T1 The Village of Hommlet (1979)
Gary Gygax (TSR)
Summary: (B2) ^2
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.