Friday, 5 February 2021

Thoughts on A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords

Thoughts on A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords

 “Never touch your idols: the gilding will stick to your fingers."
― Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

There was a period when TSR consolidated their “adventure paths” into omnibus editions. Where those amalgamated versions successful? I wasn’t buying gaming products at the time, but I imagine they flew off the shelves. But were they good?
As I’ve been doing a deep dive into the Slavers series, let’s look at Scourge of the Slave Lords and find out. 
I’ll begin with touching on what remained the same within this super-adventure:
The original modules were largely untouched, and were reproduced verbatim, almost word for word, as it were. Indeed, almost every room description was left unaltered. Is that a good thing? That depends. Did you love the originals? Would you have been incensed had they rewritten them? Probably. Maybe the question ought to be, should they have rewritten them? Maybe. Probably not. Had they rewritten them, you might argue that the linked modules would not have been the A series anymore. And you would be right. From that point of view, you might say that it was best to leave well enough alone.
If you are of that opinion, that is. 

What changed?
The biggest change was the addition of a prologue. Who wrote it? I’ll go out on a limb and say that it was written by Ed Carmien. The super module is said to be designed by David Cook, Allen Hammack, Harold Johnson, Tom Moldvay, Lawrence Schick, and the aforementioned Carmien; but as we all know that Cook wrote the first, Johnson with Moldvay the second, Hammack the third, and Schick the finale, and that most of those mentioned had moved on to greener passages by the time this was published, I suppose that makes Carmien the sole designer of what followed.
Unlike the compilation that followed in 2013 (Against the Slave Lords), the 1986 super module presupposes that the PCs will have completed the Gygax adventure path of T1-4 (released the prior year as Temple of Elemental Evil), then A1-4 (Scourge of the Slave Lords), and moving on to G1-3, D1-3, and Q1 (Queen of the Spiders), and there were foreshadowing and clues to what was to come within it.
Highport is loosely developed, as is Suderham. There are interludes added as well, to fill in the gaps as the party gets from point A to B. Do those add to the adventure. A little. Not much. Most of it is side material.

Our Heroes
So, how does the super module begin?
The PCs are heroes, having plunged into the halls and depths of the Temple of Elemental Evil, putting an end to Eclavdra’s and Lolth’s evil plot.
(I must admit, that I do not like how Frank Mentzer had altered Gary Gygax’s original plot. Eclavdra was, and will forever be, an acolyte of the Elder Elemental Evil, in my mind.)
As you stretch out on the bench before the inn to warm yourself in the sun, you spot a stranger striding down the lane. Ostler, leaning out his front door, nods in that direction and says, "Now, what dye make o' that, fair sirs? 'Tis a man wrapped in the colors 0' some laird, strolling through our Hommlet. bustlin' like he's driven on some grand business. Mayhaps I'll have me some lairds party stayin' for the night." With a shrug he goes inside, calling to his family.
Looking closely, you can make out the glint of flaxen hair tumbling out from beneath the liveried cape. From the way this stranger moves, you'd safely guess him to be a her. Now, what business would a woman have in such a sleepy little village, a lords woman at that?
Assuming a sleepy pose, you continue to watch the stranger through half closed eyes. With a purposeful stride, she crosses the inn yard and passes your bench. A mingled scent of perfume and horse sweat follows her. There are muffled voices inside.
Suddenly, she steps back out the door and tosses back the hood of her cloak. "Good sirs," she says with a graceful curtsy, "I bear a message from Most Worthy Dame Gold of Safeton." She is, as you guessed, a young woman, endowed with a dignified and subdued beauty. She thrusts a heavy, buff envelope into your startled hands. "To The Saviors of Hommlet" is written across the front in a spidery hand. The back is closed with a large blob of wax pressed with a seal. She turns and walks away.
The invitation reads:
To those Brave and Worthy; May it never be said that the courageous undertake valor for the hope of reward nor the righteous seek purity. and thus may aspersions of evil never fall upon thy name. But, as ye know too well, the rewards of virtue are painful and cold.
Our advisors, through wisdom and sagacity. have proclaimed thy actions good and virtuous, done for the wealth of the people of Hommlet. Those so noble as yourselves will grace and ornament the presence of any gathering. We beseech you to kindly honor us with your presence during the Feasts of Edoira at Windy Crag in the town of Safeton.
Dame Gold 
[A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords - 5]

The PCs accept the invitation, and the adventure begins. What follows is a bit of a railroad adventure—that said, all adventures are a bit of a railroad adventure.
You may disagree, but once a story arc is introduced, and the PCs begin to follow it, there is an evil plot to be discovered, uncovered, and investigated, with plot points that lead to cities, manors, keeps and dungeons to be visited, and low level through high level bad guys to be defeated. The DM cannot possibly develop the entire world, and once the plot begins to unfold, it need be followed up on, no matter whether if the PCs travel to Saltmarsh instead of Nulb.
The PCs attend a week long festival at Dame Gold’s estate, where the meet and interact with a number of NPC. Friends and foes are potentially created, depending on how the week plays out. If this were to be a lengthy social and political campaign, this would certainly be a great way to begin it; but as most of these NPCs will never be seen nor heard from again, the party might be considered pointless. If the players like dungeon delves, this will likely end the campaign.
If the players are patient, once the festival comes to an end, they leave to begin a quest asked of them, one probably never embarked on, Dame Gold’s estate is raided, and a number of the guests are either carried off or enslaved.

What follows is a clever, if VERY, railroady adventure.
It’s going to piss off a lot of players.
Self-determination will be stripped from them two or three times, literally.
But what follows does have its high points. There are spies and characters met on the road that have great potential, if used. As I already mentioned, there are interludes and subplots that help fill the gaps between modules. Eldredd is especially good, in my opinion, as is the attempt to develop the city of Highport.
I will not go into the individual modules within, as I’ve already done as much in earlier posts. If you have not, I invite you to visit those if you are interested in what I though of them.
But before Highport, the party must be dealt the Fate Worse than Death—cleverly conceived to elevate the PCs from hired thugs to victims incited by need for revenge—which may or may not break the campaign.
Captured
The PCs are captured and set to work as galley slaves for however long as it takes them to conceive and carry out an escape. It’s meant to break them. Worse than that, it is written into the adventure that the PCs WILL be captured and enslaved, the means spelled out. They will be gassed and shanghaied while aboard the Ghoul, a ship they contracted (terrible name; you should rename it, something like the Maidenhead, or some such), or bushwhacked if upon the road to Highport. In either, the PCs WILL be overcome, and enslaved. This will be the first moment where the PCs have no self-determination. The second will be when at the end of A3, the PCs will be overcome by the very same plot device.

Is the adventure made better? Marginally at times.
I especially enjoyed the addition of the introduction of the expositional character of Oric in Scumslum:
North of the walled city of Suderham, between the city and its harbor area, is the area known derisively to the locals as "ScumSlum! Peasant field workers far the farms, non-household slaves, and almost everyone who is not a tradesman, a slaver, or in the militia lives in shabby hovels clustered along the harbor road. For a few coins, any of the inhabitants of this area will invite the player characters into their home, beckoning them to move quickly, with darting eyes searching for agents of the slave lords. Copper is the expected coin for these people, silver will bring a very friendly reaction, and gold will raise eyebrows: "We don't see much gold here, stranger." [SotSL - 97]

The informant's name is Oric, and at 40 years of age he looks like a man of 60; he is worn out by the harsh life of being a peasant farm worker, and has already exceeded the average life expectancy of his kind. Suspicious and curmudgeonly at first, the prospect of the money the player characters are offering will gradually bring out his garrulous good nature; his final suggestion about ambushing slave buyers should provide the party with a method of entry into Suderham.
Oric will discuss as much about the city and its rulers as he knows, which is limited to general knowledge about the city: its quarters, the patrols, etc. [SotSL - 97]

Feetla, the Buccaneer
The Slave Lords are given a story arc that fits with the overall continuity of the campaign, if run as intended.
Feetla, the buccaneer, is renamed Eanwulf, and remains as undeveloped as he formerly was; but he is not the focal villain in this adventure, those being Stalman Klim and Edralve, who are maneuvering against one another for control of the Slavers organization. So, why change his name? Was Feetla so ridiculous? No. No more than Eanwulf, which sounds far more Nordic than it should, considering the adventure’s southern locale.

Does it all work?
Not really. Not to my mind. As I said, there are great additions within the pages of the super module, notably an excellent NPC character generator encounter table for Highport, and good Special Encounters, the same true for the Wilderness encounters leading up to Suderham, and encounters within.
To be honest, I really do like the prelude at Dame Gold’s manor. I really do. It has the potential to really open up the campaign from the start. Grist for the mill. Potential love interests. Possible allies. Even foreshadowed foes. Suppose Feetla is in attendance, scouting the site of the raid out beforehand, deciding who might bring in top dollar, and who might be more trouble that they are worth. The more I think on it, the more I like the idea. The PCs will want to extract a pound of flesh when they catch sight of one another later. And imagine their surprise when he recognizes them, and regales them with the expected soliloquy on how they’d slipped through his fingers by leaving earlier than expected, or even more infuriatingly, that he didn’t think they were worth the trouble to parade on the block.
In any event, when a few of the gathered revellers are killed in the raid, and when others are abducted, the PCs might feel far more obligated to pursue those dastardly villains than they might have been.
But as a whole, I was less engaged by what was presented within than what might have been developed.
That said, it is about slavers, and it definitely strove to make the PCs hate them.



One must always give credit where credit is due. This piece is made possible primarily by the Imaginings of Gary Gygax and his Old Guard, Lenard Lakofka among them, and the new old guards, Carl Sargant, James Ward, Roger E. Moore. And Erik Mona, Gary Holian, Sean Reynolds, Frederick Weining. The list is interminable. 


The Art:
All art is wholly owned by the artists.
Cover Art detail, from A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords, by Jeff Easley, 1986
The Adventurers detail, by Val Lakey Lindahn, from A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords, 1986


Source:
9026 T1 The Village of Hommlet, 1979
9039A  A0 Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, 2015
9039 A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity, 1980
9042 A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, 1981
9167 A1-4 Scourge of the Slave Lords, 1986
A0-4 Against the Slave Lords, 2013

3 comments:

  1. My party has cleared A0-A2 and has been romping around the Pomarj in a campaign of annihilation. There has been may many side adventures occurring between the moves from Darkshelf to Highport, from Highport to the Stockade, and now from the Stockade to the aerie.

    The stock material in the A series is good, but the campaign is an entire Pomarj wide effort to rid the area of evil and wicked. I have found the Pomarj, as DM, to be about perfect for a campaign setting becuse there are gnome and dwarf ruins (and some still hiding out there), mixed terrain, the stock adventures, and great opportunity for those kinds of characters like druids and rangers to put their outdoor skills to work.

    I have truly found the A series as a great launching point for adventure, although I am cutting A4 as it is pure railroad and does not fit the campaign. We have had sea, mountain, cave, temple, fortress, and woods and grasslands adventures.

    I am tempted to use the Pomarj for all campaigns in the future, but then I wont deep dive into other regions like this one, which has been great fun.

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