It's been a while since my last D&D-themed post about killer adventures, so I figured it was time to put down the horror novels for a while so @horrorguyian has time to catch his breath and write about something else. Scanning through my
shelf shelves bookcase fine, bookcases of D&D material, I hit on DA1: Adventures in Blackmoor, a favorite of mine from the late 80's I picked up when Toys 'R' Us was blowing out their stock of Dungeons and Dragons material in favor of slap bracelets or Tickle Me Elmo or whatever nonsense happened to be hip and cool at the time.
Adventures in Blackmoor advertises itself as an adventure for 10th-14th level characters, but in reality this is only a half-truth. There is an adventure in there, but Adventures in Blackmoor is really a 64-page campaign setting for original Dungeons & Dragons with one hell of an adventure hook to snare your players. Unlike other settings for classic D&D like Mystara or Hollow World, you can't just walk, sail, or teleport to Blackmoor. Or rather, you can, but when you get there you'll find nothing but barren, wind-swept desert. Blackmoor in the PC's time is no more, having suffered a ruinous apocalypse followed by an ice age, the advancing and later retreating glaciers having killed everyone and leveled everything on the continent thousands of years ago.
Well, almost everything. One sign of the former civilization remains, although reaching it is quite the trek and there's no real reason to go outside of morbid curiosity. For some reason, a lone building known as the Comeback Inn still stands, abandoned and forgotten, amid the shifting sands. Nature long ago should have reclaimed the Comeback Inn the way it did every other landmark, but, though strained by the passage of time, the magic binding and protecting the building continues to function.
Why would the PCs seek out such a remote, desolate location when so many other opportunities lie in easier-to-discover locales? That's easy: the Comeback Inn is loaded with treasures not seen in the world for millennia, and a group successfully exploring the Inn would emerge rich beyond their wildest fantasies. Just ignore that little beacon, blinking in the back of your minds, wondering why, if it's so easy to plunder, has no one ever returned successfully from such a voyage. Obviously previous groups were too inexperienced -- they didn't stock enough provisions for the trip, they were picked off by wandering monsters along the way, lost in sand storms, died of exposure, or just plain suffered bad luck. That's what folks say, at any rate.
The truth is far more sinister. The Comeback Inn is very aptly named. In fact, players of a certain age and pedigree concerning 70's rock may start thinking of it as the Hotel California. Much like the metaphorical place sung of by the Eagles, arrivals to the Comeback Inn may check out any time they like, but they can never leave.
Well, not by normal means. There's one really abnormal way to leave the Comeback Inn, and it results in the players stepping out of a temporal gateway into a Blackmoor circa 3,000 years ago. Needless to say, the sudden appearance of a group clad in weird armor, speaking an unfamiliar language, and wielding weapons no denizen of Blackmoor has ever seen causes a stir. The party are obviously intruders, but once the mishap's cleared up, they're set to work for Blackmoor's ruler as the ultimate secret agents, doing sneaky things to bad people for lots of money.
Adventures in Blackmoor is ultimately more campaign setting than module, as it spends almost as many pages describing the history of Blackmoor and the major NPCs with which the player characters may interact than it does worrying about the actual adventure which is a simple "rescue the princess"-style affair using the magic of the Comeback Inn for its setting. The whole module, when combined with its follow-up DA2 - Temple of the Frog, is basically an update of Dave Arneson's The First Fantasy Campaign and Blackmoor: Supplement II from years earlier, but the whole thing's solidly written, entertaining as hell to read, and comes with an enormous fold-out full-color hex map that leaves me nostalgic for the days when such things were the norm in module design instead of requiring one to visit a webpage and download a PDF to save the company on printing costs.
Most Memorable Moment:
While the PCs explore what remains of the Comeback Inn, they'll probably stumble across the corpse of a man, dangling from a noose, in one of the rooms. The only hint to who he is and what he was doing there (and why he's hanging from the rafters) is found in a long suicide note he penned, which gives a number of hints and details about what the Inn actually is and where the PC's ultimate destination within should be. It's a long note, especially when you consider this poor guy had to write it all out by hand, and probably had the nastiest wrist cramp imaginable by the time he was through, but it's one of the saddest, creepiest, and dramatic-without-being-melodramatic suicide notes you'll ever read. As a kid, this hit me as powerful stuff, and it's stayed with me to this day. I even performed a stripped-down version of the note as a monologue for my high school acting class, and afterwards the teacher demanded to know if I'd written it myself or what the source was, because she'd never heard or seen it done before. Those of you who think D&D is a waste of time: my love for the game earned me a perfect score on that assignment, so I'd call that three bucks well spent.
The steam-engine juggernaut of destruction appearing on the cover doesn't figure into the module at all. Seriously, it doesn't appear anywhere. There were three other products in the DA-line of Blackmoor-themed materials, and while most of them (especially DA3: City of the Gods) feature some absolutely wacky and fantastical technologies, that utterly insane flame-driven instrument of unstoppable destruction depicted in Jeff Easley's artwork is nowhere to be found. This disappointed eleven-year-old me terribly when I first bought the module and opened the shrinkwrap, and it's still disappointing thirty years later.
EDIT: Further research into the matter has sort of solved the mystery of the bizarre contraption. According to Shannon Appelcline's write-up at DriveThruRPG, it was officially integrated into the D&D world via the first volume of TSR's Encyclopedia Magica in 1994.
I grabbed my copy, flipped through it, and sure enough, there it was on page 56. Known as the "Apparatus of Dreadful Construction", the write-up makes it out to be an indestructible, unthinking engine of ruin which powers its way across the land courtesy of the three massive furnaces and enormous studded wheels. Those are bad news enough, as they either set fire to or utterly crush anyone or anything unfortunate enough to get behind it or wander in front of it, but the real issue are the massive steel 'teeth' resting in front of the thing. These teeth swiftly carve through anything in their path, laying waste to dense forest, impassable mountains, even human or humanoid settlements with ease in a twenty-foot wide area.
The best part, however, is the teeth take the material they 'chew up' and crap it out the backside of the machine in the form of a twelve-foot wide solid black paved road, which is safe to walk on six hours after having been poured. The only way to stop the machine so far discovered is to immerse it fully in water, which causes it to plane shift into another body of water somewhere else in the Multiverse, emerge, and continue its ceaseless orgy of destruction (and road building) there.
Nobody knows where the machine came from, who built it, or why it turns everything it touches into paved asphalt, but one of the theories (according to the Encyclopedia) is that it was the invention of someone living in Blackmoor thousands of years ago, which had lain dormant for centuries, until some idiot found it and managed to turn it back on. It's been doing its thing now for over 130 years, so whoever was responsible has a lot of goddamn explaining to do.
This is why TSR is awesome: somebody somewhere looked at that cover artwork and said, "What is that, and why isn't it in the game?", then probably assigned poor Dale Henson to figure out its biography while he was in the middle of trying to compile a complete list of every magical item, artifact, and relic ever printed over the twenty-year history of Dungeons & Dragons. Instead of crying, the guy muttered, "Challenge accepted...", then rolled up his sleeves and invented a raison d'etre for the terrifying juggernaut.
Now it's got me wondering: what if that thing ran into the Tarrasque...?