The 1984 Basic Game adventure for the Dungeons & Dragons system, Journey to The Rock, is an oddity. Written by Michael Malone, who only has one other design credit (an adventure in Dungeon Magazine #57), the adventure is surprisingly slight, and manages to avoid using dungeons; for the most part, it’s a wilderness adventure.
It should be noted that the original plan for the Basic D&D line was that the Basic adventures would be dungeon-based, with the Expert set introducing the Wilderness rules. This wasn’t always followed, for instance, Keep on the Borderlands has wilderness and town sections, but the focus is on the dungeon. Journey to The Rock is the outlier.
However, once you examine the adventure, you realise that the wilderness is written in a dungeon style. Players are discouraged from leaving the paths, and all the encounters take place along the paths. Thus, the play is kept simple for beginning Dungeon Masters and players. The relevant wilderness rules from the Expert set are reprinted in this adventure.
The adventure feels curiously incomplete. It’s the set-up for a major ongoing campaign, but that campaign is only glimpsed through this adventure. The backstory is fantastic: a city and its people banished to another plane, with only two survivors seeking to bring it back. However, only one of the survivors appears, and the quest is only the first part of what he needs to do to recover the city. There’s so much that never came to fruition. What a strange nonesuch!
Not all of the backstory makes that much sense. The city was banished thousands of years ago, yet why has the survivor who hires the characters not found someone to recover the magical amulet? It’s not like it’s that difficult (the adventure is for a group of level 1-3 characters, after all!) And the very fact of how the amulet is hidden from the person who must recover it is somewhat bizarre. Did the people of Tuma want their city saved or not?
The adventure feels very much like a tournament scenario, which it likely originally was. After the players are recruited, they have three paths to the final encounter, each having fewer than half-a-dozen main encounters, although a set of optional encounters, briefly described, add an additional eight encounters onto each path. Puzzlingly, the optional encounters look like random encounters with a die-roll to determine which to use, but the adventure suggests to run them in order. Use of these optional encounters is likely recommended, as they add much needed-bulk to the adventure.
The final encounter gives the DM the option of prefacing it with a combat encounter if the party isn’t too damaged. This is an interesting move. It shows a shift towards “story-first”, where the players should get to finish the story even if their characters would otherwise be unable to. The final encounter is a role-playing/puzzle scene, where the players can use clues from earlier encounters to help them make the correct choice. (The map is one of the oddest I’ve ever seen… it’s a huge, empty room with a few randomly-placed areas of interest).
Despite the holes in the plot and the lack of encounters, those encounters that do exist are described in some detail and present more interest than just “kill another monster”. I’m very fond of the mad-man who accosts the party with tales of a ship travelling on the land; something that proves to be true a short time later. (The explanation? Gnomes. It all makes sense). The players have a chance to pass through the ruined city of Tuma, which only occasionally exists on this plane, where they can meet some its eldritch defenders. Not every encounter is great, but there are enough good ones to show that the adventure offers something of interest. Above all, the adventure does value players who can think and don’t always meet every danger with sword drawn.
There are seven new monsters described in the adventure. These are used to make the players think, and to provide challenges that can’t be solved just by memorising the rulebook. Although, at this stage, we probably don’t need even more humanoid-type races, they fit much better into the ancient world of lost cities and unknown races that the adventure evokes. It’s not really a Conan adventure, but there are echoes of that setting in its writing.
Is it a neglected gem? Not really. The adventure has enough issues with its writing and construction that, even at my most generous, I can’t quite recommend it that highly. However, neither is it hopeless. This is an adventure that manages to have some inventive encounters and provides some opportunities for the players to use their minds instead of their dice. For that, I commend it: it has managed to engage my interest.