Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Retrospective: Secret of the Slavers Stockade

The "Slave Lords" series of AD&D modules consists of four modules, beginning with Slave Lords of the Undercity, about which I have fond, if complicated, feelings. Truth be told, that's true of all the modules in the A-series, They're a mix of compelling ideas, some memorable encounters, and contrived situations in order to serve their purpose as tournament scenarios. When TSR published them, the designers cleaned them up for more general use, to varying degrees of effectiveness. 

The second module in the series, Secret of the Slavers Stockade, by Harold Johnson with assistance from Tom Moldvay, is, in my opinion, one of the better ones. Its premise is that the characters have a map to an old fort in the hills that is really a front for the salvers. Their goal is to investigate the fort and, if possible, disrupt the operations of the slavers within. It's a solid basis for an adventure, one that demands stealth and thoughtful action to succeed.

The fort (the titular Slavers' Stockade, which gets an apostrophe in the text but not on the cover) is large and well defended, with plenty of guards whose presence makes it difficult for the characters to move about. In fact, the place is so well defended that the tournament scoring system operates under the assumption that, after three hours of play, the characters will not make it very far into the fort. In addition, there's a section specifically devoted to "hill fort strategy," detailing how the guards will respond once it becomes apparent there are intruders in their midst. That's not even factoring in wandering monsters. In short, the characters have their job cut out for them.

Ultimately, to put an end to the threat of the Stockade, the characters will need to find and kill its overseer, Markessa, an evil female elf fighter/magic-user, who keeps a pet owlbear and is guarded by goblins. Here's Bill Willingham's [I'd originally incorrectly identified this as Roslof's work – JM] illustration of her and two goblins.

These goblins look a lot like Roslof's depiction of them for the AD&D Monster Cards in 1982, the year after the publication of this module. Once again, I find myself absolutely fascinated by the variability in the way some humanoid monsters are drawn in Dungeons & Dragons, with goblins having some of the greatest variability. 

The module includes some of other interesting illustrations, such as that of a new monster, the boggle, drawn by Jeff Dee.
I draw your attention to the boggle because he's not terribly dissimilar in general appearance to Roslof's goblins. Of course, he also looks a bit like Gollum from the 1978 Ralph Bakshi The Lord of the Rings animated film, so what do I know? The module includes several "tactical maps" for major encounters, which are decorated with illustrations of some of the monsters found in the Stockade.
Both of these figures are drawn by Jeff Dee: the upper left being a goblin and the bottom right a kobold. Both look very similar to those drawn by Roslof for the Monster Cards. That makes me wonder if perhaps there was some level of art direction at TSR during this time or if it's simply a case of a group of artists who all cribbed from one another when drawing these creatures. I simply don't know the answer at this point, but I must confess that I'm now of a mind to see if I can find out.

In any case, Secret of the Slavers Stockade has the potential to be a fun module, if your players enjoy sneaking around and avoiding drawing attention to themselves. If not, it's probably going to turn into a huge combat slog and will likely result in one or more character deaths. The latter was my own experience of refereeing it in my youth, but, in those days, we were much more tolerant of gigantic slugfests than I am today. Even careful players will likely find this a difficult module, so I won't be surprised if many commenters don't share my largely positive opinion of it, which is fair. For me, I appreciate that Johnson didn't make the Stockade easy to overrun. This is, after all, the headquarters of a powerful evil organization; it should be a dangerous place and it is. 
Have a blurry orc by Jeff Dee

18 comments:

  1. As for art direction at TSR, Jim Roslof was the art director as of May 1981. I don't know who (if anyone) had the position before him. He would presumably have given artists assignments, but I don't know how much direction he gave about the details of their drawings. I'm pretty sure he wasn't the art director for A2; I think it had to have been in production before May, since it has art from Dee (and Willingham?) in it and they left before Roslof became art director.

    Speaking of Roslof, are you sure he did that drawing of Markessa and the goblins? It looks an awful lot like Bill Willingham's work to me.

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    1. I am not sure. You could well be correct, since Willingham is listed in the credits and almost none of the illustrations bear signatures.

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    2. It is absolutely Willingham's work, right down to the shading.

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    3. FWIW, I found a couple of blogs that agreed with that, and further stated that it's Willingham's only illo in the module. They didn't state sources but seemed to know what they were talking about otherwise - correctly identifying other art, etc.

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    4. I've corrected the post accordingly, with an accompanying note.

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  2. It's one of my favorites just for all the feelings it gives me. I played it with a friend in 6th grade when it was newly released. Players were hard to come by - it was just the two of us, so we played it as a stealth module, and I was a lone elf fighter, sneaking in. (The adventure was highly modified!) The stakes, theme, and rescue elements gave the adventure a different feel than the usual hack, slash, and collect treasure. It really worked for me at 11 years old.

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  3. My only specific memory of *playing* D&D as a child, as compared to just reading it, was solo-playing A2 during recess and other interstitial moments using Mentzer Basic as a rules set.

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  4. I like these infiltration type adventures but my players never did. I found that to make it successful I had to split the difference and allow the players to identify isolated pockets of bad guys and take them out a little at a time. The implicit understanding that once they leave, their attacks will be noticed and the place would go on high alert so they had to pick their shots wisely and conserve resources.
    Sometimes we must suspend our disbelief for the sake of the game so that it stays a game. It took a while of managing expectations, but my players understand what they can get away with and if it is hazy they can ask, “can we take these guys out?”

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  5. Only played this once back in my teens, and it ended in a messy TPK pretty early. Not a very tactically adept group back then. Maybe not today either. :)

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  6. Reading this it hit me that you could probably use the Slave Stokade as the base of the Iron Ring slavers from Nights Dark Terror.

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    1. That's just what I'm doing in my current campaign! They've also rampaged through about half of A1, which I set in the outskirts of the town of Kelven.

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  7. When this came out, my old buddies and I took one look at the boggle and said Pfft, that's Gollum.

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  8. Like some of the responses above, I have hazy memories of playing this series with only my little brother due to a lack of local players. One of us would GM and run a couple of our characters and the other would run the rest of the party.

    Suspension of disbelief indeed. I'd like to think even as pre-teens we didn't spoil the module for each other by both GMing it.

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  9. Additional sidebar:
    Given the ready accessibility of stuff nowadays compared to the early 1980s, I am still slightly amazed we were able to collect full series of modules like the A, G, D, and U series just by riding our off-brand BMX bikes downtown to the hobby shop of our sleepy suburban Long Island town, and seeing what they decided to stock that week. They also stocked Grenadier and Ral Partha miniatures which we would occasionally pick up. I still have a few! To my memory, they didn't stock the hardcover rulebooks, though.

    I do remember that most of the hardcover rules books and box sets we acquired at the brand name bookstores like B Daltons or Waldenbooks in the mall. I don't remember them stocking many modules.

    I wonder if it was local preference or something about the distribution chain that caused this supply distribution to happen.

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    1. Were you biking to the Waterloo in Mineola or Stonybrook?

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    2. How did you know?!? 😁 We had heard about the legendary Waterloo from some older gamers but couldn't convince our parents to drive us to Stony Brook to go to "just a toy store". We tried to bike it once as 12 year olds but horribly underestimated the distances involved. We gave up around the St. James firehouse as the afternoon was waning.
      A few years later we had cars but the Stony Brook location had closed. We made it to the Mineola location, but by then we had discovered Man At Arms hobbies in Coram and Fourth World had also opened in St James.
      Amazingly, both are still going after all this time!

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    3. Your memories match mine closely. Huffy, Mongoose, Murray . . . bikes made of lead-iron alloy? Ruthlessly heavy, even to chuck into the bed of a pickup truck. The A-Series modules were curious in their distribution, I agree. A4 was everywhere, which was cool because . . . Erol. We had to steal a hardback PHB from the Great Falls Library by dropping it out the window to beat the sensor. Getting the entire collection of a module series beyond the cheat of G123 or D12 was tough. I think we finally gripped the Stockade in 1984, and played it in the woods with about four steadies. The Stockade was imposing, but we had already learned about stealth. Trying to steal cigarettes or nudie mags from older brothers involves the tactical pursuit of Getting In, Getting Out, and Getting Away with it. Otherwise you find yourself harkening to A4: stripped naked and left in a parking lot 15 miles away. Now maybe, maybe you got caught peeing on the engine compartment of an older brothers' car (talk about a stink) or pouring root beer between the driver's side doors to bring those delightful Summer bees. Consequences, man. Stealth is the main weapon of the outgunned.

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