Douglas Niles is probably best known as a novelist who has written quite a number of books set in the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms campaign worlds. Early in his career with TSR he also wrote a few adventure modules for the Basic ruleset, one of which we have here. Horror on the Hill seems transitional in a number of ways. Most obviously it's the first of the B modules that uses the updated trade dress that I grew up with. It's a minor thing, but this is the design that immediately screams 'Basic D&D' to me.
This is also a module that attempts to be more logical in it's progression and throws a twist in midway that the players might not expect. We're still looking at a situation where the party's reason for going on the adventure is mostly 'there's loot in there', but the DM could easily have a minor lord or the like send the party to investigate rumors of a massing hobgoblin army and deal with the problem.
The adventure claims to be for 5-10 characters of level 1-3. In all honesty, I wouldn't run this adventure for level 1 characters. Entirely apart from the logistics of having 10 players at the table, an encounter that challenges 5 level 3 characters might be defeatable by 10 at level 1, but some of them will almost certainly die. One encounter fairly early in the adventure is with a pair of ogres. Ogres! It'll likely take a party a couple of rounds minimum to take them down, and one hit from an ogre can kill any level 1 character with a good roll. I may speak from experience on this point.
The adventure has the party hiking up 'The Hill' to find the ruins of an abandoned monastery which has been taken over by a band of humanoids led by a hogoblin king. After defeating the king, the party is intended to fall victim to a trap door which drops them a few hundred feet (via a chute, so no falling damage) into caverns beneath the monastery where they have to find their way out. The only escape ultimately leads through a red dragon's lair.
The Hill is an overgrown wilderness with a few caves inhabited by various creatures (giant bats, ogres, Neanderthals) and some outdoor encounters with killer bees, giant ants and the like. There are also a pair of old women living in a little shack that is much larger on the inside than outside.
|We're just innocent old grandmothers, dearies.|
The players might expect evil witches, and the women are in fact level 6 spellcasters, but they're only interested in making bargains. If you have players who like to rob or kill non-hostiles, this may be the end of the party right here, these old women don't mess around. Trying to cheat them after a deal is made will also have them chasing the party wherever they go to get what's owed them. As long as the party deals square though, they can be a good source of intelligence and resources.
The monastery is a good adventuring location with an aboveground area and a dungeon below where the hobgoblin king resides. There are enough goblin, bugbear, and hobgoblin forces throughout that clever play or multiple sorties will probably be needed for the party to make their way through. Once the party starts to make their way out, they fall through a trap triggered by the king's empty throne. Or at least they're meant to; this seems like the sort of thing that requires a DM caveat to make everybody fall victim, and could result in cranky players since they didn't have a chance to avoid the trap.
The caves below the monastery are a fairly typical cave type dungeon, with the more random sorts of monsters that those tend to have. The adventure does make note of the fact that creatures here are mostly ones that have become trapped there over time and that they are all in a state of crazed hunger, having survived mostly on rats. No options for diplomacy here.
At the end, the party has to make their way through the lair of a young red dragon to escape. This encounter would absolutely murder a level 1 party; I just don't see any way around it. Even a higher level party would have trouble. There's no option as written to avoid combat either. The dragon is willing to talk for a while, but will attack if the party tries to leave or when he gets bored with them. If the players remember the dragon subdual rules though, and manage to do so they'll have a dragon to take with them. And those old ladies they met would sure love to have their own pet dragon...
On the whole, Horror on the Hill is a pretty good module as long as the DM is either okay with some character death or can tweak things a bit to be a little more fair. It's a step in the evolution towards more logical adventures where things fit together in a sensible way. We still haven't reached the truly story-driven adventures of later years, but we're getting there.
Next week we'll be having a look at a truly different adventure module, B6: The Veiled Society. Not only is this the first city adventure we've seen, it's a city adventure set entirely in Specularum, capital of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. Political intrigue and secret societies await!