Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Horn of Roland (spoilers)

Art by Dave Billman

As mentioned in a previous post, Tom Moldvay intended that The Horn of Roland be included in the Lords of Creation boxed set as an introductory adventure.  For whatever reason, The Horn of Roland was published as a separate item.  I examined Roland to see if it addressed perceived gaps in the Lords of Creation rules; alas, it did not.  Regardless, Roland offers a glimpse of how Moldvay intended Lords of Creation to be played.

In most role-playing games, player characters are part of the setting from the start.  In Lords of Creation, Moldvay stated that player characters “begin as 'ordinary' people; strange things start to happen to them; they undergo unusual adventures.”  They are introduced to parallel worlds, alternate dimensions, and pocket universes; they gain extraordinary abilities.  In short, the player characters transition from the mundane world to the “region of super-natural wonder” (to use Joseph Campbell's phrase).

The Horn of Roland is actually a sequence of six related scenarios – a short term campaign, in effect.  The first scenario is intended as a starting point for “newly-created” Lords of Creation characters.  It is a murder mystery.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with a murder mystery in the right context.  However, the cover of Lords of Creation depicts a man and a woman emerging from a portal connecting a fantasy realm to a science fiction realm.  The man has shuriken attached to his boots and the woman is zapping a dragon.  Maybe this seems like an interesting play experience or maybe it doesn't.  In any event, it sets expectations and these expectations do not include a murder mystery.  The mystery is described as “fairly complex” and the GM is encouraged “to force [the characters] to investigate all possibilities...”  (There are seven separate and detailed red herrings.)  A GM can effectively run the mystery thanks to the manner in which Roland presents it; however, the players (who may well have expected to fight robots and dragons) must cope with a convoluted mystery.  I mean, they didn't sign up to play Agatha Christie's Biddies & Belgians.  (That's a thing, right?)

The player characters are attending a gaming convention “in the fictitious town of New Bristol...”  The convention is hosted by the New Bristol Arms, owned by Tom Morgan (evidently an author avatar).  A businessman residing in the penthouse of the New Bristol Arms is murdered, but the police consider the death to be a suicide.  Morgan hires the player characters to investigate (with the consent of the police chief).  I think that Moldvay may have originally intended the mystery to take place in the thirties.  There's an NPC detective whose appearance is based on Humphrey Bogart.  There's an NPC gangster whose appearance is based on James Cagney.  There are German and Japanese agents vying for stolen technology.  Most tellingly, there is an elevator operator.  Moldvay even offers a special trivia quiz that “isn't part of the adventure and in no way affects the experience earned by the characters.”  (Question[s] #1:  Who wrote The Mousetrap?  What novelette is the play based on?  Name two other mystery plays by the same person.)


The players are given some hand-outs, such as the above map.  Unfortunately, there are complications.  On the map, #47, #74, and #95 each appear twice.  Locations #48, #75, #84, and #90 are absent.  (The duplicates of #47 and #74 might account for the missing #48 and #75, respectively.)  Finally, the key lists 101 locations, but the map includes location #102.  I think Moldvay wanted New Bristol to serve as a continuing base of operations for the player characters and a place to acquire equipment.  A venue less expansive than a town may have been more suitable for starting characters; a university, perhaps.

Anyway, during the course of the investigation, the player characters are plagued by a Phantom.  The players are not informed about the reasons for the antagonism of the Phantom until the last scenario.

The murder was committed by a local heiress possessed by the spirit of a witch.  (The victim was descended from the judge who sentenced the witch to death three hundred years ago.)  The mysterious “Cult of the Serpent” was responsible for summoning the witch's spirit and supplying a living vessel for it.  While investigating the seven red herrings, the player characters interact with a long list of townspeople, none of whom are associated with the cult.  If some of the NPCs were cult members, it would have provided players another means to get at the truth.

A non-player character tells the player characters where to go for the climax of the scenario and they get the privilege of watching said NPC conduct the denouement.  Not only must the player characters plod through a complex mystery, but they also get sidelined by an NPC at the end.  Well, the player characters see their Phantom board a “Ghostly Galleon.”  The aforementioned NPC offers them $100,000 to pursue the Phantom (even though he has no reason to do so – nothing suggests he was even aware of the Phantom prior to the end of the adventure).  The heiress, freed from possession, offers her 70-foot yacht.  This leads into the second scenario.  What if the player characters aren't interested in pursuing the Phantom?
     If the characters don't chase the Ghostly Galleon, there is no further adventure...Do your best to let the characters give chase voluntarily.  But if all else fails, the characters are surrounded by a bright yellow light...Each character will have a vision of his enivitable [sic] death at the hand of allies of the Phantom.  Every character who fails to make a Luck Roll feels an uncomfortable urge to chase the Ghostly Galleon.
Please have your tickets ready for the conductor.  Choo-choo!  (Also, how are player characters supposed to know who “allies of the Phantom” are in their visions?  Does the Phantom stand around gleefully rubbing his hands?  Does he give his ally a high five?)

As they pursue the Ghostly Galleon, the player characters have various encounters.  Eventually, in the Bermuda Triangle, “they sail through a swirling tunnel of light” into another dimension.  Then things start to get a little weird.  At night, the yacht is pursued by the Wild Hunt.  The players have no idea why.  Furthermore:
     The characters have to realize, as soon as possible, that they can't harm the hunter.  He is simply too powerful considering the characters' current level of experience.  The characters stand no chance in battle.  Their only hope is to flee as fast as possible.  If they don't flee quickly, the hunter has time to attack, and possibly kill, one or two characters chosen at random before the sun rises and he returns to the clouds.
Fortunately, the player characters meet up with the Flying Dutchman.  He gives them a statuette that keeps the Wild Hunt away, but it is only effective for a week.  The only permanent protection from the Wild Hunt is the eponymous Horn of Roland.  The Dutchman has recently seen it in a bone tower, on a nearby island.  The bone tower is the subject of the third scenario.

Moldvay contributed to The Isle of Dread and the island in The Horn of Roland is what would result if The Isle of Dread met Land of the Lost and they dropped acid.  Yes, there are dinosaurs.  Also on the island are relics of The First Ones, “a strange, unknown race that once inhabited the island.”

The player characters go to the bone tower and fight a wide variety of foes.  They also come across a couple of prisoners, one of whom is Cyrano de Bergerac.  Moldvay must have been a fan of the French duelist; not only was Cyrano featured in Moldvay's The Future King, he warrants a one-page appendix in The Horn of Roland.  Moldvay also modified a ballad from the play Cyrano de Bergerac for Cyrano to recite while he – not the player characters – defeats one of the bone tower guardians.

Even after obtaining the Horn of Roland that acts as permanent Wild Hunt repellent, the player characters have other adventures on the island.  Cyrano, on the other hand, leaves for the moon.  “The same method of travel won't work for the characters,” Moldvay informs us, “unless you want to create a short side trip adventure to the moon, returning the characters to the island after the side trip is over.”  Seriously, going to the moon with Cyrano de Bergerac should BE the adventure.  Aside from Cyrano's own work, inspiration for what might happen on the moon could be gleaned from:  Burroughs' The Moon Maid, Wells' The First Men in the Moon, Baron Munchausen, Kepler's Somnium, Lucian's True History, and The Great Moon Hoax of 1835.  There's even a trip to the moon in Orlando furioso.  (Perhaps the object of the quest should have been Astolfo's horn rather than Roland's.)

On the island, robots have “enslaved” humans.  This is automatically assumed to be a bad thing.  A revolt against the robots is the subject of the fifth scenario.  In order to successfully revolt, the humans need to be armed.  In the fourth scenario, the player characters gather the necessary weapons from the “Caves of Doom.”  Although they don't realize it, the player characters are required to obtain a magic sword – Lightbringer – from a “Bloodstone Cube” in the Caves of Doom.
     If the characters don't voluntarily travel to area D20, then touch the Bloodstone Cube, they feel an unexplained, irrestible [sic] urge to do so.  Give the players every chance to take their characters to D20 and touch the cube.  But if the characters try to leave the Caves of Doom without acquiring Lightbringer, they find it impossible to leave.  No matter which way they go, the path seems to wind around back to the entrance to D20.
The final scenario begins when – after the revolt – Phantoms attempt to steal the horn.  (Remember the Phantom from the first scenario?)  “In the struggle,” the scenario reads, “one of the Phantoms accidently loses a map that gives directions to the stronghold of the Phantoms.”  One might think that the Phantoms intentionally dropped the map to lead the player characters into a trap.  I mean, the Phantoms don't need a map; they can teleport and – even if they couldn't – they still manage to get back to the stronghold without the map.  Yet the map was lost accidentally and thus accurately indicates how to get to bad guy headquarters.

At the Shadow Stronghold, the player characters finally learn why they have been drawn into these scenarios.  The basis of The Horn of Roland is the animosity between the mythological Erebus and Prometheus.  Erebus has Prometheus chained in the Shadow Stronghold.  “Erebus, Lord of Shadows,” we read, “for reasons known only to himself, has decided that the characters are his enemies.”  Actually, although the players never learn this, Erebus wants to destroy all persons who have the potential to become Lords of Creation (such as the player characters).  So, Erebus sent the Phantom(s) and (I guess) the Wild Hunt against the party.  Prometheus “has been helping the characters secretly throughout the adventure.”  The Lightbringer sword is the only thing that can break Prometheus' chains.  Once the player characters free Prometheus, Erebus appears and the two fight.  The player characters get to watch.  The scenario reads, “Prometheus asks the characters to keep out of the battle...”  Erebus necessarily loses.  I would have designed the adventure so that the party fights a group of Erebus' followers while Prometheus and Erebus fight on a different dimensional plane.  Also, what happens in the conflict of mortals would affect what happens in the conflict of immortals.  Then again, I'm used to dealing with players who actually like to have their characters engage in meaningful activity.

The Horn of Roland has aspects of a railroad and forces player characters into inactivity during what should be the most exciting parts of the adventure.  It also has a 'big picture' of which the players remain ignorant until the very end.  Players don't need to see the 'big picture' from the start of the adventure, but enough of it should be presented so that the players have an idea about what is going on and they can interact with the adventure appropriately.  For instance, if the players knew there was an extremely helpful magic sword in the Caves of Doom, then the characters would likely not need to be compelled to find it.  Moldvay has no problem with a mentor NPC giving directions to the player characters (e.g., the Flying Dutchman).  He also has no problem with player characters receiving “visions.”  Why not clue the PCs into the fact they are acting for the benefit of Prometheus (or an unnamed powerful being) who will help help them against their (mutual) enemies? 

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