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Nightmare Keep

“Welcome to Nightmare Keep, one of the most demanding adventures your players will ever experience. The challenges awaiting within these pages are intended for only the most skilled, courageous, and resourceful heroes of the Forgotten Realms. Novices are advised to turn back now.”

-Nightmare Keep, Pg. 3

Written by Rick Swan and published in 1991, Nightmare Keep is a high level adventure for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition. Designed for 4-6 characters level 18-20, the module combines traditional dungeon crawling with an emphasis on deadly traps, puzzles, and a heavy dose of otherworldly horror for good measure. It feels like TSR’s attempt to create an adventure for 2nd Edition that is as iconic and infamous as 1st Edition’s Tomb of Horrors. Did it succeed?

Partially.

Nightmare Keep never developed the infamy of Tomb of Horrors, in fact I rarely hear it mentioned in OSR circles. That’s a pity, because it is a good adventure. I would even say that it does several things better than Tomb of Horrors. However it suffers from several flaws that hold it back.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and fortunately that’s the meat of the adventure. Something evil stirs beneath Woloverton Keep; an unknown horror that has already claimed the lives of several powerful adventures. As the characters enter its forgotten halls they find themselves trapped in the maze of Icelia, an ancient lich with far-reaching plans. As they descend deeper into the labyrinth the horrors around them grow more alien and horrific and the players begin to uncover Icelia’s plot; the labyrinth itself is designed to generate and absorb feelings of dread and suffering, emotions Icelia is collecting to fuel her unstoppable army of monstrous insect creatures.

Right there, I’m hooked. Nightmare Keep is a funhouse dungeon, but one with a purpose, and that makes it work for me. Plus, the madness doesn’t begin right away, instead it grows more and more as the party descends deeper into the dungeon.

Now let’s talk about dungeon design, which is very good. With this kind of adventure it would be easy to fall into a completely linear design, but Nightmare Keep avoids this. While it is certainly not an “open” layout, and it is meant to funnel the characters deeper, there are options on how the players proceed and in what order they face Icelia’s challenges.

The environments are beautifully creepy and there is as much of an emphasis on problem solving as straight up fights, perhaps more. The progressive changes that occur in the dungeon as the players make it further in is also an excellent idea and contributes to the atmosphere of horror. The original monster designs are also excellent, with the lichlings being an inspired monster. There is also a fun set of tables for random sensory and physical encounters, strange things meant to pump up the spook-factor.

Also worth mentioning is the beautiful artwork. The cover is by Brom and has a very Conan-esq feel to it. The interior art is by Valerie Valusek and Terry Dykstra, and it warms my OSR heart. The interior art is lovely and focused on dungeoneering. It would feel at home in an early TSR adventure, right alongside the work of greats like David Trampier.

The core of the adventure is solid and worth your time to check out. As to things I’m not a fan of? There is nothing that is a deal-breaker. It’s more a series of smaller issues that collectively hold the adventure back.

Let’s start with the map.

This is a fantastic map, beautifully rendered with nice flourishes. The use of color in the map is not only aesthetically pleasing, it is also functional, making it easier for the DM to chart the players’ course through the entwined dungeon passages.

However, it’s also impractical. Printed in a fold-out poster sized format, it’s too big to be easily used at the gaming table. A tiled format would be far more useful for running the game. The poster map is nice enough that I’d consider hanging it on the wall, but it’s also printed on both sides, so half of this beautiful work would be hidden. If Nightmare Keep was produced today with Kickstarter, they’d probably release it with a map book and save the poster map for a stretch goal.

Next there is the core of the adventure. While I’ve sung its praises, there are still a few things I’d change. Unraveling the secrets of the dungeon and Iceleia’s plans is a big part of the fun in Nightmare Keep, but while there are some hints provided along the way, they’re minor. The adventure relies on a massive reveal at the climax of the adventure. I’d rather see more solid clues spread out through the dungeon. The biggest reveal would have more punch if the players already think they understand the scope of the lich’s plan.

Treasure is surprisingly shy. Again, the adventure relies on a massive hoard towards the end, and it’s a treasure that the players may completely miss out on if they overlook something seemingly minor early in the game. I’d rather see more minor treasures spread out to whet the player’s appetite.

Now we get to my biggest problems, the framework for the adventure. In keeping with TSR’s objectives of the time, this adventure is solidly tied in to the Forgotten Realms. While you could move the core adventure to any other world, there are several pages of setup for the adventure that are tied to Cormyr. The setup also includes long stretches of boxed dialog from the king’s representative that make specific assumptions about the character’s motivations. This adventure is meant for the “good guys”, not battle hardened adventures out for loot and fame. It would be hard to reconcile the dialog as written for a party that includes evil or even neutral party members. You can come up with your own of course, but seeing several pages out of a 62 page module devoted to this makes TSR’s intentions clear.

This also ties in with my least favorite part of the module, the ending. Specifically, what happens if the party fails. While I appreciate that the game is designed to allow for a Total Party Kill, the epilogue falls prey to TSR’s commitment to keeping the status quo. Should the party be wiped out, their actions have still done enough damage to Icelia’s plan that it will eventually fail. At the time, TSR was committed to keeping control of how their worlds developed and encouraging gaming groups everywhere to share the same setting. If there were going to be changes to the Forgotten Realms, they wanted it to be due to events in one of their big boxed sets, or more likely one of their novels. Seeing this written in to the adventure annoys me and blunts the significance of success or failure.

In the end, none of these are major issues. Collectively they’re an annoyance, but there isn’t anything that can’t be discarded or adjusted to suit your preferences. Nightmare Keep may not have achieved the status of an iconic adventure, but that shouldn’t keep you from taking a look at it. If you want a high level challenge for your old school game, it’s well worth your time to track down. I think it would also be an excellent candidate for conversion to Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Nightmare Keep is available in .pdf format from the Dungeon Masters Guild site (Formerly DND Classics), Drive Thru RPG, and RPG Now.

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Have you ever run or played through Nightmare Keep? I’d love to hear your stories about it.

 

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Posted by on April 28, 2016 in Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews

 

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There Can Be Only One

In 1st Edition AD&D there’s an interesting quality built into a few of the classes, where not only do they have a hard level cap, but the highest levels are limited to only a select few, with the ultimate level restricted to a single character.

For druids there are only nine level 12 characters, three 13th level archdruids, and a single Great Druid. For assassins there is only one level 14 guildmaster in any local area and a single level 15 Grandfather of Assassins.

Monks have the hardest, but most colorful, road of progression. There are three level eight Masters of Dragons, with only one master for each level after that. This proceeds all the way up to level 18 and the Grand Master of Flowers. This creates an interesting case where progression is limited sooner for monks, but they also have a higher final level cap. I’d love to know if that was a design choice or curious accident.

For a character to proceed into the higher levels they must replace a vacancy in the ranks, or they must challenge and win against the current holder of that level. These duels may not be fatal, and the losing combatant is reduced in experience to the lower level and may challenge up again once enough experience points have been earned. For assassins the duel may not be direct, as arranging for the assassination or other form of removal of the rival is also acceptable.

The result is some fun built-in plot hooks. It’s certain that the higher level members of each class will be keeping an eye on the up-and-coming rivals. Depending on the individuals involved they may seek to eliminate potential rivals before they get too powerful, or nurture them to be a worthy successor. I’m particularly intrigued by this for the monk class, no doubt because of my love for the Shaw Brothers films. I talked about my renewed interest in the monk class in this post, and the interest hasn’t waned over time.

I think it would be particularly fun, and appropriate, to have a party with more than one member of one of these classes. In keeping with the fine tradition of Kung Fu movies I’d think monks would be the most fun, but any of the classes would work. The players might start out like brothers, standing together against the world. What would happen over time, as they close in on those limited levels? Would they turn to bitter rivalry? Would they undercut each other? Would their rivals above and below seek to breed distrust between them? Or would they find a way to rise above it all?

And what would happen with the rest of the party?

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If you’ve ever had something like this in your campaign, please let me know. I’d love to hear the stories!

 
 

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Against the Slave Lords

I’m not picking up any more books, physical or digital, until I catch up on my backlog. I have enough books and gaming materials to keep me occupied for a long time.

Wait, what’s this?

*sigh* Okay, ONE more .pdf can’t hurt, right?

DND Classics/DriveThruRPG/RPGNow has a lot of classic Dungeons & Dragons products on sale right now, but one of the most notable is the recently-released .PDF copy of the complete Against the Slave Lords campaign. This is the digital version of the hard cover print collection they released not too long ago. This book includes the classic A1-4 as well as the adventure A0, Danger at Darkshelf Quarry which was added for the hardbound collection. On a quick skim it looks like the .PDF is a good clean scan.

Clocking in at 178 pages the full cost is about $50, but for the time being it’s on sale for $9.99. At that price I had to fail my Saving Throw vs New Books.

You can find Against the Slave Lords right over here.

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Clearly I need to add a picture with the “1” showing.

 
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Posted by on January 14, 2016 in Fantasy, Gaming

 

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Observations about Character Creation

One of the fun things about running Ravenloft again was that I got to revisit AD&D’s character creation rules for the first time in years. From this I learned, or re-learned, quite a few things.

Because the game started with only four players I pre-generated the characters on the high end of the level range for Ravenloft, giving them all 100,000 XP. This put the characters at level seven or eight. As I expected the fighters and clerics were seventh and the thieves were level eight, but I was surprised to see that magic users were also level eight. I’d expected them to also be level seven, but it turns out that the experience curve for magic users shifts after level six. Instead of gaining levels slower than fighters, high level magic users advance noticeably faster.

Multi-classed characters also surprised me. When we first started out, all around 13 years old, we didn’t really get how multi-classing worked. Having different rules for multi-classing spread out over the Players Handbook and the poor quality of the index certainly didn’t help. (In 1st edition the Dungeon Master’s Guide held the index for both the DMG and PHB, and it’s not very comprehensive.) So we rarely created such characters and we were quite happy with single class characters.

In 2015 we have the power of Google to help us. For the first time I can say that I understand how multi-classing and dual-classing works. One of the misconceptions we had was that multi-class characters would fall behind single classed characters, but in creating several of them I found them to be about one level lower than their single class counterparts. I even realized that for 100,000 XP you could create a decent 1st edition Bard, though I decided not to create one of those oddities for this game.

The multi-class rules also gave me some insight into how racial level limits do work out as a game balancer, at least in a game designed for characters to max out in their teens. However I still find them distasteful both from a thematic standpoint and from a game play standpoint. For the fighting classes the rate of advancement should keep the gap from getting too extreme between a level capped demi-human and a human character, and the difference in hit points and tables isn’t so drastic that magic items can’t balance things out. It’s a bigger issue for spellcasters, as many more powerful spells will be blocked out of their reach. It would also seem to block them out of the iconic high level modules, like Tomb of Horrors. I should look at the pre-generated characters for those modules and see if there are any demi-humans on the roster in those adventures.

I also took a fresh look at the monk class. Now, I’ve never been a fan of the monk class; it doesn’t seem to fit with the implied settings of AD&D and I strongly suspect someone was watching too much of David Carradine in Kung Fu when they decided to include it in the Players Handbook. However I’ve been watching a lot of Shaw Brothers movies recently and figured I’d give it a look. What I found is that the class looks much more playable than what I remembered from when I was a kid. While monks have lower hit points than other classes their wide variety of powers and abilities does help make up for it and their innate armor class and hand-to-hand attacks are not insignificant. Add in a few magic items and a 1st edition monk should be able to hold his or her own with the other core classes. It left me wondering why I thought the monk class was so under-powered back when I was playing AD&D regularly and I think it’s largely because we played in a “high magic” world, where characters had a lot of magic items and in that setting the advantages of a monk are blunted while their weaknesses are accentuated.

Heh. “high magic”. Okay, I’ll be honest; back in our early gaming days we were completely Monty Haul. We even joked about it, saying that people needed to make a saving throw vs blindness if anyone cast Detect Magic on the party. Occasionally we’d decide to take it down a notch and run games where even the humble +1 sword was a weapon to be treasured, but sooner or later power levels would creep back up. When I started playing again as an undergrad my group used a more measured amount of magic, but by then the image of the monk as underpowered was set in our minds. Besides, if we wanted to do a martial artist we had our copies of Oriental Adventures to draw on.

None of my players decided to take the monk out for a spin for Ravenloft, but it’s given me the desire to get one out in the field and see what they can do in actual play.

Since I started playing D&D again with the OSR movement I’ve been playing retro-clones of Basic. This was my first re-visitation of AD&D and it was a lot of fun, both to generate the characters and to run the game. I’ll be starting up a new campaign soon and for that I’m going back to a basic game using Labyrinth Lord with some imported rules from Lamentations of the Flame Princess, but I can definitely see myself running or playing another AD&D or OSRIC game in the future.

And now that I think of it, porting the monk class into a basic game would be a snap. Heck, Labyrinth Lord’s Advanced Edition Companion includes a monk class…

Hmmm….

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Posted by on November 5, 2015 in Fantasy, Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming

 

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Ravenloft Pt. 2

This past Sunday our intrepid adventurers continued their mission to destroy Strahd von Zarovich, or failing that to light as much of Castle Ravenloft on fire as possible.

As it turns out, they were successful on both counts.

We had a fifth player join us at the table, running a dwarven fighter/thief, and I ruled that he was a prisoner they rescued when they blew up the witches coven at the end of the last session. With their new friend added to the marching order, the Sunsword restored, and Strahd’s history revealed from the Tome of Strahd, the party descended from the towers back into the heart of the castle.

The players were again in fine form, with good rolls, excellent role playing, and creative solutions that on more than one occasion caused me to stop and think. They continued their pyromania plan and soon the central keep was ablaze, and they were very successful at finding hidden things, including secret doors that lead them to Strahd himself. Along the way there were several notable encounters.

The magical portrait was a fun annoyance. This was closely followed by a potentially disastrous encounter with two wraiths, but the Sunsword, the magic-user’s Magic Missile spell, and some marvelous rolls ended the fight quickly.

The most creative moment was when the Fair Gertruda fell to a venomous spider’s bite. The magic user was under the effects of a Potion of Gaseous Form and asked if she could force herself into the Fair Gertruda and perform CPR by moving in and out of her lungs. This was such a strange and unique idea that I went with the Rule of Cool. I checked to see how much longer the potion would be in effect (reforming inside her would be… messy) and came up with how many rounds she’d have to do this before I’d give The Fair Gertruda another saving throw against poison. It all worked out and the magic user saved the Fair Gertruda’s life.

The funniest moment was when the party discovered the secret door in the back of the roaring fireplace. Rooms outside of the study were burning and the carpet within the study had also caught fire, meanwhile a group of gargoyles were smashing their way through the door to get to the adventurers. The Fair Gertruda stumbled upon the mechanism to open the secret door and the party decided that a hasty retreat was in order. The human thief and the dwarven fighter/thief both nimbly leapt over the fire without being burned, right into the fake treasure room. The magic-user was next to try…And she failed, falling flat onto the fire and taking a good amount of damage, her robes catching fire. The heroic Landsknecht took this opportunity to hurl The Fair Gertruda over the area shielded by the magic-user’s body and to safety. The lawful evil cleric, in plate mail, then used the magic-user’s body as a bridge to cross the fire. This did more damage to her, grinding her into the coals. Finally the heroic Landsknecht lept across the gap… and failed his roll, landing full onto the magic-user’s back. In chainmail. This did even more damage to the magic-user and almost killed her. It also caused us to take a break due to laughing so hard.

I ruled that the gargoyles had stopped breaking through the barricades and were now laughing and mocking the players. The adventurers finally managed to drag everyone to safety beyond the flames, shut the secret door, and pour a lot of healing magic (and the Landsknecht’s spare clothing) onto the somewhat upset magic-user. Just in time for the thief to fail his Remove Traps roll and release a cloud of sleeping gas.

Ravenloft, where sometimes you’re in a Hammer Horror film and sometimes it’s a Tex Avery cartoon.

The most epic moment was their confrontation with Strahd, whom they discovered in his hidden treasure vault when the Sunsword began glowing while they were in the belfry outside. The plan was for the Landsknecht, Sunsword in hand, to lead the charge and take Strahd head on. The cleric and the human thief would back him up, while the magic user and the dwarven fighter/thief used Potions of Invisibility to get in position behind the vampire.

Plans made, potions quaffed, the door was flung open and the Landsknecht bellowed his challenge. Strahd turned to face him and used his Charm powers to take over the Landsknecht’s mind, commanding him to defend the vampire against his fellow adventurers. The cleric held his action while the thief used his magic throwing dagger to attack Strahd, failing his attacks but drawing the Landsknecht’s attention. This worked out well, as the thief’s Displacer Cloak allowed him to keep their mind-controlled ally’s attention while keeping him safe. Strahd lunged at the cleric, but rolled a one on his attack and stumbled. The cleric struck Strahd with his magic hammer Thundercrack, doing almost maximum damage, and unleashed its power to make everyone within 20′ Save or be stunned for 1d4 rounds. Several players were stunned, but more importantly so was Strahd. Only for one round, but that gave them an opportunity. The dwarf had made his saving throw and was now behind the stunned vampire. He made his attack to backstab Strahd, and rolled a natural 20.

The room filled with cheers.

He then rolled maximum damage! x3 for the backstab, x2 for the 20, plus the damage already done by the cleric and Strahd von Zarovich’s head went bouncing across the piles of gold.

Victory! An amazing win. The players were elated.

They then proceeded to stake the corpse, douse the head and body with holy water, smash the head, and light everything on fire.

One thing that struck me was how happy the players were even though the final fight didn’t take long. It proves that every boss fight doesn’t need to devolve into a long slugfest. The players knew how dangerous Strahd was, they knew what he’d done to their dead comrade and the evidence was all around them. Solid planning on their part and some really amazing rolls gave the final fight the same sense of being epic that a drawn out battle would have.

I haven’t run Ravenloft in years and it was great to revisit this classic module and it was even more fun since most of my players were unfamiliar with the adventure. It was a great way to celebrate Halloween. The only challenge left to me is deciding what to do next year.

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Posted by on November 3, 2015 in Fantasy, Gaming, Horror

 

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Weighty Matters

One of the fun things about the OSR is that it has inspired me to pull out the old books and try to figure out why rules were designed the way they were.

Case in point, why did D&D use gold pieces as a standard of weight? Why not use a real world standard, like pounds or kilograms?

The AD&D Player’s Handbook specifies that encumbrance is measured in Gold Pieces, with ten gold pieces equal to one GP of weight. One GP of weight is roughly equal to one pound, but it isn’t a direct comparison. The Dungeon Master’s Guide clarifies that encumbrance is not a true measure of weight, but an abstraction of weight and volume:

“Many people looking at the table will say, ‘But a scroll doesn’t weigh two pounds!’ The encumbrance figure should not be taken as the weight of the object – it is the combined weight and relative bulkiness of the item.”

-DMG, Pg. 225

This is a reasonable, if fiddly, explanation for why D&D wouldn’t simply use standard measures of weight. However the reason for the Gold Piece standard goes deeper than just being an abstraction of weight and volume, its purpose is also to re-enforce the focus that early D&D was about finding treasure. The Player’s Handbook section on Encumbrance states:

“Lastly, as the main purpose of adventuring is to bring back treasure, provision for carrying out a considerable amount of material must also be made.”

-PHB, Pg. 101

Mentzer’s Basic edition also ties the importance of treasure to the mechanic of encumbrance:

“One coin of treasure, whatever the type (gp, ep, and so forth) weighs about 1/10 pound. Since coins are the commonest of treasures, the coin (not the pound) becomes the simplest unit of weight. From now on, the weight of all treasures, equipment, and so forth will be measured in coins, abbreviated cn.”

-Basic D&D Player’s Manual, Pg. 61

Dungeons and Dragons is full of seemingly arbitrary rules, but it’s fun to dig back into half-remembered concepts and discover the method behind the madness; that they were meant to re-enforce the vision that Gygax and Arneson had for the game.

 Encumbrance“Encumbrance? Oh… I didn’t think we were using those rules…”

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2015 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming

 

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The Secret of Bone Hill

“Danger lurks in the Lendore Isles. Bands of evil creatures prowl the hills overlooking the town of Restenford, seeking unwary victims.”

-The Secret of Bone Hill, front cover

If you ask an old Dungeons & Dragons player what module best represents the game you’ll get plenty of answers. For many it’s The Keep on the Borderlands, home of the iconic Caves of Chaos. Others will say In Search of the Unknown, or The Village of Hommlet, or maybe even Tomb of Horrors. These are fine choices, but for me the answer is module L1, The Secret of Bone Hill.

Written by Lenard Lakofka and published in 1981, Bone Hill has a dose of everything a D&D party could want. The module is designed for 2-8 characters from levels 2-4, which makes it suitable for adventurers with some experience under their belts, looking to face bigger challenges. It provides a modest sized wilderness area with several different locations containing both random and set encounters. There are some dynamic threats for the DM to use, such as a group of brigands and a pack of gnolls, and places weird and fantastic that may provide aid instead of danger to a party that minds its manners.

There is the town of Restenford, which is well mapped and completely keyed out, rivaling the village of Hommlet for completeness. All the townsfolk, including the inhabitants of the baron’s castle, are given names and stats. Only a few are given descriptions beyond this, but it’s easy to build motivations on top of what the Dungeon Master is given and if the DM is inclined towards intrigue then it won’t be hard to incorporate into the lives of the townsfolk. Restenford is an archetypical D&D fantasy town, mostly human with a smattering of other races living alongside them. Magic is also not too uncommon, with several magic-users living within the town and more than one person armed with low powered magical weapons and armor.

Then there is Bone Hill itself and the ruined castle looming over the countryside. There is a good mix of standard and new monsters lurking within its depths and two factions that have an uneasy coexistence. This is a well realized dungeon site, not very large but well thought out and stocked with a generous amount of treasure for those who survive its dangers.

The module also uses plenty of old school concepts in its design. Most importantly it makes no assumptions about the party’s motivations, beyond that they seek adventure. There are no quest givers with exclamation marks hovering over their heads, waiting to tell the players what needs to be done. It is up to them to explore Restenford and its environs and it is up to them to unearth the stories that will lead them into danger.

That’s not to say the adventure doesn’t give them some direction. In true old school fashion Bone Hill has an extensive list of rumors that the party can hear during their interactions around the town. How much they can trust those rumors is another decision the party will have to make and a wise group will be cautious about what they believe.

One related detail that I enjoy is that a few of the illustrations depict scenes from the rumor table that are not true. It makes me wonder if these rumors are based on things that happened in the author’s gaming group.

There are two other details that I appreciate about The Secret of Bone Hill. The first is that the castle of Restenford is completely mapped out and keyed, with rumors around the town that the ruling family’s wealth is secured within. As I mentioned, the module makes no assumptions about the adventurers’ motivations and the castle is not simply a place to go and receive quests from the baron and baroness. A group may prefer to try their luck at robbing the castle instead of risking the horrors of Bone Hill.

The other detail I love is found at the ruins on Bone Hill. The history of the ruined castle is not told within the module, but a lot of its story can be discerned from the map and the location descriptions. The remains of siege engines can be found outside of ruined walls. There are areas that show substantial fire damage, including burn circles marked on the map. Many skeletal remains can be found around the siege engines and within the courtyard, telling of a fierce battle between bugbears and humans. We don’t know the details, but the clues to the castle’s history are compelling, all the more because they are told through what the party sees and can deduce.

If there is one criticism I have it’s that the main threats lack an element of the fantastic. There is no dragon, no demon lord, no alien monstrosity that strikes terror into the players when their characters come face-to-face with it. Nothing that is epic by its existence alone. This can be remedied by developing the personalities of the intelligent villains and making them a more aggressive threat to the characters and the region.

Of course, you can also add a horrifying threat of your own.

The Secret of Bone Hill encapsulates what I think of in old school Dungeons & Dragons. It’s a small sandbox where low-to-mid level characters can make their own way, free from any expectations beyond their thirst for adventure. There are mysteries, there are opportunities for role playing, there are unforgiving threats, and a wealth of treasure to be discovered.

The Secret of Bone Hill is available in .pdf format on dndclassics.com. Give it a look, you won’t be disappointed.

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Posted by on February 23, 2015 in Dungeon Design, Fantasy, Gaming, Reviews

 

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