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

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.