TSR’s first adventure modules appeared at the fourth Origins convention with the release of G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978) and its brethren. In those halcyon days, TSR mainly grouped its adventures by thematic storyline and thus you had the “G” Giants adventures (1978), the “D” Descent adventures (1978), the “A” Slavers adventures (1980-1981), and others.
However as the ‘80s bloomed, this policy would change. In today's D&D Alumni, we look back at a series of adventure modules grouped more by level than connected story—but which included some of the more memorable adventures of the edition.
Intermediate Beginnings: 1981
n January 1981, TSR published the second edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules (1981), by Tom Moldvay, and first-ever Dungeons & Dragons Expert Rules (1981), by David “Zeb” Cook. Packaged with the latter was X1: The Isle of Dread (1981), the first in a series of Basic D&D adventures for intermediate-level players.
TSR was apparently struck by the idea of modules that were designed and packaged for intermediate-level adventurers, because they soon carried it over to their AD&D product line. The result was the “I” Intermediate adventure series (1981-1988), which was one of TSR’s longest-running module lines. By the time it ended its run it contained 14 modules total, a number surpassed among adventures only by the 16-book “DL” Dragonlance series (1984-1988).*
A module series focused on level instead of any sort of underlying storyline could have been mediocre. Instead more than half its number was quite notable, while the sixth “I” adventure is arguably the most innovative and important adventure published during the run of AD&D 1e (1977-1988).
I1: Dwellers of the Forbidden City
(1981), by David “Zeb” Cook kicked things off with a story inspired by the “Red Nails” (1936) Conan novella. While most D&D adventures at the time were dungeon crawls inspired by the primordial delves under Castle Greyhawk and Castle Blackmoor, Cook instead imagined a D&D adventure that was born of the pulp genre. Warring factions, jungle landscapes, and a lost city combined to create an original vision—and an evocative adventure!
The Hickman Era: 1982-1986
n the years that followed, one author contributed to no less than five “I” adventures: Tracy Hickman.
(1982), I4: Oasis of the White Palm (1983), and I5: Lost Tomb of Martek (1983), by Tracy Hickman, Laura Hickman, and Philip Meyers, together constitute the Desert of Desolation trilogy, which takes players through an Egyptian-like desert. Though three authors worked on the series, Tracy Hickman is the thread that runs through them, and his design views are particularly apparently.
Those ideas about design originated at DayStar West Media, a small press that the Hickmans ran before Tracy Hickman joined TSR. There the Hickmans published two adventures, including the original edition of Pharaoh; each adventure featured a short “manifesto” for adventure design. It said the DayStar West Media adventures would each include “dungeons with some sort of architectural sense” and “an intriguing story that is intricately woven into the play”.
Both of these requirements were clearly met by Hickman’s Desert of Desolation trilogy. The dungeons are beautiful designs that include occasional three-dimensional elements. More notably, there’s an underlying plot about ancient empires, djinn, and efreets that runs beneath the surface of the whole trilogy—directing the story while still giving the players considerable free will within individual encounter areas. Looking back from 2013, these ideas might seem less notable, but back in the early ‘80s, they were wholly revolutionary. Hickman’s design precepts were also very successful: they were at the foundation of TSR’s best-selling Dragonlance saga (1984-1986) in the mid ‘80s, and they’d largely define D&D adventure design during the ‘90s.
The Desert of Desolation trilogy is also notable for being the first Forgotten Realms adventure—sort of. The Forgotten Realms wouldn’t arrive at TSR until four years later, but when it did TSR updated Hickman’s three desert adventures for the Realms and reprinted them as I3-5: Desert of Desolation (1987). This anthology was one of the first two products published for the Realms—appearing the same month as the Darkwalker on Moonshae (1987) novel and a few months before the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set (1987).
(1983), by Tracy and Laura Hickman, is largely considered their masterpiece; it’s also the “I” adventure that had the most impact on the future of both TSR and the industry. Its tale of a vampiric nobleman clearly matched the Hickmans’ desire for adventures with story; while its intricately connected multi-level castle, all drawn as a beautiful isometric diagram, was one of the most architectural dungeons ever.
However, Ravenloft is probably most important because it introduced D&D to yet another genre of gaming. Just as Dwellers of the Forbidden City mixed together the pulp and fantasy genres, Ravenloft similarly combined gothic horror and fantasy—in the process, showing that D&D adventuring could be moody, dark, and even scary. This may have influenced D&D in the ‘90s nearly as much as the Hickmans’ storytelling ideals did; it’s unlikely that settings like Dark Sun could have appeared without the dark fantasy that originated in Ravenloft.
Though Ravenloft had a sequel in the “I” series—I10: Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill (1986)—it expanded even more during the 2e era when it became its own setting. Ravenloft: Realm of Terror (1990) moved the story into a pocket dimension called the Demiplane of Dread and kicked off a product line (1990-2000) that lasted the entirety of 2e’s run. Though the Ravenloft milieu has kept a lower profile in more recent years, it was nonetheless the inspiration for both Expedition to Castle Ravenloft (2006) and the Castle Ravenloft board game (2010). Meanwhile, the Demiplane of Dread was incorporated into the Shadowfell in D&D 4e.
Though the “I” series is full of memorable adventures, nothing else has had the long-lasting star power of Ravenloft.
Latter Days: 1986-1988
he five Hickman modules set an extremely high bar for the “I” series, but there were nonetheless a few more modules of note in the series’ later history.
I8: Ravager of Time
(1986), by Graeme Morris and Jim Bambra, was the final mass-market adventure produced by TSR UK, the British branch of TSR**. They were best-known for their seven “UK” modules (1983-1985), but Ravager could easily have been the eighth in that series. Like its predecessors Ravager was heavy on story—much like the Hickman adventures were. This one features a jury trial and the story of an evil sorceress who steals away the lives of others. Ravager is also dungeon-free, offering a very different sort of adventure—and showing how much TSR UK was presenting its own take on D&D adventuring.
I12: Egg of the Phoenix (1987), by Frank Mentzer and Paul (now Jennell) Jaquays, was perhaps the most storied adventure published in the “I” series. It originally appeared as four adventures that were run as tournaments at Gen Con East and Gen Con XIV in 1981; they were then made exclusively available to RPGA members as the “R” series of adventures (1982-1983).
A few years later these legendary adventures were finally collected, fully linked together, and made available to the general public as Egg of the Phoenix. It’s a wide-ranging adventurer that takes the players from battles with slavers to the lords of Elemental Evil themselves—oddly, matching many of the tropes of TSR’s earliest adventures. The Egg collection was published as one of the “super modules” that were popular at TSR in the late ‘80s; this one included an 80-page main book and a small booklet of maps.
The setting of the Egg of the Phoenix is also notable. The Union of New Empyrean that’s at the heart of this adventure was part of Mentzer’s Aquaria campaign. In the early ‘80s, Gary Gygax gave Mentzer permission to turn Aquaria into the eastern continent of the Greyhawk world, so this collection of adventures can be imagined as the only window on a lost Greyhawk land. One of the characters from Egg of the Phoenix later made the jump to the Forgotten Realms in FR5: The Savage Frontier (1988), also by Jaquays.
For those interesting in collectibles, the original “R” adventures are among the biggest collectors’ items from TSR’s official publications, while Egg of the Phoenix has long been the rarest and most of valuable of the “I” adventures.
I13: Adventure Pack I (1987) and I14: Swords of the Iron Legion (1988), ended the “I” series with a change of pace. Both books are anthologies that feature shorter adventures written by a variety of hands. Though TSR had experimented with the format as far back as B9: Castle Caldwell and Beyond (1985), it became very popular from 1987-1989 when anthology adventure books were published for many of TSR’s product lines—including Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and the Outer Planes. The “I” line may have been the only series that got two of them.
Swords of the Iron Legion was notable for another reason: It featured the Forgotten Realms logo. By 1988, things were changing at TSR; all of the old module codes would soon disappear, to be replaced by module codes specific to the company’s increasingly important gaming worlds. Thus the “I” code disappeared after Swords of the Iron Legion; future Realms adventures would instead appear as “FRA” adventures, “FRE” epics, “FRM” missions, and “FRQ” quests.
The Rest of the Story: 1981-1988
our other “I” adventures aren’t quite as historically notable as those highlighted herein, but were nonetheless well received. These adventures are: I2: Tomb of the Lizard King (1982), by Mark Acre; I7: Baltron’s Beacon (1985), by Philip Meyers; I9: Day of Al’Akbar (1986), by Allen Hammack; and I11: Needle (1987), by Frank Mentzer.
Today, the fourteen “I” adventures still represent some of the best adventures released for AD&D 1e and offer a wide cross-section of early settings—including Aquaria, the Forgotten Realms, Greyhawk, and Ravenloft. As such, they’re an intriguing slice of life from D&D’s early history.
* The “GAZ” Gazetteer series of sourcebooks for Mystara (1987-1991) also contained 14 books; the “MC” Monstrous Compendium set of monster books including 15 numbered volumes (1989-1993); and the “FR” Forgotten Realms series of geographical sourcebooks (1987-1993) topped out TSR’s count with 16 entrants.
** TSR UK also produced ST1: Up the Garden Path (1986) around the same time for a festival in England, while their AC9: Creature Catalogue (1986) appeared later without the TSR UK logo, probably because TSR UK’s creative department had been dissolved by that time.