[Review] Horror at Milltown (D&D 5e); Making Friends

[Adventure]
Horror at Milltown (2018)
Donald MacVittie (Hellebarde Games)
Levels 3 – 5
Summary: Dawn of the Dead + DnD + Easy Mode

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I was approached by Don Macvittie, a collaborator on Gary Gygax’s Yggsburgh (part of E.G.G’s lamentably never completed Castle Zagyg megadungeon project) with the question if I would be open to reviewing one of his modules. It’s a module for the dreaded 5th edition but relatively easy to convert to oldskool systems said he. Sign me up but be wary, said I.

Horror at Milltown is a 20-page horror adventure that can be played singly or as part of a longer series of One Night Adventures, a format that I see a definite niche for. Don warned me that his focus was a bit more vanilla/high-fantasy then my usual fare and he was correct in doing so. Let’s dig in!

Milltown has stopped sending its shipments of lumber! A bunch of Lumberjacks unearth an abandoned temple to a Dragon God, filled with precious relics, and decided that they had had enough of poverty and proceeded to loot the place blind. Unfortunately for them, the relics are cursed, the thieves turn into zombies upon their death and are doomed to recover the stolen treasure and return it to the temple, murdering everything in their path. Enter the PC!

The premise is solid: the PCs are sent to ensure the shipments of wood continue and stumble upon a village overrun by zombies, Resident Evil 4 Style. The writing is a little clumsy but gets the point across [1] and the tip to make the zombie plead for salvation as they attack is a pretty good one, particularly since that is about the only thing the players are going to be fighting in this module.

Horror is a tricky medium, particularly because it requires a careful balance of tension in order to sustain its effect. If you want an almost perfect example of zombie horror done correctly in an interactive medium I point you to no other place then the video game Resident Evil 4. In RE4 the protagonist Leon is sent to a village somewhere in rural Spain to investigate the disappearance of the presidents daughter. Upon his arrival things seem off, the place is decrepit and virtually abandoned, the locals are sullen and act weirdly obstinate and often only distantly glimpsed but only when he stumbles upon one of the locals, he gets violent and Leon guns him down, only to find that the Local doesn’t die does the action start and before you know it Leon is barricading himself inside a house frantically fighting off an angry mob of zombie locals.

Horror at Milltown off-handedly mentions foreshadowing (in the form of a dead horse by the road, blood-stains, abandoned sled on the road etc.), so it is made fairly obvious something has gone horribly wrong, giving the module little time to build up the tension. The first house the PCs stumble upon contains two zombies (to the module’s credit, corpses are at least described uniquely to offset the monotony somewhat), giving away the threat immediately and after that other buildings contain between 1 and 3 zombies at most. There is a chance to randomly encounter 1d10 zombies if you decide to loot a few of the cursed relics that are scattered about the abandoned village but otherwise the danger does not ramp up and, with the exception of one zombie playing dead and rearing up (preventively double-tapping every corpse you come across in Milltown is rendered impractical by the sheer number of dead bodies) the adventure is a straightforward zombie extermination. There is nothing urging the players on. It is not until you enter the (4 room) Dragon temple that a fight with a bunch of zombies in the first room UNAVOIDABLY attracts the other zombies in the room. This is a missed opportunity, and more importantly, it is dull.

There is a map of the village, composed of about a dozen single room buildings, with the Sawmill being a multi-room complex. I don’t like the map because the buildings are placed in an almost linear order alongside a road until the last few finally bunch out around Lake Aliseal. It would have been better to place them in a sort of semi-circle to facilitate more nonlinear exploration. That being said, the greatest missed opportunity is a huge zombie horde arriving later on and the players having to barricade themselves inside one of the buildings (being given several turns) to fight off an unending horde. Why didn’t they do that? Single zombies are slow and easily outwitted, outrun or kited. In fact, if the party (I assume standard party size of 4) is level 4 or higher I don’t see them taking more then a scratch throughout the adventure, with all of the short rests, healing abilities and the ready availability of healing potions in fifth edition.

The adventure spices things up a little bit by introducing a church to some nature goddess as a sanctuary from the undead, and having that church be barricaded by two panicked survivors who will not open the doors. That would be a good set piece, except there is no great pressing need for it. Convincing the villagers that the PCs are human requires half an hour and a DC 5 Persuasion check. This is what I don’t like about post 3e. In the old games you would have some notes on how to persuade the villagers or something else that incentivizes roleplaying or thinking on your feet. Even in 5e I would have liked some pointers to get Advantage (i.e displaying a holy symbol or chanting a litany) or Disadvantage (threats, lies).

The other NPC in the module is a 5th level fighter that shows up near the Saw Mill who has either been sent by the bad guy in the series [2] or is just a wandering adventurer, who is at least given character (i.e foul-mouthed jerk) and can be persuaded to join after beating the shit out of him (or negotiation), presumably to beef up the party a little bit for the final showdown (two Ghouls and two zombies in the heart of the temple).

Room description is boxed text followed by a lengthy explanation of the room’s contents. Often times the text will describe what happened to the inhabitants of the place. Don’t do that. Describe the contents of the room only in terms of what is essential and what is evocative and leave it up to the GM or the PCs to infer what happened. The entries are bloated.

The three “people” are, of course, Zombies. They have retrieved two cursed statuettes, and now search for a holy ring. The mess here is partially from the mob that killed the family, and partially from the search. If the party just observes from a window, one of the zombies will tip a stack of linens over and kick them around, looking at what might be hidden there.
The old couple were married, retired adventurers. The body of their daughter hangs out the window; an axe buried in her lower back. She tried to run while her parents fought. Since the family was busy with the store, none of them were involved with theft from the temple and thus the curse did not affect them.
Unfortunately, some of the goods they took in trade were actually from the temple. They died as relentlessly driven zombies searched the store for the looted items.

So much of this information is unnecessary to the running of the immediate adventure. We don’t need to know how every single person in the village either escaped the curse or died. We need a few sentences at most that convey the atmosphere, the essentials and something that will allow the GM to fill in the blanks. The Dragon temple is described a little better, with dragon murals, worked pillars and an onyx altar. It’s a little on the nose but it at least makes the attempt. I don’t know if Silver is quite the right precious metal to go with the relics of an evil dragon cult (instead of say, brass or obsidean) but that’s a pet peeve not criticism.

I have a gripe with how vanilla this adventure is. Monsters are all book standard; zombies (at least these are given some customization and resemble actual individuals) a few giant rats and two Ghouls at the end. Treasure is a little better; coins, silver decanters, books on woodworking worth something to the right buyer. Magic items are mostly bog standard (and curiously out of place in an otherwise supposedly poor lumberjacking village) with the only exception being a magic mace that never gets dirty. Almost everything attacks on sight. There is a single instance where the PCs can earn extra XP by respectfully burying the bodies of the dead, which is good since it incentivizes roleplaying, but the question becomes why you don’t get XP for burying any of the other innocent locals.

The investigation component of the adventure is at least present. It is possible to figure out, through careful observation, much of what happened though I feel the adventure could have been clearer in describing the outlandish nature of the dragonic relics or taken pains to highlight or point out what information is critical in figuring out what went on in the village. The idea of the cursed treasure attracting the Zombies is nicely implemented and I do like it that the zombies are often in the midst of doing something when they are encountered, which makes the module at least feel alive.

Is this a question of different expectations? I haven’t read much 5e modules excepting Oswalt’s stellar Mines, Claws & Princesses but this module seems a bit too simple and straighforward for me. Horror at Milltown reads exactly like something your home GM comes up with if he is aiming for something that will keep the party occupied for a night but little more beyond that. I am looking for a little more oomph for 10 bucks.

Despite a classic set-up, I will not be recommending Horror at Milltown. It seems too easy, its combats are almost all straightforward fights with little tactical consideration, its writing needs to be cut down and made more evocative, it lacks the buildup of tension neccesary for a good horror adventure and much of the investigative component is sort of trivial. While I do appreciate the investigative component, it can be bypassed almost entirely because of the proximity of the temple. Also this thing needed about 10 times as many zombies.

The second review copy I have flunked. This is going to be an interesting Month. 3 out of 10.

You can check out Horror at Milltown and other adventures at https://hellebardegames.com/

[1] e.g “Milltown is a truly creepy place and should be played as such. It has the look of a village that went from normal to ruin in a short time. Most of the buildings have blood splatter but few bodies.
[2] The module assumes it will be played as part of an adventure series but offers helpful conversion notes in case it is used as a standalone

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4 thoughts on “[Review] Horror at Milltown (D&D 5e); Making Friends

  1. It’s absolutely not horror unless there’s something that the PCs have to run from…it takes more than atmosphere. I think that Resident Evil 4 is a great model for horror done right, but even better is the game Amnesia. In Amnesia, fighting isn’t an option; all you can do is run and hide from the monsters, but you slowly lose your mind whenever you’re in darkness.

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    1. I wouldn’t boil it down to having to run but there does need to be a type of tension that doesn’t go well with straight up violence. Desperation, Panic, Wariness, Disgust and Despair are the emotions of the Horror genre. Horror can be more cerebral or surrealist like Silent Hill or Uzumaki, more disturbing then frightening. The end of The Inn of Lost Heroes did not involve flight but was magnificently disturbing for example.

      I played the first level of Amnesia and I liked it a lot. The invisible thing in the water scared the shit out of me the first time.

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      1. I don’t think that a horror adventure requires a literal chase…more like there has to be something that you really don’t want to fight. I think you allude to a good example when you mention how only one of the encounters specifies that getting into a fight can aggro an adjacent encounter. I like the idea that you can take small groups of zombies, but if you manage to alert the group, you’re in trouble out in the open. That leads to a scene like the one you mention, where the party has to take refuge in a building, board the windows, and use the choke points to keep from being completely overwhelmed. D&D usually treats zombies as a boring generic weak monster instead of the undead horrors that they should (and can) be.

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