When I was a kid, I never read published modules--and for the most part, neither did anybody else I knew. The only published adventures I ever came across were the little introductory ones stuck into core rulebooks and I and everyone I knew knew that those were lame. We wrote our own.
So the first time I picked up a published dungeon, I'd been making homemade dungeons for years--and, Lo and Behold, I picked it up And It Was Lame. I picked up another, Lame Again.
Adventure modules are only slightly above PC-build splatbooks on the RPG-product chain of being. Compared to the imagination fuel you typically get out of corebooks, monsterbooks, and sourcebooks, they suck a lot. Once in a while there's a good one-shot, and there are tons of great monsters that first appeared in published adventures, but beyond that, modules suck to a degree not seen since titans walked the earth and dogs could talk.
Now, when I first saw Paul Jaquays' Caverns of Thracia (the link is to the d20 update, but I read the 1979 original) I was an adult, I was aware of its reputation, and I had played a lot of D&D and made a lotta dungeons.
My reaction was (and still is):
1) This is the best large dungeon module I've ever seen, and...
2) that is sad because this isn't that great.
omgblasphemy. I am sure I will now be burned in effigy on boards I don't read.
Don't get it twisted: if I ran Thracia tomorrow as a player or DM I'd have a blast, for sure. It's good. It's solid. It's lovingly constructed. It's...
Ok, let me put it this way: Whenever I design a large dungeon, and whenever I was in a dungeon designed by someone else, the default assumptions are:
-There is a wide variety of monsters in the dungeon.
-It's really big.
-The design is nonlinear so you that you can end up doing the dungeon in any number of different ways.*
-There are traps. These traps make sense considering who built them and what they were protecting.
-There are weird nonstandard tricks--these things are weird but they have a reason they're there. If all else fails its some kind of "test" and if even that fails then maybe it was designed by an insane wizard.
-There are enough traps that PCs look at every single thing in the dungeon sideways. Therefore every detail--even if harmless--is potentially important.
-The culture(s) that built the dungeon aren't the ones who live in it now (that's why there are traps and tricks guarding ancient hidden treasures rather than just guards in front of what amounts to a bank vault.)
-There is more than one intelligent faction living in the dungeon and controlling what goes on there (that's why 3-8 random adventurers have a chance of getting in and out--the enemy isn't inept, they just have to simultaneously deal with other shit besides you.) (That's also why there's more than one kind of trick and trap.)
-The whole dungeon functions together. A lever or key in location A can affect things that happen in location B. You have to go back sometimes to find these things.
-Dangerous features of the dungeon can be used against the dungeon inhabitants by clever PCS.
-The tricks and the traps alternate with monster fights but--more than that--they are integrated with monster fights so that they can work together. You never fight the same monster twice because environmental factors make a difference.
Now, like I said, these are the defaults. It's possible to build a good dungeon with one of these switches turned "off" but it's like tying your hands.
More than that though, a lot of these features are why I like dungeons in the first place: the complexity, the mystery, the interfactional drama and multidirectional possibilities for problem-solving.
When I say almost all our dungeons were like this, I am not claiming to be special--I assume anybody who knows what they're doing would do dungeons this way at least once in a while. It seems like the cliche. A good cliche. This is what the DM guide in the Red Box and AD&D DMG had trained me to expect, it's what video games, from Zork to Super Mario Bros had trained me to expect, and it's what actually playing the game for years had trained me to expect and I was always kind of mystified that whenever I looked at a module it was never like this.
There were repetitive dungeons that were just one-note orc-and-ogre bullshit, or "theme" dungeons where it's all about some specific cute gimmick, or (especially from WoTC) dungeons which were just a bunch of fights linearly strung together in order with inhabitants apparently too dumb to help each other, or funhouse dungeons designed by wizards whose idea of a good time was making you fight a chocolate moose in a Corridor of Living Succotash, or fortress dungeons where the whole thing was controlled by one entity so that it didn't really make sense how easy it was to get past the traps and stuff.
I think most people's fond memories of "classic" dungeon modules comes from nostalgic memories from times when they were happy to be playing D&D at all. A goblin in a room? Awesome! And treasure, too? Holy gobstoppers! TSR's Mordenkainen's Fantastic Adventure is just linked fights with--if I recall--not a single secret door or real puzzle (as opposed to the occasional "that spell won't work, what about this one" puzzle) to be found, the Temple of Elemental Evil is just like random monster manual entries strung together, the only thing special about the small Village of Hommlet dungeon other than the neat picture showing the possible entrances is the lack of stupid gimmicks, and Ruins of Greyhawk and Ruins of Undermountain both seem really high on the Arbitrary Feature Justified By A Crazy Wizard quotient--and although I don't mind a crazy wizard one bit you'd think: A-the crazy wizard would think of something crazier to do other than install yet another device hidden in a random dungeon feature that does a little bit of damage, B-Even a crazy wizard might want to make rooms that have something to do with each other on occasion, and C-TSR might've eventually thought of some non-crazy-wizard justification for unusual features in a megadungeon after a while.
Not to mention the fact that TSR dungeons are so larded with descriptive text that almost always just amounts to "this room has various mundane objects you'd expect to be in here and, also, a monster that tries to kill you" that by the time you've finished reading them you've already thought of something at least as good.
"120. Kitchen. This place is 20' x 30' OH MY GOD THAT'S ON THE MAP DO I NEED IT HERE TOO?...."Within the darkest recesses of the..." HOW ABOUT A SNAKE? "...fireplace dwells a giant poisonous snake. It is coiled and..."IT'LL ATTACK AND THERE'S SOME LAME TREASURE LYING AROUND "may strike by surprise (50% chance). It has not eaten for a long time, and is very hungry. It can strike to 8 foot range, half its length, and attacks any creature coming within that range. Near the ogre skeleton is a usable shortsword (its "dagger") and a leather sack containing 84 gp. These are hidden under a small pile of nondescript debris. The ten-foot-square rooms were used for crockery storage and food storage, respectively for the south and west areas. Their contents are broken and smashed; food- stuffs are spoiled."
Thanks, 240-word room description! It's hard to figure why anyone would use these dungeons: it takes more time to read and prepare them with a highlighter than it would take to make an equally involved dungeon on your own.
A DM perusing Ruins of Undermountain, comes across this message and eagerly leans forward:
This is a complex encounter; the DM must be totally familiar with everything in this room before the PCs begin exploring the area.
What have we here? Sounds cuh-Rayzeee...Oh: A vampire with a lot of spells, and some other undead helping him. And pillars that trap you if you touch them. And some pits. What's in the pits? Zombies.
And in case you're wondering: the pillars don't work on the undead, so that's a layer of possible complexity (pointlessly) removed. Is there any self-respecting D&D-playing 12-year old anywhere who couldn't have thought of that on their own? Does that not sound exactly how Chad Blerkenwald killed your dwarf fighter in 8th grade?
Next room: a necrophidius in a partially magic-proof room. Next Medusas: 3 of them. You paid money for this. Couldn't they have just had a line in the Monster Manual: "Medusae occasionally appear in rooms".
This kind of points up the whole problem with most dungeons: publishers seem to put most of their creativity into the monsters, classes, magic items, and spells. Most of these come from the core books. When dungeons are published, they stick a monster or spells or item into a room and assume that's enough to charge money for. And, yeah, that'll make a fun encounter--but they forget that we can do that on our own since they already gave us the monsters and spells and items in other books before. The dungeon has to include encounters that are new and interesting beyond that. And they don't.
Then (years ago) I saw Caverns of Thracia.
Look at this: Everything you think is supposed to be in a dungeon! Finally. That's nice. Next...
To be fair now, Thracia has a couple features that I hadn't seen before:
-fun tables to roll on to see what the PCs have heard about the dungeon before going in, and...
-maps that are complicated and eccentric enough to resemble genuine layers of building floorplans (though this second doesn't really add that much more to play at the table.)
-a couple wonderfully described (but mechanically ordinary) unique boss monsters.
Now it's obviously possible that all the dungeon cliches I like so much actually came from Caverns of Thracia and its ilk and that's why, ten or fifteen years after it was published, none of it seemed too terribly mind-blowing.
Sure, but put it this way: Caverns of Thracia is the best big published dungeon I've ever seen, but it should be the worst.
What should've happened is people looked at this thing and how it was built and said "Look what we have here, a fine dungeon, full of depth, variety and even a few moving parts! Let's remove the Greek stuff and replace it with Viking stuff, because that's cooler, let's remove the underground forest because seriously who cares? there's already a gazillion magic forests above ground...and lets replace this trick with a more elaborate one and move this one over here, let's replace the umpteenth skeleton fight with an eye-of-fear-and-flame and..."...and basically build on the chassis provided in Thracia the way that game designers built on the chassis of D&D.
Instead what it looks like they did is went "Ok, here's a a fine dungeon, full of depth and variety! Let's now try to only ever publish things that are worse."
Am I being hard on the old boy? Here are some of the more elaborate ideas in Thracia:(SPOILERS)
-A rope bridge you have to go across while baddies attack
-A room full of corpses frozen in prayer position--some have treasure, but one of them is a "very patient wight".
-A skull that will answer 1 yes/no question from each PC but which marks the players with a symbol that affects whether certain other dungeon features activate at their approach and causes an undead monster to appear when the PC is low on hp.
-Curtains that stick to whatever they touch .
All good stuff, all fun, but, in terms of imagery and mechanical novelty, none of it is better than the sort of ideas I've been reading for the last week when I ask for random ideas--or what I expect to read at least once a week on somebody's blog.**
Jaquays main achievement here was thoroughness and hard work: there's craftsmanship on every page, creativity on every third or fourth page, and there's seventy-eight pages. Nothing at which to sneeze, but it's sad that, more than 30-odd years later, nobody's managed to do better than that and get it published.
*There's a popular Old School meme where someone went and analyzed the possible paths through Paul Jaquays' dungeons, pointing out how part of their distinctive design was that they were nonlinear. This struck me at the time as a lot like someone pouring through old Minor Threat bootlegs and announcing that, after careful analysis, they'd discovered Minor Threat songs are really fast.
Examples? Here's two without even thinking about it:
Here's a room Jeff made: two doors, one big one small. Opening the small door and putting anything into it makes the same object come into the room through the other door, massively enlarged. I've never seen anything that good in a crazy wizard dungeon.
Sick of crazy wizards? Chris Lowrance inflicts this punishment on PCs captured by evil humanoids, in a random comment on this here blog:
The bearer of this mark is to be sealed inside the skull of a giant, which is then filled with either:
1. A mild acid (will ruin cloth and paper, removes all body hair, permanent scarring over entire body),
2. Cave Bees (like normal bees but deal with fungi spores instead of pollen),
3. Jackalhead pups,
4. Cave Honey Mead (think bourbon with traces of LSD in it),
6. Snakes and chicken eggs,
7. Snakes and live chickens,
8. Hallucinogenic Mushrooms,
9. Rotting meat,
10. A candle, some dice, a couple hunks of meat and a kobold who just happened to draw the same sign that morning.
Why can't anybody gainfully employed in the RPG industry have their orcs do that when they capture you?