Friday, March 18, 2011

Top Five Classical Fantasy RPG Adventures

Time again for a High Fidelity Top Five list.

On several occasions on this blog I have curmudgeonly stated my general antipathy (a word I learned from AD&D btw) to published adventures, but truth be told I do have some treasured favorites. Hold on a kids, get off my lawn.

Of course, the following list is highly subjective—even more so than I would imagine the Top Five maps thread was—and instead of going only with more-objective markers I went with the ones that felt in my gut like great classics from my own play experience. You know the way you'd re-watch Repo Man and say that's a great movie (ok, ok most of you wouldn't be saying that about that movie in particular, but stand-in your timeless personal favorite and you get my point).

To keep the list manageable and focused I bracketed off a few criteria: 1. it must be from a fantasy-genre roleplaying game; 2. it must have been published before 1984; 3. it had to be commercially published; and 4. it had to be something I played or at least intended to play back in the day.

Again in reverse order...
Caverns of Thracia. Perhaps the single best campaign dungeon ever designed with lots of vertical and non-linear organization. The Greek theme was ho-hum for me at the time (though I'd certainly dig it better now), but the various factions gave it added vibrancy. Bonus points for an undead lord that wasn't human. (Slight demotion on the list as it's the one I never had a chance to play.)

Village of Hommlet. My second encounter (the first you'll find down the list) with a mini-setting coupled with an adventure. The moat house dungeon (an Easter Egg homage to the Siege of Bodenburg) was lacking, but it was the first adventure that challenged me to think about the NPC “whirly bits” of a sandbox. Factional motivations, town intrigue, heists/capers, all these things came into my game because of good old T1.

Snake Pipe Hollow. After years of playing through D&D this Runequest adventure blew me away. The cave system had both a deeper naturalistic feel to and an otherworldy Gloranthan vibe. The “monsters” all had personalities and motivations of their own, the surrounding wilderness area was interesting, and there were several hooks that provided replay value.

Vault of the Drow. Many others have noted that this was the highpoint of Gygax's florid, descriptive prose and I have to agree. It was only years later when reading Clark Ashton Smith that I felt the same vibe.

Keep on the Borderlands. By objective criteria, does this deserve to be number one? Not likely, the Caves of Chaos have been described as an unreal evil critter condo set-up. But there is simply no other published adventure that I both got more play out of and influenced and inspired my own homebrewing.

Honorable Mentions: Expedition to the Barrier PeaksCastle Amber, The Lost City, Dwellers of the Forbidden City

So what's your top five list look like? I wait with bated breath.


  1. Nice list! Thanks for the Snake Pipe Hollow tip - I'll have to look that up!

    Dark Tower and The Lost City probably would have made my personal list...

  2. Damn, I missed Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. May even be up there with my top five. Added to Honorable Mentions.

  3. 1) Rahasia: Rahasia is an innovative and complex dungeon that really opened my eyes to what a dungeon could be. I've run it three times now and each time the players find something new / unexpected waiting inside.

    2) People of the Pit: My favorite killer dungeon. RotP is a great tribute to the original story. I love Alphonso Warden's work, but PotP is the only one I've actualy run, so I didn't put any of the others on the list.

    3) Stone Hell Dungeon: The only Mega Dungeon I ever wanted to run.

    4) Requiem for Rome: RfR is does an amazing job at telling an epic sweeping story while still remembering the players. A wonderful example of how a story plot should be done.

    5) Tegel Manor: Tegel manor deserves it's place in the top five for map reasons alone, the fact that it's actually fun and challenging just shows how great Judges Guild was at the time. What can I say, I'm a sucker for thematic death traps.

  4. My list at the moment would be:

    5. The Temple of Elemental Evil - Restocking & retooling this Temple to the height of its power was pure "Lord of the Rings" epic!
    4. White Plume Mountain - Adding a few homemade levels to this was just pure fun & mischief.
    3. Tomb of Horrors - My players stopped saying my homebrewed adventures were too tough after I ran them through this one as written.
    2. Isle of Dread - This was my "Kong Island" before Isle of the Ape came out.
    1. Keep on the Borderlands - Definitely inspired my homebrew gene.

  5. Good Friday afternoon stuff. Yep, my all time favorites would be:

    Old School List:
    B2 Keep on the Borderlands
    X2 Castle Amber
    B10 Night's Dark Terror
    X1 The Isle of Dread
    D3 Vault of the Drow

    My New School List would include Stonehell and Death Frost Doom but more will get added as we play them.

  6. "ok most of you wouldn't be saying that about that movie in particular..." I can't tell you how many times I have watched Repo Man. Sometimes I think it is the only movie I actually like!

    I never really ran many modules BITD:
    Village of Hommlet
    In Search of the Unknown
    City of Terrors (T&T solo, expanded for GM play)
    Descent into the Depths of the Earth (aborted by pissy player)

    I think B1 is one of the best written modules ever.

  7. Great list! I'll have to go by what I actually played the most:

    1) Keep on the Borderlands
    2) Against the Giants
    3) White Plume Montain
    4) Tomb of the Lizard King
    5) Dwellers of the Forbidden City

  8. In no particular order:

    Best High-Level Dungeon:
    Bottle City by Robert Kuntz

    Best Low-Level Dungeon:
    B1: In Search of the Unknown by Mike Carr

    Best Dungeon Map:
    Tegel Manor by Bob Bledsaw

    Best Setting:
    D2: Shrine of the Kuo-Toa by Gary Gygax

    Weirdest and Most Wonderous:
    Garden of al-Astorion by Gabor Lux

  9. My list is strange and varied compared to this -- but, here goes:

    5. Palace of the Silver Princess (because it just really worked for me when I was younger)

    4. Harkwood (A GURPS Fantasy adventure that is truly fun).

    3. Keep on the Borderlands (seriously, I agree, I've gotten more fun and replay value out of this module than any other)

    2. The Lost City

    1. Caravan to Ein Arris -- Not truly fantastical -- the core adventure doesn't even include magic -- but it's very classic fantasy plot and immersion made it a huge part of my fantasy "upbringing."

  10. Mine:

    1. White Plume Mountain (got lots of play out of it)
    2. Against the Giants
    3. Keep on the Borderlands
    4. The Lost City
    5. Shrine of the Kuo-Toa or Queen of the Demonweb Pits

  11. 5 = Wilderlands of High Fantasy
    4 = City State of the Invincible Overlord
    3 = Snake Pipe Hollow
    2 = Griffin Mountain
    1 = Cults of Prax

    I dumped D&D for RuneQuest after my first game of RQ!

  12. You are all getting out of my tidy little boxed frame--which is fine as it was so tight that it gamed the results more toward the traditional module factory like marketing model of TSR. Your responses give me ideas for my next few Top Five lists (top five new adventures, top five campaign settings, etc.) Look what happens when you open the box, Pandora.

    Stonehell for sure on a new product list.

    Gabor Lux could probably carve out at least one seat (maybe two) on a new product list. I always leave reading his adventures with at least three ideas I want to steal for my own.

    I knew there had to be another out there. The life of a Repo Man, kid, is always intense.

    If I had gotten a copy of Griffin Mountain back then it would be on this list. It is head and shoulders beyond most sandbox settings by almost every metric.

  13. Seconding the Repo Man love. Repo Man's always intense!

    Glad to see the GURPS adventures mentioned, as well. I ran Harkwood a couple years ago. One of the things I really liked is the main villain is chosen from a list of about a half-dozen NPCs, so even if your players have read the module, there's no way of knowing who the bad guy is in any given running.

    I'd contribute a list, but they'd all be Call of Cthulhu and Pendragon adventures...

  14. Keep is definitely in my top five (it came in my Holmes basic box), along with S2 and S3, which were fun to play in. Shrine of the Kuo Toa as well, because it was the very first mudle I ever purchased. I also liked reading the Giants modules because of their theme.

    Y'know, I've never actually played the G series except on the computer. Maybe when we're high enough level, the Hill Cantons players can go Against the Giants ...

  15. There are a very select few movies I've watched multiple times, but Repo Man is definitely among them.

    "I do my best thinking on the bus."