Trouble at Embertrees (1982)
Paul Vernon (White Dwarf 34)
Lvl 1 – 2
A thorough reading by the DM is necessary before play begins. With those ominous words Trouble at Embertrees heralds in what might very well be the densest 5 pages in rpg history. Forget reading through it, the only way you are going to scratch the surface of Trouble of Embertrees is by spraying it with a flame-thrower, dissecting the remains, and then writing a thesis-dissertation about it. It mentions notes, and that’s what this feels like, someone’s notes.
Everything about this adventure is fucking dense, and loaded with detail, not always non-gameable. The party gets hired by Tomkin Not, master woodcarver, to put an end to some pretty worrying reports from the village of Embertrees, the only site where the mystical Embertree wood is cut. There’s also a rival merchant that want to send in mercenaries to clear up the problems and use that as an excuse to appoint his catspaw within the village as chieftain so he can get the wood for himself, while also using trappers to set monsters out near the village perimeter, there’s an evil temple to some NE deity inhabited by a Half-Orc assassin/cleric and a black priest custom class from WD 22, there’s a villager running around with a mind-control creature, some ulterior motives/petty grievances and giant ants. For levels 1-2.
It reminds me of Village of Hommlet. There’s a tiny village built near the site of an ancient evil but the village is more than it seems. There’s a whole elaborate backstory about the death of a previous evil baroness to give the place some color, complete with a little festival, but the real meat and potatoes will be figuring out the myriad threats that plague the village from the some-times conflicting accounts that are described under the locals. The inhabitants are pretty rough folk, hunters, farmers, some widows that ‘serve’ the hunters, a village idiot, a pregnant daughter that will try to pin it on one of the PCs it’s alright. There’s little details. One guys has a sleep scroll for the village defence, there’s a guy whose been at the temple but he’s been tortured to the point of insanity, one guy is in on a smuggling ring, there’s a visiting assassin etc.. This section is DENSE, 29 entries for the village. It feels like a real place but its almost impossible to extricate all of the detail from the text.
The lack of centralization of all the rumors and the frequent cross-referencing means that it is very difficult for the GM to piece out what is actually going on. You are basically going to have to make a cheatsheet, if not an elaborate chronology to figure out all of the events that have been transpiring. It doesn’t help these are scattered across the text, to the point where you will have cross-referencing far into the last rooms of the Temple Key. There’s a visitor table, a village event table, a nested village encounter table that requires you to come up with things like False or True accusations or Events off the fly, meaning you will need to have ready knowledge of the NPCs and their occupations/schemes in order to improvise. AND there’s a weekly schedule of things like Market Day or The Saturday Evening Dance. I think this is what is known as Harn-levels of detail.
Monsters are pretty good. Not faction play exactly but the dungeon standard of well fleshed out lairs, everything is doing something, little details that leap out at the player. Zombies and skeletons in the barracks section of the temple of Pellarn are wearing faded silk dresses. Animating statues in the temple. The outside is a hex-map with trails, rivers, lairs and the valley of Embertrees. There’s a secret way of harvesting the trees that only a few know, otherwise they unleash fire seeds that burn the characters, and ignite other trees. There’s about a zillion monsters from Fiend Folio, White Dwarf issues that you haven’t heard of like brothers of the pine (some sort of druidical undead things), sheet ghouls, argorian wormkin, firesnakes etc. etc. It’s nuts. This is interspersed with off-beat choices like War-horse skeletons or custom-bred giant ants.
The dungeon proper has its share of tricks and traps, some of which I still don’t fully get, like a teleportation trap. There’s pit traps that you can disable by twisting the heads of statues, an animated idol of Pellarn that demands a child-sacrifice or else it animates and fights the PCs. AC -3 5 HD for a level 1-2 party? Acid-spitting sheet ghouls in your pit trap. Trouble at Embertrees gives zero fucks. Secret doors galore. Nice treasure too, including some evil tomes on creating Brothers of the Pine, tracts to boost an Assasin’s assassination skill. Evil temples don’t have to be clichéd. There’s actually a second entrance too, with tracks leading to it, that I found on my 3rd readthrough.
Dungeon descriptions are also occasionally plagued with information that really should be elsewhere. Explanations and rationales of why what NPC is where, or how the half-orc assassin killed the Old High Priest, or long descriptions of how a person the PCs are supposed to find (a boy) came to be in a certain area. That information might be useful to the GM to make sense of things but putting it in the room key doesn’t work and actually hinders quick referencing of information.
It’s an interesting conceit. A wilderness adventure/village intrigue type of deal that only after considerable forays and investigation leads to the dungeon-crawling part of the adventure, and that one likely to be lethal. Hidden-threats abound. I don’t know how a 1-2 level party, even with henchmen, is going to make it through, certainly not unscathed, but with clever play and some luck, who knows.
If someone would take the time to render this in useable form it would easily be a ***, probably a ****. A caves of chaos/village of hommlet style operation, a little homebase for the PCs where there is lots of different stuff going on and the PCs gradually have to piece together what the deal is here. But the effort would be herculean. You would have to really pore over the text, note all the different events, establish a rough timeline, then make a cheatsheet of the NPCs with all the info they have, then note the two factions and figure out what exactly they want and who in the village is involved. And THEN you add a cheatsheet with all the different monsters from White Dwarf articles that you would have to absorb and render easily digestible. As is **.