Sunday, July 26, 2009

REVIEW: Sanctum of the Stone Giant Lord

It's rare that I get a feeling of déjà vu while reading a contemporary old school product, particularly adventures. Yet Sanctum of the Stone Giant Lord by R.C. Pinnell did just that. While reading it, I felt almost transported back to the summer of 1980 when I was subjected to the tender mercies of my friend's older brother, who ran us through the G-series of modules. It was our first experience with high-level AD&D so we were all given pregenerated characters -- I played Cloyer Bulse the Magsman, a rare example of my ever playing a thief -- and I'm not ashamed to say we had no idea what we were doing.

As happened so often when my friend's brother refereed us, our forays against the giants ended rather badly, but, rather than dissuade us from ever again attempting these classic modules, they only emboldened us further. The following year, after some of my friends' characters, including Morgan Just, had legitimately reached the appropriate levels for Against the Giants -- I never owned the monochrome cover modules like my friend's brother -- I ran these modules, along the D-series sequels, and we had a blast. Many PCs met their doom in these modules, but many others survived and some of the most enduring memories I have of the early days of my gaming are associated with the Giants/Drow adventures.

Strangely, one of those memories is the presence of many stone giant "visitors" in both modules G1 and G2. Though neutral in alignment according to the Monster Manual, these modules intimated that the stone giants had taken an interest in the actions of their hill and frost giant cousins and were maintaining contact so as to determine whether or not to join the Drow-instigated campaign against the local human settlements. I remember this, because Morgan Just, a renowned slayer of giants, vowed to investigate the stone giants' involvement in such villainy and to make them pay if they'd aided the other giants in any way. Morgan never did follow up on his vow -- he had bigger fish to fry, if I recall -- but I still remember wondering about the implied involvement of the stone giants in that epic collection of modules.

Apparently, I wasn't the only one to wonder about this, as Sanctum of the Stone Giant Lord treats this very topic, offering up a single-level dungeon that can easily be used as an adjunct to the G-series. Designed for characters of 10th-14th level, Sanctum, like its illustrious predecessors, is tough going, with many, many tough opponents and other nasty surprises. That's because the eponymous sanctum isn't an abandoned ruin but rather a hidden religious site for the stone giant clans. Consequently, the place is crawling with giants, their allies, and servitors, which will complicate any attempt to enter it without raising an alarm.

Also like its predecessors, Sanctum is a location-based adventure with a minimum of plot. The characters could intend merely to raid the stone giants' fortress to "teach them a lesson," but there's more going on here than meets the eye, with the chief shaman behaving oddly and unusual envoys whispering in his ears. Some no doubt would see this as a weakness of the module and I'll grant that even its thin plot is less well detailed than it ought to have been (only a handful of sentences even allude to what's going on in the Sanctum). Nevertheless, one of Sanctum's great strengths is its true modularity; it can easily be dropped into any campaign and used in a variety of ways, which is, to my mind anyway, the mark of the best modules.

That's not to say that Sanctum of the Stone Giant Lord is perfect -- I have some qualms about the large number of magic items in its treasure hoards -- but it does very effectively evoke the look and feel of its predecessors and inspirations. Obviously, that's a pretty limited goal and not to everyone's tastes. Though the module is only 12 pages long, its text density is high, much like the G-series adventures. Indeed, the entire look of Sanctum is clearly modeled on the monochrome G modules, from the two-column layout to typographical conventions (bolding the names of magic items, for example). Artwork is sparse but extraordinarily well-done by Rachel Drummond, reminding me of no particular old school artist but nevertheless possessing all the hallmarks of the best illustrations from the early days, right down to the historically plausible armor worn by the fighters on its cover.

As people know well, I'm usually very down on products that too closely mimic the look of older ones, but I'm not bothered in this particular case. Sanctum of the Stone Giant Lord is self-avowedly the result of "a laborious love affair" by author R.C. Pinnell, as well as an homage to Gary Gygax's own pioneering modules and to whom this adventure is respectfully dedicated. It's thus the best kind of nostalgia product, one that transports one to "the good ol' days" without either apology or qualification. That gives the whole thing a very primal quality that's frankly intoxicating to guys like me who remember the G-modules with fondness. Sanctum of the Stone Giant Lord is in no way the equal to any of its inspirations, but it's a fitting companion to them and a great example of how those early modules fired the imaginations of young people to such an extent that they're still involved in this hobby 30 years later.

Sanctum of the Stone Giant Lord is available in both print and PDF form for $7.05 and $1.25 respectively.

Presentation: 7 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If:
You're a fan of the G-series and are looking for a well-done companion to those classic modules.
Don't Buy This If: The G-series modules do nothing for you.

13 comments:

  1. Interesting review. I thought it was a good module with excellent artwork, but that the writing could do with some improvement. I found it a bit hard going to read on that account.

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  2. The GDQ series, as far as I am concerned, is D&D. This sounds like a valuable addition to its saga.

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  3. I don't think I'd play the G-Series again without including this fine module in some way. I think the artwork is outstanding. Particularly the front cover. This module accomplishes what it sets out to do.

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  4. I notice there's some disjointedness in the labelling convention -- PDF says "GS1", print webpage says "G4B", print cover image is "G4"?

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  5. I bought the PDF out of nostalgia for the G series. I've only just glanced through it, but I had to laugh at one of the pregenerated PC's names: "Lord Bangor Mane."

    Glad to see the old tradition of bad RPG puns is still alive. :)

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  6. Look's good, have not read the modules content as of yet, but it does have that old-school look & charm nailed right down. I did manage to see some of the interior art by Rachel (Icemaiden) Drummond over at Dragonsfoot, and I must say I really dig her art style.Hopefully we will see a lot more of her great work in future publications.

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  7. Very interesting idea.

    I am planning on running the GDQ series someday for my son (system unknown as of yet) and this might find it's way in.

    Thanks for the review.

    Tim

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  8. I ran this module at TrollCon this July, and the game got plenty of props from the players (although they may have just been jolly that I gave them all a free copy of the module).

    My complaints are few, just that you really need to pencil in a couple of secret or alternate entrances, and that there should be at least one non-giant encounter somewhere near the main entrance.

    I really enjoyed the manner in which the group bypassed the main gates. They were using giant-hurled boulders to wedge under the portcullis to give the fighter a break from holding it up.

    -Random

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  9. On your recommendation, I bought it and read it today. I like it, and I'm surprised you only gave it a 6 for utility. I think it's a lot more useful than that.

    Further, R.C. Pinnell clearly did his level best to meet the demands of grognards for less blather about story and more substance. The story is (1) cut to the bone, but no further, and (2) what's present is full of possibilities. That is, although the volume of story is low, the story present is of extremely high density, rich with implications.

    The module expects the DM to take the story paragraphs and think through how they affect the NPCs throughout the setting. As written, it looks to be a pleasurable prep experience.

    Also, a Melan-style analysis of the high-level structure of the map shows it to be a cross between C and D, branching and circular routes. It uses secret doors to create the initial impression of a branching dungeon (like Keep on the Borderlands), but a healthy population of secret doors reveals it is thick with circular routes (like In Search of the Unknown). This is a quality map design.

    Also, like the better modules it includes opportunities for expansion into additional levels.

    In short, it has a solid map and premise, yet is not larded up with campaign-specific material that would make it tough to work into anyone's campaign. The grognards spoke and R.C. Pinnell listened.

    Even shorter: it seems like a posterchild for the old school. With its price, terseness, and density of quality, I'm not sure why it scores so moderately.

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  10. Agree with Rick here. It's a particularly beautiful map, among other things.

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  11. Glad to see they offer it as print on demand. Otherwise I wouldnt bother with it.

    Thanks.

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  12. I loved it and have it on my shelf, right between G3 and D1. That's saying something. The only other one that is afforded that honor is F1 Fane of Poisoned Prophecies. The rest have their own section on the shelf.

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