Monday, July 11, 2016

Fireworks in the Hall of the Fire Giants

For Independence Day weekend, I had the great pleasure of DM'ing high-level D&D games in marathon sessions for 4 days straight. Thursday I was at DexCon 19 in Morristown, NJ running a scenario I call The Stygian Karst of the Kuo-Toan King. Which was pretty awesome (and insane and terrifying), but I'll leave that tale for another time.

The rest of the weekend I was once again DM'ing another crawl through AD&D Module G3, Hall of the Fire Giant King, for a bunch of friends (using customized Original D&D rules, of course). It's one of my favorite things to do, honestly; it's almost surely one of the toughest classic modules to run for both players and DM. Last time I ran it, it rather quickly turned into a TPK in the first room. (link here). Here's a quick outline of the various PC assaults on the place (area numbers from the original module, to follow along if you have the module).

Action in the Hall

  1. A party of 7 PCs enter with a passwall. Invisible searching thief finds watchpost 1A., party attacks by surprise, kills the watcher before the horn can be sounded. Likewise ambush ettins at 2. by surprise and quickly finish them. Fight at 14., explore 13.; dwarven thief rolls a "1" to disarm traps, gets hit by 4 giant poisoned arrows, and manages to roll 4 sequential successful saves vs. death. Enter 12.; fighter/wizard who speaks gnollish charms two guards, who immediately gives up on Obmi's ruse; he is quickly disposed of. Charmee warns of guards at 24. and king at 3. Party casts illusion to appear as Obmi with gnollish cohort and march to 3., saying human intruders have been disposed of. King welcomes them gladly and summons them to kneel and receive prizes; hounds start barking and both sides engage in explosive combat. The party wizard is burned up by fire breath. The king is backstabbed, hammered, and lightning bolted; he dies with his guards. More guards start running into the chamber, initially into a blizzard of cold wand blasts. The party gets hasted and runs from the hall with the king's sword as a trophy. (I will point out that the overall path of the party here is almost identical to that of the winning group in the Origins '78 tournament as related in Dragon #19, although the exact engagements run differently, and perhaps most importantly, it's the only time I've ever heard of a party not being tricked and backstabbed by Obmi's ruse. A good job!)

  2. Main party wizard is reincarnated (successfully in his own form!) and decides to teleport back to town to replenish their depleted healing potions. The teleport back to his tower is fine, and he is feted by the lords as a hero. However, the teleport back to the less-familiar secret cave goes less well, and he lands over a hundred miles away in monster-filled volcanic mountains. He hides overnight in an extended rope trick spot, which lasts an entire day. (Note that this is how teleport and extension are handled as per the OED Book of Spells; see sidebar.) The next day he accidentally teleports into the Sea of Dust. Then to a cliff overlooking the edge of the Sea Princes. Then back to town. Then into the mountains on the trail to the Hall, a mere 10 leagues distant; he casts extended haste and runs for two days straight, arriving at the cave dusty and winded (a full week after he was expected back). The party enters the hall, trips the backup trap and gets shot by a half-dozen giant ballista bolts, and promptly decides to retreat and form a better attack plan.

  3. After a few days of recuperation, the PCs disabuse themselves of the idea that the giants will be morally broken, and stage a more determined attack, with all members invisible. Scouts disarm the tripwire and check area 2. finding the giant ballista reloaded, 2 ettins, a giant with the warning horn, and a half-dozen hell hounds sniffing for intruders. They plan an attack starting with an invisible, giant-strengthened fighter grabbing the ballista, spinning it around, and firing at the ettins and giant (which hit each of them). Simultaneous they are hit with an ice storm and several hounds lightninged. Again they go down without the horn being sounded. The party sneaks into 12. thinking to hide where giants cannot go, finding the northern doors bricked up with giant stones. They proceed through 13. to 14. and are surprised to find the guard not only replaced but doubled and back up by hounds; they engage long enough to kill the hounds, then reactivate invisibility and escape back north and east (several giantesses throwing huge sacks of flour miss them). Another hound at 24. catches their scent and the gong is struck; they run east and hide against the wall. Area 10. opens up with giant chimera as giants run from 25. An argument of unnatural philosophy: Does the dragon head of the chimera see invisible (as normal dragons from Chainmail)? A die is used as oracle: 1-4 yes, 5-6 no; the result is 5 and the party escapes detection. The chimera passes, and they run into 10. barely before giants clog the hall from 25. Available time running out, they move to escape, finding a dozen giants, 3 hounds, and the chimera blocking the exit at 2. An illusion of themselves moving in the opposite direction towards 3. draws off half; and then hastened they narrowly run past the rest (the dwarven thief cutting down one hound that gets in her way).

  4. Another day, and a more stripped-down party searches covertly for the king's well-hidden treasure room. A mere 4 PCs enter, but they are each magically strengthened, extended hastened, with infravision, and having individual invisibility powers. They find a yet-more-formidable defense at the entrance; another doubling of the guards, hounds, more giants further back with boulders for crossfire, and re-use of the party's own wall of iron (conjured in the first foray) as a fence to bar the path. Now the party casts a pair of fly spells, which serve to buoy the casters, each barely carrying a single heavy fighter each, bobbing invisibly balloon-like over the heads of the giants. (A roll is made for detection or something dropped? But the PCs are in luck again.) They land in the darkened throne area at 3. and the spell soon expires; they search for secret doors or compartments (silently avoiding a pair of wandering guards) and succeed. They explore areas 4-7., finding all of them completely empty, except for the valueless contents of 7. left in place. Extensive searches for more secret doors find nothing in those places. They invisibly pass north and are again scented at 24. and the alarm struck, at which point they run west. A large group of guards with barking hounds run towards them from 2.; they flee, finding their way to the 2nd level. There they look into the hammering at area 6.; thereafter the scout touches the wall at 12. and narrowly dodges the resulting attack; the party wisely flees further west and hears approaching monsters. They find the entrance to level 3., but turn back and enter cell 4C., then double back to 1. to find Snurre's rotting corpse freshly interred; they take his remaining valuables and leave a rude message. A random check indicates something stirring in the southeast corner. (!?) The party now decides it's time to leave with treasures they have, and at the entrance find but 2 giants and a hound on station. They quickly dispose of them, and escape for a final time from the Hall of the Fire Giant King.

The thing about G3 that makes it most challenging for both players and DM, I think, is the emphasis on some genius-level mastermind running the responsive defense (see "Notes For the Dungeon Master" in the original text). In addition to the players, I'm also sweating bullets as DM every time I run it as I try to come up with the most intelligent responses I possibly can on the fly, moving around giant defenses as needed (it's not just a static area-by-area dungeon crawl). My players were at turns terrified and delighted that while all the giants in their past experience, including those in modules G1 and G2, were fairly lunk-headed brutes, the ones here are master architects, engineers, and tacticians (it's a perfect Rule of Three punchline, really). All of their expectations have to get adjusted in that light (see the quick retreat from the 2nd attack above.) Really, both sides of the engagement are on a mutually-assured-destruction learning arc, on every foray getting more creative and devastating with the resources available to them (consider: the PCs developing a tactic of focusing attacks to kill any hounds or other invisible-detectors, then re-activating invisibility and escaping elsewhere). At the end after several days of play, I'd be willing to say that the group we had last weekend was performing at a level of the most "superior play" I've ever seen (see very end of Gygax's AD&D PHB) -- and likewise I was trying to run the monsters in the most ruthless and inventive fashion that I could muster. Now I kind of regret not recording the whole event, because I think it would have been highly entertaining and instructive.

Notes and Future Improvements

  • Of course we all love Trampier, but his illustration on the back cover is unfortunately out of scale. The outside gates should loom high above the PC's; the depiction there is certainly not a 30' high portal. In the past I used that as a banner but I discarded it this time; perhaps something else could be drawn up for the future.

  • Spell adjustment: After the party wizard was burned up a reincarnate spell from a scroll was used in the next round to resuscitate him. While there's nothing in OD&D or the Book of Spells to prevent that, I wasn't entirely happy with the tone of that. In the future I'd like to make that require a longer ceremony for the effect.

  • Note that the fire opals on the throne are worth 1,000 gp each. Should the fire opal in the DMG sample dungeon not be the same value?

  • Bring a dice cup because I get overexcited and always throw dice off the table and across the room. Also bring my custom d12 with body locations, purely for descriptive purposes of hits in combat, because I think I accidentally get a little repetitive with my descriptions.

  • Should I have used the dungeon evasion rules when hounds detected invisible PCs?

  • I have handout slips for pre-made "Giant Bag Contents" that I hand out as appropriate. Rename those "Giant Container Contents" because they're actually more often used for giant trunks, chests, etc. Need specific numbers for range-based elements (coins, etc.).

  • Initially forgot to pick a caller. Again, I think this is so critical to quality D&D play, especially with larger groups. It advertises that we expect by default that the party will be (a) cooperative, and (b) not split up. We determined this quickly when it became necessary, but I need to highlight this more on my "game start" checklist.

  • Update ability score charts in OED booklet and player reference cards. In particular: I need to expand the listed scores to about 30, because high-level fighters are constantly getting their strengths magically boosted by party wizards well into the 20's. This time there was something of an ongoing competition to that effect, with fighters at strength 20, 22, 27, and finally 29 (including Obmi's gauntlets of ogre power). So I'm always counting on my fingers for what the modified bonus should be, when that should immediately be in front of the players at the start. Quote from the game: "A good workout is like benching half a ton for around 500 reps."

  • On that note: Write down a specific in-game penalty to opening giant doors. It's not specified in the module, and I was always doing a bit of guesswork all weekend.

  • Come up with a quick and palatable description for the three alignments for new/unfamiliar players who ask (in the vein of Anderson/Moorcock). Something like: Lawful wants human civilization to be extended and peaceful. Chaotic wants civilization broken down and destroyed. Neutrality is simply uncaring, or seeks a balance between the two.

  • Granted the existing book rules, and a desire for good pacing, how can we use dice to maximize the tension in the game? Example: On a critical hit, make the player roll the percentile dice, so that they are responsible for their own doom. On monster spotting, surprise, wandering checks, and who a monster attacks, announce the target and roll publicly in front of the players. Target20 in practice: For multiple monster attacks and saves, I do the reverse math mentally, announce the target for success on the die, and roll a whole batch of d20's at once. (In contrast, PC attacks report to me a total roll, and I add in monster AC mentally, so that is always hidden to players.)


  1. Fascinating writeup, this sounds like so much fun to play.

    I like the way you do the monster dice rolls, is this assuming one target, multiple attackers, or do you somehow do it for multiple attackers, multiple targets?

    I use Jeff Rient's old alignment test to explain it -

    1. The mass-dice attacks are certainly best when several monsters are attacking one target. But I also engage it if the PCs all get caught by a barrage of missile fire: my d20's are color-coded to each PC around the table (ROYGBV, etc.) so I might toss them all and then do the math on any obvious high rolls (in teens). Or: Have one eye on my list of PC AC's and go around the table rolling 3 attacks at a time on each. Again, that's mainly for a mob missile attack, and it usually only lasts 1 or 2 rounds, as my players are smart enough to respond quickly to the kind of situation.

      The alignment discussion is good: In fact, that's almost EXACTLY what my actual response was this weekend! (Lawful fight Cthulhu, Neutral run from Cthulhu, Chaotic assist Cthulhu.) But actually that got a slightly negative response from the player who asked it... I think that bringing in the names of these deities who weren't formerly part of the action/milieu might be confusing or possibly open a distracting side-conversation (are they known in this world?). So now I'm iterating for a response that's more digestible in any scenario.

  2. Oh, that makes sense that some folks might not connect with Cthulu. I recommend taking them on a trip to the Lost City... ;) :D

    In all seriousness, when I'm explaining alignment in my campaign, I use the deities or concepts in my campaign of "Might makes Right" as Chaos touchpoints or "Law makes it right" and Lawful deities. But I come back to the rough concepts of Asgard vs. the Dark Deeps of Space Where the Elder Gods Writhe...

    I have a ton of D20s and I might start doing exactly that type of roll, thank you for the tip!

    1. I definitely that Cthulhu = Chaos equivalence in my head, that's for sure. Side note: I myself was completely agog the find that Goodman's Dungeon Crawl Classics asserts that Cthulhu is a Neutral deity.

      Glad if the multi-dice rolling helps your game!

  3. Great write-up. By turns insightful and inspiring. A few comments:

    1. The teleporting situation seemed a bit out of hand. You have made the spell much more useful since eliminating the original D&D spell's high chance of causing player death (!), but I am curious why you have used such large distance ranges for errors in teleporting. (I assume you have a reason, since you're Delta, but I would still like to hear it.:)) Did your players comment on this?

    2. As you mentioned via email, the modified extension spell becomes very useful indeed and changes the texture of play, but seemingly in a very good way. Did your players comment on that?

    3. Regarding alignment: following Geoffrey McKinney and others, in my campaign I define alignment in terms of allegiance to different groups of gods and spirits. So lawful characters worship God and the angels (or other similar celestial beings), neutral characters worship the gods of the elements and faeries, and chaotic characters worship demons and Cthulhu-like outer gods or great old ones (in Greyhawk, this would presumably include Tharizdun and the Elder Elemental God). The nice thing about religious allegiance is that it provides a meaningful identity marker that should (as in the real world) affect alliances and rivalries, but doesn't necessarily determine personal morality (dark deeds can still be committed in the cause of law. . .).

    1. Thanks! And good observations.

      1. As you can see here, my teleport almost resulted in scattering the party irreparably (another party wizard considered teleporting away to search for him, which would have been truly shenanigans). Plus there are wandering monster checks vs. the lone wizard. Note the range varies by familiarity level: well-known it's 1d6 leagues off on failure (easily walkable), general is 1d6×10 (overland adventure), vague is 1d6×100 (right continent, at least). So the idea is that it opens up more adventuring possibilities instead of restricting them by insta-death (e.g., see Vance's Cugel). No one complained about this (although I was trying to pick up the action with the party split here).

      2. It gets used regularly, but no one commented on being surprised by it. I think it this point (a) expert players are used to it, and (b) newer players don't know any different, because classic "extension" is such a non-entity they've never seen or heard of it being used.

      3. I also have Cthluhu = chaos in my head, definitely. However that's at a bit cross-purposes in my game where I don't have clerics or official recognition that deities are extant in the first place (see sidebar). So it did distract at least one player when I said it mid-game this weekend.

  4. I see alignment as having metaphysical and mundane aspects.

    Metaphysical: There's a cosmic struggle between law and chaos. Divine powers are allied with Law, infernal powers with Chaos. Relevant to mortals only when they have to interact with the higher powers or with their minions. High level spell casters have to pick a side, as with OD&D clerics and anti-clerics.

    Mundane: Suppose your village/tribe has discovered a new non-hostile group living over the next hill. If you are inclined to offer to ally and trade with them, you are lawful. If your inclination is to raid or conquer them, you are chaotic. If you might do either depending on circumstances, you are neutral.

    1. Yeah, in the Anderson/Moorcock sense I would want to focus on a single one of those interpretations. However, I can't hang my hat on deities because (in the pulp sense) they aren't provably extant, and there are no good clerics with any supernatural powers or contacts.

  5. Regarding clerics and alignment:

    1. Do you use NPC clerics in your games? If not, do you ever have to modify the modules? If so, how? (E.g., replace NPC cleric with a normal man with healing poultices?)

    2. Does the lack of existence of gods affect the back-stories / flavor text of the Greyhawk modules you run, or is that just a non-issue because play focuses on tactical missions?

    3. Regarding alignment and religion: even if deities don't exist in your campaign, you could still use the allegiance conception of alignment, in one of two ways:

    a. Deities don't exist, but characters pledge allegiance to putative deities based on their alignment: celestial beings for lawful, elemental beings for neutral, infernal beings for chaotic. Compare to our own world, where the lack of real existence of gods and spirits does not prevent people from creating identities around allegiance to them!

    b. Deities don't exist, but spirits or extraplanar beings do, and they come in different categories or flavors which could serve as the basis for alignment. So, chaotic beings are allied with demons, lawful beings opposed, and neutral beings vary based on the situation or self-interest. (When I invoked McKinney above, I was not indeed suggesting Cthulhu in particular as the basis for alignment in Greyhawk or other D&D campaigns, but rather whatever demonic beings stand as an approximate equivalent in the setting in question. Gygax's Greyhawk is full of demons and dark gods!)

    1. 1. Not good ones, not in any civilized area that humans would frequent. Indeed, the only reason I put any qualifier on that is so that I don't have to modify the modules. (At one point I was going through and replacing them with evil fighter/wizards, but it was just too much work.)

      2. It hasn't made a big practical difference so far; esp., since I'm always running short convention-style events.

      3. Well, I think in the classic pulp style I want it to be at least ambiguous whether deities are extant or not. If I start a "list of deities in the campaign", then (a) that's more work, (b) it signals to players that they're really a thing, and (c) it's more mental energy players need to parse that. So the whole thing seems a bit like a distraction.

      Among the options for my campaign is a pure Lovecraftian conception that there are alien "gods" who are exclusively secret, unknowable, inherently destructive, and always inimical to mankind. Of course, humans/PC's won't know who they are and can't use them for moral guideposts of any sort. Fortunately, this is playably compatible with Gygax's modules (e.g., among the "most immediate influences" in Appendix N; ENWorld Q&A where he would most often cite Howard & Lovecraft as the top influences on the game.)

  6. Excellent recap, and sounds like you had some groups that pulled off some very high level play! Always a great thing! Thanks!

    1. I love me some high level play! :-)

  7. Argh! Can't believe I missed you at Dexcon.

    1. Because of the rest of the weekend, I could only be there Thursday, when there was basically just a skeleton crew. Hopefully in the future I can be there on better days. :-)