Had a thought this week while working my new day job as a service technician hand-milking bulls for animal husbandry purposes. A few months back me and a few of the lads decided to take the classic module Steading of the Hill Giant Chief for a spin for old time’s sake.
They banged out a crew of mid- to upper level adventure bros and an odd assortment of low-level hired mooks, and lit out for Nosnra’s party-palace to knock some skulls about.
And then they got serious. They did a bit of scouting to establish some geography, and outsmarted themselves. They started treating this like a story instead of an adventure, and retreated to establish a base camp from which they could launch a series of raids on the compound.
It was a disaster.
I explained that if they really want that experience, then I can give it to them. If they were going to step back from being door-kicking murderhobos and play this straight, then so are Nosnra and his hoes and bros.
“Yeah, bring it on,” they said. And then got squarshed and baked into adventurer-nuggies by the lovely ladies shown here.
Having played through the module once before, though admittedly when they all wore younger man’s clothes, they recalled the basement uprising and the confusion of the big bash in the main hall. Being not as smart as they think they are, they never stopped to consider that those two elements are integral to the experience, and the lynchpin of why a small group of heroes can knock off a major compound of chaos.
By playing it “smart” and “real”, all they did was give Nosnra time to react to them. He quashed the insurrection of the basement beardies and threw them into the hills to find the basecamp of the raiders. He sobered up and marshalled his forces. He sent his giant-cousin emissaries packing so they wouldn’t get underfoot. Which made life so much more difficult for the players that the evening ended fast and ugly.
And with the last best hope for manking, Oerth got conquered by the Big Uglies.
That story reminded me a lot of the prevailing culture of TTRPGs of today. After washing the bull baby batter off my hands, I realized that a lot of these old modules are too smart for today’s smart set. At first glance, they look really dumb. And if you think about them on a superficial level, then they can be. But if you look deeper – really think about how and why they are built the way they are – you will find hidden levels of depth and meaning. It happens every time.
Imagine if the Rebel Alliance had decided not to make the trench run. Of if Solomon Kane didn’t walk solo into the depths of Africa to climb cliffs and kill natives. Of if Robin Hood hadn’t been smart enough to avoid that archery contest. Or if William Wallace had stuck to banditry instead of insurrection. Or if Arthur Fleck had pursued a stable life of clownmanship and dating down. Or if…well, you get the idea.
So ignore the people too busy patting themselves on the back of historicity and verisimilitude and immersion. They are superficially smart and shallowly smug. They are the White Witch of Narnia, and you traditionally minded door kickers are the Aslan Kings of the Jungle. You understand a deeper magic that will forever elude them.
Trust Saint Gygax. He knew what he was doing. Play it straight. Anything else is just gay.