Thursday, 15 September 2016

[BLOG] Let me use Huberic of Haghill

Accidental genius or random content mill? Opinions vary about Judges Guild, but there is a truth to both descriptions. Here was a pioneer in its field with enormous output, sometimes with much better contents than the cover, and sometimes... yeah, sometimes the cover, with gloriously garish 70s commercial art, was the best part of the deal. Beyond all the hit or miss stuff, the real fascination with JG’s game materials comes from two main creators; Paul Jaquays with his developed swords&sorcery sensibilities, and Bob Bledsaw’s visionary work in establishing the concept of the game supplement, and running with the idea to blaze a trail from giant city states to enormous hex-mapped worlds, sprawling haunted houses and a few more odd bits and pieces.


Installment-era production values
This is not as straightforward as it seems. Much like the idea of role-playing games seems obvious to anyone after two or three minutes of explanation, adventure modules and setting materials also make perfect sense in hindsight. But when it comes to establishing the formula, going in with no precedent, guessing what gaming groups actually want in terms of support material, then creating products to those specifications and distilling game ideas into structured information: that takes some thinking (it may or may not be relevant that Bob Bledsaw came from an engineering design background).

Early Judges Guild, in the period when it was a subscription service for monthly instalments of semi-random game content, shows well the development of the game supplement idea. The instalments, which were later assembled into larger-scale products, had a slapdash approach to cranking out cool stuff, consisting of:
  • high value-added maps with a lot of complexity and (relatively) very good production values;
  • optional rules filling in D&D’s gaps at a time when there was more of those than an actual fully realised game, clarifying and expanding on things like wishes, geas and quest spells, negotiation, using ability scores to attempt extraordinary deeds (in a much superior ways than TSR’s solution), and so on;
  • game procedures which extended the scope of tabletop simulation to new dimensions (such as mining for precious minerals, trade, running a small barony, being sued at a court of law, buying and selling slaves, picking up hot women in a sinful city state, and so on);
  • and attempts at prewritten adventures.

(Tellingly, there are very few, if any new monsters and magic items, and no supplements dedicated to this purpose: those needs were already being met by TSR’s D&D supplements.)

It is interesting that with the modular, open game framework of early D&D, Judges Guild’s installments approach the concept of presenting a readymade adventure from so many different angles, and essentially come up with multiple solutions to the same dilemma in the scope of only a few instalments:
  • Dungeon adventures presented in the standard “map and key” format. This method was inherited from TSR, with a few differences: none of these dungeons were fully described until Tegel Manor (The Sunstone Caverns discusses the dungeon level’s powerful monsters and factions), but they incorporated a lot more information into the maps themselves than TSR – and in fact later JG – ever would.
  • City adventures based on a map and key foundation, but supplemented with a system of bolted-on charts and guidelines which turn exploring the city into a very chaotic experience (City State of the Invincible Overlord, Modron).
  • Wilderness adventures presented in the form of hex crawls and supplemented with opportunities for strategic play. This is something that also came from TSR and its wargaming influences, but it was only really developed by JG, turning the wilderness expedition into a set of very easily understandable procedures (Wilderlands of High Fantasy).
  • Attempts at procedurally generated adventures (Frontier Forts of Kelnore and the later Village/Castle/Island/Temple Book series).
  • And last but not least, location-based setting modules.

It is this last group – site-based sandbox components – that gets the least amount of attention in old school circles, and which I am looking at now. All this because I want to use Huberic of Haghill.

Haghill and environs 
In the shadow of the more massive JG products, the City State, the Wilderlands and Tegel Manor, there are these small, scattered bits that are intended to be fit into a game, but are neither fully adventures, nor fully world background. Thunderhold and Huberic of Haghill don’t work cleanly as histories or cultural background (as Tolkien’s appendices or EPT’s world information do), but neither do they have a precise “algorithm” to translate them into game procedures. They don’t have a clear or even strongly implied purpose: you are on your own, and you have to figure out how to get gameplay out of them – which is precisely how sandbox games work.

Both of these modules have a brief background outlining a bit of history and notes on who rules the place, a roster of local NPCs, one-line legends and rumours, a roster of shops and taverns, and a hex map (Thunderhold also has the Sunstone Caverns, but that is arguably a different module). In Huberic’s case, it all takes up one very compact page, and it is a thing of beauty.

The man, the myth, the legend
Half this module’s real charm comes from Huberic of Haghill himself, a larger-than-life character who sets the tone for his little corner of the world. Huberic is the kind of guy adventurers dream of becoming after retirement: a fat, hedonistic asshole who enjoys good food and crude jokes and lives on top of his own dungeon. We learn that he has moved into The Tower of Torpid Terror despite the local legends; that he essentially has prudently sealed off the entrances; that “he is especially fond of banquets and uses every opportunity to increase his grisly girth”. He gives gold rings to his favourites and frightens animals and peasants with his 20’ whip. Huberic of Haghill is the kind of person I want to be when I grow up.

The NPCs in Haghill are as random and fantastic as anything made by Judges Guild; including Slaughter Serkart, a 4th level Fighter with a crested helm, a huge moustache and a pair of magic boots; Cobbler Codfall, who likes to badmouth Huberic and is friends with a shedu; and Boomer Bronk, the village’s priest... who is a follower of Yezud the Lawful Evil spider god, and has 6 pet spiders. What is Yezud doing in a podunk village out there in the hills? It is all so delightfully oddball that it is hard not to say “Yes, in fact, he is there because...” Just to get you going, there are seven legends to follow, such as “a vampire tree with golden apples” and “a sea-shore inhabited by murderous moles”. And of course, we get another page with a map of Haghill’s environs, which tantalizingly shows us three cave mouths that were never even mentioned in the text, and lead to the Singing Caverns, whatever they are.

Huberic of Haghill shows both the mini-module concept’s fascination and its limitations. It is interesting due to the things it reveals, but it becomes a mystery due to the things it doesn’t. It remains the GM’ (sorry, Judge’s) task to make sense of Haghill, and develop its leads into genuine connections. And it leaves you hanging with The Tower of Torpid Terror, whose dungeons are never mapped, let alone described, not even in manner of the Sunstone Caverns. The potential main attraction of Huberic of Haghill is mentioned in an off-hand way, then promptly ignored. Let me put it this way: you would never, ever get away with that kind of thing today. And yet, it is perhaps this absence at the heart of Huberic that makes the imagination tick.  What lies below the tower? Installment K doesn’t tell, and neither do followup JG products. In fact, the strangeness of the early, Installment-era Judges Guild gradually gave way to more polished supplements as gaming became more polished and less scattershot (I was surprised to learn there are almost three years between Installment I and Installment Y). The puzzle will always remain incomplete, and perhaps that is the way it was always meant to be.

But Huberic of Haghill shall rise again, because after much neglect, it has found a place in my heart, and it will definitely find a place in my upcoming campaign about adventurous lowlifes and conniving fat bastards ruling hilariously small fiefdoms as petty autocrats. Torpid Terror beware – here we come!

11 comments:

  1. Not related to your central point, but relevant to the Sunstone Caverns vs. TSR keyed approach, the following comes from Journal K, which accompanied Huberic of Hagill (and the rest of the of Booklet K): “… we have noted your desires for more dungeon level description. For those who like the openness of ‘Sunstone Caverns’ for your own inputs…we can only say that squeaking hinges get oiled first. Our mail has run 2x1 for more descriptions although we have received many compliments on the open format.”

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  2. Sunstone Caverns was a hit and miss for me. It took an awful lot of work to fill all those rooms with interesting encounters. I ran it for two parties. The first one had a good time playing the factions against each other and exploring all the weird things down there. The other party barely tipped its toe: after a few quests they left the place. I would say the first party explored around 60-70%, the other less than 20% of the dungeon.

    A few months ago the above mentioned second party visited Haghill on its way to the City State. They visited the Tower of Torpid Terror, which was an abandoned missile silo from ancient times. The Torpid Terror itself was a huge black pudding born of radiation and rocket fuel. The adventurers tinkered with leaking reactors, fought slimes and slime zombies, activated and deactivated an angry battle droid, and looted some ancient technology.

    The ToTT isn't the only dungeon of Haghill! The Singing Caverns sound like an intriguing place too.

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  3. I vaguely recall an article in Fight On in which the author expanded on the Haghill area, and I look forward to your take on it. Off topic, I am running my group through Strabonus, and they encountered the room with the magnets last night. Very clever design, they really enjoyed the challenges that room presented!

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    1. Gary, that expansion of the Haghill area was my work, in Fight On! #3, the issue dedicated to Bob Bledsaw. Though official for the Wilderlands of High Adventure, it was not official for the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

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    2. James: I recall the article mentioned that a version with the Tower dungeons and the Singing Caverns would be published eventually. Did anything come of it, or did you shelve those plans?

      Gary: Keep me updated; I'd like to learn how it unfolded. :)

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    3. Shelved, sadly, as with everything I did with the Wilderlands.

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    4. James: Thanks for the heads up, I have just re-read it and enjoyed the read.
      Melan: Strabonus is unfolding wonderfully. The magnet fight had the two main fighters spending the entire combat assisting each other to escape the magnets pull, the bard hung in the periphery using support spells and getting ready to bail, while the two clerics teamed up on grappling Xatolun, and repeatedly dropping him in the nearby 60 foot pit. The fight used up most of their resources (5 pc's from level 4-6, DnD 5e).
      Overall the dungeon has proven challenging. One permanent PC death to the mummies, and two other deaths (poison shield, poison cloak) which has used up the party supply of diamonds for revivify. We continue tomorrow, possibly to the conclusion

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  4. I have to agree, this mere page and a half is chock full of awesome. Zulgyan

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  5. You can get more truly usable game material from this little supplement than from many of those huge setting books. Zulgyan

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    1. I agree, and I don't even like one-page dungeons.

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  6. Fascinating; out of all the stuff that could have been detailed from the Wilderlands, Bob chose to pay attention to this fat bastard and his petty realm. It does illustrate the type of fantasy he was going for.

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