Friday 12 April 2024

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

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.

Thursday 11 April 2024

New Dungeon Just Dropped! (Ancient School)

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 ...

Thursday 4 April 2024

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

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 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, leaving 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

Monday 1 April 2024

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

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 (ahem, Castle Mistamere) 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.

Friday 29 March 2024

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

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.

WarnerBros.com | Altered States | Movies
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).

Sunday 24 March 2024

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

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

Ҫatalhöyük - World History Encyclopedia
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 the PCs 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 hills and the river, and at night can be found in the tower, leaving their horses in the stable building 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.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

Night's Dark Terror 9: Following the Clues

 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 were-horse (chevall) 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 in an NPC --  helpful, but has his 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 archaeological 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 Xitaqa is 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 lie 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. The 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

Sunday 3 March 2024

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

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.

Petrified Forest by ShahabAlizadeh on DeviantArt
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 5th edition.

Next: What's a Xitaqa?

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Night's Dark Terror 7: Hexcrawling South of the River

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

We move to the adventure's next section, South of the River. Here, we see the possibility that the action opens up, leaving the clearly marked sequence of jobs and trails that we've seen so far. But that depends on the location of the Wolfskull goblins' lair, where they're keeping Stefan Sukiskyn, staying a mystery for a while. This uncertainty is the one chance for free exploration and hexcrawling in an otherwise unbroken series of time-critical quests that will take the party right up to the midpoint of the adventure.

Unfortunately, the hexcrawl design here falters. The plan as written is for the party to have a number of encounters which eventually - and not too quickly - give up the location of the Wolfskull lair. But, apart from one suggestion, there's no clear way to get from the adventure material to that goal. We'll explore that avenue first and then consider other possibilities.

The easiest way to find out where any of the goblin lairs is? Worm it out of a captured goblin. It's always a good idea, even if running old-school, to allow some kind of nonlethal combat move; either by taking a half-damage penalty to "subdue," as in my house rules, or just allowing a kill to be a KO, as in 5th. Interrogation should not be that easy, even if using 5th edition's Intimidation skill. Goblins will not give up the location of their own lair without a critical failure of resistance or morale, but they will gladly rat out the general direction and distance of other tribes' lairs, especially after the bitter failure of pan-goblin unity at Sukiskyn. The longest such sequence would have a Wolfskull giving up the Redblade lair to lead the party south and not east, the Redblades knowing more about the Vipers than the Wolfskulls, and the Vipers, close to the Wolfskulls, giving up the final clue.

Having learned the goblins have attacked other settlements, the party could go visit those ruins in search of clues. But there's not much to do in any of these places, except for Ilyakana where the trauma theme continues, as they meet their boatman Kalanos from a few days ago, now driven into a berserk rage by the horror of the goblin attack. There's not even any indication of how those places give better clues to the Wolfskull lair than already existed at the scene of the horse massacre. Based on those tracks, the Wolfskull will be presumed to live deeper in the forest, but there's some misdirection; the riding wolves took off to the southwest, not southeast to the actual lair. 

I suggest that the ruined hamlets at least should give tracks that lead to the previous raid site, and then in the direction of the lair, corroborated by one or two survivors who know where the goblins came from and in what direction they left. The trail of destruction (see map) eventually leads to the final site, Segenyev, whose smoke should have been seen across the plains during the pursuit of the herd. With that in mind, it might be fair to have the tracks from the dead horse encounter lead only a short way, to an empty campsite. From there, the wolves set off again east by northeast, to sack Segenyev at dusk.

Numbers are the days of the month Thaumont the attacks happen

The alternative to gathering intelligence is to just go stomping off into the woods, hex by hex, hoping you stumble across something. This is where the design of the adventure works against itself. There are three small, detailed side adventures in the area (W11, W12, and the tombs W13-15). Each of these adventures is well-designed and intriguing by itself.  But they are all in and around the hills to the east, north of the forest; not at all where the goblins live. None of these sites have clues to the Wolfskull lair. The DM is told that Golthar has recently been to one of them but there is no way for the players to discover that and no useful information as a result. 

Although a better design might have put some side-adventures in the forest, this is the module we have. Altering it further would go past hacking into sheer invention. Also, it is harder for the party to legitimately discover odd sites in the forest, than in the open where lines of sight are longer. Giving out false rumors that the wolf tribe lives in the hills seems unfair as a way to put these sites into play. The writers also suggest drawing the party into the hills with whispers of lore in and around Sukiskyn. But following these rumors would be poor play, given the current, time-pressured quest to rescue Stephan.

A final element in this phase of the module is a series of five wilderness "events" for use in the post-siege section of the adventure, as well as a more conventional random encounters table, designated "optional".  Here, B10 overrides the loose wilderness rules in Expert, which allow for one or several encounter checks a day, random or not, at the DM's discretion, with further discretion to set the numbers encountered. The DM instead is encouraged to use optional encounters judiciously, almost at will, so as not to slow down the action or inconvenience the party in their other adventures. As for the wilderness events, two are set encounters with important NPCs - one hostile, one potentially helpful - but three are truly events, random happenings not involving other living creatures.  

With the free-form approach suggested for both kinds of encounters it's left to a DM to decide how to play it. I like randomness, and think that few of the encounters present much of a challenge at least in 5th edition, so I rolled d6 every two hexes (6 miles) of travel or every 4 hours of resting/camping in the wilderness. A roll of 1 was an encounter from the "optional" table, 2 as usual was a clue (tracks, sound, camp, kill) to one of the encounters, and 6 - if rolled during travel - was a chance at one of the wilderness events, rolled as the lesser of two d6.

Not all the events work. WE1 (finding some dead bodies and some welcome goods) and WE3 (one of the party's horses injures itself) are fine, as is WE4 (a mysterious horse, actually the NPC Loshad, appears to check in on the party's horses.) WE2, though, seems unfair. It involves an item of the party's falling out of their pack for no reason, breaking the assumption that D&D characters can manage their gear competently. That's what leprechauns are for - I suggest using the wee folk as a reason, or substituting some other non-combat complication. 

In WE5, we run into the mid-tier boss Vlack who is on his way north to report back to evil boss Golthar about the failure to take Sukiskyn. This pretext is odd. The encounter is likely to happen several days after the event, and doesn't fit all the locations in which it could happen.  Fortunately, knowing Vlack's business doesn't impact the encounter one bit, so it can simply be a chance run-in that explains why he's absent from his rooms in the Wolfskull lair (W16k, p. 22). Still, if the party kills him, it could be kind of an anticlimax. I suggest taking the line that the hobgoblin captain would bolt on his fast-running ice wolf at the first sign of trouble, perhaps allowing one blast from its breath weapon, but leaving one or two bats and his loyal troopers to delay pursuit at the cost of their lives. This is completely in-character behavior for a middle-management villain.

Next: The Wolfskull lair.

Monday 19 February 2024

Night's Dark Terror 6: Search for the Herd

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

We'll assume the party takes the bait, and sets off on the trail of the stolen herd not long after the siege of Sukiskyn. They are going to be led by the family's heir, Taras, who knows something of the immediate surroundings of his homestead.

Regardless, the trail of a herd of 41 horses should be plainly visible. It leads through the woods due east along the familiar trail to the herd's usual pasture on the moor, then continues along the north edge of the forest. Reconstructing the doings of the night before, the Vipers, on foot and driving the herd, had a full eleven or twelve hours' head start on the mounted Wolfskull riders. In Basic, wolves outpace goblins by a 5:3 ratio, and even in Fifth Edition where travel times are flattened by the rules as written, adopting travel rates more proportional to tactical move makes the following events more plausible.

The Vipers drive the white herd all night and find shelter from the distasteful sun rays under the eaves of the forest, 12 miles east of Sukiskyn. This is less distance than they could travel in a night, but we can assume that the herd caused trouble for them, even assuming they had some kind of animal-handler  to make their whole kidnap feasible. Meanwhile, the thirteen mounted Wolfskulls (minus casualties taken in the siege), including the king and bodyguards, take only a few hours to catch up. Then at map location W2, the massacre happens.

Hans Baldung Grien, 1534

When the party arrives, they will have some giant insect scavengers to deal with. For among the dead Vipers lie seventeen bodies of Sukiskyn's white horses, presumably mauled and part-eaten by wolves. In any system, a dire wolf is going to have about 5 times the hit points of a goblin, and that plus surprise equals a massacre. The most likely tale to be had, if survivors speak, is one of hubris bitterly cursed. Jagga, the dead king, really did think the other two tribes would stick around and complete the siege, so fiercely did they boast of war. He thought his tribe would not be pursued as they made off with the herd.

With this tragic scene, B10 swings the heartbreak hammer again - if the sight of so many dead horses doesn't move a player, think of the lost earnings they represent! But the larger part of the herd has survived and they are easily enough tracked to the next location.

The goblins sold the horses to a bandit camp deeper in the woods, just a small operation with elven thief "Miss L. Fyodorll" and a few of her goons. The adventure as written presents a moral quandary - Fyodorll will swear it was none of her business, that if Sukiskyn wants justice they should get the sale price back from the Viper goblins. She also should know vaguely that they and the Wolfskulls live to the east, setting up the next phase of the adventure.

But the module as written completely ruins the situation. A standoff is likely, with Fyodorll denying all moral claims on stolen property and Taras unwilling to pay for what is rightly his family's. Unless the party pays or negotiates a settlement, the situation is resolved cheaply by Fydoorll inexplicably attacking the party as they leave - shades of "Greedo shot first" to make it clear who the bad guys are.

Here's a better way. It starts from realizing that the Fyodorll gang is not really primarily in the business of selling horses - what customers would visit a stable in the middle of a goblin-infested forest, and where are the acres of pasture that such a large collection would need? The sign claiming to be a horse dealership, then, is a recent bit of wry humor on Miss L. (Lenorre, in my campaign) Fyodorll's part. The white herd is a white elephant for her. With no long-term way to feed them, she will be looking to sell fast - the inflated mark-up cited in the adventure is only a starting point, and any profit is acceptable to her. 

If there is no deal, she might even show up at Sukiskyn later with the herd in tow. Pyotr will be a more pragmatic bargainer than his honor-bound son, possibly offering the pile of goblin weapons and armor, otherwise unsaleable, as something Fyodorll already has a market for. This course of events is even more likely in my campaign, where the elf teasingly hinted about a "history" with Taras' father.

But if the bandit camp must involve a fight, and the players are reluctant to be the aggressors, let it be Taras who provokes it. He'll shoot an arrow in anger from the back, letting the party deal with the consequences, and putting dramatic strain on their otherwise cozy relations with the host family. The bandits won't fight to the death; in my campaign, Fyodorll escaped to further bedevil the party on a memorable foggy day, while one defeated bandit begged for mercy and was taken on as a liege of the Sukiskyn household. They have very little money described on their persons, and it makes sense that their main treasure would be buried, undiscoverable, in the woods nearby.

Regardless, if the party and Taras return empty-handed Pyotr will pull for recovery of the surviving 24 horses, by whatever means necessary. And by then the next quest will have been served up - word reaches Sukiskyn that Stephan has been kidnapped by wolf-riding goblins!

Next: Hexcrawling in search of Stephan Sukiskyn

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Night's Dark Terror 5: The Wilderness Beckons

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 siege of Sukiskyn is over. The party has won - else there's no point reading this. Some of the weary all-night defenders sleep, others make plans. The honored dead to be buried in the little cemetery in the woods. The scores of dead goblins are to be burned on a pyre in the meadow, like they do in Rohan. The goblins have been carrying coins (p. 10) which Pyotr will likely divide with the heroes. He would give it all away in gratitude, but lean times loom ahead for his family, now that the hope of great profit contained in that herd of white horses has been rustled away.

So, the next urgent task is to get the horses back. That in turn means overland travel. This kind of play can be handled three ways: as paths between pre-specified encounters, the open-air dungeon approach that we've seen in the adventure so far; or, as free travel between pre-specified encounters, the "hexcrawl" way; or finally, as procedurally generated content, random encounters all the way. For now, the horse quest takes on the first, pathed kind of play. Random encounters don't play a part in the recovery of the herd, if we follow the adventure as written.

Public domain licensed image from pxhere.com

Much is made here in B10 of the party finally acquiring horses from the Sukiskyn stable, and using them to truck around the wilderness. You'll recall that it's an important enough point that the DM is encouraged to deny the party horses before they reach the homestead. But this is where Mentzer-edition B/X D&D and 5th edition diverge. In Mentzer's Expert rules a riding horse is a veritable Harley-Davidson that can carry its rider 48 miles a day, twice the movement rate of an unarmored footman and almost three times that of a character weighed down by metal armor. 

But the 5th edition rules are skeptical of this advantage - the only reason in 5th edition why horses might give a travel benefit, other than acting as visible status symbols and keeping the mud off your boots, is if you gallop them for double-fast speed an hour each day and then rest them = a paltry 18% bonus per day of normal travel.

These rulesets give rise to huge differences in the daily travel rate, with B/X riders making 12 more miles a day then 5e riders over trails and clear terrain, and going over twice as fast through forest and hills. The truth about mounted travel, according to this writer's site, is debatable but probably somewhere in the middle (foot travel +50%, with no bonus in very heavy swamp, mountain, or forest. For the equipment investment in a mount to give benefits, and for B10's horse obsession to make sense, I recommend that 5th edition DMs house-rule a little.

 (An oft-neglected factor in mounted movement seems to be the availability of good grass or fodder in town for the horse to eat. If fodder is poor, the horse needs to spend more time per day grazing and will not be in good condition to trot or canter. Taking horse rations on the journey is not easy; a stabled horse eats 15-20 pounds of grain and hay daily. But if towns and plains allow the best feeding opportunities, that roughly works out to "roads and grassy plains good, other terrain bad" much like the present system.)

In any case, the hoofprints of forty horses are not easily missed, and they lead to the east. I recommend that the eldest son of the family, Taras, come along with the party as the module suggests. There's a part for him to play in the flawed. but fixable, action that follows.

Next: Tragedy and treachery in retrieving the herd.

Tuesday 6 February 2024

Night's Dark Terror 4: Siege of Sukiskyn

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

Wargames and roleplaying have the kind of grudging closeness that's only seen in families. Roleplaying is the younger sibling, having grown out of the wargaming scene in the Midwestern States 50 years ago. To this day D&D, the market leader, bears the combat emphasis and even specific rules mechanics of tabletop wargames. The authors of Night's Dark Terror, as we've seen, helped originate the roleplaying line in the predominantly wargame portfolio of Games Workshop.  Still, it must have been surprising, unprecedented, and for many, very welcome to open up a fresh copy of this module and see a sheet of die-cut counters and fold-out battlemap with which to play out the siege of Sukiskyn. The secondary market value of a paper copy shoots up by an order of magnitude if it includes an unpunched copy of the counter sheet. While the rules stay D&D, the counters and map evoke the glory days of board wargaming in the 60's through 80's.



Perhaps it's the wargame mindset that explains why the players have to be guided on strict and shiny rails toward the exact setup scenario of the Siege, where they enter board left, fight their way through a couple of goblin squads, with a strong incentive to hurry into the fort where they meet the Sukiskyn family and take part in the all-night defense. The usual procedure in wargames is to have an inflexible setup, the fight being self-contained. All the same, both miniature and counter wargame rules occasionally set up sequential campaigns of battles, where outcomes have consequences down the line. It was into such a Napoleonic miniatures campaign that Dave Wesely, in 1969, inserted the free character-driven kriegspiel of Braunstein. Diplomatic play as characters in that fictitious town could influence the forces and setup of later army-scale battles.

So why not let free play influence the setup of this battle? Before going into the two most likely alternate scenarios, we must first review what's going with the forces already at or near the scene. In doing this, I will mix my own interpretations with the scenario as written.

The human settlements near the Volaga river have been targeted by a multi-level mayhem operation: three goblin tribes, each with their king, who answer to the hobgoblin captain Vlack, who answers to evil wizard Golthar, who answers to the Iron Ring organization. We can imagine that, since the main business of the Ring is slaving, Golthar presented the operation to his superior as a way to get sturdy civilians into chains. But he also has an obsession he keeps from them - an object learned of through ancient lore, that he believes to be in one of the settlements, and that actually is in Sukiskyn.

It's easy to believe that the settlers by the Volaga have not seen the goblins as a threat before; the settlements that fall offscreen do so quickly, and there's no system of mutual warning or reinforcement among them. A likely reason is that for years now, the goblin tribes have preferred to fight each other, making no moves northwards in fear of attack from behind. Now, Vlack's diplomacy has united them. The combined force has taken down four homesteads and camps in the preceding days. The next-to-most recent involved the Wolfskulls and Vipers, so the Redblades must have been brought in only recently.

If the combined force attacked all at once, they would easily slay the defenders of Sukiskyn, PCs and all. They number over a hundred goblins, their leader corps, the Wolfskulls' riding wolves (easily the biggest threat in the roster using Basic rules, and very strong even in 5th), and Vlack's entourage of hobgoblins, giant bats, and a terrifying ice wolf. But despite their successes, the goblins are not used to team play, and suspicious of the other tribes. The siege of Sukiskyn is winnable for the defense because the Vipers have defected from the alliance, seeing their chance to rustle that herd of 41 white horses for themselves, and decamping just before sundown after killing two homesteaders.

Thus, we might imagine at sunset the besieging forces in disarray. The goblins set to ambush the party were not expecting anyone, but alertly awaiting orders. A frantic conference ensues between the two remaining kings and Vlack. Gnahss of the Redblade wants Kloss of the Wolfskulls to send the riders after the Vipers and the horses, which they would catch easily owing to the number of Vipers who must be on foot. Kloss doesn't want to quit the field and have Gnhass steal the glory and treasure of what they think is another pushover civilian settlement. Vlack, a sound tactician, urges a united assault, but now the kings are suspicious of each other, neither willing to commit to attack until they're sure of the other's motive. After several hours, at Vlack's urging, the kings commit a section of their forces to a probing assault (SE3 on p. 8). It's likely to be less successful than expected owing to the presence of the PCs, and will lead to recriminations that Gnhass did not put his forces in danger the way Kloss did. The recriminations lead to delay, delay, delay, until the night is about to lift and the goblins, who can't stand light, need to make a move. At that point Kloss finally quits the field to chase down the Vipers, and Gnhass, as we read, seeks to purge the shame of failure with a goblin-wave assault.

With this in mind, what can we expect if the players' characters arrive early?

After establishing their bona fides by referring to Stephan, they'll be greeted warmly and treated to dinner just around sunset - Stephan himself is expected the next day. Shouts, screams, and the neighing of horses alert the diners to trouble near the pen. Because the area of grass around Sukiskyn is too small to graze a herd of 40 day-in and day-out, we can assume that Novannes was just bringing them back from pastures a few miles away on the plains, but he and Hakos were ambushed by the Vipers just outside the pens and killed. Before the shocked and angry homesteaders can mount up and ride after them, it becomes clear that the woods are crawling with goblin eyes and goblin fires, and they hastily retreat and secure the gate. Just then, they find the roof of the barn ablaze and eight intact Redblades in the courtyard. The rest of the siege continues from episode SE1.

What if they arrive late?

Assume that the same goblin ambush and wolf reinforcements greet them, but that the barn and gatehouse have burned down and it will be harder to get to the barred-up house where the family holed up. The Redblade goblin raiders who set the fire are all dead in the courtyard and the clerics have used a couple of cure spells already.

If they are more than three hours late, the foray (SE3) has been repelled but at grievous cost. The main fighters, Pyotr, Daria and Taras, have taken 25 hits between them, which the clerics will likely have spent all their healing on. Worse, old Stelios has died to a sling-stone. A Wolfskull bodyguard, five Wolfskull goblins, and five Redblade slingers add to the dead in the courtyard.

If they arrive after dawn for some reason, all the family's fighters are dead amid a carpet of goblin bodies. The pillaged homestead is burning. The fateful object of Golthar's search as well as the captive civilian family members are on the way to the lair of the Redblades, who suffered 15 dead in prevailing. Eventually Vlack will pay a visit to them demanding the MacGuffin, once Golthar fills him in on its significance.

Some further notes on the siege:

* The scenario starts oddly, I think. The Redblade raiders have apparently punched a hole in the palisade, but if that's so, why don't the wolf riders follow through? Maybe the wolves hate the flames, but it also strains realism that the goblins could chop down a stout palisade wall in a few minutes. It's more plausible that this was a party of skilled climbers with incendiaries that let themselves over the palisade to cause chaos. The burning barn, over several minutes, then creates a gap in the wooden palisade which the later waves of attackers can exploit. Just note that in fifth edition, some spellcasters have access to utility cantrips -- regrettably, in my view -- that make the job of dousing the fires child's play.

* When adapting to 5th edition, it's only the Vipers and possibly the Wolfskull infantry who are described as using typical goblin tactics - hide, shoot or stab, and run. Keith Ammann has written a definitive guide to using the goblins' abilities, assembling their strength out of a poorly organized Players' Handbook which scatters the rules for hiding, spotting, and surprise into three separate sections. The warg (worg?) riders in any edition will be far outmatched by their steeds; in 5th consider doubling their hit points, and giving them the Mounted Combatant feat instead of Nimble Escape. The Redblades can be run as is -- Amman states that goblins sometimes do charge straight on, but only when ordered to, and this can be extended to whatever weird death-cult belief motivates their final charge. Or, for a tougher challenge in fifth edition, you might give Redblade melee squads Reckless or the orcish Aggressive instead of Nimble Escape.

* The theme of trauma in the survivors of violence continues. Masha, a young mother who has just lost her husband, is a grim presence of pathos among the defenders. I played her as swinging between desperate grief and doom-laden fatalism.

* Continuing to keep commanders in the shadows, the scenario has Vlack and his small but powerful unit lurking in the woods. He sends his pet bats to attack, probably first targeting anyone keeping watch in the stone tower. Their voices might also be heard having an argument with the goblin kings at various points of the night. When they're gone, they leave only hobnailed footprints, and a mysterious token whose meaning won't be clear for two more chapters of the adventure.

* How balanced is this fight? As before, second-level characters in Basic/Expert are at heavy risk unless the party is exceptionally large, especially if following the unkind natural healing rules. The Sukiskyn defenders have something like 15 character levels between them, so to match that force, I think 4-5 characters at 3rd or 4th level are right. Fifth edition characters will have a far easier time and it's very possible that 2nd level parties could prevail. Crucially, there is just enough time for a long rest in between episode SE3 and Just Before Dawn. Rest economy is a big issue in adapting old school adventures to Fifth edition, but the difference here is not as huge as it might be - Basic characters will also make good use of a rest to recover spells, including healing spells.

* Amid all this critique of details, I'll join other reviewers in saying this is a very well written and memorable scenario, with a variety of action - defense, fleeing, deception, skirmishing - and clues that let players put together, even if only partly, what is going on behind the scenes.

Next: Aftermath of the battle and tracking the herd.