Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 26 February 2010

Starting Out Like It's 2006

While the current vogue in Dungeons & Dragons is to look forward with Fourth Edition or back with the Old School Renaissance, there is still much to admire and appreciate from the versions of the game that came in between. One of these is Scourge of the Howling Horde, an official scenario from 2006 written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. Published by Wizards of the Coast, it is designed for a party of four to six heroes of 1st level, and more specifically for the Dungeon Master who is new to the game.

The set-up and plot for Scourge of the Howling Horde is as clichéd as they come, at least in terms of Dungeons & Dragons. Go right back to classics such as T1, The Village of Hommlet or U1, Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, and you will find the very same template used by Scourge of the Howling Horde. Though it should be pointed out that took U2, Danger at Dunwater to fully develop this plot strand. A village is imperilled – in this case, the quiet frontier town of Barrow’s Edge, by a tribe of nearby goblinoids, who normally secretive and reclusive, have turned bloodthirsty and rapacious raiders. The village’s menfolk never returned from their expedition to investigate the tribe, and Barrow’s Edge has put out the call for “Adventurers Wanted!”

The adventurers are answering this call when they come across a merchant caravan under attack from the goblins. Coming to the merchant’s aid and escorting him home gets them to Barrow’s Edge, the inhabitants of which will welcome the adventurers. Here they have the opportunity to rest; to interact with the hamlet’s interesting and useful NPCs – a wizard, a cleric, a moneylender, a merchant, and so on; and to negotiate a price for successfully coming to the aid of the villagers.  From here, the adventurers can set out and make their way to the Howling Caves, their goblinoid inhabitants already on guard for such an attack. Inside the small complex, the party will find a tribe forced to fight under the yoke of stronger bugbears and hobgoblins – encounters with them being greater challenges for the players – with their yoke being the recent arrival, a young black dragon. The creature wants to build both its lands and its treasure hoard, and has begun by helping to kill the tribe’s chief and then install a more compliant leader.

On one level, Scourge of the Howling Horde is not just a cliché, but also too simplistic. A village in danger from a small band of goblins forced to raid by a stronger force and all the party has to do is work its way into the tiny dungeon, beat up the inhabitants, and take their treasure. Fortunately, there is slightly more to the adventure than that. Not all of the goblins are happy with the recent change, and if the heroes look to means other than the sword, they will find allies who will aid them in toppling the current leadership. Given the challenge of facing the dragon in the final encounter, this might prove useful...

If this adventure had been written in the 1980s – or even earlier – it is doubtful that it would be as detailed or as long. At just 32 pages long, and with just a few inhabitants of the village and the seventeen locations of the goblinoid caves described, Scourge of the Howling Horde is actually quite short as an adventure. The reason for this brevity of encounters is twofold. First it is due to the depth of detail and advice given to help the Dungeon Master stage each encounter, but second and more obviously, it is the format in which each encounter and location is laid out. This adventure pioneered the use of the “Combat Encounter,” a format in which encounter or location is laid out very simply with everything that the Dungeon Master needs to run that encounter. So this includes advice on running the encounter; an explanation of how each element in the room works, which might be a trap or how the Turning Undead rules work in the game; the stats for any monsters, including most notably, tick boxes for each creature’s Hit Points; and of course, a plan of the location, copied from the full map at the back of the book and increased in size.

What the “Combat Encounter” format does is keep everything self-contained and easy to handle with no unnecessary page flipping needed upon the part of the Dungeon Master. Not so self-contained though as found in Fourth Edition adventures as to make them almost isolated from each other, and in some cases, the foes in one encounter will race to get aid from another. The limited page count of the scenario also negates the amount of page flipping needed in longer adventures such as Expedition to Castle Ravenloft – published in the same year – wherein all of the “Combat Encounters” were kept together and separate from the room descriptions.

One obvious omission from the scenario is that of an area map. There is no map showing the relationship between Barrow’s Edge and the goblinoid caves, and for an adventure that is all about giving the beginning Dungeon Master advice, there is sadly no advice on creating and mapping the area around the village – though it also means that the scenario and its setting can be dropped into most worlds with relative ease. In fact, the village does not know where the caves are, and unless one of the party has the Track Feat or they have captured and interrogated a goblin from an earlier encounter, then getting to the caves will involve an awful lot of blundering around in the bushes in order to get there – and that is with no map! Another issue that author does not address is what does the tribe and its tyrant leader do in response to an attack on the caves if the party retreats to the village to recuperate? More minor issues abound, such as the hobgoblin inhabitants of the cave possessing magical weapons that they could have used and instead keeping them locked up in a chest. All issues though that a competent Dungeon Master could fix, but not necessarily one new to the game.

Physically, Scourge of the Howling Horde is neatly and cleanly laid out, although more use of colour – other than on the cover and inside the back cover – would lift its appearance above the ordinary. As would some colour artwork, because the combination of heavy line art and dark toned pages does give the book a grey look when it really needed to have been that more enticing.

Although Scourge of the Howling Horde is very obviously written for a beginning Dungeon Master and his players, there is nothing to say that a more experienced group would not enjoy it as much. In fact, my friend Dave has run this adventure as our Dungeon Master with a group whose experience of play varied quite a bit. Dave brought out the tiles and the plastic Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, doing the game in full, and it was a lot of fun. My familiarity meant that I could see the scenario’s traditional elements and enjoy them, while the other players could just get on and play the game. Our play through lasted about three solid sessions, while more experienced players will get through this in less time.

Scourge of the Howling Horde is interesting in that you get to see the evolution of a format while still looking backwards for not only all of its story elements, but also in how they are used. The format is by the standards of the Old School Renaissance very modern, as is the advice on running the adventure. For some gamers, the degree of familiarity with this scenario might breed contempt, but Scourge of the Howling Horde really does make for a good starter scenario, one that can be run with the Dungeons & Dragons Edition 3.5 rules that it was written for, or with any Dungeons & Dragons variant bar Fourth Edition