Dungeons of Dread: S Series Classic Adventure Compilation(Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Page Count: 192
Cost: $39.99 ($25.64 at Amazon.com
Release Date: 3/19/2013
Get it Here: Amazon.com
Within the pages of this beautiful faux leather hardcover book lie four of the most famous adventures in all of tabletop gaming. Even if you’ve never played them, nor even touched Dungeons & Dragons names like The Tomb of Horrors and Expedition to the Barrier Peaks must be familiar to you. These adventures were written in the late 70s and early 80s by the late great Gary Gygax save for White Plume Mountain which was written by Lawrence Shick. Mr. Shick also does the foreword for this collection, filling in details about the creation of these adventures that you might not have previously known. While only half a page long, it’s still a delight to read. I myself have to admit That I have only owned S1 and S4 as a child, but I read and played through them so often that eventually the covered were beyond repair. I still have what is left of a first printing of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks complete with preteen handwritten notes somewhere in a closet in my father’s home.
So of course when the S-series collection was announced, I knew I was going to have to pick it up and review it. After all, none of these adventures are for sale over at DnDClassics.com, which meant this would be the only way to get these adventures (legally) without resorting to Ebay. Forty dollars might seem a lot for a hardcover book that is only 129 pages long, and it is when you compared the page count to other hardcover RPG book and especially when you do the same to other adventure collections. The fact remains though, you know you are purchasing top notch quality with this book and Dungeons & Dragons fans will be more than willing to spend ten bucks per adventure, especially when three of the four are penned by Gygax himself. Of course I’d be more comfortable with the price tag is say, Wizards of the Coast donated a portion of the proceeds to Ernie Gygax after what the poor man has been through recently, but that’s just me. The good news is that you can purchase the book on Amazon for only $25 dollars or so, which brings the cost down to a little of six bucks pr adventure, which is a quality deal, no matter how you look at it. If you’re going to purchase this, you should almost certainly do so there to save yourself a nice chunk of change.
The first adventure in the collection is The Tomb of Horrors and everyone who has ever played or run this adventure has a story to tell about their experience with it. Whether it’s being the old Sphere of Annihilation bit or your character getting a gender swap, get a group of gamers together who have traversed the tomb of Acererak and it’s like a room full of old fisherman or Yorkshiremen Monty Python style.
The Tomb of Horrors definitely deserves its name. Unlike a lot of old school adventures where the dungeon was full of mental and physical tests for the players to get through and eventually triumph, Gygax designed The Tomb of Horrors far more realistically. After all if a demi-lich really did have a secret headquarters, he wouldn’t fill it with convoluted deathtraps ala the old Batman TV show. No, he’d fill it with traps that were horribly lethal and all but impossible to get out of, and that’s what you have here. There are some less fatal things that the DM can inflict upon the adventuring party, but all of which will either set them back horribly or amuse the demi-lich greatly. One of my favorites is the archway where if you walk through it, you are teleported back to the beginning of the dungeon, completely naked while all of your equipment has been teleported to the demi-lich. Hilarious and perhaps worth than death for those Level 10-14 characters who are now suddenly missing all their magic items collected over many a play session.
The Tomb of Horrors is an exceptionally brutal experience, made all the more memorable by how little combat the adventure contains. PCs will most likely be their own cause of death by acting without thinking or being fooled by the myriad of tricks and traps the tomb contains. There are also several false stops in place to convince the players they have “beaten” the dungeon when in fact the demi-lich remains unmolested. All in all, it’s definitely one of the most memorable adventures in D&D history and one every fan of the franchise should experience at least once. There are definitely easier ways to earn 100,000 XP, but few of those will create memories that you’ll want to share with your fellow gamers for years on end.
Although the actual adventure itself is less than ten pages long, The Tomb of Horrors is supplemented by another two dozen pages, most of which are gorgeous pieces of black and white art to be used as handouts. Unfortunately, due to the hardcover binding of this compilation, it’s going to be harder to scan these than it would be with the original versions of these adventures. You also get a page of pre-generated characters and items, along with Gygax’s noted on how best to use them. All in all, a wonderful adventure.
The next adventure is White Plume Mountain, although some of you may have read Paul Kidd’s brilliant novelization or encountered the “Thrall of Blackrazor” figure while playing Dungeons & Dragons Miniatures instead of actually playing this. No matter how you discovered White Plume Mountain though, all are fantastic introductions to this module.
The adventurers are hired to track down three stolen weapons – Wave, Whelm and Blackrazor, which have been stolen from the city of Greyhawk recently. The only clue to the whereabouts of these mystical treasures is a strange poem taunting their previous owners and signed with the seal of a wizard that lived over 1,300 years ago. The players then head off to the eponymous peak itself in an attempt to find a hidden lair full of traps and treasure.
Unlike The Tomb of Horrors, White Plume Mountain has a lot more combat and the traps are both less lethal and cruel. There are wandering monsters, which means you can’t just sit and think for hours on end if need be, so while it’s an easier time cognition-wise, you have to possess faster wits to make it through the Wizard’s dungeon alive. Like The Tomb of Horrors however, there are some highly memorable moments like the telepathic ring or the secret of Blackrazor (and all three weapons I suppose). Generally those that have played this adventure will happily reminisce about it given the chance.
As mentioned earlier, the traps and puzzles of White Plume Mountain are far less lethal. You won’t see any insta-kill deathtraps, but you will find a lot of puzzles and riddles. The dungeon has everything from a gynosphinx to a platoon of flesh golems that will attack you if you fail to solve their puzzle.
White Plume Mountain also feature a lot of incredibly done black and white art, which will definitely have you wax nostalgically for the old days of D&D. Each piece is faithfully reprinted from the original adventure and since they are all on a higher quality paper, the art all looks better than ever. Oddly enough the adventure does feel more like a JRPG than a normal tabletop adventure, as it is complete with boss fights like a giant crab and Ctemiir the vampire. Of course as this was released in 1979-1980, before even games like Ultima or Wizardry had been released to the general public, this gave White Plume Mountain a very unique feel.
Oddly enough, you never actually get a big reveal regarding who stole the weapons and how they ended up inside White Plume Mountain. There’s no explanation at all. Has Keraptis survived all these centuries and, if so, why did he choose now to reveal himself and take those weapons? Why taunt the original owners? Has someone else simply taken his name for manipulation and intimidation purposes? Who knows? You never directly encounter Kerapis. At most there is an optional battle that occurs when you try leaving the dungeon where you hear his voice…but that’s it. In this regard, White Plume Mountain is definitely a bit weak storywise, but as a dungeon crawl, it is top notch and most players won’t mind the lack of exposition.
The third adventure in this collection, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is my favorite. It’s also one of my three favorite first edition adventures along with Ravenloft and The Temple of Elemental Evil. It’s the largest adventure in the collection, and with a page count of nearly 75 pages, it’s more than twice the size of either The Tomb of Horrors or White Plume Mountain.
So what makes Expedition to the Barrier Peaks so wonderful? Well it’s a blend of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Metamorphosis Alpha, and Gamma World. If you are unfamiliar with the last two, they are old TSR published sci-fi RPGs. Gamma World had a resurgence a few years back when Wizards of the Coast decided to remake it, but it was nowhere as big as it was back in the early 80s. The adventure was originally written FOR Metamorphosis Alpha, but was rewritten for D&D, where it proved to be immensely more popular and memorable. After all, when was the last time you heard MA even remotely mentioned?
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks takes place in the world of Greyhawk (where all the best adventures happen it seems). Near the Grand Duchy of Geoff, a mysterious cave has been found where strange and unfamiliar monster emerge. The adventuring party has been hired to figure out the mystery of the cave and also to put the monsters coming out of it down for the count. Of course, the cave turns out not to be an actual cave but a somewhat buried alien spacecraft (A Spelljammer mayhaps?). What follows is a wonderful mix of dungeon crawling combined with sci-fi horror and adventure. Players will encounter strange lifeforms like Vegepygmies, robots, mind flayers and more. PCs will be able to wield lasers, anti-gravity belts and other items they won’t be able to find outside of this adventure. Although some fantasy purists may want to wag their finger at the mixing of genres, Gygax himself wrote Expedition to the Barrier Peaks so if the father of roleplaying himself was find with it, there’s no point in complaining unless you really want to prove how many sticks are inserted into your anal region.
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is actually two booklets in one. The first booklet is the core adventure while the second is nothing but maps and illustrations to hand out to players. There are sixty-three illustrations to hand out to players over the course of the adventure, so expect to be photocopying or scanning a great deal before playing the adventure from this hardcover collection.
Part of the fun of Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is that players won’t see the sci-fi twist coming. Well, they wouldn’t have back when it was first released. I mean it’s over thirty years old now so most D&D players know what to expect just from hearing the name. Sure it’s never explained why dopplegangers, intellect devourers and robots are all hanging out on an intergalactic travelling vessel, but most of the mystique of the adventure would be lost if it was. After all, the point of the adventure is to take high level well experienced fantasy character and give them a challenge where they are definitely in over their heads where everything is both literally and figuratively alien to them. The six levels of the ship will definitely challenge, amuse and delight nearly everyone who plays it. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is guaranteed to generate talking points between those who played it for the rest of their gaming days. Whether their wizard is devoured by a “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” or the party makes it out of the “dungeon” with laser rifles a plenty to go shoot down dragons with, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is a massive game change for both the characters and their players.
The final adventure in the collection is The Lost Caverns of Tsocanth and it is a revised and expanded version of an adventure by the same name that Gygax originally wrote for tournaments back in 1976. Like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, this is another long adventure, clocking in at sixty-three pages and consists of two booklets – one for the adventure proper and one for new monsters and magical items. The adventure is a standard dungeon crawl by today’s standard with very little plot of hooks for the characters. Or at least it seems that way at first. Players are told of a lost treasure in the Yatil Mountains and off they go in search of it. Sounds simple enough, right?
Well, it’s not. First the PC team has to traverse a massive wilderness, followed by two massive caverns, a city of gnomes and the dark labyrinth. This my friends, is not only a huge adventure, but it is the exact opposite of The Tomb of Horrors as it is one long dungeon crawl hack and slash. Walk, walk, kill. Walk, walk, kill. However, it’s also a bit more complicated as there are potentially hundreds of miles to cover and in true Gygaxian fashion, the DM will need to keep track of the food. The conditions of horses weather, and movement speed. It’s almost like The Oregon Trail, AD&D style! Death is pretty easy to combine in The Lost Caverns of Tsocanth, whether it ultimately comes as the hands of the daughter of Iggwilv the arch-mage herself, or a less glorious death by a pack of Gnolls. Just don’t get too attached to your characters is all I’m saying here. Characters may be between levels six and ten, but a band of seventy goblins can fell far more powerful adventurers just due to the sheer number of them.
Out of the four adventures, The Lost Caverns of Tsocanth is perhaps the weakest and least memorable, if only because it’s more or less straight forward. There aren’t any puzzles or mind games to deal with and the adventure doesn’t throw a curve ball at you by revealing the “cave” to be an extremely large spaceship full of alien life forms and technology. It’s just fighting a LOT of creatures over and over again while trying to navigate what amounts to four very large mazes. The ending is the only thing close to a twist, but really, as soon as players see the Warduke-esque helmet in the illustration, they should have an idea of what is in store for them. the only story is “go search for treasure, kill things standing in the way of treasure, find treasure.” That doesn’t mean the adventure isn’t any fun; it’s extremely well done. However, if your troupe prefers role-playing to roll-playing, you definitely will want to flesh things out as best you can if you are the person running the adventure.
I can’t over explain the sheer size of this adventure. While not the enormity of Greyhawk Ruins, you will possible spend one or more gaming sessions just GETTING to the Lost Caverns. At least once you get there, there are no random encounters, although the adventure suggest psyching out players by pretending to roll for them every now and then.
The Lost Caverns of Tsocanth is a hack and slash affair to remember, featuring so much treasure that it could feasibly be considered a Monty Haul adventure as well. Out of all the new monsters and magic items introduced in this adventure, a few have actually gone on to be universally known to tabletop gamers. No, I’m not talking about the giant cave crickets, but races like Derro and Wolfweres. In re-reading The Lost Caverns of Tsocanth, I was impressed to see how much influence this adventure still wields over Dungeons & Dragons, along with many “Old School Renaissance” games like Dungeon Crawl Classics or Castles & Crusades. While The Lost Caverns might be the weakest adventure in the collection, it’s like saying gold isn’t as good as platinum. It’s still a wonderful experience to play (or even just read) through.
Truly the Dungeons of Dread is a wonderful collection well worth investing in if you are a fan of (or still play) First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Even if you pay the full $39.99 price tag, it’s still cheaper than getting these off Ebay, and unlike the terrible job TSR did in the 90s of collecting these adventures as Realms of Horror, you are getting the original uncut versions of these adventure in all their glory. Every single page, from the embossed cover to the gorgeously illustrated handouts is well worth having in your collection. So don’t delay D&D fans – pick this up ASAP.