Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Retrospective: Against the Giants

As I've said many times before, I entered the hobby in late 1979 with a copy of the Holmes Basic Set originally intended for my father. This was a weird time to enter the hobby, because it's sort of on the cusp of a transition between the "first generation" made up of folks who'd been wargamers beforehand and the "second generation" like me who went straight into roleplaying because it was becoming a big fad. So, while I mostly played with kids my age, I had a lot of contact with older guys and (especially) teenagers who'd "been there at the start of it all." That time was also weird because TSR itself was transitioning between being a much more "hobbyist" company into something much more "professional" and you can see that in how its modules and rulebooks changed between 1979 and 1981.

Because I started playing in this period of transition between generations, I often don't feel I belong to either one. I wasn't a wargamer nor was I old enough to hang out with the high schoolers, but I was enough old enough to look down my nose at the "kiddies" whose first exposure to RPGs with either the Moldvay or (worse) Mentzer boxed sets (even though I owned and adored the former -- and still do). And while the Holmes Blue Book does get a lot of love in the old school world these days, that's a comparatively new development. For the most of my time in the hobby, the Holmes edit was the "forgotten" edition of D&D, particularly once the hobby expanded greatly as the Moldvay and Mentzer devotees entered it.

I mention all of this because, for me, the 1981 compilation module G1-2-3, Against the Giants, encapsulates a lot of the weirdness of my early days in the hobby. I never owned any of the pastel-covered modules on which this one is based, but they were still kicking around hobby and bookstores. Indeed, I did own some pastel-covered modules, since I bought them in 1980 before they were redone. So, my friends and I had a mishmash of stuff published from before we started playing, as well as contemporary stuff published later. There's more to the weirdness than that, though. For the most part, we played RPGs amongst ourselves, but, every so often, a friend's father and older brother would run stuff for us. Even more rarely, the older brother and his friends would run us through a module. Such was the case with Against the Giants.

I can still very clearly remember that summer day back in 1981, because we were playing outside, sitting in the backyard or at a picnic table. Because none of us had any characters of the requisite levels (8-12), we had to make use of the pregenerated PCs from the back of the book. I wound up with the terrifically named Cloyer Bulse the Magsman, who was a thief, a class I never played (I've always been a fighter or cleric kind of guy). One of my friends played Fonkin Hoddypeak and another Redmod Dumple. The fact that I can still, three decades later, remember these character's names and who played them says a lot about how much I enjoyed that summer's day.

We never managed to get very far into the module, because the first part, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, is a real slog -- and my friend's teenage brother was a ruthless referee. I don't believe any of us actually died at his hands, but we were hurting. The Steading is just packed with hill giants and their servants and our referee was very good at using them. To our credit, we managed to outsmart him on quite a few occasions, among being to stir up dissent amongst the hill giant's orcish slaves so as to create a useful distraction for our own activities. We had a lot of fun, partly because we got to play high-level characters, something we'd never done before, and partly because we were playing with "the cool kids," or at least what we assumed were cool kids, since we had so little experience of coolness ourselves.

Later on, I'd referee Against the Giants for friends and I can recount many a tale of their exploits, such as an opportune use of creeping doom against a roomful of hill giants and inter-party strife after the discovery of a ring of three wishes in the Glacial Rift. If a module's goodness is to be judged solely on the fun had while playing it, I think Against the Giants has to be one of the most fun of all. I'll always hold it in special regard, because it symbolizes that weird time when I was initiated into the hobby that I'd have for the rest of my life.


  1. Have to say I don't care for the G series or for any of the tournament style modules published around the same time. In G1 you have a bunch of giant sitting around eating dinner and the PCs have to break in and murder them all. It's more of an assassination mission than any heroic quest I wanted to be involved in (even as a 13 year old). Maybe that's because I view giants and just big people rather than monsters that need to be slain like manticores or carrion crawlers.

    I'm not sure if the G1-3 combo module had more backstory than the pastel G1 that I had.

  2. Fantastic module.  One day I want to take my kids through it.

  3. The really bizarre thing about these early modules (the A/D/Q series in particular) is that they were some of the very first published yet are for extremely high level characters -- the very opposite of the strategy you would expect TSR to take when rolling out adventures for a new game. 

    For years their published modules were either entry level (B series) or very high level, with almost nothing for levels 4-8.  Very odd strategy that never made sense to me.

    And while I love love love the D series, the Giants adventures always left me cold. 

  4. That module had the best pre-gen character names. Complete list:
    Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter (human MU)
    Cloyer Bulse the Magsman (human thief)
    Roakey Swerked (human cleric) 
    Frush O’Suggill (human fighter)
    Flerd Trantle (human cleric)
     Redmod Dumple (dwarf fighter)
    Faffle Dwe’omercraeft (human MU)
    Beek Gwenders of Croodle (half-elf ranger)
    Fonkin Hoddyspeak (high elf fighter/MU)

  5. One of the great lacks of my "gaming life" is that I've never refereed nor played the Giants series. Funny thing about them: for all the sparse backstory, they're incredibly dramatic. And there's something about giants as a foe that I find very appealing. Combined with the Greyhawk folio, I had imagined a great, desperate war involving almost the whole southwest Flanaess. They're really a testament to lots of "fluff text" not being necessary, at least for D&D-style games.

  6. Creating pre-gen characters was one of the least-liked jobs in the office. Giving them outlandish names became an inside joke and a form of passive/aggressive revenge for having to create them in the first place. I don't know who came up with the characters for the Giants series, because it was just before my time, but any of that late-'70s crew had the twisted sense of comedy to write those.

  7. Wow - almost the same exact story here, only I ended up with "Gleep Wurp the Eyebiter".  And we played in an old camper rooted in a friend's back yard.  But I still remember all those things clear as day too.

    In time I decided I liked the crawl of D1-3 better than Gs, but G1-3 was the first real epic thing we ran.

  8. Weird.  One of my most vivid memories of G1 is a well-deployed Creeping Doom, too.

  9. Gleep Wurp the eyebiter and Beek Gwenders of Croodle have always stuck with me as the pinnacle of awesome D&D names!

    As a young kid when I first saw the 'eyebiter' title I didn't realize it refered to a spell - I just thought old Gleep was one mean badass...  and a magic user to boot :)

  10. Peter V. Dell'OrtoApril 5, 2012 at 10:25 AM

    I think I ran these twice - but I ran G3 only once. In my big high school AD&D game we sort of lost interest in fighting giants after a (spectacular) run through G2. The first time I ran them, I was much younger (I came into gaming in 1981, and I got these early). I can't remember much about running them with my elementary school group except very, very bitter arguments erupting around the treasures lost from the remorhaz burning through the ice. Some players had read the modules and knew what was lost, and it wasn't pretty.

    I do like the modules and I'm very glad I got the monochrome reproductions when I chanced on the Silver Anniversary Boxed Set late last year.

  11. Heh, I remember playing as Fonkin Hoddypeak who I picked because he had a bunch of javelins of lightning, which I loved.

  12. I'll never forget the first time we played it...I was a thief laying beneath one of those giant's bags hanging in the hall, at the threshold to the Steading. We had just slain the sleeping guards in the tower and a giant came around the corner to "relieve" himself. We all scattered and hid.

    The way the DM described the vibration we felt in the floor, w/ every footfall, and the way the dust motes jumped in the air w/ his approach, just sent shivers down my spine. Now here was a foe that was to be avoided!

    For some reason the sleeping giants weren't nearly as frightening. But when that live one came down the hall... Look out!

    Those were the 3 most memorable modules I have played to this day. (And this was back in '79 I think.)

  13. I also was run though this one by an older friend-of-a-friend named Damon, a legendarily killer DM.  My story is similar to yours except that it happened in Damon's basement instead of outdoors.  I take it as a point of pride that our party made it through Steading and did not die until somewhere in the Rift.  Great modules!

  14. Against the Giants gave me my one and only TPK, that's Total Party Kill in case you don't know, I ever had as a DM. It was the Room 11: Long Hall, you know the one with 29 assorted giants, 8 ogres and a cave bear. My party peaked into the room, saw all the giants and the wiser players suggested not going in there. However, one of the players, the one that most often acted as the party's leader, had just broken up with his girlfriend, the player not the character, and had a few too many beers, once again the player, and decided to just waltz into the room. The other players then followed him, much to my horror. I tried to figure out a way to save the situation but when said depressed and drunken player then walked into the center of the room and started taunting the giants, I knew there was no hope. I played the combat out and my players, alas, did not survive. It's a shame, it was a really cool campaign. So let this be a lesson, Friends who let friends lead the party drunk, end up with dead characters.

  15. The pastel G series were the first AD&D modules I played. We got them right after 'upgrading' from the Holmes Basic set and B2.