Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Retrospective: The Throne of Bloodstone

While I unqualifiedly count myself as a fan of the articles Ed Greenwood wrote about his home campaign, the Forgotten Realms, in the pages of Dragon, my feelings about TSR's version of it are decidedly more mixed. For the most part, the original boxed campaign setting developed by Jeff Grubb and published in 1987 is quite good, retaining most of the elements that, I think, made the Realms unique, or at least distinct from previous TSR AD&D settings, like The World of Greyhawk or Krynn. However, a lot of the products later released under the Forgotten Realms banner did not, in my opinion, jibe well with Greenwood's vision for his setting, no doubt because TSR saw the Realms as a "kitchen sink" setting where anything that was possible under the AD&D could be found somewhere. 

This desire to reshape the Forgotten Realms into something more generic (or perhaps utilitarian) was obvious from the very beginning, even in the '87 boxed set. In his introduction from that set, Jeff Grubb points out the various ways Greenwood's Realms were changed to accommodate the ideas of others, such as the fact that "the land that is now Vaasa and Damara was only recently (in game design terms) covered by an unnatural glacier." Vaasa and Damara, you may recall, made their first appearance before the publication of the Forgotten Realms boxed set, in 1985's Bloodstone Pass. That module, written by Douglas Niles and Michael Dobson, was itself intended to support the Battle System miniatures rules, as were its two immediate sequels, The Mines of Bloodstone (1986) and The Bloodstone Wars (1987). 

By design, the setting presented in Bloodstone Pass is vanilla fantasy that could easily be dropped into any campaign setting. That's not a criticism and, from a sales point of view, was probably a point in its favor, broadening its pool of potential customers. With the publication of the Forgotten Realms in 1987, though, TSR found a way to cram a lot of stuff into it, in the process diluting its uniqueness. That's why the campaign box set pushes back the Great Glacier and plops Vaasa and Damara into the ice-free real estate so revealed. This change struck me then, as it does now, as utterly unnecessary, since there was nothing about the Bloodstone Lands that felt as if they could be part of the Realms. But commerce pays no heed to esthetics and I doubt anyone at TSR at the time worried about such trivial concerns.

Which brings us to the fourth and final module in the H-series: The Throne of Bloodstone. Written, like all its predecessors, by Niles and Dobson, and published in 1988, module H4 was, then and now, notorious among AD&D fans, for its stated level range – 18–100. You read that correctly; this adventure was explicitly presented as a challenge for 100th-level characters. There are even sample characters of this level provided at the end of the book, in addition to a few pages of advice to the Dungeon Master on running characters of such stratospheric levels of experience.

Why, you might ask, did the module do this? What sort of challenge could possibly justify the need for such potent characters? To start, the characters are tasked with defeating the Witch-King Zhengyi of Vaasa, a 30th-level magic-using lich who, it is revealed, is a devotee of the demon lord Orcus. In the course of this task, the characters discover a gate that leads to the Abyss, the outer planar home not only of the Lord of the Undead but of all the demon lords and princes. Traveling there to do battle with the forces of Chaotic Evil might well be a task worthy of 100th-level characters, but why go there at all, especially if the threat of Zhengyi were already eliminated?

That's where Throne of Bloodstone takes a very odd turn. Not long after discovering the gate, "a short, stocky little man with huge angel's wings wearing white robes" appears. Did I mention he also "calmly puffs on a cigar?" This is St. Sollars, a minor deity introduced all the way back in Bloodstone Pass. He speaks to the characters – in a strange Bugs Bunny-style Brooklyn accent – and explains that "the big boss, ol' Bahamut, don't much like Orcus," whom he calls "the meanest dude this side o' the Pecos." The Platinum Dragon would like the characters to help him deal with Orcus by "corral[ing] that big skull stick o' his," which is to say, he wants them to steal the wand of Orcus. 

The whole thing is beyond bizarre – especially St. Sollars, who feels like he's walked in from a completely different roleplaying game (or maybe Dave Trampier's Wormy). I honestly have no idea how to take all of this. Is it meant tongue in cheek, a kind of verbal winking at the players and the DM, since the very idea of 100th-level adventure is already somewhat absurd? Is this some sort of cryptic allusion that simply escapes me? I just don't know, but then my sense of humor is notoriously lacking. Whatever it means, the task St. Sollars offers the characters sets up the remainder of the module, which is vast in its scope.

The characters pass through the gate and arrive in Pazunia, the first layer of the Abyss. From there, they must make their way – somehow – to the layer ruled by Orcus. Doing so is, naturally, a very dangerous endeavor, since they must pass through many, many other layers to reach their final destination. The result is a kind of tour of the Abyss, with stops at the realms of Demogorgon, Yeenoghu, Lolth, Juiblex, Baphomet, Graz'zt, and so many more. What's interesting is that, while the characters can do battle with many of these fiendish AD&D luminaries, they can also parley with some of them, perhaps even ally with them, since they, too, have bones to pick with Orcus. 

As I said, Throne of Bloodstone is vast in scope. The characters, even 100th-level ones, could spend an immense amount of time traveling, exploring, fighting, and negotiating on the various levels of the Abyss that are lightly detailed in this module. It's practically a campaign in itself – and it all happens before the characters even reach the plane of Orcus. Once there, the challenges are immense, with undead beings everywhere, in addition to the requisite demons and, of course, Orcus himself. It's genuinely awe-inspiring, the kind of thing that many an AD&D no doubt dreamed of one day doing with his high-level character. 

The problems with Throne of Bloodstone are many, starting most obviously with whether it's even possible to run a game at this level. I'm not saying it isn't, only that I do not know and I suspect that neither do Douglas Niles or Michael Dobson – or indeed anyone else. That's one of the other problems: was this ever playtested? Does that even matter? Sometimes, the strength of a module's ideas are what matter and there's certainly a lot of interesting, or at least inspiring, ideas in this one. Of course, most of those ideas are barely detailed. Throne of Bloodstone is more of a sketch of a lengthy, high-level mini-campaign than an adventure module in the traditional sense.

That's why it's well nigh impossible to judge this thing. I have never played it and, for years, I scoffed at it, citing it as an example of just how much AD&D had lost its way by the late '80s. Nowadays, I am not so sure. Throne of Bloodstone is such a strange, wonderful, contradictory mess. Everything about it, from its premise to its contents is, on first blush, quite laughable and yet, having re-read it in preparation for this post, I can't simply dismiss it out of hand. Certainly, it'd require a lot work on the part of the DM to use effectively and, even then, I am not sure it could ever work in practice as well as I imagine it could – but it might be worth a try ... ?


  1. I have friends who, in high school, played the Bloodstone series (including H4) as the culmination of an AD&D campaign that began with the T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil super-module. They would have been about 15 at the time…the age when we were slavishly devoted to TSR, Rules As Written, and (sorry to say) none-too-sophisticated.

    So, yeah. It’s doable. If you don’t mind following the script, and don’t peer too closely at the absurdity of the adventure.

    Because it IS absurd. NOT because it’s written for PCs of level 100 (my friends’ characters were not so high). No, it’s absurd because it’s ridiculous and trashy, a fan-service “hit parade” of every high level monster you ever wanted to throw not your adolescent campaign: Orcus, Demogorgon, Tiamat, the Tarrasque. Perfect for kids of ages 14-15 circa 1988.

    I’ve never played or run it. I still have my friend’s copy (“loaned” to me after they finished the module). If you find St. Sollars (i.e. a solar, as from MM2) “silly,” then you weren’t paying attention. There are PLENTY of examples of ridiculous (or, rather, ‘non-serious’) events and characters in those early adventures and play reports. “Dungeonland?” Really?

    You know Gygax stated Oerth was to be pronounced “oyth” like some B-movie Chicago gangster, right?

    Because joking and punning and being ridiculed was part of the enjoyment. Even as the game play was taken as seriously as any war game fought between two (or more) armchair generals.

    H4 is a bad module. It features bad D&D. Niles was not a good designer of adventures (his Dragonlance ones tend to be some of the worst). But it’s playable. It’s just not the kind of D&D that I (as a middle aged man) am interested in playing.

    1. I agree with most of what JB wrote, particularly this:
      "H4 is a bad module. It features bad D&D. Niles was not a good designer of adventures (his Dragonlance ones tend to be some of the worst)."

    2. "You know Gygax stated Oerth was to be pronounced “oyth” like some B-movie Chicago gangster, right?"

      There's an RPG called Low-Life that refers to the (post-human setting) world as Mutha Oith. It's not the most serious of games - one of the playable PC species is an evolved Twinkie.

  2. Oh…here’s this (from 2010):

  3. In 1988 I was in college and slipping out of gaming. I saw this in a bookstore and realized it wasn't my D&d anymore. Level 100???

    1. Heh. Not my D&D at all, no. And yet people complain about where WotC has gone with the game, as though catering to absurdly high power levels and shallow power fantasies weren't a thing TSR did.

  4. In the early 90s my college group played it as a one-off. We all created 100th level characters, lit up like Christmas trees with more magical bling than was imaginable. As I recall it ended in a TPK.

    Thing is, the DM played it straight and fair, but used all the tactics and skills at his disposal to wear us down. I believe there were also rules and guidelines specifically for challenging 100th level PCs, but I never owned the module.

    It is very humbling to create such a powerhouse of a PC, only to watch him and his companions suffer humiliating defeats.

  5. As James mentioned, I think there's potential with this module as I see some real gems within the pages. The illustrations of the city ( that look to be done by Dave Sutherland III) would make for a fantastic City of Brass, and makes me want to take out some graph paper and map and key the entire thing out.

  6. JB's comments on humor in TSR publications aside, this era seems to me to have been one in which every TSR author was encouraged to think of themselves as a comedian, rather than a writer who sometimes incorporated some humor into their works. This was when we got The Orcs of Thar with its drill sergeant orcs and their orcish army manual, Castle Greyhawk's thumbing of the nose at that iconic element of Oerth, and so on. It's like the difference between Wormy and Snarfquest, and that's kind of how I think of the split in TSR's output: the Wormy era contrasted against the Snarfquest era.

    Where Wormy had some humorous elements in a strong fantasy story about a dragon who enslaves trolls (which are more like orcs or goblins in Wormy's world) to build a castle which he intends to use as a massive gladiatorial arena for his slaves, meanwhile several interested parties converge on him to end his depredations; while Snarfquest is about a nebbishy shlub who gets all the pretty girls, stumbles his way by luck into defeating a powerful wizard, and I don't remember what-all else because by that point the strip was boring the snot out of me (I seem to remember a pistol showing up randomly in the story and that being close to a final straw for me). Both strips had humor, but Snarfquest seemed like it was merely a vehicle for presenting jokes about a lucky loser, while Wormy was a good, original fantasy story that incorporated some funny imagery and such.

  7. Saint Sollars the Twice-Martyred is an in-joke referring to Ed Sollers, a TSR employee who apparently got laid off twice. Sollers was from Texas, hence the way Saint Sollars speaks and his association with the Yellow Rose.

    1. Supposedly the art of him (a dumpy gamer-guy type with glasses, angel wings notwithstanding) was based on the real Sollers as well. He helped playtest this module, which makes me wonder "St. Sollars" was originally something less ridiculous or if Sollers was confronted with his in-game homage NPC while playing.

  8. I am running this currently.

    Pre-pandemic, our High School gaming group reformed when a friend came across the "goldenrod" PC sheets; and we have been rolling through my "off the shelf" 1-2e FR collection. We have made their way through the two Myth Drannor dungeons in the Grey Box; usurped Malthiir in Hillsfar before cleansing the Damaran province of Barovia (yes, that one) of a vampire lord, and working their way to Bloodstone Village by way of the G1-G3 series. A return to all the nostalgic book hoarding I collated in my youth to be put to its purpose. (Liberal use of the Book of Lairs as interstitials)

    Our Forgotten Realms is a "Forever 1357DR," where the troubles are almost upon the land, but the final glory days of TSR products haunt our present with a desire to live out they joy of discovering that first hexagon cell over the maps..

    Anyway; this is a beast of a module. And I have yet to find a way to scale R20 to Battlesystem maps.. but I am attempting to do so.

    I have retconned Zengyhi's actions as the potential precipitating action of the establishment of Ravenloft as a demi-plane of dread.. my own nod to the 2E transition without getting rid of Bane. (The Zhents have forever been our Nazi stand-ins. In my FR they irrationally hate elves as well. Perhaps such obvious aping is wrongminded these days, but it was a trope that fits in my campaign.)

    I attempted to layer in the backbiting of abyssal wars with Klavikus parlaying a mix of gating as many demons in as possible while hinting at information; all the while as Zenghyi's undead army bears down on Bloodstone Village.

    Our party has opted to destroy the gate rather than hunt Orcus; although I am holding out some involuntary planar shenanigans.

    I NPC subbed a regular solar speaking on behalf of "silent gods," who may actually want a demiplane of dread to advance their own flock... or somesuch other Troubles like god conflict. But as a generally good aligned party, more interested in blocking the portal and saving the village then confronting Orcus directly.

    Plenty doesn't make sense. But my party is planning on using the Dungeon Mag. spell "Frame Portal" to unleash the tarrasque from under the H3 Bloodstone Mines into Zhentil Keep...

    ...and we are loving every minute of it. A lapsed narrative on RPOL if you can find it. Thank you for indulging my ramble.

    1. I'm happy to see someone enjoying this in what I assume was the intended spirit! We're all in this to have fun, after all.

    2. This makes me happy, too...and for the same reasons. Thank you for sharing!

      Despite me complaining (above) that H4 is a "bad" module, the proof is always in the playing, and your willingness to make adjustments to the thing is just one more demonstration of how even 'poor' adventures can be salvaged with effort added. Pretty cool, Harticus.

  9. My Forgotten Realms campaign is set in FR9 Bloodstone Lands; the aftermath of H4 as imagined by Bob Salvatore. I find it makes for a lot of interesting stuff, like the PCs being in the shadow of the mostly offscreen Heroes of Bloodstone (still reliably Saving the World every other week), and faithful PCs occasionally get to commune with St Sollars the Twice Martyred in his wood panelled office in Al'Amo. I gave Sollars a good ole girl secretary, Avery the Deva (I googled popular Texan girls' names), who is also very popular. :D