Stretch goal cleared! And Against The Giants
A hearty welcome to all the new backers! We've now cleared our second stretch goal. Both How to Write Adventures That Don't Suck and The Adventurers Almanac will both be in hardcover. Awesome!
We are currently calculating future stretch goals. To stay on track to the release date our preference is improvements in "physical print specs." We're working with the printer on costs for things like sewn-in satin ribbon bookmarks, printed endsheets, and other such things. More to come on those as they're finalized.
As you all know by now, this Kickstarter is about writing great adventure modules. The designers involved all took inspiration from the adventure-designers who came before them. As part of the Kickstarter we've asked the contributors to discuss the great adventures that inspired them. Previously we've heard about The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Secret of the Slavers Stockade, Castle Amber, and The Desert of Desolation.
And now, here is Skip Williams (yes, the Sage himself!) to tell us how Against the Giants series shaped his perspective as an adventure designer.
Me Against Nosnra
By Skip Williams
Gary Gygax’s Against the Giants adventure has drawn many accolades over the years, and it remains one of my personal favorites for many reasons, starting with fond memories of sitting down in Gary’s den armed with a character sheer and a fistful of dice. Our group played through the first section, The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, in one long evening. Our party, a mismatched collection of player characters from Greyhawk, the local campaign Gary ran with co-DM Rob Kuntz, trotted off to confront the evil hill giant chieftain Nosnra in his fortified home.
Against the Giants has a reputation for being a true slugfest, and that’s mostly true. The whole adventure offers plenty of challenging—and ultimately very satisfying—fight. Nevertheless, we spent a great deal of time slinking around the stronghold’s upper works. Our scout discovered the sentries entrusted with guarding the front door, drunk and snoring, and we were delighted (and a little nervous) to dispatch those unfortunates quietly and venture into the chambers beyond, probing ahead with a medallion of ESP to get an idea of what awaited us. We avoided the nursery, but tangled with a couple of the residents, including a vicious giantess and a pet cave bear. There was a brief moment of humor when we broke into the chamber belonging to Nosnra’s (unnamed) wife and pawed through her small clothes.
We eventually located an entrance to the stronghold’s dungeons and had a rollicking good time beating up Nosnra’s servants and looting his treasures. We guessed—correctly—that we could make a racket and get away with it. As the evening rolled on, we paid heed to the clock and returned to the upper works to carry the fight to Nosnra himself. That precipitated a running battle with the chieftain and several of his guests. I had the distinct pleasure of laying low a stone giant with a javelin of lightning. All in all, we had a great time ruining Nosnra’s evening.
We wrapped up the action by reflecting on what we had seen: Hill giants working with stone giants and other monsters, and playing around with a magical chain that ultimately provided the link to the other adventures in the series.
In the ensuing months, I had the pleasure of watching the staff at TSR Inc. turn Gary’s manuscript into the company’s first adventure module, and even spent some time proofreading the product.
Over the years, the whole giant series become much more than a pleasant memory of one great night of gaming. It also became my textbook to creating adventures. The series has all the elements I expect from a great adventure:
It has a solid backstory. Nosnra and his fellow giants were part of larger scheme involving the drow cleric Eclavdra and her bid to spread chaos over the world. Eclavdra, it turned out, had links to foul deity Tharizdun.
It has a fully developed site. Nosnra’s hall has a decidedly lived-in feel. Everything in the place is there for a reason. Whether you discover the Steading as a player whose character’s future (or life) is at risk, or as a game master preparing to run the adventure, you immediately get a sense that the place is more than just a setting for a few battles, but a place where life has been going on for awhile.
Not every foe does the optimal thing every time. From the sleeping guards to the raucous party in the great hall, the giants in Nosnra’s hall make a few mistakes that clever players can exploit.
The action isn’t forced. Gary presented a setting that’s ripe for player characters to exploit, but nothing happens until the party gets busy adventuring. Player decisions, not the author’s timeline, are what drive the adventure forward.
Of course, the adventure isn’t quite perfect, especially considering today’s standards:
Encounter descriptions are short, sketchy, and often inconsistent. These days, commercial adventures usually feature carefully structured encounters that make it clear exactly what the player characters perceive when an encounter starts, what motivates their opponents, how the opposition fights, and so on. Gary tossed out a few lines about each encounter using no particular format. The adventure includes a few suggestions about how some of the key baddies act, but the GM is left to sift through the text for each encounter to locate its essential elements and fill in a great many blanks.
The adventure is coy about telling its own story. The great story that takes player characters from Nosnra’s timber hall to the threshold of the drow realms is only very gradually revealed. There are hints here and there, but GMs don’t really get even a hint of what’s truly going on behind the scenes at the Steading. We never get to know who recruited Nosnra for Eclavdra’s scheme or even if the drow cleric or the hill giant chief ever met.
The players’ introduction is appallingly blunt. There’s practically nothing in the manuscript that pulls the player characters into the adventure, just a brief mention that the party has been hired (or impressed) and that the characters face “the headsman’s axe” if they fail to check Nosnra’s activities. Even in 1978, when I first played this adventure, I found myself wondering just whose army the headsman was going to bring along if my efforts were found wanting. These days, any adventure designer will suggest at least a few compelling hooks that will draw player characters in and make players enthusiastic about undertaking an adventure.
I truly believe that my adventures in The Steading of the Hill Giant Chief still resonate each time I sit down to create any role playing adventure.
Skip Williams started running role-playing games in 1975, shortly after meeting a fellow named Gary Gygax. Before long, Skip joined the original TSR, Inc. as a part-time employee and later full time as director of the Gen Con game fair. For many years, Skip penned the Sage Advice column for Dragon magazine, answering questions about game rules and sharing tips and techniques for keeping a campaign running. He’s the co-creator of the D&D 3rd Edition game and an avid miniaturist.