Our Homeguard BECMI D&D campaign group met again recently, this time exploring vintage TSR adventure The Horror on the Hill. I glossed over time spent at the fort / base camp, distributing a few rumors and then fast forwarding to the party's first approach to the ruined monastery. We tied this location into our campaign thematically with the idea that, like The Shrine of the Sacred Spring, a four-level homebrew dungeon we explored last year, this monastery may also have been built to guard a potent magical fountain -- it's exact location now forgotten.
This group loves puzzles and so I worked out some extra material ahead of time to add depth (and learning) to the experience.
First there was a handwritten prop -- a memoir from the last surviving member of a failed expedition to the eponymous, geyser-studded Hill. Ever since Tolkien used this trick at Balin's Tomb it has been a go-to for me.
|from The Fellowship of the Ring 2001 New Line Cinema|
In-campaign written accounts, whether journals, memoirs, annotated maps, or death-bed confessions create a number of puzzles for the players.
- What do we know about the writer and his or her motives?
- How reliable is the writer? How does his or her biases show up in the text?
- What might be missing from the journal, letter, or map?
- What does a particular word or turn of phrase mean?
- What details may have changed since this account was written?
In this case, the four-page account was written in cursive, a script that was effectively foreign to about half of my players! They could make out some words of course, but others were less familiar and had to be puzzled out by context. The document gave a fair description of the upper floor of the ruined monastery but, as the wizard's party was whittled down, the description of locations and inhabitants on the second level became sketchy. The account of the third level of the dungeon lacked any contextual details (the wizard arrived there by tumbling down a slide trap and was lost) and likewise, the fourth level was largely a blur save for the clear recognition of a huge chamber containing a vast mound of treasure -- more than could be counted -- this last detail providing the hook for our group's involvement.
|One-Eyed Willy's Treasure! |
from The Goonies - Warner Bros. 1985
"It's an illusion or a trap or there's a dragon."
This skeptical mantra was taken up around the table -- there had to be a catch, hadn't there? There can't just be a huge pile of treasure waiting there to be taken, right? I guess they're Learning the Dungeon.
With players as young as seven at the table, I knew the journal pages alone wouldn't provide enough to set this session apart from others, so I scratched around on Google and came up with another puzzle to add to the scenario.
This one was purely logic-based. I took a medium-difficulty puzzle from Math is Fun.com and I reskinned it, replacing "trees" with "towers" and "tents" with "wizards". I couldn't just hand them the rules for solving it of course, so I had the "board" engraved on a wall with an inscription surrounding it:
Every wizard by his own tower
But no two shall share their power
Place the magic-users such
That not even corners touch
Not poet-laureate stuff, I'll admit, but it hinted at the rules of the mini-game without actually spelling things out / breaking immersion. I sketched out the wall-panel on paper in advance, replacing the digits with symbols, so that created another sub-puzzle ... which mark meant "two", which meant "zero"?
The final ah-ha moment was when I decided to make the wizards be removeable, ivory pegs. These were then scattered around the dungeon (some in locations explored prior to finding the puzzle board itself).
Both puzzles were a success and formed nice bookends to the combat encounters with hobgoblins and the kids' very first troll. Being new to the hobby, they didn't know about trolls and their regenerative powers of course, so it was delightful to watch them scramble to find a way to dispatch it. Fortunately they had already pinned some hobgoblins in a chamber with flaming oil and it didn't take too long for them to decide to toss the troll's head into the fire when, after lopped off in a backstab, it kept trying to bite them.
|took this pic during a break - troll in upper left|
The only thing that is a bit nerve-wracking about all of this is that I'll need to keep generating cool puzzles, traps and riddles for future sessions -- I've gone and set the bar pretty high for myself!