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….