Friday, January 15, 2010

High Level Adventures

Welp, I'm back at the Four Spoons trying to get "back to normal," but it's been three days and I'm still coughing. I don't THINK I have the "swine flu" and it doesn't feel as bad as my semi-annual bouts with bronchitis, but for a chest cold it sure is hanging on something fierce. Although the two weeks of steady, pouring rain certainly hasn't helped any.

I'm a bit frustrated with myself right now. No, not my physical health, but my almost complete and utter lack of writing. I've had tons of time time to use my computer (with three days totally for myself last weekend and having another two days off work this week with illness) and I haven't used that time for any work on my GQ1 module (the adventure module I intend to include with the B/X Companion). Yes, we have gone beyond the "sharpening the axe" is time to sit down and type it up.

Hell, I've made more progress on it during lunch breaks at work (about 2.5 pages written), than at home (0 pages written). That's ugly.

But I chalk it up to being an undisciplined writer. Waiting for bouts of inspiration to hit just means writing blog posts. As I learned while writing the B/X Companion, I need to just sit down and do it, every day, whether I "feel like it" or not. Oh...and outlines help, too.

ANYWAY...I have been feeling under the weather, and I'll try to pull it together a bit when I get home today. In the meantime, I've been reading (or re-reading) a couple old modules that I have never run as a DM, nor played as a player.

H2: The Mines of Blood and H4: The Throne of Bloodstone have been on my shelves for a few years now and have never been me anyway. I believe I picked up H2 myself from a used game shop/bookstore. H4 I got from my old pal, Ben (twin brother of Mike/"Keldern" and best bud of Michael/"Aristobulus," both of whom I've mentioned before). I know that Ben ran this module for Mike and Michael (maybe a couple others) as part of a semi-long campaign in high school that started with T1-T4 and ended with the whole H series. I don't remember exactly why I acquired H4 from him (besides my obvious interest in TSR modules designed for characters level 18-100) nor why I didn't bother to get H1-H3, though its possible he only owned H2 and H4 and I borrowed both. As this was years ago, I honestly don't remember all the circumstances surrounding my acquisition.

The "H" in the H-series stands for "high level gaming" and actually delves into the same realms my B/X Companion does...ruling/managing a dominion, mass combat, planes-hopping. Of course, being AD&D it is limited to the cosmology of that game system, and also (being AD&D) requires the purchase of a number of additional game supplements to use at its full potential, namely Battlesystem, the Manual of the Planes, the Dungeoneer and Wilderness Survival Guides, the Unearthed Arcana, all three Monster Manuals...whew! That's a lot of paper sitting on the table!

On the other hand, in some ways the H series (written by my less-than-favorite designer Doug Niles in conjunction with Michael Dobson) is the culmination of any long-running AD&D campaign. By the time your players' characters have reached those lofty levels needed to embark on a grand quest against Orcus, Lord of the Undead, you're game (at least if you were playing in the 80s and buying TSR's books) would probably have dipped into a little of each of these extra tomes and systems. At least, one would probably own them (I stopped buying...and stopped the utterly forgettable Dungeoneer Survival Guide, which is probably why I missed the H series, the Forgotten Realms, Planescape, etc., etc.).
Allow me to quote for a moment from the introduction to H4:
Although the Dungeon Masters Guide provides that a character of sufficient level can build a castle, hire an army, and set himself (or herself) up as a proper medieval ruler, the rules given for accomplishing this are not sufficient to allow ruling and role-playing to go together. Instead, high-level characters who become rulers are normally considered "retired" from adventuring...more often, players avoid the burden of rulership altogether, preferring to maintain their high-level characters as freelance adventurers, ready to move onto the next dungeon, carrying their treasure in their backpacks or in the saddlebags of their their mounts, or in a convenient magical chest that neatly avoids the issue of encumbrance altogether.
It has been our feeling for a long time that there is a lot more that can be done with characters who become rulers. The Bloodstone Pass saga is our attempt to show that high-level AD&D game play can be qualitatively, as well as quantitatively, different from low- and medium-level play -- and just as exciting.
All of which I could have probably cribbed for my introduction to my B/X Companion book.
So the real question the modules deliver on this promise? Well as usual, it's a bit of a mixed bag.
I only have two of the four modules for the series, and so I judge them as individual modules rather than as a whole series. I really wish I had H3 as from the introduction in H4 it appears there may have been more opportunity for making alliances and negotiating trade routes (real issues of dominion rulership) inherent to that particular adventure. Unfortunately, I only have the 2nd and 4th modules of the series to judge.

Of the two, I prefer H2 to H4. Although not perfect, I find H2 holds more to its "high level gaming" promise than H4 AND at the same time forgoes a lot of things H4 does that I really dislike.

While H2: The Mines of Bloodstone has little to do with the running of the barony (later kingdom of Bloodstone) at least it provides a real, high level adventure for for high level characters. The characters explore the mines, what have become a legendary, demon-haunted dungeon. They find an underground civilization (the duergar), ally with a 2nd civilization (the svirfneblin) and fight (or start) a tremendous underground war that has repercussions for both the civilizations beneath and above the surface. They invade an immense stronghold of evil (the duergar temple of Orcus) and shut down a magic gate that might otherwise allow Orcus himself into the prime plane. Assuming all goes well, one character gets to marry the baron's daughter and take over the barony.

That's a pretty good high level adventure.

My gripes with it are still there: the mines are bit of a rip-off of Tolkien's Moria (a lot of these modules are rips from Tolkien...the witch-king, the all-seeing eye, the mines, the white flower tree that grows from the gemstone at the end of the series, etc.) and the duergar/svirfneblin conflict seems a pastiche of the drow/svirfneblin (and the duergar cavern has many echoes of the Vault of the Drow). The final encounter is contrived, rather than timed or inherent on any actions of the player characters...and of course, I'd prefer my adventure to start with the characters already ruling their own dominions.

I also have a bit of disdain for the whimsical puns and silliness...St. Sollars of the Lone Star and Yellow Rose in his fortress of "Al-Amo" really grates on my nerves, as does the halfling community with the "road of yellow brick" winding through it.

But whatever...for an adventure for 18th level mercenary-types, H2 is a pretty decent adventure, fairly challenging adventure.

I especially like the open-endedness of the adventure. It does not assume the adventurers were successful in the first module, and it explains what happens if they fail to succeed at the (contrived) final encounter. It does operate under the assumption that all the characters are heroic goody-good types, but there's room for a more neutral or evil party to participate (though they may have a slightly harder time with some encounters). Hey, even the "princess" NPC is a druid (thus True Neutral in alignment) so who's to say she might not fall for a Chaotic or Evil player character with a high charisma?

H4: The Throne of Bloodstone is much less satisfactory. While the monsters faced are certainly "killers" (demon princes and hordes of high-powered demons, dragons, and undead) the whole 90+ pages (!!!) of the module seems like no more than a glorified step-and-fetch. The characters have to face the lich-king (and have to sneak into his castle themselves rather than march on him in open battle...basically a mini-dungeon crawl). The characters are tasked with destroying Orcus's wand (by none other than the Texan St. Sollars). They plane-hop a number of layers of the Abyss till they find the correct portal (from a C.S. Lewis type "well world"), fight (or sneak) their way to Orcus's throne room, get the wand, then go back to Sollars, who sends 'em to the platinum dragon, who teleports them into Tiamat's lair (!!!) to kill her and dissolve the wand, then teleports them back, then sends 'em back to the Prime Plane.

Fairly linear and boring, to my mind. Not to mention that the wand (and Orcus and Tiamat) will all "regenerate in 100 years or so" so there's no actual lasting effect to the campaign world should the PCs succeed. There's no cleverness or innovation that's required to win through the module, no riddles or mysteries to solve, just good tactics and dice rolls (I guess!). Hell, there isn't even a place for using the Battlesystem in this module (except for a particularly one-sided battle at the end with the witch-king's decimated, leaderless forces...and I'd simply default to the suggested "wrap-up narration" rather than running the battle).

I find nothing particularly "high level" about H4, aside from the average hit dice of monsters faced. But challenging demigods on their own planes should be pretty suicidal for PCs least if the demigods are played properly. I've only run Q1 once, and the sole survivor of the brush with Lolth ended up imprisoned and tortured in a rather awful Prometheus-style punishment for many months afterwards. And THAT particular character was of a power level greater than any of the (non-100 level) pre-gens included with H4.

Anyway, there are bits and pieces of interest in these modules, but I doubt I'll ever run them in the future (certainly not H4), at least not in their present form. H2 might be adaptable as a B/X Companion-level adventure, though...maybe.

1 comment:

  1. Re: H1 and H3: You're not missing much. H3's dominion management is mostly railroady events, and one all-trap dungeon lifted almost verbatim from an early issue of Dragon ("The Assassin's Run"). I ran all four back in high school, and PCs of appropriate levels bypassed nearly all of H3 with marginally smart high-level play. H1 is the most rewarding of the series, though (major drawback) it relies heavily on Battlesystem to resolve key plot points. The traveling circus in H1 is a great set-piece, really better than anything else in the four modules.