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.
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:
- These encounters are all potential in nature; none of these encounters with godlings are mandated, and all may be avoided.
- 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.