Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Oldest of Old School (part III) - G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

G1 - Steading of the Hill Giant Chief
Original Cover Art

Recently I reviewed both Tomb of Horrors (Gary Gygax - 1975/1978) and Temple of the Frog (Dave Arneson - 1975) and found them both interesting from a historical perspective and as iconic representations of styles of location based adventure.  Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (G1) (1978) is another of the oldest adventure modules and unlike Tomb of Horrors (which had some contribution from Alan Lucien) appears to be purely the work of Gygax. Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is also a very different sort of adventure from Tomb of Horrors and doesn't appear to have been written solely with tournament play in mind, though it certainly has elements of Gygax's tournament style. Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is for ‘experienced characters’  - though it’s unclear if this is only raw levels of if Gygax (rightfully) suspects that the adventure might be tricky for players that are unfamiliar with some of the more sneaky options available to their characters in AD&D.

Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is short (13 pages or so) and densely written.  It’s much clearer then the writing in Temple of the Frog, but is similar in construction - with the now standard introduction, hooks, and note for the game master followed by keyed locations (52 on two levels) and a single page of pre-generated (tournament) characters.  The writing is Gygaxian, though far less descriptive than that and without the illustration booklet provided in Tomb of Horrors it still has some of his unique phrasing.  The adventure is a simpleattack on a hill giant stronghold, but set up specifically to build tension and encourage infiltration and character creativity due to the enormity of that task.  

A first level details the giant’s huge wooden hall and palisade, a sort of cliched barbarian/Viking/Celtic chief’s hall or even inbred backwoods family compound, built on a giant’s scale and filled with details that repeatedly hammer on the giants’ themes of squalor, debauchery and sloth.  While individually keyed most of the rooms on this upper level are empty, as the inhabitants feast endlessly in their great hall they do offer plenty of clues and interesting spaces to explore.  A secret stair leads down to a lower level much closer to a traditional ‘dungeon adventure’, though a rather tightly wound one, in the Giant’s cellar (slave cells, weapon manufacturing area and secret treasury, insane manticore garbage disposal), caverns with orcish rebels and several other factions, and a secret tentacle god temple.  The upper level is a tightly written adventure locale that inspires plans and schemes in the players while giving the GM the tools to make them fail or succeed interestingly, the lower level is a bit of a jumble.  Yes it has useful faction and a few neat set pieces, but it also very densely packed and small with a bit of the 'monster hotel' feeling, especially in the cave portion.


G1’s best feature is that it is open ended - yes it provides a very tricky problem, a powerful, numerous and well organized enemy, but it also provides tools - stews to poison, disguises to wear, rebel servants to suborn, ambushes to lay, tools to control the Giant's wolves.  There's no expectation as to how the players will solve the problem that is thirty plus giants, ogres and other powerful monsters in a single room - the adventure trusts the players will solve the problem or fail, and this opens the Steading of the Hill Giant Chief to a lot of creative play.  Better the adventure gives tools to make it easier for the GM to facilitate open ended play. 

One of Jason Thompson's amazing 'walkthrough'
posters for old adventures.  http://mockman.com/
First there is information provided with an eye to potential player solutions (with Gygaxian efforts to make things difficult) such as the damp wood construction and Giant fire safety protocol of retreating into the Dungeon, but better there's clear information about the way the Steading looks and how it functions.  The tiny descriptions contain clear info that speaks to daily life of Steading, meaning that they both provide clues about possible player schemes and offer indications of what the social and physical environment of the Steading contains.  While Gygax's description is not especially evocative and provides only limited detail, it's enough to encourage plots and player plan making. For Example: the random encounter table, while simple (it’s just a list of Steading residents) does provide a way to eliminate some Giants, drawing foes directly from the giants order of battle, and even the limited descriptions offered provide some indication of what happens in Steading - orcs carry trays, guests leaving the Steading party, drunken giants returning to their beds and ogres on guard.
The map (at least the upper level) is sensible and fairly organic.  It's logical how the Steading is arranged, allowing players to understand the purposes and relationship of rooms - to guess where treasure might be, to figure out the best spot to wait and target an assassination (indeed I suspect Assassinating the Chief and Sub-Chief gets one a giant brawl in short order) and to simply feel like one is playing in a realistic space rather then some kind of bizarre monster zoo.  Another, similar element one might not expect to find in an adventure dating from the dawn of adventure design, and using some of the most terse descriptions imaginable, is sufficiently interesting treasure.  While there are gaps (how much are all these furs the giants have worth anyway?) the treasure descriptions are simple and effective.  Hill giants rarely carry coins, though they do horde giant lots of them in bad hiding places, but have plenty of distinct jewelry (copper mirrors, gold and pearl hairpins). Writers trying to write in a terse style could do worse than to emulate this as the descriptions, while not ideal (another adjective or two would do wonders), are functional and far better then one finds in treasure description from many contemporary OSR or WOTC products.  This isn’t to say these treasure descriptions are a standard to aspire to, there are still many awful instances of “The giants wear 2-4 pieces of jewelry worth 800 - 2000 GP each” that are sub-optimal, but like most other things in G1, Gygax took the time to think about how to make the treasure fit with the adventure and his antagonists, the slovenly, drunken and tawdry hill giants.

The 5E Hill Giant

There are failures in G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief especially compared to the best adventure writing of the present.  It's hook of "kill the giants or face execution" is pretty bad, but really the feast hall of the hill giants doesn't need much of a hook to be a fitting adventure locale in any sandbox.  More important is that as terse and focused as Gygax's descriptions are, they are also rather dull.  I want more about the steady drip of water through rough fit beams, and the smears of rotten food and stale beer on every surface.  The evocative detail isn't just there to make a better scene or description it acts as a sort of surface cover to not only camouflage useful details, but to make setting and tell the players about what they face.  Dim rooms where everyone hollers and ignores the slaves underfoot suggest sneaking about Jack and the Bean Stalk style.  Empty bottles and spilled booze everywhere suggests Giants overcome with alcohol and easy to poison.  While all this exists in a simple form in Gygax's writing, there vast room for improvement that could be beneficial creating a fuller adventure and more sense of wonder.

The underground area is also somewhat odd, it's too tightly mapped, with an ongoing revolution occurring scant feet from the home of the despotic Keeper.  It's another easy problem to solve, and like the dull and cursory descriptions (magic items are terribly described in G1), shouldn't be seen as something that really detracts from Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, which is a truly excellent adventure location.  It has a real keyed dungeon, but retains the vaguely siege like concept of Temple of the Frog, making it not strictly an exploration adventure, and much more a mission oriented combat infiltration, but it's a fine model both because of its logical consistency and openness to player ingenuity. Too many adventures and GMs don't trust the players, but in my experience players will rise to challenges that one presents, and Steading of the Hill Giant Chief presents a serious set of problems with several potential solutions. 
Gustav Dore - an illustration from Gargantua and Pantagruel
When in doubt for fantasy illustrations - go Dore.
Strangely (and perhaps serendipitously) Wizard’s of the Coast has attempted to update G1 (along with G2-G3, Hidden Shrine of Tamochen and Tomb of Horrors) in its recent Fifth Edition adventure tome Tales from the Yawning Portal.  Having looked through the ‘upgraded’ version it retains some of the good aspects of Gygax’s original and removes some of the obvious errors (such as the kill giants or die hook), while largely keeping close to the original.

However, one also sees the inherent weaknesses’ of WTOC’s fifth edition style of GMing shining through.  Random encounters are retained but neutered of their randomness by becoming a GM ‘pick and choose’ rather than truly random.  Likewise the level of characters expected and the number of giants has been changed dramatically (increased and cut by ⅔), but this may be representative of giants being increasingly dangerous in later editions. Captives (a major theme in the Against the Giants adventures) are not NPCs with PC stats in the 5th edition version, but like everything else become a type of monster - an  NPC 8th level Dwarven fighter becomes a Dwarf Veteran for example.  This seems indicative of a misunderstanding of why these NPCs populate Gygax’s modules - they are replacement characters, because player characters are expected to die, something that fifth edition refuses to countenance. These and other changes are relatively minor, but in a desire to upgrade the adventure to modern norms the writing has become less terse, and interesting elements (such as treasures appearing on the altar in the ‘Weird Temple’ after it curses characters) have been removed in favor of more descriptive text (which is almost universally bland).  Still the yawning Portal version of G1 is a faithful enough reproduction and the soul of useful brevity compared to most WoTC adventures.

My own changes would be slightly different.

First the setting is so vaguely sketched into G1, but it’s there and it needs to be teased out a bit more to make things properly evocative.  The Hill Giant steading is a balance between two common stock communities - the barbarian ‘meadhall’ and the cannibal ‘hillbilly’ clan compound.  One can easily push it in either direction, depending on how one sees Hill Giants.  Certainly the Hill Giant of the 5th edition (and perhaps the Monster Manual) is driven by gluttony and seems like something out of “The Hills Have Eyes” more than a Fomorian of Celtic myth.  This second idea, Hill Giants as oversized classical celtic with monstrous table manners is closer to the 1978 G1.  Giants cover everything in furs and love decorative jewelry, living in a hall as an extended clan, the warrior elite lording over their captives and servants.  The little art in G1 straddles these two conceptions as well, with giants clad in furs, or sometimes dressed in 19th century looking prairie dresses and depending on one’s campaign going in either direction could be very fun. Personally if I were to run Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, I’d run it in my Fallen Empire setting and focus fully on the cannibal inbred clan idea - with the Hill Giants a fallen lodge of rural nobility who have warped themselves into imbecility and horrendous size, but still love the excess, debauch and glittering jewels of the ancient world.  Their manor would be decaying marble, shored up and expanded with tree trunks, and half sunk into a hillside, caulked with brown and green moss, dripping amid a coniferous forest that has long overgrown the manor’s supporting fields and homesteads.

More particularly, to make G1 useful I’d want to expand on the order of battle and battle plan ideas that Gygax hints at.  A list of every monster in the Steading and its HP is something a GM will likely need as it seems probable that the party will end up waging a guerrilla campaign against the giants, assassinating them one or two at a time until something goes wrong.  If the party marches to the steading gate and declares hostile intent how will the 50 plus giant enemies within the Steading form up and fight?  How will they defend against likely stratagems - will the chief order patrols?  Will the Giants panic at fire or magical illusions?  What happens if the party infiltrates the Steading and waits until the Giants are all very drunk or asleep?

Second, the map of the second level feels small - this is a standard issue in Gygax adventures with disparate areas and rival factions, but the underground prison cellar of the giants can easily be expanded so that the orc rebels and naturalistic caverns (I really do like the carrion crawler cavern as sort of a place where there will always be the creepy things - something 5E disposes of) can be pushed off the existing tiny map down a few twisty natural caverns.  Likewise the ancient temple, which works better if the Giants are a decadent family lost to dark magic anyhow.

Expanding the dungeon (if only geographically) also suggests expanding the world around the Steading, including the marches that the Giants hold under their sway.  This not only provides more context for the eventual encounter with the Giants, but gives the players more room to work, and helps answer "what happens if the players decide to fight the Giants in the open field?"  While of course the party is likely to lose that conflict, I can see a guerilla campaign against the Giants for a significant amount of time resulting in victory should the players fail in their initial infiltration.

It’s interesting that I can review G1-Steading of the Hill Giant Chief as if it was a contemporary adventure.  That more than anything suggests its quality, and really it's one of the few Gygax pieces that has much in the way of evocative setting. It might not be a perfect adventure, and it might be a little dry by modern standards, but more then Temple of the Frog or Tomb of Horrors it's an early adventure that you can use at your table.


  1. I'm not sure you really understand what WotC is going for with NPC's. The change from fully-statted "PC's" is about ease of use. Statting an NPC as a monster initially doesn't mean you can't use them as a PC later. It's just cutting down on a bunch of stuff that you don't need to have for a PC. And it's a damn welcome change, compared to the level of difficulty involved in introducing an NPC in most previous versions of D&D.

    1. Well 5E stats everything that isn't a PC out as a monster. So rescued prisoners aren't NPCs they're monsters that will fight with you, making them much harder to swap in as PCs. I also think it has this aesthetic sensibility that the PCs are the only real characters in the world - it makes some sense system wise but it ruffles my feathers.

  2. Nice look at the adventure.

    G1 isn't that tough, though - the times I've run it, people just find the fest hall and dump area-effect spells like Fireball and Cloudkill on it and then charge it. It's a straight-up fight, it really doesn't need a lot of subtlety to solve at the suggested level of the adventure.

    Still good stuff, though.

    1. I agree that the module is probably a bit too easy for its recommended levels, making a straight-up mass melee too viable of an option. Presumably at the dawn of AD&D characters were a bit weaker and players a bit less tactically sophisticated than they became later. One option to restore balance is to make the giants tougher, but I think a more interesting one is to open the adventure to lower-level characters. The module recommends a large party averaging 9th level. Perhaps sending a group of 6-7th level characters in instead they'll find it appropriately difficult.

  3. When my big AD&D group played G1 they played it smart and ran it like an inflitration mission and eventually a revolt from within using the orcs and ogres to aid the eventual big fight. They had briefly considered bombing the heck out of it with spells but didn't want to kill captives or destroy loot.

  4. The thought about simply making the underground portion more spread out is very sound. I wonder how many old school oddities are simply the result of needing to fit things on a single page or gatefold?

    1. I suspect a lot - though I don't think it's the issue of fitting it on the page, but drawing it by hand on a single sheet of graph paper. Even if the final release versions weren't done that way, I'm sure the maps they were using were.