Monday, April 29, 2019

HelgaCon: The Slavers Stockade

Here's the first part of a belated recap of our HelgaCon house-convention action from the first weekend in April. This year I ran 4 games across the 5 sessions of the weekend. These included the following:

Secret of the Slavers Stockade (Ad&D Module A2)

I'm on year 2 of a multi-year run to play through the famous A-series, which I've never done, sticking to the "tournament" subsections, rules, and scoring guidelines. This was (obviously) two separate sessions: one for the above-ground hill fort, and one for the below-ground dungeons section. Of course, I'm translating the content as best I can to OED rules, clerics become fighter/wizards or a fighter with a special-power sword, etc.

One thing in trying to recreate the "tournaments" on a small scale is that you can't guarantee you'll get all 9 players expected by the original setup. In the first session of A2, I actually only had 4 players at the table (another was scheduled but got sick). I started out halving the number/power of the monsters, but found these players were just carving through everything like a knife through hot butter, so I ramped up the proportion from half, to three-quarters, to full-strength by about the half-way point. Still they plunged into the final encounter and swept the board for a victory. It seemed like they could do no wrong.

For the second session, I had 7 players (again, missing the same extra player). It seems like this group didn't have a noticeably easier time with the event. They overcame traps/puzzles admirably and fought through the final encounter. Here, the boss wizard let loose with an opening lightning bolt that felled either 2 or 3 of the party's 4 wizard PCs. The two sides then basically fought to a nail-biting standstill until the remaining party wizard used his last spell, suggestion: "I suggest this fighting does neither side any good and we should part ways in a truce," which was successful. So: a draw, although the party still scored almost all the points for the game.

I'm a little baffled at how the 4-player group did so remarkably well with the hill fort scenario (I expected to roll in replacement characters, but none were needed). Is the first session simply easier? Does the smaller group make it simpler for the team to communicate and coordinate?

Regarding this and other A-series modules that I've seen: (a) the text seems wall-of-words copious (many paragraphs per area) and frankly it's a real burden to parse and translate it (both before and during the game), and (b) many of the puzzles/traps are somewhere between inexplicable-unworkable-incomprehensible, both in terms of describing/explaining and running them mechanically. Example of the former: The text for the single new "cloaker" monster, with all its various "subsonic" powers, alone spans 7 big paragraphs in the adventure text (I'm pretty sure I missed some components in-game). Examples of the latter: Many of the A-series traps are hard-to-believe mundane traps (toppling stuffed bear, pillowcase in flue that looks like a ghost, humanoids dressed as mummies in angled mirror) so you can't even hand-wave it away as "it's magic". For the players' benefit I started to set expectations with, "the slave lords might just be mentally ill", and on my end, I tried to be sensitive to the point when we all started becoming disinterested in a particular barrier and then say "yes" to whatever idea the PCs came up with to bypass it. I think I'm coming to a philosophy that the very-wordy classic AD&D modules are not my favorite thing to run; I'd really rather have very terse, couple-line areas that I can expand on improvisationally during the game (and very clear stats for monsters, tricks, and traps).

I should point out that the design for the A-series is extremely regimented. It's usually a linear path (no surprise), with the 5 sessions from A1, A2, and start of A3 all with about 16 areas areas each, 9 "significant" ones for scoring, with exactly 5 monster encounters and 5-7 traps (and also one "new" monster per section). I will say that this seems pretty well-timed, as both my groups reached the final encounter with a comfortable amount of time (although last year in the dungeon part of A1 we did not reach the final room). The scoring system is surprising: although given as a table, it boils down to 45 points for each of 9 significant areas cleared out (not explicit in the text; you must decide which 9 of the 16 areas count), minus 5 points per character death. Note that the lives of the entire party are worth the same as a single encounter area (45 points in each case); so this equivalent to a scoring system of, "count areas cleared from 1-9; for a tiebreaker, count surviving party members". I suppose for brevity this system means the one table can be used for all the sessions in A1-4 uniformly; although more recent tournament scoring I've seen has more detail in terms of specific tasks accomplished, which I think I do prefer (not having tested them to date as a DM).

One other thing I stumbled into is that (for example) the A2 module has "battlemaps" with detailed furnishings and monster starting positions for three of the most climactic encounter areas. I blew these up to a full-page each and printed them out, but didn't actually expect to use them. (They're sized so a single letter-size page can only show them at about 1" = 10' scale; for my preferred 1" = 5' scale, I'd need to split and paste together 4 sheets each, i.e., 12 total pages, which was more work/resources than I wanted to spend.) But when the first such encounter came, I did find myself pulling out the blow-up and handing it to the players as a shortcut to explain all the details. We didn't use minis, but instead just jotted some notes in pencil as the action took place. This seemed to work out very slickly and I continued that for the other areas that had such blow-ups.

Special shout-out to my player Jon who took the modified Eljayess character, scratched out my "wizard" and wrote in "cleric", and then got KIA's by me in the final encounter of both sessions.

Favorite random scribble on PC sheet: "Leave No Door" (this from Elwita's player, usually following behind the max-strength "Ogre" character who tended to smash all the doors to splinters; and in other cases tear them off the hinges to use as platforms over pits and such).

More to come. In the meantime, you can look back at the Wandering DMs wrap-up livecast we did when when Paul & myself were still hot from the convention just wrapping up a few weeks ago. 


  1. I ran my 2e game through part of the Slavelords modules and I quickly found myself re-mixing the maps into Zones with quick notes/ stats and the few "gotchas" and plot pints/clues for that Zone.
    I can't imagine trying to run from the page as is with all that text.
    I tend to eliminate "goofball" traps, especially in areas where people actually live; but who knows, maybe the Slave Lords is like a fraternity house and they are having a prank war?

  2. It would be interesting to see the original tournament text; I'm guessing the word count was padded out for the published version (and not just with the expansion of encounters)...hard to imagine a fresh DM running something like A2 "on the fly." I've owned the module for years and have never run it; much as I like Tom Moldvay's work, my eyes glaze over every time I try to read A2.