Monday, April 19, 2010

G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

Saturday night at HelgaCon I ran a game of the classic module G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. In the past I assumed that everyone who's played D&D for any amount time will be intimately familiar with every detail of the classic modules, but I was thrilled to realize a few years back that that wasn't the case. To players just a few years younger than myself, the adventures are novel, so I get an opportunity to DM them all over again.

Although published for AD&D, I ran this using OD&D rules (with my usual house rules; see OED sidebar to the right). The past few years I ran sessions of S1 using AD&D itself (much of it being dependent on AD&D clerical spells like find traps and true seeing and commune that I felt obliged in that way). Due to the nature of this adventure, I felt totally comfortable running G1 with OD&D rules and deleting clerics (albeit giving the party a few jugs of healing potion), as usual. I'm more-or-less done with AD&D, and my tuned OD&D feels so "right" in play (finally!) that I really don't have the appetite to run anything else. I translated hit points by just subtracting a monster's Hit Dice (i.e., translating d8's to d6's on average), or else just rolling everything on the fly (more comments on that further down).

The action in this one surprised me a bit. The players started outside with tremendous caution (checking the entire exterior with invisible scouts before checking back). "Occasional bursts of shouting and laughter can be heard faintly from within", as per the adventure text. Entering the main door, they dispatched the stuporous guards and quickly located the Great Hall (one giant wandering out alone to find a shocking fate). So what they did at this point is have 2 invisible spellcasters walk up to the edge of the Great Hall in order to cast confusion spells inside, knowing that they would become visible for at least a round after spellcasting. The gambit was to create a mass giant-on-giant melee, but I think it overlooked a few things: (1) it's more difficult to affect high-HD types (with my Book of Spells text in play, it mostly just affected the servant ogres) and (2) the chance for attacks on friendlies is actually quite small.


So even allowing a d6 check to possibly avoid being noticed, the spellcasters were indeed seen, a shout given up (on the giantish order of, "eek a mouse!"), and chase was given. This turned into a many-turn run in the corridors, surrounded on all sides (the Chief smart enough to send separate giants into all the side corridors), the PCs mowing down giants as greater numbers organized, armed themselves from the Arsenal Room, and attacked in formation (at the end: a line of shielded, giant spears advancing with rocks lobbed over from behind). The young giants' dormitory was opened and cleared out. One hill giant was taken by a charm monster spell and pumped for information while the battle raged (dropping the name of "King Snurre" at one point, and otherwise providing some comic relief). With extremely heavy fighting, every giant from the Great Hall was slain -- except for the Chief & his senior staff who escaped to the lower level. A barrage of fireballs had been set off by a wand, but nothing came of the rolls to see if the whole wooden structure went ablaze. (Per the adventure text, the entire place is wet with nightly rain and fog, leaving all the wood damp with only an 8% chance to ignite from magical fire; one player saw the rolls and was quite seriously rooting for it to happen.)

Thereafter, there was a search of the Chief's room and chest (with assistance from the charmed giant), while mostly avoiding any in-depth searches of other rooms (merely looking in the door of the trophy hall, armory, now-abandoned kitchen, etc.). Near the end, the party entered into a large room with a lone male giant and several partially disrobed lady acquaintances, when time was called.

Trivia note: I've owned this module for 30 years, and not until this particular play session did it dawn on me (at the suggestion of BJ, that it was "some reference to somebody Gygax knew") that the chief's name, Nosnra, is basically just "Arneson" in reverse. (I tend to be thick about stuff like this; others observed this a long time ago.)

What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. Tactical maps for major areas: I had a bag of giant counters & a tactical map of the Great Hall made up in advance, even though my guess was that I probably wasn't going to use them (map above; prediction further below). When general combat did break out there, I pulled it out (with one or two player-groans at how many tables, benches, and giants were then appearing), and afterwards borrowed BJ's wet-erase battlemap as the chase led into the eastern corridor system (getting bottled up at the "T" between the sub-chief's, dormitory, and barracks rooms, for those of you with the module).
  2. Tournament-system scoring: This was announced at the start of the game, based on the original G-series tournament at Origins '78, as discussed in Dragon Magazine #19. This uses 4 components for the scoring: (1) number of survivors, (2) giants killed, (3) rooms examined, and (4) clue values. Obviously, the play in the Great Hall committed the players to more of an "exterminate giants" focus than anything else; they killed about 1/2 of all possible giants (including everyone in the Great Hall except for the Chief & senior staff), but had low exploring/clue finding scores. At the end of four hours, they had about 31% of the maximum possible score (259 out of 840 points with 7 players). Not-so-coincidentally, Paul & BJ also ran other sandboxy games at HelgaCon, and in each case we all found that players were exploring about 30% of the total available game space.
  3. Adjudicating spells (et. al.) by the spirit of the game: At one point I made a judgment call that Paul attempting to cast a wall of fire in a forward-shooting line, catching all the giants marching down the corridor, would not work. I'm pretty comfortable that this wasn't a total outright screw-job, because I informed him in advance of the intention of the spell I was working under, giving him a chance to withdraw it ("Oh, that makes me a cranky DM", and explaining why), and then allowing a dice-chance for it work anyway; saves rolled for the giants, and when one succeeded, the whole spell failed ("Red motes appear in the air, trying to materialize and connect into a barrier, but are disrupted by the giant bodies and fizzle out."). I do assume that spells are open to DM adjudication in the spirit of the thing -- but as you see above, (1) the DM communicates the more-surprising judgments in advance, and (2) the dice are still consulted anyway for a possible veto of me, the DM.
  4. Options for rolling hit points: Usually I'm rolling hit points for monsters on the fly, using d6's as in Original D&D. (AD&D modules have hit-point rosters, but the fact that they're sorted high-to-low makes them kind of useless for my purposes; especially in the enormous Great Hall dustup.) One thing I realized on the fly was that instead of rolling 8d6 for hill giants (or any similar big monster), I could more easily just roll 4d6 and double it (4 dice fitting into my hand & my brain a lot more efficiently). This, then, turned into a question in my statistics class Monday night: which procedure has more variation? (Instantly obvious to me, of course, but a challenge for my students.) Or alternatively, one could have a big pre-made roster of randomly-sorted hit points for a lair like this.

What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. Fighting was a lot easier for the PCs than I expected. Maybe the heroes were too high level, or had too much magic? (We had 7 PCs with 250K XP each; i.e., mostly around 9th-10th level.) The giants had great difficulty scoring hits (see next point). None of the PCs died or were ever seriously low on hit points or other resources. I'd consider lowering the levels here, or maybe just focus on...
  2. Haste. Friggin' haste, man. You'd think 30 years into playing this game it would be dialed in right. When I made the Book of Spells, I started by copying the 3E SRD text and cutting out all the non-critical late-era fluff. I knew there were likely to be some things in need of revision later (it's actually turning out to be very few), but this is one of them. Basically everyone agreed that the double-move, double-attacks, +4 AC bonus, and affecting the whole party for 30 minutes in-game, were overpowered. The +4 AC alone is highly potent in an OD&D context -- fighters switching from AC0 to AC-4 reduces giants from hitting on 12+ to needing 16+ (i.e., nearly halving hits). I'll plan to have a post & poll on that separate issue in the future.
  3. Going in, my top guesses for how the action would play out would be for the players to be either (1) scrupulously stealthy and avoid the Great Hall while they explored & scouted for clues, or (2) stage a massive, coordinated-fire attack on the giants in the Great Hall. What I didn't expect was sending in 2 PCs with non-damaging spells to "poke the hornet's nest", as one might say. But the truth is, the PCs could handle the giants a bit better squeezed into the chokepoint corridors, and the comments later were that it was fun to kill giants en masse (even for those players attesting to not normally liking tactical-heavy games), so maybe that's not really "wrong" except for my own weather-prediction abilities.

5 comments:

  1. Here are a few observations/reactions for you from the other side of the screen:

    I agree that your handling of the Wall of Fire was exactly correct. Letting me know ahead of time set my expectations correctly. I was fully prepared to drop the tactic, but the consensus around the table was that it was worth the risk. When it failed, I don't think anyone was very miffed about it. If anything, I think there's something cool about the idea of a magic-user trying to bend the laws of physics just a tad too far and seeing it not work out.

    My general impression about the mass melee was that we were wasting our time, like fighting a bunch of wandering monsters with little treasure. It just wastes your resources and distracts you from the actual objective. I'm not saying it wasn't fun to fight the giants, but I consistently felt like we were being distracted from something more important, and the points seem to prove that (assuming we could have gotten more points with a different strategy). I don't think there's any problem with this -- I figured we made a poor strategic choice (with the Confusion spells) and paid the price for it.

    Perhaps from your end you feel like the fight should have been more challenging because you knew this was the most challenging fight in the module. From my end, I assumed there were more challenging things in the module, and we missed it because we screwed up and got stuck fighting waves of easy targets. If it hadn't been for the massive sleep deprevation, I would have wanted to play more after time was called.

    One last point about haste -- I was surprised by the +4 AC part of it. How long has that been part fo that spell? I swear I don't ever recall ever using that portion of the effect. Also, I know it's a 2e-ism, but I always liked the side-effect of this spell aging the target. I know that's not much of a balance point in a convention game, but in campaign play I would expect it to reduce usage a bit.

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  2. Yeah, those are reasonable points. John said something similar, about being surprised that the Great Hall assembly really was the majority of giants in the steading, and the most difficult fight in the lair (by far), if you choose to engage it.

    As a side note: Even though these are the first modules published for D&D, Gygax's naturalism tends to screw with the common expectation that the BBEG is at the end of the module.

    The +4 AC from haste was purely a 3.0 D&D thing (which was the SRD I was working from for the Book of Spells). It didn't exist either before or after (3.5 dialed it down to +1). Maybe it was a major mistake to mix the 3.0 and 3.5 haste spells like that; more on that later.

    http://www.zombler.org/files/srd30a/spellsh.htm

    The aging thing first appeared in the 1E DMG (p. 13). It's just an added complication that I'd want to avoid (and not balanced for long-living races, either); better to dial in the spell to something reasonable and not need a layered-on-top fiddly countering mechanism.

    Thanks for the feedback -- I was looking forward to seeing it, actually.

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  3. I've always said that Haste is the most powerful D&D spell. (Okay, maybe there are a few at the really high levels that are more powerful...)

    There is a +2 AC bonus in the D&D Rules Cyclopedia for "double-hasted" characters. And hasted characters get a +2 attack bonus, +4 if double-hasted. The text also says, though:

    "Speed can be an extremely valuable tool for characters in combat. If the bonuses gained by speed give the PCs too much power, you should add any controls needed to keep the game balanced and entertaining."

    Which I think is a bit of a cop-out.

    I have a highly deviated simulacrum I'm nearly finished with (Red Box Adventures). In it, I dumped the doubled actions mechanic and just gave small bonuses to attack/defense and doubled movement speed. I also limited the number of targets for the spell.

    Otherwise, haste is just too powerful. Think about it: in effect, haste doubles the number of fighters in a party!

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  4. I can't exactly remember but wasn't the balance for Haste in AD&D the system shock roll? The chance of dying would reduce the use of that spell.

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  5. David, thanks. Sounds like you were a bit ahead of me about thinking this through.

    P_Armstrong, perhaps. It definitely did have an aging effect in 1E/2E (see Paul above) and somewhere I guess there's an interpretation that any aging triggers a system-shock roll. Nothing explicit for haste itself, though.

    Nontheless, as I said above, I strongly disfavor those kind of fiddly, hidden-in-other books limitation/patch/cover-ups that pop up in AD&D. Better to have something simple and straightforward.

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