Monday, May 11, 2015

HelgaCon VIII – Vault of the Drow

HelgaCon, the annual mini-convention with my Boston-area friends, was held once again in early April. We rent a house by the seashore on off-season rates and play games all weekend. Actually, the event is now so busy that the house is full and we have overflow attendees staying at a nearby hotel. Pretty cool.

Frequently, this is actually the only time I run D&D games all year long. That's not ideal for someone who blogs weekly about the game, but I'm very grateful for some kind of opportunity to blow the rust off. To some extent, it allows me a greater chance to reflect deeply on the proceedings and how to improve things the next time I play; my house rules have been richly cultivated in the last few years in response.

It's been 6 years now that I've been running the G-D (Giants/Drow) series of adventures annually. Of course, this is Gygax's masterpiece, originally a sequence of tough high-level tournament adventures, the first to be published by TSR back in the day. Many would agree that they constitute the best D&D adventure series of all time -- I might even expand on that, and assert that all by themselves they justify the existence of the D&D game system, as a platform for experiencing this particular campaign. So here we conclude the cycle (I'm unlikely to run Q1 for a few reasons) with module D3, Vault of the Drow. In my opinion, it's the best of the series; Gygax at the pinnacle of his powers, with the richest expression of his gumbo of pulp fantasy a la Vance/Howard/Lieber/Moorcock, et. al., and pieces that only the gaming grandfather could have come up with. (I am not alone in this opinion.)

I've been running these games for a mix of players: some who started with Red Box D&D; younger players who are more familiar with things like Fate and Dread; and complete newcomers who have never used funny-shaped dice before. It's definitely my favorite way to play these days, and it's delightful to get to revisit these adventures through new eyes, as it were. This year I reached a new record number of registrations for the game, with a full table of 10 players ready to bring nemesis to the Drow. And they bring both quantity and quality; their play performance has been getting sharper each year, and they all come very organized and ready to support and reinforce each other (particularly brand-new players), and really bring some serious hurt on my monsters.

Each year,  I've been learning a little better how to fit these sprawling adventures into a tight 4-hour convention block -- and this year I think it finally "clicked". You really have to work on developing and preparing the major set-pieces, the "crown jewels" of the setting in question. For the D1-3 series it's actually pretty straightforward (I say now): each has two lead-in tunnel encounters (say: 1 hour each), and then a major terminal area at the end (estimate: 2 hours). One should almost certainly skip random encounters so as to not miss out on time in the major areas (although there is a loss in both resource-challenge, and texture to the milieu; for example, finding that the major tunnels are patrolled and maintained by Drow, while the secondary passages have more exotic monsters). The G1-3 modules are somewhat more highly coupled (being single sites), and a little trickier to know what to highlight. But one thing I found this year is that it's no bad thing to give lots of detail to earlier important areas, and if you have to improv later areas that you didn't expect players to reach, they don't mind at all.

So it's possible that this was the best game I've ever run in my life; after 30-odd years of kicking at D&D, I finally ran one game that really felt right. Spoilers, of course, follow.

The Proceedings

  • Among their choices for approach tunnels, the party chose the trapped "garden path" (see also: back cover of the color version of the module). The lead invisible scout was detected, charmed, and drained of a level before the rest of the party could engage. But the party was immediately suspicious of the paradise-seeming cave, and using a sword of detect evil proved the case. Wregan the elf hid in the "trees" only to find the illusion disappear around him and instead be was covered with a wave of giant rats. Melee between party, demon, vampire, and waves of bats was fast and furious. The bats and rats were fireballed, the monsters were put down, the temporarily defeated vampire turned to gas a drifted out of sight, and the party moved to put as much distance between him and them as possible.
  • Entering the Vault proper, the adventurers first sent a flying wizard to scout the tops of the cliffs on either side as a precaution. Finding nothing but fungus and crystal-strewn open tableland, they cast a sphere of invisibility which covered the entire party and marched down the road forward. Coming to a three-way fork, they took the upward path, coming to the Black Tower. 
  • Using their magical stealth, a few of the group's strongest fighters and wizard scouted out the open gate to the tower. Finding a sizable group of Drow guards, the wizard Ezniak let loose an ice storm that filled the first guardroom, felling many of the lesser Drow. The chief jumped up to close and bar the door, but the party's magically giant-strengthened fighters, Boris and Hedron, charged forward one after the other, breaking open the door, smashing the table inside to splinters, and battling the High Bailiff to a standstill. More Drow poured down the stairs while other PCs ran into the tower until the whole first floor was a confused wall-to-wall melee. The main problem was the High Bailiff's extraordinary AC, defending with enchanted sword and dagger. The player of one of the pregenerated PC's, randomly named Atol Daggerbreaker, asked: "Can I try to break his dagger?"; to which the answer seemed like it had to be "yes". So with his warhammer he smashed the magic dagger, and then the sword, and then the High Bailiff finally got the beat-down. 
  • Meanwhile outside, a more cautious Jurden the Red Wizard chose to levitate to the top of the tower, thinking it would be abandoned; however he appeared over the battlement right in line with a guard manning a ballista-sized crossbow. "I go down! Down!" cried the player. "Too late, he fires!" I said gleefully. My roll: a natural 1. Saving throw vs. fumble: failed. Result from the critical chart: entangled with weapon; so the bolt snagged the dark elf's belt and he was shot off the roof, Wilhem-screaming (link) to earth.
  • Inside, a wall of fire up the tower stairs fried most of the remaining Drow guards. One was charmed and gave the party useful information about travel and customs in the Vault, and the way to the High Priestess of all Drow. A chest containing an invaluable set of green cloaks were procured, which would thereafter allow travel in the Vault with being accosted by Drow patrols; and also a set of weird eye-cusps, and a letter of passage from some entity named "Eclavdra". The wizard Zaki Azeem chose the opportunity to cast animate dead on the fallen dark elves, raising ten zombies under his command, which were also outfit with green cloaks. So enlarged, the group moved on from the tower into the larger expanse of the Vault.
  • Here I described the party's further travel in the Vault, entering into the debauched city of Erenhei-Cinlu, and the disturbing practices of the people therein. The group was allowed over the flying bridge to the plateau of the noble families, and directly passed on to the very Egg of Lolth. (This was a sequence which I intentionally planned to accelerate, but I think I gave just enough narration to get an overall sense of the setting; all random encounters and even the Lesser Temple were skipped.)
  • The party entered the terrifying, demon-carved, web-shrouded Great Fane of Lolth. On the first floor, the group marched directly through the foyer to the Great Temple Area. The figure of Lolth herself rose before them! So the party launched a vicious barrage of offensive magic: an ice storm, fireball, hold monster, and more (a total of 68 points of damage), all to seeming no effect! (Or was she held?) Fighters slashed, and the party wizard cast fly, spiraling up around her to investigate. (Eerily,  the players perfectly recreated the Jeff Dee illustration of the scene.) Once the ruse was discovered, the dwarven fighter/thief Bellinus noted the weird mural in the rear, but the rest of the party was cautious, and chose to move in a different direction.
  • The web-like stairs up were chosen: and the group was ambushed by a giant black widow spider the size of a small horse. Boris was bitten but made his saving throw against the extra-deadly poison, and then with the rest of the party's help he slew the creature.
  • On the second level, four Drow guardswomen surprised the party and let loose poisoned bolts. The PCs responded smartly with Ezniak using a ring of human control to charm the whole group, ending the combat, and forcing their agreement to lead the way upward to the High Priestess.
  • Up another three levels to the topmost floor of the temple's pagoda. But the High Priestess was warned by a secret alarm, and an opening flame strike instantly fried all the charmed Drow and the zombie troop leading the way. With the priestess casting spells from an unseen location (through a high peephole on the wall), the PCs pushed into luxurious lounge area with jewel-studded spider-tapestries. A word of power and the tapestries transformed into another 8 gargantuan spiders, scuttling forth with more murderous venom! Fighters struck and dodged, Atol tried to smash through the very wall with his hammer to get at their tormentor, and a few spiders were hemmed in with a wall of fire and magic missiles. Then the infamous Zaki Azeem declared that he was dropping a cloudkill to cover the whole room. The whole table groaned, thinking they'd died to friendly fire, and I turned to the Book of Spells thinking the same thing. But it turned out this was a brilliant ploy; all of the party was too high-level to be affected, while the giant spiders all died to the poison gas. Brilliant. (And the same would be true in any standard edition of the game.)
  • Then the High Priestess used her sinister demon staff to conjure a Vrock demon on the party! The response in this case was: a suggestion spell to "protect us". I tried to find some loophole on why this wouldn't work on a demon, but couldn't find any (nor could I after the fact) -- failing both magic resistance and saving throw, the demon stood rooted to the spot, neither attacking for the PCs nor hindering them. The crew then bashed down the High Priestess' inner door and engaged her in melee. She fought back with blindness spells and a magical +5 mace; only a few members of the party could make contact with her back to a corner, and with her AC of -9 (!) the party was almost entirely unable to land blows -- it looked like she might alone turn the tide against them. And then Jurdan nailed her with a feeblemind spell, and failing her saves she was reduced to a drooling incompetent. The players all cheered lustily and finished her off en masse.
  • The party gathered what treasure they could from the queenly riches around them. The secondary priestess was met running up the stairs, and another charm spell turned her too to the party's side. Inquiring as to a way to escape the Fane (one of the victory conditions I'd set for the group), she revealed the hidden tunnel far below in the cellar. Leading them there, the group quickly worked its way back down the stair, along the hidden tunnel, and into the wharf cavern with underground-river going galleys, scores of ghoul and ghast sailors, and much-needed stacks of supplies. One galley was loaded up, and the party sailed off into the darkness on a demon-headed ship surrounded by Drow priestesses and slavering ghouls. 


  • As noted above, choosing to spend preparation time on selected highlights of the adventure really paid off. (And note that Gygax adventures are generally pretty open-ended with demands for DM expansions, with D3 surely the pinnacle of those.) I created illustrations of the outside of the Black Tower and the Great Fane which set the scenes well (above); and also floor maps of the inside of the Black Tower, thinking that was a likely necessary battle to have (in fact, the module text comes close to fully describing the layout; was there a map that was cut for space?). I skipped all random encounters which turned out to be the right thing to do. Based on prior games (which were always short on time), I really did not expect the group to make it all the way to the High Priestess of the Fane, so at that point I was flipping through the book in an ad-hoc fashion trying to interpret her defenses there. The players actually took great joy in my discomfort when I blurted out this fact. (But possibly on a future run I might plan that final encounter out a bit more.)
  • Module D3 has some of Gygax's most fantastic descriptive text, but it is tangled up with rules information and material the players should not know -- recall that this is before the invention of "boxed text" which would set the scene for players as they enter a new area. Again, concentrating on the highlight areas, I drafted a page of my own effective "boxed text" for the outer encounter areas: the Garden Path, the Vault, the Black Tower, and the entry to the Egg of Lolth. I surely wouldn't do it for every room, but being able to edit out the essence of Gygax's flowery descriptions, and setting each encounter zone by sharing most of his words with the players, felt right. I think it would be a shame to play through D3 and not get to encounter his descriptive language here. 
  • In particular, Paul S. noted after using the "weird cinnabar eye cusps" to see clearly in the Vault, and thus viewing its "true splendor... [as] a dark fairyland", how reminiscent this was of the mystical lenses in Jack Vance's story of Cugel the Clever, "Eyes of the Overworld" (link). Asked Paul, "Is what I'm seeing now the real thing, or just a fraudulent illusion? That's creepy!". It's one of those great observations that I smacked my head for being blind to in advance (no pun intended), and wish I'd thought to play up ahead of time.
  • Nowadays I am ready to use miniatures in the game, almost only if the players request it for clarity. (This happened in another game last year and it worked out pretty well.) I actually created and brought simple scale battlemaps of the first floor of the Black Tower, and also the "Gatehouse" encounter (outer hex Q²49), but neither of them were used. 
  • A lot of Gygax's creations from this era of Advanced D&D have an overwhelming number of special abilities (Drow, Demons, Kuo-Toa, etc.; their descriptions run several pages each) that even I can't keep track of during fast-paced play. So I make the decision to streamline those, too, and try to pick around 3, at most 5, abilities to highlight during play. A few of the Drow minor abilities get snipped out as I do this, but this too feels like a correct decision.
  • A possibly more legalistic issue to Drow powers is that if you play them by strict AD&D rules, then they would inherit the powers from other elves in the Player's Handbook; in particular, 90% resistance to sleep and charm spells. But that resistance doesn't show up anywhere in the OD&D rules that I'm using (even Supplement-I, Greyhawk), and so that's a power that the Drow here do not have. The players in my game relied quite heavily in more than one place for charm spells against certain Drow, to gain information and guidance; whereas technically as published that would likely not be possible. Truthfully, I didn't mind either the pacing pickup or reduction in wall-of-powers to track. But was the AD&D elf resistance to charm specifically an invention to prevent this stratagem in D1-3? Also, it's fortunate for the players in this regard that the description for Drow says they know the "common tongue", in addition to various underground races (and honestly I didn't even think to consider any language barrier for them during play).
  • On the other hand, all Drow did have both boosted saving throws and magic resistance being checked -- and yet they seemed to routinely fail both every time I checked them. Generally the players in this game had great rolls working in their favor (making almost all their saves), and terrible rolls on the part of my monsters (failing almost all their saves and resistance checks). So certainly that was a helping hand on this particular mission.
  • My Book of Spells finally feels "right". Everything that happens with magical effects feels correct, efficient, quick, and necessary; never skewed or irritating to the proceedings.
  • Keep in mind that at high levels, long-lasting invisibility is both very powerful and widely available (via spells, rings, cloaks, invisibility spheres, etc.). Part of my preparations for high-level is to always consider the interaction of invisible scouts into each area and whether and how they might be discovered, etc. (among the first details in any area description; see back in my D1 game when I was caught flat-footed at the need for that).
  • My expectation was that this would be final appearance of this group of pregenerated PCs and this campaign sequence, and I wouldn't mind ending on a high note in this way (there was a heartwarming round of applause from the players at the end of the game). But at the end there was more than one request to continuing playing with them somehow. One inquiry was to actually go back and re-play module G3 from a few years ago (link): that's probably the most physically brutal adventure in the series, and the players were short-handed, so they got mercilessly pasted in that adventure. Another possibility, I think, is to start expanding to other locations in Gygax's underworld; as the PC's ended sailing on the waters of the Pitchy Flow, it seems like a pretty clear opening to adventures in the realms of the Mind Flayers, Kuo-Toa, Sunless Sea, etc. But that's the end of the Gygax-penned adventures for now!


  1. So you really play G1-3 and D1-3 in a 4 hour slot!? Amazing that it can even be done.

    1. Well, it took me most of a decade to figure out how. :-) Go back 8 years and I we only completed 1/3 of module S1 in about 5-6 hours. Module G1 they got to a few rooms; G2 they got through level 1 to the first part of level 2; G3 they get TPK'd quickly. D1-2 we were barely getting to the terminal areas, maybe 3-4 rooms encountered there. Finally D3 I think I overcame the frustration and had sensible focus and pacing. Skipping random encounters for this purpose is key.

    2. Those numbers fit my experience better. Hours spent on a few rooms. I'd love to see you step by step break down, say G1, and how you worked and though doing the pruning to work out the good bits.

      Well done sir! I'm in awe.

    3. G1 I would have to go back and re-tune, because honestly I was very frustrated back when I did that. (link) At the time I was using minis and a battlemap for everything, which slows everything down, and that particular experience convinced me to flush that (also "haste" spells were overpowered) -- the next year G2, non-mini-battlemap, was one of the players' favorites.

    4. Now I'm seriously tempted to break out my copies of those modules and think them through with a hacksaw and 4h in mind. Would be fun to see if your feat can be replicated.

      No minis and no battlemaps for sure!

  2. Helgacon VIII was so full of win, to use the modern turn of phrase. Thanks for polishing up this string of Gygaxian gems and presenting them to us. I think this session and our epic run of "Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl" were some of the finest, most intense D&D games I've ever been in.

    Your mention at the end of our characters sailing on the underground seas gives me an interesting idea. What if you combine this campaign setting with your Corsairs of Medero seagoing sandbox. Could be funky.

    Anyway, consider my hat tipped, oh Professor of the Polyhedrons. A cracking run of games. May there be many more to come! :)

    1. Ooooh, great idea!! Thanks so much for the kind words as always. :-D

  3. --D3, Vault of the Drow. In my opinion, it's the best of the series; Gygax at the pinnacle of his powers

    I think D1-D3 & WG4 Tharizdun could almost be incorporated into the AD&D DMG as exemplary scenarios.

    But do you not find there is too high a ratio of monster stat/equipment descriptions at the expense of the environment?

    --The player of one of the pregenerated PC's, randomly named Atol Daggerbreaker, asked: "Can I try to break his dagger?"; to which the answer seemed like it had to be "yes". So with his warhammer he smashed the magic dagger

    Sweet. Judicious.

    --A chest contained an invaluable set of green cloaks were procured, which would thereafter allow travel in the Vault with being accosted by Drow patrols

    How did they figure this out?

    --Eerily, the players perfectly recreated the Jeff Dee illustration of the scene.

    How do you feel about DMing a scenario that is so readily available to players to read beforehand even if it is simply out of interest rather than 'cheating'?

    --This was a sequence which I intentionally planned to accelerate, but I think I gave just enough narration to get an overall sense of the setting

    How many more hours would you ideally like to have had and what would you like them to have done in the city given that they were incognito? For a one-off it sounds like the fast paced tactical combat worked well but if you were running a regular campaign would you have more role-playing?

    It sounds like no PCs died which leads me to think they were too powerful. For such an adventure I would expect 1/3 casualties.

    1. Good observations (and shout-out to WG4 as well, definitely).

      I think it's a legitimate criticism here that a lot of the text is +1 sword, +2 dagger, +3 buckler, +4 chain mail etc., etc. I do find myself doing a lot of advance prepwork trying to summarize that stuff into a shorter format. Organization in that regard was not Gygax's strong suit.

      The use of the cloaks and travel directions was communicated by a guard in the Black Tower that they'd charmed.

      I feel pretty good with the group not reading the module in advance; I wouldn't trust other groups that way but it works here. Some are not hardcore enough to want to spend time researching in advance, and the rest all make a good-faith attempt to be honest, I think. My experience here makes me guess that the more time passes the more this stuff drops into a prehistory that young gamers won't know about.

      I actually think that D3 could totally be an open-ended campaign site all on its own, of practically unlimited extent, depending on how much anyone wants to develop it. I bet you could months or years in the greater underground area, if not the Vault all by itself.

    2. And on player deaths: You're right, no one died this session which everyone involved was complete agog at -- and even friends in other games heard word of this and came asking in disbelief. My games are renowned for high body counts in prior years. For example: G3 had a TPK with the exact same pregenerated PCs (although somewhat fewer players). So I think in this case it was a perfect storm of (a) top-notch play by the players, and (b) fantastic dice rolls in their favor.

    3. One other thing on the monster stats: An argument could be made that it's not worth pages and pages of info on low-level NPC fighter-types. No matter how many different +1 or +2 bonuses some 2nd- or 3rd-level fighters have, they're still going to get mowed down by name-level PCs. In the past I was somewhat misled into thinking that they would be tough opponents due to all those special bonuses, but that turns out to not be so much the case. That's not an issue in G1-3, but it is throughout D1-3, for example.

  4. I really love the art you posted from the module. It looks so simple. It would be amazing as a DM to be able to sketch cavern environments quickly. I think such sketches would be more useful than detailed maps because players and DM interact with words rather than numbers (distance-height); it's more about subjective views than plan/omniscient views.

    1. I think that's a good observation. What I did for this game to set each zone was google a vaguely appropriate image and then mangle it in Photoshop with a "sketch > chalk & charcoal" filter to make it look more suggestive and artsy. I think it worked pretty well.

    2. Added image to the main post above.

    3. That's very good, I'll look for something similar in GIMP.