The following old school D&D adventures hit all my role playing pleasure points. (Man, that sounded weird. Not gonna change it though.)
There is 40 years of D&D greatness, so no list can cover them all. Plus, some old school D&D adventures like Ravenloft went on to spawn entire campaigns, so they are in a different category in my mind and not included in this list. Plus, I didn’t include other well-knowns like Tomb of Horrors because I don’t hate people.
But, rest assured, the following list contains some of the best storytelling and adventure ever, regardless of genre. There is a reason that some things are considered classics.
Where possible, I’ll simply communicate the marketing text in order to avoid spoilers, in hopes that you’ll someday run these for yourself.
The Best Old School D&D Adventures
Keep on the Borderlands
The Keep on the Borderlands was first published in 1980. It was a thirty-two pager written by Gary Gygax, and designed for use with the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set.
PCs begin by arriving at a keep, basing themselves there to investigate a series of caverns in the nearby hills that are teeming with monsters. Plot twists include…wait, no spoilers.
The Keep on the Borderlands gives fantastic dungeon crawls for newer players (levels 1-3), as well as some outdoor adventures. I wrote more about Keep, if you want additional nostalgia.
It was given a sequel and novelized, plus reprinted a couple of times. For those you love the feel of a physical copy of the game, Noble Knight is an excellent source for out-of-print games. You can get Keep on the Borderlands here from Noble Knight.
White Plume Mountain
White Plume Mountain was a 16-page adventure published by TSR in 1979. It bears the code “S2” (“S” for “special”), and I’ll say more later about why those “S” modules were even more special than we realize.
PCs are hired to retrieve three magical weapons: a trident, a war hammer and a sword, each possessing special properties. The adventure boasts 27 encounters.
White Plume Mountain is not unique or particularly creative. In fact, it’s downright cliché and lifts the best from a variety of other sources. The beauty of White Plume Mountain is simply that it’s fun.
It has the best of classic dungeon crawls as well puzzles that challenge adventurers. It is over-the-top and interesting, and while parts of it don’t make logical sense, they are enjoyable as heck. What more could you ask for? I wrote much more on Plume, so I’ll direct you there is you want a deeper dive.
The Temple of Elemental Evil
Originally set in Gary Gygax’s Greyhawk, it began as a small module called The Village of Hommlet (1979), but went on to have a life all its own, being expanded broadly into what has become known as The Temple of Elemental Evil.
Later, a sequel was written, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, which was set 12 years later.
Notably, the story has been reimagined and set in the current D&D 5e setting under the name Princes of the Apocalypse. And although many of the trappings have changed, the newest integration still obviously keeps the elemental flavor as well as what the original did best, which is to allow characters to level up as they slowly unraveled what they grow to learn are larger plans being perpetrated by ever more nefarious villains.
You can get it here.
Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
While not for everyone, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks is the type of creative thinking that works for me. But, even if it’s not your cup of tea, it’s hard to discount the the audacity of it in 1980.
Written by Gary Gygax, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks includes elements of science fiction within D&D’s classic fantasy setting. The adventure takes place on a downed spaceship, and although the ship’s crew has died of disease, functioning robots and strange creatures still inhabit the ship. PCs fight monsters and robots, plus gather futuristic weapons that are necessary to advance the story.
The adventure is an old-time favorite of many Dungeons & Dragons fans, including Stephen Colbert. It was part of the “S” series of adventures that also included White Plume Mountain, mentioned above, as well as Tomb and Horrors and the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, that we’ll mention below. Added together, the “S” series can’t be touched in terms of awesomeness. I wrote a full look back at Barrier Peaks, so I’ll simply point you there for more.
Queen of the Spiders
You’ll have to understand that sometimes I cheat. Queen of the Spiders is one of those times, as it is actually what is considered a super-module that is comprised of lots of smaller adventures. Published in 1986, it compiled seven previous modules, which taken together form an integrated campaign.
To begin, PCs have been called together to combat giants. The first module, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, is excellent in its own right, and takes place in a gigantic wooden fort populated by hill giants and ogres. Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl takes the action to colder lands up north, where the setting is a system of caves in glacial ice. The giant trilogy ends with the Hall of the Fire Giant King, which takes place in a volcanic region that includes a horde of fire giants, trolls and hell hounds.
A secret passage from that module leads deep into the earth, where the adventurers discover the true nature of the forces behind the raids: the drow. Therefore, the fourth module introduces the Underdark, which introduces legendary monsters like the troglodytes and svirfneblin (deep gnomes).
The adventure continues with the Shrine of the Kuo-Toa, which features the Kuo-toa, a race of fish-frog monsters in the service of the lobster goddess Blibdoolpoolp. And it’s fun, folks.
Finally, players make their way to the Vault of the Drow, a deep subterranean eldritch land under the earth, where it finds its conclusion with the Queen of the Demonweb Pits.
Many of Queen of the Spider’s individual adventures had a chance at cracking this top 7, but taken together they can’t be beat.
It’s pricey, but worth it. You can get Queen of the Spiders here.
Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth
But that’s not all! Next, PCs have 22 encounters within caverns. Monsters include umber hulks and trolls, then end with an encounter with Drelzna, a vampire.
The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth was written by Gary Gygax and its 1982 publication date delayed the completion of The Temple of Elemental Evil. The adventure came with a 32 page booklet with 30 new monsters and new magic. It also has a loosely connected sequel: The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun.
The Isle of Dread
I really considered the The Lost City here, but ultimately the fun and ubiquitousness of the Isle of Dread secured its place here.
The Isle of Dread is a wilderness exploration adventure where PCs journey to the prehistoric Isle of Dread. Once there, they meet new races, look for treasure, and discover villages. Near the center of the island is a hidden temple.
Oh, it has dinosaurs.
The adventure was loosely based on King Kong and was included in every copy of the 1981 version of the D&D Expert Set.
You can purchase it here.
Looking for more old school D&D? Here are 7 great adventures from the pages of Dungeon Magazine.