This week, I celebrated my birthday. That’s right, Modern Zorker has turned the great four-oh (though I prefer to think of it as “21 with 19 additional levels in the Geek Prestige Class”). To celebrate, I’ve invited one of the best friends I had growing up: Dungeons & Dragons! And because nothing says ‘Happy Birthday!’ better than tearing the shrinkwrap off a shiny new module and using it to harass, debase, and annihilate your players, this here’s part three of my long-winded look at official adventures which were penned solely to leave scars on bodies and minds–as always, I’m ignoring Tomb of Horrors because obvious meat grinder is obvious. So if you’re seeking a way to make the Thief afraid of picking even his own pockets, the Cleric renounce her vows, and the Mage use his scroll collection for latrine wipes, then I wrote this just for you. Happy Zorker’s Brithday, you deranged terror-loving gamer! Now, what say you and I go mince some PCs, hmm?
#6) Kingdom of the Ghouls (Dungeon #70) by Wolfgang Bauer
One of the hardest things to do in any creative medium, but especially table-top role-playing, is scare your players. Video games have it easy with their visual presentations of isolated areas and horrifying monsters, but when you get together for a friendly game of D&D, the players are a big crowd of buddies clustered around a table laughing, joking, and one step completely removed from their characters. In fact, some of the best gaming stories come about from having a PC do something his or her player would never contemplate in real life:
Player: “I’m using that Scroll of Permanent Inscription we found earlier to literally piss my name into this obsidian altar. How long before the cult notices?”
DM: “Not as fast as Lolth does. Roll for initiative…”.
Everybody’s got a story like that, because despite the horrifying consequences, at the end of the day it’s all fun and games, and the laughter and memories last a lifetime (even if your poor Rogue didn’t). Nobody ever gets scared on a dungeon delve, right? Even if PCs fail their saving throws, the players themselves have nothing to worry about. To all who hold these beliefs: Wolfgang Bauer would like a word with you.
Spoiler-Free Summary: The Underdark earned a well-deserved reputation for being one of the nastiest places anyone could go adventuring. Deep in the shadowy depths, away from prying eyes, races beyond the big D’s (Derro, Drow, and Duergar) aren’t the only ones engaging in a never-ending cycle of the little D’s (destruction, depravity, and demon worship). Deep beneath the Crystalmist and Hellfurnace mountain ranges of the Flanaess, something is driving the deep gnomes, and even some dwarves, out of their ancestral homes at a rate far greater than what the surface cities can afford to absorb. With a steady stream of refugees buying up property, undercutting the local smithies with superior work at discount prices, and taxing the ability of the surrounding farms to produce enough food to feed this influx on top of the established citizenry, the city of Loftwick is struggling to maintain order. A call goes out for adventurers willing to explore the Underdark, find out what the hell’s pushing out its normal inhabitants, and start pushing back. In case you can’t figure out what’s causing the trouble, I recommend you read the title of this adventure one more time.
Of course, this being a Wolfgang Bauer adventure, the ghouls are just the beginning of the party’s worries. Undead alone couldn’t force a bunch of demihumans out of their ancestral homes, after all. There are worse things than ghouls skulking around in the shadows of the Underdark, and it’s up to the PCs to stay alive long enough to figure out not only where all the ghouls are coming from, but who (or what) on Oerth could possibly be willing to ally with a bunch of flesh-eating, marrow-slurping, bone-gnawing undead, and what they’re getting out of the arrangement. This is a massive adventure, and Bauer does more with his thirty pages than other writers have done with three times that amount, so settle in for a long-running campaign of attrition. You won’t finish this in a single session.
Best Sprung On: Parties containing dwarves, gnomes, or other races comfortable with adventuring down where light never reaches. Bauer says in the notes prior to the adventure that Paladins, Druids, and other classes known for high Charisma are also a plus, so if your group consists of the sort who use Charisma as the statistical equivalent of an outhouse, they’re going to have a bad time. Diplomacy plays a huge part in this adventure, as the ghouls have encroached into many other races’ territory as well, and smart players will work to ally themselves with everything and everyone who has been wronged by these fiends and is looking for payback.
Bauer’s not going for raw slasher horror with this one, although ghouls are some of the most disgusting undead a party can face given their knack for paralyzing characters, devouring their tender bits, and transmitting diseases like a two copper piece hooker. His take on the Underdark is to make it a place completely foreign to any normal player’s imagination, so parties who approach Kingdom of the Ghouls like a spelunking tour through Carlsbad Caverns will be in for a rude awakening. This is Lovecraftian horror in the same vein as WG4: Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, but where Tharizdun made most of the creeps skippable if the PCs overlooked some things or decided not to explore deeper, Kingdom puts the formless, shapeless horror front and center. Players feel fear when their beliefs are disrupted, when they can’t use metagaming knowledge to dig their way out of a situation, and they have no idea what to plan for because they have no idea what to expect. So while this Second Edition adventure is written for a group of 5-8 characters of levels 9-15 and at least 70 total experience levels between them, not even Bauer is cruel enough to send them down there all by themselves. The party’s first major task is to cure a Svirfneblin chieftain–assuming they accomplish this, which should be small potatoes for such a leveled group, the deep gnomes repay the party with an assortment of treasure and helpful gear…and a band of twenty well-armed, highly-trained deep gnome soldiers to accompany them. When the adventure author gifts the PCs their own double-digit war party, you know the excrement has encountered the wind turbine, and anybody who fails to take that seriously is answering a casting call for new examples by the people who made that “Dumb Ways to Die” video.
Correction: videos. Plural.
5) The Keep on the Borderlands by Gary Gygax
OK, hold on, I know what you’re thinking, but hear me out. No, of course you don’t consider B2, the pack-in module for most incarnations of the D&D Basic Rules, to be difficult. In fact, if you’re like most tabletop grognards, you’ve ventured into the Caves of Chaos from the titular Keep dozens of times, and used the adventure to introduce new players to the game as a DM. Keep on the Borderlands is a bonafide classic, a staple of D&D, a legend of Gygaxian design/narrative, but it’s also a complete murderfest with no guard rails. If you survived your first excursion to the Caves it was either through luck or DM fiat, because B2 has more ways to put the laughter in ‘slaughter’ for a party of low-level characters than any game designer today would feel at all comfortable with.
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Spoiler-Free Summary: Despite this being the module your great-great-grandfather played on his hardtack breaks during the War Between the States, there may still be people out there who have yet to experience the Keep, the Caves, and surrounding environs. I’ll try and go light on info, but I can’t really discuss the reasons this adventure is so deadly without divulging at least the existence of some encounters presented herein. Recall this was a module written to introduce first-time players and DMs to the game, and the typical party was 4 to 6 first-level PCs, then recoil in horror as you flip through the pages and understand how this could be a problem.
The Keep is just what it’s name suggests: a small fortified town surrounded by high walls, guarded with a locked gate and routine patrols, established on the edge of civilization. Both it and its inhabitants have no names save what the DM decides, as Gygax left this information deliberately vague so each DM could make it their own. The Keep on the Borderlands is to D&D what Grand Theft Auto V is to video games: a sandbox into which the players are dropped and then left to their own devices with little in the way of guidance except rumor and hearsay. There are more ways to get into trouble in this module than it has pages, but the primary way is to investigate the nearby Caves of Chaos, a large formation of multiple cavern entrances, exits, passageways, and dead-ends. A huge variety of creatures have staked out real-estate in the Caves and its surrounding vicinity and few of them are friendly. Where the PCs go, what they fight, who they talk with, and what fate ultimately befalls the Keep all hinge on what the players do with every roll of the dice…and when you’re dealing with inexperienced players commanding low-level characters, every DM knows the sociopathic bitches those dice turn into at the drop of a hat.
Best Sprung On: If you can actually locate a gaming group where no one has any knowledge of this adventure, and you’re willing to play it straight with no hand-holding or nudges and hints about where to go and what to do there, you’ll have the time of your life running this module. That said, you’re more likely to have stumbled upon a bunch of filthy rotten liars than people who’ve never seen the Caves of Chaos, which is all the more reason to punish them for their attempted deceit by running them through the adventure. Seriously, read this module again and you’ll see just what passed for a ‘low level adventure’ in the Gygax household: from encounters with multiple male Lizard Men and a nest of poisonous spiders, to a deranged and backstab-happy hermit, a flock of flying, blood-sucking stirges, and even a minotaur (because why the hell not?), The Keep on the Borderlands is a cheese grater against which the PCs’ kneecaps are pressed from the start, and their only hope is to pray the DM decides not to begin scraping up and down. PCs survive B2 by subterfuge, cunning, and a lot of “advancing in the opposite direction”. Short incursions, followed up by a return to the Keep to lick wounds and count treasure, is the order of the day. Even a full party of 3rd-level PCs cannot cake-walk through this dungeon, and it’s designed to teach very important lessons concerning the utter fragility of newly-rolled characters. That it does this by shrugging its shoulders and laying waste to entire parties is oft-forgotten thanks to all the fond memories it engendered among those who count it among their first role-playing experiences, but I guarantee if you think back far enough you’ll remember your first TPK wasn’t delivered by any other module on these lists, it was served up by none other than this asshole right here.
4) Wrath of the Immortals by Aaron Alston
Campaign-ending apocalyptic shit-storms are no stranger to these lists of deadly adventures, but Wrath of the Immortals appears designed to do one thing beyond familiarize players with expressions such as “pwned”, “Tennessee Log Jam”, and “Mongolian Clusterfuck”, and that was to kill off the regular Dungeons & Dragons product line so TSR could move everybody to 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. There’s considerable conjecture about this, since TSR proposed a number of products in a post-Wrath world before they were all cancelled or re-worked for the AD&D rules, but one thing cannot be denied: this boxed set if taken at face value will completely eradicate any campaign set in the Known World of Mystara if by no other force than rearranging the entire landscape similar to what Kefka pulls off in Final Fantasy VI. It comes with two poster-sized maps for this very reason–the first depicts Mystara as it is before the events of the adventure, the second is for after the plot-bombs go off.
It is not pretty.
Spoiler-Free Summary: Since it’s already clear Wrath exists to reshape the entire world, the idea of a summary without spoilers has already been hurled down the latrine. Nevertheless, knowing what happens and knowing how it happens are two different things, so don’t despair! The entire lynchpin holding Wrath together is a colossal war between the two largest factions on Mystara. It’s a campaign which takes six in-game years to play out, so this isn’t one to whip out for a quick session on Tuesday evening. Lots of meddling in the affairs of humans (the more followers an Immortal has, the greater their power within their given sphere of influence) translates to the closest thing to a nuclear arms race the D&D world has ever seen as the powers of the Known World attempt not only to bolster their own herds but also cull those of other factions. It’s big, it’s messy, and lots of people die. Yeah, it’s as metal as it sounds, bro.
Best Sprung On: If, for some reason, you’re looking for an excuse to end a traditional D&D campaign but don’t have it in you to make the earth randomly swallow the whole party, Wrath of the Immortals can certainly do the heavy lifting. However, that said, it’s the 21st century. If you are running a traditional D&D campaign using the Basic through Immortal boxes, you’re running it because that’s the 25-year-old rule set your players all wanted. Unleashing Wrath on your group without discussing the campaign’s current heading is craven cowardice at best, and a blatant indicator of psychopathology at worst. Ending the world abruptly is a dick move, although a six-year quest gives players plenty of time to come to terms with what’s happening, and you can technically continue playing afterwards, something practically impossible when it comes to Die, Vecna, Die! or The Apocalypse Stone.
3) WGR6: The City of Skulls by Carl Sargent
In my previous post, I wrote about Temple of Death, a very aptly named module in the X-series for standard D&D set in the Known World of Mystara. The module centers around a group which has grown large enough to threaten nearby areas, and the PCs are tasked with sneaking into the group’s main staging area and assassinating the leader without arousing too much suspicion.
If the prospect of using this adventure excited you, but the prospect of converting it from standard D&D did not, then have no fear, as Carl Sargent has done all the work for you by writing this demonic beast. Set in Greyhawk in the aftermath of the Greyhawk Wars boxed set and using the changes described in From the Ashes, this adventure separates the Solid Snakes of the AD&D worldfrom the namby-pamby Raidens.
Spoiler-Free Summary: Iuz the Old is a monstrous asshole of a demigod, and any time he shows up there are bound to be problems (see: Die, Vecna, Die!, The Temple of Elemental Evil, etc…). He also commands one of the largest evil armies in the Flanaess, and he’s using it to spread fear and misery across the continent in the wake of the wars which recently consumed Greyhawk. Stopping Iuz with a direct attack is unthinkable: few on Oerth wield the power necessary to cause him even minor discomfort. Jamming up his army, on the other hand, is much more doable considering it’s made up mostly of orcs and evil humans. Unfortunately, a key commander from the Shield Lands who is capable of doing just that, one Earl Holmer, has been captured and is currently rotting away in the prison under Dorakaa, the infamous City of Skulls and the capital of Iuz’s territory. At the summons of King Belvor IV, the PCs discover they’ve been tapped to sneak into Dorakaa through the sewers, break into the jail where Holmer is being held, and extricate him back to the safety of his own people. The rewards are considerable, but the risks are staggering. Then again, your party of 6-8 characters of levels 9-12 aren’t about to refuse the request of a king, are they…?
Best Sprung On: Players who don’t mind long periods of stealth and quiet punctuated by short bursts of terrifying combat. City of Skulls is different from Temple of Death in that it uses its own special Notoriety system to keep track of how much attention the PCs draw to themselves by their actions. With Temple of Death, any ruckus-causing overtures the PCs made brought the entire Temple down on their heads. In the City of Skulls, however, there’s a little more leeway. Not much, mind you, but Iuz holds many creatures of many different races, all of them evil, under his sway, and the occasional dust-ups between them are nothing new. You don’t just pack several thousand orcs, ogres, fiends, trolls, undead, and demons into a single area and expect them to play nicely.
PCs who go out of their way to draw attention to themselves are asking for an ass-kicking, but a few slip-ups here and there don’t equate to mission failure, and even if your players switch their wands of magic missiles to full-auto and hose down a cell block, the game isn’t over…it just get harder. That said, in the pre-mission briefing, a key NPC will remind hack-happy players that setting the place on fire is not a bright idea. A basic mixture of diplomacy, bribery, and skulduggery will produce optimal results, but any module which drops as much magical assistance into the party’s lap as they receive at the start of this one should put anybody on high alert. If your current group isn’t really well-suited for the task, Sargent has provided some pregenerated PCs who are. This is an intelligently-written, well-planned dungeon crawl/rescue mission, and ultimately it’s only as hard as the PCs make it on themselves. Operating as a single unit, utilizing stealth and misdirection instead of straight up slaughter, and a constant forward momentum with their eyes on the prize will keep the bulk of the City’s denizens off their back; lollygagging, frequent rests to recover spells, and continually searching for ways to up the body count without making progress in the story, on the other hand, will steadily raise Notoriety until there’s no place in the City not actively hunting the party.
2) The Throne of Bloodstone by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson
The H-series of modules, short for (H)igh-Level, were written for PCs with sufficient enough experience that mere dungeon crawls and rescue missions were beneath their station. By the time you hit 15th level, your character should be less worried about wandering monster rolls and more concerned with the day-to-day running of their own fiefdom, keep, castle, tower, conservatory, guild, temple, college, mine, forest, grove, or what have you. They’ve reached heights of power and prestige undreamed of by most adventurers, with names and faces recognized all over the continent, and deeds remembered by every two-bit tavern entertainer and bard worth his lyre. But where’s the fun in pushing your characters to reach their loftiest heights of experience if, at the end of the day, they retire as glorified bean counters or university professors? Are there no jobs left for these mighty heroes? Well, as it turns out, Niles and Dobson may have a little something cooked up for those PCs of 18th to 100th level (and no, that is not a typo–this one goes past eleven and all the way up to one hundred).
Spoiler-Free Summary: What in the name of Orcus could possibly warrant a bunch of level 100 PCs tromping around? Well…Orcus, not to put too fine a point on it. See, over the course of the last three modules in the H-series, the PCs have fielded large armies against other armies in the Forgotten Realms, but this time the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. The armies of the Bloodstone region are assembled, and they can hold back the Witch King’s legions, but everything’s currently a stalemate–neither side can get enough traction to dislodge the other. One thing could tip the balance though: Orcus’s wand. Being the demon prince of the undead, it’s ultimately Orcus’s strength holding the Witch King’s mostly-reanimated forces together. Such a blow to the Witch King would be decisive–without Orcus’s power behind him, he’s just another power-mad lunatic commanding a bunch of shambling corpses, and easy enough for the armies of Bloodstone to scatter. In order to complete their mission, a group of extremely powerful individuals will merely need to descend into the Abyss, locate Orcus’s palace, filch his wand, extricate themselves from Hell, then journey to the Seven Heavens where the wand can (hopefully, maybe) be destroyed.
Right. Um…wasn’t there something we’d heard about a demilich in a booby-trapped burial ground somewhere? Don’t we still need to, like, take care of him, or something…? When the description of the adventure has even the DM thinking, “Would they be less upset with me if I ran The Apocalypse Stone instead?”, there’s probably a few TPKs looming on the horizon.
Best Sprung Upon: Listen, if you’ve a group of PCs who can legitimately claim to have ascended beyond 20th level through methods that didn’t involve ransoming their DM’s spouse, child, or household pet, then by all means, drop Throne of Bloodstone in their laps. Do it quickly too, otherwise you’re going to endure another six-hour bitch-fest where everybody whines about having nothing to do now that they’ve scrubbed every inch of Hell clean using Asmodeus’s goatee (while it was still attached to his face).
If, as I suspect, this is not the case, Throne of Bloodstone thoughtfully includes four pregenerated 100+ level PCs culled from mythology which can either be used as real characters for this scenario, or as templates for players to create their own Level 100 badasses and feel what it’s like to be near-deities for a few hours. This is meant to be played more for fun than fear, to give players something different to do when a campaign has gone stale or not everybody could make it to game night but you need something to do anyway. Of course, there’s a reason Niles and Dobson used this level range, and players would do well to remember that even a pack of 100th-level mortals are no match for an immortal Demon Lord in straight combat.
Even this isn’t enough to warrant top placement on this list though. That honor is reserved for…
1) Night Below: An Underdark Campaign by Carl Sargent
Some of you are no doubt wondering what in the hell could be more absurdly difficult than a module where the PCs are expected to Game Genie themselves more levels than the Chrysler Building.
The rest of you read the title for this entry and are just nodding your heads, wondering how it missed the first two lists. Wish granted, plebes: here’s Carl Sargent again, deploying such an all-consuming lack of fucks as to make even Comcast customer service blush in abject shame.
Here’s Night Below.
May Pelor have mercy upon your souls…
Spoiler-Free Summary: As the product’s subtitle indicates, Night Below is more than just a regular boxed set super-module. It’s a full-fledged campaign, built to take PCs from first level all the way to the high double-digits, before dropping them in the middle of a shitstorm so awful it would discomfit German pornographers.
It starts so innocently, with the small band of low-level PCs finding the village of Haranshire under attack by bandits who plunder their wares and kidnap their able-bodied people. Assuming the group isn’t comprised of heartless buttplugs, the first order of business is to stop the bandits and rescue their hostages, but if things ended there we wouldn’t be having this little talk. From such an innocuous start, things just pile on, layer after layer, until the PCs who only stopped to help a little hamlet with some orc displacement are now mounting up for an invasion/expedition through the complex of tunnels and caves below Haranshire. Tunnels that open into caverns best left forgotten. Caverns built by things that despise the light of day. Things which have put together a pretty rock-solid plan to enslave and dominate a massive portion of the surface world without ever having to leave the depths of the Underdark. Things worse than Mind Flayers, worse than Kua-Toa, worse than Drow, worse than Beholders, and worse than getting ‘Ixitxachitl’ as your word during the spelling bee’s first round.
The good news is, Sargent’s the same guy who wrote City of Skulls, and if there’s one thing you should take away from that, it’s that he enjoys putting the PCs in situations where they can talk at least as often as situations where deploying Chain Lightning and Delayed-Blast Fireballs is totally called for. At least one character, preferably more, needs high Charisma and a silver-tongued player at the helm if the group wants any hope of passing some places unmolested, or forming a short- or long-term alliance with some of the less-stabby inhabitants of the earth’s bowels. When joining forces with a group of Tanar’ri fiends from the Abyss solely to help them kill a different Tanar’ri fiend is literally the most sensible option a party can take during one encounter, you know you ain’t crawling your daddy’s typical dungeon.
Best Sprung On: Players who are worth spending the equivalent of a small car payment to both entertain and ultimately grind beneath the soles of your boots, because the first ambush Night Below performs on anybody involves their wallet. Originally retailing for the not-inexpensive price of $30 (about $50 today, adjusted for inflation) when it was released in 1995, the intervening decades have seen this boxed set nearly quintuple in price on the second-hand market. As of this writing, the cheapest version I could find on Amazon was $139 US, while eBay had one for $53 with 10 bids on it and seven days left in the auction. Similar sets with Buy-It-Now options ran from $129 to $150; the median price on completed auctions is somewhere between $100 and $125.
Or, you know, $9.99 for the PDF at DriveThruRPG.com. I mean…just sayin’.
I’m not suggesting it isn’t worth the money, especially if it’s something your group can all chip in together to acquire, but while Night Below does a lot of things right and can provide months of entertainment for a committed group, it contains not only one of the nastiest final encounters to ever see print in a 2nd Edition AD&D product, the sort of encounter that even a well-prepared and high-level party would be hard-pressed to end, but said encounter is prefaced by the single most colossal dick move I’ve ever seen in any RPG ever, a no-saving-throw-permitted, unmissable and unforeseeable dick move which exists solely to strip the characters of the bulk of their magical gear and equipment prior to hurling them into combat against a force with which they were already on less-than-even footing. No module, no matter how killer, I have ever read has done this to the PCs with this level of malice aforethought, and any player not looking to take a barbed wire-wrapped toilet brush to the DM’s most tender orifices afterward is likely the reincarnation of Ghandi. I’m not giving away the plot, I’m not saying it’s an impossible module, I’m just saying have smoke bombs prepped and your escape route mapped well in advance before you break out this one, otherwise someone really is gonna find out if there’s an afterlife, and I cannot be held responsible.
One little caveat though: if you plan to hold Sargent responsible, you may as well give up. He essentially vanished off the face of the earth in the mid 90’s while en route to the US from England to accept a job offer, and Night Below was his final published work, both for TSR and anywhere else, at least under his real name. No Shift Blame cantrip for you, dear reader.