Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Night Wolf Inn: A Review

The Nightwolf Inn is a campaign sourcebook by Anthony Huso for first edition AD&D. A strange inn with polished opulence has appeared at the edge of town. The place seems full of foreigners no one remembers having come through town. Inquiries from eager merchants reveal the rooms are available only for members of "the Excursionist Guild"; further confused queries reveal this to be some sort of secret society associated with the inn. With an apologetic smile, the concierge deftly pushes forward a neatly drawn up list, "Surely gentlemen, one of these other estimable local establishments will be up to your discerning standards."

But, if instead of fat merchants, a band of pell-mell miscreants should inquire, hardened mercenaries shoulder to shoulder with occult dreamers and jewel thieves, promptly a fee will be named and guild membership extended. For the inn is a deadly enigma, a perilous contest, a source of adventure and wealth without end to lure those hungry men and women who, while possessing rare talents, do not rate their own lives too dear.

There are two different sorts of adventure locale to be found in the Nightwolf Inn. The first are "the wilds" of the guest rooms. Guildmembers will be presented with a menu of rooms with intriguing names along with varying prices, often exorbitant, for a single night's stay. Within their rented suite they will find a small area with a bed and other furniture, and (usually) a remarkable item for use during their stay. The furniture exists in a safe zone superimposed on wilds that extend in every direction. For each room borders on another dimension just waiting to be explored.

Many of these room entries are quire good, briefly explaining the nature of the dimension, providing a description of the area immediately beyond the furniture, listing a few evocative adventure seeds, and providing an encounter chart. One room is in the belfry of a cathedral looking down on the streets of a perpetually nighted, demon-ruled city. The furniture in another rests on a swaying sea of green that is actually a biome on the top of an unimaginably vast forest. One leads to an alien archaeological dig, full of ancient horrors and mind flayer scientists; another to a strange swamp world that will suck travelers down to a tubular maze full of fetid vapors in the root system below. And so on. Some are gimmicky in a nice way, like a blank "Harold's purple crayon" world that the PC's can paint their way through. Others are drawn directly form AD&D's baroque planar mythology.

The other site of adventure is the inn itself. For, beneath the sun-soaked solarium, the tavern's rich menu, and the quiet competence of the staff, hints of something darker glister. It contains roughly three different dungeon sites for exploration: the the cellars, the area beyond a terrible black door, and the towers and rooftops. They are intriguing and deadly in a hardcore AD&D sort of way. Huso is a professional mapper, and all these areas, as well as the more mundane parts of the Inn are attractively mapped and lovingly described.  A clue that something very odd is going on lies in the fact that guildmembers are encouraged to explore the inn, and are told that they may keep whatever they find outside of the common areas.

This is a pretty map

The Nightwolf Inn exists in seven places in the campaign world simultaneously. When you exit the inn you return to wherever you entered the inn from. This means that the tavern of the inn will always be an interesting place to visit, with silk merchants and spice traders next to fur clad barbarians from the icy wastes, and whatever other weirdo cultures from the forgotten corners of your world. The existence of the Excursionist Guild guarantees from the get-go that there will be memorable rival adventuring parties a plenty, drawn from diverse cultures. This is all great fun, as it allows the DM to introduce delicious tidbits of meaningful flavor and world building without info dumps or massive encyclopedic information about the world. I mean, what better way to design a world organically than to start with rival adventuring parties from different cultures?

As players explore the inn and the wilds, and slowly progress through the ranks of the guild, it will become increasingly clear that the inn itself is a deadly puzzle to be solved for unimaginable gains. There is a gothic backstory, involving the hideous nature of the inn, the personal tragedy of its maker (now a lich), and the schemes of infernal beings. One nice feature of this campaign setting is that it somehow manages to combine delicious plane hopping madness with this rich gothic, almost Lovecraftian, background tapestry that can be unravelled by the players slowly. Solving the puzzle of the inn involves the use of black lenses across the wilds, and  trip to a cursed city buried in the stars. It's suitably metal and very challenging.

The Black Mirror: One Piece of The Puzzle

This product passes my very high bar of approval by delivering positive verdicts to the following questions: does a product make my mind spin with ideas? Do tables and adventure hooks begin to write themselves in my mind? Can I imagine running it with pleasure? Does it inspire a kind of longing to run it? Does it teach me something about what I could do in my own games? I'll tell you in a minute about how I would go about running it, what I would change, and so on. (I'm planning on using a toned down, less deadly version for the game I run for my son and his friends eventually.)

But first. This is not to say that the product is without problems. Indeed, part of my reason for writing this review is that this product is less likely to get the viewing that it deserves because Huso has put up some roadblocks. The first problem is organizational. There are some nice features, like collected maps at the back, handy tables, reference documents, and some player handouts, including tavern and room menus, which are all to the good. However, essential information is not presented in the book in a sequential order that facilitates a first reading. The backstory of the inn, necessary for understanding many keyed areas, is in an appendix, as is basic information about the guild. I was about twenty pages into the module before I realized that the heart of it was the dimensional wilds in the guest rooms. Luckily, this is easy to fix. Here's the order you should read the book in:

1. Foreward, Introduction, Basics of the Inn pp. 4-12 (stop reading at the key)
2. Joining the Guild 113-115
3. The Starry Curse and All the Secrets 153-157
4. Core NPCs and Staff 117-131
5. Then peruse the Wilds 83-112
6. Familiarize yourself with the layout of the 1st and 2nd floor common areas of the Inn 12-31
7. And finally, take a gander at the dungeons, including the Cellars 51-82, the Dark Passage 33-40, and Attic and Towers 45-49.

What Huso says in the foreword points to another issue, "You will see the creations of a teenage DM from the 1980s who hung on every word that proceeded from the mouth of Gary Gygax. And you will see those creations not as they were then, but tempered and polished by my 40-something-year-old-self, who has finally come full circle, finally returning to the table after many years of raising children, writing novels, and and doing other things. It is my sincerest hope that I have written something that Gary himself might look down on from whatever cloud he's on and smile."

Some traces of juvenalia remain that his 40-something-year-old-self clearly couldn't bring himself to temper, like an uber-powerful, super hot, half-elf bard npc called "Rain", and a manly concierge named "Jeeves Everbleed". But more to the point, this setting is written to be run with an (almost) strict by the book version of 1E AD&D pre-Unearthed Arcana. Almost all magic items and nearly all monsters are drawn from these sources.

On the one hand, it's fun to see what Gygax's masterpiece can do with all the bells and whistles. And since planar adventuring is the direction he was headed before his ouster from TSR, this setting has a nice decadent late Gygaxian what-might-have-been flavor to it. BUT there is something more than a little perverse about juxtaposing a setting with such an unshackled imaginative premise, pretty much built for a wild ride from the first session, with the strange by-the-book restriction on monsters included. I mean, there is some pleasure in seeing all the weirdos from Monster Manual II and Fiend Folio put in places where they actually seem to belong. But why go to the trouble of imagining the hell out of different dimensions and not imagine the hell out of the beings who live there?

On the other hand, this thing is in there, so that's cool

How Would I Run This?

The first thing I would do is take a look at the less expensive guest rooms that a lower level party could afford to visit (I, IV, VII, and X). The concierge will steer them gently away from IX as perilous, and will caution them about prematurely embarking on XVIII and XIX. For the four main starter rooms, I would write up mini hex maps for them, drawing on Huso's adventure seeds, supplemented by my own demented ideas. Of course, not all of Huso's pocket dimensions resonate equally with me. In creating my own dimensions, I would draw on planescrap for inspiration, and would doubtless give a weird reskinning to most of the MMII and Fiend Folio creatures in the encounter tables Huso provides.

I would run the inn and its dungeons pretty much exactly as written, because they're a lot of fun in a classic AD&D sort of way. I think this will provide a nice contrast with the more far out planar escapades provided by the wilds.

The second thing I would do to run this would be to decide what fictional seven locations the inn touches in the campaign. A name of the city or other region will suffice, along with a few sentences giving the flavor of the place. For example, "On the avenue of Thralls, city of Abishet, spice road metropolis. Slave trade, ecstatic drug cults." Or, "Outside the pilgrimage site to the ice womb of the Mother of Frozen Tears. Pilgrims are rugged hunters and tattooed berserkers of the icy wastes, but very polite."

The third thing I would do is figure out what rival adventuring parties belong to the Excursionist Guild. Huso has a great table at the end with 100 members of the guild, belonging to companies with names like "Graverobbers & Sundry", "Derelicts Anonymous", or "Crimson Leavings". This is a nice start. But if I were running this as the main focus of adventure, I would really play up the competitive nature of the Excursionists Guild. Rival adventuring parties would be the main factions and rivals, in addition to the inn master and his employees. I would write up seven or eight of these companies, at different levels of the guild, drawn from the six other campaign locations, and try to make them as distinctive and interesting as possible. This would be great fun, since coming up with rival adventurers is a joy in my experience. I would probably make the mystery of the inn a little bit easier to first get involved with, treating it as more of an open competition than a dim secret. I would make it a little bit harder to solve ultimately (not more deadly, just more pieces, and false leads). I would introduce several competing theories about what the mystery is and how to solve it, and assign these theories to different rival adventuring parties.

The fourth thing I would do would be to draw up random tables for the activities, successes and failures of the rival parties. This would cover when they were away from Inn, when they were off investigating this or that dungeon in the inn, or this or that guest room, and how successful they were. I imagine that the party will want to spy on other parties, and keep tabs on their movements--I imagine a lot of intrigue, shifting alliances, attempts at sabotage and so on.  Of course, a TPK for one of these groups will present an incredible (and perilous) opportunity to acquire their loot, and perhaps the knowledge they've acquired.

The fifth thing I would do is come up with a big table (or series of tables) for who is in the tavern of the inn, and events there. The bigger and more fleshed out these tables are the better. The inn is open to the public of seven different locations in the world, in addition to the rival adventurers in the Excursionist's Guild.

Finally, procedurally, the most important thing I would do in running the inn is make the players tell me in advance what they were going to do each session, falling back on Huso's written text to improvise where necessary. Eventually I would have enough material to be more or less ready to go without such forewarning, but in an interplanar sandbox, it would take a long while.

In Sum:

If an inter-planar sandbox with competing companies of rival adventurers set against the backdrop of a gothic mystery sounds neat to you, then you should definitely buy this. It's the kind of idiosyncratic, imaginative, product of love that only people with mad talents in a niche gaming community like ours can make. I think Gary's probably smiling.

You can get it here.
I will repost this picture of Gary as many times as I can get away with it


  1. Thank you very much for this review; quite possible I wouldn't have heard of this otherwise, and it's right in the sweet spot I look for.