OSR and old-school D&D adventure modules

One of the most impressive achievements of the OSR movement is the incredible proliferation of finely-crafted adventure modules, including classic dungeon crawls, as well as sprawling megadungeons, hexcrawls, pointcrawls, and tools for procedural generation. Few areas of the contemporary RPG scene can compete with this explosion of creativity when it comes to sheer abundance.

However, this accomplishment should not be measured solely in terms of numbers. Since the beginning, people involved in OSR (including module designers and countless bloggers and forum posters) have been concerned with rigorous investigation into what constitutes a well-made pre-written adventure. This gradual refinement of theory and invention brought about widely accepted standards for dungeon design, writing style, and typographical layout.

Much of this reflection was guided by the rediscovery and careful re-reading of the classic Dungeons & Dragons modules published by TSR, Judges Guild, and others. Their merits were contrasted with later developments in RPG publishing, which, since the 1990s, has been dominated by linear and plot-driven campaigns. The return to old-school mode of play called for a much greater degree of freedom for the players and more at-table usability for the DMs. However, not every single adventure published during the TSR era was considered a success from the OSR standpoint; as a result, the canon of old-school modules popular among OSR players differs from many of the general best-of lists of classic D&D adventures.

It has become something of a stereotype, especially among the veterans of the original editions of D&D, that OSR modules are by default ostentatiously weird or “gonzo”. While many OSR writers, particularly those associated with the so-called “artpunk” scene, prefer wild flights of imagination to the confines of somber traditional fantasy, this is only one colorful region of the entire OSR universe. Indeed, many of the celebrated OSR adventures exhibit great concern for the internal consistency of their worlds, and some of them are straightforward stylistic homages to the original TSR publications.

The following list of modules is based on numerous recommendation threads and blog posts made by the online OSR community. While it includes many old-school D&D adventures, they were not given special consideration when compiling the list; that is, the majority of the sources consulted dealt with general OSR recommendations and not the original TSR releases in particular. This helps to explain why, despite their classic status, they often rank lower than some modules published only a few years ago.

Each item on the list is described by its self-reported system compatibility, the recommended level of player characters, and a descriptive tag, such as “Megadungeon” or “Hexcrawl” (if applicable). The ostensive system compliance should not be taken too seriously (except by the inexperienced DMs), because the majority of OSR modules are designed to be universally compatible, requiring only minor conversions between games. The “Beginner-friendly” tag is intended to identify starter modules that are especially recommended to first-time OSR DMs, typically because they contain extended advice or ease-of-use enhancements.

If you’re looking for systems rather than adventures, I also maintain a list of fantasy OSR games. You might also be interested in my lists of hexcrawls and GM tools.

The list