Saturday, January 23, 2016

This Old Module-Ing B5: Horror on the Hill, Building Inspector Edition

Since we've talked about the strong foundations (the "good bones") of B5, it's time to take a trip through the less awesome parts of this project, looking for rot and water damage and black mold and all sorts of junk that your building inspector would throw a conniption over, except here we're less worried about rot and water damage and black mold and more worried about tired tropes and bad design and elements not living up to our expectations. 

Slope & Grade: What's the Yard Like

Putting on my building inspector hat, I quickly identify some problems outside the dungeon itself. Here we go:
  • Common Enemies - This module makes use of some really boring monsters as enemies, ones of the sort that I identify as tropes of "Genre D&D." Goblins. Hobgoblins. Ogres. I'm sick of them. Uninteresting.  
    • Proposed Solution: Make up new monsters to take their place. 
  • Unaccessible Egress - Here's something that really, really bugs me: there's a secret entrance/exit from the "boss area" of the dungeon that the players aren't allowed to find. Per the text: "The characters have no chance to discover this cave." Yuck. There's not even anything notable concealing it, just some vegetation that the dragon flies over. WTF?
    • Proposed Solution: Let the players find this. Just make it very, very obvious that herein lies certain death. Rumors that no one returns from this cave, ever (not even the big badass who tried a few years ago) and maybe even demonstrate a better way in (through the monastery) so the PCs can "get the jump" on the Horror (remember, we're going to de-dragonify and Horror-up the module). 
  • Map Grid? - Yuck. I only like gridded maps for dungeons.
  • That's my kind of witch
    • Proposed Solution: Hexify that map! While we're at it, we might want to expand the scale, too, so that it's over a larger area, making provisions and hirelings and other sorts of bookkeeping stuff more interesting/integral. 
  • The Kindly Witches - Maybe I'm spoiled, but these witches are completely boring to me. They feel less like they belong in my D&D and more like they belong in a Disney film. "Fairy god witches" or something. No thanks. I say "maybe I'm spoiled" because I take as inspiration one of the coolest witches in modern gaming, the one from Doom of Savage Kings by +Harley Stroh. The witch in Doom offers to help the PCs, but only if one of them agrees to marry the ancient, decrepit crone. Great stuff! I want my witches to be more like the creepy ones from folklore (like Harley's) and less like the sort that help you to get to the ball on time. 
    • Proposed Solution: Stroh-ify these crones. They'll probably have a post of their own coming their way.

Faulty Wiring: Problems with the Interior

  • Common Enemies Again - I almost didn't write this out again, but it bears repeating: if you're writing a module that you expect people to spend money on, it behooves you to make things up for them. Do not simply provide them with yet another lair of orcs. That is boring and lazy. No orcs. No goblins. Do something different.
  • Boxcar Doors - Once you're on the railroad, you can't get off. Or, in this case, once you fall down the hobgoblin king's trapdoors in Return of the Jedi fashion, the "chute is... impossible to climb back up... even by a thief who successfully rolls to climb sheer surfaces." This, friends, is a shitty example to set for your players and reinforces the "DM as asshole wannabe-deity" bullshit that really runs against the DM's role as a fair and impartial judge or referee. Not cool, Doug Niles.
    • Proposed Solutions: Take out the "no, you can't do that!" Let the players go back up if they want to. 
  • One-Way Feng Shui - Just like a house, a dungeon should have a flow, and the flow should allow multiple paths through (yes, the cooler name for this is Jacquaying). The aforementioned trap door is the only way to get to the dungeon's second level, which really constricts the flow through the dungeon, and the only way from the second to third level is via an underground river which, you guessed it, the PCs can only use to travel down stream. Each dungeon level allows for pretty cool mobility throughout the level itself, but the movement from level to level is restricted to two few pinch points and only work one way. Couple this with the "you can't get in there" cave that the players "have no chance to discover" and we've restricted flow to... a trickle. 
    • Proposed Solution: We need more ways to get up and down, so we'll add them to the map. We might have to get more creative for the level 2 to level 3, but that's cool. 
    • This one sort of feels like a repeat of Boxcar Doors above, but I think the point of Boxcar Doors is the railroadification of the module and the One-Way Feng Shui is a broader sort of design flaw: the restriction of movement throughout the dungeon.
  • Replaceable Parts - Treasure is awesome and it's really the reason that the players are interested in risking life and limb inside a dungeon. Anyone who pretends otherwise is trying to sell you on a boring game. Sure that can be additional reasons, but the chief reason is always going to be filthy fucking lucre, as it should be. Part of that deal is that the treasure that comes out of a dungeon should be interesting and, for the most part, it is in B5, with one exception: there are way too many magic items and most of those are boring ones. Swords +1, armor +something, potions of inscrutability. Boring. 
  • The dragon is nowhere near this cool
    • Proposed Solution: We'll be spicing things up a bit. No weapon will be a simple plus something, and potions will be more interesting. Scrolls should be unique as well. All of that will make the PCs' hauls more interesting and memorable, justifying their greed. 
  • The Disappointing Dragon - So yes, the game is called Dungeons & Dragons, but I'll be frank: I prefer my dragons to be a little more metaphorical. You know, in the "here be dragons" sense. But this module has an actual dragon, and one that the PCs are funneled toward (see pretty much all of every points above). Now, B5 is one of two B-series modules I can think of that includes an actual dragon, so I guess some folks look to that as a strength of the module. However, we're talking about, again, Dungeons & Dragons, so the inclusion of a dragon really shouldn't be a surprise to anyone, and if the big bad Horror (see the previous post) isn't a surprise, it hardly qualifies as a Horror. Further, the esteemed Mr. Niles made some odd choices for this dragon, such as a fairly wonky spell selection (the dragon would have no need for continual light, for instance, and I don't think I'd ever worry about a dragon casting detect magic) and setting the hit points lower than average (22 hps, which is 10 points below the median of 32 hp for a 7 HD creature) but still giving it a high (low) AC (-1; the logic is that it's harder to hit but goes down after fewer hits, I get it). Now, when we take this as the culmination of the railroad that the dungeon has been so far, not allowing the party to make multiple forays into the dungeon (Boxcar Doors, above), it makes sense to "nerf" the dragon a bit. But if we're fixing the other problems of the dungeon, this dragon might become a little too easy. Further, I WANT A GODDAMN HORROR, DAMNIT! Something more Lamentations of the Flame Princess and less "OMG TEH DRAGONZZZ!" 
    • Proposed Solution: You pretty much got it already. Let's give the players something to seriously fear. 
Well, I'm out of steam. Next time, I want to give you a little background on my influences for where this is going. Because we are actually going someplace. This isn't going to be just me picking nits over a module that is over thirty years old. Before I starting the new construction, I wanted to do a little demolition.