Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Killing Gods, Part 3

All right, let's get this finished up...I've got other things to blog about: secret D&D languages, the uses of audible glammer, maybe even a run at "reviewing" Ravenloft (that was a pseudo-request). Buckle up, folks...this entry might be a looong one.
; )

When it comes to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game, there are two inspiring sages that act as my guiding lights, two pole stars by which I steer my ship. They are Alexis Smolensk and Anthony Huso. There are other blogs that I read (and podcasters I listen to), but in the main, these two are the only external forces shaping my outlook on the game. If I had to name one more, Gary Gygax would, I suppose come in a distant third place. 

[does it seem strange to folks that Gygax isn't the brightest star in my AD&D firmament, despite being responsible for the game's existence? There is some precedent. I have it from strong authorities that Jesus is only the third-most important figure in shaping the Roman Catholic Church; the main individuals responsible for our religion (and, thus, all other Christian denominations descended from the western Church) are St. Paul (not even one of the Twelve!) and Thomas Aquinas]

Anyway, don't shake your head at me, Dear Reader; I have my reasons.

Longtime readers of my blog are surely well-acquainted with Alexis, I've mentioned the guy often enough. Huso, on the other hand, has a small enough presence on the internet (his web site has only been around since 2018) that while I'm certain I've mentioned him, he may have well fallen through the cracks of people's perceptions. He is an AD&D aficionado of the deepest stripe, and his blog deals at great length and fair eloquence with that specific rule set, the edition of D&D he's been running for his table since 2014 when he chucked his Pathfinder game for good. It is excellent reading.

However, that's not the reason I mention the man. In my last post on the subject of killing gods, I cited several published adventures of recent years that involved physical confrontations with gods, godlike beings, and pseudo-godlings, all of which were aimed at the low level adventuring party. I explained that I don't find these particularly reasonable, given the parameters of the D&D game as designed. My feeling is that D&D provides at least some guidelines (based in both instructional text and example adventure modules of the earliest origin) for how one ought to proceed with such scenarios and, baby, these ain't it. For me, it's a grating trend and, perhaps, even a disturbing one...there seems to be an aversion to high level D&D play while (at the same time) a longing for high stakes, epic adventure of the type that rightly belongs in the realm of high level characters.

Mr. Huso doesn't share this aversion (he's blogged his thoughts on high level campaign play...more than once) and has demonstrated how one might actually write a "god-killing adventure" with an absolutely exquisite book, a masterwork entitled Dream House of the Nether Prince. It is a lavish piece of art, as well as a fiendish, evocative adventure. It is, as far as I can determine, the single best gaming product I've purchased NEW for D&D since the reissue of the AD&D manuals a few years back. It may be the coolest pre-written adventure I've purchased since the 1980s. Certainly the best since Bruce Cordell's Return to White Plume Mountain (that was published in 1999), making it my favorite for at least the last 20 years.  

Yet I can't...well, I won't...review the thing. Because I haven't played it...I haven't experienced it. I can review a movie or a piece of music, but I can't give a true review of an adventure that I haven't run, because until I do run it, I can't say for certain if it's excellent or horrible or lost in translation from text to table. And there's just no way for me to run the thing at this point.

Huso's Dream House wasn't written for me...or (probably) for you, either. He wrote it for his own players, as a capstone adventure to finish seven years of AD&D play. It is a suitably epic dungeon, a mission to a massive fortress located in the Abyss, a refuge and "vacation palace" for Orcus, demon prince of the undead. The adversaries present in the adventure are truly staggering. The treasure to be looted is absolutely mind-blowing. The final confrontation might see PCs battling Orcus or Demogorgon or (perhaps) both. It is beautiful to behold. It is a pleasure to read (if, like me, you're "into demons"). It is suggested that no less than six characters of 14th level even attempt the adventure; Anthony's seven player group brought a party of ten, and many of them died, some in very permanent ways...you can read a summary of their venture on his blog.

It is an excellent example of what is possible with the D&D rules. A 135 page tour-de-force that puts H4: The Throne of Bloodstone (it's closest comparison) to shame. I really, really mean that. Dream House is a masterpiece created more-or-less by a single person, and it makes the entire Bloodstone line of TSR look paltry and hackish by comparison. The difference, however, is understandable when one considers Huso's book to be something lovingly created for his own group of players, not something churned out for the masses at a time when the company was just trying to stay afloat business-wise. I suspect a lot of people will balk at spending $50 (the price of its POD hardcover) for a niche product of a niche hobby, especially given its limited use in many (most?) campaigns.

Why limited? Because, despite a lot of excellent info on demons and a lot of new/unique monsters and treasures, the adventure is written for the type of adventuring group that most DMs simply don't have. There are no pre-generated characters included with the thing, and I can see why: because just handing someone a character sheet with a 15th level paladin or wizard won't make the player a savvy veteran of the kind needed to navigate this level of challenge. A group with years of experience working together in cooperation would find it a rough go of it...but then, they ARE tackling a unique demonic god in its lair. Such scenarios should be limited, niche, and incredibly difficult. 

Gygax was the first person to put encounters with gods into published adventures: the Elder Elemental (in G1 and G3), Blibdoolpoolp (in D2), and Lolth (in D3). There are two things that all these have in common:
  1. These encounters are all potential in nature; none of these encounters with godlings are mandated, and all may be avoided. 
  2. The adventures in which they are found are the pinnacle of what I call "hard core" Dungeons & Dragons. The novice ("N") series are clearly for beginning players. The intermediate ("I") series are fine for any group already versed in the game (i.e. players that know how to play and cooperate). The special ("S") series are random, rule breaking adventures, that provide enough weirdness to stymie experienced players or give novices a "puncher's chance." But the six modules that make up the G-D series are absolutely punishing adventures, any one of which will TPK a party that fails to operate at a high level of strategic play. 
And I find it fascinating how those godling encounters "ramp up" over the course of the series. In the G modules, the most a party might expect to encounter is an eye or tentacle that will drive a PC insane or drag them screaming to oblivion. In D2, a PC might actually encounter the goddess (on her own home turf) and might be able to treat with or bargain. In D3, the party has a chance to confront a goddess on their own plane, with the potential for actual combat and the possible destruction of her avatar. This is no naga masquerading as a god (as in N1: Against the Cult of the Reptile God)...Lolth is the real deal

These scenarios work within the parameters and expectations of D&D play. A party of mid-level adventurers...and to me, 8th to 10th is still only (high) "mid-level"...should not be confronting creatures of godlike power. The encounters in G3 and D2 are more in line with "traps:" really rough traps that are best avoided.  Only in D3 (an adventure for characters of level 10-14) should a confrontation with a demon queen be possible, and only in the most limited of circumstances: outside her home plane, away from the bulk of her power base. Again, Lolth is not the point of the module; exploring the Vault and dealing with the threat of the Eilservs clan is. The goddess might even be a potential ally given the transgressions of Eclavdra and her ilk, though this is not an explicit suggestion of the module.

But again, it is in adventures like these that we see the power and majesty of the D&D game. In the first part of this series I wrote how, of all the sword & sorcery fantasy that influenced D&D, only Leiber and Moorcock display their protagonists in actual interaction with divinities. PCs allying themselves with Lolth, bargaining for leniency from Blibdoolpoolp, or being used as pawns by Orcus (in Huso's book) all exemplify scenes one reads in those S&S fantasies...and while a divinity being willing to treat with mortals speaks to the fallibility (and vulnerability) of the divinity in question, it is really only those characters with world-shaking power (like Elric) who have the capability to bring actual destruction to such entities.

And this is of particular importance to the default setting of Dungeons & Dragons, because under the terms of the game, these are no "false gods." These demon queens and princes are gods that are worshipped, that are followed by devout clerics, and to whom they may bestow spells. And yet they are not safe from destruction! Player characters thus have the power to alter the cosmology of the campaign  setting and impact the reality of the game world in drastic ways. What happens to the Drow clerics of Lolth if Lolth is destroyed on her home plane? Do they cease to be a threat altogether? Doubtful, but her death (if achieved) will surely change Drow culture at a fundamental level.

That's the opposite of de-protagonizing players. 

And that, perhaps, is what I find lacking about some of these other OSR offerings that involve encounters with deities, quasi- or otherwise. There's a certain sort of "enforced smallness" that comes along with placing PCs in situations in which they are absolutely, hopelessly outclassed by a power beyond mortal comprehension. It should be hard for the PCs to even encounter such a being. Barring a long and arduous journey through miles of hostile environment and unnumbered foes to the god's most sacred (and well-guarded) temple, nothing short of a complicated ritual/sacrifice should allow access to such a being on the Prime Material Plane. And as bodily travel to the outer planes is generally outside the reach of low-mid level characters, such encounters should be an extremely rare and wondrous thing...if possible at all.

Okay...perhaps one more post on the subject (to conclude) is needed.


  1. That is a damn fine example of a good adventure and a good analysis of the different adventure series as a whole. You have stirred my interest good sir, and this denunciation of counterfeit deities might yet yield fruits. I await the Conclusion with baited breath!

  2. >There's a certain sort of "enforced smallness" that comes along with placing PCs in situations in which they are absolutely, hopelessly outclassed by a power beyond mortal comprehension.

    There is a powerful impulse in the LotFP/DCC wing of the OSR to turn Dungeons & Dragons into Call of Cthulhu, and I hate it.

    1. But is it an authentic impulse? Or is it just a habitual style?

      Lovecraft was a great influence on the early hobby: Lovecraft appears in both Appendix N and Moldvay's suggested reading lists. For some of us (myself included) the sheer deletion of the Cthulhu mythos from the original DDG created a powerful pull towards that material...and there's no denying that it fits much of D&D's tropes (including ancient subterranean ruins and secret, lost societies of evil and inhuman nature).

      In the end, however, I must stand by my conclusion that D&D is supposed to be heroic "adventure fantasy" and not horror of the masochistic variety. Players are supposed to struggle against and OVERCOME eldritch horrors, not be grist for the gore-soaked mill. Yes, there is a CHANCE that a wizard will be driven insane by treating with some elder power, but it is not a CERTAINTY...and simply beholding such terrors is (generally) not enough to permanently boggle the mind of the stout hearted PC.

      No, in the final estimation, D&D is certainly not CoC.

    2. "...grist for the gore-soaked mill."

      Love that, hoss!

    3. I think it is vital to have a clear idea of what level, modifiers and stuff means.

      I remember reading a rant about the guy in the gym fallacy, where people ranted about how the already underpowered martial class was being hamstrung by GM insisting they do not do anything RL possible while letting wizards do the same thing because magic. Barbarian cannot hack through that stone door but wizard can cast fireball just fine. Fighter breaks his legs jumping off the building but wizard feather falls.

      I am pretty sure a level 20 fighter vs captain America would not be in cap favor, because mythical heroes are a lot stronger than RL, maybe it chi, different laws of physics, the fact there so much interbreeding that everyone is part dragon and god should one looks back far enough.

  3. Nice post. Just before Covid, I ran a group through D1-3... a bit fast tracked (maybe 10-12 sessions). The encounter with Lolth in her underdark temple resulted in the players realizing they were outclassed, unprepared and not coordinating well... with a hasty retreat out of the vault and to the surface... with almost half their party dead, or worse.

    Glad I sparked interest in an I6 Ravenloft review, but at your leisure, and only if you feel inspired. I'm particularly interested in whether you think the Hickman's really started the "Adventure Path" with this module (and maybe DL to follow). I personally don't think so... there's plenty of freedom and opportunity for player agency in I6. I think the trick is to minimize the forcing stories that some of the Madame Eva Tarot readings drive, and also treating the castle as a funhouse. To that end, I am curious rather than just a critique, what ideas you would propose to make the module play more player-centric while hopefully maintaining the gothic vibe. I liked a lot of the suggestions from Dungeons of Signs blogpost you shared.

    1. GusL is a pretty sharp guy; his reviews often have thoughts I've never considered (or things I outright missed).

      But I'll dig out my old copy of I6 and take a gander...and sooner rather than later.

      RE D3

      Do you know if EGG ever ran D3 himself, perhaps in play-testing, and what (if anything) he considered a valid objective or respectable goal for an adventuring party? The module introduction is...well, if you went solely by THAT, one might assume the party is on a mission of genocide, a fairly impossible prospect given the size and militarization of the Vault. Just wondering if YOU had any insight.

    2. No idea about EGG and D3. But as a young man, I don't think I could extrapolate from Gary's description of the Drow culture and the Vault, to see it clearly as an adventure site with the possibilities for political intrigue. Sad to say, but the Drizzt novels which I read decades ago revealed the possibilities of extended gameplay in the underdark. However, city adventures requires a set of players who enjoy that kind of gameplay... and to truly play up the horrid aspects of the vault doesn't work with good aligned characters or players who are squeamish (Demonic evil, torture, etc.). I set up the background for Vault inter-family intrigue on the way down through D1 and D2, but by the time we got there, we were pretty ready to bring the show to a climax. So after a few in-Vault encounters, I let the players beeline to the inner city and straight to the temple.
      Also, genocide was never the objective for the party (and would have been suicide). I set it up as an info gathering insertion... what was paramount was learning as much about the evil forces making forays to the surface and come back with info.
      I was happy with the success of my D3 fast track... everyone wanted to experience it, but there was no way we could invest many months of game sessions to exploring the Vault. I was happy for the chance to have the players experience more viscerally what the drow city was all about. I had one experienced player who had never read the module and thought the Vault was supposed to be a treasure room!
      There are times you need to adjust your game to the needs, tendencies and availability of your player group. Part of the DM art.

    3. Agreed on all counts (except the Drizzt novels...haven’t read them).

      Ha! Never thought of “vault” like treasure vault but that’s a perfectly logical assumption to make. Hope he wasn’t too disappointed!
      ; )

  4. When I first saw D3 (with the purple monochrome cover), I thought the Vault was a treasure vault as well. As for what the PCs are supposed to do in the Vault, when I ran it they were expected to mess up Eilservs as much as possible and bring back intel about the Drow. Invading the Fane was not expected, and if the PCs gathered enough intel they would see that doing so would help the faction they were supposed to harm. Of course, they often enough ended up at the Fane anyway, usually manipulated by Eilservs.