Friday, 20 November 2020

Thoughts on A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords

Thoughts on A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords 

“Right now I’m having amnesia and déjà vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”
― Steven Wright 

Into the Drachengrab Mountains! Hot on the trail of the marauding slavers, you and your fellow adventurers plunge deep into hostile Hills. Spurred on by your past success, you now seek the heart of the slaver conspiracy. But hurry! You must move quickly before the slavers recover from your previous forays and attack! [A3] 

What can I say about A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords? I’m not really a fan of the module, not in and of itself, anyway.
As far as classic tournament modules go, I'd have to say that it is a solid example of how tournament modules were written at that time. It's fast-paced, and it can easily fit neatly into a four-hour timeslot.
But I'm really not a fan of tournament modules. They usually have encounters with monsters that have never seen the light of day again, for good reason. Also, there are those unrealistic dungeon layouts. Who would design and excavate such things?
Personally, I think this is the weakest of the A series, mainly because it was always meant to be a stepping stone to the finale. It really serves no other purpose. The characters have to navigate a dungeon to gain entry to the city, which is a city in name only. There are no houses, not residences, and no marketplace to speak of. The businesses are scattered about without rhyme or reason. It was meant to be a series of set encounters that led the characters to, you guessed it, another dungeon. The Slave Lords are left undeveloped, their names and backgrounds pointless if not utilized in the course of the adventure, something unlikely to happen in the time allotted in a four-hour tournament.  I’m not being unkind. Tournaments are tournaments. They’re not supposed to be deep. They're supposed to be fast and furious with lots of combat and traps and PC mortality.
Aside from that, there is much to glean from this module, despite its faults, especially if it is considered Part 1 of the finale, A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords being Part 2.
Taken as such, Allan Hammack did alright, considering the constraints placed upon him. He was hobbled from the get go and had to work within the confines of what was to come. That he was hobbled with writing this module is unfortunate, considering the whole series was based on his original idea of having the PCs awaken in a dungeon, stripped of their equipment and magic, and left with only their imaginative skill and ingenuity to aid them in their escape. That is sheer genius. But how could the DM place the PCs in such a predicament?
But I’m getting ahead of myself…. 

The story so far:
Nerelas in Highport
Slavers have plundered the coasts, carrying off farmers, fisherfolk, and nobility alike. The PCs have put an end, albeit temporarily, to their activity in Nyrond at Darkshelf. Maybe not. You likely set them back a few months until they set up another front in another coastal village and carried on, unabated. Then, some time later, you infiltrated the sacked city of Highport in the Pomarj, where all evidence of the slavers’ activity pointed. You discovered that Highport was only a base from which those slavers sallied forth. The slavers were not only operating by sea, they were raiding from deep within the Drakensgrab Mountains into and across the Lortmils and Ulek. It was there that you confronted Icar and Markessa, coming face to face with depravity and horror as you had never imagined. But Markessa was not the mastermind behind all you had fought thus far. Further evidence pointed to the remote Marche of Suderham.
How were the PCs directed here? They found a map, of course. It’s an old trope. Why should there be a map? The slavers are likely know where their strongholds and outposts are. Have the information buried within reams of paperwork and correspondence. Have the characters chase Markessa there if you wish; after all, the text of A2 suggested that she is likely to escape.
I would suggest that you ensure she does. More on that later.

The module begins with a cavern complex that leads to the “city” of Suderham, its paths riven with mazes and traps and slides and monsters that would have made travel by even the slavers difficult, if not impossible. Let's not get into how absolutely no effort went into making the Cave Map look like anything natural, but let's do discuss how it is even guarded by an illusionist, a supposedly
lackluster one of only eighth level named Wimpell Frump, with the expectation that the Aerie will be assaulted despite its being deep in the Pomarj.
Eighth level? Lackluster? I think not. I ask you, why would anyone of such skill agree to such a task? It would be a boring vigil, I expect. Aside from that, what need they of a hired illusionist when they have Lamonsten, an illusionist of note sitting on their council?
Dispense with the dungeon. It is unnecessary. Keep the action above ground. I’d also dispense with the idea of Suderham resting on an island. The logistics of sustaining such a place would be daunting, at best.
I would downgrade Suderham to a remote lakefront village at the foot of Drachen Keep, a fortified house of the deposed marquess. (Why a fortified house and not a castle, because it is inland and not on a border; castles and keeps with walls and palisades have always seemed more fitting on borders in my mind; and a fortified house would be cheaper to build and maintain. I like to imagine that the marquess’ ancestor built his retreat after having tamed his lands.) Hedged farmlands stretch out from the river that wends through a valley that’s peppered with bunches of pine and beech.
Draken Keep
The party can then creep up on the village, waylay some slavers’ caravan approaching it, and use their papers to gain entry (as the module suggests). Once within, the characters can learn more about what befell the Marche from those inhabitants that remain, held hostage to the orcs that overran it, and the slavers who took possession. This is all predicated on the assumption that what follows is part of a greater campaign, and not a tournament, if anyone runs such anymore.
As per the module, the town will be infested with slavers, and the townsfolk will be wary of strangers, as all newcomers are there to deal with their new masters.
Skulking in Suderham
The module has the party skulking throughout the city, searching for clues to the entrance to yet another dungeon, the city sewer, whose layout would impede the flow of sewage. That’s two dungeons, thus far. With a barely developed city in between. There’s so much that can and should happen here.
There are allies to be found. Selzen Murtano, for one. You don’t remember him? He's the beggar met at the gate:

As you pass through the main gate and take your first steps into the city, a wizened, limping beggar hobbles UD and asks for alms.
The beggar, upon closing with the party, whispers that he is an agent of those who hired the players. He says, “Seek out the ivory paladin,” and then disappears into the passersby. [A3]

He left clues for the PCs to follow. Whether you choose to use them as written is up to you, but I imagine he bribed the bartender of the inn “The Sign of the White Knight” to pass information to them in the even of his own passing.

In the east side of the dining area is the bar counter, behind which works an overweight, sweating bartender. If the bartender is given 10gp (or more) he will say, “Not all who lie may be resting;” for 50gp (or more) more he will add “learn from the knowledge that never dies.” [A3]

Use Selzen Murtano. He makes further appearances as the campaign progresses.
These are the stats given him in A4:

AC 4 (studded leather), MV 9”, LVL 6 thief, hp 30, #AT 1, D 1-8 from long sword, S 7, I 16, W 6, D 18, C 15, ch 14, AL NG).

Selzen Murtano is a slender man with attractive features and a sly wit. He’s prone to impulsiveness and sometimes acts without thinking. He keeps his black hair short and his face shaved. He wears fine studded leather armor and keeps a longsword in a scabbard hanging from his belt. In addition to weapons and armor, Selzen has a padded wallet containing thieves’ tools. [D215]

Ditch the second dungeon, too. Firstly it's just an excuse to add another maze to the module; and secondly, its a sewer whose design
 would impede the flow of sewage. Why design it as such? And more importantly, why would the Slavers place their throne / conference room in a sewer when they obviously own the city and have nothing to fear from its populace? The idea is preposterous and should be ignored. Develop the marquess’ fortified house instead. Put the slave pens in the basement, and the Slave Lords’ apartments on the second floor. Most encounters ought to be focussed on the fain floor, including the face-off with those Lords present.

There’s been much ado about these Slave Lords, thus far. Who are they? What do we know about them? Not much, really. This is what we do know.
Those mentioned are:
Feetla (a buccaneer and the mastermind behind the slavers’ raids to date) is the supposed leader of the group. He's shown to have an eyepatch, but is that really necessary? No; it's just for flavour. I suggest making him Suloise, and a Sea Prince in exile, one with Scarlet Brotherhood connections. What does he need the Brotherhood for? He needs money to hire a fleet with which to take back his lands and estate in the Hold of the Sea Princes. He's a man of the sea and would most certainly prefer to be on the deck of a ship, and not stuck in these mountains. But a man's got to do what a man's got to do.
Nerelas (a silent and cunning assassin) is the spymaster. I've suggested using him before, as early as in A1 to draw the PCs into a much larger narrative, foreshadowing far more sinister foes than those presented. Is he a Suloise Uncle? Why not. His profession fits the bill. The lot of them might be Suloise, if you've a mind to make them so.
Ajakstu (a magic-user who is otherwise unremarked upon) is our femme fatale. We can have fun here. The module is rather testosterone heavy, so he can be a she, which opens the story up for role play. She can be as evil as you wish. Or not. She could be LN, and dedicated to her people's cause, if not as ruthless in the pursuit of their plat as Feetla is, and Nerelas surely is. Is she offended by slavery? No. It is sanctioned by the law of the Land of Purity, and she has never questioned the right and wrong of it. It just is.
Brother Milerjoy (a high ranking member of the Scarlet Brotherhood) is there to keep an eye on things, and to see that the Brotherhood's interests are met. If the Slavers are Suloise, Milerjoy's presence is far more convincing.
And then we have Modrammo (high priest of the cult of the Earth Dragon, or so he professes to be). Let's make him another Sea Prince in exile, Feetla's elder brother. He is the real mastermind behind this whole enterprise. That will add depth to the backstory. Neither he nor Feetla trust the Brotherhood; they are just a means to an end. In fact, Nerelas and Ajakstu and Milerjoy are expendable, as far as he is concerned.

There are more, supposedly. There must be. There are nine thrones in the chamber of the Slave Lords and only five are present.
Who might they be? They are named in A4: Theg Narlot, Edralve, Lamonsten, and Ketta. That most definitely raised the number to nine. But these villains have not joined our narrative (unless you’ve been following these missives and taken to heart those suggestions I’d mentioned) and will be addressed in another review.
Very little is said about any of the villains in this module, though. I expect it was assumed that they would be elaborated upon in A4. Maybe it was assumed that most would be killed by the PCs. Either way, more is said about Milerjoy and Mordrammo than the others.

Brother Milerjoy
[Brother Milerjoy] and his disciple Brother Kerin mysteriously appeared at the first Council of the Slave Lords. It is an indication of the growing strength of the Scarlet Brotherhood that Brother Milerjoi was immediately accepted into the Council. [A3]

The mere mention of Brother Kerin is a mystery, as he is only mentioned in passing and never makes an appearance in this adventure.

Stalman Kim, I AM Death
Mordrammo is the chief priest of the Temple of the Earth Dragon. He is a strong enemy, but his self-preservation instinct is strong, He realizes that the attacking party could very well get lucky, so he has a protection from good […] before the party enters the room. As soon as he throws his flame strike, Mordrammo will escape using his word of recall. [A3]

About that Earth Dragon…. There is nary a mention of the Cult of the Earth Dragon out of the A series, and its sequel Slavers, so its up to you if you wish to use it here. It is Flan, and if you go with the Suloise theme it is out of place, except as a red herring for any prying eyes. Mordrammo could just as easily be a high priest of the Elemental Eye instead, tying the temple stumbled upon in A0 into the overall story arch.

Mordrammo, Brother Kerin, and the other Slave Lords will reappear near the end of module A4 [In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords). [A3]

One would think so, anyway, as it says so here; but one would be wrong. Kerin does, but not Mordrammo. Or maybe he does. A certain Stalman Klim does. Is Stalman Kim Mordrammo? Of course he is: Their stat blocks are identical. The confusion was cleared up 30 years later in Dungeon #215’s The Last Slave Lord in which it was explained that Stalman Klim was known as Mordrammo to his underlings, a name meaning “I am Death”. [The Last Slave Lord]

Is this such a big deal? No. I blame the editors back in 1980 for not keeping each writer in the know of what was going on with other modules in the series being written concurrently with their own. 

Does this module fail? I think it does, on many levels. Maybe not as a tournament module, but certainly as part of a greater campaign, which the series becomes when strung together. Why does it fail? Because the PCs are supposed to fail. Should they? It’s up to you. The question is, do you want to run A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords? If you do, then the PCs must be defeated.

And that will likely piss them off, especially if it is obvious that they had no chance at all. 

How’s that for verisimilitude? And it doesn’t change the intent of the original storyline.



The Art:
Cover art, from A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, by Jeff Dee, 1981
Cave Map, from A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, 1981
Wimpell Frump, from A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, by Jeff Dee, 1981
Suderham Gate, from A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, by Jim Roslof (?), 1981
Arabian-esque scene, A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, by Bill Willingham, 1981
Sewer Map, from A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, 1981
Brother Milerjoy detail, A3 Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords by Jeff Dee (?), 1981

All art is wholly owned by the artists.
All source material presented within this blog piece is owned and copyrighted by WotC.
The use of this material is not intended to challenge the rights of WotC.
This document is fan content and presented solely for the personal use of those individuals who game within the Greyhawk Setting.
9039A A0 Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, 2013
9039 A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, 1980
9040 A2 Secret of the Slaver’s Stockade, 1981
9041 A3 Aerie of the Slave Lords, 1981
9042 A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, 1981
11621 Slavers, 2000
The Last Slave Lord, by Robert J. Schwalb, Dungeon magazine #215, 2013


  1. Love your reviews. I'm running Against the Slave Lords (half-way through A0) right now, but slowly, converting to 5E as I go. They do need some fixing as you suggest. I'm leaving in the Earth Dragon personally, though I considered other deities. I'm changing the Elder Elemental Eye reference in A0 to the Earth Dragon.

    Question: There's a magic weapon called the "Sword of Lyons" (Room A5). Any Greyhawk canon / lore on this items, or even the name Lyons? My searches have came up empty.

    1. My guess is that the Sword of Lyons is a one-off in this module. There is no other official mention of it anywhere, not that I can find.
      Mike Bridges references it in one of his posts:

      There is this thread, as well:

      I'd say the Sword of Lyons is yours to command. Create a legend about some master thief named Lyons, who stole from the rich and gave to ... whoever he happened to be buying stuff from. :-)

    2. Thanks for the links, I hadn't seen those. Was hoping for some juicy canon on it. Not that canon goes unquestioned, but I prefer to start there and build onto, or change if needed. Now I'm free to give it a nice backstory of my choosing. Again, thanks for these reviews, it provides perspectives and identifies weaknesses long before I get to run them. Your suggested changes are intriguing to say the least.

  2. Bards of Greyhawk loves and approves of this very well written review of A3. We would expect nothing less than the best from you good Sir. Keep up the great work.

  3. The next to last piece of art (of Brother Milerjoi) is by Bill Willingham (not Jeff Dee).

    1. Yes, it very much looks like Bill's work, but as to the "credit given, see my comment about the artwork below.

  4. I ran the A series with my players. One thing that bothered me was that the whole thing was apparently set up based on the assumption that the players would be having a prisoner walking in front of them, to set off any traps. This was why there was a trapdoor, and a secret door which led to the Slavers' HQ, and a flame thrower for the players. A fellow DM told me that they played it that way, and then the players searched for the secret door. Knowing that it must exist, they just kept searching, until they found it. The module says that the door can only be opened with a ring that the subject was wearing. So, if that is true... well, a thief could still pick the lock, or maybe, once they know that that is the way to go, someone else could break the door down. The entire dungeon, presumably, is to prevent people from getting to the Slavers' throne room. The very stupidest thing that one could possibly do would be to build a secret passage straight to the "dungeon".

  5. The Suderham gate art from A3 is by Erol Otus, not Roslof.

    1. I tend to agree. They look very much like their work. But I decided to a note for the artwork in:

      Jeff Dee: Front Cover( Five of the Slave Lords, left to right: Nerelas, Mordrammo, Feetla, Ajakstu, Brother Milerjoi), Armored Golem(p.1), Elwita(p.2), Trapdoor (notice the upside down signature)(p.3), Gnoll Illusionist (Wimpell Frump)(p.6), White Knight Sign(p.11), Ayares the Cutpurse(p.12), Wild Cat Barmaid(p.15), Mimic Floor(p.15).[2]
      Erol Otus: Adventurers in the piercer cave(p.4),page 5 , Money Changer(p.8), Minotaur(p.17), Back Cover.
      Bill Willingham: Arabian-esque scene with assassin and harem girls(p.14), Storoper(p.22), Archer and goblinoid(p.23).
      Unsigned: Guards outside the wall(p.9), Stylised image of what might be an Ankylosaraus, Yeenoghu/Gnoll and a Storoper(p.16), 'Ogre' fighting Feetla and Brother Milerjoi. (Look's like Jeff Dee's work but is unclaimed)(p.19). Possibly these are Jim Roslof's and David S. Laforce who were credited as artists for the module.