The classic D&D adventures are a part of my childhood, and I still love these tales of adventure. It is a shame with all that Wizards does these days; they are not making "the new classics" in any way or form. These days, the best we have in classic adventures and stories come from Paizo with the adventure path, Goodman Games with Dungeon Crawl Classics, the Old School Essentials books, or the larger B/X community over on Drive Thru RPG with all sorts of classic throwback adventures.
We will never see a new Tomb of Horrors or Ravenloft-style experience, but we will repeatedly see endless recreations and reboots of the same adventure. It is the corporate recycling machine, often with the "it's a classic" reboots; frankly, if I want the original, I will just go get it. Or I already have it.
I get the feeling as time goes on that Wizards equals Disney, and they are becoming a machine only designed to reboot franchises. It is sad because I want them to be a platform for today's storytellers to create new classic stories and adventures. Paizo still does that, and putting money and releasing schedules on new stories and creators is extremely brave and cool, so I support them.
Also, minor spoiler alerts for B2, Caves of Chaos coming up...
Flaws are Many
One thing uniquely strange about most classic modules is how poorly they translate into modern rules systems and how much tweaking you need to do with them. We tried to play with these with some of the newer editions of D&D. They came out as disasters, as the older editions rely on this "Gauntlet the videogame" style of play where a crowd of foes descends on the party. You are struggling to reduce their numbers before you start taking damage from lucky hits and need to burn heals.
Later modules got better as designers got experience with the system, and we got stories, puzzles, devious traps, and experience to let writers design real combat challenges. There are moments where you see the "massive overpull" designed to eat the party's fireball spell in many modules.
The rules are simple, and that is why we love B/X. But this also creates strange issues with module design where you have this quantity over quality design philosophy in some of the older adventures. One room in the Caves of Chaos module with 40 kobolds (with 8 noncombatants) jammed into it. The first guard room has six. And in the same area, there are 18 giant rats in a nearby room. Eight kobolds wait outside the entrance.
In the first six rooms, there are nearly 80 monsters.
Move out, kobolds! Start a village somewhere on the map! Maybe do some farming and raise sheep! Leave! You can find better for yourselves elsewhere! Take the rats with you and raise them too!
This is funny since this is the first room we entered as D&D players back in the day, and I recently replayed this with Pathfinder 1e, and it turned into this strange hallway slaughter between areas 1 and 6 that just dragged on. If I played this in D&D 5E, the bounded accuracy thing would kick in, and they would be killing level 10 characters through lucky hits and that "massed fire" thing. With D&D 4E, level 10 heroes could literally sleep in the room, and the kobolds would not be able to hit them. I kid, but the to-hits were bad once levels got four or higher than the enemies' level.
Logic and Tone
The tone of some of these adventures only makes sense on a "hack and slash" videogame level of logic. Every time I play this, I feel more and more sorry for the kobolds. And it makes me feel worse and worse about the supposed heroes who trounce in here to kill families of kobolds in their homes just to grab their loot. Who are the bad guys again?
And if I were to play this with a hyper-realistic set of rules such as Dungeon Fantasy, it would be even worse. The combat slog with dozens of repetitive creatures would feel pointless after a while, and I would be sitting there wondering, "Where is the story?"
It works better as a backdrop where you have to go in and negotiate with the tribe as part of a story. But then again, I would put half of them in a small makeshift village out front of the cave and then do the same for the other tribes, and then what would happen next is they would fight each other for control of the valley and the orcs would probably win and use the others as servants.
Just put an orc encampment in the middle of the valley and leave the caves as storerooms, sealed-off tombs, or abandoned areas. The less you think about it, and the more you treat this as a videogame, the better it works.
The more I think about using hyper-realistic rules for this, the worse it gets. But then again, the worse it gets, the more I like it.
I bet some adventurers would go happy tossing flasks of oil into the giant rats in the room filled with trash and start a massive trash fire in area 2 that would fill the entire complex with smoke and carbon monoxide and kill all the kobolds in some sort of mine disaster.
Even oil flasks (or fire spells) tossed into area 6, the living quarters would have the same deadly effect. These are kobolds, and nothing in a shared room living area is made out of modern fire-retardant materials, with no fire marshals or safety standards, so they are probably sleeping on hay and bundles of flammable wool. In D&D, especially when we were kids, we were really stupid about this stuff. A flask of oil (Moldvay Basic) does 1d8 area damage and goes out in 2 turns, right? Cool!
And smoke would be pouring out of this place, and the other monsters would be standing on the hillside watching the tragedy, wondering, "Hey, what caused the huge fire in Area A?"
But this sort of logic is very OSR. Think before you act. Sure, the rules say, "thrown flasks of oil work this way!" And this is what players expect, a little videogame animation of a circle of fire going out and damaging enemies, and then it is over. Right? Players who play more modern games that train that "videogame mentality" may be shocked when that massive trash fire erupts. What?! That can't happen! You are being unfair! How could you rule that when it is nowhere in the rules?
This is the danger of too many rules. D&D 4E had it, and I feel Pathfinder 2E could suffer from the same sort of logical disconnect, but we will see. GURPS may have a lot of rules, but it is still an old-school game that gives the referee 100% leeway in handling situations.
The D&D Reality Distortion Field
I love these adventures, but replaying them with rules other than D&D highlights some strange reality-bending with D&D, valid for every edition of the game. With D&D or AD&D, this plays more like a videogame.
With D&D 3.5 or Pathfinder 1e, this takes on a Saving Private Ryan sort of massive battle feeling as you mow down hordes of charging kobolds. With 4E, these are mostly all 1 hit-point minions and die quickly. With 5E, this turns deadly again as massed attacks by low-level creatures change things some.
It is challenging to play with any system beyond AD&D since combats are typically slower and more focused on conditions and cool moves and combat options built into the classes.
And in hyper-realism systems, and I use Dungeon Fantasy, but you could quickly put Runequest, Rolemaster, or any other favorite here; this gets more over the top and crazy. There are so many kobolds the systems begin to show strain and breaking, and the GM needs to pull out story fiat and summarize, or the game bogs down. This is honestly when I feel when you begin shortcutting and just telling the players what happened instead of playing it out.
Savage Worlds ...Works?
Savage Worlds could do this a little easier since you would split kobolds into groups of extras and throw a couple wounds on each to simulate the group's ability to take damage (I would probably throw 2-3 wounds for groups of 6-10 on there for half hit-die kobolds). One initiative card and action per group per turn, and you are all set and handling this efficiently. It is a pulp adventure and not a simulation; things are different here, like in a movie.
And it is extraordinary Savage Worlds is the only game I regularly play that handles this module that easily.
Then again, Savage Worlds has a lot of "design tricks" in its bag of toys, and the game feels like it was designed by many long-term role players, and they know those moments where they say, "Oh, no, not this again." Easy systems handle chases, confusing initiative orders, mass battles, groups of extras, and lots more. Once you learn them and fit them in your head, doing anything in Savage Worlds becomes simple - even complicated stuff that would break many other systems.
Savage Worlds is one of those "thought zeitgeist" games like an Index Card RPG that will change how you play tabletop games. Also, Index Card RPG would handle this module quite nicely, so a shout out to another one of my favorite games.
The Future is in the Indies
Yes, I like the classic modules. But I feel that the only people who will carry on their legacy are the indie creators, companies like Goodman Games, and the OSR. I want storytellers and designers who understand why we loved these classic adventures. I want new experiences in the traditional style.
As much as I love the Goodman Game's classic reprints of the classic AD&D modules (Slave Lords and GDQ would be amazing), I want the PDFs, and those are not happening likely due to Wizards and contractual issues. It does make me happy to see new directions for this line like this:
Modules not from TSR getting this treatment, and full DCC and 5E versions available in print and PDF. Finally. I will be supporting the DCC version of this project, and it is great to see them doing adventures where they can finally support their own incredible game - and release PDFs as well.
Since I never played this adventure it is new to me and they support DCC, and this is the best of both worlds.