Thursday, November 08, 2012

Plotting Among Giants and Drow

The most epic D&D campaign of the old-school era is the seven-module series later packaged into four: Against the Giants (G1-G3), Descent into the Depths of the Earth (D1-2), Vault of the Drow (D3), and Queen of the Demonweb Pits (Q1). From murderous dungeon crawls, to lethal underworld domains, to the unforgiving Abyss itself, players take on a coalition of giants in thrall to a group of drow (dark elves) whose hideous cultic allegiance spells disaster for the surface world.

What's fascinating about this series is how ambiguous the plot is. Of course, as a rule old-school modules kept plotting underdeveloped so as not to stifle DMs and railroad players, but for a multiple-module campaign to pull this off cohesively is no mean feat. James Maliszewski's retrospective of the D3 module, Vault of the Drow, offers one way of looking at the plot-path of the first six modules:
"There is absolutely no plot to [D3], just as there was no plot to its precursors in the D series. The 'plot' of the series, such as it is, mostly occurred in modules G1, G2, and G3, where the drow priestess of the Elder Elemental God, Eclavdra, was attempting to organize the giants into a vast army with which to subjugate a portion of the surface world, in the process gaining power for herself and her house, Eilservs. Once that plan is defeated, though, all that remains for the PCs is vengeance and exploration of the depths of the earth. Eclavdra -- or her clone -- reappears in Vault of the Drow, but only as the leader of House Eilservs, not as 'the big bad evil guy' of the module. No such personage exists in D3, as its 28 pages are devoted primarily to describing the city of Erelhei-Cinlu, its inhabitants, and their activities."
I suspect, however, that most DMs proceed on the design that Eclavdra (or her clone) has a backup plan in reserve if the giants fall, and that most PCs will assume that a drow attack on the surface world remains a viable threat. Otherwise there would be no point in pursuing the drow to their home under the earth. I never heard of PCs invading the underworld for pure vengeance or curiosity sake, though of course either scenario is possible. For myself as a DM, the Eilservs weren't giving up, regardless of the outcome in the fire giant hall. More to the point, even granting the two factions of drow posted there, it's exceedingly unlikely that PCs will have deduced (by the end of G3) that Eclavdra's crusade is opposed by most of the drow community.

Which brings us to the question of if and how and to what degree the PCs ever learn this, once they get past modules D1 and D2 and arrive in the Vault. Joe Bloch maintains there are two possible conclusions players will eventually draw as they proceed through D3:
(1) 'We need to stop the Eilservs once and for all, to halt their ambitions against the surface world.'

(2) 'We need to stop the drow once and for all, because they are evil and are ultimately a threat to the surface world.'

"The first attitude bears with it the implication that the drow factions can be parleyed with, and used against other drow factions. The second attitude implies that the party should be looking for some way to collapse the Vault itself...[In the second case] they have effectively declared war on the entire city. Wish them luck, and I hope they have 4d6 handy to roll up new characters... The module, of course, implies the first option."
I'm not so sure. There is a third possibility which straddles these two options, and indeed the one that seems to form the premise of later campaigns developed for 3rd edition D&D: that "marauders [PCs] from the upper world assaulted not only the Eilservs estate, but also the Fane of Lolth itself" (Dragon #298, p 84), which initiated an all-out war on the upper world, this time spearheaded by Lolth (who in the G1-Q1 modules opposed such action), as well as a civil war in the Vault (the priestess wars). I never heard of PCs who went into the Vault without, in some way, striking against the Fane. Granted I had a poor understanding of how to run Vault of the Drow in my early gaming years (see here, #4), I'm dubious that players, without heavy-handed steering from a DM, can bring themselves to ascribe to any drow faction a complete hostility/opposition to the spider goddess. After all, House Eilservs still coexists alongside the other Houses, right next door to the Fane.

Furthermore, option (2) is a reasonable conclusion in any case. The feud between House Eilservs (serving the Elemental God and allied with House Tormtor) and the Fane (serving Lolth and allied with all the other noble houses) owes to local politics, namely Eclavdra's desire to set herself up as Queen of the Drow, thus undermining clerical autonomy. Her crusade against the upper world is intended to consolidate a power base more than anything, but the fact is that all drow are ultimately driven by their ancient grudge against the surface, and not least Lolth's priestesses. Subjugation of other races is hardwired in drow genes; if one house can start a crusade out of self-interest, so can another, and so (especially) can the Fane. What the Fane is opposing is not a crusade against the surface per se, but Eclavdra's crusade and her bid for power, which also promulgates the worship of a rival deity.

Only PCs with high risk-addiction complexes would likely try allying with the Fane, as Bloch suggests, even on the logic that "the enemy of my enemy is my tool". If the drow were lawful-evil oriented, that would be one thing, but they're intrinsically chaotic and poisonous like the spiders they nest with. Getting in bed with the sisterhood is arguably as much an invitation to the grave as declaring war on the Vault. Lolth, for her part, thrives on the divisiveness and backbiting of her people, and would characteristically shaft any makeshift allies (especially foreign ones) at first opportunity. All things considered, PCs would be justified in concluding that the Fane is the ultimate (if not immediate) menace, and in striking a blow against both it and the rebellious Eilservs to send a clear message.

My point is not that restricting oneself to Bloch's option (1) is necessarily misguided, just that it's not the only sane course of action open to PCs. It's possible, with enough shrewdness and care, to strike against the Fane without having to take on the entire Vault. On the other hand, I agree completely with Bloch that there isn't much reason, per the plot design of G1-D3, for players to take the audacious step of confronting Lolth on the Abyss in order to kill her. It's been widely acknowledged how disappointing Q1 was in terms of design (as Gygax bailed on the project and left it in the hands of David Sutherland), but it's seldom acknowledged how much of a non-sequitur it is. Q1 only makes sense if the PCs are overambitious hotheads or fools -- or if they just want the orgasmic thrill of trying to kill a goddess on her home plane (which perhaps makes Q1 realistic after all!). On the other hand, Q1 could become relevant at the later time, when Lolth takes over the assault on the upper world, which is the follow-up scenario designed for later editions of D&D.

The fact that the plotting of G1-Q1 remains so murky and debatable is precisely its strength. In old-school D&D, plotting was barely integral to module design, and left largely to the interactive dynamic between DMs and players. In this sense, at least, Bloch's scenarios are as credible as anything I've countered with. That's what made the game what it was. Gygax even spelled this upfront:
"While considerable detail has been given, it is up to you to fill in any needed information and to color the whole thing and bring it to life. You, as Dungeon Master, must continue to improvise and create, for your players will certainly desire more descriptions, seek to do things not provided for here, and generally do things which are not anticipated. The script is here, but you will direct the whole, rewrite parts, and sit in final judgment." (Against the Giants, p 16)
This sort of gaming philosophy is of course anathema to the script slavery and rigid plotting of later "modules" (Dragonlance and beyond), which hand-held DMs and predestined players. G1-Q1 are a healthy reminder that series modules can indeed work with minimal plotting.


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