Saturday, November 28, 2009

Scourge of the Slave Lords (Part 4)

[continued from here]

And finally we come to the 4th and last module in the Slaver series, the whole reason I decided I wanted to write about these four modules, A4:In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, written by Lawrence Schick (author of the excellent S2:White Plume Mountain, of which much has been written) and largely illustrated by Erol Otus (again, of whom much has been written). So let me ask straight off the bat:

Were Schick and Otus the "cool kids of school" in the TSR workplace?

'Cause I'm reading through this thing and it feels a lot like the whole was mainly brainstormed from their minds, probably developed while dropping 'shrooms or smoking a fat joint and listening to Grace Slick sing about the White Rabbit.

No really...mushroom people that work with fungal alchemy and sit in bonding circles while sharing a group hallucination? The mechanics of the thing is one issue, but the Otus's psychedelic artwork is positively inspiring...which came first in this vision, Schick's words or Otus's drawings? I can't help but thing they did it together building off each other's craziness.

Not to take anything away from Jim Roslov, whose art I love and which is present throughout the module, but you'll notice the treasure of the Slave Lords includes a drawing by Ool Eurts (an obvious anagram), not Mr. Roslov. Schick and Erol are in cahoots, folks.

Well, maybe more on that in a bit. Let's talk about the adventure itself.

I can't for the life of me remember where I was (recently) reading about NOT allowing your players to be captured. How this was a VERY BAD THING. It was in some recent RPG I picked up, or perhaps an adventure supplement, but I can't seem to find the reference anywhere...perhaps it was in a book I was thumbing through (like the Serenity RPG) that I didn't actually purchase.

ANYWAY, the gist of this game's advice was to never have players captured, that capturing players was WORSE than killing them...that at least if they died, they could always make new characters. Capturing player characters is a method of de-protagonizing them after all...cutting their balls off, so to speak.

I wonder if that game designer ever had a chance to play A4:In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords.

For those that haven't read, played, or heard about A4 here's how it starts: the player characters are captured, knocked out, stripped of all possessions (including clothing) and left in a lightless, underground cavern complex. Even the spellcasters are left without spells.

Let me quote Schick's take on the whole "capture" thing:

Many players think of their characters in terms of their powers and possessions, rather than as people. Such players will be totally at a loss for the first few minutes of play. It is likely they will be angry at the DM for putting them in such an "unfair" situation. They will demand or beg concessions. DO NOT GIVE THEM ANY HELP, even if they make you feel sorry for them, Inform the players that they must rely on what they have, not what they used to have, and that this includes their brains and their five senses. Good players will actually welcome the challenge of this scenario....

...To escape, the player characters will have to make the best of the opportunities offered by the contents of the various encounter areas. These opportunities may seem meager to the players at first, but this dungeon contains more than enough material for the players to escape from any of the exits if they have the wits and resourcefulness to recognize and utilize it. However, this module is also a test of the ability of the Dungeon Master! It is a virtual certainty that good players, forced to rely on their own initiative, will attempt to use what they find to do things not covered by the rules. In these situations, it is entirely up to the DM to handle these requests with fairness, objectivity, and imagination.

Hot damn! I wish I'd had this module as a kid. THIS is a perfect example of "challenging the players" rather than the character or stat block. It's also a great example of what is possible with the older editions of D&D.

Schick has created a challenging and exciting adventure that really does force players (including the DM!) to use their wits. There ARE plenty of "found objects" throughout the dungeon that can be used to equip and outfit the characters, as long as the referee uses "fairness, objectivity, and imagination."

But can you imagine how this module would work with D20/Pathfinder? It wouldn't. Unless characters had some sort of "craft spear" skill they're going to be using their fancy feats with bare fists.

And what would they be using those bare fists against? A 3HD badger is plenty tough for 7th level character in AD&D that's fighting naked, but would barely register on the Challenge Rating meter in D20. After all, the whole CR system takes into account PC's "expected equipment for level." They're not supposed to lose their gear. Cries of an "unfair" situation? You bet...'cause D20 ain't designed to challenge the player.

Ah, well...I don't play D3 or 3.5 anymore so it's a non-issue.

Schick has done such an excellent job with this capstone module that I want to play the whole series just to get to A4...psychedelic mushroom folk or not (and by the way, I remember the myconid from the Monster Manual II, but I never used ' I would). I was slightly disappointed that Schick decided to blow up the whole Aerie of the Slave Lords....areas like Dragon Meadow and Drachen Keep were left un-detailed in A3 with the admonishment to keep players from exploring these parts of the map as they'd be "descried in the follow-up module." Instead Schick just covers 'em with lava and magmen and worries about his own little adventure. Which is cool 'cause his adventure is great, but it is a little annoying.

I'm reminded of the Phillip Jose Farmer-edited series The Dungeon, each novel penned by a different author. Author #1 introduced a green-haired love interest for the main protagonist and author #2 killed her off in the 1st chapter or so of the 2nd novel. Which would have been just fine (a series of novels with different authors will naturally evolve different from how the original author intended)...EXCEPT that Author #1 also pens the final novel of the series and has the protagonist once again waxing sadly for his green-haired lady friend...even though no other author has mentioned her in four books.

Fortunately, the Slaver series finishes with a bang and doesn't retread the ground Cook laid down, though I suppose one might consider an exploding volcano to be fairly reminiscent of Schick's own White Plume Mountain ending. Oh, well. Personally, I think that A4 offers something entirely new from other TSR modules of the time, and a real challenge to players, comparable even to the S modules...hell, moreso as players need to think outside the normal boundaries and parameters of the game, not just figure out colored key cards or riddles.

It's too bad there're no monks or assassins in B/X play...I'm afraid conversion of the slaver series would be exceptionally difficult much as I'd like to do it. Maybe I'll need to dust off my old AD&D books.
; )


  1. My biggest complaint with this module is : I've never had a party that played the A series get captured. Parties either got capped way too early to end up in A4 or they kicked but and won.

    I have played it a number of times as a standalone adventure and it's a great challenge and a lot of fun.

  2. During my two-year Pendragon campaign I must have had the PCs get captured at least 3 or 4 times. Partly that's because it's part of the genre (Arthur and his knights are constantly getting captured by evil enchantresses), but also it led to some of the best role-playing of the campaign for exactly the reasons Schick outlines. Finding yourselves powerless, stripped of your usual goodies, it really forces creative thinking and some heavy-duty role-playing. Here's to capturing PCs early and often!

  3. As the finale of a tournament scenario, the 'you've been captured' bit works fine; tournament scenarios often have 'cold starts' to get everything up and running with a minimum of muss and fuss.

    In a regular campaign, having the DM declare the players have been captured by fiat, for the sole sake of 'the story', is something that is going to piss off the players, and rightfully so.

  4. @ Knightsky: but so many modules begin in media res...would you knock them all out because they shoehorn players into an adventure?

    For example: the Desert of Desolation Series (I3-I5) begins with the PCs being kicked into the desert to die...that's pretty much DM fiat right there. Other modules, such as Barrier Peaks (S3) requires the PCs to investigate a particular menace "or don't bother coming back."

    What did the PCs do to land themselves in the predicament? Nothing except having players that wanted an adventure that didn't start in a tavern.

    I suppose for a long-running campaign, you might want to play out every little tiny thing that happens between games, but sometimes you just want to get to the "good stuff" (i.e. "the adventure"). If that adventure starts out be stripped naked and left in a lightless cave well...well, that's pretty brutal, but hopefully it's een properly balanced (A4 sems to be). And sure that's taking a lot on faith, but you've also got to have faith your DM isn't some wanker that surprises your fully equipped party with Asmodeus riding the Tarrasque and backed up by the legions of Hell!

    ; )

  5. It depends on the game in question. I would grudgingly put up with it in a Star Wars campaign. In a Buffy The Vampire Slayer game, that sort of thing can pretty much be par for the course (especially since the players would get extra Drama Points as a result). In a tournament or one-shot D&D adventure, no problem. But in an ongoing campaign, yeah, it's a real piss popsicle.

    And no, I don't care for the opening set-ups for Deserts of Desolation or Barrier Peaks, either. Fortunately, those are both easily changeable into something less craptacular. Dungeons of the Slave Lords is not so easy to get the PC's into without that opening bit of railroading.

  6. Yeah, player captures can either be a really fun dramatic thing, or a huge mess/pain in the ass. There is very little middle-ground between the two (in my experience). If anyone is interested, you can read my views on the subject here

  7. @ Knightsky: Ha! Point taken. In fact, when I used to run a hot and heavy (long term) campaign, I only ever used those railroad modules as "one-offs" with random characters...well, except for that one time....

    @ Rologut: I'll be sure to check it out when I have a chance! Thanks!