Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

G1: Background to “Steading of the Hill Giant”

After running B2 and X1 at the local gaming con, it’s difficult to decide what to do next. There just isn’t a lot of modules out there that can come close to being as iconic as those. I was about to drop D&D altogether and maybe do Classic Traveller and “Twilight’s Peak” instead… but then another box of games from Chris Mata showed up…. “Against the Giants” was inside and it includes the first module ever published by TSR. Maybe it doesn’t have quite the cachet of “Temple of the Frog” from the earlier Blackmoor supplement, but I imagine your average gaming junkie would have to admit that this one is some serious, quintessential AD&D.

I’ve noticed that a lot of game bloggers complain that TSR did not publish the sort of adventures that they actually ran back in the day. They never made a real megadungeon, or completely explained how sandboxing works. While I will of course read just about everything that anyone will write on those two topics, it turns out that most of the games I run are actually of a  one-off con game variety. The fact that TSR mostly did “tournament scenarios” in the early days is actually a huge load off my prep time.

The “background” section that kicks off “The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief” is nuts, though. I could not imagine anyone in a convention environment being able to pay attention to more than one or two sentences of it. It mostly boils down to a “you start this game right next to the dungeon” premise, but Gygax takes pains to point out how important this is, how the party was completely outfitted for every possible eventuality, and how all of this was relevant in the context of a larger setting. It’s almost like he’s bending over backwards to cover for the fact that he is omitting huge swaths of essential gaming material just for the sake of time constraints at Origins. It’s as if he were anticipating the objections of your average late seventies D&D nut and he has to quickly deal with them all in one long, rambling paragraph.

This bit is amusing: “The adventurers must deliver a sharp check, deal a lesson to the clan of hill giants nearby, or else return return and put their heads upon the block for the headman’s axe!” This is a tenth level party of nine we’re talking about here. Are you telling me that a group of characters that badass can still be bossed around by the regional potentate like they were back when they were all first level dungeon fodder? I mean seriously…. And if the powers-that-be are awe-inspiring enough to actually threaten the players like that… why can’t they take care of their own monster problems themselves? Weird. Maybe people back in the day needed that sort of “encouragement” to actually play the prepared module, but nowadays… I would be stunned if anyone tried to go off the rails in a game like this. Depending on how they did it… I might be delighted, though… but the net implication of this passage is that seventies gamers– both players and dungeonmasters– were all a bunch of jerks.

(Here’s another one: “The party has been instructed to keep any and all loot they chance upon, this to be the reward for the perils they are to face.” Wow, that is just so darn generous of you! Do parties normally bring back treasure and hand it over to the authorities? I mean… why else do people go adventuring? It’s amazing that Gygax has to explain this… and even more amazing that he seemed to think it would motivate players.)

The biggest misstep here is that Gygax hints at there being more going on here than is on the surface and he explicitly tells the players to be on the lookout for “the sinister hand suspected of guiding the rising.” This is not good design. In the first place, no one pays attention to these introductions. And besides… the point here is to start the adventuring with as little fuss as possible. If the authorities know some hints of what’s going on, then the players should want to do some investigation before leaving town. The correct premise is that the players are just being sent to deal with the giant problem. The ongoing super-plot should be uncovered only in the course of play– and the clues should be pretty darn obvious given the nature of the typical convention-goer.

I mean every single James Bond movie starts off with a routine investigation that turns out to be the tip of the iceberg of some larger menace. The suspense is heightened when the agent discovers just how dire the situation is… and again when he has to take matters into his own hands because there just isn’t time to go back to base and get a proper amount of force for the task at hand. That’s just all around good shtick and it makes sense of why the players are in the wrong place at the right time. It worked well enough for Poul Andersons Flandry of Terra, it’ll work well enough here. Besides, if the bullies– er, I mean the authorities– that are sending the players really know what’s going on here… then you run the risk of delving into some kind of freaky illuminated AD&D. I just don’t see the implied setting of this game as being consistent with that….

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13 responses to “G1: Background to “Steading of the Hill Giant”

  1. Alex August 7, 2013 at 8:43 am

    Gygax may have been a genius, but that he was some sort of brilliant writer is a bizarre myth perpetuated by a certain segment of the D&D community, and I think what you point out is a good example of this.

    As for good classic modules, Horror on the Hill is a nice one. It may not stack up to X1, but I like it better than Keep on the Borderlands. Plus, it has a Dragon (this should not be so significant given the game is called Dungeons & Dragons, but dragons in classic modules are so few and far between!).

    • jeffro August 7, 2013 at 8:53 am

      Horror on the Hill is one of the modules I gave away a few years ago when I decided that I would never ever run D&D again under any circumstances. Heh.

  2. earlburt August 7, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    “but the net implication of this passage is that seventies gamers– both players and dungeonmasters– were all a bunch of jerks.”
    I think they largely WERE a bunch of jerks. And Gygax may have anticipated that because he was right there with them. Everything I’ve heard about him as an actual DM is that he was a huge rail-roader. My impression is that he was very intolerant of players going off-script. Establishing expectations of players by fiat (even down to their own characters’ motivations) is totally in keeping with my understanding of him.

    • jeffro August 7, 2013 at 3:57 pm

      That leads to a research question. If Gary was an unrepentant railroader… then how could he have been running sandboxy megadungeons? Don’t the latter emerge as a consequence of prioritizing player autonomy…?

      • PeterD August 7, 2013 at 7:20 pm

        What you run for your friends out of your house isn’t always what you run for strangers at a con.

      • earlburt August 7, 2013 at 7:24 pm

        A sandboxy megadungeon might not have a script, or an over-arching theme/plot. But I’d bet you anything that he populated his dungeons with traps and other challenges that had one and only one “right” way to overcome them.

        I mean, this is the man who wrote Tomb of Horrors– the module where the big bad lich at the end can only be killed by hurling gems at it, thereby destroying all the treasure from the lich.

        Railroading as a term kind of implies a plot, and that’s certainly what comes to my mind. I just can’t think of a better term for the above phenomenon.

      • PeterD August 8, 2013 at 8:34 am

        Come on, be fair – there are other ways to kill the demi-lich, not just hurling some of the treasure at it. Not easy ways, but that’s kind of the point – it’s not a monster you can beat through sheer charge in and fight.

  3. earlburt August 7, 2013 at 3:43 pm

    Also, how about A1-4 (the Slavers series)? They’re old, iconic, pretty complex/rich for the time period. Everyone I knew had at least one or two of them.

    In retrospect, I don’t think they’re actually that good. And they have some heavy-handed railroading in the last two. But then again, hardly any modules back then were actually any good compared to what we would come up with today, as grown-ass men with good imaginations and nuanced approaches to world-building.

  4. Pingback: Adventuring on Momo Island | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  5. D. April 28, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    Somewhere on my blog I compare Castle Amber (widely touted as among the best of OD&D) and Ravenloft (often reviled as the beginning of the end for AD&D with it’s emphasis on story). When you sit down, they are both very linear railroads with the main difference being that there is a lot more treasure and instant kills or “screw the players” in Castle Amber. I like both modules, but I really have no clue what some of the OSR is talking about at times…

    I think the other thing to think about in 1E (aka the G1-3) is that, per RAW (just in the random encounter tables) there were *lots* of high level characters. In fact the (still-running) argument was if every single local lord was a name level fighter or mage or cleric or whatever. So while the party was certainly powerful, they were also far from being the most powerful kids on the block.

    The reason why they aren’t doing the extermination themselves is, of course, the simple 1E reason – this crap is dangerous! Who wants to die – and that is certainly a risk in those modules if you have bad luck? Let’s send that group of troublemakers off Dirty-Dozen style…

    • jeffro April 28, 2015 at 12:53 pm

      “I really have no clue what some of the OSR is talking about at times…”

      I still don’t.

      I wish it didn’t require some kind of “zen moment” to figure this out, but that is evidently the nature of the beast.

      • D. April 28, 2015 at 10:44 pm

        There’s been a couple of times I thought I had one – but then I read a post or series of posts and I realize that I haven’t.

        D.

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