Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Retrospective: The Secret of Bone Hill

Published in 1981, The Secret of Bone Hill is the first module in the L-series, so designated either because it was set on the World of Greyhawk's Lendore Isle or because it was written by Lenard Lakofka, a long-time contributor to Dungeons & Dragons and a regular columnist to Dragon magazine. Whatever the case, L1 is, in my opinion, an under-appreciated classic, a low-level introductory module that nicely occupies a middle ground between The Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands. Allow me to clarify.

The Village of Hommlet is often praised -- and criticized -- for its mundanity. Hommlet is Exhibit A of Gygaxian Naturalism in action. Nearly every inhabitant of the village is given a name, a personality, and a place within its little society. Likewise, the nearby moat house dungeon is subdued, with a semi-realistic ecology and suffused with a sense of foreboding rather than blatant evil. Keep on the Borderlands, on the other hand, offers very little in the way of context. The titular keep is a lone outpost of undefined civilization, beyond which there exists only the wilderness and the forces of Chaos who dwell within. It's almost purely fantastical in conception and the Caves of Chaos are frequently cited as an example of bad dungeon ecology, with numerous antagonistic humanoid tribes existing cheek by jowl with one another.

The Secret of Bone Hill presents the town of Restenford, which is as well imagined as Hommlet, complete with unique names and personalities for even the most minor of NPCs. In addition, there are maps aplenty for the town and its buildings, making it very friendly to referees who give their players the freedom to wander about the place as they wish. Surrounding Restenford is a dangerous wilderness filled with bandits, humanoids, and other threats. And of course there's Bone Hill itself, home to numerous undead, including such foul things as ghoulstirges, stirges who paralyze as well as drink blood. Bone Hill is a dangerous place, one that beginning adventurers ought to avoid until they've gained sufficient experience to tackle its horrors.

To my mind, the beauty of module L1 is the way it combines the mundanity of Hommlet with the otherworldly fantasy of the Caves of Chaos. Much as I love B2, it sometimes feels a little too de-contextualized -- perhaps by design -- but I find I like context for my adventures, particularly low-level ones. Hommlet and Restenford are both very good "home bases," whereas I don't find the Keep particularly compelling, a problem made all the more obvious to me in my own Dwimmermount campaign, where Muntburg is a close relative of the Keep in terms of depth and detail (which probably explains why both the players and myself prefer to visit Adamas, even though it's farther away from the dungeon).

Bone Hill is a weird place. During the day, bugbears hold it, while, at night, they cede control to the undead who rise up from their graves. This fact gives it a peculiar vibe for me and one that I think helps the module considerably. And the number and strength of the surrounding creatures, both at Bone Hill and elsewhere, ensures that PCs have good reason to spend a lot of time in Restenford, getting to know its inhabitants and their peculiarities, rather than just treating the town as "flyover country" they can simply ignore. The result is a terrific dynamic that I've always liked and that has probably informed my own campaign design as much as anything else.

If you haven't read The Secret of Bone Hill in a while, I recommend you do so. I think you'll find it better than you remember its being and a genuine classic of the early 80s.

20 comments:

  1. "Much as I love B1, it sometimes feels a little too de-contextualized -- perhaps by design -- but I find I like context for my adventures, particularly low-level ones.

    I think you meant to write, "Much as I love B2..."

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  2. Bone Hill is also one of my favorites.

    What I particularly loved about the castle ruins was all the signs and hints of a compelling history that we really know nothing about. I remember the ruins of the siege engines and the wall breaches. My favorite detail was the to pieces of what was probably a staff, found near the center of a large burned circle.

    There's a whole story here that they tell in hints and images, and for me it really brought the module to life.

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  3. As I wrote in a comment to part II of Len's interview, Bone Hill is one of my favorite modules. It's rightfully considered a D&D classic.

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  4. I'm in complete agreement. I've ran Bone Hill many times, under B/X, 1E, 2E, and 3.5E, stretching from 1983-2007. You can get months of gaming in with just your rulebooks and L1.

    It's a sandbox campaign hiding between the covers of an adventure module.

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  5. My love for this module is unlimited.

    That cover just screams cool.

    I have been re-reading old Leomund's Tiny Hut articles and I had forgotten how much I really enjoyed LL's work.

    I am planning on re-running this one someday for my kids.

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  6. L1 is in the 'top 5 list' of my favourite AD&D modules of all time.

    I'd be curious to know, James, what you think of L2.

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  7. Bone Hill and Village of Hommlet are just about perfect "starter" modules for a campaign, in my opinion. Both create a hell of a lot of adventuring and roleplaying opportunities with a remarkable economy of words.

    Both also have a distinctive flavor, which I never got from Keep on the Borderlands.

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  8. FWIW, I like L2 well enough -- it shares most of L1's virtues -- but I still prefer L1, because it's so much more open-ended. L2 is slightly more plot-heavy and these days I tend to prefer modules with a lighter touch in this area.

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  9. If you haven't read The Secret of Bone Hill in a while, I recommend you do so.

    Bone Hill is available for download from WotC's own site; ironic considering the whole pdf silliness of a few months ago.

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  10. I remember being asked to DM Bone Hill for a bunch of friends in Middle School. We had so much fun with the gambling house/temple - I think our band of adventurers, whose favorite thing was killing monsters and taking their stuff, spent almost 45 minutes in the temple. Of course since we played AT school, we got into a bit of trouble since the teacher thought we were actually gammbling...

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  11. The nice thing about the sequel, despite being more plot-driven, was, in my opinion, it served as a good example of a plot-driven adventure where the PCs are not just observers in a short story or novel that the author has concocted. The DM was given a basic shell of a murder mystery with some nice false evidence and no strong dictates as to how things MUST proceed in order to preserve the outcome of some novel.

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  12. In my opinion this is one of the best Modules written. The ease with which it can easily be adapted and fitted into a campaign make it such a great starting point.

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  14. L1 is the very first campaign setting I used back when I started playing in High School so I'm quite found of this model. Just like James mentioned, one of the great things about it is the open endedness of it and how a DM can add and expand to it any way he wants. My favorite "module hack", was putting the Caves of Chaos in the little valley that lays between Lake Hill, High Top and Garden Peak.

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  15. ... & with that great Willingham artwork, to boot. :D

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  16. Restenford is my all time favorite module town. Other, perhaps more fleshed out towns often seem encased in amber waiting the PCs to arrive and chisel them free from there translucent confines. Restenford, however, has just enough quirky detail--and lack of detail--to give a sense that it is a bustling little place where life goes on whether the PCs deign to grace its presence or not.

    The adventures in the countryside, however, I've always found to be rather underwhelming; not significantly more interesting than your average trip through DMG Appendix A.

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  17. This was the first module my brother owned for Ad&D and the second module I played after "Keep on the Borderlands". I've ran it as a DM and a player and can't give it enough praise. I ran L2 numerous times as a player and as a DM with mixed results, but L1 will always hold a place in my heart. I know Restenford was revisited in an issue of Dungeon. I'll have to find the issue and the adventure in question.

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  18. Wow, thanks so much for posting this. I bought a copy of the Moldvay basic set on eBay that came with this module in it. Presumably the owner hadn't realized it was not part of the set. I filed it away with all my other old modules and never gave it a second thought.

    I've started reading it based on your review, and I'm thoroughly delighted with what I've read so far. While I can't say the Village of Hommlet ever really grabbed me (though I've only ever read it in the context of T1-4), I've always loved B2. I think the Silver Anniversary module "Return to Keep on the Borderlands" also adds some very nice elements. Otherwise, most of the old modules I find to be somewhat lacking. Good for mining material out of, but nothing I'd ever run straight out of the book.

    Anyway, thanks again for the review. This gem might have lain unread in my collection for many more years without it.

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  19. The issue is #71 of the Dungeon. The adventure is 'Priestly Secrets'.

    And a quick question-Are there any other modules anyone would rec for sandbox play that also have quality game play? Any edition is fine. I'm studying this very thing right now for a young persons rpg I'm sketching out.

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