Monday, July 11, 2011

Reflections on my Top 5 TSR Modules List

Interestingly, the Top 5 list I posted yesterday clearly reveals the effect of the OSR blogosphere upon my thinking about published modules. Before starting this blog (and reading other folks' blogs) in September 2009, I would not consciously have known the difference between a "funhouse" dungeon like S2 and a "hexcrawl" type like D3. I would not have been able to see WHY Moldvay's B4 is possibly the most amazing module ever, even though I read it in my early days and was impressed (if a bit intimidated) by its account of how factions work in the Lost City of Cynidicea.  Now I do understand these things and I think my game is better for it.  These days I have a better grasp of the type of DM I am and the kinds of published materials that will work best for me.

I have posted before about how I came of age in the RPG hobby during TSR's "tournament module" publication phase in the early 1980s, and have admitted that therefore S2 White Plume Mountain was an early favorite module of mine. Yet my Top 5 list doesn't include White Plume, except as a possible runner-up to Tomb of Horrors for spot #5. Why?

Because despite the influence of nostalgia upon my Top 5 TSR Modules list -- e.g., B2 is the first module I ever played so has a special place at the table for me -- nevertheless it is not primarily a list about nostalgia, but a list about how I approach D&D now. And the OSR blogosphere has exerted quite an influence upon what I currently value, or perhaps has helped me to obtain better clarity about what I have valued all along.

What is clear here is that for me, it is all about the sandbox, which is probably why -- modules or no modules -- I have always been such a big fan of wilderness travel and wilderness adventures.  I prefer open-ended, location-based adventuring and, S1 and S2 aside, this has more or less been true all along.  In fact, despite early exposure to (and great love for) the "GDQ" series of modules, which could be seen by some as a kind of proto-"adventure path" (and therefore not very old-school), what stands out for me about that series are a few of its key locations: the Shrine of the Kuo-Toans, the Vault of the Drow, Lolth's Demon Ship, maybe the frost giants' Glacial Rift.  My taste in what makes those modules really cool (big, open-ended locales like the Vault) vs. less memorable (the dungeon-crawly G1 and G3) tells me a lot about my own burgeoning preferences as a DM, my own leanings toward skeletal "plot" structures, collaborative adventure creation, and spur of the moment in-game improvisation. 

As fellow 2nd Generation D&D'er James Maliszewski has written:

"What I advocate is that modules should be made more, well, modular and that means providing lots of options and alternatives that a referee can then use to make its contents his own rather than someone else's. [. . .] What modules gave me [as a young referee] was a structure -- map, room descriptions, game stats, etc. -- onto which could hang the story my friends and I created as I refereed their adventures. What I think has happened over the years is that, because "adventure module" has become so strongly associated with the notion of a pre-made adventure story, gamers now simply recoil at the notion of having to "make up the story yourself." They see it as too much of a chore, when, in point of fact, creating a plot/story is the easiest part of being a RPG referee, not the hardest."

Indeed! Like Maliszewski, I just need some basic structures -- a lawful Keep near some chaotic Caves, a big underground Vault with warring factions, a Lost City with the same -- and I can hang all manner of stories and plots and adventure hooks upon it. So my Top 5 module choices represent adventures with a lot of that quality of modularity and, well, the ability to be flexible enough to have things "hung" upon them. In fact it is this same impulse which led me to include Q1 on my list, because I view it a very useful old-school refereeing sourcebook, if not a spectacular module strictly as writ. But to an old-schooler, a few basic skeletal ideas that can be run with and variously modified are as (if not more) valuable than a tightly scripted, coherent, stand-alone adventure in many cases.

Allow me to close with another Maliszewski quote, this one taken from his review of Dwellers of the Forbidden City, a TSR module I am more or less completely ignorant about but that came up in yesterday's comments:

"Dwellers of the Forbidden City is only 28 pages long, so it's necessarily brief when it comes to describing its titular locale. Yet, that never bothered me. Indeed, I think it's probably one of the great strengths of the module and the reason I was able to use it so often: it was easy to make and remake the City to suit my present needs, whatever they were."


  1. Good observations - I agree that hanging online with the OSR crew has provided a vocabulary for discussing why the good stuff was good, and the tools to analyze them and identify why the worked.

  2. Wonderful post. My current campaign has seen many, many sessions in the Keep on the Borderland region and the crew made 5th level only two side trips to visit officials in a major city several days away. And they haven't even entered the caves...everything has spun off the raiders, swamp denizens, a dungeon I placed off to the side to give the Nameless Church more heft. It's amazing that literally months of play arose from a dinky, skeletal module. And awesome. As I said in another post, Against the Drow modules kept my group busy for ages.

  3. @imago1: Thanks for the compliment, and thanks also for your great tales about the D1-3 modules in the comments to that other post. It sounds like we are of like mind on these matters.