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Friday, 20 August 2010

Hommlet's Broken Eggs?

It is rare that you will find me writing a review of something for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. In comparison to other versions of Dungeons & Dragons, the latest edition does not offer me quite the type of gaming that I want, its focus being too much upon the miniatures skirmish play and the investment necessary to set up and get going. Nevertheless, of late Wizards of the Coast has released several products that I am interested in looking at, and they will be releasing more in the near future. One I have already reviewed is Bloodsand Arena, the Free RPG Day release that previewed the just released Dark Sun Campaign Setting, which I plan to review as I do the recently released Tomb of Horrors hardback. The other book to arouse my interest is The Village of Hommlet, a scenario only available if you participate in the Wizards of the Coast’s DM Rewards programme. Or of course, on eBay, which is where I obtained mine. There is also edition of Tomb of Horrors available via the DM Reward programme, but I have yet to obtain a copy of that.

What the release of all three of these titles indicates is an acknowledgement of the history and the back catalogue of Dungeons & Dragons by Wizards of the Coast. Which beyond the pages of the 2001 Monte Cook authored sequel, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, never seemed to occur when it was Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition that Wizards of the Coast was publishing, even with titles such as Expedition to Castle Ravenloft which completely ignored the history that stretched back to 1983 and I6: Ravenloft. The history of The Village of Hommlet goes all the way back to 1979 and the TSR module T1: The Village of Hommlet written by a certain E. Gary Gygax. Set in The World of Greyhawk, this adventure describes a small village that has grown prosperous in the years since it was threatened by dark forces from the Temple of Elemental Evil, which itself would be the focus of the 1985 sequel and super module, T1-4: The Temple of Elemental Evil. In recent months the long vanquished forces have begun to scout the village again looking for weaknesses while bandits have been preying on merchants travelling to and from Hommlet. In response, the Viscount of Verbobonc has authorised the building of a guard tower to help protect both the village and the roads. Still, the villagers have become a little wary of strangers. Not necessarily hostile, but just a little more careful.
The original module was designed as a novice adventure suitable for first level characters that would provide more than just a dungeon experience for both characters and players. Both were expected to interact and make friends with the inhabitants of Hommlet, gaining their trust and support before setting off to confront the immediate source of evil at a nearby Moathouse. To support this, both the village and villagers were highly detailed given that it was written in 1979. In comparison, the version of The Village of Hommlet for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition is written for a group of fourth level characters and designed to take them to fifth. Despite both versions being the same length at twenty four pages, in the new version less of the village itself is detailed, just seven locations in seven pages, including  a single encounter area. Of the remaining sixteen locations marked on the village map, all are given no more than the simplest of descriptions, such as village hall or potter. While this harks back to the titles given on the village map from T1: The Village of Hommlet, the original adventure at least devoted a paragraph to describing the aforementioned potter, his family, his faith, his business, and his monies. The version of The Village of Hommlet does not.

Much of this has to do with the differences in format between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. To wit, the whole of the Moathouse location and the twenty four areas in its dungeon below can be described in just three pages, but the shift in emphasis to the skirmish style of play and the Encounter format that supports it means that today almost half of the booklet is devoted to its combat situations.

This being an update for a modern game, it is no surprise that the scenario includes rewards for doing more than just killing monsters. The Village of Hommlet includes seven minor quests, one per major location in the settlement. They range from finding a stolen consignment of brandy to passing a love message on and completing any one of them will gain the characters a small Experience Point bonus.

The other major difference between the two is in the maps. T1: The Village of Hommlet has its maps as detachable maps at the back of the main booklet, while The Village of Hommlet includes a separate foldout double sided map as is standard for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. On the one side of this map is a full plan of the Moathouse, the above ground level of the dungeon, while on the other side are the ground floor plans of the village’s inn, the Inn of the Welcome Wench. As far as the actual scenario is concerned, the latter floor plans are irrelevant. Not just because including the cellar, the inn is a three storey building, but also because while the player characters are expected to stay at the inn, none of the action of the scenario takes place there. The action is more likely to take place at another location in Hommlet, the one that is described in the actual Encounter described for the village. It is perhaps the one location that has undergone a major redesign, because back in T1: The Village of Hommlet such encounter would have had characters of essentially first level facing off against opponents of tenth and seventh level. In The Village of Hommlet both are of fifth level – just one level higher than the player characters, but they are supported by several third level guards.

Thankfully, the floor plans of the Moathouse make up for the irrelevancy of the inn’s floor plans. These are nice and clear and easy to use with the miniatures of your choice. As to the dungeon below the Moathouse, little has been changed with this update. Some of the encounters look to be tougher than in the previous version, mainly because of the various abilities that the enemies in question have at their command. This is probably only relative though, as the characters for this edition of the scenario are of a higher level.

One thing that the author does address in more detail is what happens next. In T1: The Village of Hommlet, Gygax simply has an assassin hunt the players characters down. Andy Collins suggests four options that the cult behind the forces at the Moathouse might take in enacting retribution upon the player characters. He also discusses possible play beyond the confines of The Village of Hommlet, this being the investigation of first the bandit town of Nulb, and then the Temple of Elemental Evil itself. Does this mean that The Temple of Elemental Evil might return as a campaign in its own right for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition? It is a possibility, especially when you consider that Wizards of the Coast are moving back to an easier means of introducing the game with its Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line and the more recent and more obvious acknowledgement of the game’s past. Now if only it were to come in a boxed set all of its very own...

So what do I think of The 
Village of Hommlet? In part it misses the point of the original, the provision of a fully detailed base from which the adventurers can sally forth from as well as destination to which they can sally. In not detailing the village it means that this version of the adventure loses much of the naturalism of the original. The shift between the editions from a broader roleplaying focus to the skirmish style play has not been supported to the utmost either with the inclusion of the irrelevant floor plans. The Moathouse and the dungeon though are given a more appropriate and detailed treatment, and this is where the scenario is at its best. In fact to get the best out of this adventure, I would actually combine the details of the village of Hommlet as described in T1: The Village of Hommlet with the details given here in The Village of Hommlet.