Armagideon Time

Blood from a stone

March 4th, 2020

As I mentioned in a previous post, The Mines of Bloodstone AD&D module was a big deal when it dropped in 1986.

Dragon Magazine hyped the heck out of its high-level level play parameters, which went beyond even the demigod-slaying action of the classic The Queen of the Demonweb Pits. My geeky teen self was not immune to this hard sell, which is why Mines was one of the few official adventure supplements I bought for full retail price back when spending money was scarce.

The badass novelty of the product was reason enough, the same way crappy-ass horror movies on VHS or laughably “transgressive” heavy metal music could bypass my flimsy adolescent male quality filters. I didn’t even have a regular group of players at the time of purchase, much less ones with suitably powerful characters. It was something to “ooh” and “ahh” over and use as an inspiration for some derivative homebrew adventures.

The marketing angle of a high-level AD&D scenario (or promised campaign) obscured the deeper question of whether such a thing was actually feasible or what shape it ought to take. Coming from outside the TSR bubble, John Saunders didn’t mince words on the matter in his White Dwarf review of Mines of Bloodstone.

If I’d read his takedown at the time, I’d have dismissed it as some boring old fart being nasty. These days, I’m inclined to think he didn’t go far enough.

High-level play doesn’t lend itself to official RPG scenarios. Unless you’re doing a one-off using “came with the frame” characters, the number of variable to consider is staggering. Once character levels start encroaching on the lower teens, the official rules start taking a backseat to the specific group’s internal narrative. The combination of gear, spells, abilities, history, relationships (to other players, NPC, the DM, the game world in general) takes on a life of its own where number-crunching and tables become secondary to interactive storytelling. The rules are still there to provide structure when required, but the campaign’s momentum is the real engine driving events.

Effective scenarios for such groups require more than simply upscaling traditional module fare into absurd levels or dropping plot device beasties such as demon princes or the tarrasques into the mix. (Statistically speaking, I’m sure that some party has legitimately bested a tarrasque in line with the official rules, but that would be the astronomical exception to the norm…and, no, I don’t want to hear how your party once pulled it off.) By the same token, a module writer can’t account for countless permutations of “my wizard won a pocket universe from the Green God and the group’s fighter had a troll arm grafted on by a necromancer after her original arm was lost to a vorpal blade and have I mentioned our time-travelling magic carpet?”

My sole playthru of Mines of Bloodstone was the closing act of an epic session staged across a weekend of all-nighters during the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. My pal Scott and Lil Bro had finished hacking their way through the Temple of Elemental Evil with their over-leveled paladin and cavalier buddy duo and were eager to kick even more ass. I pulled out Mines and let them run riot through it, with little regard for the rules or basic plot logic.

It was ludicrous exercise in adolescent male power fantasies, but that’s really all the module is really decent for.

And they loved it…although it burned the three of us out on AD&D for a while, and we spent the rest of the summer playing Champions instead.

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