Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Review: The Manse on Murder Hill

The Manse on Murder Hill - Joe Johnston // Corey Ryan Walden
Author: Joe Johnston 
Price: $1.99 (RPGNOW)
Format: PDF
Page count: 50
System: Taskboy Games (Labyrinth Lord)

Year: 2015

In an ideal world I would have published this review some time ago. Due to various intruding responsibilities I have literally pried the time from the clutches of the space/time continuum, and just generally said "damn you" to my generally incessant manic life.  +Joe Johnston messaged me on G+ and said: "I would like to send you a PDF copy of Manse on Murder Hill" Well, who am I to argue with him? Of course I said yes! The progeny of that encounter is the very review you now read.

The Manse on Murder Hill is a Labyrinth Lord adventure for levels 1-3. The adventure states 6-10 players can run through this adventure (big group!). The background of this module revolves around the town of Little Flanders - and pertains to a mansion atop Fairview Hill. 15 years ago a whole bunch of nasty stuff happened within the mansion, and the townsfolk have avoided speaking of the manse since. Recently children have gone missing, and the small village has begged the PCs to provide some aid - offering reward of course. 

Like Johnston's other adventures, the premise is laid out clearly and simply. For anyone seeking a quick adventure, and not have to worry about plots within plots, within sub-plots this is a useful convention, and I again laud Johnston for his clarity.

The Good
Like its recent brother Tranzar's Redoubt, The Manse on Murder Hill is attractively presented. In fact it is a re-presenation of an earlier work of Johnston's - receiving a retroactive polishing. Compared with the original, this is a much-needed improvement, and thematically it looks very elegant alongside Tranzar's. The illustrations are very reminiscent of a TSR module but not in a kitsch way. The cartography is clean and clear. My favourite "artistic" piece within the module however, had to be the Appendix E: Little Flanders map. It reminds me of the tiles in the game Carcassonne. The booklet also comes with five player handouts, dovetailing with the narrative of the module - a bounty notice, three letters and an "arcane scroll".

The various tables within The Manse are interesting. I particularly liked the menu. Rather than the standard fantasy fare of "mead" or "ale", differing descriptions were given, adding a bit of local flavour to the adventure. I do similar things in my own games, so call me biased. A common issue I experience in adventures is determining the level of assistance NPCs are willing to provide adventurers. Luckily Manse details this fairly explicitly with a table dedicated to the amount of clerical aid PCs can likely expect, and the prices associated with this help. I have a sneaking suspicion the illusions table (found within the mansion itself) borrow fairly liberally from Gygax's DMG appendices. I like this touch, and again, in my own adventure writing this is something I have been....er...known to do. The rooms are almost overflowing with monsters, but the odds attributed to the random encounter table took this into account, being balanced and reasonable. 

Another addition I found useful is the inclusion of training opportunities for players. If you're running a game where training is mandatory for levelling (I do), this is a welcome addition. I mean, duh, I could probably work out a few places where would-be levelees can train, but having it mentioned outright is both useful and respectful of this style of play - which is sometimes overlooked in other editions/games.

The intelligent use of monsters was certainly a welcome change from the mindless hoard mentality. The monsters in The Manse are not imbecilic automatons, but actually have a manifesto, and will stick to it. This creates a sense of verisimilitude, and becomes less of a computer game (clear the level), and more of a role-playing game. 

The Manse is an adventure that can be run with minimal prep. Running it on-the-fly might be a stretch - a good read is necessary first - but thereafter you could happily run four sessions at least with virtually no extra work. Overall the feel of the place has throwbacks to the haunted house in U1, and is definitely old school. Some traps were lethal, some illusory, but they were largely well executed (if you will excuse the pun). The odds of locating traps were reasonable, and when saving throws really mattered little bonuses were offered to avoid the most deleterious effects. I imagine these little mechanical tweaks cut down on the party attrition rate. 

Various mundane items within The Manse were novel. One item was a tome whose contents actually had some internal detailing, rather than the usual:

"Uhh...you find a book." 
"Awesome! What does it say?" 
"Uhhhh..."

This gives the LL/DM/Ref some good ideas to play with. The adventure concluded with a few further adventure hooks, which I thought was a nice finishing touch.


The Bad
Although I give this work a positive review, and overall I feel like it's a very solid effort, there were a few quibbles. I felt like the latter half of the mansion adventure was far more interesting than the first part. Initially it's a very tropological D&D adventure - small town, evil orcs, goblins and kobolds. If you love this about D&D you're probably prone to enjoy the entirety of the adventure, if not, you may find it a little prosaic. The latter part really shone in my opinion, and it seemed very much like an adventure site of two halves. 

One part of the text discusses pre-generated characters appearing in the index (pg. 5). For the life of me, I could not find these pre-gens! The game also assumes you are using Labyrinth Lord, and apparently omits some monster statistics - referring the reader to the LL rules. This is not really an issue for me, and I'm sure anyone buying this will be capable of converting it to whatever edition they're using, but I thought it worth mentioning in case it's a deal breaker for the reader. Another niggle was the d40 rumour table. I don't own a d40, and it is a little annoying to have to mentally work out how to make one. Fortunately there are instructions on how to use two dice to create a d40, but this is a little clunky. Probably not an issue for many, but it bears mentioning.

This adventure is well stocked, there is nearly something in every room. I like to have sparser dungeons, as I feel they make a bit more ecological sense, but I applaud Johnston's efforts at cramming this place full of baddies. At times however the dungeon ecology felt a little bizarre - undead and some goblinoids in adjacent rooms. Is the locked door really going to keep the undead out, especially if they're ravenous for the taste of flesh? But once again, a stylistic choice rather than any inherent flaw.

Final Thoughts
Should you buy The Manse On Murder Hill? Undoubtedly and unequivocally yes. It is a nice little adventure, self-contained and quaint. It has some delightful trimmings in places, that other authors either overlook or ignore. You can tell a lot of thought has been put into this module, and it is richer because of it. The quibbles I have are very subjective, and are stylistic more than anything. I liked Tranzar's Redoubt for the zany flavour, but I feel like The Manse is probably a more cohesive piece. If I had to choose between the two, and knowing the contents of both, I would probably choose this current work. The price is almost laughably cheap. What have you got to lose besides $1.99?

I really admire Joe's tenacity - this guy is an indie designer in the truest sense of the word. I know he works very hard to make these adventurers. For what is presumably a one-man operation he is doing a fine job indeed! Thanks for another adventure Joe.