Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Worst Module Ever Written

Thursday's session saw a lot of "maintenance" type work and not a whole lot of "adventure." Which for me is fine because I'm trying to run this game as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, similar to how I ran the game back in the day, when things weren't always about going into a "dungeon." Far from it! Most of the game happened between dungeons ("adventure sites"), taking place on the road or in towns or at whatever campsite the PCs had set-up in the wilderness. AD&D is much more about living D&D (or, rather, experiencing it) than about strict accomplishment. If all you're concerned about is acquiring points and leveling up...well, then you might as well play a more streamlined, less nuanced/clunky edition. Like B/X. Which is what I did for years.

So the PCs said goodbye to Big Jim and went about spending their hard-earned loot from the Tomb of Bendan Fazier. They asked Jim if he wanted to join them as a permanent henchman but he refused to serve 1st level characters ("Look me up when you have some more experience under your belt."). Jumbo was given most of the monetary treasure as Sonia and Barod had managed to recover a magic staff and wand, but they still had enough left over to pay training costs (for the cleric), cover living expenses, and outfit themselves for their next destination. See, Yakima isn't quite as amicable to wizards as one might expect in a city its fact it's downright inhospitable (plenty of temples and clerics, though). A college of sorcery was known to exist in (the barony of) Ellensburg to the north, however, and the PCs figured they could get their new items identified there.

[I haven't had the chance to blog about my campaign setting to this point, so I'll give you the brief: I'm using a post-apocalyptic fantasy version of Washington State as the basis for my world. No, it's not a terribly original idea, but being my own stomping grounds, I'm familiar with the territory, landscape, and I get to poke fun at things I like to poke fun at anyway (like renaming Bellevue as "Hellview" and making it a cesspool of evil). Also, I've got a great map of the place]

[oh, yeah...I'm calling the campaign Evergreen. More on all that in a later post]

But before they left town, they did take a last chance to locate Big Jim (as Barod was now a 2nd level Adept and feeling quite full of himself). They found him facedown in an alleyway where he'd been beaten and robbed. Once he'd sobered up and rested (and been healed) he agreed to sign on as a henchman, although the cleric was forced to acquire new weapons and equipment for the man. Fortunately, Jim was still wearing the plate armor he'd purchased from his share of the loot. 

Off they went. The journey was uneventful and the tower (just outside of town) was not hard to find. As a DM, I had fun running the old wizard with whom the party interacted ("Rupert") as it gave me a chance to show off some of the potentials for magic-use (with spells like wizard eye, unseen servant, ventriloquism, dimension door, ESP, and floating disk all making appearances...Rupert may be a glorified doorman for the college, but he doesn't mind showing off and impressing "the yokels"). Items were identified, and money changed hands, and the PCs learned quite a bit about the staff of striking and wand of conjuration they'd acquired...not everything, mind you, but enough to make the items useful. I'd assumed Barod would want the staff, but he gave it to Sonia seeing as how she was proficient with staves while he was only proficient with maces and flails. Ah, well.

[some words about is an awful spell. Much as I appreciate Gygax's work on AD&D as a whole, many of the spell "updates" and additions are poorly done. In the case of this particular spell, I am using Alexis Smolensk's version of the spell, although I still require the material component]

Unfortunately, they ran out of money in the process. Times being what they are, Rupert was willing to take an IOU in exchange for the party agreeing to deliver a scroll to an associate two days journey to the north....with the additional understanding that no more magical aid OR TRAINING (for magic-user characters) would be had until such time as the debt had been paid off. "But where are we going to get more money?" You'll figure out something.

Which leads me to the title of this post.  For the players' next "adventure" I am running the old TSR module N2: The Forest Oracle, an adventure about which I've written before. Make no mistake: it is a terrible adventure. Even without the excessive (and poorly written) box text and linear "plot structure," it is filled with errors and nonsense that show NOT ONLY a poor understanding of coherence and consistency in a fantasy adventure, but an extremely poor understanding of the game the game runs and how its mechanics function. For those who haven't read it, I'll list a few:
  • In the MM, a bandit's hit die is listed as "1-6 hit points," (i.e. the creature has less than 1 HD). The bandit encounter lists the bandits HD as "1-6," and the bandits as having 10 hit points each.
  • In the MM, giant frogs are given a range of hit dice (from 1 to 3, based on their size), and variable attack damage (via bite) of 1-3, 1-6, or 2-8 also (presumably) based on size. The module gives eight frogs with HD 1-3, 10 hit points each and 3 attacks of 1-3/1-6/2-8 via "blow/blow/bite."
  • A nymph has taken a human lover. This would usually result in permanent blindness, if not death for the human (assuming he's ever seen his lover naked).
  • Multiple encounters with groups of monsters requiring special weapons to hit (wererats, perytons), despite this being a low-level adventure and the absence of any magical weapons among the pre-generated characters. The perytons especially (four of them!) is an especially deadly encounter...I'd expect a good portion of a party to be wiped out without significant "fudging" from the DM.
  • Nonsensical surprise rules, random death (victims carried off by a yeti must save versus death to escape or "die horribly"), strange magics cast by low level characters (the "gypsy curse").
  • A 12th level druid backed by a "Golden Guard" consisting of druids "of Level 5 or higher" not being able to handle a score of goblins (and 5 worgs) living in known ruin a mere 6 miles from their stronghold.
  • A 4th level magic-user leading a band of "traveling people" somehow having access to a cleric capable of casting multiple cure serious wounds spells.
There is, of course, more issues than just these (another encounter with osquips is also especially deadly for characters levels 2-4), even without the terrible, terrible box text staining the module's pages. So, I'm sure the question in most folks minds is "Why the heck would you want to run this thing?"

Well, despite the poor execution, I still rather like the adventure. And for my purposes, strange as it may seem, I believe the thing is salvageable. Here's how I'm doing it:

First off, the thing has maps. If I haven't said it for the hundredth time or so, maps are not my forte...I am pretty much the opposite of Dyson Logos. I have made maps, I can make maps, but I have next to no confidence in my mapmaking ability. The maps in N2 are actually pretty good, especially if you consider the thing as an open area for exploration (a "sandbox"). Even the tunnel under the Horns of the Dragon appears reasonable to me. Consider what it is: a pass through the mountains and/or a played-out gemstone mine (not sure which part of the equation came first). Why should it be convoluted and "interesting?" The side caverns were dug off the main line (delving for gemstones) so as to keep miners from getting lost. It offers a sure path from one side of the hills to the other. From a design perspective, it allows PCs the opportunity to choose whether to take dangerous side treks or not. 

SO...good maps. Used like maps (i.e. showing locations), not for plotting an "adventure path." 'Course this only works if I can shoehorn the thing into my campaign world...which I can by placing The Downs a short distance north of modern day Thorp, Washington

Next thing is, capture "the gist" of what's going on in the adventure while removing any attachment to the order or manner in which things play out. There's a blight on The Downs caused by curse magic. There's a halfling thief running an inn that steals travelers' possessions (though why not just murder them?). A lone, crazy dwarf fights a guerrilla war against a band of mutants (orcs) in the old underpass. There's an enchanted lake. A few monster lairs. Road bandits. A ruined castle (now inhabited by goblins). A large river (this is a length of the Columbia in my setting) with few viable crossings. An encampment of "gypsy" surrogates with an ogre problem. And, of course, a tree fort filled with largely aloof druids of enormous power.

That's not bad stuff. Several of the encounter (especially the peryton) are overpowered for the average party of 2nd and 3rd level characters, but they're easily beetles instead of osquips, for example. The treasure take in the adventure as written is sufficient: enough to level up a party of seven 3rd level characters to 4th level, assuming sale of the truly random nonsense (why would the designer feel the need to include not just one, but TWO scrolls of protection vs. were-tigers? In two different locations? Did he simply not give a shit?). However, while the amounts are good, the type of treasure is not. 

Does a party really plan on hauling half a ton of copper coins around? Completed linearly (as the dungeon is written) the party will have 1400# of coins by the time they reach the first river crossing (over a tightrope), and that's less than half the coins available for discovery in the adventure total. Some 33-34,000 coins can be pulled as "treasure" by the end, which is fairly obnoxious. Considering the scenario has a bit of the "race against time" thing going, the adventure is forcing the PCs to choose between wealth and experience OR saving a village that was A) heretofore unknown, B) bears no familial/relationship connections to them, and C) has offered nothing so far as reward is concerned. 

So: treasure amounts? Fine. Treasure types? Need adjustment. 

Still, these are minor fixes. Really! Monsters and treasure are easy enough to adjust. My PCs are 2nd level or just about (at the end of our Thursday session a hill giant wandered into their camp site, and they managed to defeat it - after peaceable negotiations failed - which might have been enough to put Sonia and Big Jim over the top), so I can actually REDUCE the treasure amount and still give the party enough to make the adventure worth their while. But mostly, it's just a matter of changing encounters in the thing to be sensible...and appropriate (when necessary).

Let's take the Wildwood Inn as an example: you've got an honest halfling thief (ex-adventurer) running an inn that gets regular business (when the stolen goods are recovered, he knows who they belong to and intends to return it to the rightful owners) situated at a crossroads in a haunted/fairy tale woods. The wererats are guests that steal from the other guests and keep a big chest of gold and silver (as well as a bunch of silver bracelets) in their room. There's a lot that's terrible about this encounter that I'm not even mentioning but that's the basics: inn at a crossroads; halfling proprietor; thieving wererats. Here's how I change it:
  • There's only ONE wererat. Even a party of low-level PCs should be able to take such a creature if they have a silver and/or magic weapon between them and an attack spell. If that fails, they can still attempt to grapple the creature and tie it up, or use fire or...I don't know, players tend to be clever, right? But four wererats (HD 3+1, special attacks & defenses, plus some sleep magic ability) is a screw job as written.
  • The wererat IS the halfling innkeeper (he is a thief after all). Far from being ignorant of what's going on under his own roof, he uses his shapeshifting ability to aid in minor pilfering of guests. Maybe business isn't quite as good as he lets on, maybe he has debts. Maybe he's been shaken down by the, "traveling folk"...and doesn't want to be cursed any more than he already is. OR perhaps his lycanthropy is due to a curse from Madame Riva (the same gypsy matriarch that cursed the Downs) and he needs extra loot in order to pay-off her band so that they'll remove the curse. That certainly fits with the "fairy tale" themes of the module.
  • Far from being a hose job on the PCs, the thief is MEANT to be caught and discovered. Why? Because it makes for more interesting possibilities: the coward can surrender and beg for his life. He can try bribing the PCs with the goods he's stolen. He can explain his plight and ask for aid. He can make a deal with them or give them ownership of a dilapidated inn in the middle of nowhere. 
  • The treasure should be sensible...not heaps of coins (and certainly not silver! Why O why would lycanthropes want to keep silver around? There shouldn't be any silver in the inn!) but small valuables: bracelets, rings, necklaces, silk scarves or handkerchiefs, a fine pair of shoes...and, sure, maybe a silver dagger or two that the halfling has buried in the garden out back. Yes, there will be some coins - the innkeeper does business in hard currency, after all (and presumably buys his provisions the same way) - but you don't need 350# of coins. That's enough to fill eight backpacks!
[as an aside: I imagine it'd be pretty difficult to operate an inn by yourself, in the middle of a forest, with no supporting village or farmers to provide goods to the place. Such a roadside hostel MIGHT be possible if the halfling had a family: a wife and kids to help raise livestock, brew ale, work a garden, etc. but it would likely be pretty raw fare. Regular visitors could alleviate that (by providing coin the innkeeper could use to supplement the menu) but considering there're no delivery trucks and no refrigeration, food for the innkeeper needs to come from somewhere close by. Just saying...]

[me, I'd probably make the inn fairly run down AND give the halfling a family. Even so, the innkeeper would be the only wererat of the bunch (though a DM who runs a grimmer campaign could certainly add wererat children the PCs need to butcher...yikes, the fairy tale suddenly becomes a horror story of "rats in the walls!"...that's probably a shade too dark for my kids), giving yet another dimension of humanity to the innkeeper's situation]

But you see? It's not terribly hard to repurpose the concepts of these encounters to make them functional. For me, the hard part has already been done by the module writers: they made me a map with a bunch of numbered encounters. All the box text and "plot" stuff can go out the window; most of it is garbage anyway (why is the innkeeper in the downs this jovial fellow with this bustling/thriving establishment? Isn't his village suffering through a cursed blight with the populace on the verge of starvation?). But the structure of the this case, the small section of wilderness the map sound.

Well, sound enough (for my purposes).

All right, that's enough for folks to chew on for the weekend. If I get around to typing up my notes for N2 in a useable form, I will post them to the blog for interested folks. Later, gators!

Look - I'm not the only one to try
rehabbing N2! Though it does seem to
have killed the other guy's blog....


  1. Ha! What a coincidence. I'm building out the map for my home area as well right now for very similar reasons. Trying to generate 1-mile hexes for it (similar to Alexis' 6 and 2-mile hexes, to varying success).

    1. Hey, I said it wasn't a terribly original idea on my part!

      I'm actually considering expanding the distances of my map (2 miles for every one mile of the real world) to give the thing a little space.

  2. Honestly I am ok with NPC not playing by the rules. If the gypse magic user can cast cure light thats because he is a monster not a PC. But yeah N2 is garbage as written.

    I was going to make some Yakima jokes but i grew up in Colfax so who am I to talk.

    The real question is do Bards still tell the tale of the mythical Legion if Boom? The Beast Man Lynch? The Elusive Wilson the 3rd?

    1. I've always enjoyed my (rare) visits to Yakima...not aware of any Yakima jokes.

      I'm actually a fan of most of Washington (even Tacoma!) with only a couple things really "grating."

      [that would definitely include could any community with that much wealth be so politically conservative?]

      Regarding the legendary names of the past (sports figures and celebrities of note)...I haven't really considered, since my players are still east of the Cascades. Right now, I'm mainly using the geography of the state (which is great), along with SOME demographics (my population bases look at pre-railroad numbers of the 19th century to get an idea of where people tended to cluster for best survival). Seattle will still be a large city, but not nearly so big as to dwarf other large populations (like Tacoma and Spokane). The place has to be sustainable without relying on highways for importing food.

      [the real boom in Seattle's population growth came with the Klondike Gold Rush of the 19th century, and that impetus has long-since passed]

  3. On the topic of coincidences, one of my old campaigns also had a town called Hellview, but the name came from a periodic portal to the Nine Hells in the marketplace that opened up for a day every 13 weeks. The place had long since worked out an accommodation with their diabolic neighbors and things were peaceful, if a bit tense and morally complex. The party spent a fair amount of time in and around the place bounty-hunting.

    At one point they wound up having to decide whether to go after a couple of paladins who'd broken a bunch of town laws before fleeing, knowing that the "good guys" would be handed over to the devils in a few weeks if captured. Only time I ever saw that group question their own behavior, and they surprised me by shaming the paladins into coming back without a battle because A) they'd broken laws, even if they were "evil" laws and B) if they weren't there to be turned over, "innocent" townsfolk would be turned over in their place to appeases the devils.

    Party gave up on the bounty-hunting gig after that and moved on to a new base town, so I guess it had some impact on them.

    1. I was thinking "Hellview" would simply be a giant crater of filth and pestilence, uninhabitable except by creatures that would feel at home in Mordor.

      Lake Washington becomes rather dangerous in such a scenario.
      ; )

  4. 1. Reduce the scale to fifty feet per hex. The roads are basically down the middle of two mile wide cleared hexes. But this is an overgrown wood carved up by trails and roads, not forest with a two mile wide cleared corridor with a paved imperial highway carving it up.

    2. Begin the adventure at location 4, not 1. They are on the old road when they are set upon by bandits at the crossroads. They might retreat to an inn, but one is full of, as you say, wererat scum. The woods obviously is full of scum. A cluster of huts which the bandits use as homes are sitting right on top of the new road. More likely they got rid of the locals (or it was an abandoned camp used by the road builders) and took them over in a plan to ambush travellers. Its thus valid to conclude that the taverns are aware of the bandits simply because their regulars are no longer visiting.

    3. Loose the mountain range and tunnel. We changed the scale, so as a Mountainous barrier it cant be a few hundred feet wide unless this wall is infact an artificial plant barrier put up by Druids. That means the Druids are building A forified region in the wood as well to keep the trash out.

    It means the PCs can regard everyone as a hostile in need of extermination so that everything can go back to normal.

    The core adventure is to stomp out the criminals hold up in the Woods. The PCs might flee the woods but it is a significant point of travel in these parts. There are numerous hostiles in the woods, the bandits, wererats, orcs, bugbears, druids, and whoever else. The PCs can butcher them all.

    1. @Sean:

      That’s pretty straightforward, but I’m going for something a little less direct. Had to take a breaks to work on some “real world” stuff, but will (hopefully) post my notes in a couple days.