Tuesday, September 21, 2010

L1 - The Secret of Bone Hill

This module was a hand me down from my dad, and along with a few other items formed the gateway to the youth I wasted so frivolously. With a new edition of the game out now (4th Edition), I decided I would take my play-group on a whirlwind tour of yesterday's adventures, and to start it out right would definitely require a trip to the Hill and its gallery of monstrous residents.

However, the halycon glow of my youthful recollection about this adventure simply did not match up with what is contained between those cyan covers, and the style of this sandbox left something to be desired compared to the excitement and cinematic heroics of 4th Edition's gameplay, a pair of important issues that needed solutions if I was going to evoke the nostalgia of this time-honored classic and still make it exciting. But a review of what we're getting ourselves into first may be good.

12 secret herbs and spices in that lightning bolt!

The Secret of Bone Hill was written by Lenard Lakofka for characters of levels two through four, but does not actually feature an adventure, as we might recognize it today. Like The Village of Hommlet, Bone Hill is much more of a setting book (Trivia: Books like this were apparently called a 'Campaign Series' back in the day), describing the fishing port and inhabitants of Restenford and some of the surrounding area. While the wealth of information on every NPC in the town, the exhaustive list of rumors about the town and its inhabitants and the map of places like the tavern, the local baron's castle and a random collection of 'Notable Person X's Home' is awesome in helping to visualize the place, it does little for setting up an actual adventure, and seems to be a lot of background detail that they, for some reason, couldn't or didn't put into the module that was to follow this one, L2 The Assassin's Knot (which we'll be talking about sooner than I expected!).

Looking over the encounters, we don't really have a lot to work with. Aside from Bone Hill itself (which is a typical ruin/dungeon complex), we have some gnolls and wolves in Kelman woods, giant rats and undead under a burnt-out guardhouse and some thieves led by half-orcs on Bald Hill. It's good that these encounters are linked to specific areas, but there is no impetus provided in this book to get characters to go to any of these places, nor is there any linkage between any of them to form a coherent narrative. Like many other modules from the earlier days of the game, it is left up to the Dungeon Master to decide why the party is in this town, and what things will happen to make their stay exciting. However, a careful reading of the sections about the town and inhabitants gives us some particularly good bits of plot we can throw in the direction of any adventuring party, and expect some results.

The first of these 'good bits' is Smyth, the town's smith. Not a very inventive name, but we're talking about the early eighties, so that can be forgiven. Apparently Smyth is not only a smith, but also a pretty good thief with a decanter of potions hidden behind a very elaborate poison needle trap system with multiple locks, and always carries a potion of polymorph in case he needs to make a quick escape. Why is the town smith a thief that feels the need to triple lock and triple poison needle trap a jug of potion making is kind of beyond me, but it raises just enough questions that I'm willing to bet at least one adventure could be spun around him. Maybe.

The next bit of potential plot goodness is Qualton, Abbot of Phaulkon in Restenford. He's one of several major religious leaders in the town, and apparently having a split-personality disorder due to some adventuring hijinks (the text makes note of a psionic blast). Most of the time he's fine, but some of the time he's a megalomaniac praying to an evil deity and planning on seizing power by marrying the Baron's daughter (whether she wants to or not). Of course, the text goes on to say that if you're planning on running The Assassin's Knot, you shouldn't let any of this come out at all, which was just one more clue that I really should be reading that module instead of this one, if I was looking for adventure ideas. But I digress: The 'Qualton is actually evil and up to something nefarious' angle is good, definitely worthy of hanging a plot or two off of, and definitely worth investing some time into The Assassin's Knot to see where that angle is supposed to eventually lead.

Then we come to Zahrdahl, the owner of the bait shop, who is actually an illusionist spy sent by a neighboring duke to spy on... Well, he's a spy, anyway. And spies make for great things to wrap plots around. Usually. In this case, so little information is provided (here, at least) that making him a spy seems pointless. The bait shop isn't going to be visited by any of the nobility in town (like the Baron), or the guards (who are too busy patrolling to be fishing), but the common people. The common people who will readily tell any stranger that they happen to meet everything they know (determined by percentile dice on the rumor chart at the beginning of the book). Why go through all the expense of putting a spy in place if there's zero chance he will ever come across any information you couldn't get just by asking someone on the street? Minor misuse of an otherwise good plot element, really. The spy should have been in the castle, not the bait shop.

And finally, there's the Church of the Big Gamble. Yes, technically, it comes earlier in the book than any of that other stuff and is not an NPC, but I list it last because it deserves to go last: It's just plain goofy, and really played for laughs in the module as-written. I'm sorry, when the text directs you to have the priest read the liturgy of "Oh, God of Chance, may the dodecahedrons of fate come up naught-naught!" while the heroic adventurers are gambling with the clergy, it's just plain silly. I have ideas on how to change this to be both more 4E appropriate and also a much more serious (yet still awesome) bit of flavor which I'll cover later on down the line.

And that is more or less it for interesting characters. Sure, there's a line here or there about so-and-so being haughty or such-and-such being shacked up with a 0-level maiden with 18 Charisma, but many of the other people you might expect to be detailed simply aren't. The Baron and his family (the people you typically get a heroic quest from) have a grand total of three lines outside of their stat blocks, and one of those talks about how they don't go to a tavern or an inn, the very places where PCs are expected to be hanging out when they're not being all heroic and such. And then, spoiler alert, the Baron himself ends up dead in the very next module before we even interact with him as a character, meaning that not only do we not know anything about him, we probably don't even care when he dies. I think he, and his family, need better treatment than this. So they're going to get it.

So, now we have a list of the set-piece encounters that the module provides and a good grasp on some interesting personalities we can tap for reasons why adventurers need to look into these things. Now we need linkages between these two things, to create our adventure.

The first, and easiest, is the thieves up on Bald Hill. They steal things for a living, and they're described as being led by a pair of half-orcs. I immediately discard the 'lead by a pair of' part of that statement and just make them all half-orcs. I also discard the word 'thieves' and insert terms like 'bandit' and 'marauder' and 'slaver'. I've got my eye on segueing into the Slave Lords series down the line, so I might as well start lining up a few pieces of that party right now, while I have the narrative room. Okay, so half-orc marauders up on the hill makes a lot of sense, especially given that Bald Hill is right on the main route leading north out of town, but how do they interact with the story? Easy answer: They've ambushed a merchant or a traveler and stolen something. What? Something that needs to be recovered. Why not go to the baron and ask him to take care of the problem? Because the owner of the item doesn't want the baron to know that he has it, or that it exists. Ah, now we're getting somewhere.

This leads me to thinking more about Qualton, the megalomaniac evil priest hiding in plain sight of his followers. He wants to marry the Baron's daughter and seize power, that's his goal, so what could have been coming to him that the half-orcs stole that he could not let the Baron see? Just about anything, really, but he's the candidate I'm going to go with as a linkage on this one. There's something incriminating out there, he needs it back, and the adventurers are the tool he's going to use in pursuit of that. Nice and easy. Of course, he can't just go to the adventurers himself and ask them to go get it for him, that would be too obvious. But if they happen to be lead in that direction, and recover the chest that is marked very clearly as being meant for the church... Yeah, that's going to be the way that goes down.

Moving on, we've got the gnolls and wolves in the Kelman Woods. These woods are located to the southwest of town, and pretty darn close for comfort. The text and random encounter chart also mention an ogre, but there's no mention of how it interacts with the rest of the band, so I'm not sure if this is something that the DM is supposed to add or simply bad editing on the part of TSR. Regardless, what are these guys doing there? The module is pretty clear that the gnolls and wolves are raiding the road that goes right past their forest, so why haven't the Baron's men cleared them out? The answer, of course, is the adventurers. The gnolls/wolves/ogre(?) are a new thing, and the Baron, instead of risking his own men, is going to send heroic expendable types (who will probably work for free or at least cheap) to take care of the problem instead of going through the expense of sending twenty or so of his own guys in to do the job. Right there, we have a hook to drag our heroic do-gooders into the picture.

Of course, the Baron putting out a call for adventurers to solve his problem for him is going to look like the ultimate in weakness to his enemies (of which he has more than a few, apparently), so this won't be the initial thing that draws the party into town. No, this encounter needs to take place after the party is already in town, one of those 'Here's a reward for doing this unrelated thing out of the kindness of your hearts and oh-by-the-way could you take care of this issue for me while you're here?' sort of things. Yeah, it may be a cliche, but the entire D&D genre is built on a series of cliches, so why not use them if they're available to be used?

That brings us to our other two set-pieces, Bone Hill and the giant rats/undead. Bone Hill is the culmination of the adventure, the big delve and boss fight that wraps everything up into a neat and tidy picture of 'ah-ha! we knew it all along!', and that, aside from a few window dressing elements and a change from a classic dungeon crawl to something more along the lines of what 4E does best (cinematic action sequences), is not going to see a whole lot of change. So, I'm left staring at a potentially forgetfully dull rats-and-skeletons newbie run. That is, until my eyes alight on the words 'This complex was built almost a century before and the secret door to it was forgotten long ago... The complex was designed by a thief as a private lair where he could defend himself against a small party.'

Okay, that gets some wheels spinning in my brain. I like traps, both from a player side and the DM side of things, but I know my players aren't quite as keen on them as I am, mostly because they no longer have me playing the rogue now that I've taken up the DM role again. Still, it's too good to resist: A secret complex built by a thief as a hideout beneath a guard house? How awesome is that? Answer: Very, at least for my purposes. This also kicks my brain into thinking ahead, to the whole Assassin's Knot part of the puzzle. I know I'm going to be using that, because it's a murder mystery and it features the entirely too stupid for words town named 'Garroten' (no, seriously, the town is actually named that, and yeah, it's got an assassin's guild, why do you ask?), but I won't know how until I devote some time into reading the part of the story that I, myself, never got to play through...

So, for now, we put aside The Secret of Bone Hill, and delve into L2 The Assassin's Knot, seeking for more juicy plot goodness, and to get a better idea of where our adventure creation for Bone Hill is headed. Check back soon for more!

1 comment:

  1. L1 and L2 are something of a fetish for me; I’ve obsessed over these puppies far too much for my own good. So please accept in advance my apologies for the following OCD-rific comments.

    "Trivia: Books like this were apparently called a 'Campaign Series' back in the day"
    --As an old timer who was playing the game “back in the day” I had no idea what you were talking about when I read this statement. But then I came across an actual physical copy of the module and there it is right on the cover: “Campaign Series” Who knew? I haven’t found that term on any of my other old timey modules so I’m wondering if this was the sole occurrence.

    "The first of these 'good bits' is Smyth, the town's smith. Not a very inventive name, but we're talking about the early eighties, so that can be forgiven."
    --With our Flock of Seagulls haircuts and wood- veneered video game consoles I can see why you’d say that. But we were just as capable of recognizing the silliness of such things as smiths named Smyth.

    "The common people who will readily tell any stranger that they happen to meet everything they know."
    --Perhaps I’m missing your point but I’m gonna take Lakofka's side on this one, sort of. There’s nothing in the text of the module that suggests that the townsfolk are excessively divulgent. On the contrary, Lakofka was ferociously restrictive about which NPCs might be knowledgeable of the stories from the hallowed rumor table and explicitly stated that any info possessed by an NPC would only be doled out through roleplay, might be altered to suit the interests of the NPC, and should never be volunteered without some effort on the PCs part. He also went to great length to point out that only NPCs of some level--not the 0-level common folk--would have any chance of possessing information of value. He went so far as to create the utterly ridicutastic Chance of Knowing the Number of Rumors Given table to determine how many rumors an NPC might know based on his or her level. He does, however, contradictorily state in a preceding sentence that “Any resident of the area might know one or more of these tales, ” and none of this diminishes your point; unless the duke is truly fascinated with the local fishing conditions in R'ford, the bait shop spy is just another siphon on the duchy’s coffers. More likely the bait shop dude keeps track of what’s coming and going at the port for the duke. Which is to say, the espionage is likely of a commercial nature.

    “The text and random encounter chart also mention an ogre, but there's no mention of how it interacts with the rest of the band, so I'm not sure if this is something that the DM is supposed to add or simply bad editing on the part of TSR.”
    --This module is absolutely riddled with evidence of lax editorial oversight; one definitely gets the impression that no one really looked this thing over before it hit the presses. But in this instance, buried in the middle of the “Roster Detail” for this encounter--and therefore easily overlooked--it does say “The gnolls’ leader is an ogre” followed by his stat block and magic items.

    “[L2] features the entirely too stupid for words town named 'Garroten' (no, seriously, the town is actually named that, and yeah, it's got an assassin's guild, why do you ask?)”
    --Hell YES! I’ve argued with too many old timers who think that Garrotten is an extremely clever name for a town with its own assassin’s guild and my failure to see the purity of its brilliance is evidence of halfwittedness. When I ran L2, I changed the name back to Farmin; I believe--perhaps incorrectly--that it says somewhere in the module that the the name of the town was changed to Garrotten from Farmin. The name Garrotten, I decided, was used solely by Restenforders as a pejorative term for their neighbors to the south.