D&D S-Series: Dungeons of Dread

Many, many moons ago, I was an RPG adherent, drawing detailed topographical maps on graph paper and using Ral Partha miniatures that I’d painted when I was ten years old. I loved the idea of Dungeons and Dragons, although I was only lukewarm on the actual role playing. I think, in my heart of hearts, that my dabbling in Dungeons and Dragons, as well as my theoretical physicist cousins’ love of war gaming, is what influenced my lifelong love of miniatures, fantasy war gaming, and really, board games in general.

Of all the games that I count as the most memorable, the most truly influential upon my psyche, the single most viscerally life-changing of them all was Gary Gygax module, “Expedition to the Barrier Peaks”.  It is, in fact, the only module I still own, after all these years. Now, when Wizards of the Coast announced their S-Series of modules that were to be reprinted, something inside of me re-awakened after a long, long hiatus. I am now considering going to my buddy David’s house as he is a huge RPG nutter and holds weekly adventuring sessions. To that end, I acquired a copy of the first tome in the new S-Series, Dungeons of Dread.

Now, I can go on and on about how the old ways are more attractive to an old, dodgy bastard such as myself, but really, what I want to do is tell you a bit about what this book has between its lusciously appointed fake leather covers. Further, I’d like to start by saying that these are essentially reprints of the original modules, and there’s four modules per book, with Dungeons of Dread having the following:

  • S1: Tomb of Horrors
  • S2: White Plume Mountain
  • S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
  • S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
Let’s explore, shall we?

S1: Tomb of Horrors
The first module, Tomb of Horrors is a scant twelve pages long, but it’s supported by maybe twenty more pages of handouts and illustration, but is one of the most deadly, DungeonQuesty modules I am aware of. I recall playing this same module with disdain and dread because the entire module appears to have been set up specifically to mess your shit up, wholesale, without any hope of you surviving.  The basic premise is that there’s a big nasty, a Demi-Lich, who needs a heavy dose of iron infusion, preferably delivered via flamberge or arrow point. That said, the module is not very combat heavy, and is far more a “role playing” dungeon crawl than a hack-and-slash adventure.

Now, this dungeon is very trap-heavy, and these aren’t traps such as a bear trap or something, we’re talking the kind of trap that if you’re caught in it, you’re completely bollocksed. You’re not escaping, and you’re very likely not surviving. The single most insidious is an archway that, once you’ve entered, teleports you back to the front of the dungeon. Sounds scary, right? Did I mention that you are teleported back to the front of the dungeon naked as a jaybird, and all of your inventory is delivered right to the feet of the Demi-Lich? Yeah, that’s the kind of fucked up trap I’m talking about here. Suffice it to say that I have never completed the quest, although I only played it perhaps three times as I recall. 

S2: White Plume Mountain
The second entry into this book is White Plume Mountain, a module that I am wholly unfamiliar with. After reading the module, which is very interesting, I determined that the adventure is essentially a quest to recover stolen property. Three magical weapons of great renown were snatched from the city of Greyhawk, and the only clue to their whereabouts is a poorly written poem. Unlike the first module, this is a very combat-heavy module, loaded with monsters, both guardian “mini bosses” and the wandering variety.  Another element to the module is that there are several puzzles to solve, endemic of many earlier D&D modules, as well as traps. Now, the traps aren’t nearly as catastrophic as in Tomb of Horrors, but they are copious and I’d think a competent thief would be a keen addition to the adventuring party.

If there’s any one thing that stands out in this adventure, it’s that it is the epitome of a classic dungeon crawl, complete with really evocative black-and-white art. I’d say that of the four modules, I like the art the best in this one.  Also, as far as the story goes, without revealing spoilers, the story makes almost no sense when you realize what’s really going down. I re-read it twice and still have no bloody idea on the why/how of the plot. Such is fantasy writing, I suppose.

S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
This module is simply the best example of out-of-the-box dungeon delving in the history of Dungeons and Dragons. There’s no arch-wizard to slay, there’s no hill giant terrorizing the local village. This adventure takes place in the hulk of an abandoned spaceship, and it is 100% bad ass.

The basic premise is that the local constabulary has been griping that weird monsters, things nobody has ever seen or even heard about are roaming the countryside and doing what monsters do best. So, off you and your party are commissioned to go to sort it out, but when you get to the source of the critters, you find it quite alien; walls made of steel, colored keys required to pass doors, and laser beams. What? I don’t even…laser beams?? You heard me right, characters can take possession of laser weapons, among other bad ass technologies. So, it’s a mix of Space Hulk and Dungeons and Dragons, something some people might think can’t really work, but my God in heaven, it works here. And Skullbuster the Human Warrior can pick up a laser gun and cut a beholder in half, which in and of itself is indescribably awesome in an RPG setting. I’m getting goose bumps just thinking about this module, if that says anything of the quality of adventure, let alone the memorability of it. Simply put, must-have.

If you need just one reason to buy this book, this module is it. Without gushing too terribly much, I’d like to admit that I love this module wholeheartedly, and without equivocation or reservation. It is the perfect example of a dungeon adventure, and with the sci-fi crossover, it’s really one of the most unique modules ever put out as well. The art is great, and the maps included in this module are outstanding, making this a game well suited for inclusion of miniatures, if that’s your thing. What a module. Wow. 

As an aside, I cross referenced the module included in this book with my hard copy of the original, and I can confirm that it is a direct reprint, albeit prettier as it’s not on that shitty matte paper that they used to produce modules on. My only gripe about this, as a reprint, is that the original had some really nice color artwork that has been grey-scaled for this printing. 63 pages of this artwork were “scenes to show players” as they reach certain places in the adventure, and in book form it’s a little less simple to show only one picture. Were I to play this, I’d photocopy the pages and keep them as a separate booklet just as in the original printing.

S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
The final module in this collection is the most traditional of the lot, and is truly an epic adventure in its own right. The premise is simply that players are heading off to get a lost, ancient treasure. The hard part is that the journey is Tolkienesque, with players having to traverse what seems to be a thousand miles to the Lonely Mountain (well, in this case, the Yatil Mountains). This requires keeping track of rations, food for the horses, water, and all that lot, so it’s slightly more in-depth than most of the modules I’m familiar with.

Aside from the great distances of overland travel, there are a huge amount of encounters and thus this is really most like modern dungeon crawl hack-and-slash adventures more than anything. There’s a lot of blood to be let, have no doubt; it’s a XP whore’s dream, really. I’d only recommend this module for players that are dedicated and would have the stamina to run this game through three or four sessions; like Barrier Peaks, it’s not something you can run through in one or two sessions, it’s simply too huge a module.

The art in this is also the weakest of the book, in my opinion, with some really abstract, and dare I say ugly, illustrations. While there’s a samey feel through the adventure, based on the fact that you’re mostly just trekking and killing, rinsing and repeating, with no real plot to speak of, it’s so rife with treasure and XP that it would be a low-level character’s paradise.

In the end, this book is a wonderful throwback to the original AD&D rules, before the continual revisions that some have commented are an unbridled cash grab, followed by a bastardization of the game into what amounts to a miniatures game. Personally, I’ve always played D&D with miniatures, and the Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures collection almost got me hooked. If I didn’t have a wife and kids, I could envision my game room walls covered in shelves full of the little blighters.  I highly recommend this collection to anyone who never got to play the modules, as it will be instructive on the original “feel” of D&D, not to mention that one of these modules, Barrier Peaks, is the single most unique in the entire history of the game.

If they continue to the I-series, I will be first in line to pick up Ravenloft and some of the other notables, because they were truly the foundation with which D&D has grown into not only a brand, but to many, a way of life. 

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