Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review: A4 In The Dungeons of the Slave Lords

This is part 4 in my series of reviews of the Slavers series of adventures.

Here are the previous parts:

A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity
A2 Secret of the Slavers Stockade
A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords

For all of my reviews, please see my reviews page.

A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords
by Lawrence Schick
Levels 4-7
28 pages including one page of maps, plus maps on the inside cover
TSR 9042

A4 is the last in the Slave Lords series of adventures. It's also quite unlike most other adventure modules. You start the adventure as prisoners, dumped to die in a cave system as the island you're imprisoned on as said island's volcano erupts!

The adventure is basically split into two parts. Part one is the original tournament portion. Part two is the surface, and it's a capstone to a non-tournament playthrough of the series.

In part one, the Slave Lords have the PCs as prisoners. The PCs have already been repeatedly questioned and expended their spells (except for a few cleric spells prayed for during lapses in bad treatment) in fruitless attempts to escape. However, the island fastness of the Slave Lords is a volcanic island and it starts to erupt. The chief cleric of the Slave Lords, Stalman Klim (name changed from A3) has the PCs put to sleep and them dumped down into a cave system under the island as sacrifices to his god, the Earth Dragon.

The PCs wake up with nothing but loincloths, some sand (oddly, it's a sandy, limestone-y volcano, and yes, the module acknowledges that's odd but doesn't give a reason), and a few scroll cases with a mysterious gift from a mysterious stranger. The stranger is of course the secret agent of the people who hired the PCs and who helps out a few times along the way in small ways.

The PCs, in the dark (no light source, no Light spells, no way to make light), must find a way out of the tunnels. The tunnels are inhabited, too, some creatures that might be tough to a well-equipped party and ones that would be ignorable if you weren't so poorly equipped.

Where A1, A2, and A3 had tactical set pieces, A4 has tactical puzzles. Can you recover the weaponizable bits of stalactite from the danger zone of a critter? Can you cross the obstacle? Can you recognize who might help and who might hinder you? Can you figure out how to combine bits of "loot" from different encounters to find a way out?

It's not an adventure that responds to brute force or a party unwilling to sit and puzzle things out. You simply do not have enough force, enough time (remember the volcano), or enough options to just go for and tough it out. You must think. It's a great challenge to both character abilities (you'll need all of them to survive) and player skill (can you leverage your knowledge and your character's stats to get the job done).

It's like playing AD&D on hard mode - few spells (and those only for clerics), and you start out with nothing but loincloths and scrolls you can't see to read. Good luck using them - you are in utter darkness and depending on Infravision until you can find a way to make fire and some fuel. Weapons? Nothing until you can improvise things.

A4 is a lot of fun because it also turns the idea of loot on its head. A broken dagger is vastly more valuable than a handful of gems, and a bit of flint or flammable wood is more valuable than a pile of gold.

There are multiple ways out of the tunnels, too - unlike the railroad-like setups of A1 and A2, and the pure railroads of parts one and two of A3 (literally no actual alternative paths.) A party has more than one way out, although they all involve danger and risk.

But where the adventure really shines is the surface. The PCs come out at one of a few different locations, and have to find a way off the island. The volano's poisonous fumes have rolled into the city, and panicked people have fled to the docks. It's a long swim, so a boat is the best way. Meanwhile, some enterprising looters are looking to grab money, supernatural beings are lose, and the local animals have been stirred up. It's a chaotic mess and the PCs need to make their way through it.

Possibly the best way - or at least most satisfying way - off the island is to seize the Water Dragon, the galley of the Slave Lords. The test of a probably wounded and partly restored, haphazardly equipped party vs. a severely depleted but desperate, coordinated, and dangerous group of slave lords can be a great end to the series.

The Slave Lords are down on HP and have used up most of their spells, and some have died in the earthquakes and in fighting their way to the docks. The PCs are probably better equipped, especially if they dealt with some of the hodge-podge of looters and chances to up-gear themselves.

The adventure has the usual maps, and close-in maps of especially important areas. It also has a side view of a difficult area to traverse, which is very helpful. The adventure also marked the original usage of myconids, magmen, sandlings, and the cave fisher - all four ended up in the Monster Manual II years later. The sandling's pictures (there are two) make it much more interesting than the unillustrated monster in MM2 sounds.

It also has boxed text in the best tradition of boxed text - it's not meant to be read at the players, it's just all the information they players could have. So it's more like a split between GM and player information (the box) and GM-only information (the rest.) It makes it very easy to know what to pass on initially, and what's going to be hard to discern or is GM-eyes-only.

Finally, the adventure has clear rules for swimming, holding your breath, improvised weapons, and anything else. But it also has a lot of guidance for the GM for when the PCs inevitably try something unexpected.

Railroad or Not?

A4 has kind of a weird reputation, in my experience. It's considered a horrible railroad. After all, the PCs start out prisoners, dumped into a cave system and left to die in the dark.

But if the start is a railroad, the rest of the adventure is not. There are multiple ways out of the cave system they've been dumped into. There are multiple ways off the island of the Slave Lords.

While the dungeon escapes are pretty wide open, there is clearly a "best" escape from the island - defeating the surviving Slave Lords and seizing their craft and recovering the PC's lost gear. The other options don't quite as neatly seal off the adventure nor get the PCs their stuff back. They leave powerful enemies at large. But other ways exist.

So in practice, it's quite far from a railroad.

Re-reading this adventure, I'm more impressed than I was in the past - and I liked it a lot then. It's got some real drive and flavor - escaping a death-pit you've been dumped in as a final sacrifice, a volcanic island erupting, a disintegrating society as you flee for safety and seek revenge and completion of your mission. Not only that, but there are so many ways for players to show how their can use their own knowledge and the skills of the characters to the best effect. If you don't think, and you don't use what your characters can do to the utmost, you're going to have a lot of trouble.

I think the setup of this adventure would be best if it was held in reserve in case the party was defeated by the Slave Lords anywhere from A2-A3. Just zip forward to A4, and start with them in prison.

Generally in an adventure the PCs are either the focus of conflict, or they come in as a third party to a conflict. In many of the situations on the surface in A4, the PCs are just a few more people trying to get off the island. Many situations make the PCs nothing but spectators (unless they're foolish enough to jump in), one of many in a multi-sided fight, or just happen without the PCs mattering at all. The encounters - such as magmen, two- and three-plus way fights, etc. plus the escaping Slave Lords and erupting volcano make for a feeling of chaos. The only other adventure I've ever played or read that gave that feel of chaos, PCs in a maelstrom, and a pressing need to get moving now was the last European Twilight 2000 adventure, Going Home.

How is it for GURPS?

A4 would be easy but very different for GURPS. The way GURPS is written, you'd already have all the rules you need for a bunch of people with improvised weapons in the darkness dealing with obstacles and opponents. It would work just fine.

But taking away some (but not all) magic would be tough. For example, using normal GURPS Magic, you couldn't fully deprive casters of their magic without either permanently ripping the ability out of them (Drain Magery) or to use magic in the dungeon at all (a no Mana Zone.) Even a Low Mana Zone wouldn't be sufficient to really both wizards too much. Clerics (using the Power Investiture/Magery split in DF) would be even better off - heck, they could learn new spells along the way without an issue. So you'd need a very different acceptance of how much magic the PCs would have access to. Where A4 takes the AD&D issue of "dealing with running out of resources" by giving you a select few to start with, GURPS doesn't generally have you run down in power as things go along, so it would be an abrupt and dramatic change. It would clearly be a very overt and deliberate challenge, not just "you've run out of spells and couldn't get them back" which is a normal event that can happen in AD&D.

The rest of the adventure, though, would work quite well. The threat of injury when unarmored and the inability to quickly recovery, nevermind the hell of using improvised weaponry vs. proper weapons and armor, would make it very challenging. But fun - my experience with players is that they gleefully come up with clever alternatives to actual weapons and enjoy weaponing up after they take out properly armed foes. So long as their gear is sure to come back at some point.

War Stories

This is an adventure I got when I was young - it was the first of the Slave Lords series I owned.

 photo CrayonColoredSlaveLords_zpsf79c7cf9.jpg

Not bad for what was probably my 10-year-old self. I'm no artist but this is less bad than a lot else I've colored.

I know I ran this, but I don't remember much. Little if any about the tunnels, but I do remember playing the Water Dragon fight. My copy of the adventure has lots of stuff crossed out in pencil, hit point countdowns, and spells used - so it definitely saw action. It's just been at least 30 years, so who knows for sure how it went? Even a good adventure is a tough sell if the PCs start out without gear, and starting out naked and without gear was a non-starter for elementary school boys.


  1. Has someone written an article on making magic an expendable resource for DF? The rules are pretty much there in Thaumatology in more than one way. It just needs to be balanced.

    1. Magic as an expendable resource isn't something I miss much from AD&D, so I haven't been keeping an eye out for such a system. But someone may have done one.

      I suspect if Christopher Rice sees this exchange he could write one by tomorrow.

    2. Threshold magic is basically magic as an expendable resource. For the purpose of DoftSL, I'd add an alchemical potion that increases a mage's current Tally as a kind of anti-paut.

      My current social group generally uses Divine Favor for clerical Magic and some kind of Threshold Magic for wizardly magic. Divine Favor is also a daily limited resource, except for Learned Prayers. I'd have to think about ways to limit that if I wanted to run this adventure.

      For spellcasters that use FP, being dumped in the dungeon after being exposed to an improved Magebane (DF1 p29) would mean in the early, crucial portion of the adventure, they wouldn't be able to cast spells. And later in the adventure, the time limit means that they have to ration spells since they can't afford to spend time recovering energy.

  2. I grew up on things like Elric, Disney Cartoons, and high fantasy never hearing of Jack Vance. D and D with expendable pre loaded magic was a big shock to me. The regenerating mana pool along with broad spell list, (which is basically what GURPS has through FP and ER) fits better if not perfectly (and GURPS has continued to release systems that model individual settings magic better and better, Magic of Stories etc). (Not to mention Ars Magic, Mage the Ascension etc)

    That said theres something for the classic going 'once Ive expended all my spell slots then I become the true bad ass with my staff, dagger, dart loadout' :).


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