Tuesday, January 21, 2014

B5 - Horror on the Hill - Review


Continuing my plodding course through adventure modules of the 80’s I’m going to take a second look at something from the mid 80’s TSR. A beloved basic module, that intentionally (and I think effectively) attempts to recreate B2 – Keep on the Borderlands. Yes, it’s the poorly,but at least not “Adjective Location of Strange Noun(s)”, named B5 Horror on the Hill (Ok it’s “Noun of Location” – but that’s something).

B5 was published in 1983 written by Douglas Niles and was apparently the first module to use TSRs slick new design and more professional (though oddly less appealing) art. It also has the reek of the beginnings of railroading and the bad kind of GM fiat that makes some people dislike ‘early D&D’. That said, while it has some of the ugly marks of later TSR offerings, it’s still basically a sandbox with some lovely touches and a feel of playability. Rather than do my normal rambling review I am going to try to get the negatives out of the way quick and then discuss how I, personally, would save this adventure.

WHY HORROR ON THE HILL IS AWFUL (It’s actually pretty good – I4 Pharaoh was awful)

1) Railroad Unfun Tricks. All roads lead to surprise dragon after a one way chute is the worst of them. This is bad, and it’s not alone, the dragon’s escape cave can’t be found – because of underbrush. There’s a few more things like this, small things that make the teeth grind a bit.

2) The D&D alignment game. Creatures behave based on Lawful (implicitly good but maybe grumpy), Neutral (Who knows) and Chaotic(Creature Attacks). This is lame, it is most obvious in the dragon encounter, which besides being the end of the line for the chute trap railroad, will always attack but only after talking for a while (of course the dragon has nothing to talk about because he has no goals or alliances).

3) Monsters from the manual without change. Yeah, the hobgoblins need an evil human priest to minister to them (he’s hobgoblinish at least) because hobgoblins don’t have levels. While this is some sort of trade dress/book selling/default world scheme it really is something that bugs me. The taxonomical mania of TSR sometimes makes one weep for lost mystery. The new monsters however are pretty good.

4) Bad Treasure, I should stop mentioning this it’s so endemic to old modules. Treasure is GP worth X, and the occasional “gem (200 GP)” – which is so much worse than “pink opal (200GP)”. Worse though then the bad mundane treasure is the bad magic treasure. Horror on the Hill is a magic heavy world. An old man gives away 3 potions of healing for being brave, monster sergeants have +1 weapons (at least the use them to their own benefit). There’s a lot of magic and it’s all pretty boring, +X this and that.

5) Weak Opposition, perhaps a product of the other elements. With the chute and the continuous nature of the adventure I like to think this is an attempt to balance a marathon play style as opposed to striving for a climactic battle between adventurers and gimped dragon. Still the enemies in this adventure are weak. A few hobgoblins or four ghouls present the opposition except in rare situations.  Conversely the adventure suggests that the party be at least ten 1st level adventurers or a party of 5 third level – plus henchmen, and with ample opportunity to grab henchmen in the form of leveled captives.

HOW I WOULD RUN HORROR ON THE HILL

GENERAL FEEL – Horror on the Hill has this fairytale feel, it’s lost in the D&D tripe sometimes, but it’s there. Witches who make deals, magical berry bushes, stat changing fountains, berserkers who believe themselves kings, evil men becoming hobgoblins over time and a general sense of horrible whimsy. I would try to emphasize and aim for this feel.

MAGIC – So many powerful magical items, just scattered about. Sometimes humanoid enemies will use them, and sometimes the magic comes with a smidgen of description (a corroded magic sword that is still powerful, but looks useless has potential) but there is just too much +X armor, too many +X weapons and such scattered about. It’s not just the abundance, it’s the boring nature of this stuff that makes it so depressing. I suppose this is the default TSR setting where +X weapons are the norm rather than strange artifacts. When I played D&D as a tot we figured that +1 swords were simply well made, I remember them being called “steel swords” in one game and available from the better class of blacksmith. Still, now this just perturbs me.

SETTING SPECIFIC EXAMPLES

TOWN – Guido’s Fort has a good name, and a good gimmick (everything is overpriced). This could make a decent adventure starting spot, but the central premise of the adventure is that the town is under threat from a hobgoblin army on the hill. The army is unknown, and worse the town is so devoid of life that I can’t really see a party wanting to save it. The fix is of course to emphasize the town a bit and make it memorable. I’d have it a rough outpost built around something ancient and interesting – perhaps worn ancient marble baths with a healing spring. The town needs some more descriptors otherwise why save it. The the old rumor monger who gives the party a flask of healing potions for their bravery is a nice touch, but more general niceness , and obvious weakness, would help. Perhaps some pointed commentary on how the town gates are guarded by a kindly octogenarian. I like the healing potion gift, but it’s such a high and boring magic gesture. I’d make it weirder, less effective – maybe a negative effect, likely drunkenness for healing mead would be in order. The mechanical bits for the town are good – price gouging and fleas. Of course these sorts of things don’t encourage the players to have much interest in saving Guido’s Fort.

THE HILL/FACTIONS - Horror on the Hill has a big sandbox feel, only constrained by silly alignment based prejudices and programmed behaviors (All chaotic creatures attack). Horror on the Hill (and B2-Keep on the Borderlands) have such wonderful faction based play opportunities, but the module as written constrains them. Neanderthals (B/X’s favorite brutish lawful monsters – like orcs but misunderstood and noble) vs. ogres is the only faction fight, and it’s preordained that the character will fight for the Neanderthals if at all. This is silly, and frankly the dragon’s complete lack of presence in the module until the players are dropped into its presence is a shame. I’d fix this by making both the Neanderthals and ogres (maybe the hobgoblins to) all the same sort of corrupted humans, warped by the presence of an evil god on the hill. Also I’d make those neandrethals into dragon worshippers. It whispers from the rock pretending to be a cave god and tells them to kill the hobgoblins and ogres. The dragon I suppose wants them dead because they’re mucking around too near his lair. Heck why have a dragon and an ancient evil god? Dragon is ancient evil god. All on the hill are men warped by his presence, and played off against each other to further enthrall them and amuse the cruel whims of the dragon.

Kobolds - The depraved remnants of the ancient dragon monks, now gone wizened and scaly deep beneath the rock. They fear their god and are completely mad. Really into kidnapping people for evil purposes, cruelty and dragon kibble. Still willing to ally (and betray) anyone who will help them in this, because when they fail to get dragon sacrifices it’s their own scaly selves that go into the pot. In the actual module this is just a gratuitous lair of kobolds.  Sure they can be down there, but why?

Neanderthals - What’s left of the simple peasants and villagers of the hill region, gone primitive and reclusive, but still basically peaceful. Sure they worship the “fire in the rock” and are a bit slow, but their mostly big simple oafs - except they increasingly give birth to giant sports with blood red skin, random scaly patches, tusks and deformities. In game they a noble savages and perhaps replacement PCs.

Ogres – The cave men priests drive the draconic looking mutants out once they learn to walk. This isn’t as successful as one might think, because a community of the things has grown and hates its former kin. Some want to be left alone in luxury (a split level cave complex with captured servants) while others have been lured by the excitement of a warrior's life and work with the hobgoblins. Maybe the bad blood between them and the cavemen isn’t really that bad – the ogres are still the cave people’s family members and if they could somehow be convinced that the god in the rock was lying to them the cave folk might reconcile. That or the hobgoblins mounted a full on invasion of the caves. In game it's ogres a family of ogres and some ogre guards - because everyone has ogre guards.

Goblins/Hobgoblins – A battered battalion of mercenaries or the losers from a nearby war stumbled across the hill several month ago. These reavers are being slowly warped by the dragon’s presence and have forted up in the old monastery. They always planned to sack and or take over Guido’s Fort, but now they’re all weird and dragon warped pyromaniacs. They’ve stopped taking off their armor, all are getting strange burn scar like facial rashes and their flesh is starting to resemble charred meat - the only thing they have to cope with the pain of the burning disease is cheap red wine (there is a lot of cheap red wine in the module). Plunder and an easy life of lording over Guido’s Fort are now less appealing then burning it, carrying off its more useful citizens and building a fortress of fire and torments atop the hill. The mercenaries will do this when their wine runs out and they can't deaden their nerves to the dragon’s searing poisons. The dragon is concerned that these newer arrivals will disrupt his easy life of playing puppet master to the kobalds and cave people. Dragon’s vain and greedy, but afraid to take the step to full on evil overlording with only a pack of dragon tainted mercenaries (maybe the PCs can find him allies and or hire him more recruits?). While bad news, the Hobgoblins/tainted mercenaries might still either be brought back into humanity (with the dragon dead and some clerical intervention) and they certainly are willing to accept recruits who can prove themselves.  In the module as written these are hobgoblins, rather nonmilitary incompetent hobgoblins.

That's how I'd depict a bugbear...
All of these changes would give the party a clue that there’s a dragon, a fire dragon, under the hill. Sure they might think it’s a devil or an elemental prince or something else, but they won’t be surprised, and if they are it’s the players fault for not seeing how the Hill’s factions fit together.

THE HILL/SETTING - The hill itself is great, with little lair maps, a hobgoblin camp and a bunch of dangerous encounters with wildlife. The giant bee encounter for example is nicely done as is the giant ant one. The steam weevil swarms are a great new monster, stinging midges in steam vent caves that can’t be killed with fire, but can be drenched. In general the hill makes a lovely sandbox and I suspect many of the positive feelings about Horror on the Hill come from hacking through its content without really getting deep into the dungeon. A bit more emphasis on the volcanic nature of the hill would be good, though it's definitely there with the steam vents. An old lava flow (or a current one) might be a nice addition.

THE MONASTERY/HOBGOBLIN LAIR - The monastery is fine, especially its secret rooms of magic fountains and gardens. A very classic ruin map filled with trash and vermin beasts. The only change might be to make it more flame/dragon themed because it presents the location where the party is most likely to find clues, and clues to a larger story are fun.

Hobgoblin lair is a decent map, but suffers from both weak opposition (this is for a party of 5 third level adventurers) and disorganized opposition. Six goblins is not opposition for an adventuring party. Yes 1-1, 1+1 and 3+3 HD enemies are about right for a 1-3 level adventure, but give these enemies some tactics beyond waiting in their individual spider holes to die. Smart humanoid enemies make freeing captives more interesting/useful/explicable and potentially turn the hobgoblin lair into a battle/siege/stealth assassination mission rather than a dungeon crawl. There are a total of 25 goblins, 30 hobgoblins, 3 bugbears, 2 ogres , 1 thoul, a 5HD goblin leader and a 5th level evil cleric in the hobgoblin caves (two dungeon levels) plus wanderers. I’d add more goblins and hobgoblins if the module is to be played by wandering about carefree while killing the humanoids in their rooms, or else give the monsters a real table of organization, a battle plan, sentries and active patrols. This would be more interesting and create something different then another dungeon crawl. Also it’s in keeping with my redesign of the hobgoblins as reavers/deserters/mercenaries twisted by draconic evil.

It’s a funny thing that the Horror on the Hill hints at a reskin. The ‘priest’ is human but turning more and more hobgoblin like. Even in a plain run of horror on the hill I’d make this guy a hobgoblin. It’s only the slavish devotion to the setting materials that makes the evil priest human, and this sort of absurdity is what makes later TSR modules less interesting. When a bugbear is described as a ‘bugbear’, even using the full description in the rule book, it becomes a known entity. When it’s a huge brutish man in soot covered riveted plate armor, with glowing eyes beneath a sallet and a wild red beard, the bugbear is an unknown menace. When the goblins are billmen and archers, shrunken and twisted as if burnt and reeking of charred meat they can become terrifying despite their 1-1 HD. Yet because these are still human opponents, they are also a bit pathetic and may be more obviously willing to parley. Parley and a lack of purely good/evil categories are a key to factions. While the mercenaries might be horrible (though they don’t seem to kill and eat their captives) they can be reasoned with, and might be less horrible then someone else. One might even talk the ash band mercenaries into sponsoring an expedition into the dungeon’s 3rd level…

THE CAVES – I like some of the elements of the caves and the looping map is good. The chute from hobgoblin land is a bit dumb, but I think allowing for a truce with the hobgoblins and/or their destruction by a caveman/adventurer coalition allows one to make the one way slide less a railroad and more a dangerous obstacle. With hobgoblins or cavemen above willing to drag the party back to the level above the chute doesn’t seem too punitive (though trusting evil dragon warped mercenaries seems foolish). There are some gems of encounters in here – the berserker who believes himself king for example. I also like to see an owlbear. I’d reskin everything a bit, the berserkers made dragon fanatics (the ‘king’ thinks he’s a dragon) who make pilgrimages to the ancient monastery and the owlbear some kind of earth creature. These caves should also offer a few more places to camp safely, or indications that places are safe to camp, especially as the party will likely be trapped in them for a few sessions.

THE DRAGON – It’s the end of this module that starts to fall apart. While the Dragon’s level map is nice, with a weak kobold opposition and lava chamber feel (worth emphasizing – maybe you get a -1 hit from exertion while wearing plate armor?) the dragon himself is the main opponent here. The approach should really make one think dragon. Kobald paintings and carvings in the black basalt of giant fire breathing lizards. The fire lizards here might even be the dragon’s inferior spawn (or kobold/human monks after some final transformation with still humanoid faces). Claw marks on the walls, and shed scale piles here and there might help. Yes this may seem heavy handed, but this adventure has just become about killing a dragon – which is pretty awesome. Emphasis and build up is key to making the dragon more then a stat block (a fairly weak stat block).

The dragon encounter itself is a bit dumb. The dragon wants to talk, but is like a ticking bomb and will attack the party after a certain amount of time. The dragon is also fairly weak, with 22 HP. A third level caster with magic missile can cut that down a ways pretty fast, and even with a -1 AC the dragon might not last long enough to breath, or if it does breath it’s HP will be quite low by then. Yes it’s a dangerous opponent, but likely to fall to a well equipped party in 1 or 2 rounds. If the dragon gets initiative, it could be a total party kill, but the dragon won’t as it gets angry and petulant before attacking. I want my dragons, even the weakish ones, to be menacing. I want them to be dedicated to survival as well, and nefarious. Let the dragon negotiate with the party, let it become a patron, reoccurring villain and NPC. It need not end in an inevitable glorious battle stacked to the player’s benefit.

Horror on the Hill is a good Basic/Expert Adventure, possibly as good as they get, but it’s marked by a certain stiff mid-80’s TSR bookishness and makes several efforts to stifle the players' and GM's imagination. It also warns against deadly wandering monsters (to keep the adventuring going to its climax), hides interesting ideas under bland vanilla D&D world gloss and pushes certain outcomes in an irksome way. At its core Horror on the Hill is a well-crafted sandbox. With a bit of imagination it can be resurrected, basically if one ignores the play-style advice in Horror and focuses on it as a jumble of maps and keyed locations it’s quite useful.

10 comments:

  1. Drunken healing honey mead; I like it. -2 general physical penalty excepting con checks maybe?

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  2. I really liked this module simply because it is introductionary adventure that has red dragon in it. When you pick up a game named Dungeons & Dragons that has on it's box cover a vikingy warrior charging at enormous dragon it sort of builds expectations.

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  3. "...more professional (though oddly less appealing) art." Speak for yourself! ;D

    I really like the idea of having "common" magic items like healing potions and +1 swords getting rebranded as not so much magic. The healing mead is great, and I could see having +1 items being represented as elf-made or somesuch. I also really like the idea of Guido's Fort being built around an ancient ruin or site.

    This is a module I've wanted to run for some time. This post is a great starting point for revising it and making it a bit more interesting.

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  4. Brendan - I expect some drunken master style, plum brandy based monkeyshines in Grimssgate now.

    Jonas - Indeed the dragon is great as a concept, but B5 doesn't treat it with the respect it deserves or properly build the thing up. There's no hint until it's like "bam surprise Dragon!"

    David Larkins - Personally I'd avoid +X items, with the B/X stat bonuses equipment pluses just make things more absurd. I do think putting in weapons that harm magical creatures, but lack explicit pluses is great and armor with odd effects (like I'd include some things that give flame resistance in B5) is fine. B5 just goes crazy with magic items, and worse they're boring. Magic should be are and awe inspiring. Healing I am torn about - I generally allow full healing between sessions and play short sessions so I limit it to a degree, but a marathon B5 game might require a bit more.

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    1. You are absolutely right, there should be build up to it. With the recent Hobbit film and all I think revamped version of this module could make good intro isntead of being curious relic of bygone, a lost opportunity for intro module.

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  5. For me the worst part of this module is the out-of-place battle arena and its corpses. I mean, I was eager to get the war dogs into party hands, but... weird, right?!

    I'm working on a reskin of this for Crumbling Epoch, complete with redoing the maps. It's been a while since I worked on it, but I think what I've got so far is really cool. I'm mashing it up with Jack Shear's Devilmount as a background.

    http://fictivefantasies.wordpress.com/2013/06/13/conquering-niles-hill/
    http://fictivefantasies.wordpress.com/2013/06/14/bestiary-for-niles-hill/

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  6. I have to laugh that you chose to review this module in 2014...I've been thinking about it for a time and have just decided to resurrect the adventure for our online con Jackercon III (an online con created for/by fans of Happy Jacks RPG podcast). We definitely encourage a bit of sarcastic wit in that circle. This con's theme is TPK Goodness! And I will always remember this adventure as my real adversarial GM moment. There are so few published B series modules with red dragons in them (and with such an iconic image on the box)! When my players killed this thing in two rounds I actually had "the Red Dragon's Brother" leap out from the shadows and killed them all. Not my proudest moment...but I do fondly remember this module. Thanks for the review!

    https://plus.google.com/events/cho9m0r84pmvj8fsnvkv9qdecoo

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  7. I am playing this with my kids right now, we are running it with Savage Worlds though, and I've used many of the suggestions from this review concerning the factions

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  8. This is one of my most favourite adventures and I heartily agree with Gus's description of it as having a 'sandbox' feel. I love the idea of the factions, and when I ran it I changed the berserkers into more hobgoblins, with them having another access point between the first and second cave levels.

    I felt like the hobgoblins' planned attack on the fort was the key to the adventure and made it the reason for the PC's mission and worked to make the fort more interesting. For the treasures, I personally never like generic magic items and think while it's fine for them to be +1 or whatever, they need description and mystery.

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    1. I don't actually give out many magic items, but when I do I try to make them have both a a description and a special use. "+X" magic weapons are fine, and I do provide them upon occasion, but it seems to me that they become disposable as soon as something with more +'s shows up so that description is wasted on many players. I like to give magic weapons a little something that makes them hard to judge against each-other. Of course playing OD&D with it's very limited bonuses helps this as there's a flatish power curve.

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