Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Retrospective: Horror on the Hill

Transitional periods in history are of particular interest to me, as one order slowly fades away and another arises to replace it. In the history of Dungeons & Dragons, one such transitional period is what I've called the Electrum Age, between 1981 and 1985, during which the game, the culture that surrounded it, and the company that produced all underwent some pretty radical changes. Released right smack in the middle of this putative Electrum Age was 1983's Horror on the Hill, written by Douglas Niles. The module is intended to be an introductory adventure à la Keep on the Borderlands, but it differs enough from its illustrious predecessor that I think it worth discussing in its own right.

The basic set-up of Horror on the Hill is familiar enough: a party of low-level adventurers comes to Guido's Fort, a lonely bastion of civilization not far from the eponymous Hill, in which dwell numerous monsters and, it is said, an evil witch. That's remarkably similar to the situation presented in Keep on the Borderlands, so much so that I used to be baffled as to why TSR bothered to publish this module at all. What did it offer that Gygax had not already provided in module B2?

I have no way of knowing what the good folks at TSR had in mind when they published this, but, as an outsider, a couple of things stand out about Horror on the Hill. First and foremost, it's new. That may not seem like much, but it is. I often here old schoolers complain when an OSR publisher releases "yet another version of Keep on the Borderlands." I've come to realize that such complaints miss an important point, namely, that there are always new campaigns starting and many of those campaigns will include people who've played B2 numerous times. After a while, referees need something different, even if only slightly, with which to kick things off. That's why I can no longer find fault in an introductory module simply because it follows the basic outline of Keep on the Borderlands and then goes its own way.

The second reason TSR likely released this module was to experiment with its new presentation. Horror on the Hill has slightly updated trade dress (new D&D and TSR logos, for example), more art, and uses a lot of boxed text to aid the novice referee. None of these elements is, in itself, without precedent; you can find other modules that also possess them to varying degrees. But, as a transitional module, they're notable as signposts for what TSR had in store for the D&D game line. Speaking for myself, I really like both the cover art (by the late Jim Roslof) and the interior art by Jim Holloway, both of which evince a strain of fantastic realism that I find much more congenial nowadays than that of other artists of the same period.

The final thing I'd say about Horror on the Hill is that it's a lot more cohesive than Keep on the Borderlands. That is, there are fewer types of monsters in the Hill and their relationships are elaborated upon much more than what we see in the Caves of Chaos. (Paradoxically, Guido's Fort is not given any detail at all -- not even a map -- unlike the Keep from B2). While this gives the Hill a stronger sense of "realism," perhaps even Gygaxian Naturalism, it also makes the place a lot less varied and thus less interesting to players, a great many of whom grow tired if they fight the same creatures over and over again for too long. On the other hand, the Hill does have a rather nifty "end boss" (I feel dirty typing those words) that compares more than favorably with the minotaur in B2.

I judge Horror on the Hill more favorably now than I did back in 1983, when I saw it as little more than a knock-off of Keep on the Borderlands. I think it is that, but I also think it's more than that. Whether its unique qualities are unique enough to appeal to any given referee or player is something only they can answer.

15 comments:

  1. I really really like HotH both as a player and as a DM. It has enough variety to keep things interesting and yet is fairly well defined within the structure of the upper levels, catacomb maze and then the dragon at the end. The differences are clearly defined and the players know that they are moving from the 'easier' monsters to the not so easy. It also offers loads of scope for a DM to introduce other things in and around the Hill.


    It is one of my favourite low level modules.

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  2. I have been meaning to write a review of the similarities and differences to Horror on the Hill and Keep of the Borderlands. They both have their good points. I ran Horror on the Hill more than Caves of Chaos, but then my D&D heyday was the mid 80s. I recently made a 3D map of the hill.

    http://randomwizard.blogspot.com/2012/10/horror-on-hill-map-in-3d.html

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  3. Peter V. Dell'OrtoNovember 8, 2012 at 6:22 PM

    You've convinced me to find and read B5.

    And don't worry about the boss monster. 1st edition AD&D monsters are full of level bosses and end bosses - just offhand, S1, S2, and S3 have them. S4 has a big basically pre-ordained end fight. Q1 builds up to one that is well-storied in my gaming career, for that matter. Nevermind all those competition modules which all have some kind of end scene built in . . .

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  4. This is the module I starting playing D&D with and it's still one of my favourites. :)

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  5. I suspect it's more the term "end boss" James dislikes, as an intrusion from video games,

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  6. Peter V. Dell'OrtoNovember 8, 2012 at 6:23 PM

    Sure, but the term isn't that young, either. I'm just saying, the concept goes way back and is native to published D&D. We had dragons at the end of our dungeons long before we had an ape at the top of the screen throwing barrels.

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  7. My favorite thing about this module is the writing. I had never played this one as a kid but we played it a few years ago in our B/X campaign and had a blast. I have to say that it is well written and that the sandbox has a nice continuity to it. Some of Nile's descriptions are both evocative and hilarious at the same time (like the description of the lake being calm and placid (meaning there is usually something nasty living below) and the field where we always ended up fighting the hobgoblins as being peaceful and serene or whatever. Despite the fact that the dungeon becomes a railroad at one point, it was a fun railroad nevertheless, full of story - the trapped barbarians, the maze and the final encounter to get out which included quite a lot of build up.

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  8. I'm currently running this mod in our campaign. I've never run it before but always liked elements of it. The players have just fallen down into the pit an are now trapped along with a bugbear captive. It's been pretty fun to run thus far and riff off of. I will be changing the kobolds to stronger lizardmen and am looking forward to the "exit chamber"!

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  9. It's great to use if the DM want's to expand B1, but the title always irked me as it seemed if you were going use the word horror for a module, the place really should be horrific ( i.e Tomb of Horrors).

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  10. I think the lack of variety has to do with trying to make the module more "realistic". And it leaves more space to further flesh out the fewer monsters, which seems to be normal for a time were sandboxes weren't all that common anymore.

    And although the cover picture is very small, I do like it. Seeing adventurers in armor that actually looks like armor is rarer then one might think, especially today...

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  11. Also, awesome title

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  12. This module is absolutely brutal - did anyone actually run it successfully with 1st level B/X or BECMI PCs? I ran it in 3e/BX mash-up rules (3e for PCs, B/X for monsters) back in 2008 and it still nearly TPK'd a 1st-3rd level 3e party. I'd think 4th level B/X PCs would be about right?

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  13. My players found it pretty horrific!

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  14. This was also the first module I ran, after the intro adventure in Mentzer Basic, before getting more into designing my own. B5 definitely had its influence. And since the red box had no module, B5 was a fortunate pick. I never have played Keep on the Borderlands...

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  15. I could never stand Niles. He was marginally better as a mod designer than a novelist, though.

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