The Alphastream Game Design Blog
2016 was a disaster politically, and it claimed too many of our beloved heroes. I take heart in how often I hear friends recognize and mourn these losses, and how often they and you respond with a desire to “fight” rather than ‘”surrender.” I also take heart in how the year was fantastic for D&D and RPGs. As I thought back on the wonderful gaming events of 2016, I realized that 5E had undone one of the greatest problems of 3E and 4E: the classics are back!
Update! What? The day after I posted this, Wizards has announced a new book for April: Tales From the Yawning Portal! This book gathers several classics. I’ll reveal the list later below. I had no idea the book was being planned, I swear!
Right now, name out loud a classic D&D adventure – the first one to come to mind. (Maybe leave the name in the comments… I’m curious to see which adventures readers first thought of, and why you think of it as a classic.) If you have a gamer friend nearby, ask them to name one too.
The response will usually be one of a score of adventures created back in the AD&D days. What is it that causes these adventures to be so well regarded? And, why are there so few classics from the 3E or 4E era?
Let’s start with a list of classics. In November of 2004, Dungeon Magazine issue 116 celebrated 30 years of D&D by having a panel of expert adventure writers rank the top 30 adventures:
30. The Ghost Tower of Inverness (Allen Hammack)
29. The Assassin’s Knot (Len Lakofka)
28. The Lost City (Tom Moldvay)
27. The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (Dave J. Brown with Don Turnbull)
26. The City of Skulls (Carl Sargent)
25. Dragons of Despair (Tracy Hickman, Harold Johnson, Douglas Niles, Carl Smith, Michael Williams)
24. City of the Spider Queen (James Wyatt) (3E)
23. The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (Gary Gygax)
22. The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (Gary Gygax)
21. Dark Tower (Paul Jaquays)
20. Scourge of the Slave Lords (A series of 4 adventures) (David Cook, Allen Hammack, Harold Johnson, Tom Moldvay, Lawrence Schick, Ed Carmien)
19. Against the Cult of the Reptile God (Douglas Niles)
18. The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan (Harold Johnson and Jeff R. Leason)
17. Ruins of Undermountain (Link is to RoU II) (Ed Greenwood)
16. The Isle of Dread (David Cook and Tom Moldvay)
15. Castle Amber (Tom Moldvay)
13. Dwellers of the Forbidden City (David Cook)
12. The Forge of Fury (Richard Baker) (3E)
11. The Gates of Firestorm Peak (Bruce Cordell)
10. Return to the Tomb of Horrors (Bruce Cordell)
9. White Plume Mountain (Lawrence Schick)
8. Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil (Monte Cook) (3E)
7. The Keep on the Borderlands (Gary Gygax)
6. The Desert of Desolation (Amazing series of 3 adventures) (Tracy Hickman, Laura Hickman, and Philip Meyers)
5. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (Gary Gygax)
4. The Temple of Elemental Evil (Gary Gygax)
3. Tomb of Horrors (Gary Gygax)
2. Ravenloft (Tracy and Laura Hickman)
1. Queen of the Spiders (including all the giant series and drow series) (Gary Gygax with David C. Sutherland, Dave Cook, and Jeff Grubb)
Though the list is twelve years old, I doubt it would be very different if it was done just two years ago. Looking over the list, the Basic and AD&D editions (which were concurrent) dominate. There are only three 3E adventures, and only Forge of Fury is not a remake/spin-off. During the 4E era it was common to hear gamers ask whether any 4E adventures could be considered a classic (I argued for Madness at Gardmore Abbey). Even looking at 2E (launched in 1989), only four of the thirty are original 2E adventures.
Update: Okay, now let’s share the details on Tales from the Yawning Portal! The book is based on the idea that adventurers from many worlds (such as Greyhawk) would swap tales of their grandest adventures in this renowned tavern found in Waterdeep (it is well known for providing an entrance to Undermountain). The book includes updated 5E version (or dungeon portions) of the AD&D adventures Against the Giants, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, Tomb of Horrors, and White Plume Mountain, plus 3E adventures Sunless Citadel and its sequel Forge of Fury, plus the D&DNext/5E Dead in Thay. Those adventures rank #1, 3, 9, 18, and 12 on the list, plus Sunless Citadel and Dead in Thay (the former doesn’t appear, the later was published after the list was done).
Was it quality? Many of the classic adventures, such as Elemental Evil and the Slave Lords, began as organized play tournaments. That might lead us to think that organized play or playtesting had something to do with it, but it is unlikely – classic adventures are often riddled with errors and issues that make actual play troublesome, and communication around those tournament experiences wasn’t widespread back then.
Was it because they were the first at something? Many classics are memorable for introducing something. For example, Tomb of Horrors and the idea of a deathtrap dungeon, or the giants and drow series for introducing drow and underdark exploration. While the adventures often innovated or furthered concepts, those “firsts” are not usually what people most recall about the adventures.
A common quality about the classics is their lifespan. An older DM will often share not one story about the Giants series, but several. They ran that adventure several times over the years. This is true for me. My favorite classic is I3 Pharaoh. I ran that adventure, as well as Oasis of the White Palm and Lost Tomb of Martek, so many times I lost track. I converted portions of Pharaoh to 3E, 4E, and 5E!
Underlying this was shelf lifespan. I grew up in Colombia. When I traveled to the US and visited the mall’s Waldenbooks, there was a circular rack of adventures. When I traveled the next year, the very same adventures were there. In fact, they were there every year I traveled to this mall.
Shannon Appelcline wrote a column about the history of RPGs, which later became a book and then an amazing set of 4 books (hardcover here) filled with fascinating stories and great insight into our hobby. In this column he writes about the bestselling RPGs. He shares how in 1992, the 9th best-selling RPG book was Fiend Folio. What? That book came out in 1982… it was ELEVEN YEARS OLD when it was the 9th-best-selling book in 1992!
That is exactly what happened to old adventures. The classics were found on shelves for multiple decades. Why are they classics? Because they were on shelves so long that eventually, you bought them (or knew someone who did).
And with such a lasting presence, chances were you played or ran them, or knew someone who did. Keep on the Borderlands came out in 1979, and was included in the Basic boxed set and then in the 1981 Basic set. It was also sold on its own. It was perhaps the 12th adventure ever made, but it had an estimated 1.5 million copies! With so many gamers of that era growing up on Keep, it became part of the consciousness, like a connected memory everyone shared.
The same is true of the other classic AD&D adventures. Pharaoh, Temple of Elemental Evil, Tomb of Horrors, Dragonlance adventures… these were on shelves for decades. As so many gamers played them, they became a sort of lingua franca – the common tongue of gamers. Tomb was synonymous with deathtrap dungeon. You exchanged tales of how your characters (plural) died. Everyone seemed to have a fun story about which elemental evil cult they infiltrated first in Temple. Or, which riddle or trap you cleverly avoided in Pharaoh. Or, a story about which artifact they reclaimed from White Plume Mountain. Maybe you uttered “bree-yark” when telling stories about goblins in the Caves of Chaos… these stories were a fun currency to trade when you met, and they still are!
With so much shared memory, it is natural that these adventures continue to evolve. The keep and the Caves of Chaos have seen numerous expansions, revisions, articles, playtest versions, and more (I discussed Keep’s history and adapting it to 5E in this article). Tomb of Horrors has seen a version for every edition (2E, 3E, two for 4E, and in DDI for 5E’s D&D Next playtest rules). Even if they don’t have obvious revisions, the classics continue to inspire. Designers talk about emulating the traps in Pharaoh, or the open nature of Isle of Dread. When it came time for us to design the scoring system for the 2016 D&D Open (as discussed in this earlier article), I looked to several old tournament adventures for insight, particularly Tamoachan. The classics often seem to be the inspiration behind 5E adventures as well. This extends the memory of the classics, allowing later gamers to identify with the same stories.
Take a look at Shannon’s article again. In 2010, the oldest bestseller on the list is from 2007, just three years old. Almost all of the bestsellers are from the actual year of 2010. If you visit a book store or even a gaming store today, chances are the shelves reflect that. While they might have a few old items, anything occupying the central/main gaming shelves is actually new.
3E and 4E saw some great adventures, but they weren’t recognized as such and they weren’t widely played. Ask someone to list their favorite, and you might get a blank stare or an organized play adventure (including Encounters) that wasn’t actually sold. While there were official adventures for both editions, they had a relatively short shelf life and almost no lasting shared memory amongst gamers.
It is a shame. While 3E experimented with a very dry tactical format that often lacked story, there are some excellent elements in the core 4E adventures, and especially in the adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. Dungeon magazine was full of amazing adventures (notably the great adventure paths, but also many excellent 3E and 4E adventures). Organized play adventures in both eras were full of terrific innovation, which did permeate the consciousness of those circles (and continues to influence adventure design beyond organized play today, as I discussed regarding the design of Vault of the Dracolich and Confrontation at Candlekeep). How did the Spellplague end? I always want to answer: “you should have seen the awesome ending we experience with the Living Forgotten Realms organized play campaign!”
For all of the excellent 3E and 4E adventures, they didn’t become classics because they didn’t have the longevity – neither on store shelves nor in our collective minds.
5E completely changed its approach to adventures. Gone is the idea of a string of individually-sold linked adventures. Instead, each adventure is a 200+ page tome, capable of acting as a long home campaign. Importantly, each hardback adventure is part of a storyline season. Each season is extensively promoted, and is integrated into everything the company and its partners create.
Here are the adventures and storyline seasons so far:
When each season is designed, the Wizards of the Coast team picks themes that reflect the history of D&D, tapping into those classics. Princes transports the cults from Temple of Elemental Evil from Greyhawk to the Forgotten Realms, including the concept of elemental nodes, but it also has many innovations and its own story. Out of the Abyss taps into the drow/underdark adventures and several other classics, but has a very different way of telling its story. Strahd clearly reflects I-10 Ravenloft, including the use of the same castle, but it weaves a far greater campaign and innovative experience around it. The latest season, Storm King’s Thunder, abandons the linear approach found in the Against the Giants series, while adding a new story around what would cause the giants to go to war against the small folk.
During the design of the seasons, the Wizards team creates a “story bible,” which is shared with partners. I was fortunate to see the Tyranny of Dragons bible, though I can’t share its contents. It was fantastic at communicating the themes of the season, while providing the hooks and core elements that partners need to craft their stories. It is no surprise that the Neverwinter MMO, writing partners such as Kobold Press or Green Ronin, minis partner WizKids, or play aid partners such Gale Force Nine do such a great job of capturing the spirit of the season. They are given the exact tool they need to know what to create.
The result is a season with a theme that is felt by all. Visit the D&D site and it is covered in Storm King graphics. Go to a partner, and they have D&D products supporting the season. Play the MMO and it has a Storm King expansion. Watch D&D online and you see Force Grey (catch the events here) take on giants. Go to PAX West and you get to take your picture standing next to a giant’s helmet, then you watch Chris Perkins lead Acquisitions Inc. through a cloud giant castle… and if you watch it in a theater, you received a copy of Cloud Giant’s Bargain! Go to your store, to a convention, or to the DMs Guild and the Adventurers League has a series of adventures that play off of the Storm King season.
This is so magnificently done that it has completely changed the equation of what it takes to create a classic. The 5E adventures doesn’t have to stay on shelves for a decade. Because the season is so tangible, and so thematic, we all share in the experience and it becomes real to us. Even if we don’t actually play the Strahd season, we learn about it and Ravenloft. We think about Strahd as a villain, think about horror in RPGs, and hear the stories of those participating in the season. We create the shared memory that defines classics.
I’m really excited about this. It is one of the best parts of 5E and Wizards’ strategy, because it is creating iconic experiences. Most active gamers now understand how Tiamat threatened the Realms, and that there is a Cult of the Dragon. They hear about Thay and its deadly wizards. They learn about the Ordning, and the idea that the giants once ruled the Realms.
It particularly excites me about what might come next, and how the design team might transform it. Will we see Pharaoh? (Can I be a part of that effort, please????) Will we see the Slave Lords? And what about crossovers, the way Out of the Abyss combined elements? Maybe the Slave Lords are active in the Desert of Desolation, or around Saltmarsh? I can’t wait.