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Sunday, 14 June 2020

1978: G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

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Over the years, Dungeons & Dragons has returned again and again to face its tallest foe—the giants! Most recently Wizards of the Coast pitted adventurers against them in 2016’s Storm King’s Thunder, the sixth campaign for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, but their first appearance was in a trilogy of scenarios which began with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and continued with G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King. The three would subsequently be collected as G1-2-3 Against the Giants, which itself would form the first three parts of the campaign that would be collected in 1986 as GDQ1–7 Queen of the Spiders. In 1999, these three modules would be reprinted as part of the Dungeons & Dragons Silver Anniversary Collectors Edition boxed set and more properly revisited in Against the Giants: The Liberation of Geoff. It would be followed in 2009 by Revenge of the Giants, the first ‘mega-adventure’ for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, and then of course, in 2016 with Wizards of the Coast’s Storm King’s Thunder. For anyone interested in reading or running the series for themselves, G1-3 Against the Giants is available as a surprisingly inexpensive reprint.

Much of this history as well as critical response to both the individual dungeons and the collected G1-2-3 Against the Giants is detailed on Wikipedia. This is worth taking the time to read, so Reviews from R’lyeh recommends doing so before returning to this series of reviews. The ‘Giants Review’ series began with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and continues with G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl.

G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl is a direct sequel to G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. In G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, the Player Characters were directed to investigate the recent attacks upon the  lands of the humans—nominally in the World of Greyhawk—by attacks by giants of various types. Against this unheard of occurrence the rulers of these lands hired the Player Characters to deal a lesson to the Hill Giants. In the course of the adventure, the party carried out a strike—and ‘strike’ is the right term—on the Hill Giant steading, because G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is nothing more than a commando raid upon a ‘military’ base. As well as discovering the presence of other giants at a feast held in their honour, what the Player Characters also discover is the scenario’s singular link to G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl. It is both figuratively and actually a link, capable of transporting the party to the Glacial Rift of said second scenario. It is at this point that G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl begins.

Whether they have arrived via the device found at the end of G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief or via a map if coming to the adventure separate from the campaign, they find themselves standing at a rift which descends into a glacier. Beyond lies what is almost a mini-world of its own, an arctic, icy-fog-bound cavern round which an icy ledge runs off of which are openings after openings to smaller caverns. Of course, these caverns—nearly all of them ‘ice’ caverns—are still large, many of them either the workplace or quarters of, well, Frost Giants. So the Player Characters will encounter ice cavern after ice cave, seemingly many of them full of Frost Giants ready to grab rocks and lumps of ice and throw them at the intruding Player Characters. These are not the only occupants of the cavern complex. The Frost Giants are being visited by Hill Giants, Stone Giants, and Fire Giants as well as Ogre Magi. They also have a variety of servants, such as Ogres and Yetis, whilst in the lower level, there is a large, ancient White Dragon and his mate, which infamously is kept behind a boulder blocking a ten-foot wide tunnel! This is the ‘Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl’, home to a tribe of Frost Giants, who like Hill Giants, have been conducting raids upon the lands of the Humans.

The ‘Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl’ consists of just two levels, just like the Steading of the Hill Giant chief before it. The first level is funnel-like, initially directing the progress of the Player Characters down one side of the enormous central cavern and into the caverns and caves leading off, and perhaps into the depths of the cavern below. Eventually the Player Characters will be funneled into the second, lower level beyond the first. This is more linear in nature, taking the Player Characters into the quarters of tribe’s nobility as well as those of ‘Grugnur’, the Frost Giant Jarl himself—plus his “lady”, Grugni. Here the Player Characters will also encounter many of Jarl’s guests, mostly giants of other species, their presence building on the hints suggested at the banquet in the fortress of Hill Giant chief in G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief to suggest a wider conspiracy. As with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, the Player Characters by the end of G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl will find clues and links that will point them towards or get them to King Snurre’s hall, as detailed in G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King.

G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl packs a lot of information and play into its eight pages—well, six pages really given that the equivalent of one page is devoted to a single illustration. Yet there is very much a sense of it being a second album, the difficult middle part of a trilogy, brilliant in parts, but for the most part, imperfect. On the plus side, there is a sense of scale and grandeur to the glacial rift. Not only is the glacial rift up a mountain, but is itself cavernous, with an enormous central cave off which high passages and caves lead, marking it all home to the all-too tall Frost Giants and others. There is also a rich atmosphere to the scenario, both meteorologically and tonally. Ice and snow is everywhere, light being chillingly cast through fog and snow, reflecting the light from the Player Characters’ torches, lanterns, and magic in a shimmering glow. Constant wind blows throughout, threatening to whip the Player Characters from the icy ledges and preventing them from using spells like Fly and Levitate. There is always an exploratory aspect to dungeon delving, but in G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl this is made Himalayan or Antarctic in nature, making the scenario a test of the Player Characters’ physical endurance as much a test of their logistical use of magic and spells.

In terms of tone, the scenario is written with the sense of Gygaxian naturalism as G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief—all of the monsters fit the environment (even the Remorhaz, which although capable of producing heat, is actually a Polar Worm) and the caves are rich with small details that add flavour and verisimilitude to the environment. Cave larders full of dead bodies hung as frozen food, great carvings worked into cavern walls depicting great battles, and the wealth of detail describing the richness of Grugnur’s quarters. There are also interesting treasures for the Player Characters to find, such as a +2 Giant Slayer bastard sword, a Ring of Wishes, and a Box of Holding. Curiously, the +2 Giant Slayer sword is given an Alignment, by default, Lawful Good, but lacks the Intelligence and Ego that such special swords would have in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. The difference being explained by the fact that G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, like G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King before and after it, were written during the earliest days of the development of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. The Ring of Wishes of course, gives the Player Characters an incredibly powerful magical item, whilst the Box of Holding seems overly presented, a trick box whose operation is given in precise details.

However, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl is not without its problems. These stem, just as with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, from its age and it being originally designed as a tournament adventure run at a convention. In this case, as part of the Origins Tournament in 1978. This explains its brevity and its emphasis on combat. Whilst there is a much greater exploratory aspect to the play through of G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl than there is to G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, the two share a similar lack of roleplaying opportunities for either the Dungeon Master or her players. These consist of a Storm Giantess who might enter an alliance with the Player Characters and four Human captives currently held ready for Frost Giant cooking pot. None of these NPCs are detailed and it is left up to the Dungeon Master to develop them herself, though any of the Humans could be developed into potential replacement Player Characters.

Another issue is the power level of the scenario. This is shown in the potency of the magical items to be found in the scenario, such as the Ring of Wishes and the +2 Giant Slayer bastard sword. It is also shown in the toughness of the opponents that the Player Characters will face—the numerous Frost Giants, their allies, and their ‘pets’, the White Dragons. It is recommended that the minimum Level of the Player Characters should be Sixth or Seventh, but ideally the optimum party should consist of nine characters who should average Ninth Level and be equipped with several magic items each. Even with Player Characters of such lofty Levels, there is a high chance that they will wander into the wrong section and get caught between two or more groups of the Frost Giants on guard and driven back under a hail of thrown rocks and chunks of ice. That said, the scenario does provide a safe point, a cave outside of the Glacial Rift to which the Player Characters can retreat and heal, rest up, and regain their spells. Of course, if the Player Characters are forced to retreat, the Frost Giants will undoubtedly be on their guard, even more prepared to withstand further invaders.

Of course, one stand-up fight after one stand-up is not necessarily how a playthrough of G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl will proceed. The Player Characters might work their way in so far, strike or be rebuffed, then retreat to the cave refuge outside of the Glacial Rift, and then reenter to attack again and again, until such times as they have made their way to its end. Alternatively, a particularly stealthy and careful party of Player Characters could actually make its way as far as the dungeon’s second level before encountering any meaningful opposition. 

Physically, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl is a slim booklet, just eight pages with the loose card cover on the inside of which are the maps of the Jarl’s holdings. The booklet is cramped, but E. Gary Gygax again packs in a lot of detail. There are just a few illustrations and they do vary in quality. The maps though, are done in a light blue on white, so they do not leap out as being very clear or easy to read. However, the layout and the presentation of individual encounters is often, Gygax often focusing on elements which interest him rather than are of immediate use to the Game Master running the module. Of course, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl was one of the first adventure modules to be published and forty years on, the standard of information presentation and handling has much improved.

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G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl was published at a time when there were few magazines in which they could be reviewed. In many cases, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl would be reviewed when it was published in the collected G1-2-3 Against the Giants in 1981. For example, this is the version that Anders Swenson reviewed in Different Worlds Issue 20 (March 1982). He wrote, “First of all, the standards for adventure length have expanded considerably, so that a single product now contains the material previously considered adequate for three booklets. The text has problems which the later books have avoided - the individual have no consistent format, and important monsters can be literally lost in the middle of a paragraph between descriptions of loot and room contents. As noted, the flaw of making the scale of the maps much too small is made again by the publisher, along with the bad habit of letting the lower levels degenerate into a random monster mix.” He concluded though, “However, this series of adventures has many strong points which outweigh the flaws noted above. First is the theme of a plot which must be followed step by step back to its source. Second is the attempt at a realistic treatment of the giants' living places - except for the problems I have already mentioned, the plans for the various giant forts are realistic and reasonable. Finally, the text is well-written and pleasing to read.”

White Dwarf was the exception and managed to review the trilogy of G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King together in Open Box in White Dwarf Issue No. 9. However, this did not mean that they were reviewing independently of each other, the late Don Turnbull concluding, “In summary, there are three D&D scenarios which have been very carefully planned in considerable detail, both individually and collectively; they have been presented in exemplary fashion and are fit to grace the collection of the most discerning. They require skill in play (which is right) but also require a party of high-level characters, and my one regret is that they were not aimed at parties more likely to be readily available to players (though, in fairness, you can't expect a weak party to take on gangs of Giants). No DM should be without them, for even if he never gets a chance to run them, they are a source of much excellent design advice.”

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Thematically, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl is the fitting next step in the Giants trilogy, but it feels too much like the connecting scenario between G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief and G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King. Whilst there is a fantastic atmosphere to G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, its play emphasises combat over either roleplaying or plot. Indeed, there is very little plot to the scenario—it amounts to ‘start at the entrance and make your way to the exit’—and there are very few clues for the Player Characters to find and learn more about the greater conspiracy, about whomever is actually directing the Giants’ attacks on the lands of the Humans. Another issue  is that despite the naturalism of the design to G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, it feels static, for unlike G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief where there was a feast going on, there is nothing happening like that in G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl.

Lastly G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl is a dungeon crawl and a challenging one. However, it needs greater input upon the part of the Dungeon Master to be made more interesting than it really is. 

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It should be noted that Wizards of the Coast collected and published G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King as part of Tales from the Yawning Portal for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. It is a pity that Goodman Games would not have a chance to revisit, develop, and update the series as it did for B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands with Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands. Certainly there is some archival material in the early issues of Dragon magazine, such as the examination of these modules as tournament adventures in Dragon 19. In the meantime, the next review in the series will be of G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King.

1 comment:

  1. The maps were light blue because photocopiers of that era couldn't reproduce them. Later ones could, of course, but that's the source of all the light blue maps.

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