Thursday, October 27, 2016

4th Edition Hommlet: Bowdlerized for your viewing pleasure

So Reader Rick tells me that there's a 4th Edition D&D version of V. of Hommlet and he's hoping I'll rail into it for him. Since I'm pretty hard up for new material around here--as evidenced by my post-count for the year--I'm jumping all over it.

The Down Low
Hommlet? Is that you?
Back in 2009, the TSRs of the Coast sent out a revised-for-4th-edition-D&D Version of Hommlet to members of their D&D club. A few years later, that module was reproduced in Dungeon Magazine #212, which also happens to be the area code for Manhattan; coincidence? Anyway, thanks to Rick for helping me secure a review copy of the original, bookclub version of the module. 

Those unfamiliar with Gygax's original T1 may find this illustrated summary helpful, if not amusing.

Before we go any further, I'd like to point out that this is the closest I've ever come to a 4th ed. Big D product. My first impression: it looks an awful lot like Magic The Roleplaying Game. The statblocks are set up like a Magic the Gathering card what with the named attacks, the odd titles and creature types; "Zombie drake attacks with flying and lifelink!" That pretty much exhausts my knowledge of Magic the Gathering.

But I'm not here to review 4th Ed. Dung & Drag, I'm here to tear off a piece of Latter Day Hommlet and chew it up. So here we go...

General Impression
First, the artwork. The cover photo clearly was selected at random from a pile of fantasy clip art as it bears no resemblance whatsoever to Hommlet; maybe it's Minas Morghul? But later on there's a cool picture of a giant, bloated frog outside the moathouse, which, in my opinion, is the iconic encounter of this module; I fully approve. And there's Tramp's classic birds-eye view of the moathouse from the original, 'nuf said. The bookclub version also has extensive, large scale plans for the moathouse and other locations; these are not included with the Dragon Mag version.

Moathouse Roll Call: Giant Frog? Present.
The village description has been reduced to a few notable locations: the Inn, Temple of Pellor (who?), Trader's Establishment, etc., and denizens: mostly the occupants of the notable locations, while the rest of the town has been reduced to single word descriptions such as "Brewer," "Farmhouse," "Herder," etc. This contrasts sharply with Gary's original, wherein even the least significant locations in town got 10-15 lines of text describing, at the minimum, the structure, its occupants, their occupation, religious views, notable combat acumen, as well as the location and quantity of treasure they have inevitably stashed somewhere on their estate. Leaving out these details is going to make the DM's job a lot harder when the PCs decide to "clear out" the town rather than/after they've tired of the moathouse. Not showing a lot of foresight there, Wizards.

Over at the moathouse, the update is a fairly straight cover version of the original. The monsters have been updated for the current version of the game which is to be expected. And even though they failed to update the map of the dungeon level to make room for the last pair of zombies, they did at least get them all inside a cell. Sadly, the treasure is assigned in random "parcels" which apparently was a thing in 4th ed. D&D, no? I say sadly because the treasure in the original helps establish a link between the moathouse and the DMG sample dungeon, removing it isolates this version even further from the source material.

Since the greatest degree of variation appears, at first glance, to be in the village rather than the moathouse, that's where I'll focus for the remainder of this here review. Perhaps I'll delve into the moathouse some more in a future post. Anyway... 

The Village
Probably the most significant change in town can be found over at the Church of St. Cuthbert, now described thusly: 
"Ostensibly dedicated to Pelor, this temple welcomes worshipers of any good or lawful good deity."
That's right, Y'dey and Terjon no longer dispense the obtuse wisdom of St. Cuthbert. Rather, they labor at the temple of a deity who is made of toast so milquey that the clergy's primary job is apologizing to parishioners for running out of gluten free communion wafers. And since the villagers no longer get their 15 lines of infamy--and thus their religious affiliations are undeclared--none of them is required to attend his tepid temple. Hoser.

I know nothing about Pelor--I assume he's the patron of something incredibly insignificant like elbow-patch-less tweed jackets or low-VOC mayonnaise--and the module provides no insight into the values his cult adheres to other than their openness to non-adherers. Contrast this with T1 where Gygax lays the groundwork for the hardheaded and venal doctrine of Cuthbert--if you visit the Church of Cuddy, the clergy won't even acknowledge your existence until you toss a few gold pieces in the ol' collection basket. Hommlet sure seems a lot less interesting with Pallor around. Why did they change it? Did they lose the rights to Ol' Cuddy in the divorce? Did Pellor the Homogenized somehow mastermind a hostile corporate takeover?

Here's a summary of other changes from the original. Many are innocuous, others not so much, and some, dare I say it, might actually represent an improvement on the original.
  • Gary's pedantic and pointless distinction between villages and hamlets has been removed from the background. I admit, I've always found this trivial tidbit to be inordinately annoying but now that it's gone I miss it.
  • Spugnoir, 2nd level MU and resident of the Inn, has changed his name to Spugnois--which is too bad because that doesn't rhyme with Guy Noir. 
  • Furnok of Furd is now a dwarf.
  • Kobort the Moron and Turuko the Malcontent, roommates at the original Welcome Wench, have made their way to the cutting room floor in the updated version.
  • So has almost every other villager including the likes of Black Jay and the family of infidels with the bossy but attractive daughter that lived by the mill. 
  • The village elder is now a woman named Hesta. 
  • Calmert reprises his role as officiant at the temple but rather than secretly diverting church funds to the construction of Rufus & Burne's tower, now his point of interest is that he's hot for a barmaid over at the 'Wench. 
    • The PCs get bonus XPs if they pass a note to the barmaid during study hall on Calmert's behalf. This juvenile set up is in keeping with the church's change in denomination from St. Cuthbert of the Cudgel to Pelor the vacuous glow worm. 
    • There are maybe one or two other innocuous side quests such as this planted in town; it's all very reminiscent of 90s computer games.
  • Rufus and Byrne's castle is being funded by unnamed "royalty" rather the than the Viscount of V'bonc and the Arch C. of Veluna as in the original. Not very significant except perhaps in establishing that this Hommlet is only precariously linked to the World of Greyhawk.
  • There's a shrine to Avandra on the edge of town. Mysteriously, there is no priest or following for this deity in Hommlet. The Ostler at the 'Wench has his staff maintain the shrine, which I suspect is done more out of civic pride than devotion to Avandra, otherwise he'd tend to it himself, no? The shrine adds a bit of mystery, which I appreciate.
  • Dannos Ravl still has the TZGY scarab, but its significance is distinctly left to the DM--it is no longer necessarily a pass to the T of EE. Nor do 1 in 5 sages understand its significance.
  • Rannos Davl and Gremag are much more amiable characters than they were under EGG's regime, which is smart. In T1, Gary portrayed them as such unlikable dickheads that no one would ever bother to deal with them, which is not very good for business if you're a merchant trying to make a living and possibly even less good if you're a spy who's trying to gain the trust of the locals.
    • Aside: Rannos Davl is obviously another near-anagram for Dave L. Arneson--as you may recall, one of the giant chieftains in G1 was named "Nosnra." But the best I can make of Gremag is Mare Gg which could maybe possibly be an abbreviated pseudo-anagram for Mary Gygax, EGG's first wife. Or maybe it's "Gamer G," a reference to Gary himself? Or maybe it's just Gremag, a cool sounding name.
In Conclusion...
The whittling away of many (most) of the details in town certainly makes 4th ed Hommlet a less lush setting than the original, removing the nooks and crannies that crazed loons like me--and, if you've made it this far, likely you as well, dear reader--thrive on, sinking the talons of our imaginations into them, kneading and prodding until we've rendered a more fully formed image in our minds. But most people who've gone through T1 never put most of the village into play, so they're not likely to notice the lack of information--other than the demise of the cult of Cuthbert of course.

As an adventure for your gang to go through on the odd Friday night, does it suck compared to good ol' T1? That's not really my area of expertise but I would say that the new version is so close to the original in terms of actual action that any attempt to malign it on these lines would likely risk smearing Lord Gary's original as well. I think for 96.83% of people, this is likely a perfectly adequate rendition of a classic. Where it differs is in the softening of the details, and for me, and others who like to obsess over minutiae, the new version's glossiness is a strike against it.