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

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