Horror on the Hill is a Criminally Underrated Module

I’ve previously blogged about 4 Overlooked TSR Modules You Should Run. One of those adventures is the excellent B5 Horror on the Hill.

I have many, many happy memories of running this module. In fact, I think it is almost as good as B2 Keep on the Borderlands. I’ve always been surprised the module doesn’t feature in more “good design” and “good adventure” style posts and articles. It didn’t even make Paizo’s Top 30 in Dungeon 116. In my opinion, it’s a spectacular example of a well designed low-level dungeon. (It’s not perfect, though, as I’ll discuss below).

Horror on the Hill has been on my mind a lot recently as I begin to plot my next standalone adventure for Raging Swan Press. Previously, when I wrote Shadowed Keep on the Borderland I took a tremendous amount of inspiration from the Moathouse (perhaps a perfect low-level adventure) from T1 Village Of Hommlet.

This time, Horror on the Hill is up for dissection. As always, before putting serious thought into actual design, I wanted to dive into the source material to understand why I love the module so much.

It’s a Whopper


Douglas Niles (the designer) packs an epic amount of material into the module’s 32 pages. Putting aside the introduction text, three new monsters and so on we get a large wilderness “level”, the ruined monastery’s ruined upper level and three dungeon levels; in all—101 encounter areas. You could run this module for months.

It’s Got Different Zones & Challenges


Each level features different kinds of foes and challenges. The wilderness—obviously—features lots of animals and suchlike (and as I’ve said before all good dungeons need a wilderness). You can also–obviously–get lost!

The ruined monastery level and the first dungeon level feature undead as well as goblins and hobgoblins along with their servants, slaves and allies.

The second dungeon level—natural caverns—are a confused maze hosting a mix of creatures who have become trapped in the level.

The final level also comprises natural caverns, but here a red dragon holds sway over its kobold minions. There is but one way out—passed the red dragon!

Change of Pace


Generally speaking, for the first two levels of the adventure, the PCs are in control; they can pick and choose when and where to strike. However, if they get trapped in the second level, that changes. From this point onwards, they cannot go back. They must go forward, with the resources they have on hand. (See, I told you resource management was cool). The whole tenor of the module changes.

The Ruins Feel Alive


A good dungeon doesn’t just exist in stasis waiting for adventures to come and kill everything living in it (except, perhaps, for certain ancient tombs and barrow mounds). For example, in location 51, the PCs come across a party of dead adventurers still protected by their trained wolves. This encounter is also cool, as the PCs might be able to add two trained wolves to the party! (And who doesn’t want that?)

It’s Not Perfect, Though


Horror on the Hill its good, but it’s not perfect. Several things don’t work for me. These include:

Mysterious Spellcasters: A “small cottage”, although not all is as it seems, lies in the woods. Two powerful spellcasters—kindly little old ladies—live in the cottage filled with treasure that disintegrates if stolen. I’m paraphrasing, but essentially it sucks. It’s my least favourite bit of the whole module and I tend to ignore it as I think it kills the mood.

Odd Verisimilitude: I love verisimilitude. I live and breathe it whenever I can. I love how a lot of the monsters and challenges make sense in regards to the location in which they appear. I’m not a huge fan of the presence of neanderthals in various locations in the module. I know this makes no sense when you consider the many fantastical creatures that do appear in the module but what can you do? It think—for me—they are too “real world”.

Only One Way In: Essentially in regards to the actual dungeon levels there is only one way in. There is only one way in to dungeon level 1. There is only one way into dungeon level 2 and—you guessed it—there is only one way in to dungeon level 3. That’s a major flaw in the module as it forces the PCs through certain defined “checkpoints” and reduces their freedom to make meaningful choices. A good dungeon—or dungeon level—needs more than one way in (which is something I’ve also blogged about before).

No Home Base: One of the great things about Keep on the Borderland is—obviously—the keep. While Horror on the Hill has Guido’s Fort the details of said fort are charitably described as scanty. I would have loved a handful of pages devoted to the PCs’ base.

What Do You Think?


Well that’s what I like and don’t like about this excellent Basic low-level module.

Do you love Horror on the Hill? Do you hate it? Let me know why, in the comments below.

 

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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9 thoughts on “Horror on the Hill is a Criminally Underrated Module

  1. I have always had a soft spot for that adventure (although I always struggle to remember what it was called, since the title is so bland). I DM’d it about 30 years ago, and it was one of the first (possibly the first) published adventures I ever ran. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, and neither did the players but we all had lots of fun.

  2. New to your community but been enjoying the articles and insights. I fro the most part agree with your comments and points above but disagree with one of the points: ONLY ONE WAY IN. I also read the blog you noted about previously. I do agree in your blog stating that almost all lair/dungeon/underground whatever usually has 1 maybe 2 entrances when most who inhabit them (the main antagonist/boss whomever) would not chose that. But in this case I MOST positively agree with this having only one entrance (and only 1) since the resident happens to be a….”DRAGON” (red even). This puts them in that unique category with demons, certain undead – vampires, liches, ect-, celestial s, some giants (not all types) and a few other entities that would look for and setup that sort space. Why? They know virtually “NOTHING” can match or contest them (unless super high level – particularly wizards – except maybe through very good luck. Even that might not be enough; Rember Gandalf vs the Balrog? One would be hard pressed not to admit that despite how badass Gandalf was, not only was he VERY lucky in his victory but stilled died in the process (in the book as in the movie, he was very worried about this encounter tried to avoid it). Yes, he comes back from death (another story) but if that had not happened even someone like Gandalf could not walk away from such an encounter one could put any stupendous super character in that with probably the same out come (if that lucky). The dragon in this case is much in the same vein; without arrogance, it could (rightfully) take on and more than likely walk away from most any encounter (or should). Again, Gandalf could have saved everyone trouble years before and beaten Smaug (knowing where he was at in the first place and gotten there much quicker) and then went straight away to the Balrog (also knowing where it was). Most of the entities in this range, logically thinking, can and will beat anything or one that crosses their path. You said the dragon, in this case, blocks the way out making sense that the thinking being if any one gets to this point (and shocked) to discover what lives there it will be the ‘last’ treasure hunt they will ever be in (or just a nasty game it has setup for any victim(s). I would go as far as also making the exit only attainable by the dragon (high level magic, flight access only, etc). Again, thinking that if it does ‘fail’ in defending its home and treasure how are the adventurer(s) going to get it out (for-mentioned setup would have problems such as the group/person not being high enough level to use certain magics) you get the idea. So the you or the survivors would have that treasure but end up dying in this now tomb (since you explained if they got that far they could not find their way back; in the end was it really worth it)? To me most of the top tier entities get treated very disrespectfully in favor of pro-PC. Dragons and others of this caliber have earned their reputation and then some to where even Merlin, Drizzt, Knight of the Round, etc would give much thought of action and respect to. Even to something as seemingly no-big-deal to who/what can enter their chosen home/hangout!
    Sorry for carrying on, keep up the good work!

    • I see what you are saying about the dragon and its place on the “food chain”. Absolutely–an apex predator. My concern is not necessarily with the dragon lair (although some kind of cool underwater passageway or something would be nice). Rather it’s with all the other levels which all only have one entrance. That’s excessive and unwarranted in my opinion. I’m not saying the entrances should have big, flashing signs marking their location, but it would be nice to have secret ones to reward good place.

  3. Horror on the Hill was the first adventure I ran as a Gamemaster when I was 10 years old. My father bought it for me at the BX with The Sentinel & The Gauntlet. It was very much the gateway drug to being a Dungeon Master. Let’s say it was a horrible run since I was the youngest of the group and never ran it again but plan to step back in with a new group later this summer as part of a campaign for my daughter and her friends.

  4. Agreed: Neanderthals, one way in check points are negatives.
    Devils advocate: Guido’s fort, with so much packed into the module perhaps Guido’s fort was intended as “design your own” young padawan Game Master.

    Not sure if I agree on the mysterious spell casters, could it be that they were intended as a mystery? However with a name like Horror on the Hill I would want something that supports the “theme” perhaps something more of the witch that wants to eat Hansel and Grettal but with the PCs cast in the role of the children. OR a which/shaman/mysterious spell caster of the type presented in the beginning of the book: Miss Enchanted Sword- of course her miss enchantment of the sword wouldn’t work in D&D so well so maybe this: sword is miss enchanted not really cursed: on any hit player may opt for max damage but loses one hit point himself and the sword is bound to the PC until the player dies (presumably by the sword taking his last hit point but allow other death to free the PC from the bond)