Fiddleback vs. Against the Giants
The giants rise. Their purpose is unknown, but in their wake lays death and destruction. City elders have done all they can and now turn to a group of adventurers for help. Their job is to find the cause that brings different giants together, unites them, and sends them against the world. Somewhere behind it all must be a reason; can the PCs find it and prevent further raids?
Against the Giants is the sixth adventure presented in D&D’s Tales From the Yawning Portal from Wizards of the Coast. Originally published in 1981, it collects the earlier giant-themed series of three adventures from 1978, another of the various modules presented in this book from the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons. So early are they that Gary Gygax was working on them at the same time as he was working on the 1st Edition D&D rules.
Having seen other early adventures already, you would be forgiven for thinking that there was something basically wrong with early D&D. That somehow none of the stuff from the first days of D&D bears any resemblance to the way things are now. You might have the idea that early adventures were a mess, solely intended to kill PCs by the binder full and provide giggles of delight to the more sadistic DMs of the world, with much the same result as pushing character sheets through a paper shredder. The adventures we’ve seen so far, The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan and White Plume Mountain, are unconnected to larger stories and seem to exist as one off events that no reasonable GM would make part of an ongoing campaign.
You’d be correct of course, but it is important to remember that Tamoachan and White Plume do represent something different and out of the ordinary even compared to what D&D was like in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. They were special or tournament modules, meant to provide different sorts of challenges suitable to a much different purpose than regular, every day, play.
Against the Giants, however, was absolutely intended for regular, ongoing play with a regular cast of PCs. Not only were all three of the G-series modules meant to work together to tell the story of a giant uprising, at the conclusion they lead into yet another series of adventures which continue the story and discoveries made here. So, it is fair to evaluate them from that perspective and makes, arguably, more sense to include them in Yawning Portal than those earlier examples.
DMs wishing to run Against the Giants will have their work cut out for them, though. It doesn’t take DMs by the hand and gently walk them through their paces. By the time you have a party ready to take on the adventure, it expects DMs to be ready to face it with all their DMing skills honed to near-perfection. It’s not the sort of module you bring out on a whim to fill in a gap. Preparations must be made, and made carefully, as it will expect as much work from the DM as it does from the players in order for maximum fun and challenge to be had.
Each section of the adventure, broken down into the contents of each original module, gives clear, precise instructions on what a DM will need to take into account to run that particular portion of the adventure. Don’t skip this. If the DM isn’t ready to handle all the moving pieces of each sub-adventure, from movement of NPCs, to random encounters, to preparing the party, the PCs will not have nearly as much enjoyment as is intended. Crucial pieces of information for both the PCs and the DM are laid out here, information that can have great bearing on the party’s overall success. Or, at least, chances for it.
Further advice for customizing the encounters is also given in order that PCs don’t simply encounter a series of similarly armed combatants over and over again. Not only is variety good for these encounters, it also allows the DM to tailor individual encounters for the capabilities and interests of the PCs; challenging their strengths or exploiting their weaknesses.
The other thing DMs are likely to notice immediately is the lack of flavor text for any of the encounters. Sure, there is some description of each encounter and its participants, but nothing to specifically read to the players. Remember, these are 11th level PCs by now and presumably brought to this level by the same DM, a DM who should be more than capable of coming up with flavor text that presents necessary information and provides engaging descriptions and details that appeal specifically to the party at the table. Do some of the players take more interest in architectural and furnishing details; are some concerned solely with targets and their positioning; are others attempting to spot key features necessary to turn the tide of battle? Whatever their interest, the DM should take the time to go through the adventure beforehand and note specifics likely to matter to the PCs and craft a description that reveals those — perhaps on simple 3x5 cards. Doing so presents an adventure that feels like it was made just for them.
While taking such notes, the DM should prepare to track the movements of major NPCs as this will matter in subsequent portions. Rooms that might otherwise seem empty fill up when it is realized that survivors of earlier encounters might congregate in them. And sometimes the degree to which they fill may pose serious, game ending, problems for the PCs; it’s essential for the DM to know when and where that happens and who may or may not be there in order to prepare properly for it.
Against the Giants is a tactically serious adventure. That is, the tactics the players use as they approach not only each sub-adventure, but each encounter, will matter. A total party kill is never more than one injudicious action away for most of the adventure. Fortunately, careful thinking by both the players and their PCs is well rewarded with easier encounters and greater options for dealing with them successfully. It is never wrong to stop and think carefully before engaging.
Equally important and rewarding are the tactics the DM chooses to employ while running these encounters. Numerous NPCs would prefer not to fight or run away if attacked or damaged sufficiently. Some are indifferent to the PCs and their current problems, others still will join forces with the party if given the opportunity and proper conditions. It’s up to the DM to make all these options possible and to signal the nature of the encounter appropriately, while still making sure that combat encounters run as intended and as seriously as possible. Again, skimping here lessens the experience for the players.
Since I’ve harped on the maps throughout the reviews of Yawning Portal, it would be poor of me not to mention that most of the maps in Against the Giants are the best so far offered in the book. Only one really suffers from dark on dark printing and all of them convey information and details at a size that is easy to see and understand. Must be something to do with giants.
Steading of the Hill Giant Chief
The Upper Level of Steading of the Hill Giant Chief presents an interesting introduction to the whole of Against the Giants. It is well set up for a party of adventurers to get familiar with the requirements of the adventure and what they might be expected to face. The sparsely populated corridors allow for careful exploration at a pace the PCs are comfortable with, allowing them to probe and then retreat if necessary. The occasional random encounter keeps them on their toes and at the same time allows them to draw foes out of the main problem of the level. That being the Great Hall, where the majority of this levels NPCs are gathered. There are twenty-seven combatants gathered here, of which twelve are giants of one sort or another, assuming the PCs have not managed to encounter any of them earlier. A deadly encounter by any definition.
Waiting patiently, or proceeding with care, may reveal further opportunities to take out these giants in smaller groups as individuals retire for the evening or move elsewhere in the keep, but it is all too easy to stumble into a situation that can bring most of the giants on this level, or other threats, down on the party’s collective head. At that point, the only survivable course of action may be to retreat from the Steading to their secure location nearby. After that, of course, the location of the giants within changes and they become more alert. But at least they aren’t all grouped up in one spot anymore.
The Dungeon Level is where the PCs can begin collecting soldiers in their small army of allies. Using them wisely for the remainder of Against the Giants could mean having a much easier time during some of the later encounters. However, if the DM runs all the possible allied NPCs during the course of the adventure, this will bog down play significantly. Sharing responsibility among the players to run some of these allies is recommended, but it is still going to lead to very long encounters and sessions where not much actually gets done. Just between areas 12 to 14 it is possible to pick up twenty-eight orc combatants along with other low combat followers. Having cards available to summarize these groups and rolling die rolls for them as groups will help.
Unless the PCs have brought numerous empty carts or a number of hired hands to deal with things, there’s more treasure than the party can likely carry. Especially if they insist on collecting giant-sized weapons. This situation does not improve throughout the rest of the adventure. Expect lots of time spent changing their loads; dumping silver in favor of gold, dumping gold in favor of platinum, dumping all that in favor of jewels… that sort of thing. I mean, DMs do keep track of encumbrance, right? Hopefully that incentivizes them to be thorough searches, because if they aren’t, they won’t know where to go next or how to get there for the next leg of the adventure.
The Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl
The Upper Level of the Frost Giant Stronghold is, by far, the most interesting and unique level in the entire book. With its sunken central section, its icy terrain, and the variety of encounters and creatures, its likely to be one of the most original played by the party as well if they have been running mostly published adventures. It’s regrettable that half of it can be missed depending on how the PCs proceed, but that seems only appropriate given the natural ice caves most of it is built around.
Finding a Token of Free Passage is kind of a game changer. After obtaining one, the PCs can saunter past all the giant encounters and straight into the Jarl’s chamber. All they have to do is not act aggressively towards anyone. They’re still open to attack from wild beasts and such, but the main NPCs of the adventure leave them alone. Of course, what this means when they approach the Jarl and his court is entirely up to the DM, but it certainly opens up possibilities for negotiation if they’re lucky.
The Lower Level of the Stronghold is pretty standard, though it does contain some challenging encounters for PCs who still haven’t learned to be careful and the whole thing could go sideways if anyone sounds an alarm, bringing the majority of the level to answer. Again, some significant assistance and new allies can be gained here if the PCs play their cards right.
Hall of the Fire Giant King
All the easy bits are over. From here on out, everything is pretty much deadly in one way or another. If the PCs managed to bring any of their allies with them to this point it will help get them inside, but they probably shouldn’t expect the majority to last very long. Chances are things are going to go bad immediately and they’ll find themselves facing most of this level right from the front door on. That includes the fire giant king and his bodyguards who sit just down the hallway from where the party enters within full view.
The Second Level reveals the forces working behind the scenes to push the giants into conflict with the rest of the world. It marks the first appearance of the drow in D&D, or did when it was originally published. Along with them comes much of the weirdness and evil that will mark the nature of the drow race. This level is even less of a picnic than the Entrance Level, but it is slightly more manageable. Of particular note is the sequence of actions needed to summon an elder god of some sort. Let the PCs experiment, I’m sure nothing could possibly go wrong. At all. Ever. Good thing there are still allies to be met. They’ll need them.
Finally, the PCs come to the third and final level of the Fire Giant Stronghold and the end of this adventure. Almost everything in this level is likely to kill the party at any moment. PCs that have struggled with the adventure so far are unlikely to survive. I’m not even including the adult red dragon in that assessment. There’s mind flayers for Pete’s sake. And they’re just visiting…. Note that area 5 is the final chance to make sure all important NPCs are dealt with. All at once. But at least the PCs now have all the information they need to report back to their employers and declare the giant threat over.
Maybe now they can go back and organize the looting of everything.
Against the Giants is a large and complex adventure that is entirely prepared to ruin both PCs and DMs. Fortunately, it is equally prepared to reward those who prepare properly on both sides of the screen.
DMs aren’t alone in managing the adventure. Gygax left copious and thorough notes throughout regarding how the module is meant to work and how to make it work that way. In many ways, it is like taking a class in adventure design from Gary himself. Carefully following the instructions he left behind, while also tailoring things to suit your party and engage them, provides a thrilling adventure well worth the effort needed to run it.
Players taking on Against the Giants will get their first real taste of another tier level and what that means to their PCs. Things are different here and the challenges are far more serious than earlier tiers. Against the Giants is a wonderful way to demonstrate that to them and to prepare them for even more difficult challenges ahead. It’s possible some of the PCs will be very sorely tested indeed, but this, too, is part of the learning process and the reality of a new tier of play. As long as the party is properly prepared according to guidance given in the module itself, it should be survivable, if only just.
It’s as deadly as any adventure can be, but, unlike certain ‘killer dungeons’, it comes by that reputation honestly. Rather than using trickery and special set ups and other such means that PCs are deliberately unlikely to survive, Against the Giants instead places the PCs in a world that is dangerous by its very nature where dangerous things are happening and happening in earnest.
In fact, the one thing in particular that sets this adventure apart from the lesser adventures in this book is that world it is happening in. More specifically, it’s the story that Against the Giants is trying to tell that makes it as dangerous as it is, and makes it work so well. For the first time in this book an adventure has been presented that feels like it is alive and that the things the PCs do in it matter. The actors move around backstage and get into new positions to present themselves in later scenes. The ones on stage move with purpose and determination towards the goals of that scene. Meanwhile the PCs have a mission to pursue of their own, a larger question to answer than just how many of the things inside can we kill before they kill us. The party works to save the world, or at least the local world. They chase information and dish out retribution for the giants’ raids. They’re working in a place and at a time that is inherently dangerous and life threatening. The story and the actors in it are what mean that Against the Giants has to be deadly, not some contrivance that reads as “…because adventure” for it reason for existence.
Should your group play it? Yes, please. Make it part of your campaign and when the PCs get to the right level, put them through it. It will be hard work for a DM to prep it all and have it run smoothly, but it will be worth the effort and the payoff will be the enjoyment of the players. Do not deny them the best adventure in the book just because it looks difficult to run.
And I mean that. Against the Giants is the best adventure in the book. Better even than Forge of Fury which you may recall I enjoyed. It surpasses every other gimmicky adventure presented and shows where the really good bits of Forge came from. The Door level of Forge plays very much like sections of Giants and the resemblance is unmistakable. The much stronger and more interesting middle of Giants brings it to the top of the heap, and the final encounters only serve to push it higher. Absolutely play this adventure. Bring your favorite characters. It would be wrong not to share this gem with them.
And then compare it to Storm King’s Thunder.
The next article will deal with the final adventure Tomb of Horrors.