Thursday, October 8, 2009

Black Sheep: Thunder Rift

I've been brainstorming ideas lately for an irregular, open-ended post series and today one finally came to me.

I'm calling it "Black Sheep." This series will be dedicated to praising the oft-overlooked gems published during what many consider to be the darkest days of D&D: The 1990s.

There's a strong tendency in the classic D&D community to write-off the hundreds of products released by TSR during this period. And that's too bad. Because even incompetent management and an utter lack of quality control didn't manage to prevent some very sincere D&D enthusiasts from producing some very useful and inspiring products.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many old-timers report that they just up and stopped playing (A)D&D around this time, while I myself was a kid just beginning. But I digress...

To start things off, here's Thunder Rift, a 1992 "basic D&D" release by Colin McComb.

TR superfan Håvard Faanes describes the setup like so:

"Thunder Rift is a small isolated valley, named after the characteristic thunderous roar that can sometimes be heard throughout the valley. Despite its small size, Thunder Rift is home to a wide range of peoples and creatures and has a rich history, full of wonders, glory, conflicts, violence and tragedy."

Thunder Rift is what we today might call a "mini-sandbox." It's intended as a truly modular, transportable microsetting that a new DM can use as a base for his or her adventures. It is, in its own way, analogous to Village of Hommlet or Keep on the Borderlands.

Why is this so important? Well, at the time it seemed to many that TSR was forsaking exactly this sort of useful, modular "bread-and-butter" D&D product in favor of ever more esoteric and complicated high-concept ones. This was the era, you'll remember, of Spelljammer, Planescape, Maztica, etc. But what good did these sprawling, baroque works do for the average kid just looking for a small village to set his first dungeon near, maybe one with a forest of reclusive elves and a hillside colony of gruff dwarves not too far away?

Thunder Rift deliberately kept its scope small, but it packed so many colorful NPCs, rustic villages, savage wildernesses, and adventure hooks into a mere 32 pages (and a neat poster map), that it helped my games much more than the other, more massive (and expensive) products I bought around the same time.

In fact, the Rift, later transposed into Known World/Mystara just north of Darokin, became a centerpiece of my longest-running and most memorable campaign. During my high school years, as the PCs gradually grew in power and status, they even chose to build their strongholds in the Rift, in honor of all those great low-level adventures we played and more than one of McComb's villager NPCs became beloved campaign fixtures.

A whole series of introductory modules were released for Thunder Rift, including Assault on Raven's Ruin and Quest for the Silver Sword, and it even has its very own active forum frequented by fans and original creators alike. With most TSR products from that era trading for pennies on the dollar on eBay and other online markets, I can't recommend tracking these down enough.

So come on down to the Rift, stranger, and sidle up to bar at the Sarcastic Goat Inn. Drinks are on me.


  1. If this first post is anything to go by, Black Sheep promises to be a very interesting and informative feature. Looking forward to learning about the decade in which I didn't game, and its treasures.

  2. I remember Thunder Rift! Thanks for the push down memory lane, man.

  3. As I mentioned on the Piazza, it's quite interesting that Thunder Rift was seemingly written with AD&D2e in mind, rather than Basic D&D, possibly (according to Coling McComb) due to some editing misunderstanding. It's an interesting product nonetheless.

  4. I loved Thunder Rift. I have set many campaigns there and used many different rulessets (even Hackmaster).

  5. Thunder Rift is awesome and truly an often overlooked gem in the Classic D&D line. I've been busy with Blackmoor lately, but we should really get together over at the Piazza TR forum ( pick up on that project again! :)