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Night's Dark Terror 15: Journey's End in Rifllian

Wed, 04/24/2024 - 10:48

This is part of a series of posts with a scene-by-scene critique, appreciation, and improvement of the 1986 TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror

Barring any random encounters on the way, the journey from the gnomes' ferry to Rifllian, trade village of the Callari elves, is uneventful. The action once they get there, however, is unusual in an adventure game. Aided by NPCs Stephan and Taras Sukiskyn, the goal is to sell the 24 surviving white horses for the best price possible. 

The economic game was more important in older versions of D&D than the present one. Back then, gold translated to experience points -- and ultimately to the grandness of the stronghold your character could build at high levels. The party's cut of the horse sale is not strictly dungeon loot but should absolutely count toward experience in such a system. This balances out the stingy rewards for defeating low-level monsters in Mentzer Basic D&D.

But where's the game in wheeling and dealing? B10 provides a general system for haggling over prices that takes on particular importance in horse sales. The NPC seeking to buy starts at an insulting one-third of the base price. Depending on a 2d6 reaction roll with PC charisma modifier, the NPC in the worst case will only improve their offer to 40%, and in the best case go to 140%. 

"Hmmm... I have a funny feeling those adventurers might have ripped me off!"

With these rules, the random element means that it's important to find as many potential buyers as possible. The module gives us that, to some degree. We've already had an encounter with some merchants seeking to buy, and now at Rifllian, even the ferryboat operator is keen to acquire some horseflesh. Stephan, experienced trader that he is, will have some idea of what a good base price is. Between random elves and the less generous but higher-volume buyer Prestelle, the horses should eventually end up unloaded for a better or worse price.

Of course, it's also reasonable for the party to leave the haggling game to the NPCs. It is the Sukiskyns' herd after all. If no party member has a Charisma beating Stephan's 15, there is no reason in-game to do it yourself (and in Moldvay Basic only an 18 Charisma beats his reaction bonus!) In my game, the players opted for more conventional adventuring, leaving the uncle and nephew behind in Rifllian to go investigate news of a hidden slaver stronghold in Kelven,

There are a few more sights and encounters of little importance in the village. The players are likely to find out that Jolenta and her stooges have been asking after them. Once they leave they are also likely to be tracked by agents of the Iron Ring. All this is meant to drag them into the next chapter of the adventure, which as I've said, has already been preepted by my players' initiative.

So then, some concluding remarks, just in case we don't return to the wilds of eastern Karameikos. As an adventure, B10 earns its accolades, as well as the occasional brickbats thrown its way. It's an unfolding series of varied combat challenges, sometimes on the defensive, sometimes on the offensive. We are not in the branch of D&D where Ed Greenwood's example has overbalanced descriptions, so each encounter and location has one or two pithy, meaningful details. More than this, it's emotionally engaging, with plenty of non-player characters at risk of victimization from the goblin raids and Iron Ring plot. This kind of engagement was a strength of the Basic D&D line as it evolved beyond AD&D's increasingly baroque obsessions with tournament-style traps and trickery.

At the same time, this hobby art-form is still finding its legs in 1986. Never more so than when it comes to balancing story, an experience more and more players in those days were demanding, with player agency. This module's predecessor as an initation to Expert-level play, Isle of Dread, had already shown the way for exploration hexcrawls -- an experience that AD&D's dungeon-centered repertoire lacked good examples of. But in B10, you feel the plot elements struggling against the hexcrawl elements, and it takes an active DM intervening for the latter to shine through.

Anyway, we have gotten through the meaty core of B10, the map-and-counters setpiece siege and everything that flows directly from it. Time, and possibly experience, will tell if the final section of the module is any good. If it's anything like the other parts, there is potential, but a good deal of hacking will likely be needed!

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Night's Dark Terror 14: Funny Things Happen on the Way to the Horse Market

Fri, 04/12/2024 - 07:53

This is part of a series of posts with a scene-by-scene critique, appreciation, and improvement of the 1986 TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror

After Xitaqa, the players are finally released from the chain of time-sensitive adventures leading to the rescue of Stephan Sukiskyn. It's up to you how much breathing room they get, to go on some of the side adventures mentioned earlier. But logically, the Sukiskyn family would be very eager to get their 24 white horses sold before too much time passes. Nor would they be at all happy to see the adventurers, still bound by their agreement with Stephan, march off to raid some goblin lair or haunted tomb, never to return. 

CC Public Domain 1.0 image from PickPik

The power to resist the family's pressure lies in the hands of the players, but they also have a powerful lure to make the journey. For there's easy money in it without any obvious hazards -- 50% of the sale price, if they succeeded in returning Stephan alive, and even after the recovery of his dead body they'll probably be cut in for 25%. But is the journey to the market site, the elven trading post of Rifllian, uneventful? Of course not! There are four keyed encounters along the way. All of these, in one way or another, expose the party to the ongoing plots of the Iron Ring.

1. Ambush at Misha's ferry. After the possibility of an uneventful but sentimental last encounter with Misha's bear, there's an Iron Ring attack set up at this crossing point, with a force almost identical to the very first encounter on the river.

Let's imagine what's going through the minds of these shadowy overlords as they try to put an end to your ever-so-inconvenient heroes. The river attack failed, but they can blame it on the added forces of Kalanos, his men, and the walls of the riverboat. The siege of Sukiskyn failed, but there was the whole combat-ready family in addition, and again, fortifications. It just about makes sense that the baddies would think a force totalling 13 hit dice (in Basic D&D) would have a chance against the party, alone (but for Stephan and Taras) and in the open. But by now the total party levels should number 12-18, plus 8 levels in Stephan and Taras.

This ambush should be easily winnable by the heroes. If its failure becomes known to HQ, by survivors reporting back, or by the dead being discovered, the Iron Ring as an intelligent organization should know that a bigger force is going to be needed to take the good guys down. Mostly, this logic is followed in the rest of the adventure, but never to its ultimate conclusion. Maybe that's just standard Bond-villain procedure applied to the fiction of adventure gaming. To strike from complete surprise, with numbers that cannot be defeated, would be profoundly unfair to the players.

2. Raid the Iron Ring camp. On the trail across the moors to the gnomes' ferry, the party runs into Loshad one more time, who tells them of an Iron Ring slaving camp in the hills. Attacking it would satisfy both Loshad's goals (free mistreated horses) and the party's (free mistreated people). This encounter is tougher, with 28 hit dice worth of foes, but the party might gain surprise. If you think the odds are too much, you might let the players bargain the were-horse into giving fire support. Loshad, as usual, is written well as an NPC. His pro-horse agenda makes dealing with him more prickly than your usual quest-giver.

In this and the previous encounter, it is possible that the party captures Iron Ring personnel and convinces them to talk. This is not covered in the module, which assumes a strict code of silence among this organization. But in fact, through some impressive persuasion and stagecraft of intimidation, my group succeeded in wresting some limited information out of one captive goon. You may want to have the bad guys hold their tongue no matter what. But as I'll argue below, this policy tends to frustrate the natural motivation to go on the offensive.

3. The gnomes' ferry. There's something amusingly Vancian about the gnomes' ability to sniff out a party's wealth and adjust their prices accordingly, even if the well-traveled Stephan would be in a position to warn the party. In running this place I took the opportunity to flesh out the gnomes a little, as well as introduce some more NPCs to the inn which, as they were more campaign-specific, I won't trouble to detail.

Aino Weaselbane is the leader of the gnomes, an attractive and shrewd silversmith with a nose for gold. She pours ale and cooks meals in the kitchen, and will take the lead in bargaining for passage across the river or any other goods, such as silvered weapons.

Jorma Sawleaf, a bard, plays the hurdy-gurdy in the inn. He will take requests for a tip of 2 gold, and will stop playing entirely for 10, unless outbid by someone who inexplicably appreciates his music.

Pekka Waggletop is an idler, drunk, and pub crank of the first order. If so much as looked at, he will launch into his crazy ideas about slaver conspiracies and evil wizards. By chance, he is right, but only by chance.

Vallo Gimbletooth is the waiter, a retired pit fighter with the scars and broad-bladed shortsword to show for it. Naturally, he also takes the role of security for the inn.

Symphonia, just Symphonia, is a veiled fortune-teller who uses cards for divination.  Her prophecies ("cross my palm with 20 silver") tend to be vague, but one in three is startlingly accurate.

Here, too, there's an encounter with an Iron Ring agent who is smart enough to run from this party, putting them again in the position of initiative as they decide whether to pursue him. Frustratingly, though, there's little to be gained information-wise if they do; thwarting him only slows down the Iron Ring's operation to tail the party a little bit.

4. Meeting with merchants. This encounter just across the river, unlikely to end in combat, introduces two elements to be repeated later on. First, we start introducing one of several temptations to sell part of the white horse herd immediately, rather than hold out for a better deal at Rifllian. Then there's the news -- hardly surprising or worth the asking price -- that Iron Ring agents are specifically searching for the party.

After this last encounter, we end up just a day away from Rifllian, but with a contradiction hanging heavily over the adventure. Night's Dark Terror perfectly illustrates how, in the 1980's, Basic D&D was just one step ahead of its Advanced stable-mate in meeting the need for emotionally engaging adventure stories. Soon afterwards, Dragonlance (with its own, far worse railroading issues) and Ravenloft (better done, for sure) would start to fill that niche for AD&D. But meanwhile, you have the heartbreaking death of Aleena from the Mentzer Basic starter adventure. And in this module, the heartbreaking death of Mish, and after that, all sorts of human woe and destruction visibly served out by the Iron Ring and their goblin stooges. 

So, at this point, red-blooded heroes should be raring to take the battle to the enemy and root out the Iron Ring menace. But the adventure, as written, frustrates that aim. Once more, they're put onto the railroad train by one of the Sukiskyn family -- Stephan, who has no interest in seeking revenge against the conspiracy that kidnapped him, menaced his family, and murdered nearly the whole human population of the upper Volaga River. No, his only thoughts are to follow the family treasure map to that mysterious feature shown in the mountains. 

This contradiction explains why the rest of the adventure, to me, is unsatisfying. Over the next several encounters, the party will be shadowed and sniped at by Iron Ring forces, but is given no lead to take the initiative. My players weren't having it; a successful interrogation at the slavers' camp gave them the bare minimum information that the Iron Ring had a base under Kelven, and they are currently knee-deep in the first module of TSR's renowned A series, which fits the situation perfectly. The gnomes, the merchant, or documents found at the slavers' camp are also good opportunities to lay down clues for a more attack-oriented campaign.

Because of this not-unwelcome derailment, the next entry will be the last in this series for a while. I'm not going to comment on any scene I haven't played through, and Rifllian was the last scene in B10 that the party played through before getting into a more proactive adventure.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

New Dungeon Just Dropped! (Ancient School)

Thu, 04/11/2024 - 09:47

We interrupt Night's Dark Terror for a brief interlude in the real world.

Astoundingly, a third of the city of Pompeii has yet to be excavated. The work continues, and recently a villa was unearthed with dramatic frescoes on black-painted walls, and this layout:


Folks, it's a pretty hefty level 0. Surely skeletons can't be the only monsters? There's the weird paintings on walls and ceiling, a slave cell, workrooms, the sinister "black room." And somewhere, the incredibly rich and powerful man who owned the villa must have stashed his treasure ...

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Night's Dark Terror 13: Xitaqa 4, Curse You Golthar!

Thu, 04/04/2024 - 14:12

This is part of a series of posts with a scene-by-scene critique, appreciation, and improvement of the 1986 TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror

The next deathtrap in Golthar's tower, room X11, is personally run by the evil magic-user himself. It appears to be a dead-end art gallery, but the paintings on the walls have peepholes in them. These allow Golthar to cast spells through them from a hidden passage that surrounds the place. If the adventurers try to remove or attack the paintings, electric shock traps zap them. Meanwhile, two pink jade statues of Hutaakans animate and attack. 

Clever mappers will already have noticed that the room's dimensions are smaller than the tower's outside, meaning that there is room for additional secret areas. But this is only a convenient ambush point, not Golthar's last stand: at the first sign that the party has found the secret door leading out, he will flee up the stairs to his bedchamber.

Crafting the art gallery, from Battlin' Barrow
The setup is not described precisely, but it's reasonable that, Scooby-Doo style, the peepholes are concealed in the eyes of portraits. The stone wall is ancient and thick, but we can imagine a missing block about the size of a caster's head, so the whole face can fit in. Once a panel with painted eyes is pulled back, the peeper's real eyes can press right up to the holes. Sharp-sighted appreciators of the arts may notice that the eyes of each painting are set a little deeper than the canvas.
The secret door is also not described very well, because this is Old School writing, not Old School Revival. It makes sense that the door is behind a painting, the only one that's not trapped or holed, and that lifting the painting off its peg rotates the door open, while putting it back (or pushing the peg down) snaps the door back. Perhaps, cheekily, the painting can be of a Great Gate in a nearby city.

Golthar's attack moves, in the module-as-written using Basic D&D, are likely to be as follows. 

State of Play: He has already cast detect invisible and so, as a 6th level magic-user, has three level 1, one level 2, and two level 3 spells left. He holds one level 3 slot for Fly, and one level 2 slot for Mirror Image. He has memorized other spells to fit the strategy below.

Pre-battle: Casts shield on himself, to protect against counter-missile shooting and magic missiles

Round 1: Most likely, Golthar has surprise and starts at the far southeast end of one of the corridors. As the player characters are likely to be 4th level or below, they will be affected by sleep, and on average this will KO two 4th level or three 3rd level characters, no saving throw. If he's lucky, the whole party might go down! As stated, he also activates the statues to attack any characters left standing.

Round 2: Golthar moves to another eyehole - in general, he will want to decrease the distance between himself and the stairs. He uses his other level 1 spell, magic missile, to hit the weakest-looking foe, magic-users by preference.

Round 3: Any elves or other still-awake targets left, Golthar moves again and will try his luck with hold person.

Round 4: He is out of spells, so as written, he will make an escape upstairs.

As you can see, this is a brutal sequence that heavily stacks combat in favor of the jade statues and can lead easily to a total kill (or capture) of a party of five or fewer characters who've already been through some tough combats in Xitaqa. Capture is not the end of the road, though. The evil warlock (a 6th level magic-user, to use the Expert D&D title)  would simply kill Stephan to show he means business, and trade the remaining heroes of Sukiskyn for the fateful tapestry he seeks.

What recourse does the party have in this art gallery turned shooting gallery? I recommend allowing characters to cover a single painting with a readied melee attack, or all the paintings in their front field of vision with a missile or ranged spell, to hit Golthar as a held action when he starts chanting from behind the canvas. This will be at -4 to hit in Basic, or at disadvantage in 5th edition, but a hit in Basic will at least disrupt the spell, and in 5th will have a chance to disrupt any concentration spell he has up.

In 5th edition, the three conversion guides I've seen vary in their interpretation of Golthar. Based on other adaptations from that series I've seen, Jay Murphy's Classic Modules Today version is likely to be minimal and rely on minimally reskinned standard 5e creatures, so I didn't inspect it further; P. Daniel Johnson's Iconic Encounters adaptation, which I arrived at late, thoughtfully tackles the known issues with the module with copious notes and advice, and sticks close to Golthar's original spellbook; the Vaults of Pandius adaptation credited only to "G. M." is also minimal, but more creative than Classic Modules, and features a much stronger Golthar. What the Golthars have in common is a combination of control and damage spells, which can be applied in the same way as the Basic strategy I've listed above. In 5th edition, Golthar can shoot damage cantrips as long as he likes, so the encounter becomes more pressing. Still, he will likely lose nerve once he takes substantial damage in the face from a held missile.

The next encounter takes place in the next-up and final floor, X12, Golthar's bedchamber. As written, it's less of an encounter than a scene, and a pulp-serial cliché at that. In too much of a hurry to pick up the enormous amount of treasure and significant objects locked in his personal footlocker, Golthar, ever the drama queen, blows out one of the walls with high explosive. He then uses fly to escape, and covering his tracks, casts mirror image to create two additional flying Golthars. All this is set up to happen in a single round just as the first party members come charging up the stairs. 

Figures painted (mostly) by me; map by Elvis Spadoni

The module as written does consider what happens if the party kills Golthar (umm, yeah, an identical evil mastermind takes over in further encounters). But it's mute on what happens if he is given too much time to get away. It strains belief that the avaricious bastard will not salvage his most precious items, including the golden needle and thread that might show the way to an even larger treasure, if given three or four rounds unthreatened. The party might be slow to find the secret door, they might be slow to regroup, or some of the hobgoblins or Iron Ring goons might still be around to block the stairs. If Golthar gets away with the magic needle, there is no way to deduce the location of the lost Hutaakan city from the Sukiskyn tapestry, and no further adventure beyond selling off the white horses at last.
Maybe ... hear me out ... that's not such a bad thing? After the white herd is sold off, the adventure's next act becomes less compelling, as we will see. The players' time might be better occupied chasing some other lead, including the mini-adventures to the east that didn't fit the relentless pace of the planned events up until now.
Or ... hear me out ... Golthar intends to leave the needle in the chest.  He realizes it is easier for the party to put two and two together, than for him to lay hands on the tapestry. The Iron Ring has many eyes, after all, and the heroes will find it hard to keep their destination a secret ... But, let's not get too far ahead.
The description of the bedchamber, by the way, is really great, showing Golthar's twisted character through a set of furnishings in subtle bad taste. Our man leaves a huge treasure, over 10,000 gold coins as well as some more portable items. The coins will take 10 bearers to shift even at half speed, under Basic D&D encumbrance rules. 5th edition players have less weight to deal with but will still probably travel at less than ideal speed. Also, there's a (fabric?) scroll of the ancient Hutaakans that, if deciphered, will give a little more of an idea what Golthar is after.
So, exit the villain, one way or another. There's still a whole goblin village to get past, and possibly some Iron Ring underlings returning to the site on horseback. But assuming our heroes get back to Sukiskyn, and even if they find the secret map hidden in the tapestry, the next order of business is also plain: that herd of white horses, at long last, is going to market.
Next: On the road to Rifllian
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Night's Dark Terror 12: Xitaqa 3, Up the Tower

Mon, 04/01/2024 - 08:47

This is part of a series of posts with a scene-by-scene critique, appreciation, and improvement of the 1986 TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror

Tower-climbing adventures are many in D&D. They're sparked, no doubt, by the thought of a reverse dungeon where you go up and not down, and by literary examples of magical spires from Tolkien's Barad-Dur and Orthanc to Moorcock's Vanishing Tower. 

Xitaqa in better days? (C) Mikael Mellibris, CC-BY-NC 4.0  
But there's a problem with towers as adventure sites. In a world with wall-climbing thieves and items conferring flight, any goal at the top can be reached while bypassing all the other rooms that make up the adventure. As I've argued before, that is not necessarily an adventure-killer. But B10 squelches the argument by having the tower of the ruins of Xitaqa being entirely windowless and entryless along its length. On the plus side (for the hostage Stephan's survival), this means Golthar can't look out the window and see them coming.

The tower's vertical dimensions are not well specified, but the base has 20' high doors, so we can assume  rooms X5 and X8 are 30' high. Then there are four floors above that, and then presumably, rubble blocks the way to the broken top; so having each floor being cavernously high, 20', lets the 110' whole stand higher than its mapped 80' width. Not quite the slender tower of the book illustration, but appropriate for the stump of a broken, taller structure.

On the first upper floor, X9 is the dorm of the Iron Ring operatives, and has some nice touches in the ceremonial manacles by each bed. Do evil minions sleep well? If entered by night, there may be one or two awake in their beds. But with swift movement, a perceptive party can cut off their retreat and the possibility to warn Golthar.

The next floor up, X10, is the first of two memorable trick rooms.  Magic on the room renders invisible all living things, and the room itself is fitted with "invisible" glass walls that block easy movement or shooting across the seemingly empty stretch. This creates a confusing and anxious situation as Stephan's shouts ring out; Golthar is there, interrogating him, and there is a minotaur lurking as well. Both bad guys can see perfectly well in the room, thanks to magic.   

In my elaboration on the module as written, this permanent effect is a legacy of the Hutaakan obsession both with concealment and with sensory deprivation. Being invisible to yourself is the ultimate erasure of self, after all. Who knows what ultimate degeneration it brought about?

But back to the practicalities of running the encounter. Having the walls be glass isn't quite right, as the glass would give off reflections. Maybe this is the kind of cartoonish visual imagination in certain early adventures that created tricks by having yellow mold be easily mistakeable for gold. More realistically, the walls can just be invisible stone themselves, unless you want the delightful chaos of missed melee strikes having a chance to shatter the magically invisible glass walls. Perhaps a miss on a natural d20 roll of 3 or less, and a damage roll of 4 or more, will smash a 5' section of wall, causing d3 damage to everyone within 6' of the shattered wall.

What are the rules of the room? Players  might try throwing objects to find out the contours, as mine did with a bag of dwarven ball bearings. I let this work, ruling that the magic does not affect objects that aren't worn or carried by a living being. But a DM's within their rights to rule otherwise. If thrown objects vanish in the room, of course, figuring out its contours will be that much more difficult.

Can Stephan survive? It's very easy for the hobgoblins or Iron Ring members to warn the evil wizard in time to kill the hostage, despite the party's best efforts. But everything in this adventure points to Golthar being a classic pulp villain, sadism and show over efficiency. As written, he doesn't seem very interested in killing Stephan, preferring to flee upstairs with a final taunt. The minotaur, as written, then moves to attack the intruders. But there might be more tension in the minotaur attempting to kill Stephan, following a dramatic command from Golthar to "Finish him!" The attempted execution will pause, of course, if the heroes find and engage the bull-man.

In Mentzer Basic, we can assume that attacking a tied-up character is similar to attacking a paralyzed one (p. 24 of the Basic rulebook). That is, attacks automatically hit, but unlike attacking a sleeping character, don't automatically kill as the target still can wriggle and duck away. At d8+2 damage, the minotaur can't kill Stephan, even weakened as he is, with a single blow. 

In 5th edition, we can assume that tied hand and foot, Stephan is restrained and incapacitated, so he is attacked at advantage. If the minotaur carries a normal sword, even considering that Stephan is at half hit points, a single attack is unlikely to take him to zero. A minotaur-sized standard issue axe, however, will likely knock him out. Putting the see invisible enchantment on such an oversized weapon (an eye carved on each bit of the blade) will deny the party its use. After the fatal blow, the party faces a time challenge to beat the minotaur and find Stephan before his possible death in 3-5 turns.

One other feature of the room, the most difficult to run, is that party members are explicitly invisible to each other while inside. Online D&D makes this easy, with the capacity to make character icons invisible to players, and privately describe the scene to each player. But at a table, the usual clunky mechanisms of passed notes or separate rooms will have to do. Characters that move can be heard, and so can the aftermath of the minotaur's attacks, but special measures are needed to distinguish friend from foe. Shooting missiles is fraught with danger, not to mention unreliable because of the intervening walls. An exception, of course, is magic missiles, which might help map out the room by shooting infallibly towards a target the caster can see.

Next: Facing Golthar.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Night's Dark Terror 11: Xitaqa 2, Tower Base

Fri, 03/29/2024 - 08:37

This is part of a series of posts with a scene-by-scene critique, appreciation, and improvement of the 1986 TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror

Once through the goblins and apes, our adventurers approach the windowless tower of Golthar through one of four entrances to the buildings at its base. Two are unwatched and lead to areas infested with independent monsters. Two are at the front and watched by hobgoblin guards, one leading to Vlack's room and one to a monster area. But first, a little additional background of lore that I spun up to make more sense of the Hutaakan ruins.

At the time of their civilization's fall, the Hutaakans had been developing two themes of arcane lore. One, as mentioned previously, is the lore of creating permanent illusions of concealment and invisibility -- which explains why Xitaqa, and maybe other sites further on, are so hard to find. 

The other thread of investigation concerned the use of sensory deprivation and hallucinogens to regress organisms down the evolutionary tree, the same wacky idea explored in the 1980 film Altered States. This degeneration explains why baboons - basically dog-faced apes -- still hang on to the ruins, for they are the devolved descendants of the jackal-headed civilization. It will also explain some of the things encountered later on in the adventure.

The caveman is not his final form. Still from WarnerBros.com.

With this in mind, we can consider the two abandoned, monster-bearing rooms first. 

The library is covered in thick webs, the customary tip-off that giant spiders are here. Once they're defeated, things can get more interesting, if you're magically able to read ancient Hutaakan ...

As a library of a lost ancient civilization, it's kind of an anticlimax to have the scrolls be all about civil records. My further elaboration was to make the Hutaakan method of writing be stitches in a supple and long-lasting fabric, of which the tapestry map is only one example. These fabric scrolls are mostly dull records, but among them, perhaps in a special or locked section, are scrolls explaining aspects of Hutaakan civilization: the development of illusion and the ascetic reaction against it, as well as disapproving accounts of forbidden experiments with sensory deprivation and certain mushrooms and berries that resulted in partial devolution to ape-form and then a "final degeneration to primordial plasm." To go with the scrolls' material, the writing set treasure object can be a sewing set instead, with silver needles and the different colored threads that showed different phrases and sentences.

Even madder is a scroll stitched up so it cannot be opened without cutting the black thread. Treated as forbidden knowledge, this work is a flight of unbridled madness inspired by the revelations of the isolation tanks. It claims the revelations that the primal Hutaakans were nothing less than the original creators and gods of the universe, who spun from their plasm all creatures and all possibilities. The proof of this is to be found in a loose, to be sure, reading of the nature of the four principal demon lords. All are actually devolved Hutaakan gods - Yeenoghu lowering himself into the form of the primitive gnoll; Demogorgon mutating more strangely into conjoined baboons; Orcus taking the face of an even lower creature and the aspect of a decaying corpse; and Juiblex as the final degeneration. It's wrong (maybe?) and leads nowhere, but it's a fun Easter egg.

Another back way is through the crypt, where in the adventure as written lurk two gelatinous cubes, somehow, that frightened off Golthar after he grabbed the.golden needle and thread (see p. 5) that are key to revelaing the secret map in the Sukiskyn tapestry. If we simply reshape the cubes into near-transparent humps of protoplasm, they fit the Altered States narrative perfectly. Also, some of the niches can have the shattered copper walls of the immersion tanks, old splashes of dried saline solution, and the brittle bones of ancient Hutaakans at various stages of degeneration into baboon form and beyond.

While bursting through one of the doors from the abandoned area into X8 will likely catch Vlack and his crew off-guard, they are fully prepared for approaches through the front door, X4-5. Getting caught in the crossfire of two ice wolf breaths is no joke, even for 5th edition parties, and it's likely that an alerted Vlack will send a minion upstairs to warn Golthar of the invasion - or even flee there himself if his morale flags. The architecture here has more Hutaakan statues, as well as mosaic work that I described as oddly similar to the patterns in the Sukisyn tapestry. 

One more detail: Vlack's sword. Instead of just a boring +1, I gave the red garnet on the sword an extra ability: if it kills a sentient enemy by decapitation in open combat, it gains an additional +1 bonus for the rest of the day. There is a 1 in 6 chance that any kill will naturally be a headshot, or the shot can be called at a penalty (disadvantage, or -4, perhaps).

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Night's Dark Terror 10: Xitaqa 1, Round the Houses

Sun, 03/24/2024 - 14:46

This is part of a series of posts with a scene-by-scene critique, appreciation, and improvement of the 1986 TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror

Neolithic ruins at Ҫatalhöyük - an inspiration? World History Encyclopedia.

The ruins of Xitaqa are a very difficult location, even for super-powered 5th edition D&D heroes. The party has to make their way through a platoon of hostile goblins who cohabit with a troop of rock-throwing baboons. It's likely they have no real effective area damage spells, so infiltration should occur to them. When they get to the tower there are three tough fights in succession as they seek the captive Stephan Sukiskyn and chase his captor, the evil wizard Golthar. This bad guy will surely kill Stephan out of spite if he is given any time to react when alerted of the players' approach. Luckily he is cooped up in a windowless tower. Still, with Stephan's rescue in mind, there's little time to rest and recuperate in between bouts of combat.

First, though, there's a logical course of action for Golthar that the module authors missed. Stephan's capture creates a stalemate: the wizard knows that the tapestry he seeks belongs to his captive's family, but the strongest army he could command failed to take it by force. Why doesn't he just let the family know (by a message wrapped around an arrow shot into the front gate of the homestead) that he has Stephan and is willing to trade him for the tapestry? He'll try to disguise his intentions by asking for both tapestries in the hall, the secret map one and the one of a horse, passing the request off as a consolation trophy in acknowledgement that he was defeated, a small price to strike a peace. He'll also be explicit that any attempt to ambush the exchange or rescue Stephan will result in the captive's death. Such threats, for adventurers, were made to be ignored. But if the heroes do let the exchange go ahead, they will have more leeway to attack Golthar in stages. Not infinite leeway; the wizard will likely leave Xitaqa to mount his own expedition to the Lost Valley a few days after learning of its secret.

Some editing is also needed to have the defenders of the ruined village make sense. As Loshad told the party before the werewolf fight, creatures leave their lair during the active period -- but this isn't reflected in the three groups inhabiting Xitaqa, and we're led to believe that bats are active in the day. Here's a more sensible disposition of Xitaqa's home team that, incidentally, gives the infiltrators a bit more of a chance.

1. The baboons are massed and awake around dawn and dusk. By day most of them fan out into the hills around the ruins looking for forage. Only 5-8 apes -- those that are injured, unwell, old, or caring for very young ones -- stand guard on the top level of the canyons, but they will make noise if they sense strangers approaching. By night the baboons are all at home and have holed up in their designated building lairs, with only 2-3 insomniacs keeping watch up top.

2. The goblins sleep indoors by day, with a patrol as described going through the canyons - perhaps with makeshift parasols if the day is sunny? By night most of the goblins go hunting, and 12 or so of them are left doing various household tasks, going through the streets in groups of 1d4 individuals.

3. The bats from the tower flit around by night and will harass the party if they hear strangers moving about above the canyons. Fortunately, any fight with bats does not need to make noise as their screeches are infrasonic, and the combat will only be noticed within a range  of 30' by creatures moving in the canyons below.

4. Don't forget the mounted Iron Ring operatives who lair in the ruins. They ride out in the morning to patrol the area between the holls and the river, and at night can be found in the empty building next to the stables S.

5. Finally, there is the retinue of Vlack, and these hobgoblin soldiers watch the entrance to the tower at X4 night and day, a pair of them on the steps in front of the double doors.

From these dispositions it becomes clear that the party will have a hard time sneaking up to the tower, but if they do so it should be at night, given the limited range of goblins' dark vision. A single alarm going up will likely alert the whole complex, and although goblin squads will likely arrive in dribs and drabs, the graver threat to the mission is Golthar being alerted by his hobgoblin lieutenant Vlack. All the same, there is a plausible sequence of events that makes the rescue of Stefan a possibility, if a difficult one...

The next two episodes will focus on the rooms in the base and the main part of the tower. They involve much speculation beyond the "facts" in the adventure as written, helping to add weight to what the Hutaakans were up to and weave a golden thread of meaning through the players' encounters with their artifacts.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Night's Dark Terror 9: Following the Clues

Wed, 03/13/2024 - 08:44

 This is part of a series of posts with a scene-by-scene critique, appreciation, and improvement of the 1986 TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror

After the Wolfskull lair, it would be nice to bump around the wilderness a little, maybe see what's left of the other goblin tribes in their lairs or come across some other adventure sites. But Stefan Sukiskyn is in enemy hands and the urgent mission to rescue him has hit a snag - nobody knows where this Xitaqa place is!

There is a truly funny moment as the elders recall the oddly specific ritual that can summon the all-knowing horse Loshad,. The ritual's probably bogus in its precise details, but will summon him all the same. It's here that Loshad's centaur form is revealed, and the party sent on yet another point-to-point mission. Loshad also asks the party to free their horses, presumably their personal horses and not the white herd that is the whole point of the adventure. Although the latter interpretation would make a harsh and compelling dilemma, it would also derail much of the adventure to come.

It should be clear by now that Loshad cares very much about horses. He will talk to the party's steeds in their own language and get some idea of their treatment. They don't mind being asked to gallop over open terrain for an hour a day as Fifth Edition allows them, but they will complain about forced-march conditions, or being exposed to danger in combat. This combination of an NPC who can be helpful but has their own agenda is great. It sets up the adventure for some conflict beyond simple good guy-bad guy opposition.

Speaking of bad guys, Loshad's other demand is to go kill a pair of werewolves who live in the hills to the east. We can answer the question "why doesn't the questgiver carry out the quest himself?" implicitly. Loshad by himself is not a match for the two other were-creatures and their wolf pack. While he commands many horses, it's in character for him not to want to endanger their lives when expendable two-leggers are available. He even gives helpful tactical information about the best time to attack.

So it's up the Volaga River into a landscape of hilly bluffs, and a lair that's a well-designed layout stocked with interesting clues and goods. Here, too, we meet the first archeological evidence of the ancient Hutaakans, the statue of a robed jackal-headed humanoid perched overlooking the cave complex. This feature foreshadows what's to come in the adventure. It had my imagination on overdrive, filling in an extended idea of what the Hutaakan civilization was about. 

Photo source: Plakas Auctions, London

Hear me out on these completely unofficial plot-hacks:

  • The cave complex is an ancient Hutaakan meditation site. The civilization had a phase where they were obsessed with the magic of illusion and concealment, and in reaction, a monastic movement arose that sought to find the truth through introspection. The caves, then, were used for meditation; you may want to have the faint traces of contemplative mandalas painted on the far wall of each of them.
  • This jackal-headed Hutaakan statue has been mistaken for a wolf-man idol, both by Loshad who mentions it as a landmark in his directions, and by the werewolves; blood stains on the ground show that they have sacrificed before it.
  • This is more of an invention, but I found it both implausible and a cliche that the eyes of the statue were gems. I went with an only slightly less shopworn idea: the gem eyes had been taken out and were in the werewolves' treasure, and if they were replaced in the sockets, the statue would plant a powerful, one-use word in the mind of the replacer that could let them see through any illusion or invisibility for a minute. This will definitely be useful in the next scene of the adventure.

The fight with the werewolves has great atmosphere, with many reminders of their enmity to horses reinforcing the adventure's themes. When it's over, Loshad gives up the location of Xitaqa, and takes a rain check on the freeing of the horses. The only problem, realism-wise, is that it's very nearby, a ruin with a tall tower that would have been seen by the party if they approached the werewolf lair by the south bank of the Volaga river. 

I solved this problem by having the tower under an ancient Hutaakan spell of illusion, or more accurately misidentification -- it looks like a natural rock formation until you look at it with the idea it might be part of a ruin. Loshad saw through the illusion a long time ago, and can point out the "rock" to the party, or they can use the word of power (wastefully) to see it themselves.

Once again, there's little time to prepare or mess around with side adventures. Stephan is in enemy hands and that situation demands immediate action. It's likely that, unless they really need to rest up, the adventurers will go directly from the werewolf fight to the next big site.

Next: The ruins of Xitaqa

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Night's Dark Terror 8: Raid on the Goblin Fort

Sun, 03/03/2024 - 10:38

This is part of a series of posts with a scene-by-scene critique, appreciation, and improvement of the 1986 TSR module B10, Night's Dark Terror

When the adventurers find it, the lair of the Wolfskull goblins is properly atmospheric. It's in the middle of a miles-wide petrified forest -- not the paltry fossilized remains found on Earth, but a whole forest turned to stone, birds, squirrels, leaves, and all. This strange and gloomy place will attract the attention of the adventurers when they discover it, and channel them to one of the paths that runs through it, which all lead to the Wolfskull fort at the center.

Art by ShahabAlizadeh

There's a fight with some giant bats (confusingly, not the same bats that are the hobgoblin Vlack's pets), then a more consequential run-in with a goblin patrol. Although the party see the foes in time to arrange an ambush, letting just one goblin get away can mean trouble - and we can assume the foot-goblins at least are more able to scramble through the petrified underbrush than a typical adventurer.

But if the garrison isn't alerted, there are just two guards in the entrance of this memorable fort, built of and around the stone timber of frozen trees. Two guards lit by torches, who are not even looking out their one door ... OK, hold up a second. Goblins can see in the dark and wolves have a great nose, so all the fires and torches described lighting up this fort's interior are besides the point. Just make it a dark hole with two red eyes staring out that, if you're lucky, you see before they see you. And don't fall in the river moat - if cold-water piranhas are too much for you, they can always be replaced by good old mundane giant leeches.

This is a strange little castle, to be sure. It can't be defended with archers, no battlements or window slits. But actually, that suits the armaments of the Wolfskulls, which are throwing spears and axes and the jaws of their mounts. And forget the boxed text that has the goblins "rushing forward with weapons drawn." Instead, the best strategy would allow the goblins' numbers to tell by luring a force of stronger but fewer invaders inside the walls, deep ebough in to be attacked from all sides with no escape possible.

But does the fortress' layout actually support that strategy? Sort of. If the goblins abandon area c quickly, darting in and out of cover to throw spears or (in 5th edition) striking and disangaging with their hand axes, the defenders of areas d, g, and e would do best to hide away out of sight, forcing the invading vanguard to enter that room while the other areas bide their time and attack from the flank.

Then again, perhaps the goblins would absolutely slaughter a third level party, especially playing by Basic rules, if allowed to use optimal tactics. As written, the defenders are quick to attack but slow to be alerted, allowing for a series of manageable battles. Still, you might prefer balance to come from a reduction in numbers rather than from dumbing down the goblins -- perhaps subtracting one or two patrols like the ones encountered outside from the roster, to come back later and put the victors on the defensive.

A smart party will avoid Vlack's rooms across the log bridge, which have no proactive forces in them, until they've recovered from the main fight. The split skull painted on the door (why not a bloody head, the insignia of Vlack's tribe?) should be warning enough. Vlack's not home, but his pet giant weasels are in, and a pair of the most iconic Basic D&D-only monsters: thouls, those misbegotten creatures that happen when a hobgoblin, a ghoul, a troll, and an OD&D typographical error love each other very much.

Thoul, by Steve Zeiser


There's a good mix of obvious and hidden loot in the lair, but the object of your quest - Stefan Sukiskyn - is in another castle. One of the left-behind prisoners, a Slavic granny literally called Babushka, has overheard the word "Xitaqa" as Stefan's destination. We can assume that the people who came to get him were not goblins, but servants of the Iron Ring whose description should match the attackers that start out the adventure -- that gives them a reason to speak Common and for Babushka to overhear. If you feel there should be a few more clues to what's going on, you can have some of the loot give those clues - a rough map of the raid locations in Vlack's room, or an heirloom from one of the raided settlements.

The bridge to the hobgoblins' quarters also gives the goblins a way out if the battle goes against them, assuming they follow their retreat strategy and end up concentrated in room h. But where will they go? It might be a relief that there are no goblin civilians, the traditional "women and children" of D&D moral philosophy. But it's also a puzzle, and my reckoning was that the goblins had a civilian settlement hidden away in the stone forest, not obviously at the conjunction of all the paths like the fort was. In about ten years there will be a new generation of Wolfskulls raising hell.

Some other hacks I applied to make the magic loot here more interesting:

* Whatever the potion of delusion is, it's likely the goblin king Kloss would keep it on his person. In this case it's an emperor's new invisibility potion - you can't see yourself but everyone else can.

* The shield +2 in my campaign is a heirloom of the slaughtered Segenyev family, known as the "White Wall." It is a large, heavy shield that goblins cannot use, white with a red stag, and gives resistance to cold when held but is only +2 after a combat round (turn) spent without moving, as shields with pluses are a little overpowered in 6th edition.

Next: What's a Xitaqa?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs