The challenge and beauty of AD&D modules

After over a year of playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition), I’ve had some really great gaming moments.  But I’ve also had to deal with reality.  Eventually nostalgia wears off and you realize why there were later editions of D&D.  Now don’t get me wrong!  AD&D is proving to be my favorite RPG!  But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some challenges along the way.

When it comes to AD&D modules, I’ve realized one distinct challenge paralleled by a remarkable beauty.  The challenge is this: AD&D modules are very dense.  They are (by and large) not easy to read.  Meanwhile I picked up Storm King’s Thunder for fifth edition and it was like reading a novel!  Not so with AD&D modules.  I’ve tried to read them “for fun” and it’s often not fun.  I read them, because I want to play the game.  As a DM, it’s the work I put in to have a successful, enjoyable gaming experience.  But I won’t call reading them fun.  That said, I did cackle with evil glee while reading Tomb of Horrors.  More on that next week…

That’s the challenge.  Just getting through them takes time and real focus.  But!  There’s one thing that I find consistently effective and beautiful in these modules–and it flows from their density!  It’s this: AD&D modules cultivate “living” settings that players can expand and own.  Many modern modules do the same thing, but I think we can learn a lot from these OSR modules and how they create living settings that allow players to shape them and make them their own.

As a GM, I know that you want to have a vibrant, engaging setting for your players to enjoy.  But where to start?  Creating a compelling setting is hard.  Trust me, I know!  My players have visited plenty of non-descript vanilla villages throughout their years of adventure.  But things have changed in my AD&D experience.  My players are now wanting their characters to take up residence in a local village, shaping it into their own place.  Where did that come from?  I’m convinced it’s one of the strengths of these AD&D modules.

Thus, regardless of what game system you’re playing, I think you can benefit from picking up one of these OSR modules and giving it a read.  Here’s how you can get the benefit out of them:

Choose an OSR module with a setting you find compelling

I’ll need experienced gamers to chime in down in the comments or on Twitter with suggestions for different settings, since I’ve only read a handful thus far.  That said, I am absolutely hooked on the Greyhawk setting.  I knew that Gygax had set his campaigns there, so I’ve spent my time on Greyhawk modules.  I even picked up the Greyhawk setting books on DriveThruRPG to help me out.

Forgotten Realms, Ravenloft, Dark Sun–they’re all out there in the early days of D&D.  But where these modules thrive is in laying out the details of one location alone.  Singular villages get a lot of attention in these modules, rather than large regions or countries.  L1 – The Secret of Bone Hill is unique, in that there is no MacGuffin or plot line really.  It’s just a Greyhawk town and the areas surrounding it with encounters ready to roll.  On the one hand, that might seem really tough to read!  But on the other, it gives you the raw material for your players to come in and make the place their own.

Here’s the benefit: your players come into a living setting stocked with places and people (NPCs) that are ready to roll.  They have reasons for being there–jobs, families, and occasionally cult connections!  Even if there’s no clear plot line (I’m looking at you, Bone Hill), it gives your players something interesting and rich to be a part of.

The challenge for you as a GM is this: keeping up with the details.  For The Village of Hommlet, I made a spreadsheet with space for notes, wherein I could keep track of where players left off with NPCs.  If you’re going to present a living setting for players, you’ll have to keep track of some of those details.  It can be challenging, but eventually you’ll get to know the town and the main players quite well.

So choose an OSR module with a setting you find compelling.  Even if you’re playing more modern settings, you can benefit from getting one.  But what should you do with it?

Use that OSR setting for your game or create a similar one

You can choose whether you’d like to use that module as inspiration or as the foundational basis of your adventure.  The more I interact with old-school RPGers, the more I realize that almost nobody played rules-as-written…and almost nobody played modules exactly as written.  They moved them to other parts of the realm or to other realms altogether!  DMs worked to fit them into their ongoing campaigns.

So once you’ve found a module with a compelling setting, either choose to use that module as the basis for your game or design a setting inspired by that one.  U1 – The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh has a neat coastal town that frankly doesn’t get that much love in the module.  Truth be told, it’s a pretty quick play-through.  So even if you didn’t play that module, you could use the details in it to fill in a place on the map in your campaign setting.  It doesn’t have to be AD&D to use the module for your purposes!  Because here’s the goal in the long-term:

Build openness into the setting so players can own it

In our most recent campaign, I moved A0 – Danger at Darkshelf Quarry from its written location to Flen, not far from the events of Against the Cult of the Reptile God.  And while Darkshelf Quarry isn’t heavy on the village details (it’s a straight-up dungeon module), there was enough to be compelling to our players.  Since it’s a small village, our players have the freedom to make a difference.  So we’ve got plans for a temple to Pelor, a wizards’ enclave, and a new city guard.  We’ve already saved them from a serious problem, so they’re in our debt!  Our players can make of it what they want.

That’s something that will really excite your players: the feeling that they can make a difference and shape the world in which the game is set.  But as a GM, you have to be willing to let your players change the environment…for better and for worse!  But if you give them that freedom, I believe it will pay off in spades, as players begin to care for the place in which they’re gaming.  If players feel ownership for that environment, you’ll start to see characters acting from a place of real emotional investment in their world.  And that, my friends, is worth all the effort.

We’ve all played in forgettable settings that left us with forgettable adventures.  But what we all want is a rich, engaging setting that players enjoy–one that gives them a desire to continue in that world.  Meanwhile, I’m convinced that AD&D modules cultivate “living” settings that players can expand and own.  So pick one out that you’re interested in and give it a shot!  Either use that module as a basis or an inspiration for your next adventure.  See if your players have the same experience that mine did.

Sound off in the comments below or on Twitter: what OSR modules have produced rich settings for you?  Or maybe you have a question about how to better create a living environment for your players?

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13 thoughts on “The challenge and beauty of AD&D modules

  1. Dungeon Master says:

    I’m actually doing this right now. I’m DM’ing a game with my son and his friends. They are in the 4th grade, so I started out modestly with very simple, linear quests so as not to overwhelm them. They quickly got the hang of it and started needing more complex quests with complex, open backgrounds. I’m currently using the city in The Dwellers of the Forbidden City as a setting for my home-brewed narrative, and its working very well. It would’ve taken me weeks or even months to construct such an open, complex setting. They’ll be exploring this city for weeks! So far, so good, and I’ll be incorporating other module settings in the future as needed.

  2. L1 – The Secret of Bone Hill – Has been by goto module for years when I run AD&D. The town of Restenford is a wonderful location to spawn campaigns from. I will then alter other modules slightly so they occur in the region or within travel distance from Restenford. I have had numerous campaigns where the characters come from Restenford or traveled there and settled down such as a Paladin that was transfered to the local temple, a Mage who was an apprentice to a local master, and a Ranger who traveled to the region and purchased a cabin nearby. The L1 module developed my storytelling to the point I used it as an inspiration for developing my own home brew campaign world and developing living towns for my players to begin their campaigns.

    I6 – Ravenloft – Spawned an entire campaign in which I was a player. We played within that adventure module far beyond the core storyline resolution. The town and castle become a base for our players in a very unique storyline from our DM. I hope to run the new Curse of Strahd sometime for my players and see where they go with it.

    • MadCleric says:

      I’m interested to know more about how your adapted Restenford for your homebrew campaign. What system was that for?

      And Ravenloft! How could I forget?! Great recommendation.

      • Restenford was just the inspiration for how to build a sandbox town, I didn’t adapt it to my world. I have used a town similar to Restenford called Rippling Stones which I have fleshed out with all the locations, NPCS, and the area so it feels alive to my players and not a generic town. I have played in my homebrew world in a homebrew system, AD&D 1e & 2e, Fate, and now updating it to D&D 5e with my daughter.

  3. Lee says:

    I’ve been using Restenford and the rest of L1 as the centerpiece for 2 campaigns. Or the same campaign, perhaps, since the 2nd one is set a year after the first game, and the players’ actions echo there. I was greatly inspired the 2nd time by “The Restenford Project” blog, which tried to piece together threads from the module (and L2). My 2nd game is sort of an espionage game, for one player only (my dear wife), to discover many of these little elements.

  4. You think they are changing the world now? Wait till they hit name level and discover the mechanics to claim territory (20-50 square miles for a fighter, IIRC) build strongholds and raise armies.

    I really miss those mechanics in the older editions; I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate them into my 4e game for a while now.

  5. Fridge says:

    Hi Mad Cleric! I’m looking to read your prep notes for the Village of Hommlet will you share your spreadsheet with us? Thank you!

  6. OwlbearHugger says:

    I know this post is more than 5 years’ old, but ain’t that the beauty of the Internet? I wanted to say that I am a year into an AD&D campaign that started with L1 and has largely remains there. I have borrowed additional towns and characters from L2 and L4, though unlike L1, I didn’t run either of those modules. Oh, and I threw in the Caverns of Thracia nearby.

    If anyone is interested, I wrote up adventure summaries for 10 months of my campaign and posted them to Dragonsfoot recently:

    • MadCleric says:

      That is indeed the beauty of the inter webs! Thanks for sharing. I’ll check out your report over on Dragonsfoot.

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