By J.D. Neal
Evil has risen and the countryside is in panic. Life in the rich, flat farmlands near the forested hills has never been completely safe, but now giants have arrived, ransacking communities and waylaying travelers, stealing and killing anything they wish. Hundreds of the local residents have gone missing, and no ransoms have been demanded.
I heard a quote this morning on the radio. Attributed to Ebert, it was something like “My only regret with this movie is that I will never be able to watch it again for the first time.” Have you ever thought that way about G1? No more regrets my friends! You can now play G1 all over again for the first time .. And it doesn’t suck!
This is an absolutely remarkable product. It is clearly inspired by G1 – Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. One might go so far as to say it’s a clone of that product. It channels the spirit of G1 very closely without plagiarizing it. I consider G1 one of the best adventures that TSR ever published, certainly within the top 3, and thus is it amazing that this adventure can get so close to the spirit of G1. If you’ve seen G1 then you’ve seen this adventure as well … err maybe anyway … depending on the definition of the word ‘seen.’ Almost everything in this adventure is VERY closely inspired by what is in G1 … but not copied. It’s … Weird … but twisted just a bit. This thing is absurdly hard to review. I keep wanting to say “just like in G1!” but … it’s NOT just like in G1. It’s more like “just like in the spirit of G1!” For example, their’s a guard post, just like in G1, with 2 giants sleeping, just like in G1. But these guys are sleeping in cots and one guard is awake and whittling a log with a magic spear of lightning. it’s NOT just like G1. It’s not even a cheap rip-off of G1. The spirit of what’s going on is kept but it’s clearly different, and not just in token ways. I believe this line of product is intended to provide a free adventure resource in much the same way as the OSR clones do. And at this it clearly succeeds. This is absolutely a free version of G1 at the same quality level of the original.
I’ve been thinking about reviewing old product for quite some time. G1 is one of my all-time favorites and one of the FEW older products that I believe can hold its own against the best of the current products. [Fuck you and your blind nostalgia worship; most of that old shit is crap!] My review of this adventure could almost serve, word for word, as a review of G1.
You know the deal. Evil is afoot, giants are raiding, and the hill giants have built a big log fort. Time to kick some giant booty! G1 has a masterful intro. It’s short, communicates exactly what you need to know, and launches straight in to the adventure. This does exactly the same thing. The introduction is about half a page, there’s about 1/4 of a page on giant tactics & reactions, about 1/4 of a page for wandering monsters, about a page for random giant bag contents, and then the adventure kicks in. Not quite as short as G1 but almost the same. And … this one is even BETTER! I know, right? Better? Big words! But instead of the silly ‘death sentence’ stuff in G1 this one has the local rulers in turmoil with a call going out to privateers, begging for those with courage and strength to grab the reigns and bring the monsters to a stop! Sweet! We’re privateers! Jesu Christo, I LOVED The Last Valley, and any adventure that explicitly calls the characters mercenaries is starting strong! Amorality here we come! And, get this, that privateer line is followed by: “Some have tried. And the few to survive return with horrific stories of comrades roasted alive while hideous laughter echoed down from …” Bad! Ass! That’s the kind of local color I can get behind! This sort of extra fun detail is also seen in the giant bag contents. An iron pot full or toasted (burnt crispy) newts and frogs and wooden grinding pestle.” Sweet! Nothing generic at ALL about that! That’s the kind of stuff I’m looking for; the extra little detail that helps bring the picture alive in the DM’s mind. This adventure has that in abundance, without going off the deep end with endless mindless detail.
Let’s talk wandering monsters. I usually hate wandering monsters. Oh, I love the exist ace of a wandering monster table but I think they are almost always not implemented well. Yeah, they are ‘get your ass in gear’ tax, but they should also be an exciting gateway to adventure. “2d6+6 orcs” is not an exciting path to adventure. It’s boring. It sucks. How about “2d6+6 orcs planning to rescue their leader Graxar from area xx.” Now that’s an encounter! Or Harpies, spying for Queen Isabelle the Cursed, attacking only if provoked … or the Wolf Keeper looking for escaped orcs … or … you get the idea. These wandering monster encounters are great. They provide that extra little bit that helps the DM bring the encounter to life. Yeah, things slip back in to the same old same old once you’re inside, with the usual encounter tables, but the outside tables rock. The inside could be SO much more with just one extra column “diplomacy, art, food” and so on, to give the DM an extra hint to build the encounter around.
The map of the grind level seems a little more simplistic than the first level of G1, but does a fine job os creating loops. Rooms connect to rooms connect to hallways, there’s the central meeting room and the watch post and the outside courtyard, just like in G1. The dungeon has the natural caves and the worked stone area … and now has a secret level with still more going on in it. The map doesn’t quite capture that rough and tumble hill fort flavor of the G1, but as a functional item that enables creative and exciting play I think it works out just fine. It allows the party to sneak around, get chased, lock doors behind them, run up and down stairs, and do all of the normal things a party should be doing in Monsterland. No linear shit-fest present here! So, yeah, a few more map features, some extra info like shading for light/unlit or zones of hearing/vision, or a graphical upgrade to give the appearance of the F-Troop fort would all improve things here, but it’s still a great map. A fireplace entrance to the dungeon, or hole in the floor, or second stair would be nice also, but again, I’m just nit-picking at this point.
The encounters here are almost exactly what I’m looking for. Each one has enough detail for the DM to get a strong mental picture of what’s going on without the encounter droning on in to a wall of text. They are not exactly short, taking up about a paragraph each, but they do deliver to the tune of eight or so per page. One ogre is wearing a nose ring, that turns out to be ring of protection. The same room has tents made of rawhide, the occupants camping. Many of the rooms have this extra little bot of detail and many of the monsters are doing something when you encounter them. I find that extra bit of detail really helps in running the room. If I, the DM, can get a good mental image of what’s going on in the room, then I can fill in the rest as I communicate it to the players. MORE doesn’t mean BETTER in this case. I need a flavor idea. A seed. Then I can do the rest. This encounters in this adventure generally do that. It could be a better though. Monsters at rest or camping provide a little detail. How are they camping or resting though? I’m not looking for a book, but “camping telling stories” or “resting, hang in upside down by their feet” provides that extra little bit that would help things even more. There is an annoying habit of putting hit point boxes next to each monster. This clutters things up, but is, perhaps, a ‘feature’ of BFRP.
As for the quality of the treasure, well: 10 pounds of high quality salt (150 g.p.) in an engraved jar (worth 50 g.p.) which sits on a chainmail made of painted dinosaur scales (worth 600 g.p.) passes muster easily. It does fall in to the G1 trap of “1d6 pieces worth 1d4 100 each” in place. Let’s hope that’s an homage that disappears. The magical treasure, however, tends to fall in to the generic category. There are certainly a few items scattered about that are unique, but for the most part we get “amulet of undead protection” or “wand of metal detection.” Those are lame. They need descriptions, or format changes, or interesting descriptions. There’s no magic or wonder or mystery in those magic items. The monsters, also, tend to be a bit generic. These are all book monsters with not much more going on. I like my creatures a little more … unique. For example, there are some mummies and zombies in this place. The ogre zombies are handled well … they turn as mummies. The real mummies, well, not so much. They have an amulet of protection that turns them as a 6HD creature. This could be a lot better. Just make them hill giant mummies instead. Even better yet, DESCRIBE them and what they do instead of just saying “mummy.” Give me one sentence on what they look like that embeds the image in my mind. Mummies are boring. But describe the rotting courses to me and I guarantee I’ll be inspired and the PLAYERS will be anxious as hell during combat!
I’ve been picking a bit here and there are things but I do want to mention one more flaw: the thing needs better sub-plots. Let’s take good ol Graxar, that orc chief from the wandering monster table. He’s not actually named in room 23. Likewise the big secret giant meeting going on has no details. The leaders are in a room, clearly having a meeting, but there’s not detail about what’s going on. Or even that a meeting is taking place. “Actual meeting Hall is the name of the room, and it has five giants, including different types, but that’s it. That’s boring. Likewise there mare many opportunities throughout the adventure to sprinkle in a sentence here to there about things going on elsewhere. Those opportunities are lost, and their existence in G1 was one of the great things that tied the entire place together.