For consideration – Prison of the Hated Pretender

Well. This is currently my most run “adventure module”. I only run games for my own tables and so generally don’t reuse modules. But this one I’ve now run 3 times! I think I might have a few things to say about it.

The Hated Pretender – By Gus.L

So the premise of this is fairly simple – an eternal prison built by some old crusaders – and it acts as a puzzle dungeon for low level adventurers. Honestly it is my favourite “intro to old-school style dungeons” that I have, and will probably run it for any new groups of players I get!

Anyway, there have been two editions of this module. The old one from “Dungeon of Signs” blog, and a newer version published by the Hydra Cooperative (available here! Its PWYW, but well worth the $5 asking price). It is full of flavourful art, some great maps, and lots of advice & author’s notes that point out why things have been done. Its a great “learner dungeon” for players and referees alike!

History

So I’ve run this scenario 3 times for 3 different playgroups.

  • First time was for 5 players used to D&D 5e but using “World of Dungeons“. It took a couple of tries as the players were more used to “storytelling” type games like World of Darkness, or Apocalypse World (this was years ago). This was a new and unfamiliar style for them as they didn’t have “powers/abilities” The first time they went in they assumed they needed to fight the guarding ghosts and were worn down in a desperate fight to a TPK. It actually took them 4 tries with fresh characters before they “worked it out”. Brute force and charging in don’t work for this!
  • Second time was with a couple of “eternal referees” who jumped at the chance of trying some “Old School” gaming (this was when B/X Essentials first came out, about 2018?) They were playing “magical artifact retrievers” investigating accounts of a haunted tower. They went very slowly and carefully and considered the Hated Pretender himself to be an artifact they needed to collect and bring back.. They avoided the dark-fearing ghosts by coming back at night, but then essentially locked themselves out of the treasure in the well lit crypt. But they had a lot of fun working out how to “neutralise” the Hated Pretender and carry him out.
  • This last time I wrote about on this blog – 4 players investigating rumours about the Hated Pretender and wanting to a) talk to him and b) ensure he’s stuck for all time. Initially they went in unprepared and fearful, but returned a number of times until hitting on a great plan using “darkness” spells. They got into the crypt and looted it, and were the only group to fully explore the dungeon.

The Module

As I said, its full of art, notes, and little snippets of text that are just <chef’s kiss>.
You get:
– a description of a nearby town – the “haven” of Broken Huts, filled with scabrous yokels and their rumours.
– The dungeon factions (Phantasms of Vengeance vs The Hated Pretender)
– a nice 4 story tower with juicy hints about what might have happened.

The town rumours are great and serve a very important role in giving the players a heads up on what is inside, although all the rumours are just slightly off. Not false rumours, but a mix of useful information and red herrings. (aside: I want to make Black Jenny the head of an opposing adventuring party) This also shows the importance of interacting with NPCs to get information and clues to possible treasures inside. The town itself is just a collection of huts and stereotypes. I think the existence of a nearby town is important, but this particular town is more of a placeholder – I’ve only kept it as is one time. First time I skipped it (and rumours – which proved very problematic) and the third time I subbed in a different town.

The enemies are simple: the Phantasms of Vengeance are everywhere during the day and respawn. They are less monsters and more of a terrifying “mobile trap”. The Hated Pretender is basically an insane meatsack that is very very difficult to kill (a tough 3HD zombie that can talk, basically) – but he can be interacted with if the players pick up on the clues and “follow the rules”. (aside: one group used “killing” as just a method to restrain the Pretender.. he keeps coming back). One very important fact is that the layout of the tower and time of day can be used as weapons against all the inhabitants of the tower.

The treasure and artifacts in the tower actually tell a story. My players in every run through picked up the “backstory” of events just by looking at the treasures and making up their own way of connecting the dots. This really plays up the importance of treasure as something more than “500 gold and some jewels”. Something that just made the game for all my players was the “pumpkin on the roof”. The realisation that the Hated Pretender is this wretch that just wants some food and rest was a real gut-punch, especially after meeting and “killing” a stinking undead horror. Humanising the enemy changes the tone of the location.

Lessons Learned

Ok, I admit I want to run this scenario again for some new players. I’ve learned things running it every time. I think the players learnt some behaviors that helped them as well!

  • Read and pay attention to the side-bars on the reasoning behind various things. Gus.L has put a lot of thought into things and explains why things are important. They didn’t exist the first time I ran this, and the disaster for the players showed I wasn’t paying attention to the dungeon dressing because I didn’t fully understand why things had been done.
  • The referee needs to add a hook of some kind. This module doesn’t have any hooks, only rumours in town. Unless you start at the town as your first scene, you need a reason the characters have come to this tower. But be careful why you send players here! This location needs some ingame preparation and planning – running straight in will get everyone killed. The Phantasms appear in groups and will overwhelm groups in a hurry. I had one group die because of not realising they didn’t have to fight everything, and another group nearly died because they rushed in unprepared.
  • Description is king. Embellish, use all the senses. This adventure lives or dies based on the descriptions of the rooms and creatures – how they interact and behave. Also don’t name the monsters. I accidentally said “ghost” once when describing the Phantasms of Vengeance and the players latched onto that and ended up making some potentially dangerous (wrong) conclusions. This is actually a good lesson for referees in general. Don’t rely on stereotypes of monsters, but just describe how the creature looks/sounds/behaves. Let the players come up with names.
  • Probably for authors as well – make a summary of rooms & monsters to run a session from. In the back of the new edition is an awesome map with practically 1 line descriptions.
    eg – room 3 (Phantasms 2d6 morning, 1d6/2 (2-6 chance) afternoon. Murals, Throne)
    As a referee I read the whole book a number of times, but during the session I had this map open and ran it from there and from memory. There is no time to read the paragraphs of room and monster descriptions during a session. If this map was not present I would find this module to be very wordy. You can’t really parse information from the room descriptions that easily. Gus.L has massively improved his presentation skills since this one.
  • Not sure if good or bad.. This is both very time-sensitive and not at all. When the PCs are in the tower, you need to track very carefully light (or darkness) location of known Phastasms and how long they take moving around. But once the PCs go outside there is absolutely no pressure to hurry – in fact picking the time of entry (day, night, morning, evening) makes a huge difference to the location of enemies and how difficult moving around the tower will be. It might be an idea to put a soft time limit of some kind? Another group coming to the tower perhaps, or someone chasing the PCs?

Conclusions

Go get this adventure and run it! Then throw Gus a couple of dollars and get some of his newer works. This is a great little adventure that can be “finished” in something like 4-6 hours of play easily. Best thing is how it teaches a lot of lessons for both referees and players!

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