In my continuing recap of games from the convention back in April -- I also did my standard classic AD&D module game (using OD&D with my personal house rule modifications), in which I was now in year 3 of the "Against the the Giants" series, i.e., the culminating Dungeon Module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King. Dragon Magazine #19 has a wonderful writeup from Origins '78 from a tournament party playing through this module for the first time (recommended reading), and I've been using a scoring system based on the notes there throughout the series. This time, I had a somewhat reduced group of 6 players (in past years it's been greater; the module recommends 8-10), but as someone else pointed out, they were pretty much all of the "alpha" players at our mini-con (draining them out of other games at the same time slot), and gave a very determined, serious go at the adventure.
The AdventureLet me make some comments about the G3 module in general. (SPOILERS galore from here on.) One is that this is simply the flat-out toughest module in the classic repertoire that I know of, by a fairly wide margin. It's totally, completely brutal if played as written. Even the championship winners at Origins '78 only made it through about 4 areas by my count (about the same as my players this year; out of over 60 in the complex). My friend Paul said that he had more enjoyment from the prior G2 because they got to explore and see more (totally understandable); another player said this was far harsher than when we played through the Tomb of Horrors a few years ago. Background quote:
Surely here in the stronghold of the fire giants will be encountered the evil genius -- or genii -- controlling the uprising and planning the well-executed attacks, for Snurre is said to be far stronger than smart. It is a sad fact that all encounters here will be worse than those the party has faced elsewhere, for fire giants are ferocious opponents, and their associates and helpers will undoubtedly be proportionately stronger and more fearsome than those of the lesser hill and frost giants. Sobering thought indeed! (p. 2)
There are a few very specific command-control reasons for this, looking at the sequence of G1-3. The steading in G1 has a coherent warning/guard system (alarm gong in a watchtower), except that when the PCs approach, the guards in question are all drunk asleep (so PCs can slip inside with ease). The glacial caves in G2 have alert defenders, but no well-organized alarm system (guards may run off so that others are not surprised, but a well-planned defense response doesn't occur). In contrast, G3 has both a coherent warning system (hidden horn at the gate) and well-manned defense response (unsurprisable ettins watchers, backup guards at the ready) -- plus much tougher giants, more of them, only one single way in, AND they have the "best advice immediately available to them" (i.e., the genius-level drow controllers). Basically, as soon as the first main room is breached, the entire complex instantly starts storming towards it; and if the party retires, the notes exhort the DM to plan all kinds of nasty ambushes for the next time. It's absolutely killer, and when preparing it I'm not entirely sure how any party could make it through.
Anecdote: Back in high school I was a much more forgiving DM, and my players gamed through G1 and G2 in a single run-through each. Yet even then, G3 turned into a year-long siege, with multiple forays at it numerous times by my otherwise well-equipped players, each time being thrown back and narrowly avoiding destruction. One result is that my G3 module is the most completely beat-up, annotated, erased, re-annotated, torn-apart and taped-up module in my collection. The result captures the mayhem and destruction that goes on within; it's truly brutal.
The First AttackYou can see the OED pre-generated characters that I offer my players here. Between them they opted to take Atol, Bellinus, Boris, Ezniak, Hedron, and Jurdan -- that is: 3 straight Fighters, one Ftr/Thief, one Ftr/Wizard, and one straight Wizard. Note that the latter character, "Jurdan the Red Wizard", is flame-themed, with a wand of fireballs, and he made tremendous havoc in the Glacial Rift last year; his player had such a blast with him (literally) that he was selected again this year -- a choice which seemed pretty suspect (especially when there was another wizard available with a wand of cold), but was allowed to stand.
I also provide pre-made spellbooks, and two other rulings may be of note. One is that (as has been the case for a while), under my OED rules I don't allow duplicates of the same spell to be memorized. The second is that, almost right before the game in a bit of pique at the continuing issues with haste, I decided that it only doubled movement, and did not affect attacks in any way. Somewhat surprisingly (or maybe not so, granted the first rule), players were still taking haste -- and it proved key to escaping the Hall at one point. But players also had a critique of the first rule that it limited their attack options (at the end there was speculation on whether an all-fighter party might have actually done better) -- can't stock up on repeated direct-damage spells, and giant saves are generally too good for more subtle stuff (confusion, etc.)
Thus equipped, the party enters the great doors of the complex and walks by the hidden alarm, setting it off, and initiating a general rise of all the defenders in the complex. How could this have been avoided? I'm honestly not sure. Perhaps if a single thief snuck inside and checked for secrets -- even so, it would be tough to silence the first guard because he has a mountain of hit points. Or actually, maybe a smaller party would have an advantage in being to turn everyone invisible (the introductory note does in fact mention, "A party of 3 or 4 highly experienced characters of 9th or higher level can expect a reasonable chance if they use their knowledge and cunning to best advantage"). And you might also think to consider a silence spell, except with no clerics in my game, neither is that spell. At any rate, triggering the alarm essentially set the tone for the rest of the game.
The first guard was dispatched and then a pair of well-armed ettin sentinels at the entrance to the Great Hall were engaged and defeated. The personal guard of King Snurre -- 4 beefy giants -- came running and engaged, while the King himself cowardly slipped off his throne and out of sight from the far end of the enormous hall. More giants could be heard running to the defense, so the party slipped out the gaping northern corridor -- only to be confronted by a pair of giants from the Guard Post ahead of them, and then 4 more armored giants from the Barracks cutting off their escape from behind, with the sounds of more defenders coming. A furious battle occurred here, with the two guards ahead killed, and one behind, at which point the haste spell cast on the whole party allowed them to run out the gap and escape from the Hall. Almost -- unfortunately, the dwarven fighter/thief Bellinus Blueeye was the victim of a giant-spear cast at him while separately investigating the throne area, took a critical hit through the heart, and died instantly.
The Second AttackThis resulted in some down-time as the party rested & recollected themselves -- using up healing potions, memorizing new spells, and coming up with a new plan of attack. The wizard Zaki Azeem teleported in to assist and replace the fallen thief (whose body could not be retrieved in the party's escape). At this point, I was considering Gygax's exhortation in the introductory module notes -- "As soon as the party strikes and then retires, the attack will be assessed and counter-measures taken... you will have to design some reactions personally... the fire giants will lay whatever traps and ambushes they are able to under the circumstances". To make this a bit more fair, while the players were strategizing their next attack, I personally stepped out of the room so as not to overhear -- into the kitchen where I myself tried to come up with some clever, evil-genius countermeasures in the few minutes that I had. When the players were ready, I stepped back into the play-area to begin again.
So this turned out rather more horribly than before. One idea that occurred to me while in the kitchen (looking around for inspiration, and just seeing some shopping bags) was to have a cadre of Giantesses waiting in ambush with giant sacks to try and scoop up the bothersome wizards. Plus some of the party was skulking around invisibly, so I brought up the Keeper with a pack of scent-tracking Hell Hounds which could foil this tactic. Plus a big mob of Trolls from the lower levels to surprise and pig-pile the party if that wasn't enough. And so it went: The hounds detected and trapped the invisible fighters, and while the party engaged them and some guard giants (confusion successfully cast against the less-powerful hounds), the giantesses jumped out from another corridor and indeed made hits to scoop up the wizards in the rear with their huge sacks and beat them senseless against the wall. One of the fighters had the misfortune of a critical fumble, having the head of his axe crack off and hitting any ally for tremendous damage. Then the mob of trolls rushed in on the remaining fighters, and though they fought bravely (another giant and several hounds were killed), they were pulled down in the rush, and that was that. A horrible, messy, total party kill at the mouth of the Great Hall.
CommentarySo, I think my players gamed as well as they could given the circumstances, but just had too many strikes against them to get very far. This would include: (1) The sheer brutality and brilliant defense of the place itself, (2) The fact that the party was under-manned (6 players instead of the recommended 8-10), (3) The fact that the primary wizard brought along a wand of fire, and (4) The fact that the party did indeed trip the initial warning alarm in the Entry Passage. I might have been just a little harsh in a ruling or two right at the end, but the session time was running out and the writing was clearly on the wall at that point. That said, they did wind up exploring the exact same areas that the champion winners in 1978 did (per Dragon #19), which has got to be a significant moral victory.
To touch back on one issue: There was some criticism of my OED ruling to not allow duplicate spells being memorized; questions arose if that was instead allowed in 1E, or used by original PCs for the adventure. The answer to the first question is of course yes -- by default; not that it was specifically indicated in rulebooks, but numerous examples of NPC's in adventures doing so (most commonly clerics with multiple cure wounds). Actually, the villainous priests of the temple in this adventure have duplicated cause light wounds, hold person, and silence (but nothing higher than 2nd level; of course for my game this was all swapped out for Ftr/Wiz powers and no duplicates).
Regarding PC's: the original monochrome 1978 publications don't have stock PC's included, but the later 1981 collected G1-3 module does at the back (listed as "Original Tournament Characters"). They even have fixed memorized spell lists -- as opposed to my larger spellbooks and player selections from those -- so we can see exactly what was intended for those (click to enlarge):
So of the 6 spell-casters given here, rather as expected, most of the duplicate spells are used for clerical curatives -- lots of cure light wounds, cure serious wounds, remove curses, and neutralize poisons. In fact, many of the cleric spell levels are devoted to nothing but these spells; the need for this is avoided by my house-rule to nix clerics, and in fact that kind of result is a major reason for my doing so. Aside from that, the only duplicated spells are a pair of magic missiles and faerie fire, all at 1st level. Nothing is duplicated at a higher level for wizards, and so the tournament party is definitely not expected to walk in blasting with repeated lightning bolts for direct damage. (Nor did anyone stock lower-level spells in higher-level slots, which was a development permitted in 3E, for example.) In other words, I think that if we have to choose between permitting PCs to engage with a half-dozen memorized lightning bolts, or prohibit duplicated spells, then I think that traditional precedent is definitely more in line with the latter.
Anyway, the spell issue was an interesting question mark raised at the end of the game, and it did pique my curiosity to check it out afterward. An excellent and well-fought foray into the Hall of the Fire Giant King which will be remembered in song for ages hence. In conclusion, after running the adventures tournament-style across 3 years: I do think that modules G1-3 are the "killer app" for the D&D game, and they might, on their own, justify the game itself. If you've never had a chance to run them, than I highly recommend that you do sometime (granted that you need to get players with at least some system experience, and provide high-level PCs for them to adventure with). Giant-sized thanks to my players for letting me run it again!