Written by Douglas Niles, Horror on the Hill is a 32 page saddle-stapled module with a tri-panel gatefold cover. The panels of the cover feature an overland map of the Hill and a map of the surface area of the main dungeon on the inside, and an illustration, some pre-generated characters, and a byline that gives away some of the rumours on the outside. The interior of the module uses the (by this time) standard TSR three-column layout. The cover was done by Jim Roslof, and the interior art is by Jim Holloway. Horror on the Hill was published in 1983 for the BECMI version of Basic D&D, and was the first module published solely with the new BECMI trade dress. The module is also available in PDF format from DTRPG.
Let me start by saying that, for all its myriad faults, I like this module. There. I said it. In fact, I admitted to Alex once that I like it more than B2: Keep on the Borderlands. Heresy! And that's true even though I acknowledge that Keep on the Borderlands is almost certainly a superior D&D module for a variety of reasons. Nevertheless, the aesthetics of B2 always rubbed me the wrong way, and that was something that B5's author, Douglas Niles, has said he expressly set out to address with Horror on the Hill. The answer to the question of whether or not he succeeded is complicated. Allow me to explain...
The Horror on the Hill (hereafter referred to simply as B5) is a Basic module that presents a starting base, a small wilderness, and a substantial dungeon (much like B2), but tries to inject far more "Gygaxian Naturalism" into the material. Whereas B2 had numerous disparate monsters living cheek-by-jowl, and only the flimsiest of excuses for why they hadn't annihilited each other, B5 asks and answers the question, "What would the Hill look like if it were a real place within the internal logic of its setting?"
This more "naturalistic" (for lack of a better word) approach is what gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling about the module. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the underlying inclination is what leads to something like ACKS, an internally consistent system that explains a great deal about why the fantasy setting is the way it is, and helps predict what the parts you haven't examined yet will look like. But I digress...
The module covers the environs of the titular Hill, including a multi-level dungeon beneath, along with the nearest civilised settlement, a tiny trade outpost known as "Guido's Fort" that sits on the opposite side of a large river from the Hill. While the PCs presumptive home base is given very short shrift (perhaps a third of a page, including a rumour table), the surface of the Hill and its many dungeons (yes, many) are covered in great detail throughout the rest of the module.
This is already unusual for a Basic D&D adventure, as to this point the B-series typically gave very little support to wilderness adventure. For B5, a map is given for the Hill itself, and numerous encounter locations on the Hill's surface are detailed, along with information on travel across the Hill. The practicalities of such travel tend naturally to restrict any overland movement to the numerous trails across the Hill's surface, and one could argue that the result is little different than a dungeon crawl. Nevertheless, the nature of the situation is a far more open environment than a dungeon-crawl, with all the possibilities that come with that. To my mind, this is a point in B5's favour over earlier modules.
One of the things I would recommend to any Judge looking to run B5 is pre-calculating the number of Turns required for PC movement between junctions along the trails. This is information you will need over and over again while running the module, and the counting of squares on the grid of the overland map is really far too cumbersome to do in real time.
The outdoor encounters in the module are located within numerous clearings in the overgrown woodland of the Hill. The clearings act as nodes in the network of trails, and most have something going on in them. A number of these clearing-encounters include mini-dungeons of one sort or another, and several also open up the possibility of NPC interaction. Some could use more guidance on what happens after a party interacts with a couple of the key areas, but a Judge who runs the environment as a living place should have no trouble deriving consequences for the party's actions. The trail-and-clearing network is complicated enough that it will likely take several trips over many days for a party to find their way to the "main" dungeon where the bulk of the adventure lies. This exploration mirrors the hex-crawling that ACKS places at the centre of mid-level play, and can be a lot fun (although have a look at point #4 under Problems, below). It's a nice change of pace from dungeon-crawling, and similar to hex-crawling, it opens up many interesting strategic and logistical choices for the party.
As mentioned, some of the encounters on the Hill also involve NPC interaction, and there are a couple areas where the PCs can find support, or even "side-quests." They are not without problems, as a pair of strange "witches," key NPCs (I hesitate to use that adjective; they can be ignored with little impact to the module), have issues with illusionism (see point #3 under Problems, below). It's nothing a competent Judge can't ignore or sort out, but it is a sore spot.
Once the players navigate their way across the Hill via the winding trails, they will eventually find the "real" destination: a ruined monastery inhabited by monsters, with a multi-level dungeon beneath. The surface buildings of the ruined monastery are detailed, as is the compound that surrounds them. The one exception is an old overgrown garden, now the lair of the Hill's resident goblins; no map is provided. This is driven by space constraints, I think, and is easily solved by 10 minutes with graph paper, or 30 seconds with an online random map generator, plus a few rolls on the treasure tables. My most recent run of the module avoided the issue entirely when the PCs simply burned the garden down.
The real meat of the adventure, and the bulk of the space in the module, is taken up by the ruined monastery building itself, and three dungeon levels beneath. The monastery works reasonably well, with a variety of encounters and things for the party to tinker with, but probably could have had something slightly more interesting done with a couple of the rooms.
The first dungeon level is also pretty good, with a quite a few interesting things going on, as well as a couple loops and connections to give a party some options. As mentioned below (see #5 under Problems), it does suffer slightly for having a single entrance/egress from the dungeon proper, but this does also create some interesting conundrums for an invading party. There's also a problem of railroading the party onto dungeon level 2, but the specifics of that can easily be ignored. This dungeon level lacks for obvious factions (that a canny party can exploit), but it does provide several NPCs and creatures the party can use as allies or Henchmen, which ameliorates the issue.
Another point in B5's favour is that these first two areas, the ruined monastery and dungeon level 1, are easily transported elsewhere. It's trivial for a judge to drop them into an existing hexcrawl as a hobgoblin lair. The same could be said for the Hill itself, but my own feeling is that it's weaker as a hex location, and little is lost by leaving it behind.
As the module stands, any party that clears dungeon level 1 and kills or otherwise removes the hobgoblin kings is going to be dumped into dungeon level 2 (see #6 under Problems, below). Regardless of whether or not one changes this egregious little bit of railroading, dungeon level 2 is a significant change from the level above, and is much closer to a standard, randomly generated, "funhouse" dungeon. Comprised of natural, winding, sloping tunnels, the map is designed to confuse and misdirect players - mapping is almost impossible by the usual methods! - with a pair of identical, octagonal, eight-doored rooms. While the effect is interesting, one has to be cautious in running this; in my experience, mapping labyrinths is not well-loved by many players. With the right mindset, it can be an interesting puzzle for PCs to solve, but can also frustrate or bore them to tears.
Another issue a party has to face on dungeon level 2 is starvation. By the module as-written, the way they entered is pretty much one way. To me, this is seriously overkill, and the misdirection of the level is sufficient to create tension around supplies without resorting to "there's no way out!" On the positive side, there are a handful of interesting encounters here (the density of encounters is much lower than the level above), and the author continues with the attempt to imagine what such a labyrinth would be like if it actually existed in the world of D&D. On the negative side is the module's instruction that most of the level's residents attack PCs on sight. Once again, this is easily ignored at the Judge's discretion, and several of the encounters can lead to far more interesting consequences with the use of Reaction Rolls.
The final level, dungeon level 3, is back to a more "Gygaxian naturalism" style of lair. In this case, it is the lair of a tribe of kobolds, and the lair of a red dragon, a common D&D pairing. This level is also fairly well done. The map for the level is interesting, and has enough "Jaquay-ing" to provide the party with a few choices in how they approach things, and there are some good notes on how the kobold tribe reacts to a PC invasion of their lair.
The last part of dungeon level 3 is the red dragon's lair. While an interesting encounter, the instructions are slightly ham-fisted in that the dragon always ends up attacking, regardless of the PCs actions. It's another small point that can be ignored, and the encounter with the dragon is otherwise an interesting one. I do think an opportunity was missed in how little the relationship between the kobolds and the dragon was expanded on; there is some implied detail based on some charred kobold remains, but that's it. The level as a whole is still quite good, and as with the ruined monastery and dungeon level 1, dungeon level 3 can be easily transported elsewhere as a kobold/dragon lair.
The module is rounded out with instructions on tying up what might be some loose ends, and entries for several new monsters: the pirhana bird, the steam weavil, and the lava lizard. The aforementioned instructions are as ham-fisted as some of the earlier ones, and any Judge worth their salt can probably deal with the ongoing consequences of the player's actions more effectively. There is a lot of focus on the BECMI Basic rules for subduing a dragon, making the assumption that the party will have subdued the red dragon. It's particularly hilarious given the improbability of an "appropriately-leveled" BECMI party having been able to actually do so. For the new monsters, none of them is great, but they're not bad, either. All three provide challenges different from any other monster in the BECMI DM's book. I personally found the entry for Steam Weavil somewhat confusing, with it being a swarm but having a No. Appearing entry of 4-24. The average No. Appearing (14!) all being the listed swarms would decimate even a pretty large or high-hp party, so it seems off, but might just be me overthinking things.
Problems and ACKS Suitability
Ah, where to begin...B5 suffers from numerous problems as a module, along with a handful of more ACKS-specific issues that arise in play. These are going to involve numerous and detailed spoilers of the module content, so in case you missed the last warning...
- First off, Guido's Fort is very poorly detailed. There are really only a few paragraphs on it, and these describe only a few crucial details, like getting across the river, the local tavern and its prices (as well as its flea-problem), and how the PCs might hear the rumours on the provided random table. There isn't even a map. This is a really glaring weakness when compared to the likes of B2, or better yet Autarch's AX1: The Sinister Stone of Sakkara. Both these modules provide way more to work with in terms of the starting home base for the PCs. When running B5, the Judge will have to make up this information from whole cloth. Some of the initial conversion work I did with this module was roughly statting out Guido and his fort, and I've posted notes on this in the Conversion sub-forum. This starting location can also be troublesome due to its size. As described, it is, at best, a Class VI Market, and PCs will need somewhere else to go for gear, hirelings, healing, and selling loot.
- This is a minor gripe, but the position of the fort is also non-sensical: at the end of the trader's road. If it's at the end, who are the traders trading with, exactly? The module doesn't answer this question. For my own campaign I simply placed the fort near the mid-point of an existing trade-route (between Kelvin and Penhaligon in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, for those interested). Its placement was intended to guard the Duke's Road tradeway. Another obvious solution is to assume the fort is a border garrison.
- The module engages in bald-faced illusionism with the old Witches and their cottage. The module describes the cottage as being filled with valuable trinkets (and being TARDIS-like in its larger interior dimensions), then states that anything taken from the cottage crumbles to dust. Words fail me on what poor design this is. Such "gotchas!" serve only to teach players that their actions are meaningless compared to the "story" the Judge wishes to tell. The author of the module clearly had a scene in mind (i.e., the PCs being struck dumb upon first entry into the cottage), but couldn't live with the natural consequences of his little set-piece. Heaven forbid players follow the incentives dangled in front of their noses. To my mind, a far better ACKS-y approach is defining what treasure a pair of ~6th Level NPCs have, and using the Special Treasure tables to fill out the cottage's contents. If the 1st Level PCs decide to try their luck with stealing from or assassinating 6th Level NPCs for loot, well...they pays their money and they takes their chances. Hopefully they all have another character rolled up...
- Many of the encounters on the surface of the Hill are brutally hard for 1st Level parties. While I have no intrinsic problem with tough encounters, there are also few or no rewards if the PCs face and overcome (in whatever fashion) these encounters. One might say that this means the encounters are obviously to be avoided, but the Hill becomes a far duller place if this is so (and the module worth less if the point is to skip much of the content). To me, a far more satisfying solution is to increase the available treasure in several of the encounter areas on the surface of the Hill. My own notes on doing this are in the Conversions sub-forum. At least this way there is some reward when characters interact with these areas. And that's not to say they need to just kill things and take their stuff! My own players avoided some, outwitted others, and fought a few of the encounters, and the experience was far better for there being something other than lost hp waiting at the end.
- The main dungeon has a single entrance. I'm not even entirely sure how much of a problem this really is. The module is perfectly workable as it stands, but I've always been of the opinion that mutiple entrances work better than a single chokepoint. Even though some interesting situations arose in my own campaign from the presence of such a chokepoint, I think the existence of other entrances, even if hard to find, would improve the module. (Note that, technically, there is a second entrance at the exit from the dragon's lair. However, the module explicitly states that its presence in the middle of an area off the trails means characters will never find it. WEAKSAUCE! If it exists, the characters should be able to find it, and doing so opens up many interesting choices around whether or not to go after the dragon and its hoard with low-level PCs.)
- The module railroads the party into being trapped on the second level of the dungeon. The entrance to the second level is a 40'-long trap door in the single corridor leading to and from the throne room of the hobgoblin king. It is clearly designed to funnel the PCs into the second dungeon-level and leave them trapped there (again with a single entrance), as it only triggers with four PCs on it when no one sits on the hobgoblin throne. Oh, and the chute it dumps the party down is 300' long, so no ropes. I mean, if you really want the party stuck on the second dungeon level so badly, why not just teleport them there and be done with it? I suppose the only answer is that the existing setup provided a veneer over the train tracks. Choo, choo!
- The previous point details how the module gets the PCs to dungeon level 2, but the nature of how that's done also means the PCs are trapped on dungeon level 2. The intentionally confusing nature of dungeon level 2 probably makes this unnecessary, and leaving the PCs the option of getting out the way they got in works better, in my opinion. Of course, the reason for doing this is to keep them on the rails that lead to dungeon level 3, but I think it's much better to leave the choice of how and when to tackle dungeon level 3 in the PCs' hands.
- Dungeon level 3 only has one entrance (from dungeon level 2) and one exit (see point #5, above). And the entrance only leads back to more danger on dungeon level 2. Trapping PCs on this level is...meh. More of the same as on dungeon level 2. It's railroady, and can be solved by the solution to point #5, above.
- This another minor point, but the red dragon in the dungeon attacks the PCs after a certain amount of time no matter what they do. It strikes me as more illusionism, and removes the players' agency. Players come up with endlessly clever ploys, and there's no good reason to assume that none of those could work without judging any such strategem on its own merits.
- All stats are for BECMI, not ACKS. This almost goes without saying, and a little NPC work, plus keeping the Monsters section of the rulebook handy addresses this issue.
- ACKS characters are more potent than BECMI PCs of a given level. I would argue this is true even at 1st Level, but it becomes quite pronounced by 3rd Level. B5 is set up for PCs of Level 1-3, and recommends 5 to 10(!) PCs. 5 3rd Level ACKS PCs will probably find many of the encounters very easy, particularly if they have a bevvy of Henchmen. One way to help address this is by including the defined number of champions and sub-chieftains for goblins, hobgoblins, and kobolds, as defined in the ACKS rulebook. Another is to assume that far more creatures are "around," as represented by Wandering Monsters, and that areas restock in some fashion after the first foray or two by the party.
- Lastly, as mentioned under point #4, above, there's not a lot of treasure until some ways into the module. In my own experience, the module could use a sprinkling of additional treasure here and there before the PCs enter the ruined monastery itself.
Ultimately, in spite of my own fondness for B5, I am forced to admit that it is something of a flawed gem. There is nothing here that a Judge with some time can't fix to their own satisfaction, but the very fact that it's required, or nearly so, has to be weighed against the module. Still, even if one doesn't use the bulk of the module as-is, there's plenty of material that can be plundered for an ACKS sandbox campaign. Furthermore, with a little fix-up, the module does make a pretty good starting adventure to kick off a campaign. It is not, strictly speaking, as good as B2 for this, but it has a much more naturalistic feel in many places than B2 does. If Gygaxian naturalism is your thing, you may want to look at B5: Horror on the Hill. (It's worth noting that AX1: The Sinister Stone of Sakkara manages to be both a better dungeon than B2, and more naturalistic than B5, combining the best of both worlds.)