Saturday, November 28, 2009

Scourge of the Slave Lords (Part 1)

I am not a fan of "supermodules." Hell, I even passed on a copy of GDQ1-7: Queen of the Spiders just yesterday, even though it was rated "the greatest adventure of all time" by Dungeon Magazine. Of all the supermodules TSR ever published, I've only ever owned two, and only one of those did I purchase. The only one I still retain in my possession is on "permanent loan" from an old buddy and it is T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil. As it is the only known version of the Temple, I will probably continue to retain it, although I find it fairly unwieldy to use (and have actually only ever used it to run the Village of Hommlet...whadya' know).

The one supermodule I actually purchased I did so at a time when I thought the idea of supermodules had merit, and that was A1-4: Scourge of the Slave Lords. At the time, I got it, TSR was no longer putting out the A series of modules, and as I only owned A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, I figured the only way I would ever be able to run the entire series was to grab the supermodule when I had a chance. Sadly, I somehow managed to lose it (it's probably in bowels of my mother's cellar somewhere) before ever actually finishing a read through. Those supermodules were the equivalent of...well, of most slickly produced commercial RPGs on the market...too thick and weighty to actually get through. Give me a normal, under-30 page adventure module any day of the week.

So now I find myself typing at the computer with a small stack of modules next to me...the entire A series. In order they are:

A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity by David Cook
A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade by Harold Johnson with Tom Moldvay
A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords by Allen Hammack
A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords by Lawrence Schick

And I've had a week or so to read each of 'em in turn. So where to start?

Well, the first thing that jumps out at me is the fact that they were each authored by a different individual authors. And yet they're all fairly coherent. They were all written for a single Gen Con convention (Gen Con XIII in 1980, per the introductory notes of each). How exactly does that get done?

I mean who called the shots for Gen Con in 1980? Was Gygax acting as overlord (or "Dungeon Master") at TSR, setting outlines for "the minions" to write up an immense four-part saga to pit players from all over the country against each other in a timed, scored event?

I certainly don't know...I ain't a historian. And yet, I don't see much chatter on the blogs regarding this particular series. It certainly must have been a wild Con to have such a huge series of modules that people were playing in...I can only imagine gamers from different tables (players and DMs alike) comparing notes between did you deal with such-and-such? Wow, did that cloaker wipe out YOUR party, too? Man, my DM was a bastard...etc.

For me, a four-module series like this is pretty much a mini-campaign...and I mean "campaign" in every sense of the term, seeing as how the series is pretty much a military exercise against a vicious and well-organized opposing force. It is much more like G1-3 than any other series of modules...players know who their opponent is and have been tasked with wiping them out. There is no "hidden enemy" (Drow). There is no supernatural force behind everything (Lolth). The forces that have set the campaign in motion are hoping for some very mundane, real-world results...stop raiding our towns and kidnapping our people for use as slaves!

Heck, it walks a line that is almost "heroic" in that regard...though certainly, the powers-that-be may have hired scurrilous rogues of the worst kind for the mission. At least they are not being told to finish the job or their heads will roll (like the Desert of Desolation or the Giant series). Hopefully, they're getting paid well for their efforts.

Anyway, tying four modules by four different authors together for a single tournament in a single year is a pretty amazing accomplishment. Even the GDQ series took took several years to complete (Queen of the Demonweb Pits not being published till 1980, two years after the G and D series), and in some ways with less detail than any of the Slaver series. Oh sure, the G modules had encapsulated dungeons, but the D modules have huge swaths of "go ahead and make this up for yourself" areas. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. But as a training series (and my own personal experience with adventure modules is that they provide training for "how to craft an adventure") the A's are a better introductory type adventure than the GDQ series.

And in many ways a better introduction of how D&D can be played as in, a teaching aid to new players.

I'll explain what I mean by that in a little bit...

Oh, by the way...any readers who want to comment on their own experience with the A series...either at the 1980 Gen Con or more recently, please feel free. I've only ever run A1 myself and would be interested in folks' recollections...unlike, say, Tomb of Horrors or Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the Slaver series doesn't get a lot of blog time least not that I've read. Thanks!

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