Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Retrospective: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief

I was recently re-reading Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, largely due to its distinction as the first adventure module published by TSR for use with any version of Dungeons & Dragons. My intention was to see what, if anything, the module had to say about itself and how it was intended to be used by the referee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its relatively early publication date (1978), module G1 doesn't say much on these topics, but what it does say is, I think, of interest and thus worthy of this post.

I long ago wrote a Retrospective on the 1981 compilation of all three G-series modules, Against the Giants. That post was narrow in its focus, containing little analysis of any of the constituent modules. Instead, it presented my recollections of having played and refereed the modules over the years. The present post is similarly narrow, focusing on the prefatory material at the beginning of Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, where Gary Gygax speaks directly to the referee.

The "Notes for the Dungeon Master" begin thusly:

There is considerable information contained herein which is descriptive and informative with respect to what the players see and do. Note that this does not mean that you, as Dungeon Master, must surrender your creativity and become a mere script reader.

TSR reputedly hadn't published a stand-alone adventure for D&D prior to this point precisely because it did not believe there would be a market for such things. There was a belief that, echoing the sentiments of OD&D's afterword, referees would not want TSR to do any more of their imagining for them. The success of Palace of the Vampire Queen and the early Judges Guild materials demonstrated the falsity of this belief and so TSR decided to enter the adventure-publishing business, releasing more than a half-dozen modules in 1978 alone. Bearing all that in mind, this reassurance that the referee is no "mere script reader" perhaps suggests that there was some concern – real or imagined – that referees might come to view their role in this way.

You must supply considerable amounts of additional material. You will have to make up certain details of area. There will be actions which are not allowed for here, and you will have to judge whether or not you will permit them.

To my mind, this section suggests that Gygax viewed an adventure module as an outline and a foundation on which to build rather than as a complete, ready-to-use product that did all the referee's work for him. Given that this was the general attitude at the time even toward the rules of roleplaying games, I think this view was a sensible one. Nevertheless, the fact that Gygax felt it necessary to state this explicitly makes me wonder about how the hobby might already have been changing a mere four years after its formal start.

Finally, you can amend and alter monsters and treasures as you see fit, hopefully within the parameters of this module, and with an eye towards the whole, but to suit your particular players.

Here, Gygax is simultaneously reminding the referee that his is the final decision in all matters, even when using a published module, and that any such decision should take into account the facts as the module presents them. Consistency and continuity are, therefore, important considerations, which is a point he emphasizes later in this same section.

The "Notes for the Dungeon Master" point out that the giants are "clever" and will "organize traps, ambushes, and last-ditch defenses against continuing forays into their stronghold." Note the use of the adjective "continuing." Gygax assumes that no party will be able to "clear" the Steading in a single assault, which is why he references the existence of a "hidden cave base camp" to which the characters can return to rest, heal, and even "receive experience point benefits." What Gygax clearly envisages is not a "one and done" attack against the giants but a series of regular, military-style forays between which the surviving giants will take precautions against the characters. 

On the matter of continuity, Gygax explains:

If you plan to continue this campaign by using the other modules in the series, be certain to keep track of the fate of important giants and their allies or captives. The former will generally flee to the next higher ranking stronghold, and the latter will be available for assistance to some parties. This assumes survival, of course, as well as opportunity.

The usage of "campaign" in this fashion reinforces the military nature of the characters' assault, I think. He goes on with more advice about handling continuity:

Some provisions for movement of surviving giants is shown in MODULES G2, G3, et al., but you will have to modify or augment these groups according to the outcome of previous adventuring by your party. This principle will also hold true with regard to any additional scenarios which you use if they concern any of the creatures connected with this series. Such continuity of encounters will certainly tend to make the adventures of the party more meaningful and exciting. 

This is all very much in keeping with the Gygaxian principles laid out again and again in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. Gygax was much concerned with the construction and presentation of a consistent, persistent setting so that players could make rational decisions about their characters' actions. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say this was the hallmark of his conception not just of Dungeons & Dragons but of roleplaying more generally. Anything less rigorous than that he would have, I imagine, viewed as fundamentally unfair and against the spirit of the entire enterprise of roleplaying.

Because of its place as the first module published by TSR, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is fairly unambitious in both its content – the whole thing is only 8 pages long – and in its presentation. Despite its brevity, one can already detect within it the beginnings of a philosophy of not just adventure design but of play that I think is well worth further examination, as are all the Gygax-penned modules of 1978.


  1. It's actually a very good blueprint for the hobby: a well laid-out and plausible location with interesting inhabitants that the DM then makes come alive.

    This is in stark contrast to where we ended up by mid to late 80's with railroads and story-games.

    The key for every DM is to use a module like G1 as a spring board that eventually get replaced by their own campaign-specific content.

  2. So many good ideas shrouded by such miserable presentation. Still, Gary’s soaring imagination shined through his (dis)organization skills. My favorite is encounter #6, Hall of the Chief. It begins with a needless sentence, “Numerous interesting things fill this place.” Then provides a furniture inventory – yawn – before it finally gets to what should have been the first sentence – heads on the walls! In classic early module form, there’s also no break between public and private info. So if the DM just reads, as mine did back in 1981, he soon reveals a +3 shield. The fact that we all slogged through this C- essay, and still return to it, is lasting tribute to Gary’s penchant for striking key themes that resonated through all that clutter. Would be fun to rewrite this with better presentation.

    1. I love your analysis here - it is a complete rethink of the purpose of the text. Convey what is important and excise fluff that doesn't assist, or clarify it if needed.

    2. The presentation in G1 is far from perfect, but it is a major step forward compared to the 40 or so scenarios that had been published up to this date, so I can't see that anyone would have given it less than the top grade at the time (and from contemporary accounts I don't see a bad word said about it). It could be presented clearer - and that's the improvement you'd have expected to see in future modules - but the boxed text approach they took led to far more eggregious sins, such as the first encounter of S4: "You have ignored a narrow passageway to your left (west) in order to enter this area, for your light has glinted off something on the far wall of this place"

  3. Right, the boxed text strategy did not work because it did not address the underlying problem – disorganized, unfocused writing. It’s still junk, even if you put it in a box. One can fix the problem by just applying the lessons of freshman year college composition; nowadays that’s summed up as BLUF and KISS. For example, the 17 lines of boxed text in S4 encounter #1 really boils down to this.

    Six doleful faces marked with dog ears, tusks, or drooping wattles carved in bass relief protrude from the rocky walls. A tunnel opens beside each face. Stalactites hang from above and some have fallen among the stalagmites below.

    That’s it. No need to describe what we did or did not do before we got here (we should know that already) or that our light “glinted off something.” Just get right to it and describe that something!

  4. Eero Tuovinen's recently published _Muster_, an exegesis on playing D&D in a wargames style, has much to say on the topic of organizing a game as "a series of regular, military-style forays" into a dungeon or other adventure locale: