Ellen Page Ranked
Post updated here.
Post updated here.
"It took a hundred years of digging before searchers found the location of the original village. However, they encountered the unexpected. Something was digging up to meet them. News eventually stopped coming from the village. Mitra's Fist had changed almost overnight. Some force had possessed the village and its occupants, causing them to slay children, non-humans and Mitraic priests in one night of hell possessed fury. It is these very same villagers who have inhabited the old decaying buildings of Mitra's Fist for three hundred years since, never aging. For three centuries the village of Mitra's Fist has existed, unmolested by the outside world. Few have noticed that the village has had the same occupants for over ten generations. Few have noticed because few are those who can visit the village and not fall prey to the sharp, ceremonial dagger of the high priest of Set."That powerful set up takes the long defeat theme of The Village of Hommlet (evil is cyclical, it can never be truly defeated, it will keep coming back) and meshes it with the steady creep of chaos in The Keep on the Borderlands (lonely isolated outposts fending off evil forces), but with a threat worse than either. This is a close-quartered clash of good and evil, in an underground of sadism and sacrifice. Enemies lie only rooms away, and the cold war has been festering for bloody centuries. The villagers above are cursed by immortality and unable to leave the mountain pass, dominated by the Set cult. Avvakris the Merchant (actually the high priest of Set) is one of the most memorable villains from any module, his son a half-reptilian, and his concubine a ravishing beauty who can either be found making love to him or as a half-eaten corpse with her heart removed.
Inferno is my ultimate gaming fantasy come true. But it's an anomaly in this six-part series, because it's a half module that was never finished. It's being finished now, however, in a delayed-blast profusion of modules and gazetteers. The first four circles comprised the classic module (1980), the fifth and sixth circles were published six years ago in Fight On, issue #3, and a gazetteer of the seventh-ninth circles was released just three months ago. There are more gazetteers of the upper circles and modules of the lower ones on the way. For sake of simplicity, I will refer to this vast body of work as the Inferno Project. Though the recent publications aren't written for 1st edition D&D (for copyright reasons), they are entirely in the old-school vein and designed by the same genius, Geoff Dale.
"A noxious mix of sewage, offal, and other liquid filth fills the pit to a height of seven feet, and clouds of buzzing insects (flesh flies, poison gnats, giant mosquitoes) swarm above the liquid. Mortals swimming across the filth contract 1d3 disease each from the contact. Determine diseases from 1d12: (1) dengue fever, (2) tuberculosis, (3) diptheria, (4) tetanus, (5) malaria, (6) elephantitus, (7) yellow fever, (8) dysentery, (9) smallpox, (10) typhoid fever, (11) tapeworms, (12) bubonic plague; see Codicil of Maladies for details. An encounter occurs to mortals swimming the muck... (1) mud snakes, (2) giant slugs, (3) giant leeches, (4) type 8A devils. Mortals flying above the muck are attacked by type 8A devils."The Inferno Project owes to Dante also in terms of the tour-guide approach. Duke rulers like Plutus (Fourth Circle) can be receptive enough to show PCs around torture pits where souls labor in degrading tasks, and answer questions provided they have the proper passes and behave themselves. These civilized devils are also leering sorts who will as likely attempt to rape female PCs before murdering them -- a typical reminder of how faithful modules were to gritty pulp fantasy before D&D became so sissified. Some of the most vile and deadly magic items (often cursed) can be found throughout the Inferno, as well as hidden talismans that can be used against the devils.
If Tomb of Horrors is the most punishing D&D module, and The Lost City the most inspired, and Castle Amber the most rewarding, what is Vault of the Drow? Without doubt, it's the most brilliantly conceived. Many grognards call it the best thing Gary Gygax ever designed, and in hindsight it's obvious why. But back in the day it wasn't esteemed so highly. Certainly gamers I knew didn't think much of it; it was almost a non-event.
"The Vault is a strange anomaly, a hemispherical cyst in the crust of the earth, a huge domed fault over 6 miles long and nearly as broad. The dome overhead is a hundred feet high at the walls, arching to several thousand feet height in the center. The radiation from certain unique minerals gives the visual effect of a starry heaven... These 'star' nodes glow in radiant hues of mauve, lake, violet, puce, lilac, and deep blue. The large 'moon' of tumkeoite casts beams of shimmering amethyst which touch the crystalline formations with colors unknown to any other visual experience. The lichens seem to glow in rose madder and pale damson, the fungi growths in golden and red ochres. The rock walls of the Vault appear hazy and insubstantial in the wine-colored light, more like mist than solid walls. The place is indeed a dark fairyland."DMs who know what they're doing (as I clearly didn't back in the day) can serve up a nightmare world where factions of dark elves plot against each other, demons and undead walk the streets, and obscene sacrifices are offered to Lolth, all under that purple glow of phosphorescent fungi and bizarre "moon". There are torture parlors, bordellos, drug saloons, and avenues where the undead feast openly, but here's the thing: everything is disturbingly civilized. And gorgeous.
It's impossible for me to discuss Castle Amber apart from my experience of it. I remember thirty-two years ago like it was yesterday. My best friend was the DM and in top form, putting me and three other players though a truly demented campaign. It was weird from the first room, but we knew we were in a loony universe when we ran afoul the ogre dressed in a nightgown who thought it was Janet Amber (whom it killed), and got increasingly homicidal the more compassionate we were. My friend's impersonation of the ogre and falsettos added up to some of the best DM role-playing he'd ever done; we felt like we were really in that castle.
"The personalities of the lost Amber family set the mood for the adventure. The Ambers range from slightly eccentric to completely insane. For the most part, the family is [chaotic evil]. While they are proud of their name, they seldom cooperate with each other. Most of them believe they can do anything once they set their mind to it. They live magically lengthened lives, but they have seen too much and are bored. They seek anything to relieve this boredom... It amuses them to watch adventurers battle obstacles, and they are equally amused whether the adventurers succeed or fail. A good spectacle is more important to them than defeating the adventurers. The Ambers tend to be fair, out of the belief that a rigged game is too predictable and not much fun."For the first time I realized the extent to which character and role-playing defined a good D&D game, and how a trait like boredom, of all things, could produce not only deadly results, but dangerously unpredictable ones.
If you asked me to name the D&D module that most fired my imagination, that I obsessed like no other, that inspired me to keep building on its foundations, my reply is immediate: The Lost City. I spent countless after-school hours pouring over this thing. It got into my head like a cerebral tapeworm. Meals went untasted as I stayed in my bedroom designing new areas, expanding the underground, and giving the bottom pyramid tiers a complete overhaul. I took the world to bed at nights, dreaming of an ancient civilization fallen from glory, and whose descendents tripped through life half-baked on acid and in thrall to a Cthulhu-like deity monster. It suggested stories of lost culture, and hopeless struggles for restoration. I wanted to go there; that's the kind of grip it had on me.
"Every Cynidicean wears a stylized mask, usually of an animal or human face. Some are made of wood, some of paper mache, and some of metal. They are decorated with beads, bones, feathers, and jewels. Most wear fancy clothes, flashy jewelry, and carry short swords. Some paint their bodies with bright colors. The Cynidiceans are a dying race. Each new generation is smaller than the last. Most of them have forgotten that an outside world exists, living most of their lives in weird dreams. The times when they seem normal, tending their fields and animals, are becoming fewer and fewer as the dreams replace reality. Their unusual costumes and masks only strengthen their dreams."Against this decadence, however, stand three renegade factions, the few "normal" Cynidiceans attempting to restore worship of the old gods: the Brotherhood of Gorm, the Magi of Usamigaras, and the Warrior-Maidens of Madarua. They're dedicated to overthrowing the Zargonites in their own way, as they distrust each other, and are certainly not above using PCs as pawns in their covert agendas. It all depends on how the PCs interact with them. This makes for a wonderfully unpredictable dynamic, and it's noteworthy that Moldvay emphasized this -- with a stern reminder for DMs to expect the unexpected from their players:
"The bickering between the three factions, and their attempts to restore sanity to Cynidicean society, give the DM the chance to add character interaction to the adventure. While the factions can be played as simple monsters with treasure, the DM and players can have a lot of fun with the plots and feuding of the factions. If this is done, the DM should plan in advance what the faction members may say or do if the party tries to talk, attack, or wait to see what the NPCs do first. It is important for the DM to avoid forcing the action to a pre-set conclusion -- the actions of the players must be able to make a difference."Such advice, of course, was boilerplate wisdom in the old school and hardly needed spelling out. That Moldvay saw the need to do so in 1982 indicates what was slowly creeping into the game, and would become the new fad a year and a half later. Prior to the Dragonlance craze of 1984, railroading (i.e. pre-packaged plotting) was anathema in D&D. The Golden Age was one of open-ended sandboxes (i.e. locales/settings), which left plotting to the DM, but also to the players, with the result that stories grew spontaneously in game play. The Lost City is one of the best examples of this classic approach, and completely unlike today's adventure-path designs that predestine players' "choices".
To call Tomb of Horrors a "favorite" seems absurd on the face of it. It's certainly the most famous and notorious module, but it's impossibly unfair, and if you play it honestly you won't be playing for long. Gary Gygax only designed it to shut up complainers that D&D was getting too easy. He may have gone overboard by way of response, but it turned out to be just what the game needed in 1978. The tomb made an impact not only as a dungeon, but by the mentality it fostered. It's my favorite module because it's the most reliable gauge of one's affinities for the old-school. In effect, its a Platonic ideal. All killer dungeons walked in its shadow, unable to repeat the artistically perfect nihilism. The more we hated it, the more we loved it. Today's generation will never understand why.
"The doors are 14' wide and 28' tall, made of solid mithril, 3' thick, and impregnated with great magicks in order to make them absolutely spell and magic proof. Where the halves meet, at about waist height, is a cup-like depression, a hemispherical concavity, with a central hole. The latter appears to be the keyhole for the second key, but if this is inserted, the character so doing will receive 1-10 points of electrical damage, while the first key will cause double that amount of damage to any so foolish as to insert it. The real key to these gates is the scepter from the throne room behind. If the scepter's gold ball is inserted into the depression, the mithril valves will swing silently open. But if the scepter's silver sphere is touched to the hemispherical cup the holder of the instrument will be teleported instantly and spat out at the devil's mouth at 6. [the tomb's entrance], nude, while all his or her non-living materials go to 33. [the demi-lich's crypt], and the scepter flashes back to the throne."Then come the gallons of cascading blood -- keep in mind that Gygax wrote this before Stanley Kubrick's The Shining -- if the doors are cut by a sharp weapon. It's the blood of all victims who have died in the tomb, and once again, you'd never guess what it takes to stop it from drowning everyone: a levitate spell coagulates the blood (but turns it into a massive ochre jelly) a purify water turns it to gas (but unfortunately poisonous), raise dead or resurrection destroys it (this solution being one of the few without any lethal side effects), etc.
When I ranked the 40 classic D&D modules, it got tough around the top. On most of my lists, two titles at most compete for the top slot. For instance, The Lord of the Rings is my favorite novel, but so is Shogun. The Lord of the Rings is also my favorite film(s), but honestly, so is The Exorcist.
Post updated here.
Here's my top-10 countdown of movie scenes that scared the be-Jesus out of me -- that made my hair stand on end, my heart stop, my body sweat and shake. Most are from horror films, though not all. There's a plane crash and underground cave-in that terrify me as much as the foulest demons from hell. There's even a scene from a fantasy film.