 1982, was one such donation. Hutchings decided to combine “Dungeon Module G2²” with seven other D&D-styled adventures, including two of Walters’ modules, and publish them in a book (funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign): The Habitation of the Stone Giant Lord and Other Adventures from Our Shared Youth (2013).

Hab 1

Detail from Habitation of the Stone Giant Lord, by Gaius Stern

If you’re even a little bit intrigued by the early days of tabletop role-playing and/or the emergent “kid culture” of the time, you will find yourself spellbound by the more than 100 pages inside. (Seriously, someone will need to hit you with a Dispel Magic; otherwise you’ll forget to go to work and feed the kids.) The dedication and detail on display in each of the (playable!) modules is uniquely impressive, and more than that, the authors had no other motive than the challenge, the joy of play, and the promise of sharing their work with fellow adventurers. Some of the writing is damn convincing, too. Here’s a selection from The Lair of Turgon, by Todd Nilson:

The doors, both into and out of this room, are jet black with silver runes upon them. The runes are non-magical: they are an ancient form of cuneiform which relate the eulogy given at Turgon’s burial. A seal of gold had welded the doors shut, but they have evidently been broken by some incredibly powerful force. The hall itself is of granite construction; depicted in bas-relief are scenes from Turgon’s life, from early childhood until his death. This hallway is inhabited by six shadows: more servants of Madros.

The late ’70s and early ’80s saw an explosion of creative energy from young people, who were so deeply inspired by the many novelties and innovations surrounding them that they designed and stitched elaborate costumes from scratch after sketching the real deal inside darkened movie theaters, shot their own Super 8 movies (all of which are better than J.J. Abrams’ Super 8), wrote and drew their own graphic novels, programmed their own (playable!) video games, and, as we see here, wrote, drew, and likely DMed their own fantasy role-playing adventures.

Hab-10

Stone Castle/Castle Stone from Stone Death, by Richard C. Benson

Jon Peterson, the author of what many consider to be the definitive history of wargames and role-playing games, Playing at the World, wrote the excellent introduction to Habitation. Before breaking down each of the featured home-brewed adventures, noting (compellingly) where the creators borrowed from the Monster Manual or the Fiend Folio, what D&D edition was used as a foundation, and so on, Peterson takes us on a comprehensive tour through the early years of TSR, from the company’s beginning promise of making us “authors and architects” of our own fantasies, to the introduction of the adventure module format that Peterson finds somewhat antithetical to that original promise. “When we purchase and rely on a module,” he writes, “are we letting TSR do our imagining for us?”

It’s a fair question, and he says of the works in Habitation that

Each of them, in its own way, illustrates the tension between the commercialization of adventure scenarios and the original invitation of D&D to invent and collaborate and share.

And later:

Players were not content to have TSR do their imagining for them, and when the production of pre-packaged modules began, players responded by positioning themselves as creators of modules and thus as peers of TSR, rather than mere consumers.

Ultimately, I don’t agree with his conclusion. First, I don’t think any of the young authors featured in Habitation were “positioning” themselves to be anything; the modules look to me like a labor of love and, if anything, an homage to and emulation of TSR, as Peterson himself mentions elsewhere. Second, the module format was a signal innovation that expanded the role-playing genre and broadened the player base. Gamers young and old continue to run, tweak, perfect, and be inspired by the likes of The Keep on the Borderlands and Dark Tower. Third, as I’ve argued elsewhere, all D&D products—be it the original set of 1974 or the Dragonlance franchise—are commercial products. TSR certainly did reach a point—in 1982/1983, in my opinion—at which building and inflating the D&D brand took precedence over crafting quality “products of your imagination.” I believe this is Peterson’s larger point, and it’s well taken.

Hab-6

A page from The Tomb of the Areopagus the Cloaked and Japheth of the Mighty Staff, by Michael M. Hughes

What makes the work collected in Habitation so historic, and Peterson talks about this as well, is that it captures how real players approached D&D at a time when “playing mind games with dice,” to use Chris Hart’s phrase, was so profoundly untried. The game gave young people such an unprecedented amount of imaginative freedom, in fact, that it became a malignant bogeyman to those who rejected the idea that young people deserved any freedom, and who were terrified of dreamers and freethinkers of all ages.

In short, please consider getting yourself a copy of Habitation right here, and have a look through PlaGMaDA’s incredible archive right over here. And after that, maybe you’ll delve into those musty trunks and dot matrix computer paper boxes and dig out your old character sheets, your #2 pencil-drawn grid paper dungeons that not even a Conan-Gandalf multiclass could survive, your lengthy and grammatically suspect descriptions of demilich lairs and warring sky-castle kingdoms. Hell, PlaGMaDA will take a scrap of paper with nothing but your scribbled (and probably padded, let’s be honest) ability score rolls. Donate it all right here. You don’t even have to use your real name, although you really should, because what you made with your own mind and hands from scratch and for the love of the game when you were 12 years old is better than whatever Wizards of the Coast is putting out next, and more awesome than anything anyone has ever built on Second Life or Minecraft.

17 Responses to “This Book of Homemade D&D Modules Is Better Than Anything Anyone Has Ever Built on Minecraft”


  1. 1 Sniderman March 13, 2014 at 5:41 pm

    I donated a fairly sizable homemade monster manual from 1982 (titled “Weird Works”) to PlaGMDa many months ago.

    • 2 2W2N March 13, 2014 at 5:47 pm

      Awesome, and thank you. I’d love to see that. Actually, I plan to feature stuff from the PlaGMaDA archives on an ongoing basis.

    • 3 tim h March 13, 2014 at 9:08 pm

      Your module is going up over the next couple of weeks. It had to get rescanned as part of our Giant Scanathon last month – thousands of new documents are going up soon. (And thanks again!)

  2. 4 Alec Semicognito March 13, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Just ordered “Habitition.” Thanks very much for the tip. I discovered your blog just this week, and now my Facebook friends are all big fans.

  3. 6 Don Gates March 13, 2014 at 7:48 pm

    A few years ago I bought a boxed “Star Frontiers” set at a thrift store, and apart from the bottom of the box being the bottom of a D&D set, the contents were surprisingly complete and free from wear & tear (just a few yellow highlights here and there in the handbooks). At the bottom of the box was the cover and the first few pages of a homemade SF module on notebook paper. It’s in storage right now and I can’t remember the title of the module, but whoever was creating it even had their own “company name” (and logo): “The Game Masters!” If I can get my hands on it, I’ll scan it for you: I’m pretty sure there was a map and some character notes among the flotsam and jetsam, too.

  4. 10 contradextraavenue March 13, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I promise I’ll take some time this weekend to shift some boxes around in my vault to try to find my homemade module from ’83 or so. I last saw it when I lived in Connecticut three years ago; it was in a [Disney’s] The Black Hole folder, and it was on the same shelf as all my other 1st Ed books and modules which I haven’t seen since then. So finding all that is added incentive. I swear I labeled the box with “D&D,” it’s probably just underneath a bunch of other boxes. Moving too many times sucks.

    • 11 tim h March 13, 2014 at 10:13 pm

      (This is the PlaGMaDA director)

      I just moved cross country from NYC to Portland, my sympathies on the scrambled boxes.

      A big part of the reason the archive was founded was to preserve collections of papers from folks like yourself who _can’t_ cart boxes around. In November we received two large boxes from a donor moving to Hawaii – too expensive to take on a boat.

      And remember that all donations wind up in The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. There they will live in a professionally maintained, environmentally controlled archive for as long as we have museums.

      • 12 contradextraavenue March 13, 2014 at 10:46 pm

        Ouch, I feel that moving pain. I moved five times in three years, including three locals, a Hartford CT to San Diego, and a San Diego to Cincinnati. But I did manage to cart all the boxes with me each time, it’s just a matter of finding it after all that shuffling and poor labeling by five different moving companies. I will seriously consider sending it to you when I do find it; it’s not like I’m going to be running any players through it. 🙂

  5. 13 WEBmikey March 13, 2014 at 10:45 pm

    I was honored to be a part of the book (as well as mentioned in this post). Fun and creative times deserve to be preserved!

  6. 14 leftylimbo March 17, 2014 at 4:28 am

    Wow. After reading all this I still wonder why I never got into D&D back in the day (about ’80–’82, when a few of my friends were)…I was just talking about D&D with my wife’s nephew, and it turns out he has some cousins (whom I’ve met, btw) that were heavily into it back in the ’90s. Not quite the same as the ’70s and ’80s era, but still, I had no idea. Thanks for sharing!


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