Ye old Internets declares that my review blog is now four years old. I figure I’ve read and written reviews for about 1,100 adventures, if I include One-pagers and Dungeon Magazine. WordPress and RPGgeek think I just hit 500 reviews. It’s time, I think, to declare which adventure is The Best.
Declaring a Best Adventure is sure to be a nightmare. Best by what standards? Deep Carbon Observatory is a masters work, every word bent towards a purpose with a focus that’s hard to believe until you see it. I frequently look back on the Bowman/Sham levels in Fight On! magazine. Especially in the case of Spawning Grounds of the Crab-Men, it fits together elements that I can still recall years later. ASE1 brings to life the setting in a manner more vivid than a thousand other city/region supplements have failed and in far far fewer words. Welcome to Mortiston gets the town environment, with events, more right than any other I’ve seen. Stroh’s creativity, especially in Purple Planet, brings things to life in the minds eye. I could go on and on about Bull King, Slaughtergrid, or many of Finch’s work, Like Spire of Iron & Crystal. Naming all of those reminds me of how many I have NOT named but still rank as some of the best ever.
Maybe instead I mean “My Favourite?” I don’t know. Maybe. My “best” adventure is an adventure I always recommend. It’s my favorite to run at conventions. It’s my favorite for running with n00bs. It’s a great first adventure that sets the style and tone of the games to come. I’ve reviewed it before, but it was a part of a larger set of reviews and I don’t feel I gave it the spotlight it deserves. In poking around a bit, researching it for this review, it looks like the author only ever published this one adventure. Two other people helped out just a little bit, but it is at it’s core a one-shot DIY adventure from a person who never did anything else and only has a minor presence under their pseudonym. A nameless drifter showing up to do magnificent work and then disappearing has some romantic appeal as well, as does the appeal of the Everyman, representing all of those wonderful adventures that home DM’s come up with.
As of today, the best adventure of everything I’ve see is …
The Darkness Beneath Level 1: The Upper Caves
Fight On! Magazine #2
by Hackman, Calithena and David Bowman
The adventure is tight, focused. And it invokes wonder.
More than any other adventure I’ve seen The Upper Caves channels wonder. The amazement of small child seeing something new, or one of those baby animal video when they encounter something mundane that is totally unexpected. More than any other adventure this adventure invokes the wonder of the first time you played D&D. The first secret door you found behind the bookcase. The first time eyes stared back at you in the darkness. So many people have very fond memories of those early TSR D&D modules. Nostalgia plays tricks with you. As adults we know there’s something false in nostalgia. The old adventures seem flat compared to the memories we have of them. This adventure fights that. Tomorrowland in Disney has the tagline the Future That Never Was. This adventure brings that nostalgia HARD. It does the impossible: it lives up to nostalgic memories we have of those first games of D&D.
4. There’s a small lake in this cavern with a waterfall going in reverse! The waterfall creates an anti-gravity effect in the lake which grows stronger the nearer one is to it.
The text goes on for a bit, but you get the idea. In another room a ball of fire rolls around it. In another there is an alligator statue that eats gems. There is NO appeal, at all, to standard mechanics in ANY of this. The effects are described to the DM, not ruled upon. There’s no explanation offered. In other adventures you’d see “Bob the 99th level MU cast Light, and Permanency, and Trigger, and then Delayed Blast and …” Explaining something robs it of its power. In D&D you want mystery. The mystery for the DM translates to the mystery for player. It’s open ended. No solution is presumed or implied. It Just IS … and the solution is yours to create. I fail. I utterly fail every time in trying to describe just what it is that makes those mundane descriptions awesome.
Let’s look at how this thing starts. There’s the opening paragraph that explains the setup … and that’s it. Eleven sentences. The introduction does four things. First, it give the purpose. This is the usual “first level characters” stuff, and places this first level of the megadungeon in context. Imagine that for a moment. A sixteen level community megadungeon introduced in just 2-3 sentences. That’s some tight ass editing. Focus. The second part of the introduction tells the DM what’s going on. “Troglodytes and Crabmen battle one another for supremacy, while a renegade Leprechaun and his ten Halfling minions play both sides against the middle. The Leprechaun will want to trick the party out of its goods (or use them to gain even more), but the Halflings are thoroughly evil and will probably try to kill the party outright if given the chance.“ Now the DM has the lay of the land. Factions. How the writer intended them when he put the words down. Perfect introduction to a dungeon level. It took two sentences. The third part of the introduction tells you how to the use the tables provided. The last sentence sets the mood. It’s one of my favorite lines ever. “Most of the areas are too large for a torch or lantern to fully illuminate, so the party will always feel exposed to the murky depths just beyond their present vision. I’d not wander off…” Revel in that sentence. What’s it bring to mind? The unknown. Danger. Mystery. Anxiety. It’s the exposure. It sets the mood perfectly for the DM to then communicate to the party as they explore … muck-farmers on their first foray underground. I’m going to come back to this theme, again and again.
Eleven sentences. The rest of the adventure doesn’t even need to be read. That’s right, after those eleven sentences you can start running the thing. You don’t even need to read the entire adventure and be familiar with it. You remember those words don’t you? They start just about every adventure ever written. Not this one bucko. This one is tight. You don’t need to read it ahead of time. Three pages of text and one more for a map. Two sheets of paper. The best adventure ever.
The items are wonderful. There’s this fist-sized orange gem. you can shoot fire bolts from it, for 6d6 damage. It you ever roll 12 or less damage then it burns out, melting the mage’s hand for damage. There’s this cursed plate armor that yells “HERE I AM!” when you get within 60’ of enemies. That’s brilliant! There’s a gold & ruby necklace worth 5000gp … an heirloom of a powerful lord in the area … it will draw attention is pawned. That’s great! Illuminator is a +1 sword, lawful, intelligent, ego=8, detects evil & gems and chaotic foes must save vs paralysis. it’s mission is to expose corruption among nobility, and it will withhold its powers if players don’t try to do that. after a while. Wonderful! Items that provide hooks to more adventure, with the magic sword being the most “normal.” Why adventures ever got away from providing interesting treasure is beyond me. Probably around the time got away from the players and began emphasizing the Plot. Bleech! I’m sure plot can be done well, but not to the exclusion of the players, and hooks.
I know I said you didn’t have to read it first. Maybe. There tend to be 9 or 10 rooms to a page. The rooms STICK. You look at them once, maybe just skimming them, and the entire concept of the room is lodged in your skull. You KNOW. From then on you need only glane at it and you know how to run it and what’s up. I really can’t emphasize this enough. These rooms stick with you.
There are fanciful appeals to old school tropes, like the random corpse table for the searching of the many corpses found on the map. It also defies a lot of what I conventionally note as Important Things In Design. In particular, some of the rooms can be wordy. But once read they stick. Forever more you understand, on a deep level, what that room is about and there’s no need to refer to text anymore while running … or minimal reference anyway.
There’s a lot of personal preference in this for me. What I like as Best may not be what you like. Deep Carbon Observatory, the Stroh DCC works … this may be more conventionally “Best”, or appeal to a larger group. But this adventure, with it’s quiet understated fully realized environment, an introduction for n00bs no matter how jaded, is the one I always think about nostalgically, and the one that lives us to that nostalgic feeling.