By Teague Bohlen
Ahh, modules. The lifeblood of D&D back in the 1980s, when 1st edition was all there was, and supplement books were only beginning to hint at the vast expansions that were to come. Modules were more than just accessories, more than a simple way for DMs to populate their worlds. They were invitations to common experiences for gamers worldwide. Everyone remembers discovering the Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, recovered Blackrazor from White Plume Mountain, died in the Tomb of Horrors.
But even then, in the golden age of modules, there were some duds. Granted, many of these were from companies other than TSR that produced tons of crap (though some of them, like Judges? Guild?s Tegel Manor, have become classics), but several were from TSR itself. Here are eight of TSR?s most notable failures.
8) D1: Descent into the Depths of the Earth
An early and egregious example of placed monsters in a pretty static environment. A lich in an alcove? Just laying there, waiting for someone to come by and try to take his stuff? Genius. Even if this did lead into some pretty good stuff (Vault of the Drow, Queen of the Demonweb Pits), this wasn?t a great way to start. While I?m at it, can I ask why the underground, afraid-of-light evil elves have black skin and not stark white? No? I shouldn?t ask those questions? Okay.
7) WG9: Gargoyle
Comedy is not pretty. Steve Martin said that, but this module proves it. I don?t know if TSR was trying to attract a younger crowd with this module, featuring cute, friendly gargoyles and assassins named Tom and Jerry, but this module is the Ewok Village of D&D.
6) EX1: Dungeonland/EX2: The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror
In which every Lewis Carroll character you ever read about and loved as a child comes to life and tries to kill you. I mean, the Queen of Hearts was always bloodthirsty, but The Mad Hatter now wants to poison you. The Cheshire Cat is a smilodon cat waiting to eat you. And Tweedledee and Tweedledum are two annoying guys renamed T. Deeous and T. Diumm. And for that, at least, you have to give the module points for accuracy.
5) Tie: The Entire Dragonlance Series, “Dragons of Eternity”
A fun series of books, and host to some of D&D?s now-classic characters. But the modules?oh, the modules. Not only are they drawn out to a punishing length (the core series runs fourteen modules, with approximately eleven hundred maps to go along with them, plus two more modules just because they?d sell), but they?re full of completely random encounters. For example, a small hill that the adventurers climb over is revealed to be?a giant slug! Awesome. That doesn?t break the mood at all, really. Worst of all, these modules commit the cardinal sin of adventure-writing, which is railroading the characters into pre-set storylines. If there?s anything that kills a warrior?s spirit, it?s knowing that no matter how well as you roll the dice, this isn?t the fight where the module is going to let you kill Kitiara.
4) B1: In Search of the Unknown
Some old-time players might have a fond memory of this module, because for many it was the first they played. (This alternated with B2: The Keep on the Borderlands as the module included in the Basic Set.) And it?s got some cool touches, and a decent backstory to Quasqueton. So why is it on this list? Mainly because this module was left unfinished?unstocked and unladen with treasure?so that the new DM could place what they wanted where they wanted. The results for most players was the quintessential random monster guarding a random treasure sort of adventure that got old quick. The high point of this module is the list of NPCs at the end, with an unintentionally hilarious list of horrible names: Kracky the Hooded One; Eggo of the Holy Brotherhood; Trebbelos, Boy Magician; and the thief Laggamundo (who was apparently Fonzie?s character).
3) WG7: Castle Greyhawk
When it started, Greyhawk was a campaign setting that was pretty reality-based. Then this monstrosity came out, and all bets were off. This ?parody? is sometimes fun to read, but completely unplayable. What?s fine for a Dragon Magazine April Fool?s issue does not a super-module make. Worse, the 10th level of Castle Greyhawk (each level of which was done by a separate freelancer, and then just spliced together?way to stay on top of that quality control there, TSR) was written by Rick Reid, who did the classic and very similar ?Fluffy Quest? in 1981. It was clever, then, when it was only a small booklet of jokes like replacing Elven Boots with ?Elvis Boots?. But Castle Greyhawk, at 128 pages, is one long joke that never seems to end, even if you wish that it would.
2) S4: Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
This module had a lot going for it?a pretty good storyline, lots of cool new monsters, and a classic dungeon crawl. It even made #22 on Dungeon Magazine?s ?30 Greatest Adventures of All Time?. So here?s why it makes this list, too: if ever a module needed a freaking pronunciation guide, it was this one. Tsojcanth? Is that a name, or random keyboard tapping from the home position? If that?s all it takes to write for TSR, then sign me up. I can do that. The Castle of Wvqeubrug. Tomb of Ywurfhslikdn. Vault of the Padknjwefrgnuge;q?;ll?. Sold American!
1) N2: The Forest Oracle
This module just plain makes no sense. It?s full of things like nymphs who want you to end their own curses by pouring an antidote in the lake (something she can do herself, but doesn?t.) Or a Halfling innkeeper (and former thief, no less) who never puts together the facts that he?s hosting a band of thieving were-rats, and that all his customers are always getting robbed. Or worse, descriptions like this, in describing an encounter with brigands: ?It is plain they are not soldiers from their haphazard way of walking. They do not seem to be joking loudly or singing as they advance.? Furthermore, they are not whistling, snorting, or farting. They are clearly not bakers. They do not seem to dislike fish, nor do they appear to be incontinent. Roll initiative.