Classic D&D Module Review – Expert Part 1

The party has finally completed the Basic modules, and have overlevelled to an average of level 6. I’m not concerned much by that going into the Expert modules as things will begin to equalize soon. These adventures will have to be played out of numbered order so that the level cap for the modules can be adhered to.

X2 Castle Amber

Author: Tom Moldvay
My Rating: 2/5

I went into this module with a very low expectation, even though it was rated 15th best module of all time by Piazo publishing. My first reservation is the author, who wrote The Lost City which was a complete fail for us even though it was rated 28th on the Piazo list. My second reservation is that it came highly recommend by the narcissistic subhuman piece of filth I purchased the book from. Low praise indeed given the source, so we didn’t expect much out of the story.

Of the two copies I own I used the more beat up copy so as to preserve the better one. I just want to take a moment to say that there must be a special place in hell for people who use a heavy hand and a dark pencil to write directly into the module. I get it, those plumes of ever diminishing numbers are how Hps are recorded in a battle. Grown ups just use a spare piece of paper though, or failing that you use a light touch that’s easily erased. If you cannot erase the pencil marks, you’re doing something wrong.

Onto the adventure itself. Things begin to go wrong from the first encounter, when the module decided that the party had a string of mules. One mule was just a story device which was brutally killed to demonstrate the lethality of the surrounding fog. My party has beautiful white horses the gained in payment for services rendered in Night’s Dark Terror. They don’t use mules or draft animals as it slows down travel. The horses won’t pull loose easily as they are constantly tended by two fighters that joined the party ass a thank you for being rescued in Keep on the Borderlands. The camp is also watched by two fighting dogs fiercely loyal to the Cleric who fed them in Horror on the Hill. So now I’m meant to kill a will earned treasure (a horse) just to warn the PCs that the mysterious mist that has sprung up is dangerous? Instead of doing that, I used something to the effect of, “As you approach the mist you feel your skin begin to pull painfully tight and the bones within your body feel like they are starting to writhe and squirm about under your flesh.” It worked, the party quickly accepted that the mist was bad.

Using things like a deadly mist to corral PCs and put them on the tracks of the adventure is heavy handed, and indicates a poor relationship between PCs and DM. In fact, almost the entire adventure is written to firmly keep PCs on rails, so they don’t get ahead of things. Some adventures need to be on rails, that’s fine, but rails should enhance the story, not just be that way so the PCs advance in numerical sequence of the encounters listed.

As for story, the adventure has a rich backstory which made me think there might be some real substance to share with the players. In the end though, people summed it up basically as, ‘Insane people doing insane things because they are insane’. That’s really about it. There were some encounters that were pretty cool, which leads me to believe Mr Moldvay is a clever man who thinks up clever encounters, but lacks the skills to connect those encounters into a coherent story. The treasure given out however is the very definition of Monty Haul.

All that above is incidental though. Where I really take umbrage is that you buy a pre-written module to save work, not to make more. The technical stats like monster stats were done in a very lazy way. All of them missed the XP value, even in the ‘New Monsters’ section in the rear of the book. I’m pretty sure some of those monsters are not even recorded correctly because they are missing asterisks and such. Then we get to encounters like the childish troll under the bridge encounter, which in writing seems to assume the party will ‘trick’ their way past so the combat stats were not included. My party instantly seen through the child’s fairytale and recognised there would be a troll under the bridge. They sorted out their strategic elements and lured the troll out for an easy kill, thus meaning a return on the path will be troll free from now on. Some encounters are missing random things, like Hp values and other sundries which constantly had me cracking open the Rules Cyclopedia to fill in the gaps.

As for difficulty, I made sure things like weapon mastery was given to NPCs, so the party wouldn’t get an easy ride by using their own weapon mastery. This made for some very exciting combats, such as the master swordsman hitting people for half their Hp each round, while also deftly parrying incoming attacks. So, it is fair to say that some encounters did provide some very cool fun. Other encounters however became nothing but boring rolls, such as the Killer Trees, which once the party recognised they had a limit range they could just pick off from afar.

All in all I think the adventure should be renamed “Save vs hand your character sheet to the GM.” For example one player had to skip the entire three sessions of game-play because they failed a save the party couldn’t possibly have at their level. Given she was also the main fighter for the party this made things tough. I don’t hate Tom Moldvay’s writing, and he’s given a lot to Classic D&D over the years. However, he definitely has a different DM style to myself, who loathes constant Save vs Death adventures. I want players to die because they messed things up, not because of a random roll they had no chance to avoid.

X1 The Isle of Dread

Author: David Cook, Tom Moldvay
My Rating:

Like most gamers of my era I have played and GMed the hell out this iconic adventure. It was put into the Expert Boxed set, therefore if you owned the Boxed set, you owned this module. I remember this being an awesome module, so once again this playthrough will see if I was simply naive three decades ago.

Once again we have a Tom Moldvay adventure, but this time he’s worked with David Cook, so the outlook should be better, and it is. We still see a lot of the DM laziness I’ve come to expect from Moldvay, in that many things standard in other publications are missing here. Things like XP for monsters. The villages where the PCs are most likely to set up base have a few nice cultural notes, but is completely lacking in such simple things as a name for the village chief. However the Monty Haul nature of Moldvay’s work has been reduced back to reasonable.

I have two editions of the module, one from the really old box set, and one newer one. The newer one is definitely laid out a bit better, and some encounters have been altered. For example, a giant squid from the early edition was swapped out for a boring water termite in the later edition. My advice if you have them, is to read both adventures and use the encounter you like most.

Let’s call this adventure what it is; a mini-dungeon surrounded with wandering and semi-static encounters. That’s it really. No grand plot, no ‘win’ conditions, basically just a collection of poorly recorded monster stats. There is a huge amount of strolling through the jungle almost wishing for a wandering monster to lighten the day. There are wandering encounters with some pucker factor such as when the first T-rex stomps past, but once the party discover the apex predator isn’t such a hard kill then boredom sets in. I think the hardest encounter was a red dragon, because dragons occur in multiple places on the wandering monster charts as chance encounters without loot.

However, what you as DM need to do is work out how to use this wonky scaffolding to create something that feels like a complete adventure. Go through the various encounters and work out how to work quests and similar into the story. Have the local denizens reward the party with the loot they have, so that the only way to gain the loot isn’t by killing all the Ewoks. That is the true value of this module, as a guide or starting point, not as the end point.

Things start with a pretty epic sea voyage, and if your group is like any group I’ve ever had contact with, then they will hate being on the ocean. Spending their own coin on their ship, and having ship and crew with real meaning and value to the party, really does enhance the feeling of adventure. Make sure you milk every encounter, even wandering ones, for everything you can. Just be sure to prepare before the module by expanding encounters or working out cool ways to present them. Do this, and your party should have a really fun time (5/5). Fail to do this and the module would only get 1/5 as a rating due to the boredom levels of trudging through endless terrain without clear purpose or destination.

Be careful to look at the logistics of a return trip. Standard rations spoil after a week and iron rations spoil after three months. Unless the party is quick to return, then they will need iron rations. Technically according to the module, iron rations are not excluded from what they can by from the natives. Other than that, they will have to use general skills to make their own iron rations, or have a cleric memorise a lot of Purify Food & Water spells.

In summary, the module is true to my memories of it, but it just isn’t a stand alone module, it needs the DM to do a lot of work to get the best of it.

X3 Curse of Xanathon

Author: Douglas Niles
My Rating: 4.5/5

It’s incredibly difficult to write an adventure that involves intrigue and politics, especially an adventure that is meant to convey all the nuances of those themes for consumption by other people. Douglas Niles manages all that with this module.

I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way first, because I can be brief. There are many of the editing errors here I have disliked from other writers, and given Mr Niles wrote Horror On the Hill so well I’m starting to think the real error might lay with the TSR editors, and not the authors. Missing creature stats, even one whole stat block, makes for delays in running the adventure if you haven’t done your due diligence ahead of time and read the module through. Errors like using the term ‘longsword’ instead of the D&D term ‘normal sword’ is no big deal. Mr Niles did a lot of writing for AD&D where the more limiting word ‘longsword’ is used instead of ‘normal sword’ which is used to cover long, broad scimitar and any other form of medium weight blade.

The maps lacked windows on the structures, which I do think is solely the fault of the writer (or their mapper), as windows was the first thing the party looked for in some scenarios. Given the nature of the buildings I ruled that there were no windows they could see, only to find a window mentioned in the description of one room. For these errors I feel I must deduct a half point from my score.

Everything else I have to say now is praise, because this was a brilliantly structure module. A good adventure is structured in a way that understands players/characters are going to go off script, but which includes light touches to help direct the party back on script. This adventure definately went off rails for me, but in the most delightful of ways which I’ll reveal in a moment. It didn’t matter though, because the module was broken into five parts, and it found a a subtle political method (in keeping with theme) which helped people understand where the next secrets lay.

What follows includes some mild spoilers, so please skip if you’re a player. I really want to describe how the party went off script, because it says a lot about why RPGs are so awesome, and why a computer RPG can never equal the tabletop experience.

Thieves in Classic D&D only get 1d4 HP per level and lack the fighting skills on half the classes. They are fragile and difficult to level because one wrong move can easily be the end of you. That didn’t stop the party thief from excelling and totally dominating the adventure in the most brilliant of ways. They actually dared to go solo and do the stealth work by themselves.

There are five scenarios to the adventure, and thanks to the thief not a single drop of blood was spilt in scenarios 1, 2 and 5, until I had to adlib the ending of section five to give the PCs a nice glorious ending.

In the first case, the thief offered to break into the barracks to find incriminating evidence. The logic was simple; to avoid having to hurt Ducal guardsmen. The party agreed to the plan. This meant splitting the party which I hate, but everyone really enjoyed hearing the thief do her job so well. Eventually she had to call in help from the party mystic who was turned invisible by the Magic User, then using Elven Boots she was directed through the best path to follow to get there. Scenario 1 was a total success.

Scenario 2 seemed to have similar needs, and the party was very happy to visit the temple and ‘hang out’ while the thief sneaked in deeper to find what she could. She finds the bad guy then fetches the party. For certain reasons I’ll omit, the bad guy wasn’t going to be beaten by normal means, so the thief attacked from behind, swept the bad guys legs from under him, and had him pinned face to the floor with an instant wrestling pin! Wrestling rules were not introduced until the Companion Set, so I forgive the author for not foreseeing this outcome. I had to give it to the party, they had captured the bad guy. They then looted the place and found the key McGuffin needed to end the adventure.

I could have allowed things to flow to an ending there, but instead provided reasons to enter into scenario 3 to gain leverage to obtain how to use the McGuffin. Scenario 3 was fun for all and everything flowed as smooth as silk. I have an intelligent party though, and I can see how scenario through could have ended in tears. Scenario 4 we could mostly skip as the party was already holding the bad guy and just needed to return to him and get the information with a little roleplaying.

Scenario 5 was a simple matter of transporting the McGuffin to into the Ducal Palace and set things right. Of course the party just looks at the thief who giives a cheeky smile and directs the party on where to hang out while she get’s the job done. She had one potentially lethal ambush which, if she fell for it, could have ended her life quickly. She spotted the ambush for what is was, and she stayed on mission and avoided it. All this denied the party the really cool end battle against a powerful secondary bad guy and his henchmen. She talked with the duke and he begged her to clear the palace for him, so the thief mearly need to communicate to the rest of the party who went through the place like a swat team. I am retroactively applying weapon mastery rules wherever I can to balance encounters with the weapon mastery the PCs have. This meant the three high level fighters in the end encounter made for a glorious example of how battles using mastery can be.

What I really loved about this was how the players didn’t think about XP or gold rewards, they thought about the mission and put that above all else. This resulted in some excellent problem solving, and even in the final battle to secure the ducal palace only three people were killed, all the rest were incapacitated by magic. Even the main bad guy was handed over to the duke so he could apply his justice. That is the secret to a truly awesome module, one that plants fertile ground for creative thinking and problem solving. Well done Mr Niles, an awesome experience for all. It’s a shame I have to wait until the Companion levels until I can play through more of his work.

X8 Drums on Fire Mountain

Author: Graeme Morris, Tom Kirby
My Rating: 5/5

When I first read the synopsis I laughed out loud, the plot is basically the same as the plot of Apocalypse Now. Thankfully, though the inspiration might come from the movie, the execution of the adventure works a lot differently.

It goes without saying the small errors exist in the module, and it really must be read in full before play in order to prepare it for play. However this module is without a doubt a labour of love by the writers. Everything is carefully recorded, such as XP value and THACO for every creature. This makes DMing so much easier as there is almost zero need to dive for a rule book mid combat.

Is the story good though? Well, the premise is thin but it’s enough to get things rolling in a fairly organic way. I particularly like that the employer is very professional and sensible about his part in things. The villain is definitely a bad guy, but there is the moral dilemma created when the party discovers the villain has a ‘daughter’ who isn’t actually evil herself. My party actually charmed the daughter once they got wind she wasn’t being truthful with them, which meant she became a companion of sorts and the party learnt how decent a person she was. When it came to the final confrontation the party had split thoughts on how to handle the daughter.

One very strong element used in the adventure was to put a time limit on completion. This really put pressure on the party to make choices about whether they had time to rest or not. For my group this meant missing tens of thousands of gold with of valuables (and XP) because they deemed some thing not worth the time to investigate. It also forced them to be frugal with resources such as spells, because they didn’t have time to rest to relearn spells and heal. There is also enough wriggle room in the time to allow for a fair bit of error, so it’s a pressure on the party, but not so much that it forces things to be rushed.

The loot was very high, even with the couple of troves missed, but we are getting into Expert level here so bloated treasure piles are going to start becoming the norm. The last treasure trove is truly massive, so even if the party missed some, they should still walk away with a level or close to. As for magical treasures, there was a fair amount, but no big game breakers, and for that reason I won’t say the loot was over the top.

There are many interesting encounters and the adventure was a lot of fun. I love seeing morality and similar themes being brought into the fore because it creates great role play opportunities. While no module is ever perfect, this one comes close enough that I’m willing to give it a perfect score.

X12 Skarda’s Mirror

Author: Aaron Allston
My Rating: 3.5/5

A good adventure should give players the maximum amount of control over how they approach issues and solve the plot. The trouble is that the more rope you give the players, the more likely they are to hang the characters. Skarda’s Mirror provides a ton of rope with a really open story that can be solved in countless different ways. So the question is, was it fun?

The adventure hook brings players into contact with a monster which I think is fun, inventive and about 80% Roleplay content with 20% actual substance. Unfortunately the monster requires one ploy which, if the players work it out, can render the monster near useless. I don’t want to say what that ploy is for spoiler reasons, but it was kind of obvious. Once that element is solved, the rest of the first section is just characters trying to find loot in a series of really boring rooms. In short, it wasn’t fun once past the initial surprise.

Going into the next section asks the GM to do something very difficult; capture the party. I have to include some mild spoilers here to explain what I mean. There are two stages to the capture, once with a magical device and once with brute force. It’s easy enough to trick characters into the first step, but most are very reluctant to submit to a brute force method. They have a right to be resistant too, after all they’ve probably committed genocide in more than a few monster lairs by now. I suggest the following adjustments which I used to good effect.

  • Make the Save vs the magic item at -4. This will make it much easier to thin out party numbers.
  • As an option recommended by the module, capture the characters in as small a group as possible. Yes, one at a time is great, though there’s a good chance some characters hang out together.

When a party is on full health and all together they are a mighty force, so they are likely to want to fight rather than do the logical thing and surrender. If they do fight free, it doesn’t ruin the adventure, but it does lower the experience. Bringing them in one or two at a time makes the brute force stage much much easier as they won’t have the backing of their friends.

Once they escape (and they will), they are then given the news that big stuff is happening in the next few hours. Then for some reason the adventure offers up options that would take days or weeks to do. These are fun options as well, so it’s worth looking at changing the news received so the party can make plans. I did not change the message so my party did what I consider any party should do; they made a plan on the spot that would minimise civilian casualties and shorten the reign of tyranny as quickly as possible.

The real challenge of writing adventures for D&D is the wild card element of magic. My party skipped days of carefully preparing a rebellion with a simple Invisibility 10′ radius. This combined with an entire party wearing elven boots meant it was really easy to advance the plot without trouble.

Thankfully the author is self aware enough to include a lot of information so that contingencies were easy to use. There’s an entire section on troubleshooting a rogue party and keeping things on track. Not that my party went rogue, they just weren’t on script, which is fine and pretty much the normal for any group. So, the module works, and it works well.

My score has to be given in comparison to other adventures, and in that respect this module can only be given a rating slightly above average. There were some real highlights that might be told around the table in the future, but those highlights were found among a lot of fairly boring stuff. The difficulty level is on the low side, so long as the party is smart.

Adventure rewards were odd though. No real loot at all, and not even a lot of XP for kills (in a stealth environment), so end XP for the adventure is extremely low. The one big final reward is the favour of a very powerful person, which the module caps at about 10000gp per character. Therefore, at the end of the adventure, I gave everyone 10000XP as that is the worth of their achievements. I’ve had Basic level modules give almost as much XP, so in any other environment I’d give them a bonus for Roleplaying and such, but for this we’re staying entirely by what the modules recommend, for good or bad.

I will say that this module is very easy to adapt for Weapon Mastery, as most of the opponents were human. This didn’t help the main villain however, who was the first dead in the final battle. The module asks that you have him automatically make saving throws etc just to keep him alive longer, but there’s a reason Magic Users learn Magic MIssile, because it’s great for killing other Magic User’s. There’s also a reason for the Shield spell, but in this case the bad guy didn’t have it. If I ran this again, I’d give him the spell and have it precast for the final battle.

X11 Saga of the Shadow Lord

Author: Stephen Bourne
My Rating: 4/5

Starting with the superficial; the module is in dire need of a good editor. By the way certain spells are used and the way certain things are listed (Like Flail +1), it seems obvious to me that this was an AD&D module which was re-edited as a Classic D&D module. That’s not a big deal, any experienced DM can convert between one system and another, but it’s worth noting if you are not as experienced.

The module is broken into two main parts. If the party does everything right in the first half, they get noble titles and a hefty amount of land with witch to start a domain. I called a halt at this point and talked with the players, asking if this is where they see their characters at this stage of their lives. It was almost unanimous that yes, they want titles and land, but no, it’s much too early to begin that. Instead we opted for the same reward as they received in Skarda’s Mirror, that being the favour of a powerful ruler they can call on in the future. This entitles them to ask for land later if they wish it.

The adventure played out fairly well, though few combat encounters actually challenged the party. They did have the opportunity to use their brains, which is always a good thing. As for the difficulty of the final encounter, the Magic User succeeded in making a very difficult dice roll and managed to discover the workings of the McGuffin which meant the bad guy was an instant kill. That aside, I don’t think he was actually a tough enough opponent even if the party hadn’t been lucky.

While competently written and well worthy of being played, there are better works out there. Other than being given 25% of the kingdom, the loot rewards were decent for the level, and there are no game breaking items with the exception of the McGuffin, and even it has limits. All the maps, and there was a lot, are clearly enough written without being overly complicated. As long as you read ahead and smooth out the bumps in the module, it’s a pretty good adventure.