I’m currently running the entire range of classic D&D modules from B1 to M5. I thought at first I would do all the modules in the one article, but that would make for an excessively large article. Of course what I say about the modules will be subjective, as I’m giving my personal view (just feels like a lot of the internet fails to grasp what an opinion is). That said, my opinion comes from 40 years of play from the D&D brown books all the way into 5th ed. That doesn’t make me an expert, but it makes me an expert on what I like. What do I like? Balanced adventures that are level appropriate and feel like it has an ecology and story. So, let’s get on with it with modules B1-B6…
B1 In Search of the Unknown
Author: Mike Carr
My Rating: 4/5
This module is written to aid the first time DM with constructing an adventure. You are provided with a map with room descriptions, and both the encountered monsters and treasure are in separate tables. The idea is for the DM to slide the monsters and treasures into slots for each room. Some seem obvious, like putting Shriekers in the room with the fungus, while others take a little more planning.
Overall the balance of the encounters are very level appropriate, with a slightly higher than basic reward if all the treasures are uncovered. Where the real value of the module lies is in the way it hand holds a new DM and helps them feel like they have had genuine input into the adventure; and they have. Of course if encounters are haphazardly thrown around, then the experience for the players will be very different. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the adventure has good replay-ability, but it’s certainly good for a first module for both players and DM. The module really is only for beginners though. Characters might gain a level if they are lucky.
B2 Keep on the Borderlands
Author: Gary Gygax
My Rating: 4.5/5
I’m going to say something which could make me very unpopular (more than I already am even); I generally hate Gary Gygax modules. Tomb of Horrors might be an AD&D classic, but it’s a classic for all the wrong reasons. Gygax modules tend to be TPK machines and I refuse to see the fun in that.
All that said, I have to give credit where it is due. Keep on the Borderlands is a really good module. I’m only taking a quarter point off for a couple of TPK monsters like a Medusa, which is pure death to a level 1-3 party even if you do chain it to a wall. Most other deadly encounters can be worked around by a smart party, which is the way it should be.
The adventure encourages players to think, plan, and horror of horrors even interact with NPCs. In the hands of a good group of players the module would be a really thrilling carnival ride. With average players, it should still play out well and they should learn something about how to play the game.
I did have to lower the score a little for the generosity of the adventure, which, if cleared in it’s entirety, could grant 2-3 levels to a Basic level character. That said, there is nothing game breaking given out.
B3 Palace of the Silver Princess
Author: Tom Moldvay
My Rating: 3/5
If you know your TSR Lore then you know by the author name that I used the green version of this adventure. I had the yellow one to use but it’s in poor condition and I figured I’d go with the one most people will have access too.
95% of this module could be a 5 out of 5 from me, because it’s very well designed. Encounters are well balanced with some scary ones mixed with the usual. I’d have to take a part point off for granting a lot of treasure, easily enough for the most XP hungry class to gain a full level. For that reason I’d suggest running this adventure with characters level 2-3, to help them bridge the gap to the next level.
There are even a handful of encounters that allow interpersonal communications with NPCs, which can have a variety of outcomes, both good and bad. I applaud any social interaction in D&D because it builds a world with more than just monster killing.
So where does it all go wrong? It’s the ending, which will likely leave a really rotten taste in the mouths of DM and players alike. Even if the miraculous happens, and the good ending is achieved, then it leads to a massive gold, and therefore, XP reward that really overcompensates the characters. The problem comes from the clash between standard D&D doctrine and manners. The trouble is, if you were to adhere completely with the manners asked for, then the adventure cannot even be concluded. It’s just a lapse in gaming logic vs conventional logic.
B4 The Lost City
Author Tom Moldvay
My Rating: 2/5
Here is where I’m rather out of step with many in the community, as I’ve seen this module cited on “Best of” lists. The initial stages are okay, with some cool chances for interactions and the application of many people’s favourite dump stat (Charisma). However, once you get into the real dungeon delving, things are mediocre at best. What will likely be the main end encounter for most parties will fizzle out and die in moment, especially if the party has a Sleep or Hold Person spell.
The big fail happens after that point. Once you have complete the initial module, you as GM can decide that certain stairs are open and that the party can descend into the lower depths. Below is a collection of random monsters stuffed into rooms with absolutely zero thought for how they came to be here. Most of the encounters are for a party with twice the level of the characters this module was released for. Rewards are also stupidly high, and once again being more appropriate for an Expert level party.
If you ever run this, be sure to never open up those lower levels until the party has reach Expert level. Even then the encounters are bland beyond description. Why are two Displacer Beasts just locked in a room? Is the 9HD vampire really happy to hang out where he is? It’s just ridiculous.
B5 Horror on the Hill
Author: Douglas Niles
My Rating: 5/5
Here is an adventure written with real love and compassion for the game. First of all, you have a base to work from, then some wilderness adventure which can move into mini-dungeons. After some (potentially tedious) wandering you have an old ruin to explore, plus a dungeon, then an under-dungeon, and finally one last dungeon that ends in with very first dragon! Okay, the dragon is a bit young, but he’s not an idiot and he’s still a level appropriate encounter.
It would be difficult for a first level party, but not impossible. There is a real ecology at work, which if the players learn to utilise it, can work to the character’s advantage. There’s even people to rescue, who can help the party as well. A few social encounters might be of great benefit to the party if played well, or end poorly if not.
All in all, everything is in perfect balance, with risk and reward being in sync and granting the characters enough XP to pull them up a level. If you use a party level 3+, be sure to add weapon mastery to some bosses. This module is also one for the Magic Users to prevail in, as they can blitz some of the key encounters and win MVP.
Lastly, monsters on watch actually try to warn their friends, which adds to the level of play and promotes careful planning by the players. This is just one of the examples that indicate we don’t just have a bunch on monsters here, it is most definitely an ecology with a power structure.
That final dragon encounter does give a little too much treasure for the level, so I’m tempted to remove a half mark. However, there are things in play that might take that treasure from the adventurers so I’ll leave things at a perfect score because the reward only really comes with great risk and cautious play.
Very highly recommended for a second level party. It’s a shame I have to wait until X3 to play the next Douglas Niles modules.
B6 The Veiled Society
Author: David Cook
My Rating: 2/5
It’s hard to rate this adventure, because so much will depend on the experience of the DM and the type of players you have. If you lack in either, then it’s not going to be a fun time.
The adventure is set in Specularum, capital city of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. I think it’s meant to be a bit of an introduction to urban adventure and life in the city. Unfortunately it does little to really get that idea across, other than a cultural festival used at the beginning then never again. There are some cut out paper buildings you might use once and then regret cutting out of the book. Basically, adding life to the city of Specularum is 95% up to the GM.
The story of murder and treachery is fine, in basic theory. There is even a chase scene, so the heavy armoured fighters can finally feel superfluous, which is fairly well done. The clues provided are a fair base to start from, but details about the clues which players are sure to ask are lacking. The one planted piece of evidence couldn’t be more obvious, which immediately starts to solve the mystery right away.
It is nice to have to consider the law, and how it applies to adventurers, so players will need to devise other methods to defeat their foes. Make sure you’re well read up on the wrestling rules. Sleep spells and Hold Person will completely break a number of the encounters. Also, the adventure strives to break the party up, which I never see as a good thing. How would you feel if you character was shot dead by an arrow from the bow of his own party members?
Where things really fall apart for me is that the assumed behaviour and outcomes were often off the mark. For example, the final mini-dungeon assumes the characters enter through the front, which messes up the encounters if the party comes through the back. Also, the main villains will never be found if the party fails to look for or find a single secret door.
It’s a nice enough idea for an adventure but it should be seen as a seed of an idea. The GM will really need to read the entire book and think about thinks before starting the adventure. If you are using Weapon Mastery rules, be sure to add some Mastery to a few of the bad guys to make things more balanced and interesting. Also, work out how General skills might be applied to enhance information gathering such as from the murder clues.
As for loot, there is enough gold and maybe a few too many magical items (if the characters find them), but the monster XP is very low. Therefore this might be a fine adventure to use if you have a few characters just about to pop a level. It’s also fairly short, so unless the party do a lot of extra-curricular things the adventure shouldn’t take more than 2-3 sessions at most. Overall a very tough adventure for a level 1 party, so I’d recommend leaving it until the party is level 2-3.
That’s it for the current post. I’ll put Modules B7 to B12 in a new post, once we’re finished playing through them …