Edit: This entire version needed cleaning up to reflect my current views. Since I review mostly adventures let’s start with those. DnD is for three things: Explortion, Combat and Roleplaying. A module or adventure is a premade scenario that succesfully faciliatates you doing that.
Maps: Maps need to facilitate exploration by being nonlinear or have hidden features, have features that allow the players to exploit them tactically or present an interesting challenge in mapping them. Good maps; Many Gates of the Gann, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, Mines, Claws & Princesses and Tegel Manor.
Treasure: Besides a rough sort of verisimilitude, vaguely balanced so as to avoid Monty Haul bullshit, intelligent treasure placement is a delicate art best left to true masters of the genre. Even mundane treasure should be interesting, awe-inspiring or momentarily delightful. A smattering of (unique) and atmospheric magical items does the trick as well. A little effort can turn a +1 dagger into something wonderful. But in general, I favor consumable items, unpredictable items or items that introduce some sort of drawback so as to create a tactical challenge. Good Treasure; Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Dawn of the Overmind or Shadowbrook Manor.
Encounter design: Dnd is a game of wonder and magic. The best way to make everything feel really mundane is to turn it into a hackfest. Opportunities for roleplaying, trickery, shenanigans, treachery, negotiation, treason, faction play and murder most foul are paramount. In addition, shit needs to make sense in the context of the adventure, and nothing infuriates me as much as a random griffon in a room with a treasure chest beside it. Factions of monsters, trickery, pants-shitting terror and specificity. Orcs don’t have to be boring but they often are. You don’t need to go batshit insane to make a good encounter. It’s little details and some effort that make encounters come to life.
A good dungeon has inhabitants that respond to intruders intelligently, though not always in an organized fashion.
I am also very biased towards players making up crazy plans. When I would run my homegames, I would do my best to make the (telegraphed) encounters very dangerous, so players would be forced to come up with all sorts of crazy shit in order to survive. My favorite experience as a player was dressing up as clowns to get into a lobby in Stars Without Number before surprising the final boss in his penthouse dead drunk while we were packing Mag-Rifles, Power Armor and a 500k bounty warrant.
Good encounters: Masters of Eternal Night, Temple of the Frog, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.
Wonder & Weirdness: DnD is a game of exploration yet somehow people manage to make adventures that are boring slogs through predictable locations that have nothing interesting or imaginative in them. Animate statues, idols to forgotten deities, weird pools of magical shit, hideous creatures, gateways into other worlds, enchanted gardens or the ghosts of long dead heroes. Not every great adventure is a trip into The Zone or Elfland but I know of almost no adventures that I really dug that were mundane, with the possible exception of The Enemy Within. I am biased towards weirdness and Sword and Sorcery.
Good weird: In Search of the Unknown, Tower of the Stargazer, Deep Carbon Observatory.
Writing: Everyone dislikes long tedious backstories that are peripheral to the actual adventure, room descriptions that go on for two pages, boxed read-aloud text, long exposition and an autistic focus on trivial minutiae. Ironic detachment is permitted only if the author is a verified genius of RPG writing (never happened). Short, evocative writing communicates the feel of a place, allowing the GM to fill in the blanks with his imagination.
Good writing: Mines, Claws & Princesses, Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine.
Shit I hate:
– Pretentious backstory that has no bearing on the plot
– Blank spaces where “The GM can fill in something of his own design.”
I mostly review OSR shit since that is what I play, so without further adue, here is a short list of adventures I consider to be particularly good.
Mines, Claws & Princesses – Terrific oldschool inspired OSR/5e adventure where atmosphere, intelligent encounters, great map design and a fucking DRAGON come together. A must.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes – Terrific oldschool Hexcrawl with witty Vancian-esque writing, witty Vancian-esque encounters, witty-Vancian esque monsters and witty Vancian-esque Treasure. I am a Jack Vance fan.
Many Gates of the Gann – Essentially the Kwisatz Haderach of a 10.000 year Gygaxian module breeding program. Flawless rendition of the best elements of Keep on the Borderlands, Expedition to the Barrier Peaks and Temple of Elemental Evil.
Broodmother Skyfortress – The first module I’ve checked out that was not afraid to tackle an EVENT rather then a place, and did so with flying colors. As a module as it is a demonstration of Good GM Practice through a module, and one of the few times I haven’t felt