Monday, September 27, 2010

L1 - The Secret of Bone Hill (pt. 3)

In the last installment, I outlined a conversion of the The Secret of Bone Hill into 4th Edition D&D that was really a combination of the most interesting bits from both Bone Hill and L2 The Assassin's Knot. When I got done with it, I was fairly satisfied with the flow of the thing, and even smirked a bit at taking the big set-piece/dungeon of the module (Bone Hill itself) and turning it into a great big red herring that had nothing at all to do with the plot.

Well, I've had a few days at my job to think this over, and decided that this is not the best possible way to go about this. After all, if you've got a module named after a dungeon, you might as well run the climax of said module in that dungeon, or else what's the point? Therefore, a slight revision of the events outlined in my previous entry would need to be done.

The biggest issue is that Bone Hill hasn't got a plot, and therefore Bone Hill (the location) serves no purpose. Like many other dungeons in modules from the editions of yesteryear, it's just kind of there, a hulking menace on the dramatic landscape that never does anything, the very antithesis of Chekov's gun. Yes, even in the odl days, you would eventually get down into it, but there was never any reason to go out and risk life and limb against bugbears and zombie stirges and level-draining undead for what was, at the end of the day, not very much treasure. The big bad guy of the thing, Telvar the Magician, didn't even have a grudge against the town or the adventurers, he's in this place so he can have peace and quiet to do his research.

The addition of the plot elements from Assassin's Knot were my attempt to give some life to the slumbering corpse, and to some extent, I feel that they do add something to what is, really, a not very well planned adventure module. Yes, I know that Bone Hill is well regarded by many old-timers. I have fond memories of it myself. But all of those memories are predicated on a single experience with it, and that experience bears very little resemblance to what is contained in the pages of the adventure-as-written.

But enough of that.

The story of Bone Hill that we're going to explore for 4th Edition goes something like this: The adventures come into town for reasons that are catered directly to them. Before they can even get a room at the inn, they become involved in an attempted kidnapping, a chase scene and a vicious combat against sewer-dwelling wererats. The very next day, they're summoned by a representative of Baron Grellus, and pressed into service patrolling the roads around the town, where they are set upon by half-orc bandits. Defeating the bandits, they recover a chest which was to be delivered to the local church of Pelor, headed by the Abbot Qualton. Qualton takes delivery of the chest, then sends the adventurers off to the Church of the Big Gamble, which resembles the bar in From Dusk 'Til Dawn more than any kind of church they're used to, and eventually figure out that the whole thing is a front for the Cult of Tiamat. This leads to a stand-off, and then a fiery battle while the building burns down around them, and the end of Act One.

Act Two opens with Arrness, mayor of Cold Cliff (I told you I would rename that stupid town!), sending Krak, her half-ogre berserker lieutenant, to raise hell among the humanoid tribes in the area. This has the double benefit of showing the populace that the Baron has no control over his own lands, and drawing the adventurers away from the town so the assassins can slip into place. Only the adventurers are more than a match for a few gnolls and a half-ogre, and easily defeat these villains. On their return to the town, however, they find the place under assault by a large force! The Baron is definitely in trouble, and the adventurers must find a way to reach him, leading them beneath the ruined guard house and through the den of the wererat thieves into the castle to confront the assassin as the Baron lays dying of a fatal wound. Gasping out his final breath, he lays a final command upon the adventurers: He is dead, his wife is dead, only his daughter survives, and Qualton has taken her to Cold Cliff. The curtain falls on the end of Act Two.

Act Three opens with the party in hot pursuit of Qualton and the stolen princess, only the mad cleric isn't heading for Cold Cliff, but the ruins atop Bone Hill. There, he hopes that the might of true power beneath the hill and the blessings of his new patron Orcus will be enough to prevail against the adventurers, and that he will finally come to the culmination of his dreams, marry the Baron's daughter and rule with a iron fist as he was intended to do from the moment of his rebirth. Obviously the party is intent on stopping him, but first they must find a way through the ruins, and into the dungeons levels beneath, where the shade of an ancient evil lurks. The final act concludes with a balls-to-the-wall dungeon bash to save the princess and stop an elder evil from returning from beyond the grave, as every good D&D adventure should.

In the epilogue, the heroes reveal the true culprit behind all of it, as revealed in the secret diaries of Qualton, implicating Arrness and ensuring that should she escape the hangman's noose or the lynch mob's torches, the cliche of the enemy from the past is still alive and kicking. They turn their horses to the road, putting Restenford and its tale of sorrow behind them, setting their sites on the wider world in search of adventure.

Expect a proper version sometime in the next few days with maps, encounters and all the rest.

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.

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!