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.