Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Authors: Keith Baker, Wolfgang Baur, David “Zeb” Cook, Monte Cook, Jeff Grubb, Scott Hungerford, Chris Pramas, Jonathan Roberts, Janna Silverstein, Michael A. Stackpole and Steve Winter
Year: 2013 Reprint
Pages: 192 pages – Hardcover
Genre: Premium reprint of classic Advanced Dungeons and Dragons “S” modules
Retail Price: $39.99
When I saw Wizards of the Coast was going to release a premium edition hardcover for the S series of modules, which came out in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s for AD&D, I have to say I was pretty excited. Sure, I don’t currently run any sort of D&D campaigns, nor play in one, but I was thrilled to have a chance to once again check out four adventures I hadn’t laid eyes on in thirty years or so.
The tome includes S1 – Tomb of Horrors, S2 – White Plume Mountain, S3 – Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and S4 – The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. Three of these were penned by Gary Gygax – White Plume Mountain was written by Lawrence Shick – and it’s interesting to read through classics of fantasy roleplaying possessing a very structured layout; many current RPGs encourage a free flowing, seat of the pants style of narrative where GMs and players create an adventure as they play. Needless to say Dungeons of Dread is a throwback to the days where the Dungeon Master called all the shots.
The initial adventure in the collection is The Tomb of Horrors and, for the players, there’s truth in advertising here. Gygax set out to create an adventure which took a much more realistic approach to the age old “hidden lair of the evil baddie” tale. The demi-lich who makes the tomb his home hasn’t invested time and energy into run of the mill tricks and traps to stymie the adventurers. Instead, this undead mastermind has concocted the most lethal assortment of roadblocks into the adventurers’ path. Think about it, if you were a thousand year old terror would you look to simply slow down intruders to your lair leading to an eventual showdown with the interlopers? No! You’d want to massacre the trespassers as soon as possible, and as nastily as you could, so you could get back to whatever vile machinations normally occupy your time.
The Tomb of Horrors runs a scant dozen pages or so with more than twice that number in additional material such as handout artwork, pre-generated characters, and breakdowns of the various items to be found. Yet this is a classic which old timers, who had an opportunity to play the adventure when it was relatively new, still fondly remember to this day. The module is actually fairly combat light but what still sticks in memory is the sheer lethality of the traps and how many really begin to get under the players’ skins. For the most part the players find themselves in real trouble when they act before thinking things through and that always leads to trouble.
The second adventure is White Plume Mountain. Effectively the setup here is another overused trope of RPGs: Track down something which has been stolen. Yep, millions of gaming nights around the world have begun with the same sort of premise. Luckily, while the story is pretty weak the dungeon crawl itself is solid. The adventurers are trying to recover three stolen weapons: Wave, Whelm and Stormbringer. Oh… I mean Blackrazor. Funny enough Blackrazor is a thinly veiled take on author Michael Moorcock’s demon sword Stormbringer.
The only clue available to the adventurers is a poem written to the weapons’ previous owners. As I mentioned the story is pretty weak and there’s never any explanation of who took the weapons or how all three ended up in the dungeon. Not a mention whatsoever but as a dungeon delve White Plume Mountain offers up some interesting puzzles for the players to ponder and nice set piece battles.
All said, another quality adventure which provides nice challenges to a party of dungeoneers without the sheer level of wicked lethality as that of The Tomb of Horrors. Also, this was the first of the S modules to bump up the quality of black and white artwork as opposed to some of the weaker drawings one would find in a lot of the TSR releases of the time.
The third adventure is Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and if there’s one module which makes Dungeons of Dread a must have, this is it! Not only is it a monster sized module, clocking in at nearly seventy pages including the art handouts, it’s also a roller coaster ride loaded with fun; even gamers who never played AD&D have probably heard of this tale. I still fondly remember having this in my collection and paging through the adventure brought back some great memories.
How many fantasy adventures mash up swords and sorcery with science fiction? The adventure itself was originally penned for the Metamorphosis Alpha RPG but then Gygax rewrote it for the AD&D framework. What emerged was a wildly memorable adventure gamers still talk about to this day.
The setup starts innocently enough as the adventurers learn of a mysterious cave from which never before seen monsters are emerging. Having been hired to scope the cave out and eliminate the monsters the characters soon find themselves neck deep in not only creatures of the likes never encountered but plenty of other challenges. It turns out this isn’t a cave but a tear in the hull of a buried starship. Or at least a portion of a starship as there’s a bit of backstory for the DM as to how the wreckage made its way to Greyhawk.
There’s a lot of dungeon crawling as there are six levels of the ship to explore and plenty of robots and alien lifeforms to encounter. Add to that the slew on one of a kind science fiction gear the PCs can pick up along the way – not that they’ll know what to do with it without trial and error – and this ends up being an adventure which sticks with players long after leaving the gaming table. Honestly, this mash up was a much bigger deal back in the day when it was first published but still makes for a grand adventure to run players through. I always felt much of the payoff for Expedition to the Barrier Peaks would be based on the abilities of the Dungeon Master to keep the wonder and mystery pumping along at a high level.
The last adventure in the collection is The Lost Caverns of Tsocanth and, truth be told, is the weakest of the bunch. This is the sort of module which put the “hack” in hack and slash as there isn’t much here to mentally challenge the players. This doesn’t make this a bad adventure just one in which I’ve never been much of a fan.
This is a massive adventure as the PCs traverse a great deal of real estate before they even make it to the conclusion. The adventurers go from one encounter to another spilling blood all the way; the party will probably need a baggage train for all the loot they’ll collect. All this boils down to a lot of fighting through what are essentially four dungeons. Sure, it’s a well-executed adventure but simply not a memorable one as in the end it’s the same throw away sort of thing we’re seen published by the hundreds over the past few decades.
Still, the design work on the module is nicely done and it’s an interesting read especially since tales like this are making a comeback with the “old school” style of RPGs which are currently on the market. Or, in other words, if you’re looking for a primer on how to build a Monty Haul sort of adventure for gamers into that sort of thing this is a good place to start. I prefer more roleplaying as opposed to roll playing but I know there are loads of gamers out there who love hack and slash.
All told, Dungeons of Dread is a must buy for folks who love classic fantasy RPG adventures or even those interested in checking out the history of Dungeons & Dragons. You don’t necessarily have to play AD&D to appreciate the tales included in this collection. It is interesting to remember how many of the D&D modules didn’t have a ton of backstory and where pretty cut and dry as far as this is what’s in this area, this is what’s in that area and so on unlike many of the RPGs out today which include much more background in order to set the scene.
I have to say paging through Dungeons of Dread stirred up images of gaming sessions long past and even people I gamed with I may not have thought about in years. My score may be a touch higher than that of other reviewers out there more from the strength of nostalgia, since I experienced all of these modules shortly after their publications as opposed to thirty or so years later.