Dungeons of Dread is a collection of dungeons, but not just any dungeons. Old school dungeons, dungeons from the earliest era of Dungeons and Dragons, when life was cheap, and your game master would laugh at you if you thought your character would respawn ten seconds after he died. See that demon face on the cover of the book? That face was the last thing that probably hundreds of character saw before they were destroyed. Not just killed, but rip-up-your-character sheet destroyed…and that’s just the first room in the first of the four dungeons here.
That first dungeon is Tomb of Horrors, a deathtrap dungeon from Gary Gygax himself. This was the ultimate challenge dungeon from the ultimate dungeon master, and it says much about how the game used to be played. Character levels flor this adventure were from 10 to 14–in old D&D, it was basically impossible to get much past level 12, and it took years to get there; even going from level 1 to 2 took months, no minutes. At this level, characters might finally lead armies (before “name” level characters just about never led much more than a couple of hirelings), but retirement drew near; this dungeon is as much intended as a “last hurrah” for players to run their characters at the peak of their powers as it is yet another quest for loot and experience points…most will die gruesomely, as nearly every room has a way for a player to get himself killed, no matter what numbers are on his character sheet.
White Plume Mountain isn’t nearly so lethal. There are a few ways to get incinerated, but this is a quest to recover powerful weapons from a mad lich. There are some massive bloodbath combats here, but mostly this is a dungeon of puzzles, starting with a riddle. If that players can’t solve that riddle, that’s it, that could be it for the whole adventure. This sort of thing is unhead of today’s adventures, where pretty much anybody can succeed no matter what (Gygax would snort geysers of milk at anyone claiming a “Take 20” rule). Granted, most players will work past that riddle, but this is another insight into how old school games are played: if the players can’t hack it, the world doesn’t adjust to them.
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is my personal favorite, as it is the high point of old school play: going where none have gone before, to meet new creatures, kill them, and take their loot. The “dungeon” is actually a long abandoned spaceship crash site. D&D was only three books in this era, and dedicated players could easily know “all there is to know” about monsters and items…but it all goes out the window here, as the ship is filled with new creatures, along with new gear, including at least four different kinds of futuristic weapons. Some of the new monsters are basically only vulnerable to space-age weapons, all but forcing players to adapt or die.
Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth represents another aspect of old school play that you just don’t see anymore. There’s no “map” to the dungeon, nor is Tsojcanth a short walk outside the city gates. Instead, players must spend months or more of game time exploring the region where the caverns are rumored to be located, having many wilderness encounters–encounters that exist in the world and don’t depend on the characters level. “Run away” is considered a sign of design failure in adventures today, as clearly “the designers made things too hard.” But in the olden days, players were supposed to know their own characters well enough, and they got into a fight they couldn’t win, it was the players’ fault, not the fault of the designer or gamemaster.
All the adventures are straight reprints, and this is my biggest criticism here–if you don’t know the old rules, you might have a hard time adapting these adventures to current Dungeons and Dragons or Pathfinder rules. Even if this means too much work to adapt an entire adventure, this book is a great source of ideas for encounters to adapt to any game system, as well as a great source of insights into the origins of role playing games.
Product Page [Wizards]