G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978)
Gary Gygax (TSR Games)
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.