Ramping up my reviewing.
Happily playing games for many, many years.
Len Lakofka first came to my attention through his articles in Dragon magazine, many of which appeared in the ongoing column “Leomund’s Tiny Hut”. One of the traits that runs through his articles is a great attention to detail. There’s a real feeling of striving for “realism” and “simulation” in his articles, and thus it’s not much of a surprise that the adventure modules he wrote also shared these traits.
L1: The Secret of Bone Hill is the first of the Lendore modules, which were originally planned as a trilogy, although management changes at TSR meant that only one successor would be published. Much later, two further installments have been released, although L3 has its own production issues. For this review, I’ll be concentrating on purely what is in the first module.
The module’s arrangement is quite unusual; it begins by giving the background to the entire setting and providing a large number of rumours (over 30). After that, it moves right into a description of the Wilderness, including the major adventure sites, and finally ends with a description of Restenford, the home base for the adventures. This throws me when I read the adventure, for I presumed (based partly on the design of The Keep on the Borderlands) that the town should be the first part described, not least because it will provide the hooks and characters that drive the players into the adventure. It is still something that strikes me today as odd, and I do think that the adventure would have been better served by a different arrangement of its material.
Len Lakofka’s love of detail can be seen throughout this adventure. Most adventures are happy to give one or two random encounter tables; this one gives different probabilities for each location. For instance:
"100% to observe birds and animals. It is 40% likely that such an animal, including the foxes, falcon, or racoons, will come to the party and beg for food. This chance increases to 90% if the party makes camp. On the hill itself, it is 35% likely that a party member will see one of the clerics. If the church is entered, the probability of encounter increases to 100%."
The result of this attention to detail makes the DM’s job easier with regard to setting up encounters to entertain the players, but Lakofka’s approach would not be replicated in later adventures: in many ways it is more detail than is needed by most DMs, and other writers concentrate more on creating entertaining encounters rather than on creating every detail of the world.
There are some very memorable encounter areas in the wilderness, not least the Church of the Big Gamble in the Dweomer Forest, where the party are given the chance to worship in this unusual religion by rolling jade percentile dice and gambling! A few adventurers can be found wandering the hills (and they might become henchmen of the characters), and gnolls and bandits can also be found.
The titular Bone Hill is detailed in the middle section of the module.. As expected by the name, walking bones - skeletons - can be found on the hill and below, and further undead haunt the ruins atop the hill. It is a particularly deadly place, with a wraith being the ultimate foe in the ruins. This is quite dangerous for a low-level adventure!
It is worth noting that this adventure is not designed for first level adventurers, and it quite annoys me as a result. The adventure is set in the Lendore Isles, far away from all other adventure areas in the World of Greyhawk, and, given Lakofka’s take on the setting, you’d really like to be eased into it. Instead, you have to provide an adventure to get the characters to 2nd level before the adventure material in The Secret of Bone Hill can be used. This adventure would be far better if it were written for first level characters!
The ruin has a number of powerful magic items inside, including a unique staff, and a number of potions that are actually the result of combining existing potions. It’s one of the rare times you see the Potion Miscibility tables from the DMG being used in an adventure. It’s also worth noting that Lakofka makes a lot of allowance for the use of psionic characters, including hazards just for them. Lakofka delights in using obscure rules. (It appears he was also responsible for the training rules in the DMG, for which I do not thank him).
The largest section of the book - some 12 pages of a 28 page book - deals with the town of Restenford. Again, the organisation of this section leaves a lot to be desired: we first get a brief description of what all the buildings are, then we divert for five pages of descriptions of the castle, before returning for longer descriptions of important buildings of Restenford. As both the castle’s locations and the Restenford locations are numbered in the 1-20 range, it can be a little confusing as to which part of the book you’re looking at.
One of the chief problems with the town is that although there are many, many townsfolk and nobles detailed, this detail is mostly only their combat abilities. Little things like personalities and motivations are missing. This is a major failing of the adventure. The one really interesting character is the schizophrenic abbot, who is sliding towards neutral evil, but this is properly taken up in the sequel, The Assassin’s Knot. A spy from the nearby Duchy of Kroten is also identified, but nothing of his goals is made known.
A burnt out guard-house provides another small adventure site, but - again - the guard-house numbering interrupts the town’s numbering to create even more confusion. The layout of this adventure is truly horrible. The guard-house actually is approachable by first-level characters and its giant rat infestation could be used as a quest hook with which to begin the adventure.
Two new monsters, the Spectator and the Stone Guardian, round out the module. They’re rather interesting monsters, full of little tweaks and tricks to make them quite enjoyable for the DM to run and the players to overcome.
There is actually much less art in The Secret of Bone Hill than in other modules of the era, although there are quite a number of well-done maps. The maps use contour lines to depict the hills - again, quite unusual on D&D maps. Of particular note is the picture on the front of the booklet, as it depicts one of the false rumours of the adventure (a woman riding a horse with flaming hooves), rather than something that can be encountered in the adventure. The back cover is even stranger: it depicts a hydra appears nowhere at all, not even in the rumours! (Rumour says that Erol Otus so disliked the adventure, he botched the back cover art). The art ranges from the good to the quite poor.
Ultimately, The Secret of Bone Hill is hampered by its format to the detriment of the material within. Len Lakofka gave us one of the better wilderness and small dungeon environs I’ve seen in the game, but the bare-bones approach to the personalities of the village undoes a lot of the work done elsewhere; a lot of the module really reads like it’s designed for a group of adventurers to come in and attack everything, outside and inside the village!
The adventure has enough material in it that an inventive Dungeon Master can certainly use it to make a memorable campaign, but it’s not really suited for a novice Dungeon Master. This is an adventure that gets better once a Dungeon Master injects it with his or her own flair, and it has enough material to aid that process. I just wish the town were better developed and the layout was better; if it were, this would stand as one of the most memorable of the early AD&D adventures. Instead, it’s merely a very good adventure that will require some work from the DM.
Fascinating review. Looks like you've really engaged with your material. I'm a detail man myself, as long as it is detail that makes the story more interesting. Probably even an extreme detail man, actually. You make a compelling case that more of the attention to detail in this product should have gone into fleshing out the characters' backgrounds and motivations. Too bad it doesn't seem to have worked out that way (although I should stress I have never seen this module).
100 Years of Coast Guard Aviation!
Really nice review. I tried to get some use out of that module when I was a kid and it was just a little beyond me. It felt almost like a Twin Peaks scenario, but I couldn't quite get the story thread. Be fun to give it another go.
Great maps though, and you've posted two nice examples of that old Bill Willingham art. I always loved that blonde on the cover with Dr. Strange's cloak!