The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, as advertised in Marvel Comic's The West Coast Avengers issue #15 Dec 1986. Photo by RPGGeek.com user Nazhuret, used under Creative Commons License.
Over the course of five weeks, we'll be chatting with Mike Mearls, Rodney Thompson, Bruce Cordell, James Wyatt, and Chris Perkins about their history with the Dungeons and Dragons franchise. If you missed the first three installments, go read about the group's favorite settings, favorite play experiences, and proudest accomplishments while working at Wizards of the Coast. Today, we'll force our interviewees to make some tough choices by asking them which product, out of everything Dungeons & Dragons-related ever released, they view as their favorite.
Mike Mearls: This is a tough one, because there are a lot of different D&D books and games I could point to. The 1981 Basic Set was a big influence on how I think of D&D and without it I would never have really gotten into the game. It covers all the basics of D&D without cutting corners or making the game feel incomplete. If anything, the areas it expects you to fill in yourself all speak to the DM’s role as creator, world builder, and story teller.
Rodney Thompson: I've always been a big fan of the Volo's Guide series of books. I've run a couple of Forgotten Realms campaigns, and found them extremely useful during play. I never used them much when designing adventures or prepping, but once we got into the game, the boots-on-the-ground utility of the books really shone through. When my players have their characters crawling through Waterdeep and they decide to duck into a tavern, having a Volo's Guide to Waterdeep handy is great, because it takes a lot of pressure off of me as the DM to improvise everything—setting, NPCs, quirks, etc.—and instead lets me focus on the story at hand. I like all the little granular details about taverns and shops and mundane things so that while I'm spending my brain's processing cycles thinking about how run the encounter between the heroes and the trio of death knights that are stalking them, that book handles all the little details.
Bruce Cordell: One of my favorite D&D products of all time was the original Manual of the Planes. The idea that the world of D&D was actually a multiverse of bizarre locations, accessible with a powerful spell, item, or portal, changed the way I thought about and wrote for the game in a wholly positive way. Many times, I ran games directly from the descriptions of various alternate dimensions described in the Manual. Anyway, I guess the original Manual was succeeded by Planescape, which I also loved beyond all reason.
James Wyatt: The classic adventure I keep coming back to is Dwellers of the Forbidden City. It's part adventure and part mini-setting, full of so much potential for different adventures as characters delve into the ancient ruins time after time. It was the first appearance in the game of the yuan-ti, one of my favorite monsters, and full of evocative images like tasloi riding giant wasps, bullywugs worshiping a pan lung dragon, and the mongrelmen in their ghetto, the last descendants of the original human inhabitants of the city. (Though I've never been happy with how those mongrelmen were depicted in art.)
The original adventure lays out the city and gives just one reason for adventurers to venture in, but there's a wonderful page and a half at the end called "The Forbidden City in Campaign Play," which suggests several more ways the DM could expand the city into the centerpiece of many future adventures. I used this adventure for my longest 4th Edition playtest, eulogized it in the pages of the Dungeon Master's Guide, and plan to use it again in my next campaign.
Chris Perkins: My favorite D&D product is the classic D&D adventure, Ravenloft, which pretty much defines Gothic horror roleplaying in my mind. In the adventure, the heroes travel to Castle Ravenloft to confront its dark master, the vampire lord Strahd von Zarovich, and put an end to his tyranny. Strahd himself is a memorable and terrifying villain, but his monstrous castle is a true inspiration.