Friday, March 25, 2011

Memories: First Attempt At a Module

A few days ago, Matt Finch over at the Swords and Wizardry blog mentioned that he was going to be posting some scans of at least one level of a mega-dungeon he'd worked on when he was 11, which reminded me that I'd been meaning to blog about something similar: my first game group's attempt to create a "professional" module.

This was probably around 1983 or so, and our group had changed slightly to allow a new player - a guy named Russ.  I was about to say that Russ was just one of those kids who didn't quite fit in, but then again, this was Jr. High School and honestly, who really fits in at that age?  Everybody is awkward, even the so-called cool kids.

Let's just say Russ was different from us.  Two of the people in our game group were already growing their hair out in defiance of the very conservative Utah social norms of the time, and were always wearing faded jeans and shirts promoting bands and albums that the rest of us had never heard of.  Of course, nowadays these are considered required uniforms in the wardrobe of any self-respecting gamer-geek, but back then, it was social suicide to dress different than the other kids.  I was not quite as adventurous as those other two guys, as at the time I had no allowance and most of my clothes were still purchased for me from Mervyn's by my mother.  But then there was Russ - overweight, and dressed in a nicely pressed button-up shirt tucked into his very neat khaki slacks with pleats so sharp you could slice bread with them, and polished loafer shoes.  This is what Russ wore to Jr. High School.  He was extremely well-spoken (although a terrible speller, as you'll see in a bit), but had not learned the Jr. High School survival technique of "duck-and-cover."  Russ was a totally sarcastic SOB and thought nothing of insulting the toughest kid on the block "just because."  Russ, in his mind, figured that he was smarter than everybody else and that he could overpower people with his keen intellect, at least until the day that creating a super-science evil death-ray machine and enslaved the world.  I'm pretty sure he was planning that.

One thing about Russ, though - he didn't have a lot of friends, but his parents spoiled the heck out of him, so he had tons of D&D stuff.  His collection was probably the second biggest I'd seen in private hands.  So, we let Russ in our group and he was a pretty decent player and actually ended up taking over DM duties for our group, which we all liked because at the time, we all just wanted to play, not spend time reading the modules and DM'ing them.

Like a lot of kids our age who played D&D a lot, we of course decided that we were just as creative as the professional game designers who were publishing all of the books and modules we purchased, so we figured that we might as well just form a little group (we called ourselves by the very original name "Swords & Sorcery") and write our own material.

Module SA1: Dwelling of the Death Knights was our first (and, as it turned out), only attempt.  I posted the cover that my friend John drew - it's primarily just pen and black ink, although he used some bits of red on the hooves, eyes, mane, mouth, and nostril of the nightmare, and oddly singled out one character, a fighter-type, and colored his jerkin and boots brown.

In case you can't read the cover, here is the text in all of its 1983 dot-matrix printer glory:

Adventure from Swords & Sorcery
By Marty Thomas and Russ Mickler
An Adventure for Characters Levels 4-8

On a hilltop, the lonely keep Dragonfire, now leads a strange life.  Can you unlock the secrets and rescue the fabled Elfneld?

Dwelling of the Death Knights is the first installment in a series of three modules compiled by the Swords and Sorcery Club in Sandy, Utah.

TSR Hobbies, Inc.

Printed in U.S.A.

I think my favorite part of the whole thing, really, is our complete brashness at putting "TSR Hobbies" on the front.  We really just assumed, "Hey, we'll type this up and send it off to TSR and they'll be so impressed by our brilliance and creativity that they'll pay us an publish it, probably 'as is'!"

Russ typed everything himself because he was the only one in the group with a computer (again, this was 1983 - to the rest of us, a computer was something that powered the USS Enterprise, not something you'd have in your house), and also the only one of us who knew how to type.  As I mentioned, he wasn't a great speller, or even very good at grammar as identified by the extraneous comma in the descriptive text above.  I'm also not sure how exactly the castle itself "leads a strange life" but at the time, that sounded good to us.  Inside there are dozens of typos including "speek with mammal", "conseild door", and "spere" (instead of spear). 

There's also some great instructions on the first page of the module: "DM, do not judge this module by apperance [sic], look at it, and see what you think."

The plot was very derivative, of course, and honestly a little hard to follow.  As this was intended as "the first installment in a series of three modules" (the other two of which were never written), it's difficult to remember what we had planned.  What I do remember is that an evil wizard stole a powerful sword called Elfneld and used it along with his death knight followers (we had just gotten access to the Fiend Folio and thought that death knights were the coolest thing ever) to try to take over the mysterious Dragonfire keep.  Once the wizard won the keep, he had no more use for the death knights, so he betrayed and tried to destroy them.  They fought back, and the wizard was killed, but not before most of the death knights had been consigned to the Abyss.  The sword was left untended in the keep, but no one dared venture there.  Now, hundreds of years later, the death knights have returned and declared war on all wizards.

That's basically what I remember.  The sword had tons of special abilities including the ability to cast spells, and was full of gems that turned a different color each time the blade was used to slay a chaotic evil creature.  Once a certain number of CE creatures were slain, the gems would hold the power of 9th levels spells in them.  It was all a little ridiculous.

The interior of the module included two poorly drawn maps (one of the upper ruins inside the keep, and one an area map of the surrounding territory), and the descriptive text of the rooms and denizens of the keep.  All told, including the cover, the entire thing was eight typewritten pages.

Inside the keep were trapped chests, a suit of "magical +4 magic armor" which was inhabited by a Sandman (who for some reason telepathically warned the death knights of the coming adventurers), a bergalang, an iron golem, a magnetic room that stole all of the characters metal items, some giant trolls, a needle man, a forlarren, a "death worm" (some kind of undead giant purple worm thing we made up), a tribe of kobolds, a total of 12 death knights, and then just to keep the Fiend Folio theme going, a room called the "Drow Headquarters" full of 10 Drow that had nothing to do with the rest of the module.  One of the death knights is of course wielding the "fabled" sword, Elfneld, in stark contradiction to the description of the sword at the front of the module wherein it is explained that the sword is intelligent with an Ego of 17 and will only allow itself to be used by Neutral characters.  

To sum up: it sucked.  Of course.  We were 13 years old.  But we had fun making it, and it felt like we'd really accomplished something to type if up and print it out, with a cool cover illustration.

I'm sure there are tons of people out there with similar stories.  I'd love to hear them.


  1. That is so, so awesome that you still have the first one that I came up with. I remember doing the cover in the TSR style and everything. I do remember some of the rooms in the dungeon, though. Something about a spinning room and a while section that was bathed in liquid air (like that stuff deep divers use).

    Anyway, my first real module (for MERP this time) was posted here:

  2. Yeah, I tend to keep everything because growing up, neither one of my parents kept anything so it's very difficult to get a sense of the kind of people they were when they were younger.

    I always had this thought in my head that if I kept everything that I did and organized it well, that years from now my future kids and/or grandkids could go through it and say, "Oh, so this is what he was like."

  3. Martin, I did a retrospective of one of my modules at my blog. Here's a link to the "Q1" tag. There are a bunch of posts. Thanks for sharing this -- it's a great story and I enjoyed reading it. I like the cover too!


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