Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The House on Hook Street


I love roleplaying adventures that fully integrate into their settings and make full use of those settings. Generic adventures that can take place anywhere are not necessarily bad (and there are certainly many very good ones), but there is something special about an adventure that can’t easily take place anywhere other than where it’s set. The setting helps add to the adventure’s flavour, and can make the adventure more memorable than one with a generic setting.

The House on Hook Street by Brandon Hodge is such an adventure. Set in the Bridgefront neighbourhood of the city of Korvosa, it makes heavy use of concepts and rules from Occult Adventures, and brings to life one of the poorest, most poverty-stricken places in the Golarion setting. It would be possible to use The House on Hook Street with a different campaign setting, but to do so, you would pretty much need to transplant the entirety of Bridgefront (and with it, much of the rest of Korvosa) into the other campaign world. You could change the names of Bridgefront and the locations in it, but it would still be essentially the same place. Without its setting, The House on Hook Street would be a very different adventure.

Of course, the setting is only one part of a successful adventure. A good adventure also requires an exciting plot with interesting encounters and villains, and The House on Hook Street certainly has these. It embroils the PCs in a tale of drugs and lucid dreaming, and brings them into conflict with creatures of nightmare. It can be difficult to do horror effectively in a roleplaying adventure, but while The House on Hook Street isn’t strictly horror, it does contain some incredibly creepy moments that may strike fear in even the hardiest of heroes.

It is a complex adventure, and GMs should be sure to have read and reviewed it thoroughly before play, but it’s one of the best adventures I’ve seen in a while.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The House on Hook Street is set several years after the events of Curse of the Crimson Throne in a Bridgefront that has still never fully recovered from the devastation wrought during that adventure path. With the loss of the Arkona family providing protection and assistance, the area has sunk even farther into the depths of poverty. Shiver- and other drug-use was always a problem in Bridgefront and it’s even more of an issue now. Recently, there has been an epidemic of shiver overdoses and local residents have started experiencing terrible nightmares.

The adventure opens when the PCs stumble across a group of Korvosan Guards being attacked by a fog-shrouded corpse. The body shows signs of shiver use and turns out to be Frell Tann, nephew of Korvosa’s Magistrate of Commerce, Garrick Tann. The Magistrate of Civic Order, Stainton Drune asks the PCs to investigate and find evidence that links Frell Tann’s supply of shiver to a group called the Brotherhood of the Spider, which Drune believes is running most of the shiver trade in Bridgefront.

Of course, once the PCs become involved, they discover that things are not quite so straight-forward. The Brotherhood of the Spider is indeed supplying shiver to dealers in Bridgefront, but there is a lot more going on. An artefact called the dreamstone has taken a portion of the Dimension of Dreams and created a dreamscape over Bridgefront. This dreamscape has weakened the barriers between Bridgefront and the Dimension of Dreams. As shiver is linked to dreaming, the dreamscape has changed the effects of the drug, making it more potent, and allowing the stuff of nightmares to seep into the waking world. As well, lucid dreamers (and shiver allows users to dream lucidly) who die in the dreamscape die in the waking world as well. And the area of the dreamscape is increasing, slowly engulfing all of Bridgefront and eventually the rest of Korvosa and maybe beyond.

The first two parts of the adventure take place in the waking world, the actual Bridgefront, although the PCs will likely experience fragments of the dreamscape through nightmares or possibly even lucid dreaming. In the third and final part of the adventure, the PCs physically enter the dreamscape to face a splinter group of the Brotherhood of the Spider and to track down and destroy the dreamstone.

The adventure has quite a few twists and turns as the PCs become involved in the occult underground of Bridgefront. The appendix contains a full gazetteer of Bridgefront and the adventure also comes with a full-colour, fold-out map of the area (the back of that map contains one of the encounter locations at miniature scale). These things will be necessary during the adventure as the PCs will visit many of the locations there as they strive to solve the mystery. The titular “House on Hook Street” is an old, decrepit mansion built around an even older shrine to Desna that the Brotherhood of the Spider now uses as its base of operations in both the waking world and in the dreamscape (although those in the dreamscape belong to a splinter group that was banished by the main group).

One of the things I like about the adventure is that it presents a distinct, advancing story, but is also open-ended, allowing PCs the freedom to tackle problems in their own way. Locations in Bridgefront play an important role in the adventure and the PCs can visit them in any order that works for them. Most of the NPCs are completely untrustworthy (even the local authorities, including the PCs’ employer, Stainton Drune, are corrupt), but the PCs will need to work with some of them in order to track down the Brotherhood and eventually find their way into the dreamscape. There are a lot of options for how they go about this.

I also love how material from Occult Adventures fits seamlessly into the adventure. It’s not there as just an add-on to promote another book without having any real relevance; rather, it complements the adventure and builds on it, making it an integral part. As well as lucid dreaming, there are uses for various occult skill unlocks, and in order to enter the dreamscape, the PCs must learn and use an occult ritual (breach the veil of dreams). They must later use the ritual again in order to destroy the dreamstone. Some of the NPCs also have occult classes. Madame Carrington (a local the PCs can gain information and assistance from—and about the only NPC the PCs can actually trust) is a spiritualist and the final villain is an occultist. But perhaps the most significant occult inclusion is that the Brotherhood of the Spider worship an idol called Mog-Lathar. Idols, first introduced in Occult Realms, are objects with intelligence and divine power. Mog-Lathar is the fossilised remains of an ancient Leng spider. Idols are one of the best additions from Occult Realms and I’m really glad to see them being used.

Throughout The House on Hook Street, PCs will encounter creatures and effects that originate in the dreamscape. These includes a new kind of haunt called a dream haunt and a new template called a dreamspawn creature. In the dreamscape itself, the PCs can face all kinds of nightmare creatures. This allows GMs the opportunity to add a touch of horror to the adventure. (I haven’t read Horror Adventures, and the adventure doesn’t explicitly refer to that book—I don’t think it had been released at the time of this adventure’s release—so I don’t know if any material from that book would be useful here, though it’s certainly possible, even likely.) For example, many of the NPCs in the dreamscape have the ability to physically alter the land around them, such as removing doors or making staircases extend impossibly far before reaching their destinations. In this way, they can confound PCs trying to make their way through the dreamscape version of the titular House.

There are also a lot of very creepy moments and images scripted in the adventure. One in particular involves an encounter with a gibbering mouther in the dreamscape House. This gibbering mouther was formed when bodies of numerous shiver users who died in the dreamscape merged together in one large blob. However, one of the bodies is not dead and is only partially absorbed into the creature. The PCs may hear this unfortunate individual calling for help well before they reach the creature (even possibly hearing his cries when they are in the waking world’s equivalent room) and while they fight it, the poor soul will continue to call for help, insisting he’s not supposed to be there. Alas, there is no way to separate this person from the rest and he will die with the creature. It makes for a positively chilling scene.

I only have a couple of significant criticisms of the adventure. The first is that there is no resolution for Stainton Drune. As the PCs uncover the details of what’s going on, they will learn that their employer has his own ulterior motives. He was one of the original three people to discover Mog-Lathar and the dreamstone. However, his associates, Myra Lombroso and Nahum Caligaro abandoned him and later formed the Brotherhood of the Spider. Myra is now the head of the Brotherhood, having banished Nahum to the dreamscape after he and his followers attempted to awaken Mog-Lathar against the idol’s wishes. Drune hires the PCs specifically so that they can bring down the Brotherhood and then he can recover the idol and the dreamstone for himself.

Once the PCs learn this information, they will likely want to confront Drune, yet the adventure contains no information about how he will react in this circumstance. Drune himself is only an aristocrat 3/rogue 1 (the adventure takes PCs from levels 6 to 9) and there is no complete stat block for him, so he is obviously not intended to be someone the PCs fight in combat, yet I would expect the adventure to at least discuss the ramifications of the PCs confronting him. He has a powerful position in Korvosa, so he could call on quite a few resources to throw in the PCs’ way, but this isn’t even mentioned in passing.

Indeed, the third and final part of the adventure almost completely forgets about him. There are only a couple references to him. In one of the rooms in the dreamscape House, the PCs get a clue that indicates the Korvosan Guard are in the House in the waking world. The adventure states that this is a clue that “Drune’s recovery of Mog-Lathar is underway” (p 44). However, there is no follow-up to this at all. The only mention of Drune after this point is in the “Concluding the Adventure” section, where it says that Drune might go on to become the head of a new criminal organisation to replace the Brotherhood.

It’s surprising to me that the adventure doesn’t even seem to consider the possibility that the PCs will want to confront him upon learning his involvement—and they’ll learn of that as soon as they acquire the book they need to learn the breach the veil of dreams ritual. I wonder if this is a result of material being cut from the final product due to space, but even if it is, it has resulted in a rather glaring omission. And it wouldn’t take much to provide GMs with advice on how to wrap up Drune’s storyline, a couple paragraphs at most.

My other criticism is not so much a criticism of the adventure itself as it is of its presentation. The text is confusing. I found myself frequently flipping back and forth through the adventure, trying to find explanations for things I was reading, as the text constantly references information it hasn’t actually given much background on. It’s not unusual for adventures to reference characters or items that aren’t discussed in detail until later, but it stands out a lot more here. Part of the problem is that the background events for this adventure are quite complex, but the actual opening “Background” section is not very detailed. It skims over important details like the theft of significant items from the Brotherhood, and even the schism in the Brotherhood that results in Nahum and his followers being banished. The fact is, the Background section at the start of the adventure (which is one page in length) should be longer. It needs to lay out all the events that happen prior to the start of the adventure in detail so GMs can know what Frell Tann was up to prior to his death and other important information without having to flip around to multiple different pages in order to put it all together. Basically, GMs shouldn’t be uncovering the mystery in the same order the PCs uncover it!

Once you get past the confusion, however, The House on Hook Street is a phenomenally good adventure. I’ve recently started running it as part of my Curse of the Crimson Throne campaign (it’s actually relatively easy to modify it to take place during the adventure path instead of several years after), and my players and I have been enjoying it immensely so far. I highly recommend it!

2 comments:

  1. My player and I liked it a lot also. I decided to cut out the whole "Drune Treachery" out of it, since there was indeed no conclusion offered, and I didn't have the time to come up with one, as, you are right, my player would have wanted a serious explanation from him.

    Also, I hugely second you on the lack of a proper timeline. I used the prep of another DM from dmpreps, and It helped a lot, since the events are so confusing here.

    All of it being said, from the player viewpoint, It was one of the best module we ran, with lots of deep NPC and creepy stuff.

    Thanks for the review !

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    1. You're welcome! Thanks for the comment!

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