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Do you remember the good old days, when adventures were underground, NPCs were there to be killed, and the finale of every dungeon was the dragon on the 20th level?

Because I sure don’t. The first Dungeons and Dragons I ever played was in 3rd Edition, and both the games I played and the games I ran were marked by wilderness exploration, NPC interaction, and urban adventuring as well as by the ubiquitous dungeon. And before I started playing D&D, I was exposed to the wonders of Planescape and the Forgotten Realms via Black Isle games, novels and old Monstrous Compendiums. So I like my D&D full of labyrinthine plotting, lots of characters and the occasional philosophical discourse.

But I’ve heard good things about Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics line of retro 3rd Edition adventures. And I do love a good delve as much as any other D&Ding. And (in a canny business move), Dungeon Crawl Classics PDFs are available for only $2 each across the internet until the end of December, whence they will be retired forever (so Goodman Games can publish conversions of them to 4e under the GSL, I imagine).

So, having more money and hard drive space than sense, I now own the lot of them. And since my generosity and free time exceed all three of those qualities, I am going to read the lot of them and post reviews as I go. I’ll talk about the modules and their plots. In the interest of fairness, I’ll be sure to provide good qualities of modules I don’t like, and the bad qualities of the ones I do. And lastly, I’ll say whether or not the module is worth your hard-earned two dollars. I’ll be going in numerical order to start with, but if you want an opinion on an adventure out of order, I’ll skip ahead to it and offer my musings (after all, I’m probably not going to get to the end before these are pulled from the market!).

You know how these [Let’s Read] threads work by now, so get ready for plenty of 10 foot wide corridors, unfair deathtraps, and enough crappy-but-detailed line art to choke a gelatinous cube. Let’s begin!


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DCC #0: Legends are Made, not Born
Well, this is a pleasant way to start off this project. DCC #0 was originally a tournament module for Dundracon 2005, and it’s designed for a party of six characters with NPC classes. Pregens are included, and let’s introduce them:

Bowen: A woodsman, trapper and friend to the delicate natural balance of the region. Clearly a ranger-to-be. Warrior 1.

Bec: Strong as an ox and about as intelligent. Can’t use anything better than a spear and studded leather, but when you have 11 hit points and 18 Str, why bother? Probably a fighter or a barbarian when he grows up. Commoner 1.

Lord Casmir: The scion of a noble house, with a very nice sword, very nice armor, a bit of a chip on his shoulder and a slight case of obsessive compulsive disorder. Was born to become a paladin. Aristocrat 1.

Anya’drea: The apprentice of the local wizard, she’s very frustrated with the lack of magic she’s been taught, so she’s stolen a wand and some scrolls to prove her capability. On her way to becoming either a wizard or a sorcerer, with bard as a bit of a long shot. Expert 1.

Newt: A gnomish alchemist, one of the two non-human pregens. With his sneaking and lockpicking skills, he’s on the path to being a rogue. Expert 1.

Mischa: The feared and distrusted “Witch of the Woods”. The only character with actual magical ability, she’s destined for druidry. Adept 1.

These six heroes have been brought together because their home town, Dundraville, is being preyed upon by Blogg the Ogre. Blogg’s usual demands have been sheep and ale in exchange for not flattening the village, but now he’s taken hostages. The townsfolk have smartened up, and laced his ale with a mild poison; now they’ve sent the closest thing they have to adventurers to finish the job and rescue the captives.

Little does the town know that Blogg is good friends with an evil wizard who lairs beneath the ogre’s cave. Said wizard is working to summon the hezrou demon Frogoth, in order to complete his father’s life’s work and find the Big Book of Evil underneath Dundraville.

What I liked: I like that Legends are Made, not Born is designed for NPC classes. I like NPC classes—I should use more adepts in my games. The module itself is challenging, but not too challenging for the sample characters, and all of the sample characters have skills that would prove useful: locks need picking, NPCs need intimidating or diplomacy, secret doors need finding and animals need handling. The NPC enemies are crippled a bit in order to level the playing field, but it’s done in a clever way—the villagers poisoning Blogg, for example, to weaken him for the fight. If the party shows up during the day, Blogg hasn’t had his customary tipple, so he’s sober, not poisoned, and harder to kill. Suto Lore, the evil wizard, is a conjurer, so the weakling monsters he summons won’t be as rough as say, a fireball. And a lot of the set-piece fights have tips for using props and the environment to spice things up.

The village of Dundraville also receives a bit of detail; no more than a page or two, but it’s good stuff. The author must not have gotten the memo about “NPCs exist only to be killed”, because in the village there’s plenty of rumors to help the party (about other entrances to the caves, hidden passages, the treasure of a lost king) and two allies, a grumpy one-armed woodsman and a half-elf druid, both of whom can provide some much-needed support.

What I disliked: Look at those names up there. Blogg the Ogre? Suto Lore? Frogoth? I couldn’t say those with a straight face. I’ve gotten better at naming things since I was ten years old, thank you.

The pregenerated characters are a wee bit too powerful for my taste. I can see why the author would buff them a bit, because they don’t have “real” class levels, but Bowen starts with a +1 weapon, and Bec’s got two 18s! OK, so he’s a commoner, he needs all the help he can get. But it sort of defeats the purpose of playing ordinary Joe NPCs with stats and equipment that good.

I also wish there’d been a note on how to advance the pregens. It looks to me like, if the players find everything, they could easily level up. But would it be a level in a PC class? NPC class? Would they trade in their existing level from NPC to PC? Some guidelines would be nice.

Was it worth $2? Totally. I’d like to run this one next time I’m asked for a one-shot. Good dungeon crawling fun.


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DCC #1: Idylls of the Rat King
I like goblins. They’re tied with kobolds as my favorite core D&D humanoid. I’ve allowed goblins as a PC option in many of my games.

I like wererats. They’re versatile enough to be low-level bosses and mid-level mooks.

So you can imagine my disappointment when Idylls of the Rat King combined both of them, and I didn’t like it.

Idylls of the Rat King is the real first module in the Dungeon Crawl Classics line; DCC #0 was published a few years later. In it, the PCs are sent from Silverton to an abandoned silver mine in order to find the goblins who have been disrupting the silver-trade caravans and stealing all the silver. Silver silver silver. These goblins have a new boss, a wererat bard whose grandfather founded Silverton and owned that now-abandoned mine, but unleashed a horrible evil during his delves. Grandpa was lynched by the town and his descendants cursed to never touch silver again, so they turned into wererats—get it? The bard is back for ill-defined revenge and has teamed up with a gnome gnecromancer who’s been mining out the remainder of the silver with his army of zombies with shovels.

What I liked: I really liked the idea that there was an ancient evil down in the mine, and that even the wererat bard doesn’t know what it is. It’s a she, by the way, a vampire now trapped in gaseous form, and if the PCs find her, they can inadvertently free her. I also like that it is theoretically within the realm of possibility that the PCs can kill her—but they’d be better off just running if she actually gets out.

I like the main villain. Lawrence Gannu (for that is the wererat bard’s name) is cool. He’s got an army of goblins, hangs out playing the flute all day to his pet fiendish dire rats, and wants to honor his now-dead family and ruin the town that were honestly huge dicks to his grandparents. Turned into wererats just because you dug a bit too deep in order to further enrich the town? Not cool.

What I disliked: This module is boring and repetitive. Almost all of the encounters boil down to:
• “You kick down the door and see… a bunch of goblins! Roll initiative!”
• “You kick down the door and see… a bunch of dire rats! Roll initiative!”
• “You kick down the door and see… a bunch of goblin wererats! Roll initiative!”
• “You kick down the door and see… a bunch of zombies! Roll initiative!”
Ad nauseum. There’s a few interesting NPCs (a couple of goblin wizards, the gnome gnecromancer who tries to bluff the party into buying their way to safety before siccing his zombies on them), but they’re few and far between.

The map, while alright, doesn’t look a damn thing like a silver mine. It’s all square rooms (big square rooms—40 by 40 feet is about average) and ten foot wide corridors. Level three has some mine carts and tracks, but by then it’s too little, too late.

The module cheats. I’d be alright if there was some sort of in-game justification for things, but it doesn’t give one. Take the gnome, for example. He’s too low of level to cast animate dead, but Idylls of the Rat King doesn’t tell us how he makes his zombie hordes. No scroll book, no magical cauldron, nothing. Likewise, there’s a room crossed by the mine carts where mine carts will race around and clobber you if you’re on the track—but the mine carts don’t have riders or any means of propulsion, and this happens even if you killed the zombies in the previous room (who could, conceivably, been the ones to push a cart down the tracks).

Was it worth the $2? Sadly, no. Idylls of the Rat King is very disappointing, especially for the first adventure in the line. It apparently was runner up for an Ennie in 2003—I’d hate to see what the rest of the competition was like.


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DCC #2: Lost Vault of Tsathar Rho
So I open up this PDF, and who do I see as the author? One Michael Mearls! Now one of the lead developers of 4e, Mike Mearls has a lot of solid credits to his name, and this is one of them. I’ve played in Keep on the Shadowfell, which he co-wrote, and ran his "Three Faces of Evil", and both of them were vicious, vicious grinds. And Lost Vault of Tsathar Rho does not disappoint in that regard.

Tsathar Rho was a mage who had the poor fortune of drawing the attention of the Lovecraftian Outer Gods. They sucked him and his tower into their alien realm, and only recently spat it back out into the world. Creatures in the proximity of Tsathar Rho’s vault grow violent and deranged, then mutate, growing horns, claws, and eventually draconic features. The PCs are drawn into this world of nightmare when the local ogre goes from being a blustering bully who leaves the town alone to being a raving psychotic. From there, the party discovers a cult of mutant kobolds bearing the symbol of a clawed hand, and delve ever closer to the horrible vault.

What I liked: I’m a sucker for Lovecraft in D&D. It’s nice to see a low-level module that plays with the concept—generally, the existence of creatures like aboleths and illithids means that only mid-level characters get exposed to eldritch abominations. The transition is handled well, from slightly off-looking stirges and fire beetles to ever-mutated kobolds. The vault itself also causes hallucinations, which are described in delightful detail. If the entire party fails its Will save, the DM is advised to run entire battles and create locations that are completely figments of their imagination! That’s fun!

Like I said earlier, Lost Vault of Tsathar Rho is a PC killer, but it plays fair. The kobolds and undead and such are generally constrained to the same level as the PCs, and some PCs (like small ones) will be at an advantage. The flavor-text is also very well written—Mearls gets Gygaxian language—and is full of such grisly details as living altars and candelabras made out of kobolds who resisted transformation, that hop towards PCs, begging for death.

What I didn’t like: The final battle with Tsathar Rho is weird. He exists only in the world of hallucination, so PCs have to fail Will saves in order to fight him. I get what Mearls was going for, but I don’t really like it—if I were to run this module, I’d strip out that aspect.

The kobolds are mutating into half-dragons, which is odd, considering that the Outer Gods seem to be generic tentacle beasties. Tsathar Rho himself isn’t very draconic, looking more like a cross between Fin Fang Foom and a chicken. I would have appreciated a new template for “Spawn of the Outer Ones”, but understand the limitations of space.

Was it worth the $2? Indeed it was. Lost Vault of Tsathar Rho combines retro sensibilities with Lovecraftian influence quite nicely.
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Red-eyed dust bunny
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Thanks! This is a valuable undertaking. Comparative reviews are a particularly useful example of the breed, but also quite rare. Which is understandable, because it requires a lot of effort to review an extensive body of work. But standalone reviews simply lack context. Without being familiar with ,amy of a particular reviewer's reviews it's hard to judge which of the reviewer's preferences I share, and which I can safely ignore (and I'm just not that good at remembering names). It's also hard to get a good feel for which are the best products in a twenty-product line when six different reviewers review four of the products with entirely different biases and using completely different metrics. Of course, if you're going to cover the entire DCC line, that's about three time that size :).
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Making the Legend
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Verrry interesting. I've always wondered about this series, but they never showed up in the shops around here, so I never got to check them out. I'll just do the usual wishing of good luck and warning to buffer entries and post them regularly at a sustainable rate rather than rushing through the first few, then petering out, like so many who've attempted this before. This may not be as huge as some of our loads, but it's certainly no picnic.


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Verrry interesting. I've always wondered about this series, but they never showed up in the shops around here, so I never got to check them out. I'll just do the usual wishing of good luck and warning to buffer entries and post them regularly at a sustainable rate rather than rushing through the first few, then petering out, like so many who've attempted this before. This may not be as huge as some of our loads, but it's certainly no picnic.
Good idea about building up a buffer. I hadn't even thought of that.

DCC #3: The Mysterious Tower

This adventure was written by Joseph Goodman himself! So one would assume that this would probably be a pretty good archetypal example of a Dungeon Crawl Classics module. And The Mysterious Tower does deliver.

Many years ago, there was a wizard (his name was never given) who loved two things more than anything else: walls of force and levers. In order to protect his wizard’s tower, he combined the two, creating a powerful spell that would create a permanent wall of force that could not be penetrated by any means, only to be deactivated by a lever. Only problem was, he cast the spell before determining the correct dimensions—the spell’s area was mere inches too short to encompass the relevant lever. The wizard went mad trying to devise a way out, and even his spirit is now trapped in the tower.

There is a series of ruins surrounding the tower, however. This series of caves contains a family of owlbears, catacombs sacred to the long-gone god of humility, various traps and tricks and lastly the lever that deactivates the force field and would let adventurers enter the tower and plumb its riches.

Enter the PCs. The hooks are pretty light, just “hey! A mysterious tower! Let’s try to get in!”

What I liked: The tone of The Mysterious Tower isn’t one I’ve encountered much. Joseph Goodman’s writing style is full of little asides for the DM and has a general tone of informality. It’s chummy. It also has a taste for the classics, with encounters like two NPCs, one of which always tells the truth and the other always lies. And a rip-off of the “only a penitent man shall pass” trap from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The encounters themselves are generally pretty straight-forward. There’s plenty of variety in the monster palette, unlike Idylls of the Rat King, but the monsters present make some ecological sense.

Lastly, I like that the module assumes that it will end by the PCs claiming the tower as their stronghold. PCs with land and armies of followers are something that 1st Edition assumed would happen eventually, but is all-but-forgotten in 3.X and 4th Edition. The wizard’s bedroom is full of magical (but hard to transport) furniture, and there’s a discussion of how to disable the lever so that the PCs don’t get trapped inside the tower too. And the suggestion that one of the wizard’s heirs might come to reclaim his birthright…

What I didn’t like:
Although I liked the chummy tone used throughout The Mysterious Tower, I can see it grating some people. What grated me was the prevalence of traps on which Disable Device doesn’t work. I understand the rationale—in AD&D, getting past traps was something that tested player ingenuity as much as their character’s skill rolls—but it strikes me as cheap and unrewarding to PCs who’ve invested highly in Disable Device. I’d rather have a trap with a ridiculously high DC than none at all.

The owlbear family also strikes me as having the potential to murder entire parties. There’s the potential for 3rd level PCs to fight three or four owlbears at once, which is a recipe for rolling new characters. I can see that encounter ending poorly for a lot of groups.

I’d like it if there were more concrete story-hooks than “look! A mysterious tower! Let’s try to get in!” If I were to drop a tower protected by an impenetrable force field into one of my games, most of the people I run games for would likely give up and look for adventure elsewhere than assume there was an entrance deep below. In my experience, most players need more incentive than curiosity.

Is it worth the $2?
Yes. The Mysterious Tower is a more lighthearted module with plenty of opportunities to reward player ingenuity and to give them a stronghold.


Making the Legend
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Good idea about building up a buffer. I hadn't even thought of that.
What, did you think I read and review precisely a quarter of an issue every day, no more, no less? If I did that I'd be skipping days all over the place. :p I'm currently at 6 months ahead, but it goes up and down as I do bits faster for a while, then take breaks.
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