Most of my early experience playing D&D featured a lot playing through TSR adventure modules. In my first post, I mention a few of them. In addition to these, we also went though some higher level modules like A Star Falls, Baltron’s Beacon and Scourge of the Slave Lords. I remember that our DM always intended, one way or another to get us into the G-series, but the campaign always fizzled out before we could manage to. I had a great time with these modules, and since I want to pass some of that enjoyment on to players I have some modules I like to use in my campaigns. But as a DM with a lot of ideas of his own, I have an ambivalent relationship with published modules. To run modules as written seems lazy, almost cheating, and takes some of the fun away from being a DM in the first place. But on the other hand, they can be great time savers and templates. I’ve got a lot of published adventurers and I feel that most of them just aren’t up to scratch to run at the table, but on occasion I reach into them and pluck out an encounter, treasure list or NPC on the fly. Then there are a few that, with a bit of tinkering and development, can make a worthwhile addition to a campaign.
Of these my favourite and most oft-used is T1: The Village of Hommlet, even though I never played through it myself. But every time I’ve run it it’s been a blast. I like it so much because, when you need a quick adventure for first time players to see if they like D&D, this module has a perfect storm of ingredients for the low-level D&D experience. Village with a cheesy tavern. Detailed NPCs, treacherous hirelings, higher level NPCs building a stronghold, a religious centre, details of peasant treasure for the more antisocial PCs. My ‘Hommlets’, whatever I end up calling them, keep all those elements flesh out the NPCs, sometimes changing personalities or class, and play up the importance of the Church, usually having it as a popular place of pilgrimage and holder of a holy relic. On the dungeon side, you’ve got giant animals, cunning bandits, secret doors, traps, prisoners, humanoids, an ogre, undead and an evil priest. It’s tough going, especially once the priest and bodyguards are roused, but a well-played party can make it, and the rewards are rich.
But I’ve run T1 a few times and even with a tweak here and there, I’m getting a little bored with it. So I dug around for alternatives but failed to come up with an option that served up the kind of all round experience I was looking for. But one other low level module did hold my attention, and that was B3: The Palace of the Silver Princess. I’d played through that at the beginning of my first ever D&D game, and figured I’d make a go of it. But the copy I had obtained jarred with my memories of play. See, I’d picked up a pdf version of the original orange cover version of the scenario, whereas clearly, I had played though the revised green version. The reasons for the almost immediate recall of the original are detailed on wikipedia. This site elaborates and highlights differences between the original module and the later revision by Tom Moldvay. Once I had a chance to compare the two I realised that there was a lot I liked about the original over the version I actually played though. There was also a lot of weirdness which I couldn’t quite appreciate for its own sake.
Location based adventure with a fabulous ruby as the hook. Ruby isn’t magical or anything, just legendarily beautiful. A good lure for relatively impoverished low-level types. Noble heroes may be more motivated to discover its history or to retrieve the gem to its rightful inheritors (of which there may be few rival claims to) or make a connection between it and the evil that haunts the ruins.
500-year-old backstory regarding the princess, dragon rider and the fall of her kingdom with multiple, contradictory accounts surviving to the modern age, tantalising clues here and there but no definitive answers in the text. I enjoy ruin-type locations and the intriguing history should give the players a good impression of picking through the leavings of a bygone age, even if they are uninterested in getting to the bottom of the story.
Detailed wilderness area with overview of local politics and other potential areas of adventure. Though I prefer to use my own stuff for this, it’s inclusion in a beginner module as inspiration for further worldbuilding is appreciated.
Dungeon Factions. Various bands of intelligent creatures with different allegiances can be encountered wandering or picking through the ruins. These include evil priests, barbarians/berserkers, humanoids, bandits and mysterious soldiers bearing a wolf insignia. Plenty of opportunities to confuse players who might expect a single ‘big boss’ to control the monsters, for negotiation, divide and rule and even acquiring henchmen or hirelings.
Some dungeon rooms are empty so they can be populated by the DM, and the book comes with random tables for creatures, treasure and traps. I’ve mentioned before how I like to have some extra randomness in dungeons and I use these rooms as places where the party can stumble upon the agents of other factions, also in the process of looting the area, clearing out invaders or expanding their power base. Since some of these bands don’t have their base in the dungeon, it keeps the threat fresh and will hopefully motivate the players into looting as much as they can before another gang gets their hands on the goods.
Catharandamus and his retinue. A slimy, cunning, charismatic evil cleric who’s managed to bring some unlikely allies under his sway. Aleigha the werebear, 2 dwarves and a host of goblinoids and cultists. Moldvay made this great NPC more boring and standard by changing his followers to a few orcs and a standard werewolf and forcing immediate hostilities with the PCs. Boo. In the original module, he also collected various holy symbols from different religions and placed them around his HQ. This could be an indicator of some interesting research into comparative religion, an obscure ritual or just some serious commitment issues.
The map doesn’t make much sense if you think of it as a working palace, with functional rooms and noble quarters being placed apparently at random. A little rearrangement and repositioning of entrances fixes this though. Moldvay’s revised maps are better in this regard.
The original featured some seriously silly monsters (evil bubbles, 6 legged duck-billed rats, 3 headed hermaphrodite tribe of humanoids). Silly monsters are a fine part of D&D, but I don’t find most of these very inspiring and I want to tone down the weird a little in the more inconsequential encounters, to make it count in smaller doses.
There’s a ‘safe’ area watched over by sparkly lawful spirit beings called ‘Protectors’. Ugh. I don’t like this coddling of the PCs. Competent players can set watches, use barricades etc to secure a good resting spot, and I think supernatural aid from benevolent spirits should be rare, and then hard won and subtle.
The nearby misandrist barony of Gulluvia. Where men are 2nd class citizens and have to have legal guardians of a woman of at least 15 years. It’s odd that a module written by a woman and features this kind of Drow-esque trope where ‘strong women’ follows into ‘evil matriarchy’. Problematic as it is I can see some potential for adventure in this, but it would need some development and fleshing out to stop it being a one-note caricature.
Reading this module with the author in mind (during a time when it was very rare for a published adventure to have a female author) with an eye for gender turns up some food for thought. Plenty of strong female characters and their relationships with men affect the plot and encounters. The Silver Princess and her mysterious suitor, for example. Plenty of rumours blame her lover for her kingdom’s downfall, but clues in the ruins suggest that they had a good relationship, though do not exactly settle whether there was a more sinister aspect to the dragon-riding knight. The little insights that players can get into their life and relationship are welcome nuggets of flavour. Aleigha, the good werebear is another example. She is venerated by the beserkers and commands their loyalty, but she is under the influence of the handsome and charismatic but slimy evil priest (who will maintain his control through ‘negging’, gaslighting and his own charm). Then there’s the Decapus, a monster which lures players into it’s tentacles with an illusion suggesting sexual violence (a bound and helpless woman surround by a gang of hostile thugs). I actually did my first play through of the mash-up with a mainly female group of players, and they really got stuck into roleplaying and getting to know the NPC relationships, though without much comment on the tales of the Gulluvian regime.
Speaking of gender, there are the Ubues, odd 3-headed humanoids with both male and female heads and bodies all mixed up. I can actually see the Ubue tribe as being quite fun in the right circumstances, in a kind of ‘wild magic blew up our castle and merged the population into jumbled up beings then need to share bodies now’ scenario, but they’re not really story-important and not what I want in an introductory adventure. The Ubues were drawn by Erol Otus as caricatures of TSR staff, and apparently this was the main reason for the product recall. Check out the male head ogling the breasts on its own female body.
So what to do? I jazzed up my old favourite T1 by blending it with B3 into a delicious module smoothie. Here’s my personal recipe:
T1 village Hommlet/Thorvald/whatever remains the base of operations, more or less unchanged. Agents of evil hidden in the village will be allied to a dungeon faction, likely the necromancer or ‘wolf soldiers’. ‘Elmo’ helper toned down somewhat, as he has an annoying tendency to upstage PCs.
B3’s palace and T1’s moathouse smashed together into specially calibrated Large Module Collider. Result: 3 level area with ground floor, upper works and dungeon.
Dungeon as in T1, reaching via secret staircase in the ground floor of the palace, controlled by Lareth. Lareth is now a female necromancer-priest of Orcus (the name seems to fit a woman more in my mind, plus it makes her a better foil to Catharandamus). She has noted a powerful well of necromantic energy in the area and seeks the gem as a means to control the ghosts and other undead. Her fighter bodyguard is her half-orc paramour and ‘cultists’ are now orcs. She commands the loyalty of the humanoid troops in her level, as well as some on the ground floor, and all non-intelligent undead encountered.
Ground floor of the palace is ‘no mans land’ disputed by various factions and freelance adventurers and looters. The sillier monsters from B3 area are removed and replaced by encounters based on the ground floor moathouse area of T1. Small parties of independent orcs and bandits occasionally raid the area, bringing loot to their lairs outside. The ‘wolf soldiers’ are scouts from a foreign power looking to secure the ruby as part of a territorial claim. The PCs can discover this ambition through interrogation or negotiation. Goblins, hobgoblins and acolytes serving Catharandamus battle skeletons, ghouls and orcs serving Lareth. Duchess and Candella are independent adventurers and likely PC allies.
Top level is Catharandamus’s power base. This charming villain is interesting in using the ruins as a power base for a new cult. He has yet to commit to a patron but courts the favour of multiple demon lords. He and Lareth were initially allies and had joined forces to banish the ghosts and take over the area but after their falling out wish nothing but death upon their counterpart and are individually too weak to risk taking on the powerful undead by themselves. Catharandamus is a womaniser who had hoped to control Lareth but now has settled for having the more naive Aleigha under his thumb. He is well read, curious, courteous and friendly to PCs encountered, hoping to use them to break the stalemate with his rival. Aleigha the werebear follows Catharandamus partly out of attraction but also because he has promised her a cure for her lycanthropy. The beserkers believe she is blessed and implore her to pass the bear-strength onto them, but she sees it as a curse, and stalls, unwilling to anger them with outright refusal, she tells them that they must first prove themselves worthy through their deeds in the dungeon. In time she has come to value her followers but cannot bring herself to tell them how she really feels, nor can she embrace their bloodthirsty ways.
The Ubues have been transformed into a tribe of Bugbears lead by a petty ‘king’. King Krule is too proud and haughty to serve under either evil faction or to admit their fear of the ghosts. Krule pretends authority over the whole palace, but in reality is paranoid and cautious, keeping to his territory. The PCs can spur this faction into action on one side or the other with some careful diplomacy.
The Decapus, Killer Plants and Princess/Dragon Rider story stay, rule of cool. The story of the Silver Princess’ true fate will likely still elude players, but there’s plenty going on in the present day to keep their minds busy.
Mm…yummy. Multi-level, open ended first level adventure location with plenty of interacting factions, a mysterious backstory, varied monsters and opportunities to roleplay. My new favourite 1st-level adventure setting.