Friday, January 22, 2016

This Old Module-ing B5: The Horror on the Hill; Foundation Edition

A few weeks ago, on +Drink Spin Run - An RPG Talk Show Podcast, we played this neat game I called "This Old Module" with +Stan Shinn & +Nathan Panke of Rogue Comet games (here: http://www.drinkspinrun.com/2016/01/drink-spin-run-s2-e52-this-old-module.html). Not only was this one of the most fun episodes to record (if only +Donn Stroud didn't have this weird hangup about "spoilers" and could contribute), but people seemed to like it, too. I've always liked the idea. I liked it back when I had it the first time in the dawn of this blog (I called it "This Old Module" back then, too), when I talked about how I would update/personalize/improve B2: Keep on the Borderlands and pretty much every time I mention Quasquethierion (my take on B1: In Search of the Unknown's dungeon of Quasqueton).

In the wake of that incredibly fun venture, I've had a lot of folks (most vocally Nathan) say that I need to bring back This Old Module on the blog or do another round on the podcast and "renovate" a single module as a committee. That sounds like fun, sure, but I feel like "redesign by committee" is a bit beyond the scope of the podcast and I'm not sure if it'll be a productive or fun use of the 1-ish hour we have our guest panelists on for.

And so, instead, I'm bringing it back on the blog and talking about module B5: The Horror on the Hill. If you're not familiar with the module, two gents I have immense respect for have already told you pretty much everything you need to know.

I will not be focusing on what they wrote. Those links are for your reference. (I also thought that James Raggi wrote something about this module, but I can't find it. If anyone can point me in that direction, I'll add it to the list.)

I have my reasons for picking B5: The Horror on the Hill, but I'm not going to go into that, either. Instead, I want to treat this like Bob Vila & Norm Abram did on This Old House. 

The Project & Plan

We have a Basic-series adventure module from 1983, written by Douglas Niles. Although its publishing date marks it as a BECMI-era release, since it was released the same year as the Mentzer Red Box (the "B" in BECMI), it was probably designed with Moldvay BX in mind, not that there's really a lot of difference between BX & BECMI (I know, I can catch hell for that remark, but if we're looking at the "BE" in BECMI only, the differences aren't that huge, mostly stylistic). B5 is in many ways an update of B2: Keep on the Borderlands, with many of the additions and "improvements" that TSR -- with this module -- began to introduce across the board. James Maliszewski does a great job calling these out, so I won't waste your time reiterating them. 

For this project, we're looking at accomplishing three things: 
  1. Update the module to D&D 5e while still maintaining the old school feel of the original. It seems to me that double-statting for DCC would be really easy, too, since there are many rules parallels between the two. 
  2. Change the outdated features of what I call "Genre D&D." Things that are readily identifying as "D&D-isms" like standardized monster types (hobgoblins, bugbears, etc.) and swords +1. 
  3. Make the module live up to its title: the HORROR on the HILL. As it stands, the "horror" aspect is a little toothless and, by my estimation at least, fairly uninteresting. We'll be fixing that. 
Many of these changes mean that at times I'll be dispensing with what many (including James) have referred to as "Gygaxian Naturalism" and instead give more of a "fantastic dread" feel. "HORROR on the Hill," remember? 

Why work with B5 at all, though? Why not just start over from scratch? Well, much like Norm & Bob would think about houses, this module has good bones. The foundation that this adventure lays down is very solid and worth building off of and its worth "fixing" the problems that we identify later on in the process. Before we get to punching holes in this thing and tearing down walls, lets look at that foundation and figure out the strengths of this one.

Foundations Are Solid 

Here are the parts that I identify as being the exceptionally solid foundations of the module that we can build up from, working on accomplishing our goals. 
  • Guido's Fort - Bad name, great idea. Guido's Fort gets no detail in the module, which is sort of to its strength. It can be anywhere. Well, anywhere with a huge nearby hill. It's a kind of undefined Keep on the Borderlands, which means you could use that Keep, or you can do what we're going to do: use the B2 Keep as a model and we'll build a Fort that makes sense for the aesthetic that we'll be building later on.
  • The Big-Ass Hill - In order for there to be a thing on which for the titular Horror to be, we have The Hill. The good news is that The Hill is a big cool place with a bunch of monster lairs. Sure, it also has the module's dungeon, but it's nice that there some wilderness to explore on our way to the dungeon.
    • As a side note, we're going to want to play this aspect up. Maybe even to the point of folks at the Fort not knowing that the monastery is the source of the badness going down which, of course, implies badness, another thing to introduce.
  • Hexcrawl Realism - I know that James views this as an extension of the Gygaxian Naturalism that he espouses as a virtue of the module (which, from that point of view, it is), but since I've spent the past 3 years running a hexcrawl game, I tend think of this as a hexcrawl issue. Cutting to chase, it seems like nearly every monster on the wilderness random encounter table has a lair somewhere on the Hill. This tells us an awful lot about the Hill and its environs. 
  • A Nice, Mid-Sized Dungeon - A megadungeon this ain't, but it gives enough space and varied experiences for a really solid bout of exploration. Some of the dungeon features are really cool and somewhat tricky (the looping caverns of level 2, for example), and some are really bad (especially the railroad mechanic of "oh, no! You're suddenly on a lower level and there's no way back!" -- I'm fine with there being a winding path back, but there should be one; this thing needs a proper Jaquaying), but there's variety. We'll be looking at how to build on what's good and fix what's not so awesome. 
Next time, I'll start talking about some of the larger details we're going to change to make the Horror on the Hill a unique and fun modern gaming module.