D&D 5E D&D Adventure Design Eras

Zardnaar

Legend
The following are my thoughts on D&D adventure design broken down by eras. The design goals of adventures has changed over the years and these are the major breaking points of adventure design. The dates are not absolute as you can fiind "prototype" adventures for the next era where I have drawn the lines.

Genesis (1974-77). Very few adventures date from this era as the goal was to essentially design your own.

Golden Age(78-85) Argueably 81-85 but a lot of the classic D&D modules date from this era. Roughly Tomb of Horrors through to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

Plotted Course (85-94) Dragonlance became popular and their adventures are not well regarded today. To many adventures became narrative driven railroads tied to metaplot where PCs got a participation trophy. There were exceptions and Dungeon magazine came into being. 1E being ruined post Gygax and bad 2E tropes date from this. Dreck to gem ratio was out of whack.

Silver Age (95-99)
D&D was dying and they seem to have gone back to basics with things like The Night Below, Return to adventures. Glimpses of modern adventure design start to turn up eg in part 1 of the Night Below and Dead Gods and Mere of Dead Men. Marrying the better ideas of the Golden Age dungeon hacks with plot but not to heavy. As 2E died they reached new heights of quality strangely enough.

Bronze Age 2000-2002

3.0 came out and adventures sort of became self contained and harkening back to the golden age. Probably due to new edition with very different mechanics. I guess it takes a few years to figure the new dynamics out. Not a great age as classic adventure design collided with 3E dynamics. How many classic 3.0 adventures exist outside of Dungeon Magazine 3-5?

Golden Path (2002-2006) Paizo aquired Dungeon magazine and "invented" the adventure path. There were echoes of this in previous editions (Against the Spider Queen, Temple of Elemental Evil, Mere of Dead Men, Night Below) but the APs were designed from the ground up as a coherent story.

Dark Ages ( 2008-2013) Much like 2E the 4E era is not well regarded for adventures with the number of good adventures in the low single digits (1-3 generally) depending on who you talked to. Then new adventures essentially stopped. The Golden Path diverged and kept going with Paizo though to 2010-14?


Silver Path (2014-2020)

Basically from Lost Mines of Phandelver through to Ice Wind Dale. Essentially WotC started copying Paizo adventure templates from 2004-10 or so but truncated the adventures to level 1-15 or 1-10. Lost Mines isn't to drastically conceptually to The Evils of Harranshire in The Night Below or pt 1&2 of Savage Tide, Age of Worms or Rise of the Runelords. Most were built on the shoulders of giants with throwbacks to older editions.

2021+ Current Era. To early to rate but not looking good from the sounds of it. Kind of a transitional era atm with experiments on content and delivery.
 
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TarionzCousin

Second Most Angelic Devil Ever
Plotted Course (85-94) Dragonlance became popular and their adventures are not well regarded today. To many adventures became narrative driven railroads tied to metaplot where PCs got a participation trophy. There were exceptions and Dungeon magazine came into being. 1E being ruined post Gygax and bad 2E tropes date from this. Dreck to gem ratio was out of whack.
The Avatar Series for Forgotten Realms have got to be the absolute worst example of "Participation Trophy" modules. I spent hard-earned money on those and I'm still mad about it. :mad:
 


Zardnaar

Legend
You're missing the Interregnum (2013) - D&D Next playtest times that produced Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, Scourge of the Sword Coast, Murder at Baldur's Gate, and Legacy of the Crystal Shard, all of which are quite good.

Forgot about them tbh. Probably include them in the Silver Path.
 

Your era naming seem indicative of bias. Or at least a certain perspective of what is good and bad based upon adventure type preference. Though the descriptions seem mostly agreeable. I would be more focused adversarial natures, adventure paths (like you did in part), sandbox, roleplaying, etc. And even then, not sure any given "era" was all of one kind or another. Also, are you only rating "official" D&D adventures, or the primary 3PP or...?
 


Zardnaar

Legend
Your era naming seem indicative of bias. Or at least a certain perspective of what is good and bad based upon adventure type preference. Though the descriptions seem mostly agreeable. I would be more focused adversarial natures, adventure paths (like you did in part), sandbox, roleplaying, etc. And even then, not sure any given "era" was all of one kind or another. Also, are you only rating "official" D&D adventures, or the primary 3PP or...?

Just TSR/WotC stuff. 3pp changes stuff a lot with OGL for example. And there's also to much to keep track of.

Naming convention was mostly derived from the naming convention of referring to 81-85 or so as golden age.

AP design became more prominent 2002 onwards so repeated the golden age thing replacing age with path.

2E btw is one of my favorite editions it's adventures suck.

3.5 near the bottom of my favorite editions had really good adventures.

I don't like 4E fans of that edition usually admit it was weak for quality adventures only 1-3 stand out.

3.0 didn't generate many classic adventures even with Dungeon magazine.

5E adventures are probably the most consistent very few garbage ones but very few great ones after 8 years.

Golden age adventures are over rated imho but I respect the creativity a lot. More variety.

You don't see very many well regarded 1E adventures after ToEE (Dungeon had some good ones).
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Yeah, as someone who wrote some pretty amazing third party adventures from 2007 to 2015, I didn't think of it as a dark age. And I'm really sleepy and jet lagged, so I'm going to let myself be unapologetic about my talent.

War of the Burning Sky was good for the era. ZEITGEIST is great still today.

Wasnt talking about 3pp. Alot of good stuff in the "dark ages" wasn't coming from WotC though.

If I did include it 2006-2012 probably be another golden age.

Quality wise I think there's been 3 or 4 peaks for adventure design but some if them are obscure (Dungeon Magazine, 3pp).
 

Reynard

Legend
A couple notes:

The "Golden Age" modules you list are mostly tournament modules that are a cool shared experience but not necessarily actually go[d adventures for regular table play. The true classics of that era are B2 and T1, I think.

You also glossed over 2 "modern" classics: Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury. Arguably that whole line was good,but those two modules were probably among the most played and well loved until LMoP.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
A couple notes:

The "Golden Age" modules you list are mostly tournament modules that are a cool shared experience but not necessarily actually go[d adventures for regular table play. The true classics of that era are B2 and T1, I think.

You also glossed over 2 "modern" classics: Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury. Arguably that whole line was good,but those two modules were probably among the most played and well loved until LMoP.
I used them due to the publishing dates not what the modules were.
 

Steel_Wind

Legend
I'm sorry, but your approach here is misguided.

The Eras of Adventure Design closely follow and track structural changes in the RPG business and in the editions of D&D -- except for one singular event that occurred in the middle of an edition. That's because that one singular event changed adventure design forever.

1. OD&D Era - 1974-79: Few modules released, but there were important in-roads in creation and sale of modules and settings, particularly by Judges Guild. That model of support for an existing game by a 3rd party played a significant role in the shaping of the RPG business itself and echoes to this very day in terms of the OGL and SRD. Judges Guild and its City State products are, therfefore, extremely important.

2. 1st Edition, Phase 1: 1979- March 1984: This era was dominated by 32 page adventures which were notionally set in the World of Greyhawk, but were portable to any generic AD&D game world. The maps were comparatively poor by modern standards and the story almost invisible by modern standards as well. While subsequent editions have came back and revisited these modules, it's a gimmick and essentially trades primarily on name recognition. All revisitations of these classic modules change the adventures in a major way in that they add story, plot and narrative to adventures in which those things were essenitally absent when first published.

3. 1st Edition, Phase 2: March 1984 to 1989: This era begins with the most important adventure series to have ever been released by TSR - DragonLance. The classic DL modules were entirely a 1st edition phenom. They changed all adventure design -- by giving a series of interlocking adventures a strong narrative metaplot, strong NPC characterizations and a variety of marketing tie-ins. The initial novels, in particular, sold very well (NY Times bestsellers) and TSR made a boatload of cash on DragonLance. The railroady designs of the first 2 modules, when combined with the blow-by-blow unfolding of the adventure in Dragons of Autumn Twilight created a monster of great power -- but it also eventually created more problems than it solved. There were lessons to be learned here. All subsequent adventures path series avoided strong novelizations of their plots, settings and characters and toned down the rail-road. That is true whether they were published by TSR, WotC or Paizo. The point to take-away from this, however, is that interlocking adventures with strong stories and an over-arching metaplot SELL EXTREMELY WELL.

4. 2nd Edition: 1989-1999: In a series of vain attempts to find "the next DragonLance", TSR creates a multiplicity of settings. This fractured their player base, and leads to fractured adventures, which, when combined with the market disruptor that was Magic:The Gathering, lead to the death of TSR. The adventures from this time period that did comparatively well were set in the Forgotten Realms, which was the setting which was most generic and transferrable to anybody's homebrewed world. However, because the market was so fragmented, even those didn't sell well enough. The adventures that were sold for 2nd Ed DragonLance, Planescape, Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Birthright did NOT sell well at all. While the adventure style had been forever altered by DragonLance's narrative story approach, what the market, TSR and later WotC "learned" from this was that adventures don't sell and you can't make money on them. "Because they don't". It was never, ever true, but that fundamental business error would be repeated by WotC until 2014 as a tenet of RPG business faith.

5. 3.xx 2000-2008: During this time period, the OGL was created so that 3rd parties could write the adventures (which, according to WotC, didn't sell) while WotC would focus on selling rules. And rules and a few settings books is what WotC mainly did. Yes, there were some adventures sold, again -- all with a narrative approach -- but not much that would attempt an interlocking series of published adventures. Those products were seen as too high a risk and best left to the OGL publishers to do.

So 3rd Ed was the time in adv design which was dominated not by the rules publisher, but by 3rd party publishers under the OGL. The most successful of them was Paizo, which using the magazines Dungeon (and Dragon in support) revived the interlocking adventure path concept from DragonLance and put it into effect with Age of Worms. (Note: Shackled City was designed, assigned, edited, conceived and written by WotC -- on a completely different basis than Age of Worms and all subsequent Paizo APs were). AoW and Savage Tide were immensely popular and re-established the narrative Adventure Path founded by DragonLance. When execs withiin WotC told Lisa Stevens it wouldnt' work, because such adventures don't make money? "Because they don't" Lisa did what she had always done -- she ignored that advice and did what she thought best. It worked.

6. 2008-2014 Pathfinder: This was not the age of 4e. 4e and WotC is a minor player in adventure design and publishing in this era. Paizo dominates the market with its adventure lines and a subscriber base which buys them every month, directly from the publisher - with no middleman. The PF Adv Paths and the rules become so successful that 4e is basically forced off of store shelves in 2012 and D&D vanished from the marketplace for ~2 years. That should tell you all you need to know about how "right" WotC execs were in their opinion that "adventures don't sell - because they don't." They were wrong. Dead wrong. The adventures which DID sell were all interlocking narrative adventures based on the DragonLance model. That model continues to this day in 2022 from Paizo. They have, here and there, modified the length of those APs so that they can be played and finished sooner, but that's about it. The model hasn't really changed since 2008. It is that same model which WotC decided to follow in 2014.

7. 2014- Present: WotC re-enters the adventure market, timidly at first, later with confidence. WotC takes the AP design of Paizo and initially puts out two hardcover books -- written by 3rd parties Wolfgang and Co at Kobold Press but published by WotC. The idea was good, but like every AP in the history of ever, the first one that was written/released at the same time as the new rules system is being written sucks. With PF1, Starfinder, PF2, and 5e, that remains true across all RPG editions that engage in AP design & publishing. But WotC kept with it and has come out with more and more adventures since. Indeed, for a company that insisted adventures don;t sell "because they don't" -- being humbled in 2012 taught them a lesson. Yes, adventures do sell very well if written well and packaged and sold as a premium product.

And THAT is where we are now. There's been no real difference in the types, style, and kinds of adventues written since 2008 and Rise of the Runelords. The only real change has been in length (make them about half as long) and in terms of the business side of the adventure in terms of sales (multi-part via subscription, or one hardcover book bought at a store or via Amazon.) But really, that's it. Most of them -- and all of the most successful ones -- follow the same narrative overarching plot first created by TSR in March of 1984 with DragonLance.

tl;dr: Plot matters.
 
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Zardnaar

Legend
I'm sorry, but your approach here is misguided.

The Eras of Adventure Design closely follow and track structural changes in the RPG business and in the editions of D&D -- except for one singular event that occurred in the middle of an edition. That's because that one singular event changed adventure design forever.

1. OD&D Era - 1974-79: Few modules released, but there were important in-roads in creation and sale of modules and settings, particularly by Judges Guild. That model of support for an existing game by a 3rd party played a significant role in the shaping of the RPG business itself and echoes to this very day in terms of the OGL and SRD. Judges Guild and its City State products are, therfefore, extremely important.

2. 1st Edition, Phase 1: 1979- March 1984: This era was dominated by 32 page adventures which were notionally set in the World of Greyhawk, but were portable to any generic AD&D game world. The maps were comparatively poor by modern standards and the story almost invisible by modern standards as well. While subsequent editions have came back and revisited these modules, it's a gimmick and essentially trades primarily on name recognition. All revisitations of these classic modules change the adventures in a major way in that they add story, plot and narrative to adventures in which those things were essenitally absent when first published.

3. 1st Edition, Phase 2: March 1984 to 1989: This era begins with the most important adventure series to have ever been released by TSR - DragonLance. The classic DL modules were entirely a 1st edition phenom. They changed all adventure design -- by giving a series of interlocking adventures a strong narrative metaplot, strong NPC characterizations and a variety of marketing tie-ins. The initial novels, in particular, sold very well (NY Times bestsellers) and TSR made a boatload of cash on DragonLance. The railroady designs of the first 2 modules, when combined with the blow-by-blow unfolding of the adventure in Dragons of Autumn Twilight created a monster of great power -- but it also eventually created more problems than it solved. There were lessons to be learned here. All subsequent adventures path series avoided strong novelizations of their plots, settings and characters and toned down the rail-road. That is true whether they were published by TSR, WotC or Paizo. The point to take-away from this, however, is that interlocking adventures with strong stories and an over-arching metaplot SELL EXTREMELY WELL.

4. 2nd Edition: 1989-1999: In a series of vain attempts to find "the next DragonLance", TSR creates a multiplicity of settings. This fractured their player base, and leads to fractured adventures, which, when combined with the market disruptor that was Magic:The Gathering, lead to the death of TSR. The adventures from this time period that did comparatively well were set in the Forgotten Realms, which was the setting which was most generic and transferrable to anybody's homebrewed world. However, because the market was so fragmented, even those didn't sell well enough. The adventures that were sold for 2nd Ed DragonLance, Planescape, Spelljammer, Dark Sun and Birthright did NOT sell well at all. While the adventure style had been forever altered by DragonLance's narrative story approach, what the market, TSR and later WotC "learned" from this was that adventures don't sell and you can't make money on them. "Because they don't". It was never, ever true, but that fundamental business error would be repeated by WotC until 2014 as a tenet of RPG business faith.

5. 3.xx 2000-2008: During thie time period, the OGL was created so that 3rd parties could write the adventures (which, according to WotC, didn't sell) while WotC would focus on selling rules. And rules and a few settings books is what WotC mainly did. Yes, there were some adventures sold, again -- all with a narrative approach -- but not much that would attempt an interlocking series of published adventures. Those products were seen as too high a risk and best left to the OGL publishers to so.

So 3rd Ed was the time in adv design which was dominated not by the rules publisher, but by 3rd party publishers under the OGL. The most successful of them was Paizo, which using the magazines Dungeon (and Dragon in support) revived the interlocking adventure path concept from DragonLance and put it into effect with Age of Worms. (Note: Shackled City was designed, assigned, edited, and written on a completely different basis than Age of Worms and all subsequent Paiso APs were). AoW and Savage Tide were immensely popular and re-established the narrative Adventure Path founded by DragonLance. When execs withiin WotC told Lisa Stevens it wouldnt' work, because such adventures don't make money? "Because they don't" Lisa did what she had always done -- she ignored that advice and did what she thought best. It worked.

6. 2008-2014 Pathfinder: This was not the age of 4e. 4e ans WotC is a minor player in adventure design and publishing in this era. Paizo dominates the market with its adventure lines and a subscriber base which buys them every month, directly from the publisher - with no middleman. The PF Adv Paths and the rules become so successful that 4e is basically forced off of store shelves in 2012 and D&D vanished from the marketplace for ~2 years. That should tell you all you need to know about how "right" WotC execs were in their opinion that "adventures don't sell - because they don't." They were wrong. Dead wrong. The adventrures which DID sell were all interlocking narrative adventures based on the DragonLance model. That model contiunues to this day in 2022 from Paizo. They have, here and there, modified the length of those APs so that they can be played and finished sooner, but that's about it. The model hasn't really changed since 2008. It is that same model which WotC decided to follow in 2014.

7. 2014- Present: WotC re-enters the adventure market, timidly at first, later with confidence. WotC takes the AP design of Paizo and initially puts out two hardcover books -- written by 2rd parties Wolfgang and Co at Kobold Press but published by WotC. The idea was good, but like every AP in the history of ever, the first one that was written/released at the same time as the new rules system is being written sucks. With PF1, Starfinder, PF2, and 5e, that remains true across all RPG editions that engage in AP design & publishing. But WotC kept with it and has come out with more and more adventures since. Indeed, for a company that insisted adventures don;t sell "because they don't" -- being humbled in 2012 taught them a lesson. Yes, adventures do sell very well if written well and packaged and sold as a premium product.

And THAT is where we are now. There's been no real difference in the types, style, and kinds of adventues written since 2008 and Rise of the Runelords. The only real change has been in length (make them about half as long) and in terms of the business side of the adventure in terms of sales (multi-part via subscription, or one hardcover book bought at a store or via Amazon.) But really, that's it. Most of them -- and all of the most successful ones -- follow the same narrative overarching plot first created by TSR in March of 1984 with DragonLance.

tl;dr: Plot matters.

I don't think the current adventure design is to drastically different conceptually than 2004 Age of Worms.

Dragonlance the execution was off along with the 2E stuff that did actually change around 1995.

The first "modern" adventure imho is the first book of Night Below imho. I've been looking earlier stuff to find an earlier example but that's it imho.

The crappy Dragonlance adventure format did not end with 2E launch. It didn't really survive post 95 though.
 

Steel_Wind

Legend
I don't think the current adventure design is to drastically different conceptually than 2004 Age of Worms.

Dragonlance the execution was off along with the 2E stuff that did actually change around 1995.

The first "modern" adventure imho is the first book of Night Below imho. I've been looking earlier stuff to find an earlier example but that's it imho.

The crappy Dragonlance adventure format did not end with 2E launch. It didn't really survive post 95 though.
Your memory is failing you. DL was not a 2nd edition product, it was primarily a 1st edition phenomenon. The other 2nd ed settings green lit by TSR was Lorraine Williams trying to find another setting to capture that magic all over again. It never worked.

Yes, there were DL modules created for 2nd ed, just as there were for FR, Spelljammer, Planescape, Dark Sun amd Birthright. But like all 2nd edtion adventure prouducts - they never sold very well because the market had become fragmented by too many TSR settings -- and a series of adventures designed for each particular setting.

That didn't matter though. The point was that longer interlocking adventures with a stroy and metaplot came to dominate all adventure design when it came to the premum centre stage adv products. That is true regardless of the products being dicussed, Night Below -- Rod of Seven Parts, etc..

Your belief that there is some qualitative difference in the Adv Path approach pioneered by DragonLance that was somehow abandoned in 1995 is just fake news. There's no truth to that at all. That opinion amounts to liar liar, pants on fire. It's objectively untrue.

Hell I've interviewed James Jacobs and Erik Mona in the past on this very point and they both readily agreed that the AP concept that they began in Age of Worms was trying to recapture the narrative campaign spanning arc pioneered in DragonLance and updated for a 3.xx audience. Take that up with them if you will.
 

Zardnaar

Legend
Your memory is failing you. DL was not a 2nd edition product, it was primarily a 1st edition phenomenon. The other 2nd ed settings green lit by TSR was Lorraine Williams trying to find another setting to capture that magic all over again. It never worked.

Yes, there were DL modules created for 2nd ed, just as there were for FR, Spelljammer, Planescape, Dark Sun amd Birthright. But like all 2nd edtion adventure prouducts - they never sold very well because the market had become fragmented by too many TSR settings -- and a series of adventures designed for each particular setting.

That didn't matter though. The point was that longer interlocking adventures with a stroy and metaplot came to dominate all adventure design when it came to the premum centre stage adv products. That is true regardless of the products being dicussed, Night Below -- Rod of Seven Parts, etc..

Your belief that there is some qualitative difference in the Adv Path approach pioneered by DragonLance that was somehow abandoned in 1995 is just fake news. There's no truth to that at all. That opinion amounts to liar liar, pants on fire. It's objectively untrue.

Hell I've interviewed James Jacobs and Erik Mona in the past on this very point and they both readily agreed that the AP concept that they began in Age of Worms was trying to recapture the narrative campaign spanning arc pioneered in DragonLance and updated for a 3.xx audience. Take that up with them if you will.

The concept was DL I'm not disputing that.

The poor quality adventure design of narrative heavy railroaded adventures continued into 2E. The edition changed the adventure design did not.

There's a difference between the execution of those adventures and late 2E adventures from 1995 onwards. Dead Gods, Night Below, Return to series that lasted until 3E launched a d then we're two years away from what you're referencing.

Even then it's not absolute lujevi said in my OP. Dungeon magazine went in a different direction 87-91/92. There was no significant design goal differences between late 1E and early 2E Dungeon adventures but they kept producing crappy DL style adventures.

Having a pkit us fine the difference is how heavily scripted it is vs player agency.
 

Celebrim

Legend
The following are my thoughts on D&D adventure design broken down by eras.

My first thought is that this topic is so incredibly complicated that it requires almost a book length treatment.

First, the DL series began to come out in 1984 - which is before the end of your cut off period. And the DL series was very highly regarded at the time and remains highly regarded today. Granted, they require an experienced hand to run them, but if you treat them as a campaign setting and the suggestions that they give you for keep the story moving toward a conclusion as guidelines that require skill to implement, then they are an amazing gaming experience. The adventure locations are amazing. The combat is amazing. The scenarios are amazing. The depth of the story line is amazing. The campaign is epic. You just have to make it your own. In the hands of a novice DM taking everything literally they become a railroad.

While it is somewhat true that TSR learned the wrong lessons from this, the main reason that the subsequent era failed was the quality of the writing declined and not that there is a magic formula like "dungeon crawl good, narrative bad" or "grim and gritty good, heroic bad". That's Hollywood producer level of understanding wrong, and surely, we as nerds are smarter than that.

Also, some of the early next era is still reasonably well regarded. The Chronicle modules extend into 1986. For example, many people like Night's Dark Terror (1986) or Feast of Goblyns (1989) or Vecna Lives! (1990). The really bad adventures are in this period set in the Forgotten Realms and while many of them are railroads and worse railroads where the NPCs are doing all the important things and you are just an audience, but they aren't limited to that. Haunted Halls of Eveningstar is a piece of trash, and it's anything but a railroad. Indeed, it's not even a dungeon crawl or an adventure. It's hard to describe how much of a mess it is.

So for me what really starts happening is about 1986, TSR runs out of steam, and has done all the obvious things and starts running out of imagination. You can see this through 1986 and 1987 as the quality of the stuff that isn't railroady adventure paths is also going downhill.

For me then, it about 1987 where the Golden Age comes to an end and not because of some huge shift in focus, but just because the next bit doesn't have a lot of high points. There was plenty of forgettable stupidity before 1987, but afterwards there wasn't really anything good to offset that.

For me this is the beginning of the D&D Dark Age, and it extends from about 1987 (it might not be fair but let's date it to the printing of Under Illefarn) all the way to about the Silver Anniversary in 1999. The good stuff here is mostly early on and it gets buried under the trash. D&D gets revived noticeably by the 25th anniversary stuff like Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Rod of Seven Parts, and Axe of the Dwarven Lords. They aren't perfect by any means - Skip's Goblins have Tucker's Kobold syndrome - but the writing quality has come back, the commitment to quality has come back, and there is again imagination in TSR land. Of course, by this point it's too late to save the company.

3e brings a ton of quality with it. Whispering Cairn is a brilliant module. Sunlit Citadel is a brilliant module. Of Sound Mind is a brilliant module. Mad God's Key is a brilliant adventure. Forge of Fury is good. But you notice how most of this stuff is for 1st level or at least low level characters? Yeah, that's the problem in the 3e era. Really big ambitions. Really big adventure paths. Great beginnings and yet it fizzles in the end. Bits and pieces of the Adventure Paths are good, but in my experience with them large sections are uninspired or badly designed. I wouldn't want to run the whole thing necessarily. To grindy. To much focused on that 1-20 experience even at the expense of story or gameplay.

After that era I mostly stopped caring, but 5e has again seen a resurgence of what looks to me to be quality modules in the big hardcover format. I haven't played them, but I'm impressed by what I've seen of The Wild Beyond The Witchlight, Lost Mines Of Phandelver, Out Of The Abyss, Tomb Of Annihilation and Curse Of Strahd. This might be the best era in terms of writing quality since the Golden Age in the early 1980's.
 

SJB

Explorer
Joe Nuttall crunched the numbers on the 1970s a little while ago. The “few adventures” might not be a sound assumption. There were 200+ with exponential growth, output doubling every year, making each year of the late 1970s a new era.

As Nuttall noted the key would be find out when the exponential growth ceased, that would mark the epistemic shift. It would be interesting to hear if anyone had the answer.

 

Zardnaar

Legend
My first thought is that this topic is so incredibly complicated that it requires almost a book length treatment.

First, the DL series began to come out in 1984 - which is before the end of your cut off period. And the DL series was very highly regarded at the time and remains highly regarded today. Granted, they require an experienced hand to run them, but if you treat them as a campaign setting and the suggestions that they give you for keep the story moving toward a conclusion as guidelines that require skill to implement, then they are an amazing gaming experience. The adventure locations are amazing. The combat is amazing. The scenarios are amazing. The depth of the story line is amazing. The campaign is epic. You just have to make it your own. In the hands of a novice DM taking everything literally they become a railroad.

While it is somewhat true that TSR learned the wrong lessons from this, the main reason that the subsequent era failed was the quality of the writing declined and not that there is a magic formula like "dungeon crawl good, narrative bad" or "grim and gritty good, heroic bad". That's Hollywood producer level of understanding wrong, and surely, we as nerds are smarter than that.

Also, some of the early next era is still reasonably well regarded. The Chronicle modules extend into 1986. For example, many people like Night's Dark Terror (1986) or Feast of Goblyns (1989) or Vecna Lives! (1990). The really bad adventures are in this period set in the Forgotten Realms and while many of them are railroads and worse railroads where the NPCs are doing all the important things and you are just an audience, but they aren't limited to that. Haunted Halls of Eveningstar is a piece of trash, and it's anything but a railroad. Indeed, it's not even a dungeon crawl or an adventure. It's hard to describe how much of a mess it is.

So for me what really starts happening is about 1986, TSR runs out of steam, and has done all the obvious things and starts running out of imagination. You can see this through 1986 and 1987 as the quality of the stuff that isn't railroady adventure paths is also going downhill.

For me then, it about 1987 where the Golden Age comes to an end and not because of some huge shift in focus, but just because the next bit doesn't have a lot of high points. There was plenty of forgettable stupidity before 1987, but afterwards there wasn't really anything good to offset that.

For me this is the beginning of the D&D Dark Age, and it extends from about 1987 (it might not be fair but let's date it to the printing of Under Illefarn) all the way to about the Silver Anniversary in 1999. The good stuff here is mostly early on and it gets buried under the trash. D&D gets revived noticeably by the 25th anniversary stuff like Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Rod of Seven Parts, and Axe of the Dwarven Lords. They aren't perfect by any means - Skip's Goblins have Tucker's Kobold syndrome - but the writing quality has come back, the commitment to quality has come back, and there is again imagination in TSR land. Of course, by this point it's too late to save the company.

3e brings a ton of quality with it. Whispering Cairn is a brilliant module. Sunlit Citadel is a brilliant module. Of Sound Mind is a brilliant module. Mad God's Key is a brilliant adventure. Forge of Fury is good. But you notice how most of this stuff is for 1st level or at least low level characters? Yeah, that's the problem in the 3e era. Really big ambitions. Really big adventure paths. Great beginnings and yet it fizzles in the end. Bits and pieces of the Adventure Paths are good, but in my experience with them large sections are uninspired or badly designed. I wouldn't want to run the whole thing necessarily. To grindy. To much focused on that 1-20 experience even at the expense of story or gameplay.

After that era I mostly stopped caring, but 5e has again seen a resurgence of what looks to me to be quality modules in the big hardcover format. I haven't played them, but I'm impressed by what I've seen of The Wild Beyond The Witchlight, Lost Mines Of Phandelver, Out Of The Abyss, Tomb Of Annihilation and Curse Of Strahd. This might be the best era in terms of writing quality since the Golden Age in the early 1980's.

The dates are approximate and 85 is often see as a cut off point. Dragonlance cane out 84 but post 85 is when they doubled down on it.

And there's still quality out there finding it is the issue. Yes you can find good adventures 86-95 it's a trend not an absolute.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Adding in third-party adventures certainly muddies the waters a bit.

In the 1970s Judges Guild were churning out D&D-adjacent adventures, of quality ranging from 11/10 spectacular to -1/10 abysmal.

Then TSR got on the adventure train and put out a whole bunch between about 1978 and 1985 (ignoring, for the moment DL), of quality ranging from pretty damn good to vaguely-playable. Other than JG, third-party publishing wasn't much of a thing.

The big change for me isn't the release of the first few DL modules, it's the release of the next few coupled with the release of Unearthed Arcana. Sadly, 1e would never be the same again; and DL (and Ravenloft, 1986) became the Big Deals in adventures.

For the next bunch of years - roughly 1985-1998 - TSR did just about all the adventure-writing and, despite a few highlights, for the most part didn't do it very well. Third-parties were actively squashed, and JG pretty much petered out. Dungeon magazine provided a steady stream of new adventures (though of a quality variance not seen since JG days), meanwhile the whole game nearly died out from under it all.

There was a very short run from about 1998-2001 that produced a string of pretty good adventures: the late-2e Return To..." series and the early 3e WotC adventures e.g. Sunless Citadel and Forge of Fury are some highlights here.

Underneath this, however, the Age of Dreck was brewing. The OGL allowed everybody and their little dog to churn out adventures, and from about 2001-2003 the game stores were stuffed with third-party garbage. There were a few real highlights, to be sure, e.g. the 3e treatment of Rappan Athuk is brilliant; but for the most part it was pay yer money and take yer (not good) chances.

By about 2004 everyone involved became a bit more demanding and as a result the overall quality improved significantly. From here on, due to all the third-party involvement, few if any patterns emerge. @Zardnaar has hit the patterns nicely as they apply to WotC and maybe Paizo; but there's also been enough third-party material over that time that the WotC adventures have been somewhat pushed to the back-burner. Further, that third-party material covers the whole span of D&D - there's excellent adventures (and, of course, not-so-excellent ones as well!) still coming out even today for every past edition out there.

One could argue that right now is the true Golden Age for adventures, in that there have never been so many available no matter what edition you want them for.
 

When talking about the birth of the adventure path, the Al-Qadim boxed sets don't get enough credit.

Each boxed set had a gazetteer booklet covering a particular region in Zakhara, and then a booklet containing half a dozen linked adventures that formed a single story set in the area. They varied a bit in quality, and with only 96 pages each they're a bit light-on by current standards and require a bit of stitching, but there was some really good stuff in Ruined Kingdoms, Caravans, and Assassin Mountain in particular (though I may never forgive Assassin Mountain for making you kill the assassins' guard/tracking saluqis, since getting a saluqi of my own...)

Paizo didn't invent the adventure path, though they did drive the concept's success by producing some amazing material in Dragon when WotC had largely given up on adventures completely and the market seemed ripe for some quality, semi-official stuff. But the idea had been around in different forms for a very long time.
 

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