The Top 10 Dungeons & Dragons Modules
by Dan Casey on October 17, 2013
This article was co-written with the help of Patrick Wilson. No, not the actor, but he’s similarly handsome.
After the release of Zero Charisma, Nerdist’s first feature film which we released with Tribeca Films, I found myself with an insatiable craving, a tabletop wanderlust that just couldn’t be satsified. I wanted to play some Dungeons & Dragons, and I wanted to play it bad. Being that my usual cohort in dungeoneering had moved across the country from L.A. to Massachusetts and the fact that playing D&D can take hours and hours that I don’t seem to have lately, I settled for a walk down memory lane instead. So, I put out the clarion call to action to my dear friend and DM-for-life Patrick Wilson to to run down the Top 10 Dungeons & Dragons modules. Sure, everyone and their mother has played a mindblowing homebrew campaign, but you’ve got to give it up for these legendary adventures that helped turn this game into a certified phenomenon.
10) S3 – Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
PATRICK: This much-beloved module is near and dear to many dungeon delvers, but it loses big points in my book for throwing blatant sci-fi into a fantasy game. Am I the only one around here who cares about consistent adherence to an internally sound pseudo-medieval simulacrum? Barrier Peaks is about a crashed spaceship filled with laser guns and robots, and I would probably drive a +1 ranseur of genre enforcement through the eye of any DM who brought that disbelief-shattering hot mess to the gaming table.
DAN: The fact that the cover art looks like a Venusaur had sex with a Sarlacc and that you’re hired to go on this adventure by the Grand Duke of Geoff aside, Barrier Peaks is a landmark module precisely because it introduced sci-fi trappings into a largely fantasy world. If anything, it probably helped to introduce the Roman DeBeerses of the world to the joys of a largely fantasy-based game. Plus, it’s one of Stephen Colbert’s favorite adventures, for whatever that’s worth.
9) DL1 – Dragons of Despair
PATRICK: The authors of the ever-popular Dragonlance novels were originally hired at TSR to write D&D products. Those first books are a novelization of the original gaming group that braved the Dragonlance line of adventures, using such legendary player characters as Tanis, Raistlin, Sturm, Tasslehoff, and the rest, and these adventures let you can walk the world of Krynn in their boots of elvenkind. Facing down the raging black dragon Khisanth in the ruins of Xak Tsaroth is a life-affirming experience.
8) I6 – Ravenloft
DAN: As a child, I was scared to death of vampires mainly because I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. But, I also had a deep and abiding love of puns, especially ones as lame as Ravenloft‘s tagline: “The master of Ravenloft is having guests for dinner — and you are invited.” Get it? We’re the dinner. Ah, Tracy and Laura Hickman, you slay me. Combining gothic horror with the high fantasy of D&D, Ravenloft was such a well received adventure that it inspired an entire campaign setting. Set in the foggy, eerily Lateveria-esque nation of Borovia, which is obviously surrounded by evil magical fog, the player characters are tasked with investigating a series of nighttime attacks leading back to the spooky Castle Ravenloft, home to the country’s tyrannical ruler Count Strahd von Zarovich. Oh, and Strahd is a vampire, in case that wasn’t screamingly obvious. All jokes aside, the adventure’s randomization mechanics, clever writing, and built in replay value make this the stuff of tabletop legend.
7) Lich-Queen’s Beloved
DAN: While one-off adventures and random battles are all well and good, it’s the promise of a Big Bad, a persistent, recurring villain for you and your party members to hate with every fiber of your being, that transforms a campaign from something you do every week to something immersive, living and breathing. When Dragon #100 dropped, featuring a gnarly looking female githyanki that looked like something straight out of H.P. Lovecraft on the cover, it was a game changer. In the adventure Lich-Queen’s Beloved, players were introuced to Vlaakith, a one-time githyanki ruler who came back from the dead as a lich with delusions of grandeur and aspirations of becoming a deity of death, and the baddest bitch this side of Lolth. With her Crown of Corruption, she transforms all those who oppose her into brainless undead servants and by siphoning the power of a dead god in order to ascend to godhood herself. Clearly, she’s a type-A. Anway, what makes this adventure so damn memorable is not just the hunt for Vlaakith’s physical manifestation and her phylactery, both of which need to be destroyed because them’s the lich rules, but just what a striking villain she makes. Whether or not the assassination attempt is successful, the game’s epilogue notes that there are rumors she survived, a plot hook almost too juicy to pass up.
6) S2 – White Plume Mountain
PATRICK: The grandfather of all fetch quests. Travel into the heart of an active volcano to do battle with an insane wizard and reclaim three badass magic weapons. Let the druids and lesser fighting men squabble over the trident of fish commanding and the warhammer that detects gems and also goblins. You’re here for Blackrazor, the +3 intelligent chaotic neutral greatsword that eats souls and drops panties. Elric, eat your heart out. This adventure also included a map that makes the first-ever mention of an undead dragon’s lair. How did it take this long for the game to include an undead dragon?
5) Dead Gods
PATRICK: The mid 90s were a time of change for D&D. Angry mothers had almost completely driven the pagan deities, topless priestesses, and ram-headed demons from the pages of roleplaying games. When the pendulum swung back, Dead Gods raised the art of universe-ending evil to new heights. You don’t just stop an evil plot; you fight to save the entire universe from horrific destruction. You don’t just battle horrors of the Abyss; you square off with Orcus, Demon Prince of the Undead, whose death back in 1988 turns out to have been much less permanent that previously reported. You don’t just visit mind-bending Planescape locations; you journey to Pandemoniom, a hellish, neverending cavern where howling gales drive men mad. And then, just when you think you’ve saved the day, you have to return to where it all went down to stop a civil war from breaking out. All in a day’s work.
4) Red Hand of Doom
PATRICK: Red Hand of Doom was a ton of fun, no matter what the grumpy old guard of 1st Edition says. It was from the latter half of the 3rd Edition era, and it was a mega-adventure in which the adventuring party has to fend off an army of marauding monsters using guerilla tactics, espionage, and good old-fashioned mass combat. It shows how far adventure writing has come since the days of Uncle Gary. Much less railroady than the old stuff, it’s an example of D&D satisfying a craving that years of fantasy movies have given us, rather than the other way around.
3) Queen of the Spiders
PATRICK: Is it cheating to consider this “super-adventure” a single module, when it includes the entire Against the Giants series, the Drow series of adventures within the subterranean Underdark realm, and the big one: Q1 – Queen of the Demonweb Pits? Less an adventure and more an entire campaign, what begins as a couple of raids against aimlessly misbehaving giants quickly escalates into a battle for the fate of the world. As you work your way through the hit list of classic D&D villains to slay, from nameless Slave Lords to King Snurre of the Fire Giants to Lolth herself, Demon Queen of Spiders, you’ll doubtlessly agree that any adventure that introduces D&D‘s favorite race of evil elves deserves a place of honor in RPG history.
2) The Temple of Elemental Evil
DAN: Arguably the most famous D&D module, The Temple of Elemental Evil was a landmark adventure for a number of reasons: 1) it is widely considered the grandfather of huge dungeon crawls; 2) in a pre-adventure box era, this was the first true super-module (the average scenario module ran 24-32 pages); 3) it was a mammoth-sized adventure set in co-writer Gary Gygax’s home campaign setting of Greyhawk. Taking place a decade after Gygax lead his players through the Battle of Emridy Meadows, better known as the First Routing of the Horde of Elemental Evil, an event central to Greyhawk lore, Temple of Elemental Evil blends deep dungeon crawling with deception and intrigue to take players out of the frying pan and throw them into the elemental fire. A follow up to 1978′s T1 – The Village of Hommlet, this adventure is recommended for first-level players who are ”weary, weak, and practically void of money.” Little do they know, after building up their levels and confidence in Hommlet and doing raids in the nearby temple, they must go toe to toe with Zuggtmoy, the Demon Queen of Fungi, and her agents, who loose the demoness on the unsuspecting party. And, really, isn’t a battle with a Demon Queen of Fungi what we want out of all of our adventures?
1) S1 – The Tomb of Horrors
PATRICK: This is the undisputed king of D&D modules. Written by E. Gary Gygax himself, this adventure is the very essence of dungeon crawling. It is such a classic adventure that, since 1978, it has been updated to two newer editions so that successive generations of fighter/mages can risk their appendages to the infamous sphere of annihilation. When nerds dream their Cheeto-stained dreams of D&D, they are imagining standing at the threshold to a dark crypt filled with traps, illogical monster placements, and a demilich waiting at the end. It’s an absolutely lethal gauntlet of death traps, even for a world of heroes who regularly brave gauntlets of death traps, and surviving it is significant as much for bragging rights as for treasure. Completely sadistic, the Tomb of Horrors brings your gaming group together like no other adventure, by griefing them with impossible puzzles and murdering their cherished characters. It’s no coincidence that the Tomb of Horrors is prominently featured — ruby-toothed Acererak and all — in Ready Player One, the recent novelization of everything nerds love, with a movie adaptation in the works.
What is your favorite D&D module? Let us know in the comments below! Or just tell us your favorite campaign story! Or tell us on Twitter!