[Review] G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (AD&D 1e); The birthplace of Gygaxian Naturalism

[Adventure]
G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978)

Gary Gygax (TSR Games)
Lvl 9+

Dungeons and Dragons Advanced Dungeon Module 1 (Steading of the Hill Giant  Chief, First Of 3 Modules): E. Gary Gygax: 9780935696080: Amazon.com: Books



The holidays are dawning, my vacation is coming, Screaming Caverns is done and once again requests are pouring in. Before we get to those I think it time to center myself by going back and looking at an old classic.

G1 is famous, justly so, existing in the liminal space between the Spartan monster + treasure entries of the Stone Age and the blathery and increasingly bloated modules of the late 1e period. Endlessly imitated but never successfully replicated. A younger Gygax, wits razor sharp, exercises his mastery with a feather touch.

By the standards of today G1 would be considered ‘vanilla,’ but these are the dawning days of the hobby, when such a concept was still being established, and the foundations of what D&D was about were still being laid down. It is atmospheric in an unobtrusive way, the interesting implications of some of its content taking a backseat to immediate procedure of dungeon-crawling. Yet it never feels artificial or formulaic. If anything can be said about G1, it is how seamless it all works. In contrast to the earlier S1, G1 manages to be both a complex area for exploration and a naturalistic, albeit fantastical location. In 8 pages!

I would argue the premise of G1 can be traced back to L.s. de Camp’s The Roaring Trumpet and the Eddaic myths of Thor and Loki visiting the land of the giants that inspired it. A sinister alliance of Giants has been ravishing the human kingdoms and the characters have been selected to deal with them OR FACE DEATH! It is suspected that some sinister power is behind the attacks, and the PCs are to follow up any clues!

It is all integrated masterfully. You have a complex scenario, a giant wooden steading in a desolate region, you have an infiltration (initially, as the Giants are not aware of your attack), there is information to be gathered, meaning the approach is likely going to be much more complex then a simple straightforward extermination attack and hints of a larger plot provide it with a weight that it would otherwise lack.

The map is a delight, starting off with the classic Slumbering Guards gambit and immediately setting the stage by placing a loud, rowdy festive hall, packed to the brim with hostile Hill Giants smack dab in front of the PCs, immediately priming them for the idea that they are supposed to employ stealth. After that there is a beautiful interconnection of rooms and corridors that flow into eachother organically. The dungeon complex underneath it has branches radiating out in each direction like a starfish, and a plethora of secret passageways and hidden rooms for observant adventurers to discover. It is possible to discern the general area of the hidden treasure because rooms have a purpose and a verisimilitude to them that is exploited by the dungeon’s inhabitants. Once you internalize the idea that monsters have treasure and attempt to hide it from eachother it all flows naturally from there.

The scenario immediately tackles an obvious ruse, and discusses attempts to burn down the Steading, which is made of thick wood. The control is breathtaking. There is no heavy-handed railroading, merely subtle environmental factors (the high humidity and frequent rains of the area make the wood very damp), that make such a plan unlikely. Even if it does succeed, it gains the PCs little, destroying all the treasure while allowing most of the Giants to escape to the lower level.

There is, I think, sufficient guidance on how to handle the Giants’ reaction to the infiltration of their stronghold (unaware at first, post guards and set traps later, any surviving NPCs show up in later modules), although Gygax has a tendency to speak in general fashion, assuming prospective GM’s will catch on and figure out how to handle the specifics themselves. Monsters are sometimes not highlighted so the entire paragraph must be read before one can figure out what is going on in a room. The descriptions are clean, functional, with a whiff of flavor or clever idea standing out. In the upper levels, where it is relevant, notes on noise attracting the attention of other areas is almost always provided.

DORMITORY: Here 12 young giants (H.P.: 26, 24, 3 x 21, 18 x 17, 2 x 16, 14, 13) are rollicking, and beefy smacks, shouts, laughter, etc. are easily heard. All these creatures have weapons and will fight as ogres. (Note that noise from here will be regarded as the “kids” having fun …) There is no treasure, but by wearing the young giants garb, with suitable padding, the party could pass as the youngsters if not seen closer than 20′.

The usual pet peeve, a lack of organization and critical information tucked away in an offhanded fashion, is present but because of Steading’s relatively short length, it is at least mitigated. Bolded text, if present, is used inconsistently, but overall the module is still very useful.

Encounters showcase the firm grasp of the master craftsman. Giants can be bargained with, obstacles can be circumnavigated, it is even possible to forge an alliance with a band of renegade orc slaves in the dungeons below. Inhabitants, if not snoring in a drunken stupor, have objectives, ideosyncracies (the chieftain’s wife has a pet bear) and always seem in the middle of something. A snapshot of the Giantish life, not unlike that of a pagan steading, albeit with a hint of barbaric cruelty and a mastery over nature that is beyond mere mortal men. Humanoid slaves cower and visitors from other Tribes feast in the halls of the Giants! Where else would one find a courtyard with 14 Dire Wolves running loose, and the ability to bypass them if one brandishes the Whip of the chief-servant?

The dungeons below transition from hewn rock into caverns filled with the strange inhabitants of the under-realms. Carrion crawlers and tribes of Lizards feast on the fungus of nearby caverns, or fish from underground rivers. Ten lashes for anyone claiming G1 is boring or dry.

17A. WEIRD ABANDONED TEMPLE: This room is of faintly glowing purplish green stone, carved with disturbing shapes and signs which seem to stare out from the walls and columns, to shift position when the watcher’s back is turned. Touching the walls makes one chilled, and contact with a pillar causes the one touching it to become nauseous. At the far west end of the temple is an altar of pale, yellowgray translucent stone. It feels greasy to the touch, but it has no effects upon those who touch it. Behind this altar is a flight of low, uneven steps which lead to an alcove with a concave back wall of purplishblack, glassy appearing substance. If any creature stands before this wall and gazes upon it for one round, a writhing amorphous form of sickly mauves and violets will be seen stretching its formless members towards the viewer. This sight causes the creature seeing it to have a 50% chance of becoming insane. If the creature does not go insane, a touch upon the curving will cause a scarab of insanity to appear upon the altar for the first one so doing, and a 5,000 g.p. gem for the next

The faction play intensifies in the lower caverns as the infiltration is sloughed off. The various tribes of humanoids can be marshalled and weaponized against the Giants. The possibility of a gigantic pitched battle, involving dozens of giants and almost a hundred humanoids, is sublime.

Do I even cover treasure placement in a Gygax module? Magic items are often hidden in plain sight, amid innocuous items, or hidden behind old cloths or illusions, facilitating exploration and rewarding only the clever and meticulous. Endless sacks with coins and book items occasionally make room for more exotic fare, such as the casks of jet black wine that give some clue as to the true agent behind the attacks, as well as a plethora of intelligent swords. Truly monstrous amounts of gold pieces can be liberated from the wretched giants, and more power to it, at 9th level, you expect to be able to buy a damn keep at the end of a module, and G1 delivers in spades!

Hints of the nature of the agency behind the attacks, in the form of instructions of flayed human skin and the name Eclavdra pop up like a looming thundercloud. They are never placed in plain sight or obvious, respecting the players intelligence and discernment. Inasmuch as the module can be “completed” it is in fact fairly obtuse, placing the last clue in the hidden treasure vault of the Chieftain that is by no means easy to find. Novice players might miss it altogether, but novice players have no place in this 9th level beast. The ending, a strange link of chain that teleports the players to the second part, the hideous Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, is a fine and wondrous segway.

The original Tournament characters, included in the back, with names like Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter, Cloyer Bulse the Magsman and Beek Gwenders of Croodle, bring a smile to the face.

G1 is an absolute masterpiece that holds up well any way you look at it. A challenging, complex and wondrous scenario from the pen of the master in his prime. One cannot help but admire, observe and make plans for hosting such a mighty giant slaying. One would be hard-pressed to find a band of heroes up to such a daunting task in an era of railroading, 5e and participation trophies, but things can be relearned. It is time.

*****


16 thoughts on “[Review] G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (AD&D 1e); The birthplace of Gygaxian Naturalism

    1. Thanks, as they say in Holland, it’s quite a delivery, but I am halfway through the conversion for the bonus adventure, which I expect to finish tomorrow (vacation!).

      I think you mentioned it before. Master Series looks interesting in a batshit insane way, I wonder if people actually played it.

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      1. Good luck man!

        Yeah thanks! I am being repetative but I like your reviews and it seems in your interest. Also an author I respect, but yeah I am hype it looks batty.

        I have not heard too much about it, who even plays long enough to get that high? Even if you do over quick advancment, it would have to be pre gen or starting at 20 right?

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      2. Pre-gens are very likley, but that presents a problem in itself. The charm of BECMI is that you phase in new rules as the players reach a new level of ability, giving them time to gradually get used to the system and find their footing, before they “ascend” to a new tier. Level 20 is still officially in the Champions (C) tier, which runs from 16 to 25 I think.

        Your enthusiasm has me convinced to at least check it out. I’ll give it a swing after I finish the Giants series.

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    2. “Peace negotiations between Thyatis and Alphatia are about to start, and the King of Norwold asks the player characters to get information about a previous agreement at the library of Edairo on the Isle of Dawn.”

      Imagine starting a module for 20th level PCs by having the king send them to the library to do a study project for him. At that level the PCs should be making the king to do their scutwork.

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      1. At 20th you’d expect to guest the king at YOUR palace, though Mystara does have its share of 35th level emperors and councils of archmages naruto-running around so I shall defer judgement. It does seem like a terribly menial task for such unstoppable conquerors. At that level the library had better be on the accursed westpole and warded by a fleet of elven craft, to keep the deathless-dreaming Grey Lords that once held sway there from awakening. Only if the characters agree to sup from the waters of the Lethe, erasing all the terrible things they have learned there, may they return afterward, carrying only the single fact.

        But that is a tale for another time says I.

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  1. Very good review. One reason so much is packed into 8 pages is that you were supposed to have your Monster Manual at hand, and all that was needed was 3 hill giants (hp 42,41,36) rather than large stat blocks. Parties tended to big, say 9 or so, therefore the plentiful cash was needed for experience. Many years ago, in play it was a bit like the attack on the rebel camp in Predator in the banquet hall: sentries were taken out as quickly and silently as possible; there was some
    scouting and divination spells; a magic-user bombardment; hasted rangers and dwarven fighters moved in. I can’t remember any formal attempt to encourage a rebellion, although orc slaves were encouraged to flee (to save resources).
    Five stars might be generous, although I suppose you are arguing that it was the first of its kind, and set the template of what followed. I like the use of cold in G2; and the revelation of the Drow makes G3.

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    1. You nailed it, I thought about it while reading it but I couldn’t find a way to work it into the review. An advantage of using materials already described and known means that much of the conceptual and atmospheric lifting can be outsourced. There’s a sort of unstated weakness to the DIY wisdom of having all but exclusively new content (mind you, its wisdom I adhere too for Palace) in that your module suddenly needs to convey a vast unwieldy bulk of information or else be called a dastard when compared to modules that draw on entries in the MM, which in turn draw upon the power of Appendix N. The Tekumél Question?

      My reasons for Five stars are two-fold. On the one hand it is the totality of the content, which encompasses everything from infiltration Where Eagles Dare style before transitioning into some sort of inevitable cluster fuck, to prison revolts, schemes, pitched battles and general shitbaggery to the flawlessness of the execution.

      I tend to take primacy into account, but ultimately it comes down to sheer performance. There’s something primal about reading G1 and knowing, instantly, that you could run it and it would be a fucking blast. You get it with Keep on the Borderlands, B5, B10 and its gets rarer as you go forwards in time. The basics have all been covered so there’s either imitation or a reliance on stunt writing. Rarely do you find a module that either elevates the game to a truly new dimension or has the mastery to continue the spirit of the tradition without slavish adherence to form.

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      1. One thing I find generally true of the Gygaxian classics: what a lot of fun they are in play. And that is surely worth a star boost.
        Regarding using only new/unique monsters: that is completely justified in a weird and mysterious locale, steeped with magic from a forgotten age. And Gygax did that himself with S4 Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, with many new monsters in the substantial supplement.
        Do not be shy with new details regarding the Palace of Unquiet Repose.

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      2. This is true, and I agree it conveys a sense of measureless antiquity that is lost if some items or creatures are ‘common’, but I think on the long term a campaign should have a sort of roster of ‘common’ or recurring monsters to tap from, if only to allow for something like the ‘special’ monsters you just described.

        Palace is now officially done, on my part. I handed in the DCC conversion for the Deluxe edition yesterday, so expect the PDF to come out soon. The POD edition might take a bit longer because we want to check the Proofs first, and the DCC edition still needs goodman approval. But very good news!

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    1. Expect the PDF to come out soon, we are still fucking around with the layout for the deluxe content, and the print version might be a bit slower because of yet more Covid. Merry Christmas Chainsaw!

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