SPECIAL GUEST REVIEW FOR MAGNETIC EYES OF SUPER-POWER
Series Order: S Series, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition
In Six Words: Four Adventures Collected For Nostalgia's Sake.
Summary (courtesy of Goodreads and Wizards.com)
Dungeons of Dread is a hardcover collection of four classic, stand-alone Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules -- S1: Tomb of Horrors, S2: White Plume Mountain, S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth -- complete with original black-and-white interior art.
S1: Tomb of Horrors: In the far reaches of the world, under a lost and lonely hill, lies the sinister Tomb of Horrors. This labyrinthine crypt is filled with terrible traps, strange and ferocious monsters, rich and magical treasures, and somewhere within rest the evil Demi-Lich.
S2: White Plume Mountain: It has always been a subject of superstitious awe to the neighboring villagers. People still travel many miles to gaze upon this natural wonder, though few will approach it closely, as it is reputed to be the haunt of various demons and devils. The occasional disappearance of those who stray too close to the Plume reinforces this belief. Now, the former owners of Wave, Whelm and Blackrazor are outfitting a group of intrepid heroes to take up the challenge of recovering these magical weapons from White Plume Mountain.
S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks: From the preface by Gary Gygax: “This module was begun early in 1976 when TSR was contemplating publication of a science fantasy role playing game. Jim Ward had already shown us some rough notes on Metamorphosis Alpha I thought it would be a splendid idea to introduce Jim’s game at Origins II, and introduce the concept to D&DO players by means of the tournament scenario. I laid out the tournament from old “Greyhawk Castle” campaign material involving a spaceship, and Rob Kuntz helped me to populate the ruined vessel.”
S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth: In the Yatil Mountains south of Perrenland there is rumored to be a magical hoard of unsurpassed value, a treasure of such fame that scores of adventurers have perished in search of it. Find the perilous Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth and you may gain the hidden wealth of the long-dead arch-mage—if you live!
Why did I read this?
I was asked to read and review this by my friends at the site MAGNETIC EYES OF SUPER-POWER. Mostly because they had a huge backlog to get through and didn't want to leave it hanging in the air, but also because of my relative lack of experience with the material giving a newcomer's perspective on the book.
The whole story behind this release is fairly long and pretty awesome (and sounds like it should have been an episode of Auction Kings or something) but the gist of it is this: Wizards of the Coast (the current holders of the Dungeons and Dragons license) have been on a real nostalgia kick for the last year in the run-up to the next edition of D&D. They began releasing past material, from original Red Box and White Box D&D up to Fourth Edition, as collections both online and in print form, one of which is the book I'm talking about today.
Well, being a collection of adventures, the plot and pacing are all dependent on the players. The writing style, on the other hand, is much easier to discuss. As I said, I'm not in any shape or form a D&D or RPG expert. I only recently started playing tabletop RPGs with any regularity a couple years ago, although I have been dipping in and out as life permitted for some time beyond that. And the only version of D&D I ever played long enough (not to mention ever had run as Dungeon Master) is 4th. That said, this book is kind of a mixed bag for me.
First thing to notice is the cover. It is pretty impressive and a nice treatment of the material. It is a hefty cover with a faux-leather texture to it, truly conveying the archival quality of this release. The front features gold embossed filigrees in the corner and features a slightly raised and colorized image of The Great Green Devil from S1: Tomb of Horrors. Both front and back have the inlaid designs slightly raised, adding to the leathery feel and puts a nice touch on the complete package, truly giving the book a bit of personality. This doesn't feel like a hastily printed PDF scan; this was a real attempt at making a classic tome of these adventures. If only the same could be said about the interior...
Don't get me wrong. I like the reprinted material. I like that they tried to keep it as authentic as possible, including the original artwork, layout and even the typos, which I found pretty chuckle worthy. The art on the actual creatures and some of the objects didn't wow me (looking at you, Barrier Peaks), but the environments and scenery were still quite amazing even to this rookie's eyes. They really evoked a sense of doom and dread, and managed it with clean black and white line work and expressive designs. It was a welcome relief to some of the more modern stuff, which is quite great but can feel a bit to busy and crowded, almost claustrophobic in all the detail and action being thrown in. Sometimes a throne and a crown is all you need.
The adventures themselves are great. They are just as awesome and unforgiving and lethal as I had heard through in-jokes and half remembered games whispered from veterans of this age. These are from the heyday of D&D, the very definition of old school. Since each adventure was originally designed for tournament play (where players would each run multiple characters and try to last as long as possible), rules are included in each adventure to allow quick character generation (you will need it) and ideas for starting, as well as tips on how to incorporate them into a regular game. Also, this is using AD&D 1st Edition rules, which wasn't exactly the most forgiving of newbies as I understand, and this book won't help at all. Remember, these are designed for tournaments meant to take on the best of the best, so while there is some lip service to new players, the authors made it clear that there would be no mercy for them if they were foolish enough to waltz right on into them. The actual plotlines are interesting, and the twists are good. It is hard to really get a feel for such things due to the flexible nature of the adventures, but it was still engaging and some of the traps were downright diabolical. I will get into my thoughts on each in the "Going Deeper" section below, but suffice it to say, Gary Gygax was a weird, wonderful man.
These are LONG adventures, S4 being the longest in page count (actually coming in two separate booklets, one for the adventure proper and one for reference on the monsters and magic items), but S3 being the most expansive in maps to cover. They are not designed for pick up and play, but for marathon games or carefully split among multiple sessions. They include pages of illustrations intended to be handed out to players, to give them an idea of what their mind's eye should be visualizing. This aspect really give the adventures a nice touch, something to get the juices of imagination flowing.
Of course, this touch also leads into my biggest disappointment with the book: the design and layout. I know I said I loved the cover and the replication of the original booklets. But it's biggest strength is it's biggest flaw: this book is not designed for play. This is a collector's edition of the adventures, meant to be sat on a bookshelf or on a coffee table. This book is designed for nostalgia's sake, to let older players reminisce about the their days at the table. This is not designed for people to actually run the adventures within. For one thing, the handout illustrations are simply printed straight into the book. No way to remove them safely, the hardbound spine makes scanning or copying difficult, and they are laid out in such a way that simply holding up the book to show a single image can spoil at least three more events through the others on that page. If you have the time and/or material, you can theoretically run this stuff straight from this book, but I highly doubt it. Also, if you already have these booklets and were looking for updated material, you're out of luck. Except for the excellent cover, there is no attempt to alter or update anything, which is nice, but also limits the books appeal to a particular niche audience. The entries can read a bit dry to most folks, so it isn't casual reading in the least. It may be a bit harsh to dock two stars because of this, but I'm coming from this as both a fan of D&D in all its incarnations, a book lover, and as an actual player. And while it is great material for the fan, it isn't so much a straight read or much use to anyone who wants to actually play it.
Dungeons of Dread was made as a thank you to the long-time D&D fan. At a pretty fair $39.95 retail price, if you are one of those veterans who wants t take a nice walk down memory lane, this book is for you, and I think you will enjoy it immensely. If you are new to the game, or just this version of it (like me), there is some interesting stuff in there, but you are probably better off checking out the collector's edition versions of the original Player's Handbook that was released not too long ago and should still be available. And if you are actually looking to play these adventures, you are better off, buying the PDFs at D&D Classics and just print the material out. Still, I am glad I was given this opportunity to delve into gaming history and expand my horizons a bit.
Going Deeper (SPOILERS AHEAD!)
Quick thoughts on each adventure:
S1: Tomb of Horrors lived up to its name. At first look, it is a really simple setup: go and check out the underground tomb of an evil lich and find the treasure within. What makes this one different is that is it mainly a puzzle-based scenario, with little in the way of monsters or actively physical threats. The point of this one is to get the players to start thinking sideways and actually work out how the puzzles and traps work rather than muscle through them to get to the other side. There are a lot of forced movement and teleporting, false doors, booby-trapped treasures, and more, and I wouldn't be shocked to meet someone with post-traumatic adventuring disorder due to this sucker. Some of the solutions are...a bit esoteric? A few require leaps in logic that should be considered Olympic sports, and the punishments for failing range from fairly easy to shrug off to not so much (hello, teleport spell that strips you naked and send all your stuff to the middle of the tomb). If you really want to make your know-it-all players feel like dolts (or make the hack-and-slashers want to defenestrate you), then this is the adventure for you.
S2: White Plume Mountain seems like another fairly straightforward adventure. I do like the twist at the end where the party, if successful at recovering at least two of the items they were sent to find, are almost press-ganged into service as the new monsters of the dungeon. It makes a sick sense; obviously they had to kill a good number of the defenders to get said items, and they clearly proved themselves to be more competent that the last bunch. And at least the author does say you can skip this if your players were sufficiently wounded and traumatized.
S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks was a truly interesting read, considering I was only familiar about it through a parody comic. This adventure was infamous because it was written as a gateway into Gamma World, TSR's attempt at using D&D rules in a futuristic setting. This lead to the insane conceit of the "dungeon" of this adventure actually being a disconnected section of a spaceship. That's right. A spaceship got infected by a nasty alien virus, and the crew separated off the quarantined area in order to save themselves. This section entered a black hole, which caused it to cross alternate dimensions and land on the world of Greyhawk (Gygax's original campaign world), getting buried by an earthquake. The "monsters" inside are actually alien life forms that were in captivity on the ship, but subsequently escaped. The "magic items" to be found are advanced technology like laser guns and the like, powered by an energy field inside the ship (or, as a friend of mine described it, the DRM for the tech is online only, and you lose your wi-fi connection as soon as you leave the ship). THIS IS INSANE AND AWESOME AND I LOVE IT. I wish I had half the talent to not only come up with this idea and take it remotely seriously, but to fully develop it to the point that Gygax does. It is amazing, and I wish I could play it just to see how I would die. Also, there is a lot of material here, but not as much as....
S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth Is. A. BEAST. It is probably the most complete and fulfilling adventure in the book. According to the preface, unlike the more standalone nature of the first three, S4 was intended to be part of a campaign world from the start (namely, Gygax's World of Greyhawk). It has everything you could need in an adventure booklet. It is practically a miniaturized campaign on its own, and yet still works well within a larger storyline. And the second booklet, with the monster and magic item stats was quite extensive. It took a bit to get through (that dry reading really kicking in here) but it also really conveyed the imagination and dedication it took to be a Dungeon Master back then. I can only tip my hat to those who had to do this from scratch.
None at the moment.