[Review] T1 The Village of Hommlet (AD&D); Foreshadow

[Adventure]
T1 The Village of Hommlet (1979)

Gary Gygax (TSR)
Lvl 1

Summary: (B2) ^2

T1 The Village of Hommlet (1e) - Wizards of the Coast | AD&D 1st Ed. |  Adventures | AD&D 1st Ed. | Dungeon Masters Guild



Back from vacation so it’s time to get busy. T1 is legendary, the granddaddy of introductory dungeons penned by the Gygaxter himself, and likely resting place of many first level characters. A sort of spiritual successor to B2, everything has been given a paint job, some hardware upgrades and the difficulty has been turned up to the Gygaxian standard of somewhere between Ultra Bastard Mode and DEARCUTHBERTPLEASESTOP.

T1 is one of the best illustrations of the Gygaxian mode of dungeon-bashing because it is so accessible. Not everyone has run their OSR games all the way up to level 9, and even if they did, not everyone is familiar with hyper-powered giant-fortress infiltration. EVERYONE has run at least one session of bandits, green slimes & rats D&D. There are hundreds of introductory dungeons like this, made with the simpelest, most elemental building blocks. There is only ONE T1. Now you can figure out why.

T1’s backstory is a bit more refined then the average bear, the links with the Greyhawk campaign setting more explicit, the history of the region more fleshed out. The length is on the tail-end of acceptable, 4 girthy paragraphs of dense exposition. An alliance of bandits, cultists, monsters and other evil beings was formed on the borderlands of civilization, near the village of Hommlet, and there they constructed a great Temple to Elemental Evil and scoured and pillaged the surrounding area for spoils. This evil was eventually rooted out by the kingdoms in the north, and a watch was placed in Hommlet, to ensure that it did not return. Now the roads are once again plagued by bandits, and the locals suspect that the evil returns once more…

There are the usual early TSR bugaboos with the module; Room descriptions in thick, indigestible paragraphs and notes on monster placement in rooms other then the one where the monster is actually placed (e.g. entry 5 will note that there is a 20% chance bandits are placed in entry 2) meaning that the entire text should be studied carefully before running it. There are also the odd Victorian room catalogs (i.e. this room has 23 halbeards, 315 arrows and 5 casks of oil). The village itself is helpfully divided between common information and bold text that the players are not meant to know and that can only be discovered by careful investigation. None of this is a dealbreaker.

The village of Hommlet proper is iconic, the format and so many elements show up in the DNA of a thousand subsequent modules, yet the why and the wherefore merits examination. A vast catalogue of seemingly mundane NPCs are presented, but underneath the façade of rural simplicity is a web of intrigue, espionage and assorted cloak & dagger tomfoolery. Agents of the Viscount, spies for the Temple of Elemental Evil, treacherous NPC hirelings, servants of the Druids etc. etc. These are embedded in an outer coating of seeming normalcy. The list is exhaustive, taking up almost half the adventure, and subsequent module design would be considerably sparser on their starting town details, but I suspect this level of detail, the myriad buried secrets and relations, will come to benefit a protracted campaign against the forces of the Temple of Elemental Evil. Or to put it differently; Not every town should be as detailed as T1, but if the site is going to serve as homebase for multiple levels of adventure then this level of detail might be warranted.

One thing I immediately noticed that recalls both Baldur’s Gate 1 or the old Ultima video games is the wealth of (very well) concealed treasure that is present in nearly every building, something of a vestigial element in more contemporary games I think. Such an abundance of concealed wealth creates a lot of freedom, and facilitates exploration, and a possibly endless series of hijinks and escapades as well as slyly signaling that the PCs are not necessarily expected to be on their best behavior and operate within the narrow confines of the traditional do-gooder while they are within the village limit. I think the loss of this element is most keenly felt by the party thief, who does not get nearly enough opportunities to exercise his lockpicking and pick-pocketing ability without such ample incentive. What use our party might find for a secret room in the inn with abundant spies everywhere is up to the individual group, but consider me intrigued.

Several moves from the Ultra Bastard playbook first coyly revealed in B2 are re-introduced, only even meaner. Willing high level NPC retainers are abundant, but their trustworthiness leaves something to be desired. For every blue-eyed, honest symmetrical-faced fighting-man just trying to make his way in the cruel world there are at least two rapscallions, kleptomaniacs, agents of the Temple of Elemental Evil, assholes who hang back and rob the party on the way back and other such ne’erdowells. Not hiring them does not mean they will not be tailing the party anyway, so keeping a low profile is probably key. NPCs and retainers are great but Buyer beware. It was good then, it’s good now.

Little details in the village. Unscrupulous merchants that sell broken down nags and rangy mutts. Stores with prices that are a few percentage points higher or lower then standard, availability, a lengthy list of drinks and meals at the inn. It affects gameplay but it also creates the appearance of a world in flux, a continuous place, a living world. You see it in other places, the village is busy constructing a fortification by order (and from the coffers of) the Viscount, there’s elements that make no sense in the context of a game but are there because they should be there if it was a realistic (albeit fantastical) place. I like the scarcity of armor, and note the difference in prices between AD&D and D&D Basic. In 1e, it can take up to 2nd or even 3rd level before you move up to platemail, and equipment, especially armor, is generally more expensive.

The accompanying Dungeon, the ruined moathouse that served as a mere outpost of the vanquished Temple of Elemental Evil excels in filling you with a sense of forboding and slumbering evil. A ruin on some forlorn moor, its vegetation twisted and unnatural, the muted cries of all manner of evil creatures in the air. AND THEN YOU ARE AMBUSHED BY SIX GIANT FROGS. FUCK YOU. But! The sense of anticipation, of build-up remains. Is the fortress abandoned? Has evil re-awakened? Faded halls with rotting banners, crumbling drawbridges, collapsing ceilings. A ruin in the true sense, with verminous inhabitants, and some valuable treasures missed by its destroyers. And then you enter the lower levels, and you find a room filled with piles of black tunics, embroidered with a great eye wreathed in flame. Shades of Lord of the Rings, not literally the forces of Sauron, but that feeling of rising, waxing evil. Fresh blood stains on old torture equipment. Distant rattling or shifting beams on the random encounter table.

This relatively mundane environment is coated in a level of detail that is immense but that can only be discovered by MINUTE and CAREFUL investigation. Boot prints hint at the presence of bandits. Wealth is buried under rubble, or hidden amid the clutter, or placed in a pool, where searching for it without using one’s bare hands might dislodge it and cause it to be washed away. All this careful treasure concealment, especially of intelligent creatures, incentivizes yet another behavior that I have tried to instill, that of TAKING CAPTIVES OR USING SUBTERFUGE. DnD becomes much more vibrant when there is an incentive to take prisoners, perform interrogations, disguise oneself or otherwise interact with the inhabitants beyond a few well-placed blows to the neck.

This dynamic interaction, improperly understood by many OSR authors, and at times bastardized to ‘faction-play’ by those of us in the know, the Cognoscenti, is all the more present in the Hidden! Dungeon level below. A band of Gnolls that can be bought, an Ogre that waits for a password and a uniform before it decides to attack, bandits that set sentries and attempt to ambush the PCs. This is compounded further by having inhabitants of the dungeon be aware of, but not always aligned with, eachother. Most serve The Master, but avoid a giant Crayfish that came in via an underwater spring.

Monster playment is mostly naturalistic, but almost never repeats. There are, curiously, less bastard encounters then in B2 (I am looking at you Medusa/Wight/Owlbear) although 4 Ghouls, 6 Giant Frogs, 6 fucking Bugbears or an Ogre are often a one-way trip to TPK-ville for a 1st level party, but there are so many high level NPCs whose aid can be called upon that this is no dealbreaker, surely? The conclusion is likely to be one hell of a pitched battle, with the one regrettable note that the enigmatic Lareth the Beautiful, a true champion of evil, the obligatory evil cleric at the end of a 1st level dungeon, with the superior abilities of a true prodigy, would have benefited from some much needed foreshadowing so his eventual impact is more keenly felt. Once again, the opportunity to work for him, possibly infiltrating the cult, is noted, as well as the 10th level Assassin that is unleashed on his killers if men learn of his death.  

The dungeon map bears close scrutiny, a gradually unfolding maze with fake doors, secret passages, portcullis traps, narrow tunnels that stretch off in the distance, and even an intruding cave system. It does not reach the heights of the spectacular G1 but for an 18 room dungeon it is quite good, and combines well with the highly naturalistic moathouse ruins above it.

Hommlet is a highly engaging, foundational illustration of the low level module and its accompanying base environment, and would set us all up for a sequel that, while not bad, is considered by many to fail to live up to the promise laid out in T1. T1 is not spectacular or weird or outre but it has a vibe, an atmosphere that is augmented by a level of fine detail that is rare outside of Gygax. There is a sense of the hidden, of buried secrets both in the town and the dungeon that are only gradually unearthed. Sometimes those discoveries will kill you. The lack of spellcasters (lareth excluded), the prep work for the eventual attack on the Temple of Elemental Evil, the mostly naturalistic monsters, it all works together to create the quintessential vanilla D&D experience, without ever giving the impression that it pulls its punches. It is excellent D&D, with the promise of greater, more formidable evils just around the corner. The extra detail combines to give it a sense of verisimilitude and strong atmosphere that B2, for all its merits, lacks. There is groundwork for a more protracted campaign following an expedition into the moathouse. It will be interesting to see how it develops in the sequel. Bandits & Giant Rats D&D at its probable apex.

*****


30 thoughts on “[Review] T1 The Village of Hommlet (AD&D); Foreshadow

  1. Hirelings (and their reliability, descending to outright treachery) are indeed an interesting study in this module. And you do need a big party to survive the Moat House. To repeat a point I made elsewhere, as well as providing opportunities for thieves, treasure troves for villagers can indicate relative importance. If I recall correctly, Lareth has an Achilles heel: he is vulnerable to command spells. And that is how he was defeated in plays I remember.
    Hommlet is well described, but I think I prefer N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God and U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh as starter adventures. All three feature stirring death or glory combats for big treasure at their climaxes, which is exactly how it should be.

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    1. Interesting. My edition of T1 does not seem to have the vulnerabilities you describe, Lareth is a garden-variety EHP, exceptional abilities and negative AC and all. U1 I recall as being very good, N1 a bit too hamhanded, excellent use of a Naga notwithstanding.

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      1. I’d need to dig my copy out, but whilst Lareth is all you describe and more (as he has immunity to hold person spells), does he not also have an intelligence of 9 (and no save against Command according to 1E rules)? If the command is “Die”, would he not be helpless for one round, with automatic hits for maximum damage for all who attack? (I can imagine some referees would allow an autokill in this situation.)
        Regarding N1, it gets into “Invasion of the Bodysnatchers” pastiche very quickly. Whether this is helpful for the players, or too heavy-handed, will probably vary according to your group. Recruiting allies (and not just Ramne) is vital for success.

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      2. I understand and that would work! I am less well versed in the AD&D spell selection then the Basic One, but I would be remiss if I pointed out that a level 1-2 cleric with anything less then two cure light wounds spells in the pipeline is sure to attract resentful glares from his fellow PCs. On the other hand, bonus spells from high wisdom might provide some additional flexibility not alloted to their basic cousins.

        I might have to give N1 a revieover but currently it’s going to be the Gygax grand tour, Necropolis in some form or another included.

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      3. At first/second levels, clerics have 3/4 first level spells available. I strongly advise selecting command and light along with cure light wounds, just as everyone’s magic-user opts for sleep if available. In T1 you are well advised to have 2 clerics along: that zombies encounter as they shuffle out in pairs could be a killer without their turning ability.
        Keep going with the Gygaxian classics: they are highlighting a number of interesting points, which may well help today’s authors.

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      4. Damn, second time the blog ate my comment. 1e Wizard is still very close to its Basic analogue. Cleric is much farther I think. Slow Poison, Command and the extra spell capacity turn it into an altogether more formidable class, and it was already quite good.

        I am most excited about the Illusionist class, should I (praise Gygax), ever get a 1e game going. I have been teasing my players with it, but they are currently level 3-4, the perfect level to transport them to the Age of Dusk and run them through Palace.

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  2. I’ve run T1 exactly one time…back in my D20 (3rd edition) days, I ran it as a PBEM solo adventure for my buddy who was (at the time) living in Oregon. Transcripts can be found here:

    http://bxblackrazor.blogspot.com/search/label/pbem

    While the adventure has a surprising number of similarities to the Tower of Zenopus (in the Holmes basic set), I find the module to be an excellent example of Advanced game play, given its attention to detail and coherence in design. Such design choices help shape and inform play at the table (in ALL participants, including the DM).

    Perhaps I need to break it out once more…for a 1st edition game.

    Supermodule T1-4 isn’t great (or even good)…but I do love Nulb, more than a little.
    ; )

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    1. I’d agree with the above. Nulb is fun. In T1-4, it all gets a bit unfocussed after you get hold of the Yellowskull. The elemental nodes are rough sketches.

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  3. Never played the ‘real’ version, just experienced it vicariously through 1001 blogs and the Temple of Elemental Evil CRPG. Lareth is a tough (dickishly tough?) opponent. AC too good for lvl 1 PCs to hit, 1 level too high for a Sleep spell, plus his minions. Interested to know how people dealt with him.
    The assassin vs his killers is thematically fine, but an even bigger dick move. PC minding their own business years later and the DM says ‘oh, you’ re dead, no saving throw’ would get them punched in our group.

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    1. I don’t know that it would go down that way. The assassin is only dispatched if Lareth’s death is linked to the party, so the precautions the party takes and how they deal with identifiable treasure matters. And then the forces of evil will make inquiries, which the party may notice if they are careful. And then they get another 3 weeks before the assassin shows up, but which time they may have leveled up and may not even be in the village. Its only a gotcha if the party doesn’t have an opportunity to save itself.

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    2. PCs are a resourceful lot, and after watching them gradually chip through Ilyana armed with a blanket anti-charm sword and +1 fucking armor and shield I have confidence in their abilities. Smart money is on hiring some of the high level NPCs, the aforementioned Command spell, or a semi-lucky light spell to the face.

      Like Beoric says (hi bud! nice to see you around these environs!) a 10th level assassin doesn’t have to mean that the first time you encounter him it he’s hiding under your bed until you fall asleep and then death-attacking you, the module specifies that the NPCs in the village will help you out, so if you weren’t a total asshole to the villagers they might tip you off about that mysterious trader guy that came to town, asking a few too many innocuous questions about you, but after that he should probably be as scumbaggy as he can.

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  4. This. So much this.

    It was Hommlet that got our group on the right path. Like Trent says in his Mystical Trash Heap blog (Taxonomy of Old School D&D): Hommlet was Gygax’s reboot of his home campaign, both for AD&D (vs. OD&D) and incorporated so much of what he had learned. It teaches the slow-burn. It shows us the Subtle Hand at play. It’s all about building a long-term campaign. Layers and layers to the onion. Adventure hiding in plain sight. A masterclass, no doubt.

    N1 is a joke in comparison—linear, railroad-y, single-note, and blatantly predictable. In contrast, Hommlet is “real”—in the Middle-Earth sense: you can feel it’s history…and anything can happen there.

    Lareth escaped the Moathouse for us and started wreaking havoc in the larger world. The party chased him physically for months, but the trail he left has had repercussions lasting for years.

    Tantalizing are the links between Lareth and Lolth—joining up Gygax’s two pinnacle adventure series. Hommlet was SO good, it’s just sad that whatever creative zone EGG was in at that point in his life, didn’t last long enough for him to finish the Temple. Was this his Swansong?

    I would go as far to say that if you don’t “get” T1 (which is not uncommon), then you just don’t “get” (A)D&D.

    “Square corners can be pounded Smooth.”

    Priceless.

    Thanks for this one, Prince.

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    1. Thanks Squeen. As far as I am concerned, his EX series has been the only entry that is noticeably worse then the preceding work and that’s considerably later. I’m not comfortable calling the time of death on super-gary until I’ve checked out WG5. Necropolis I am very curious about.

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      1. I own Necropolis, but haven’t been able to really penetrate it. Trent has recently put up a nice set of AD&D conversion notes on The Mystical Trash Heap. I’m hoping that will unlock it for me. So far it does not inspire.

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      2. B2 came out this year (1979) also, but in terms of later stuff I suppose WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun (1982) was his true swansong. Other modules published after it (Isles of the Ape, etc) were actually written much earlier.

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  5. Matt Colville and others have suggested that N1 offers an even stronger homebase than T1 and B2, especially if you space the scripted events so that your players only gradually realize that the quiet locale they’ve been returning to between adventures is not so safe after all. Since you keep Horror on the Hill by the same Douglas Niles in high regards, I would be curious to read your opinion on this one.

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    1. Sorry, missed the comments above. I should have guessed, “hamhanded” being the order the day for Colville and most of his YT peers. What about a review of U1 then ?

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    2. Hah, these are stalwart suggestions and I shall soon get to them, but my Gygaxquest continues unabated first, hopefully with the consumption of enough ***** material, I shall attain the vaunted ‘Aktually’ level of adventure writing Akira-style in time for Vaults of Oblivion! I have resolved to introduce my Basic group to the Age of Dusk very soon.

      U1-U3 I recall as being the template for underwater shenanigans, with the Sahuagin in U3 using substandard tactics w.r.t weapon choice (underwater they should really always fight unarmed). That being said, it was also a brutally difficult death-star style infiltration mission so these are worth studying.

      Niles is still very good, but in comparison with such offerings as these, the eye wanders.

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      1. I am wary with you being burdened with an overgrowing list of reviews to do, in a Bryce style penance. In his case, however, he is not absolved until he rises to the challenge of “Squirrel King Plumpkins”, which must be awesome.
        As for T1, many must have played U1. I remember U3 being difficult to get hold of (smaller print run?) , and I only picked it up much later, and have never refereed it. I agree with your point that sahuagin should fight with natural attacks underwater, and have always played them that way. U3 is an interesting module: what exactly do the PCs decide to do on the underwater levels, and what use do they make of the wand of polymorphing? I suggest it should be a scouting and observation mission, with only occasional bursts of violence. And polymorph a couple of PCs into sharks?

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      2. At first glance, I assume Sahuagin weild weapons as an indication of civilization. They are so alien (fish people living underwater) as to seem like simple monsters to the players. It pulls them back from the monstrous into the weird.

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      3. I like Sahuagin with weapons too, I don’t like it that wielding weapons is a net negative for them. People don’t invent tools if they are worse then what nature gave you. I have heard it said elsewhere U3 is very brutal, and I liked it that U2 has an optional diplomacy component that allows you to bypass most of the fighting. Definetely worthwhile, especially, hopefully, for aspiring module cobblers.

        One day I will have to condense all this nonsense into a series of posts on what works and what doesn’t but for now it’s still info gathering time.

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  6. I am firmly in the camp of viewing T1 as much superiour to KotB. KotB feels lifeless to me, as if it was a task, an obligation that needs to be fulfilled to keep Arneson via Basic gamline going. t1 is were EGG’s heaet and home campaign were. and it shows.

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    1. Lifeless, precious B2? Wash thine mouth with soap ye unbeliever. T1 is unquestionably better, but B2 is still one of the best introductions to a short campaign EVAR, and T1 is merely a brilliant set up that would never see good payoff.

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  7. Personally, the best thing GG ever authored. There are so many different angles to this, that every time I have used the module, the emergent play has been vastly different (try emphasizing the druidic vs. new gods angle as an example). N1 is very much one note by comparison.

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    1. Regarding Hommlet as a campaign location, with the obvious “we’ll mug you on the way back from the dungeon” Kobort and Turuko ranging to the more subtle machinations of the traders, yes I agree it is excellent. And that is just the evil guys, as you note there could be some interesting choosing of sides with the others. The dungeon itself is less spectacular. For old folk such as myself, one problem was that the Temple of Elemental Evil came out several years later, so you didn’t see timely development of the ideas. Further comments on the T 1-4 supermodule can await Prince’s review.
      I wonder how many just counted up the loot and moved on to the next module after N1? There could be a lot of interest in the aftermath How responsible were certain people for their actions, and what should happen to them? Is some of the treasure trove going to be claimed by the people of Orlane? Perhaps a PC cleric will be invited to make the place his/her parish? A fighter as constable? Some kingmaker might suggest the party leader runs for mayor, the current incumbent did not cover himself with glory.

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  8. When I ran T1, the monk character rolled a 20 to hit Lareth and did him in with the absurd AD&D unarmed combat table, shortly after in dawned on everyone his AC was very high compared to what they were rolling. Or the Dart-Throwing Fighter punctured him in a single volley. Both things I can remember happening in that campaign, but I distinctly remember that Lareth met his end much faster than I originally thought he would.

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