Monday, April 11, 2011

G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl

HelgaCon started a week ago Friday night, with me running the classic Gygax adventure Module G2: The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and honestly I was pretty excited. This is by far my favorite module series (not that I'm first person to say that), and my favorite bunch of people to run it for. I run with my house-ruled OD&D set, I feel pretty good about the prep work that I can do these days, and I was coming into HelgaCon possibly more relaxed (in terms of not staying up the entirety of the night before prepping) than I had in prior years. It was pretty neat to open up the weekend with a night-time, sleety-outside run of classic frozen D&D. Gygax writes in the AD&D PHB, "Playing well is a reward unto itself", and I feel like I got to see that very clearly with this adventure (and more generally, throughout the whole weekend). This was some of the flat-out best D&D play that I've seen in ages, with the players functioning exceptionally well as a team, very goal-focused, not wasting time, supporting the other players, and using their resources very wisely indeed (sometimes almost eerily at just the right time). There was a lot of honest excitement, well-timed and critical die-rolls, and a great sense of exploration and pacing. Just in the past few months I finally abandoned using battlemaps and miniatures in my RPG play -- not even bringing a battlemap with me for the first time -- and I'm convinced that's the right choice for the kind of gaming I like to see (more on that later). I'm really happy with the house rules I institute, and dedicated as I am to taking notes and tweaking things after every game, I'm finding that I have less and less fix-ups to do after every game. When I got done with the G2 adventure, I actually expounded, "Wow, I think I finally figured out how to run this damn game!" So far, so good.

Summary of Play (SPOILERS!)

  • We had 6 players at the table, choosing PCs from a group of 11 pregenerated characters I made for the game (under my OED rules). Two fighters, a wizard, a thief, a fighter/wizard, and a thief/wizard (all humans except for the last one: an elf). A variety of magic items -- armor and weapons usually +1, although two had intelligent swords with special detection abilities.

  • A few special rules: In the freezing environment, I assume a cold-weather outfit of many wool layers, fur hat & gloves, cloak and leggings, etc. (added weight: 1 stone). I was planning to adjudicate armored PCs sweating in a fight & freezing up afterward: 1d6/hour damage if they stopped moving for an extended period. Noting that water freezes (no carried water; drink melted water at camp only), I considered making potions freeze & crack, as per weather rules in Dragon #68; but since there are numerous potions in the treasure of the G2 module itself, we can make this conclusion -- the magic of potions keeps them from freezing in cold weather.

  • Exploration took place mostly down the west side of the rift, pretty carefully investigating each cave in sequence (so as to not be attacked unawares from behind). The party first encountered and managed to avoid surprise by the yetis in the first cave (13), blasting them with fireballs (the leader made a lone sneak counterattack, but was defeated and thus gave up his magic sword).

  • In another cave (15), snow leopards made a surprise attack but were slain -- followed by their wandering yeti masters coming up the cave opening behind the PCs.

  • The main giant barracks (16-20) was scouted by the invisible/silenced thief (wearing elven cloak and boots), accounted, and smartly bypassed.

  • A pair of frost giants were battled at the first unavoidable guard post (22), leading to their destruction. The party then backtracked and spent some time trying to investigate the colossal brown-mold deathtrap (21). After taking initial damage, a wizard eye was used to inspect the dead-end of the passage in question.

  • On the second icy ledge, the party continued to explore the caves in order, leading to the next guard cave (23) with twice as many giants, and thus a harder fight. After first contact (with the thief reporting back, and the party readying for a main assault), the blasting wizard shot a blind fireball into the cave past the first guard. This resulted in a huge cloud of icy steam and a confused melee in which the front-line fighters were rolling to avoid slip/falls (successful), rolling to avoid accidentally striking each other (passed), and the levitating wizard was rolling to avoid striking them both with a wild, thundering lightning bolt (also successful).

  • Rounding the south side of the rift underground, the party initially bypassed the tunnel to the lower levels, encountering an even larger guard complex with yet another doubling of giants (9-10). Here the party made an even more comprehensive ambush plan: with invisible fighters up front, first an ice-steaming fireball to cut off the first guard from those behind. A clever illusion of a wild man to draw off the first counterattack. Magic missiles and a charm monster spell prepared (although those were saved against). Mass attacks on the following giants who would come stumbling through the steamy barrier -- one actually slipped on top of a PC fighter, then grabbed him helpless in a huge fist, but was counterattacked and slain by the other PCs. One giant was heavily damaged and finished off by the party wizard levitating down from the ceiling and stabbing him in the eye with a dagger for 3hp damage. Other giants hung back until the steam cleared, to let loose with thrown boulders, but were similarly dispatched.

  • As time was running out, the party descended to the second level and the great entry cavern (1). Seeing the huge boulder to the east, they were wisely cautious against disturbing it, using a clairvoyance spell to detect the ancient white dragon on the other side (2), and after debating its significance, decided to avoid it. (Again: smart, and the right move.) Instead, they proceeded southeast to the deserted cavern (4), and were ambushed by the pack of ice toads there (the party blasting wizard being knocked out and needing a save vs. death to survive).

  • Somewhat at the DM's prodding, the party inspected the caved-in part of the last cavern, retrieving the map of the "Great Hall of the Jarl" from the dead giant skeleton there before retiring from the complex. The second party wizard then teleported home with his injured comrade, to give the confiscated map and information to the nobles sponsoring the expedition, and resuscitate his friend as soon as possible (planning to return the next day with additional potions of healing for the rest of the party).
What Went Right (Best Practices)
  1. No Battlemap or Miniatures. I've been dialing down my use of miniatures over the last few years; I think there's a tradeoff between tactical opportunities/specificity, versus slower pacing and out-of-character thinking. (The pacing issue is really super-important to me.) Last year I brought a battlemap, saying I would only use it for one major set-piece -- but having commenced, that set-piece took up almost the entire evening's play. This year I committed myself to no battlemap of any sort, and it was immensely satisfying. The play was immediate and exciting and fast, and we got to explore a lot of interesting content in our 4-hour session. It was simple enough to mentally track distance and position with the number of combatants involved. Probably more than anything, this is what allowed several of us to re-discover what a role-playing game of our youth felt like. And from younger players, I also got great compliments, with some musing that they might run their own games like this for the first time.

  2. The OED House Rules. I really like how my house D&D game is playing these days (and you can read more about what that's like in the sidebar to the right). It's fast and it's snappy and it's easy for me to run mostly from memory. I do think that Original D&D with some smattering from the Greyhawk supplement provides the best kernel/foundation for the kind of game I want to play. I think it's pretty clear to players what's happening, and a small card with important highlights (like base weapon damage, how attacks & saves are regressed, etc.) helps to clarify. Most of my notes are half-page sheets now, and I realized for the first time ever that I wasn't at a loss for table real estate behind the DM's screen. I also really like being able to hand each wizard player around the table a copy of the Book of Spells booklet, and have them thumbing through it during the game to select which spell to cast next. I love not dealing with clerics. A lot of that stuff finally just feels right!

  3. Critical Hits. The only "extra complicated random table" thing that I add to my game is a two-page set of critical hits from Dragon magazine #39. This gets a position on the right-hand panel of my custom DM's screen (again, largely for pacing purposes, I want to run most of the game from memory, and spend no time flipping rules book pages). On a natural "20" a save vs. paralysis is called for, or else the appropriate critical table is rolled on with percentiles (which can result in double or triple damage, shields or helmets damaged, eyes gouged, knees shattered, all the way up to decapitation and instant death). I really like how this has a logarithmic effect of rising tension in the game: Paul (playing Ezniak, the fighter/wizard frequently throwing daggers at the towering frost giants) rolled about 6 "20"'s through the course of the evening. However, I managed to roll saves for the giants 5 of those times (rolling at least one or two "20"'s of my own in response, ha!). One time near the end of the game I failed a save and we went to the critical tables (player rolls percentiles), in this case getting a middle-road result for triple damage (killing the giant). Maybe if we played more often every third game or so would see some more specific special result (like, "shield arm removed at elbow"). You'd have to play a really long time before you saw the same specific injury show up twice. So I like the overall texture of that -- players are cheering as "20"s come up and booing me as I roll saves to counter them (I guess in wrestling parlance that's me "playing the heel"). Since the "save" is in the hands of the target, the player doesn't potentially "fail" at a confirm roll to end their round on a sour note (instead, the experience is that the monster target managed to skillfully avoid a potentially devastating strike). So my sensation is that all parties feel more skillful and deadly, and it raises the stakes instead of lowering them.

  4. Well-Balanced Resources. Maybe for the first time, I feel like I managed to pretty well balance the PC resources to the adventuring session time. At the end of the 4 hours, the high-level PCs were in fact running low on hit points and spells, had used up all of their potions of healing (namely, 3 jugs of 6 doses each), had one member get knocked to zero hp and need to be carried out, etc. Again, the faster pace from having no battlemap helped this match my classic D&D sensibilities (for example, at the end of last year, PCs were barely damaged and had lots of unused spells).

  5. Great Teamwork. Frankly, this party was just a joy to watch in action. Things like: (a) Having an undetectable magic thief (elven cloak & boots) scout 40-50' ahead, being careful to not split the party, and reporting back to the rest as soon as she found something. (Several of us agreed this was the most effective scouting we'd seen in a D&D game.) (b) Having a pair of invisible fighters position themselves in front of the party wizard as he prepared to make a magical, preemptive strike on a giant guard post. (c) Turning the "fireball creates giant icy steam cloud" side-effect into a tactical advantage, using it as a barrier and a means to cut off groups of giants from each other. (d) Managing to mostly avoid the various tricks which are just time-wasters (like the misty ice cave (14), although they did get sucked into puzzling at the brown-mold ice cavern for a while (21)). (e) Not attacking the dragon near the end, with depleted resources, reasoning it had to be tangential to their mission.
What Went Wrong (Things to Fix)
  1. Tournament Scoring. Okay, so I've got a scoring system I use for these adventures (expanded from the brief mention in Dragon #19), and I do think it's important to have some kind of "win" goal available in these tournament games. However, due to the very large extent of content in these modules, it's almost unimaginable that any party can get to even a third of the encounter areas. In addition, at the end I sort of nudged the party into retrieving this misleading planted map (2nd level, area 4A), complete with elaborate prepared handout (which I stole from Andy Collins' adventure "Crumbling Hall of the Frost Giant King", ha!); and I took enormous delight in that completely snookering them into a big theory that the frost giants had been attacked by some outside force, defeated, and the Jarl slain (and of course, missing the concealed entrance to the actual jarls' caverns). So that's all in good fun, but I also penalized them points for that bit. Final announced total: 108 out of 1,200 possible points. And I think that disappointed the players a little bit more than I intended. But the funny thing is I think our party at HelgaCon managed to explore more than the party that actually won the original G1-3 overall tournament back at Origins '78, apparently not even finding any part of the second level (From Dragon #19: "What is truly amazing about this second round is how much they didn't kill and still managed to get into the third and final round. I’m sure that they mentally kicked themselves for what they missed when they got a chance to read over the material in DUNGEON MODULE G2... ") So I think lacking the context of a big tournament with many parties, it's difficult to see what that raw score really says about how you did (being unable to standardize to the population, as we might say statistically). My experience was that I was truly seeing very high-quality play; maybe in the future I could create a logarithmic scoring scale, or something like that.

  2. Thief Backstab. This I'm still a little wiggly on; when asked I was a bit unsure of exactly how I'd adjudicate it. Just going back to the rules-as-written, original D&D Sup-I says, "[b]y striking silently from behind"; so what I should do is just require the thief physically to be behind the target and roll for "move silently". If it had come up, I would've glitched up by sliding back to 3E rules and only allowing it on a surprise round (which would be incorrect and kind of lousy).

  3. Saving Throws. This is two quasi-related glitches: (a) I screwed up on saves versus magic missile. My house rules say that any damaging spell gets a save for half (really just a reiteration from OD&D Vol-1), and in my joy for a screw-job on the players, I announced that a save totally voided the spell, which was a mistake (and I just need to run it correctly next time). (b) I've got written in my rules that thieves & wizards get -2 saves to breath, death, and paralysis (which is a fair statistical representation of those classes' D&D saves), and I forget that every- every-every-time I play. Frankly, it even seems niggardly in play, with those classes being weak in armor and hit points already. I think I'm going to bite the bullet and write that out of the OED rules on the next update (or make it optional).

  4. High-Level Saving Throws. This was a critique from a player at the end which I'll honor here, but I don't think I'll change it. The observation was basically that high-level monsters in classic D&D will make their saves a lot, frequently nerfing the powers of the PC wizards. The player in question would prefer that a sliding scale be used, making it harder to resist high-level wizards and/or high-level spells (kind of like 3E; the player was smarting a bit at failing with a charm monster against a giant). However, to me, that's just the nature of classic D&D; a change in that regard would be more radical than I want to see in my system.

  5. No Memorizing Duplicate Spells. Similarly, I've got a critique that my (newish) rule prohibiting duplicate spell memorizing was harsh on the wizards, particularly in a context where many low-level powers were not usable against the main high-powered enemies (sleep, confusion, etc.). Again, I'll honor that by noting the critique, although I see a whole bunch of advantages to the rule, so I'll keep playing with it for at least some time in the future.
Special kudos go out to all the players. Also, I can't help but point out the gusto with which Max (who usually doesn't play OD&D) took to playing Jurdan the Red Wizard with his wand of fireballs and other blast-y type spells (who was ultimately knocked out at the end of play). Two anecdotes: (1) Even players from other rooms nearby were commenting later about hearing him yell, "Fireball! Fireball!! FIREBALL!!" during our game (while certain more experienced players winced and boldly ran towards the ground-zero battle anyway). (2) At one point players started debating whether drinking two potions would trigger the "potion miscibility" rule (from AD&D), and they thought to ask Max/Jurdan, who was at that point distractedly reading his spellbook. "Jurdan, is drinking two potions dangerous?". Max/Jurdan looks up and instantly asserts "Absolutely not!" (Having apparently neither heard the question, nor having any reason to know how those particular rules work, it caused great gales of laughter all around the table.) Can't wait 'til next time!

Now, want some other perspectives on this same game session? Then I would highly recommend the following:

8 comments:

  1. Very cool...I've only had the opportunity to run G2 a couple-three times over the years, but it's a great one.

    RE Lack of battlemats/minis facilitating pacing:

    Welcome to my world!
    : )

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  2. Very cool. Thanks for posting. I'm a big fan of minis, but I might just have to try running without them once or twice -- just to see what happens.

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  3. This is one of those modules I wish I got to play. Way before my time alas, perhaps I will be able to fix that in the future. Great post.

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  4. We always played the target had to be un-aware of the thief for them to get their back stab damage. Which pretty much meant surprise rounds only. In rare cases where the monster had not seen the thief, and the thief could sneak up on them from behind, it was allowed. But I only remember that happening once, and I think GM was rolling his eyes, but figured the thief was going to miss anyway, so allowed it.

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  5. No Memorizing Duplicate Spells.

    I actually proposed this on the Swords & Wizardry forums a while back and was met with much gnashing of teeth.

    I thought of it because a lot of my 1st level mages were exceptionally intelligent and you could get a party with multiple sleep spells at feirst level.

    I never actually implemented it though. I'll be reading how it goes for you.

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  6. I've heard of other people doing the "no-duplicates" rule before me (like, I think the Mule Abides guys play that way). One initial thing I think is that with clerics out of my game, it's a bit easier to swallow because the "all cure light wounds" option/requirement is already off the table.

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  7. Riffing on the same topic, I do agree with this gentleman when he says: "It doesn’t seem to be possible in Vance to use two 'slots' on the same spell. If the Excellent Prismatic Spray is the only offensive spell you have access to, you’ll have to round out the spells you memorize for your adventure with others that might be useful."

    http://webamused.com/bumblers/2009/01/13/ad-vance-to-a-more-vancian-magic/

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  8. I like the one memorization only idea. Hey if you want two make a scroll.

    Great recap.

    On mini's I love the feel and how they look and if we had a bigger paly surface and more dwarven froge and I had more time to make battlemaps I'd use them all the time. But just because I like how they look and to keep me honest to not crowd too many monsters into one space.

    That said, mini-less I find provides a more fluid feel of the battle space and with reasonable adults I've never seen any serious arguments about where people are.
    In addition it speeds things up immensley.

    Nevertheless I still use minis for marching order.

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