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Friday, 24 January 2014

Against the Slave Lords

It is curious to note that in 2013, a year when there was all but no official support for Dungeons & Dragons, the best support came in the form of nostalgia. Not the ‘new’ nostalgia as seen in the form of the Old School Renaissance, but actual honest to goodness proper nostalgia. Wizards of the Coast made available much of the official Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons back catalogue via dndclassics.com as well as publishing two collections of classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons scenarios. The first was Dungeons of Dread, which compiled S1: Tomb of Horrors, S2: White Plume Mountain, S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. The second was Against the Slave Lords which collated the ‘Aerie’ or ‘A’ SeriesA1: Slavepits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Both were presented as handsome hardback books, but what marks out Against the Slave Lords are the extras that are included in the book. 

The four scenarios began life as the 'AD&D Open Tournament at Gen Con XIII' in 1980. They would each be released in 1980 and 1981, before being collated as Scourge of the Slave Lords in 1986 as the middle part of the super campaign between T1–4 The Temple of Elemental Evil and GDQ1–7 Queen of the Spiders. Set in the World of Greyhawk, the series introduced the Slavers as threat in the setting and to do so, it expanded upon four scenarios that were originally designed to be played in a time frame of just four hours each. Included in each of the four scenarios were those tournament guidelines and a set of six pre-generated adventurers. This shows in the maps in particular, which either come in two versions, one with just those locations used in the tournament, the other with all of the locations; or with the tournament sections marked within the larger map given for the full scenario. 

Designed for play by a party of adventurers of fourth to seventh level, the ‘A’  Series begins with A1: Slavepits of the Undercity. For the past four years, the towns and villages along the coast of the Sea of Gearnet have been beset by the raids of slavers. In response the local lords hire a band of adventurers to investigate and put an end to this menace. An escaped slave has identified a ruined temple in the city of Highport in the Pomarj as one of the stops on the slave trade trail and as the scenario opens, the heroes find themselves standing outside a secret entrance to this temple – which they learned about from an escaped slave – ready to penetrate its dilapidated halls and uncover the first secrets of the Slave Lords. The scenario consists of the ruined temple above ground and the re-purposed sewers beneath it. The ruins above ground are split into two sections, one half of the temple unused (though parts are still patrolled by Orcs), the other half a reworked temple. Below the sewers have been extended into a nest of ant-men and seemingly endless pits of stinking, fermenting refuse.

There is a fundamental flaw with A1: Slavepits of the Undercity, at least as far as the non-tournament version is concerned. The tournament version is a straightforward affair, not to say linear and the accompanying maps reflect this. The non-tournament version is not quite as straightforward and expands greatly upon the rooms and ruins of the temple. In the process, what both the text and the maps lack are connections between various areas of the temple. For example, one of the new areas, currently home to a pair of basilisks, has been blocked off by a brick wall and the text does not describe how it can be accessed. Similarly, as drawn, the non-tournament map of the temple does not show a means by which a party can go from the abandoned area on the one side to the actual temple on the other without exiting the temple complex and walking round the outside to another entrance. Which effectively defeats the initial use of stealth to gain access. This is one element of A1: Slavepits of the Undercity that the DM will need to address before running the scenario.

Overall, A1: Slavepits of the Undercity is a serviceable dungeon/adventure. Given its origins as a tournament scenario, it cannot avoid being linear in structure and play. Nevertheless, it does in places present some challenging tactical situations, most notably the ‘Main Slave Chamber’ where the adventurers must fight over the tops of the slave cages with great care or be tipped into the cages below. 

The opening of the second scenario in the series, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade, has a familiar feel to it. The adventurers find themselves outside a slavers’ base, ready to sneak inside using a route provided by an escaped slave. Despite the repetitive nature of this beginning, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade has a much more rounded feel to it as well more depth and detail. Following a map found below the temple in Highport, the adventurers have located a second slavers outpost, a hillfort deep in the Drachensgrab Hills. The stockade is only a stopping point upon the route used by the slave caravans, so if the adventurers are to learn more, they investigate what lies behind its walls and below its gatehouses and barracks.

In comparison to the first scenario in the series, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade is not only a more coherent adventure, it feels much as if the setting is alive. The stockade is heavily guarded and should its guards be alerted to the adventuring party’s intrusion, they will react accordingly. Much of the scenario is written to that end… What the adventure also includes are more tactical breakdowns of certain locations that give more detail and help support the actions of the various NPCs described in the room entries.

Where A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade disappoints by modern standards, is in its lack of narrative beyond the guards’ possible reaction to the intruding adventurers – at least initially. A closer reading of the scenario reveals that there are events going on at the stockade beyond the arrival of the adventurers, in particular the poor relations between the head of the stockade and her deputy. This may well influence how the DM runs the adventure, but being buried deep in the adventure the information is not as useful. Were the scenario not appearing in reprint, then arguably another edit would have moved this information to the front of the module so as to alert the DM. 

Another issue with A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade is that it does not address solutions to situations that do not involve combat. Much of this is due to ‘A’ Series’ origins as tournament adventures, but there are situations where non-combat solutions should have been given. Most notable of these is an encounter with a ‘Haunt’, the restless spirit of someone who died before it could complete a now unfinished task. What the adventure never really addresses is how this task can be finished except through combat. Still, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade is a solid affair with more to it than A1: Slavepits of the Undercity.

If the tournament origins of the ‘A’ Series have been evident in the first two parts, they are explicit in A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords. Following various slaving parties has led the adventurers deep into the Drachensgrab Mountains where the parties seem to disappear into one mountain… After many days’ search they have located a possible tunnel entrance to the ‘Aerie of the Slave Lords’. These tunnels, or rather this tunnel, basically links a series of linear rooms that feel as if they have been written to deplete the player characters of their resources. This feeling is only exacerbated when the designer does exactly the same for this adventure’s third part.

The adventure’s second part is actually quite interesting and involves far more than combat. Once the adventurers have made their way through the first series of rooms, they find themselves in the ‘Aerie of the Slave Lords’, an island located in a lake that fills the caldera of an extinct volcano. Nearby is where the Slave Lords conduct the slave trade – Suderham, the City of the Nine, above which stands below their fortress, Drachen Keep. The latter is the party’s intended destination, but a direct assault would be foolish, so they must search for an alternate means of entry. In this they have the aid of several other agents of their employers who suddenly appear from nowhere to give the adventurers clues as where they should go… This requires some investigation upon the part of the adventurers and interaction with the inhabitants of the city, which is itself fully detailed.

In the tournament version of A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, this section is all but skipped over. In the full version of the scenario, it is but a necessity, providing a welcome change of pace between the grinding trudge of the beginning and ending dungeons that make up the scenario. In terms of organisation, it would have helped if the information about the agents had been given at the start of the section covering the city. Similarly, it would have been helpful if the information explaining the nature of first dungeon had been given before the start of that dungeon and not at the start of the section detailing Suderham. Then of course, there is that ending...

Now at last we come to the ‘A’ Series’ pièce de résistance, A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. It opens in a most spectacular fashion, with the adventurers lying in the dark without all of their equipment. They have been cast into the caves below the island and must gather the means to aid their escape as well as find their way out. At the end of the tournament version of A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, the adventurers are captured, although in the non-tournament version, their defeating the slave lords is allowed for. Still, if they are cast into the caves below the island, the players will need to be ingenious with what they do have to hand if their characters are to escape. There are plenty of opportunities to gather the means to arm themselves, not all of them involving combat, such as negotiating by very odd means with a tribe of intelligent fungi, the Myconoids.

A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords also comes with a timing mechanism, or at least an implied one, both the ‘dungeon’ and the island being beset by earthquakes which prove to be evidence of an volcanic eruption once the adventurers are free of the caves. This adds a further air of desperation to the adventure as the inhabitants of Suderham attempt to flee the island. The adventurers must find their way through these frantic islanders if they are finally to confront the surviving slave lords on the harbour front.

The issue at the core of the scenario is that the adventure begins with the player characters having their equipment confiscated. Putting aside the fact that the players  never like their ‘toys’ being taken away – let alone disliking getting captured in the first place, one of the challenges to this adventure is that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition is not a game really designed to be played without such equipment and magic items. Later iterations of the RPG possess more flexibility with regard to such a situation, though they might make the situation in this adventure less of a challenge. That said, advice is given on handling both the dark environment of the caves and the discoveries necessary for the characters to equip themselves, but this advice does begin with a surprisingly harsh admonition. A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords is the most mature of the original quartet of scenarios in Against the Slave Lords, pushing at the boundaries of what Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was capable of.

What A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords really provides is a rousing and memorable conclusion to the ‘A’ Series and thus Against the Slave Lords. It is the most focused and most effectively executed of the quartet and the least hampered by the tournament format of the four. 

Of course, whilst Against the Slave Lords primarily consists of the reprint of the ‘A’ Series modules, the compilation actually consists of more than this. To begin with, it includes a new foreward for each of the four modules, written by the original authors. These add an interesting retrospective on each, but the main addition to Against the Slave Lords is A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry. Designed for characters of first to third level, this is the first official scenario to be written for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons since 1999, it is intended to lay the groundwork for the ‘A’ Series. It takes place in Nyrond, further along the coast of the Sea of Gearnat in quarry above the village of Darkshelf. Although the quarry continues to be productive, of late, strange noises have been heard from within its depths, a third shift works the quarry in secret, half-eaten bodies have found in the nearby river, and slavers have operating in the area. These goings on are enough for the head of the village to hire adventurers to investigate.

Now there are not the adventurers as suggested for the tournament play-through of the ‘A’ Series, indeed A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry is not designed for tournament play nor does it come with pre-generated adventurers. Shorn of the tournament format, the scenario is a more rounded affair and given much more detail. It also lacks the built-in starting point that the other scenarios all have, so the adventurers have a freer hand in how they approach the quarry and its mystery and workforce. This a solid adventure and a decent introduction to the ‘A’ Series campaign.

If there is a weakness to the inclusion of A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, it is that it only lays the groundwork for the events of the ‘A’ Series rather than linking to it. Being written for levels one through three, it leaves something of a gap of two or three levels before the player characters are suitable to tackle the next four parts. Unfortunately this gap is not addressed in Against the Slave Lords.

Physically, Against the Slave Lords is well presented. The reprint of the original ‘A’ Series is clean and tidy, although in retrospective, it is a shame that none of the art in A1: Slavepits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade, and A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords really serves these three scenarios. In comparison, the art in A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords is far more useful and overall, the layout and style of the series’ final part is cleaner and feels more competent. In retrospect it would have been nice if the four modules themselves had been accompanied by the type of illustration found in the ‘S’ Series that the DM could show to his players. To some extent, the fan illustrations at the end of Against the Slave Lords could be put to that purpose. 

One physical element missing from Against the Slave Lords are the original covers of the ‘A’ Series. They are present on the cover slip, as is the mockup of what the cover of A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry would have looked like had it been published in 1980. The inclusion of the latter is a nice touch, but being a separate item, the cover slip can easily be lost. It would have been better had this been presented as the back of the book rather than as a slip. The cover slip is also the only use of colour throughout Against the Slave Lords.

Of the ‘A’ Series itself, I never played through the whole of the campaign, only through A1: Slavepits of the Undercity. I did purchase A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, but at the time was not impressed by it. I would later locate a copy of Scourge of the Slave Lords. Thirty years on and my opinion of the ‘A’ Series has changed. Certainly the fourth part of the series is much better than I recall, whereas the third part is particularly disappointing. In coming back to the ‘A’ Series thirty years on, Against the Slave Lords proved to be far from an engaging read. Perhaps that is because such modules are not designed to be read for pleasure, but studied; perhaps my reading and gaming tastes have changed too much, the question remains, would I play or run Against the Slave Lords after such a long gap? The simple answer is, if I were to do so, it would not be with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition or indeed, any version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It might be with D&D Next, which the cover slip says that Against the Slave Lords is compatible with, then again, it might be fun to play this with a set of rules with a sense of energy, such as Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age.

The ‘A’ Series has long been out of print, so having it available once again is a welcome sight, especially when it comes as a sturdy hardback as Against the Slave Lords does. As uneven as the four scenarios are in the series – A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords are certainly better than A1: Slavepits of the Undercity and A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords – the series should be of interest to the ‘Old School Renaissance’ and anyone coming back to Dungeons & Dragons with the release of D&D Next in 2014. The addition of A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry is equally as welcome, although a bridging scenario between it and the rest of the series would have been a reasonable addition. Still, the flexibility and choice of Dungeons & Dragons-style RPGs available means that Against the Slave Lords can be run and played using a variety of different RPGs, making it accessible and playable even thirty years on.