D&D Flashback takes a look at old Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules from a modern perspective, pulling them apart to see what lessons modern DMs and players can learn from them.
In 1978, TSR Inc. released its first standalone Dungeons & Dragons module - Steading of the Hill Giant Chief. The adventure, written by D&D co-creator Gary Gygax, was the opening chapter in a six part campaign that sent players through three areas filled with giants (collectively known as Against the Giants) and eventually into the Underdark to confront a dangerous foe. Although relatively simple in nature, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is a fantastic example of how a single location can throw tons of challenges at players, and how to build a "static" encounter with no clear or optimized solution.
Steading of the Hill Giant Chief presents an intriguing mystery: various types of giants are working together and raiding the lands of men for an unknown purpose. The players are assembled to strike back at the giants by attack a nearby hill giant fort ruled by the "thoroughly despicable" Nosnra. The lord will execute the party if they don't comply, so the party is definitely motivated to succeed and not come back without results.
One thing that should be kept in mind with Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is that it was originally made for D&D tournament play, with players scoring points based on the number of kills their party had, the number of rooms cleared, and the number of clues found. Therefore, there's not much of a story to this adventure - players invade the fort, kill some giants, and maybe discover some clues as to who or what is behind this unusual consortium of giants. In some ways, that makes Steading of the Hill Giant Chief a perfect starting adventure for D&D players expecting a "hack & slash" experience, as they'll quickly see how a tabletop RPG differs from its video game counterpart.
Although the module itself is only 8 pages long, there are lots of little touches to Steading of the Hill Giant Chief that keep it from being a linear experience. The hill giant fort itself consists of two levels - an upper level occupied by the bulk of the hill giant forces and a dungeon filled with various surprises and secrets. Players can rush into the fort and fight the hill giants almost immediately, as most of the hill giants are sitting in the main hall just outside the entrance, but they might have better luck picking off the various stragglers elsewhere in the fort before confronting the hill giant chief.
The setup of Steading of the Hill Giant Chief rewards players who don't rush in to immediately confront Nosnra - by exploring, they can find various allies and treasure that can help make the main confrontation a lot easier. For instance, the dungeon contains a small army of orc rebels who can help fight the bugbear guards or giants if found, and there's also an elf prisoner who will gladly join the party if freed. A thorough investigation will also reveal Nosnra's treasure hoard, which contains a way to teleport to a glacial rift ruled by Frost Giants...and also continue the adventure.
There are also plenty of distractions in the dungeon, including a strange temple with a wall that, if looked upon, can cause a party member to go insane. In a competitive structure, some of these rooms were designed to eat up time and keep the players from completing their main goal, but in a modern context, they can be used to do some subtle worldbuilding (for instance, a strange abandoned temple can hint at a bigger threat) or throw some red herrings at the party.
The main confrontation features a group of over 30 giants, all of whom are feasting in the main hall. In a modern context, the sheer amount of giants are an overwhelming number for even a party of high level adventurers, but a clever party could probably succeed at assassinating Nosnra and escape if they have a solid plan in mind. For instance, the party who won the D&D tournament where Steading of the Hill Giant originated charmed a giant servant and used him to identify Nosnra via a kiss on the cheek before unleashing a wave of surprise attacks on the giants. Several fireball spells later, the party cut off Nosnra's head and escaped the fort, and then used a speak with dead spell to figure out where they should go next. Players can also choose to disguise themselves as hill giant younglings, surround the main hall and attack on multiple fronts, or use the giant's own weapons against them by retrieving various weapons like a giant slaying sword or javelins of lightning before the battle starts. There's not an "optimized" way of approaching this encounter, so it's up to the party to figure out a plan and execute it.
Although Steading of the Hill Giant Chief is mostly about fighting and exploration, my favorite part of the module is the very subtle clue about who is behind these giant attacks. If the party thoroughly explores the dungeons, they'll discover that the wine cellars contains several casks of high quality wine that clearly did not belong to the giants. The earthy smell and strange taste of the wine and the strange wax seal on the casks are the only real clue that there's another party at play, but it's a clue that's easily overlooked given all the other things to find in the dungeon.
Dungeons & Dragons released several versions of Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, including a revised version made for Fifth Edition made those wanting to play Steading of the Hill Giant Chief today. You can find Steading of the Hill Giant Chief as part of the Against the Giants adventure in Tales From the Yawning Portal, or you can pick up the original version on the DMs Guild.
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