10 of the Strangest D&D Products

Once upon a time (holy crap, it was 8 years ago), I wrote a piece about the 10 strangest GURPS sourcebooks and its relative success convinced me to do something similar with other big role-playing games. And then I just didn't do it. Well, the idea's back, and what's bigger than Dungeons & Dragons? Now, strange products aren't necessarily BAD products, though you might scratch your head looking at AD&D 2nd character sheets with their dark green blocks no pencil can properly show through, so I went with the odd and unusual, the one with ideas that probably shouldn't work, and in fact might not depending on your gaming group. Some of these I own and cherish, others I've only heard about and researched. My D&D knowledge more or less stops with AD&D 2nd, so if you have favorites from 3rd, 4th or 5th, don't hesitate to drop them in the comments. Or others from Original, Advanced or Adv. 2nd for that matter. I'm surprised nothing from the wild and woolly settings Planescape, Spelljammer and Dark Sun made it on here! I guess because a certain level of weirdness is EXPECTED from those settings. So without further adieu, in alphabetical order...

The Book of Wondrous Inventions
compiled by Bruce A. Heard for original Dungeons & Dragons
Basically a book of semi-magical steam-tech items built by Gnomes, more or less in the style of a product catalog, the book starts with a jokey introduction and goes on from there. While there ARE inventions you would employ in serious context - Castles in the Sky, steam-age vehicles, clockwork dragons, etc. - and others that are neat adaptations of available fantasy resources like a cannon powered by gas spores, most of the entries are humorous anachronisms. A cola machine that offers up a sweet elixir, but only after shooting cans at the players? Animated skeletons washing your underwear inside a big metal box? A crystal ball hooked up to a dish with an antenna like a wizard's hand? A ball of bowling? It's in here. And rules for building new inventions. Basically makes me want to add a Tinkerer class to all my sword & sorcery games.

Castle Greyhawk
written by various authors for AD&D's World of Greyhawk setting
Oh nice, a big thick dungeon book like the Temple of Elemental Evil that can tie up your group for a year! And then you realize what this actually is. 13 detailed dungeon levels lying under Castle Greyhawk, each by a different author, each with a different humorous twist on the genre. Mileage may vary. There's a whole level where the monsters are essentially parodies of pop culture characters like Doctor Who and the Hulk. In another, you crash a Goblin Chief's birthday party. There's a Temple of Really Bad Dead Things where Priests of the Mediocre worship. Yet another level is an underground jungle with a crashed plane in the middle of it, a level that also includes a giant spider dance studio. How did this incredible diversity come to inhabit a single dungeon? Why, it's the Random Monster Generator's fault, of course.

The Complete Bard's Handbook
written by Blake Mobley for AD&D 2nd edition
I love love love The Complete Fighter's Handbook. The introduction of class "Kits" in 2nd ed. was, I thought, brilliant and a great way to make members of the same profession distinct. Fighters especially needed this. The other books weren't as good, giving either too few options (Wizard, Priest) or options that didn't make enough of a difference (Thief). Then, the subclass books started rolling out and you could feel the writers reaching to find appropriate material. Though I might have mentioned the Ninja's Handbook here (like, REALLY?!), it's the Bard's Handbook I most love. Maybe because it's my favorite class overall, but more than that, the book creates some outlandish, performance-based Kits I would love to play. The Halfling Whistler who can literally "whistle up a storm". The Jongleur who turns his act into a battle of thrown weapons. The Thespian and her "spell acting" (what?). The Meistersinger who is essentially a pied piper. The Gnome Professor who... professes. Let's get a few Bards together and go on the road! (Actually campaign we're considering.)

written by Gary Gygax for AD&D
The original Dungeon Master himself wrote this adventure module based on... Alice in Wonderland. After jumping into an endless shaft (read: rabbit hole), the delvers will find themselves in a nightmare only Lewis Carroll could have dreamed up. Gygax makes sure to hide his conceit as long as possible, with no early references to mirrors or rabbits, but you do eventually meet a Mad Hatter, a hare-brained Hare, and some deadly royalty. Of course, the characters are much more monstery than in the original story, but it's still meant to be a zany change of pace. And when you're ready to go back to that pace, there's a sequel! The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror takes you back to that strange plane of existence.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks
written by Gary Gygax for AD&D
Another Gygax "change of pace", as it seems the father of D&D was probably bored with the same old dungeon delves given how much he must've played. This one is straight up science fiction. The dungeon that needs exploring is a crashed spaceship, and the adventure is filled with SF gadgets and monsters. Is this the origin of the Mind Flayers' association with other worlds (as well as that of other psionic races)? It might be. They're in here. But so are robots, alien plants, and rooms more at home in Battlestar Galactica or Star Trek The Motion Picture than in any kind of sword & sorcery adventure.

The Official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Coloring Album
written by Gary Gygax and drawn by Greg Irons for AD&D and your set of Prismacolor pencils
I didn't want to pimp this list up with tie-in products, but the coloring book actually does include a playable dungeon designed by the Grand Poobah himself! The art is by Greg Irons and is quite nice. I just read he died young, hit by a bus in Thailand, which is a strange piece of trivia itself. I've done the Google search for you, check out some of the pages HERE. A nice back door into role-playing games, the book was likely to be sold in department stores and includes abbreviated rules for AD&D and never anything but 6-sided dice. Clever. Good luck finding copies though. I've seen sellers put it up on Amazon for 250$.

Tale of the Comet
written by Expedition to the Barrier Peaks for AD&D Odyssey
Like Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, this one's about an alien craft the PCs can explore. This is almost 20 years after Barrier Peaks, but I don't think it's a better product necessarily. Prettier maybe, but it suffers from being a crossover point for the Alternaty RPG, and the new rules to handle high-tech gadgets in D&D wasn't to everyone's tastes. At least they created a new alien species - no Spelljammer exiles - in the elfin Rael, tall humanoids that use stargates, though the villains are Borg-like robots (pack some lightning spells, they short-circuit easy; might finally have a use for Create Food and Water - bzzzt!). The spell-casters became over powerful, while everyone who relied on armor, which the alien blasters cut through like butter, became useless. By all accounts a failure. And in a pricy boxed set too.

The Throne of Bloodstone
written by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson for AD&D's Forgotten Realms setting
For Character Levels 18-100... not a typo. The first time I heard of this, I was a teenage DM meeting a notorious college-age DM who promptly asked me "what's the deadliest module you've ever seen?" He was one of those DM vs Players types who always back pedal Total Party Kills to keep players from rioting. He gave a few details, and because I love unusual books, I got it when I found it. It starts with a hundred demons attacking your stronghold and goes on from there with a descent into the Abyss (the hellyest of hells) until you get to thrash Orcus, one of the big names down there. The "dungeon map" alone is an insane full-color pull-out poster where levels are propped up by giant skulls above rivers of fire. It's got crazy puzzles and mazes, a city full of zombies, Tiamat herself (for D&D cartoon fans), and if you're lucky, a quick trip to Heaven (I guess if you're unlucky too). I've wanted to condense and play it, but it hasn't happened yet.

Unearthed Arcana
written by Gary Gygax for AD&D
I wasn't sure I wanted to put this compendium of extra Player's Handbook/Dungeon Master's Guide material in the list, but some of its chapters really do get quite loopy. Sure, it gave us new favorites like the Ranger, Druid and Paladin, lots of new spells and equipment, non-human deities, and weaponless fighting rules too. But it also includes some pretty weird stuff. Not sure the Cavalier, Barbarian or Acrobat ever worked right. The Drow as a PC race is cool in a ninja kind of way (i.e. for no one but the player), but the Svirfneblin (Deep Gnomes) is surely an odd choice. The Chromatic Orb feels like the beginnings of 2nd edition's later Wild Magic. But if I include it at all, it's because of "The Nomenclature of the Pole-Arm", an overly detailed appendix that explains the difference between, say, the glaive-guisarme and the fauchard-fork, with pictures for over 70 different long-reach weapons. It will numb your mind. If I'd put the books in order of strangeness, Unearthed Arcana would probably have been only at #10, but it's an odd mish-mash nonetheless.

Up the Garden Path
written by by Graeme Morris and Mike Brunton for original Dungeons & Dragons
"...utilizing the 1986 National Gardening Festival as its theme..." Right there, you know you're in for an oddity. Exclusive to the UK, this hard-to-find gem (or turnip?), this adventure module sold AT the Festival uses the actual map of the National Garden Festival event, held at Stoke on Trent and translates the parking lot into a "grey wasteland surrounding the universe". It is by all accounts whimsical, with new monsters based on flower names (the Snap Dragon for example), and I've never seen it, nor even a scan of it. Collectors estimate less than 600 were printed and perhaps 50 still exist. But OF COURSE the British made a D&D scenario about gardening.

So those are mine, what are yours?


Jonathan Linneman said...

"Up the Garden Path"...never heard of that, but man, do I want to see it now!

Anonymous said...

"It starts with a hundred demons attacking your stronghold and goes on from there ..." How did I ever miss that one? My group had the Book of Wondrous inventions, but we never used anything from it because most of the stuff was too weird (or too "game-changing").

I remember the Pole Arm thing from UA ... probably more useful (and less offensive) than the "hooker breakdown" in 1st Edition.

As for "Up the Garden Path", I've never heard of it either, but my dad's from England so I agree that only an English writer would come up with a module on gardening. Wasn't Graeme Morris the guy who did all those UK modules like "Beyond the Crystal Cave" and the Saltmarsh trilogy? I think he co-wrote one of my favourites, "Night's Dark Terror" too.

Mike W.

American Hawkman said...

Frank Metzer confirmed on Facebook that Alcohol was very much involved in Book of Wonderous Inventions at every stage of the process. :)

Randal said...

Memories, memories. I will say that Up the Garden Path is available out there...but that's all I should say.
My gaming group - formed in 6th grade and still playing 33 years later (plodded through Rage of Demons three weeks ago!) - played Bloodstone. Fought Orcus. My paladin died. Repeatedly.
Book of Wondrous Items? I prefer Aurora's Whole Realms Catalog...really took the Sears-Roebuck look and ran with it!

Unknown said...

I killed many a convention goer with their cheated on, overwrought characters with Throne of Bloodstone. Everyone forgot a certain demon lord's powers, though the module neutered said demon lord's artifact weapon.

Castle Greyhawk had some of the silliest levels known to man.

Expedition to the Barrier Peaks where Metamorphosis Alpha met Dungeons and Dragons.

All good times.


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