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. | Altered States | Movies
The caveman is not his final form. Still from

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?