Tournament Modules – A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords

OK, A4 is actually one of my favorites, possibly my most favorite, of this series.  Which is really kind of odd, because frankly, the trope it’s based on is one I’ve frequently railed against.  It’s the old “you’re taken prisoner, try to escape” bit.  Not only is it overplayed, it’s often the worst offender when it comes to railroading, especially if you play out the capture.  Fortunately by being a tournament module it’s easy for A4 to avoid this problem: it simply starts with some boxed text about how the party was captured and what they’ve endured, then dumps them into dungeon from which they must escape.

This module is one of the easiest in which to tell the tournament content from the extended content.  The tournament stuff is the first half.  There’s a pretty obvious point in the module where the tournament ends, the extended campaign play stuff begins.  Essentially, the tournament is just about escaping the specific dungeon complex, the campaign then extends this by detailing the island the prison sits on, so you go from escaping a dungeon to escaping a wilderness.  In this post, like the others, I largely ignored the campaign stuff and focused on the tournament.

For a prison escape adventure, this one does not hold any punches.  The characters have no equipment, heck, almost no clothes at all.  The spell-casters have practically no spells at all.  None for the magic-users, a couple for the clerics who manage to memorize only the essentials (cure light wounds. create food and water, etc.) despite the slavers’ system of only allowing them to sleep for a few hours at a time.  There’s one gimme at the front, some spells on a scroll, but the party has no light by which to read them!

It feels harsh, but it really does encourage inventive playing on the part of the players, which I loved as a player and think would be a hoot to DM.  Even better, while advice is given to the DM on how to handle some common tactics players might try, it’s not like each room specifically drops items on the players that have an obvious use.  Some enemies have flint weapons, which clever players will realize can be used to strike sparks and ignite a fire for a light source.  There are bits of wood and pitch in different areas, but these materials have a dozen uses beyond just making torches.

Best of all, the dungeon actually does have multiple exits.  There’s no single right way to finish this module, and the players needn’t hit every single encounter.  This makes A4 a bit unique in the series, and better in my mind.  Both adventures I ran at last GenCon included a multi-level dungeon, with multiple connections between each level, including the surface to the first.  The levels themselves were small, maybe 3-6 rooms in total, but having multiple exits on each really gives the party that sense of choice even if they do end up exploring the entire thing.  Though I think this is to be avoided as well, and A4 and my own GenCon adventures include more content than any party could realistically be expected to complete.

In retrospect, I think our DM was a bit too generous with us.  I’ve tried following our route through the map but I can’t make it work.  I think perhaps he dumped a couple extra resources on us than actually exist in the module.  Also, when we got hold of the scrolls and some light to read them by, he made a point of telling us they could be memorized from like a spellbook, which we latched onto and immediately spent an hour memorizing a spell each.  This is blatantly not in the module, and also seems kind of foolish to me.  The fact is there are more spells on those scrolls than we’d be like to use in the course of the adventure, and there’s no reason to hold onto any resources in a convention game.  If he hadn’t told us that, I bet we would have been a lot less stingy with the spells, reading them off the scrolls rather than hording them for some non-existent future use.  If he was trying to be generous, I think he actually did the opposite.

I’m definitely looking forward to running this, which puts me in a difficult situation at least for HelgaCon.  Should I decide to run any of these at HelgaCon, I’m tempted to follow Delta’s lead and start at the beginning and run one per year.  That makes this 7 years of content though, 7 years before I get to run A4.  Is it worth it?  I suppose there’s always TotalCon.

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  1. I totally agree with all this stuff — esp. the first paragraph. A4 stands out as the crown jewel of design and how all the pieces work together. And it’s a singular case study that the “pre-planned capture” thing can work awesome in a tournament, as dreadful as it is in campaign play.

    In fact, I might guess that the “captured” trope is so common and so abused, partly due to just how excellently it was pulled off in A4.

    Now I’m cycling on other ideas for tournaments at HelgaCon. What if we have a mini-tournament, one dungeon that gets run twice and then we compare points for the two teams?

  2. I like the idea of the mini-tournament, but I see two potential issues:

    1. Even with 20 people, will we have enough that are interested in playing the tournament? We’d need the majority of attendees to play it. Also not sure how we’d list that in the schedule — is it one choice or two?

    2. Would we have to convene on a common version of the rules? Which edition would we use?

  3. Yeah, as I was writing it I knew item #1 would present problems for the scheduling system. Would we want to make sure the sections are at the same time, or NOT at the same time?

    And then later #2 occurred to me as well. Definitely seems like “yes” on that. I suppose LL is more easily available these days, but would irritate me a bit. Would you want to deal with using my house rules? Feel free to say “no”.

  4. The scheduling bit is minor I think. A couple years ago I dealt with Joe running “two 4e games” and players signing up for “one of Joe’s two games, don’t care which one”. More my concern is that there’s some percentage of players who won’t be interested in playing this at all, and we’ll need a fairly large group to play both sessions with a unique group in each. If anything though this is the year to pull it off, assuming I succeed in punching attendance up to 20.

    I don’t mind passing on LL, these days my rules are only called LL because I could get the text for that in digital format and use it as a starting point for my own modifications. Were I to do it all again, I might start with OD&D instead (no-S1, and do away with those pesky thieves!)

    So, I woudn’t mind using OD&D, nor using most of your house rules (I already use target-20 and your multiclass rules). I think it’s the no clerics thing that I have the most trouble with.

    Do you have a module in mind, or would we try to write our own?

  5. I’m thinking write our own. It seems like you can get away with ~7 areas and a fairly linear format if you want (taking A1-4 as examples). As I think about it, this winds up looking like a 4E-ism, but anyway… How’s that sound?

    (Other thing is I suppose ideally you’d want the party sizes exactly equal, so maybe you’d have a hard min/max number like 4 or 5. Or maybe there’s some flexibility that eludes me this minute.)

  6. Oh, and almost overlooked this point: I mean, for one game I can give you clerics if you give me thieves.

    But they have to be evil. BWAHAHAHAHA… Kidding (partly).

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