Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Judges Guild: Older-School Adventures…

Posted by Rampant Coyote on March 28, 2011

This weekend – in between bouts of some kind of illness that made me it’s punching bag – I stumbled across some unpublished work I did for Necromancer Games several years ago. This was principally work converting and updating some old Judges Guild materials over to to 3rd edition D20 rules. Yep, dice-and-paper, baby. Sadly, back then the guys at Necromancer Games were able to talk to the founder of Judges Guild, Bob Bledsaw, for additional information. Bledsaw died of cancer a few years later (2008).

I am an old-school gamer, but not quite that old-school. By the time I was seriously playing D&D, Judges’ Guild was… well, it was still around, but it was being overshadowed by TSR in such a way that I didn’t really recognize what they had been. It seems – based on my limited understanding – they were the first licensed third-party maker of game accessories for Dungeons & Dragons.  TSR was happy to have them make accessories that they thought were in an insignificant niche — things like adventure modules and a campaign setting. When TSR saw that JG was selling quite well, they jumped onto the ol’ bandwagon and started publishing their own modules and similar supplements – with slicker, more professional production values.

Since I missed them the first time around, I was able to be introduced to the Judges Guild line “fresh” around 2002 and 2003. I was able to learn “Old school” that made my own version of “old school” seem downright modern. “Older school?” It was really fun to work on, but everything I did was pretty much dropped when the transition to 3.5 came in the middle of 2003, which put a bullet in the head of the already sagging 3.0-compatible market.

It really was a mixed bag. I guess at that point, they were dealing with a different kind of audience, and really they were still kind of working out what their audience really wanted. One project I worked on was what would eventually become the Wilderlands of High Fantasy boxed set.  The original consisted of a number of numbered hex-grid maps of the world. The numbered hexes were keyed into several collections of encounters or lairs. Some had interesting write-ups that could be termed adventure seeds today. But the bulk of them – pretty much all of them that I was working with – could have been easily generated by a short computer program today.  The listings had the hex number, a monster type, and quantity. “Hex 1234  Manticores  (4).”

Seriously. That was it. Why that was superior to simply rolling up a random wilderness encounter, I will never know. Maybe it was because of the community – anybody who played in that world would encounter 4 manticores when they traveled through that hex. My task was to flesh these out into somewhat interesting encounters. This was a tall order. So I’d take something like an encounter with 8 giant poisonous snakes, and make it a one- or two-paragraph setup describing the ruins of an ancient, long-forgotten temple to a serpent god. The encounter with snakes would involve the ancient descendants of the  fierce giant snakes used by ancient cultists in their ceremonies. Or something along those lines.

The two old JG modules I was asked to convert (co-writing with another Necromancer Games writer) were considerably more interesting. These were Modron, and The Witches Court Marshes. My favorite was definitely the latter, by Bryan Hinnen and published in 1982 (apparently when Judge’s Guild started moving away from the D&D system to their own “generic” system which was designed to be converted easily). Unlike the Wilderlands, which tried to describe an entire world in a tiny collection of packages, the module was able to go into detail about a single region. While a dungeon was included, most of the booklet defined the Witch class (complete with lots of new spells), and included a general description of the main town (Grita Heath) and the smaller villages, and a table of events. Modron was really just a city-state with a more detailed description of important locations and characters, and – like The Witches Court Marshes – some interesting cultural twists.

Though I didn’t work on it, I’d want to include The Caverns of Thracia on the list, another JG module I have at least a small amount of familiarity with (I think I have a couple more in my collection, as well as — I think — a couple of JG Traveller adventures).  But the interesting thing about these older modules is they really weren’t adventures on their own… they were more of a “kit” for DMs to build adventures. This is probably in-line with TSR’s original vision that D&D was a creative endeavor for DMs, who would prefer to create their own adventures.

It’s very likely – based upon reading these and early D&D modules from TSR – that the encounters in these modules weren’t intended to be quite as static as they were often played.  In the Caverns of Thracia, in particular, different factions between monsters are described. As James Maliszewski put it in a review at Grognardia:

While perhaps not large enough to be called a true “megadungeon,” the four levels of the caverns are nevertheless expansive and filled with a wide variety of humanoid factions — a few of them mutually antagonistic — which contributes greatly to the feeling of dynamism the module evokes. This is a “living” environment that puts paid to the notion that old school dungeons are static places with monsters statically side by side without any interactions between them.

Granted, the module was also designed by Jennell Jaquays, who has done phenomenal stuff both in dice-and-paper gaming in the 70s and 80s, and in video games today (including being a veteran of the Quake development team).

Each of the modules also describes a place that is given gravity by being steeped in history and ancient lore. Modron was a city built around (literally) an ancient goddess. The history of the Witches Court Marshes was even more inspiring, with horrors far predating the original ancient settlers to the land. And the Caverns of Thracia mark an ancient empire that predated even the rise of human civilization, before the powerful race of reptilians devolved over centuries into mere lizard-men. It’s meaty, inspiring stuff to get the creative juices flowing and provide a thematic foundation for the module.

Another interesting point with Witches and Caverns is the existence of environmental hazards that often require player skill to figure out. In the computer game analog, these would be very adventure-gamey rather than typical role-playing-gamey. While many times skill (or rather, attribute) checks were called for to succeed in certain actions, there are many challenges (not quite “puzzles,” but they did require logical thinking and careful observation) where success was based on player decisions, not character actions.  Time your movement through the geyser room incorrectly (or pay no attention to the warnings), and characters would be killed – no matter how many hit points they had remaining.

Threats are not necessarily organized by expected player level. This is a Big Deal, and a major difference from modern adventures. Gary Gygax, if I recall, actually implied that video games were the cause of the change. Modern gamers tend to have a “clear the level” mentality, expecting a tough but beatable level-boss at the end before progressing to the next tier of difficulty.  The older modules didn’t have that structure, though they still tended to have easier challenges in the more accessible areas, and the main threat of the dungeon in the more remote section. But players would expect to have to flee, parlay, or simply avoid trouble until they could regroup and mount another assault – with the enemies taking appropriate action in the interim.

Another point that would be familiar to old-school computer RPG fans would be the less believable elements that seemed created merely to frustrate would-be adventurers. Giant, weird, funky traps that would spin rooms, or have entire bridges fall away, dumping the party down a deep shaft into magma if they touched a door with anything other than the key, that kind of thing. Good game design? Probably not. And the arbitrary and “sudden death” nature of some traps probably added to the feeling of an adversarial relationship between the players and the game master.  And what was up with these villainous beings (like succubi) who simply stood around in dungeons masquerading as imprisoned maidens? Or mimics that just sat around all day disguised as a treasure chest? How did something like that evolve?

But these elements – gamey as they were – still contributed to the feeling of an actively hostile environment for the player. Dungeons were apparently designed by the inhabitants exactly as they were designed in the real world – to frustrate and destroy invading adventurers. There isn’t much by explanation as to WHY a particular key is enchanted to zap the first non-lawful-evil person to touch it for 6d6 damage… it just was. Explanations weren’t required.

Many CRPGs up through the early 90’s sort of followed suit.  However, there were two major differences here: In CRPGs, players didn’t usually have access to the kinds of spells or detailed observation that allowed these things to be considered remotely fair in the pen-and-paper world.  And pen-and-paper games didn’t have save games or respawning, as did the CRPGs that actually had significant environmental-based puzzles beyond simple traps or spinning / teleporting tiles.

I know Caverns of Thracia was converted into a Neverwinter Nights module more than once, but I never played any of them, and I don’t know how faithfully they were done. It’d be cool to see a reasonably faithful conversion of these titles someday, a la Temple of Elemental Evil, but I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

But it’s interesting to go back and see these old adventures. Are newer pen-and-paper modules superior? In most ways, I’d say so. I think Necromancer Games had a good idea there in trying to recapture that flavor.


Filed Under: Dice & Paper, Retro - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    Oh, man. This article makes me nostalgic for the days when I played PnP D&D. I had a gaming group and we played twice a month for 15+ years. We started with 1st Edition for the first couple of years, then moved on to 2nd Edition – “Advanced” Dungeons and Dragons.

    It’s true that TSR expected more creativity and hands on approaches from DMs back in those days. It was down right expected that any given gaming group would have numerous “house rules” in effect, and whole modules existed just to provide creative work material for DMs, with no adventure at all contained within them.

    We had the same DM all 15 years that we played. He was good. He was VERY good. As a hobby, he would sit around and fill up notebooks with campaign ideas and fleshing out villages and hamlets – right down to who owed who money and that the bartender and flower stall girl were having an affair. He created whole worlds in those notebooks, ready any action we may take as players, no matter what path we chose to go down.

    He tried playing as a player a couple of times, but didn’t like it, and frankly, the rest of us were awful DMs in comparison to the man.

    I recall one adventure the group started, a standard dungeon romp – and we were ambushed by goblins in the first room of the dungeon coming down the stairs. It was supposed to be a run of the mill, “wham-bam-thank you ma’am” encounter, but the little buggers DESTROYED us, through a series of dice rolls that was a comedy of errors. We used the old critical hit tables in the Fighter’s Handbook, which assigned bodily damage and penalties for critical hits, and one of our party ended up with a collapsed lung with an arrow in his chest. The rest of us were barely alive.

    Disaster? Sure. But our DM turned it into one of the most awesome adventures ever, all on the spur of the moment. We had an epic adventure – it turned out our breakfast had been poisoned at the tavern we had left that morning (to explain the horrible dice rolls and getting owned by goblins) – part of a great conspiracy among the town folk to rob the “rich adventurers”. We had to stay alive with weakened abilities, avoid groups of peasants sweeping the forest for us, and keep our gravely wounded friend alive – who by the way, was fighting through a fever dream to maintain the will to live, all overseen by the DM.

    I miss the days of AD&D – there were so many books and supplements that you could pick and choose rules from. It truly allowed you to make your own custom version of D&D, and that is what TSR intended I believe.

    Now, I feel like 3.5 and 4th Edition especially have codified the rules too much. Too much concern with everything being balanced and perfectly fair and streamlined. Instant death traps are great in the hands of a good DM. Nothing encourages role-playing and problem solving quite like being stuck in a death trap that you KNOW will definitely and permanently kill your character if you can figure a way out.

    And, yeah, 3.5 put a bullet in the head of a lot of things. It took my group a while to decide to transition to 3.0, and not to long afterward, 3.5 came out and felt like a royal betrayal. That wasn’t the kind of longevity we’d come to expect from a D&D edition. Needless to say, we just said “screw it and them” and went back to 2nd Edition.

    It feels like Wizards of the Coast has moved away from the old model of encouraging creativity in the DMs – that doesn’t make them near as much money as training groups to depend on their licensed adventures and miniatures.

    Or . . . I could just be a crotchety “old timer” who dislikes all the new-fangled razzle dazzle because it’s different.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    We’ve kinda transitioned to Pathfinder now – though we’re mainly playing an S-F game right now using Hero System. But PF is out game of choice.

    While people call Pathfinder “D&D 3.75” sometimes, we noticed – especially with the Advanced Player’s Guide that came out last year – that it feels like it had a fundamentally different approach.

    In D&D (3.0 and 3.5), new classes and feats appeared to fill a MECHANICAL niche. A concept was shoehorned in to match. For example: “We should have a divine caster role similar to a sorcerer.” Pretty much ALL of the prestige classes and new core classes of 3.5 were designed that way. They were cool and fun, but still felt kind of … mechanical.

    In Pathfinder, the new core classes are far more organic. It seems like they took an interesting concept, and warped and prodded the rules to make them fit. Ditto for a bunch of new rules / abilities. I particularly like the class variants that simply replace some class abilities with more appropriate abilities. THANK YOU. We didn’t need 100x different brand new prestige classes just to have variant druids.

    That doesn’t address the fundamental issue you have, of course, which is how D&D 3.0+ made the game system feel a little overly balanced and streamlined. But it does feel like it points back to a time when the rules were the servant of the dungeon master and players, and not the other way around.

  • Adamantyr said,

    Weird, I’ve been reading through old Judge’s Guild modules myself the last week… A friend of mine basically gave me ALL his old D&D stuff awhile back, which included nearly every classic module. And a pile of Judge’s Guild modules, including the “Dark Tower” issue, which apparently is worth a bit now…

    That being said… wow, these are really not good at all. They remind me of the adventures I wrote when I was 11, no joke. One module had the ENTIRE adventure as a dream sequence caused by the drugged wine the players toast using at the start. All just a “test” of their abilities. I thought this kind of crap was lame in 1985!

    “Tegel Manor” does have an impressive map, as James Maliszewski noted in another retrospective at Grognardia. Unfortunately, the rest of it is, to quote Monty Python, ‘Silly’. Funhouse dungeon indeed. Also, I’m trying to figure out if a house of that size could even be built…

    Sadly, I don’t have a copy of Caverns of Thracia… maybe if I can find some old JG’s lying about in a game store I’ll pick it up.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah. I understand “Under the Storm Giant’s Castle” was one module that was particularly low on Necromancer Games’ priority list for conversions… unless (as some suggested) they were to figure out some way to not only make it D20 compatible, but also to make it “not suck.”

    There was definitely a trend towards realism and… I guess, seriousness – that came about in the mid to late 80s. It never entirely took over CRPGs, fortunately, but it spelled the end of some of the wackier elements (or “unpure,” like modern or science fiction references). I mean, I was right there cheering the doom of things like Grimtooth’s Traps which would do things like dump a million gold pieces onto greedy characters’ heads to kill them.

    I mean, seriously? Couldn’t they think of a better use for a million gold pieces? 🙂

    I also held my nose up in the air hearing tales of campaigns where the PCs ended up acquiring powered armor and laser swords and crap and battling ruby dragons at level 7 and stuff. What? That’s not *proper* fantasy! Harumph!

    But much later, I found myself mourning their loss just a little. Still do. There was something a little raw and pure about it. A little more wild-feeling and experimental, like anything could happen.

    But I liked the NG idea of trying to recapture that old-school flavor, but bringing it up to modern standards – which included not only rules conversions, but making them palatable and usable by modern audiences. There was a lot that could be done (and we DID IT!) to mine for rough jewels in these books and polish them up.

  • Adamantyr said,

    Agreed, RC. I went off and ordered some missing modules from Amazon’s Z-sellers after reading glowing recommendations on Grognardia…

    I was glad to see he liked “Night’s Dark Terror”, it is a fricking AWESOME module, and went largely unnoticed since it was developed for the box-set D&D rules instead of Advanced.

    I also liked Graeme Morris’s AD&D module “When a Star Falls” which was one of first modules I ever purchased in a store. And a worthy first purchase too, because it was not a run-of-the-mill module at all… I’m sad that Graeme Morris disappeared from the hobby in the late 80’s and has never resurfaced, his work was exemplary.

    A particularly difficult task these days is to collect all of Dungeon magazine. A digital archive was never produced, and likely never will be now, so you have to get actual copies now. But in many ways it’s worth the trouble; the first 50-60 issues have some of the best adventures I’ve ever seen. Writers like Willie Walsh, who always wrote stuff based on Irish mythology, were extremely talented and for awhile, had an adventure in nearly every issue.

    I really liked one short adventure in which a bard is trying to raise a harpy as a creature of good… he used polymorph and other spells to make her appear as a beautiful elven girl with attractive bird features. After her guardian is slain and she’s used by bandits to lure people into ambushes, the players are left with a conundrum. She’s a harpy, but she’s not evil (unless they’re real bastards to her) and she’s quite innocent of the effect her voice has. What to do? You just don’t see adventures like this anymore.

  • Stephen R said,

    Not completely on topic, but it seems Necromancer games is getting back into the RPG business to publish Pathfinder PDFs.


  • McTeddy said,

    Woohooo! Finally I topic where I feel my actual age. I’ve actually never heard of Judges Guild.

    That said… I sometimes do miss the day when things weren’t so… polished? Nowadays, everything has been built into a science… Hero’s get job… hero’s get ambushed… hero’s kill boss… I’m sorry, but science is boring*.

    I don’t miss instant death traps… I don’t miss extremely unbalanced games… but I do miss situations where toughing it out isn’t an option.

    If I ever really go on an adventure… I can tell you one thing… Running IS an option. Hiding IS an option. Saying “Screw this adventure” is also an option.

    But I guess for now… “I stab it in the eye” is enough option for most people.

    *Not completely true… science can be fascinating

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,


    Yeah, I’ve actually picked up some of the Pathfinder modules. I really like them as a whole. Unfortunately my gaming group suffered many real world deaths, including our DM, a number of years ago, and I haven’t really gamed around the table since. (Watch out for those military campaigns – real critical hits are a bitch.)

    No new DM has been as good, and my old gaming group (few of us that are left) are scattered across the country. I’ve played occasionally since then (my brother runs an adventure every week with his friends) but it just doesn’t feel right.

    That said, I still enjoy reading the Pathfinder stuff and using it as inspiration when designing and making my own PC games – they inspire creativity like the old AD&D modules. And I’ve often bought or given Pathfinder books to my brother, and he makes extensive us of them in his table top campaigns.

    You hit the nail on the head with my complaint against the new editions of D&D put out by Wizards. They are mechanical.

    My group never really noticed the trend towards realism though – we were already doing it! Our DM ran low magic campaigns, where wizards were mysterious, rare, and very powerful, magic was a thing that everyone knew existed, but few ever saw in their entire lives.

    Magic items were so fabulously rare and valuable that in a two year campaign, the party would only find 1 or 2. (Our DM still had “+” weapons, but the in-game explanation of these was that they were of exceptional workmanship, with keenly sharpened edges or expertly tempered steel, etc.)

    We never took characters past 10th level either. We found most characters far out-striped the populace at that point and could easily set themselves up as lords or nobles or retire fat and rich. (We leveled REAL slow, however. 2 year campaign – 2 14 hour sessions a month – 10 levels gained!)

    I guess that is why I’m not a big fan of number obsession liked we talked about last week – my group only got experience points when we remembered to ask for them, and didn’t really care. We were in it for the role-playing. *shrug*