Archive for the 'D&D Modules' Category

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.

D&D Cover Art: Lost Tamoachan (1979) and The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (1980, 1981)

Tamoachan 1979

Tamoachan 1979-2

Hidden Shrine FC 1980

Hidden Shrine BC 1980

Tamoachan 1981

Tamoachan 1981-2

You can see how much the D&D image/brand changed in the space of only two years. Lost Tamoachan: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan was the bagged (unbound) tournament module used at Origins International Game Expo (known simply as ‘Origins’) in 1979. You’ll find the complete publication history at The Acaeum. (Copies are incredibly rare.) The cover art is by David C. Sutherland III, who did the original, and best, Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979) cover.

The module was renamed upon wide release in 1980, with front and back covers by Erol Otus. Without access to color, he relied on textures—the chiseled walls, the bolt of fire, the demon’s hair, the warrior’s armor. (On the back cover, it’s the combination of trees, ancient stone, translucent scales.) The Aztec art looks damn convincing, and the shadow of the wings on the walls is the kind of detail that separates Otus from other artists.

Otus did the front cover of the 1981 edition as well. Despite the gorgeous coloring and the thicker, more abstract figures that would become his trademark style, I think I prefer the earlier, more three-dimensional work. The back cover is by Jeff Dee. He uses Otus’s template for the scene, but gives it a Marvel Comics flavor. The innocence—some would argue the purity—of early D&D art, represented by the first and second editions of Tamoachan, would never be seen again.

Read some background on the module’s development at Wizards of the Coast.

(Images via Tome of Treasures and eBay)

D&D Cover Art: Scourge of the Slave Lords (1980 – 1981)

Slave Pits of the Undercity FC 1980

Slave Pits of the Undercity BC 1980

Secret of the Slavers Stockade FC 1981

Secret of the Slavers Stockade BC 1981

Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords FC 1981

Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords BC 1981

In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords FC 1981

In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords BC 1981

Scourge of the Slave Lords FC 1986

Scourge of the Slave Lords BC 1986

Slave Pits of the Undercity (1980): Both covers are by Jeff Dee. On the front, the wizard’s light spell saves the viewer and the party from utter darkness. (His non-casting hand is awkwardly placed, no?) Somehow, I don’t think the giant ant man’s two wooden shields are going to hold up against that hammer, but we have no idea how many of his friends are skittering to his aid, and that builds suspense.

I suspect the back cover was a rush job. The figures are finished (I like the bandaged arm of the bad guy), but the background is a blank.

Secret of the Slavers Stockade (1981): Jim Roslof did the front cover. The torch light and ensuing shadows set the mood, but the scene doesn’t sell the threat: the slaver and his Gollum-like pet are no match for the waiting heroes. The back cover is Erol Otus. The man is in absolute command of color and light, and his figures are the stuff of myth, something you might see on the vases and holy artifacts of an ancient civilization.

Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords (1981): Front cover is Jeff Dee again—substandard work, in my opinion: no motion, no life. The back cover, another Otus, is exactly the opposite: I can feel the pillars shaking, hear the cries of the warriors, the swooshing of the torch.

In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords (1981): This cover, one of Otus’s best, is a phantasmagoric, fantasy-art-meets-German-Expressionism masterpiece. It belongs in a museum. Bill Willingham goes for the throat on the lurid and bawdy back cover, a nice homage to Hammer Horror.

All of the modules (A1 – A4) were collected as Scourge of the Slave Lords in 1986. The cover painting here, a decent Frazetta emulation, is by Jeff Easley. (Is that Thundarr bursting his bonds in the background?)

Unfortunately, the series is not yet available on dndclassics.com.

Homemade D&D Modules: The Golden Scepter of the Troll Fens, The Maze of Death, and The Priest of Evil (1981)

Walters D&D-1

Walters D&D-2

Walters D&D-4

Walters D&D-3

Walters D&D-5

Walters D&D-6

 

Hand-drawn, hand-typed, and hand-assembled by 13-year-old Mikey Walters in 1981, I present the first six pages of a fully realized, fully playable 28-page module. (Click the images for a bigger view.)

Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to journey to the Troll Fens, retrieve the golden scepter (it “can cause Orcs to do any task, including suicide”), and bring it safely back to the Kingdom of Kala. The scepter is gold and exactly 5 ft. long, as you can see. If you find a golden scepter measuring 4 ft. or 6 ft., that’s totally cool, but it’s not the golden scepter we’re looking for.

How far is the Troll Fens from Kala, you ask? Well, it’s 575 miles by the main road, or “250 miles as the bird flies.” Those birds have all the luck! If you happen to doubt the accuracy of the distances, you have but to consult the awesomely rendered map. (I thought it was very biblical/philosophical of Mikey to put the Island of Evil and the Island of Knowledge side by side.)

Wait, there’s more.

 

Walters D&D-8

Walters D&D-9

Walters D&D-7

 

I really could have used these “Mini Modules” back in the day, since only two of us were serious about playing (serious about wanting to play, anyway). The covers are made of construction paper. The “Basic” banner on top is pure genius.

The cover of The Priest of Evil is pretty creepy, isn’t it? What’s he doing in that chair? Is he commanding the fire? Why won’t he show himself? Oh my God he’s going to kill us all with his mind!

Okay, one more page. I can’t resist. This one is from Mikey’s new monsters stat pages.

 

Walters D&D-10

 

“A Mad Dog is simply a dog with Rabies.” And let me tell you, the Rabies is nasty. “Within four days the victim will have great difficulty swallowing water… and in twelve days they will die.” A constitution or strength of 18 or better will give you a mere 10% chance of survival. Note to party: steer clear of Mad Dogs.

“A Jinnis is a disgusting creature that lives in swamps and other dark places.” You know, despite its sandpaper-like texture and devil horns and fire breath, I feel like the Jinnis gets a bad rap. This thing has a mother that loves it. For all we know, the Jinnis thinks we’re disgusting creatures that live in kingdoms and other sickeningly well-lighted places.

You’ll find the entire modules and other gems at Mikey’s D&D Memories Set on Flickr.

Also, the modules appeared last year at Rended Press, where they were kindly made available as PDFs: The Golden Scepter of the Troll FensThe Maze of Death, The Priest of Evil.

STAY TUNED: Mikey was kind enough to talk to me about his D&D creations and other childhood endeavors and experiences. The interview will run next week.

D&D Cover Art: Desert of Desolation (1982 – 1983)

Pharaoh FC 1982

Pharaoh BC 1982

Oasis of the White Palm FC 1983

Oasis of the White Palm BC 1983

Lost Tomb of Martek FC 1983

Lost Tomb of Martek BC 1983

desert of desolation 1987

desert of desolation-2

The Desert of Desolation series included Pharaoh (1982), Oasis of the White Palm (1983), and The Lost Tomb of Martek (1983). They were all written or co-written by Tracy Hickman, who co-wrote the original Dragonlance trilogy. The exotic, uncanny module covers are by Jim Holloway.

The modules were released as a compilation, “reworked to fit into the Forgotten Realms setting,” in 1987. The compilation cover is by Keith Parkinson, whose first work for TSR appears to have been interior art for Oasis of the White Palm. Parkinson, with Larry Elmore and Jeff Easley, did much to define the polished, epic look of D&D in the mid-’80s. Here’s a painting I remember well. (See more cool Dungeon covers here.)

dungeon parkinson

Parkinson died of leukemia in 2005. He was only 47.

Wizards of the Coast Releases Digital Editions of D&D Classics

Deities and Demigods

That’s right. Go to dndclassics.com to pick up the 1981 Basic Set Rulebook (currently $4.99), B2 The Keep on the Borderlands ($4.99), the first edition Fiend Folio ($9.99), and lots of others.

As of right now you can download In Search of the Unknown, the first introductory module (B1), for free. It’s a really nice scan.

Ethan Gilsdorf announced the move at Wired. Wil Wheaton talks about it here.

D&D Cover Art: The Secret of Bone Hill (1981)

The front cover painting is by Bill Willingham, and it’s one of my favorites. The action rides the lightning, so to speak. The spell cast by our beautiful, crimson-clad sorcerer ties her, the hero, to the undead villain.  The book and the broken staff, framed in the flash, tell us that our magic user was hurriedly memorizing her spell when attacked by the skeleton. That’s my interpretation, anyway.

The castle is parallel to the book and the staff, menaced by lightning of a more natural kind—or maybe not, as the bolts seem weirdly focused on the mysterious edifice. At the same time, the purple clouds on the horizon contrast the town with the bright blue of Bone Hill.

Back cover art is by Erol Otus, a master of atmosphere. The colors here are subterranean, dank. As the dragon drags out of the cave its colors shift from green to an unhealthy pallid blue.

You’ll find Grognardia’s positive review of the module here.

D&D Cover Art: Dwellers of the Forbidden City (1981)

Dwellers of the Forbidden City 1981

Dwellers of the Forbidden City 1981-2

Front cover by Erol Otus, another legend of early D&D. Otus did the definitive covers of the revised 1981 Basic and Expert Sets, seen here and here via Tome of Treasures. I’ll be posting more of his distinctive module covers as well.

The back cover is unsigned, but it has to be Jim Roslof. (Frustratingly, the front and back covers are often uncredited in the early modules. Only the art team is listed.) Compare the style with The Ghost Tower of Inverness.

The module is available at dndclassics.com. Grognardia reviews it here.

D&D Cover Art: The Ghost Tower of Inverness (1980)

The front cover art is by Jim Roslof, who passed away last year. From his obituary at Wizards of the Coast,

As an illustrator in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Roslof had a major influence on the developing visual style of the Dungeons & Dragons game. His cover illustration for adventure B2, The Keep on the Borderlands, is one of the most iconic and widely-recognized D&D images from that period.

As art director, Roslof’s guiding hand was less apparent to players, but his influence was even more profound and far-reaching. It was Roslof who hired and shaped TSR’s famous “pit” of color illustrators: Jeff Easley, Larry Elmore, Jim Holloway, Keith Parkinson, Tim Truman, and Clyde Caldwell. Under Roslof’s direction, their paintings defined Dungeons & Dragons for a generation of players and DMs.

The back cover is by Jeff Dee, who did the front cover of the first Isle of Dread module, among other classics.

Grognardia reviews The Ghost Tower of Inverness (killer title, yes?) here. The module is currently available for download at dndclassics.com.

D&D Cover Art: The Lost City (1982)

Front cover art is by Jim Holloway. Back cover art is by H. Joseph Quinn.

You’ll find some interior art at A Paladin in Citadel, and you can read a review of the module itself (a classic, by all accounts) at Grognardia.

View the whole module here. Download it at dndclassics.com.


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