Wednesday, September 22, 2010

L1 - The Secret of Bone Hill (pt. 2)

The Secret of Bone Hill is a sandbox: It lacks a defining thread of plot to link the various encounters and personalities together in any kind of meaningful way. Sure, you've got the Hill of the title and the nasty wizard, his bugbears and the undead that populate the dungeon beneath his ruined castle, but there's no impetus to actually send your heroic adventurers in that direction. To rectify that, we're taking a look at the follow-up to Bone Hill, module L2 The Assassin's Knot, and raiding the heck out of its plot for ideas.
These guys don't look suspicious at all.

The second module of the Lendore Isle series, L2 The Assassin's Knot is an adventure for characters of levels two to five, again written by Lenard Lakofka. The premise is simple: Baron Grellus (we hardly knew thee) is dead. Three clues point to three different suspects, all of whom are innocent. The party must bring the real killers to justice, and as time runs out, the body count begins to mount. So let's dive into this book and see what we're dealing with, and how it can help us bring a real sense of adventure to the work already done on Bone Hill.

First off, it's important to point out that all of the background and setting material established in Bone Hill takes something of a back seat in the sequel as much of the investigation (and therefore the real action of this module) takes place in Garrotten. Luckily, the town has some fun stuff in it for our purposes, including a retired adventuring party, a half-orc controlled by his evil intelligent sword, a statue of Kord that flamestrikes those coming in war to the mayor's castle, an insane high priest (yes, another one) and invisible zombie guards. It does not, however, contain that much of a mystery: All three of the suspects are easily proven innocent, and the trail leads right to the Assassin's Guild of the town, which is designed to end with the party invading the mayor's castle and bringing her to justice in medieval fashion. However, it does give us what we needed for Bone Hill, an actual plot.

In a nutshell, it goes like this: The mayor of Garrotten is the head of the Assassin's Guild in the area. She has designs on making herself into the head honcho of both her town and Restenford, but to do so, she needs to take out Baron Grellus, keep the other nobility distracted and provide a patsy that she won't mind seeing hanged for the crime. Abbot Qualton (the insane high priest in Restenford) has similar plans, and hires Tellish, an assassin, to do the deed, leaving clues that implicate a bard, an innkeeper and the other insane high priest (all from Garrotten) to cover his trail. If the heroic adventurer types don't catch on to the real culprit in time, Tellish returns to Restenford and kills the Baroness, the daughter that Qualton is intent on marrying and Qualton himself to tie up the loose ends. At that point, Arrness (mayor of Garrotten) takes complete control and, in the words of plot synopsis, 'the characters must adapt to the new order or flee.'

All of that, however, is not really satisfying. Adventurers don't investigate assassinations, they prevent them from happening in the first place, or swear bloody vengeance after the fact and go on a rampage of justice!

Going back to what we have already on paper for Bone Hill, the half-orc bandits of Bald Hill have a chest clearly marked for delivery to the church where Qualton is the abbot. When the adventurers defeat the half-orcs, they deliver the chest. Heck, Qualton doesn't even have to send them out there to do that, we can put a rumor out in Restenford that bandits are raiding along the road, dangle a reward and let them go take that bait themselves, because every adventurer loves a skirmish with bandits. That's settled.

Getting the adventurers to Restenford, the location for all of this, is equally easy: DM Fiat. An arcane characters may have trained with Pelltar, a primal one may have relations with the druid Almax. Guard duty on caravans heading in that direction is also a possibility. Once in town, though, there needs to be a guiding hand that will get them on the path to the meat of the planned adventure, at which point the group I have in mind will bite down and not let go until every last point of experience, gold piece, magic item and scrap of plot has been shaken loose. They're a tenacious bunch, which is both good and bad, but you take what you can get these days.

So, the first set-piece should be something seemingly unrelated to the main action, that will tie in at a much later point. I've already decided that the abandoned thieves lair beneath the guard house (partially infested with giant rats and partially with undead in the module as-written) will be important later on, so I'm establishing a link to it with the opening scene: Newly arrived in town, the party heads to an inn to find rooms and rest their weary bodies from the road, only to be diverted by a blood-curdling scream of 'Help! The rats are taking my daughter!' They scramble from the inn to see a man-shaped and -sized rat wrestling with a woman for her child, finally pushing the woman to the ground and slipping down a sewer grating. Yeah, I'm giving the fishing port a sewer system and putting wererats in it. And why not? This leads to an exciting chase scene (skill challenge) through the sewers, and a pair of set-piece battles, one on slick surfaces with rat archers pelting them with arrows while dire rats and rat swarms try to pull them down through sheer weight of numbers, and a second with spurts of fire and steam from the sewer system being used by both the rats and the party to swing the battle in their direction. Some nice cinematic stuff to get things started.

The baby saved, the party retires to the inn having proved their worth as heroic types. The next morning, they're greeted by Gelpas, the one-eyed and taciturn captain of the guard, and escorted into the presence of Baron Grellus. The Baron is an older man, charismatic, but practical to the point of harshness if need be, a veteran campaigner that has proven his worth on the field of battle many times, and intent on keeping what he has earned and ensuring the safety of his people. He knows heroes when he sees them, and he knows how to use them, and he is intent on using these for everything they are worth. He offers them a deal: Stick around the area for a few weeks, tramp the roads as part of the patrol, and he'll see to it that they can live comfortably and enjoy the full support of his administration as specialists. This leads directly to the encounter with the half-orcs, who foolishly choose to ambush the heroes on said patrol, and ensures that they come into possession of Qualton's chest.

The chest is (hopefully) delivered, but even if it's opened, the heroes probably won't see anything untoward. The message from the Assassin's Guild is in code, and carefully hidden in a holy book. Qualton, though, knowing that the presence of heroes will be more of a hindrance than a boon, sends them on another quest, again with the promise of money and services, this time to the Church of the Big Gamble, which he says is cutting into the worship of his god, which since this is 4th Edition and I've moved this out of Greyhawk, is going to be Pelor. The Church, located midway between Restenford and Garrotten (which I swear I'm going to rename, because it's a stupid-stupid name), is a front for a smuggling ring as well as the Cult of Tiamat, because that sounds cool. Yeah, that changes the tenor of the church from what is presented in Bone Hill, but you can keep the flavor by making the place a regular gambling and whoring house, exactly the sort of place that an adventurer of a certain type (read: old-school Barbarians, Rogues and Fighters) might find homey. Of course, the heroes are going to catch on sooner rather than later that its not a house of Avandra, as advertised, but instead a front for the Scaled Lady, and another cinematic set-piece is probably going to ensue, but that's fine. I have a lot of ideas for ways to make Faldelac and his goons both entertaining and scary, and who doesn't love a fight where flipping over poker tables and roulette wheels is just part of the fun?

The heroic types not being slain by the cult of Tiamat kind of puts a crimp on Qualton's plans, however, as he was really hoping that they wouldn't make it out of there alive, and he'd be free to put the next step of his plan into motion. So he goes with Plan B, and has Arrness send out Krak, her half-ogre/half-orc berzerker minion to stir up trouble among the humanoid tribes to the north of Restenford. This would be the half-orc mentioned above that is controlled by his evil intelligent sword. He gets the gnolls (remember the gnolls?) moving in the right direction and raiding all along the road to distract the party away from town, so the assassin can move into position. Of course, Krak and his cronies will go down in a series of fights after a skill challenge to find their camp is successful (failure on the challenge, of course, meaing that the party alerts them on the way in, because the story goes on even if the players fail their rolls, an important lesson to keep in mind when it comes to these things) and information planted on him will point the characters in the direction of, you guessed it, Bone Hill.

That's right, I've turned the focus of the module, the very thing that it is named for, into a great big red herring. Of course, there's still Telvar, his bugbears and the ginormous horde of undead beneath the hill to deal with, but those guys are actually waiting for the heroes to come: Qualton has tipped them off, you see. This is the deus ex machina that reveals the rest of the plot for, as Telvar lays dying (secure in the knowledge that his death will lead to an scension into undeath, for his reappearnace later on down the line), he can't help but gloat that the heroes have come all this way for nothing and that even as he speaks, they're being set up for the murder of the Baron! Yes, that's right, the assassins have entered the Baron's castle disguised as the heroes and will strike to kill Grellus and his wife, leaving the way clear for Qualton to claim his bride (or so he thinks).

Then it becomes a race against time as the party must get back to town and get into the castle to stop the assassins before they strike. But, if the murderers see the party coming, they'll strike immediately instead of waiting for the most opportune moment, so the heroes must find a secret way in. Remember that burnt-out guardhouse with the rats and undead? Yeah, it leads under the castle, and it's now the stomping grounds of the wererat colony that the adventurers had to deal with at the beginning of the module, as well as being booby-trapped to hell and back, for more set-piece encounters and in-combat skill challenge fun.

Once inside the castle, the party must locate the Baroness, the daughter and the Baron, and the protect them from harm as the assassins make their move. I'm considering very strongly having the assassins have similar stats to the characters themselves, and similar powers, just to see if the party can use their team-work better than the enemy can, but that may be asking a little much of them and myself. We'll see when I do the full write-up. Finally, the climactic showdown: Qualton vs the heroes, as he calls on the might of his new lord and master (insert evil deity of choice here, pretty much anyone but Tiamat will do the trick) and the dramatic conclusion.

Is is rail-roady? A little bit. There's plenty of room for the party to go off and do their own thing towards the beginning of the adventure (I've got a displacer beast hunt for them to do if they get bored, plus more bandits if they feel the need), but towards the end the pacing becomes tight and the heroes are pretty much locked in to one course of action. Not that this is all bad, in my opinion: Having a clear direction to follow is important for some players, especially if doing so lets them feel like big damned heroes, which is something that 4th Edition is particularly good at, moreso I think than pretty much any edition that's come before. Still, they need to feel like they're making the leaps of logic that will lead them in the right direction, and that's sometimes tough.

I'm sure it'll work out in the end. Anyway, keep your eyes on this space, as I'll have the full write-up, maps and a Masterplan file for those who want it sometime after Sunday, or once I get it all sorted out.

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