Friday, 29 October 2021

Thoughts on L1 The Secret of Bone Hill


“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.”
― John Lennon

“The possession of knowledge does not kill the sense of wonder and mystery.
There will always be more mystery.”
― Anais Nin

Danger lurks in the Lendore Isles. Bands of evil creatures prow the hills overlooking the town of Restenford, seeking unwary victims. Now you have come to this sleepy little village looking for adventure and excitement. You seek to fathom the unexplored reaches of Bone Hill and unlock the mysteries of Restenford.
[L1 The Secret of Bone Hill – 1]

What can be said about Len Lakofka’s debut module that has not already been said? Nothing, I expect. It’s a classic for those of us of a certain age. There are those who consider it a masterpiece now; regardless that it received mixed reviews when released (I wonder if those who panned it then dislike it still?), and probably still does. Its distinction is that it may be the first “sandbox” adventure. Some may give that nod to B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, or T1 The Village of Hommlet, but I would beg to differ. Borderlands has the potential to be one, but it is really just a dungeon crawl with a keep and a few overland encounters attached; just as Hommlet is fundamentally an urban crawl with overland encounters and a dungeon. Bone Hill has both in abundance, and then some.

I’ll pause here to admit many of my thoughts here have been heavily influenced by the those of a far more astute scholar than I, and I now find it impossible to extricate his from my own. He is best known for his blog Cave of the Dice Chucker, but in this case I would draw your attention to his other, The Restenford Project, specifically. What is the Restenford Project? It’s a deep dive into Len’s L-series, a fabulous read that I highly recommend to anyone who knows and loves Len’s module. I won’t be offended if you cease reading this humble work now in preference of his blogposts. I’ve only seen such attention to detail in regards to T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil.

Still with me? Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
How big is the module?
28 pages; and about one hex. Yes, you read that right, one hex. 16 miles by 30.
28 pages was pretty standard then, but Len found a way to pack a whole lot into its meagre page count, detailing Restenford and its environs, if not Lendore Isle. He details its flora and fauna, its weather; he also gives us a Wilderness Encounter chart. And a rumour table. A fair bit has been buried in that rumour table, so if you have glossed over it, or dispensed with it altogether, you‘ve hamstrung what might be before you have even begun.
Why? Because Len goes so far as to give us the possibilities of who might know what, that’s why. 

Chance of Knowing the Number of Rumors Given

Character Level

1 rumor

2 rumors

3 rumors

4 rumors

5 rumors

































































The Baron-Champion, the Druid, the Sorceror, and the Canon in Restenford know one tale per level. The High Priest in the Church of the Big Gamble also knows one tale per level. The option to disclose a rumor is always up to the DM. A person might not tell everything he or she knows. [L1 – 2]

There are 36 rumours given—that’s a lot, by any measure — and Len encourages you as a DM to create even more as you see fit.
Why are the rumours important? Because some of them are lies, or at the very least untrue (not unusual in rumour tables). They are supposed to be rolled randomly, and if you do, it’s important to understand the implications of important NPCs relating those lies, or untruths, to the PCs. If they are, you had better have an inclination why they are. Are they lying? Are they themselves misinformed? Who might have misinformed them? That might be useful to know, if you want to have a deep, complex, backstory to underlie a deep, complex adventure. Therefore, you had better roll them up beforehand. That way you can work it all out; otherwise you might be fumbling for a reason that won’t satisfy your players; assuming you have players that care about such thing.
If you have a copy of the module, you might want to take it off the shelf and give them a read to familiarize yourself with them, and ponder them a moment.

Rumours aside for the moment, let’s see what Len packed into his 28 pages.
He’s detailed the surrounding hills, the eponymous Bone Hill among them (its “abandoned” keep and dungeon), the town, a burnt husk of an outlying guard house (and the dungeon beneath it), the keep (and Pelltar’s tower within), three faiths, a couple taverns, and a complete roster of inhabitants. Yes, all of the inhabitants.
Aside from the wandering monsters, there are orcs and bandits, and bugbears and gnolls in them there hills. And the obligatory new monsters.
That’s a tonne of content.
There is no secret, however. None noted, anyway, although there is plenty of grist for the mill in creating one.
Who burned the Guard Station [32], and when?
One should ask the same of the keep atop Bone Hill. What is its history? What brought on its doom? For surely something did, what with all the undead crawling over it. There are hints throughout, mere mentions that suggest quite a lot without committing to its true tale. The walls are collapsed, shattered by catapults. And although this happed some time ago, the remains of the catapults have not rotted away. Nor have the bones of elves and humans and bugbears. Have there been repeated battles for the keep over the centuries? Evil is drawn to the place, repeatedly, it would seem.
What might Telvar (6th level magic user) be up to there?
Telvar was an apprentice to an alchemist in his early youth and still enjoys experimenting with and mixing potions. [L1 – 10]
This room is used by Telvar for astrological observation. [L1 – 11]
And what sort of deal has he made with the bugbears? Come to think on it, why are there so many bugbears? Hobgoblins might make more sense (this being a low-level module), with a bunch of goblins and a few bugbears thrown in for good measure.
Are the gnolls in league with Telvar? Why won’t they go near the Dead Wood or the northern portion of Kelman Hills? What about the orc bandits? Are they in league with Telvar? Zahrdahl the Trickster?
Speaking of the orcs, did you notice this rumour when you read it?
The warehouse guard dropped dead a few days ago during a scuffle in the inn with two half-orcs, but I saw him that very night and the half-orcs were found burned to death at the edge of town. [L1 – 3]
This might be the most important rumour of the lot, because it’s true, and it’s cryptic, and what it implies.

I’ve dropped a few names. Maybe I should introduce the personae dramatis.
Altogether, there are 315 occupants of the town, most of which are human. [L1 – 16]
What are the people like? Mostly chaotic. Mostly neutral. There are very few evil. Most are farmers and bakers and fisherman and the like.
There are a number of note, dealt with below.

Baron Grellus
The Garrison/Castle
Grellus, male, 7th level fighter, AL CG
Rumour has it he’s broke. Rumour also has it that he is evil. One wonders why. Neither are true.
Fairwind, female, 3rd level cleric, AL LG; She is the wife of Grellus. [L2 – 11]
Andrella, female, 2nd level magic-user, AL LN; She is the daughter of Grellus and Fairwind. [L2 – 11]
Gelpas, male, 5th level fighter; He is a loyal retainer and the captain of the guard both in the castle and in the town. [L2 – 11]
Are these NPCs interesting, themselves? They are if you make them so. Is Grellus effectual? A dupe? Is he truly the power behind the throne; or might that person be another, Pelltar, for instance.

Peltar's Tower
Pelltar the Sorcerer, human, 9th level magic-user, AL LN
Pelltar is a bit of a mystery. Pelltar is very imperious and highly independent. [L1 – 24]
Does he work for Grellus? One wonders whether a LN could suffer a CG for long.
Is he using the Baron? Pelltar has a deed to the tower and an agreement of entry even if the Baron were to die. [L2 – 18]
Why does he need a tower in the keep when he has a house? One thing is for sure, he’s very secretive and security minded.
Pelltar's Tower
The trap door from the top of the tower has explosive runes on it.
[L1 – 18]
Just inside the doorway is a magic mouth that will yell if anyone but a tall bearded man enters. The door is also fire trapped. The room's guardians are four skeletons […] animated by PelItar to guard the room. […]; The walkway door is fire trapped and another magic mouth is in place as in 8a. […]; The trapdoor down to level b is made of iron and is wizard locked. [L1 – 19]
Also here is a crystal ball of clairaudience resting on a small pedestal. The ball is trapped so that if it is removed a packet of dust of sneezing and choking (save vs. Poison or die) will explode in a 10-foot radius. [L1 – 19]
Pelltar owns a Crystal Ball of Clairaudience… Just the thing to listen in on others.
He owns a warehouse, too.

25: This warehouse belongs to Pelltar, who also pays the guard's wages. Inside is fine food (value: 700 g.p.), aging wines (value: 900 g.p.), hard whiskey (value: 800 g.p.), iron rations (value: 250 g.p.), fine clothing (value: 800 g.p.), four sets of plate mail (value: 300 g.p. each), copper mugs, jugs, and cups (value: 340 g.p.), three tapestries (value: 400, 500 and 700 g.p.), and a suite of padded leather furniture worth 1,200g.p. There is a set of triple locks to this warehouse. Each is also Wizard Locked, and each also has an Explosive Rune and a Fire Trap on it. [L1 -24]
Explosive Runes? Fire Traps? One would expect that there might be more in that warehouse than what is mentioned.
It’s attended to, as well.

Guard's Home
Welcar and his Hounds
The "old man" who poses as a mere caretaker is really a grizzled but tough fighter named Welcar
[F5] […]
When standing guard duty he always has with him two war dogs (AC 6, MV 12" HD: 2 + 2, hp 12, 11, #AT 1, D 2-8). Each wears a collar with an enchantment on it that nullifies sleep spells for mammals of semi-intelligence or less. More intelligent mammals gain a 20% resistance and the duration of a successfully cast sleep spell is reduced to one round per level of the caster. This reduction will have effect even if the collar is removed from the sleeping animal. The collars are valued at 3,500 g.p. each since they can provide its protection to other mammals of value. [L1 -24]

Remember the rumour I mentioned before?
The warehouse guard dropped dead a few days ago during a scuffle in the inn with two half-orcs, but I saw him that very night and the half-orcs were found burned to death at the edge of town. [L1- 3]
It could be the most important one of the lot. That warehouse guard is Welcar. What was the scuffle about? Note that as written, Welcar dropped dead; Len did not say that the half-orcs killed Welcar. Who could have risen him from the dead? Was he ever really dead, or was it a ruse? And who might have burned the half-orcs AT THE EDGE OF TOWN? Pelltar? Is Len suggesting that no one noticed the immolation? Were the townfolk involved?
So many questions….

Phaulkon, Sulois, Air, Winds, Clouds, CG, m [WoGA – 64]
Symbol: Feathers/arrows
Vestment: Headdress, feathered cap
Colors: Blue and white
Animals: Any bird, especially hawk
Worshiped in: Hillside
Types of clergy: Clerics and druids
Alignment: Good
Majority of Followers: Good
[FootPrints #5 – 20]

Qualton, the abbot, human 6th level cleric, AL NG/NE (there is a story behind that.)
Qualton was neutral good but lately has begun to shift toward neutral evil. This is due to an ill-fated bout with a psionic blast that caused a form of schizophrenia […] in which he is perfectly normal at one moment and a megalomaniac at other times. In his megalomaniac state he desires to gain the throne by marrying Andrella (though she knows nothing of his plan or desires). Qualton's true feelings are far more likely to surface with time (see module L2). A detect evil will not show anything if he is in a normal state, and he does not have control over his transformations, or, at least he currently does not. He secretly prays to an evil deity for his third level spells. He is hesitant about leading services to Phaulkon but is still capable of doing so. [L1 – 23]
Len does not say which evil god is bestowing the 3rd level spells.
Might I suggest Syrul?

Syrul, Suloise, Deceit, False Promises, Lies NE, f [WoGA – 64]
Symbol: Two- Prong Fork
Vestment: Robe, Shaved head
Colors: Yellow & Brown
Animals: Poisonous Snake
Worshiped in: Outdoors during Full Moon
Types of clergy: Clerics
Alignment: Evil/Neutral
Majority of Followers: Evil and Humanoids
[FootPrints #5 – 20]

Almon, the Curate, human 4th level cleric, AL NG

This is the home of Almax the druid, his son Amos, and his wife Felwin. [L1 – 26]

Almax, human 7th level druid, AL N
Almax is second only to Pelltar in authority, after the Baron. [L1 – 27] That is a rather odd bit of text. It’s almost as if the baron is an afterthought.
Felwin, female elf, 2nd level magic-user, AL CN
Amos, half-elf, 3rd level druid, AL N

I should mention that one should be nice to potential benefactors in Restenford.
If the Fountain [of Good Health] is ever defiled, the offending party must be killed and thrown into the Fountain before it will function again. The fountain may be defiled by curse, unholy water, garbage, or excreted waste. The DM can turn such an event into an interesting adventure! [L1 – 27]
In other words, do NOT shit in the fountain, or Almax will hunt you down and kill you.

Before we pan further afield, let’s consider the conundrum in town: the bait shop. Why would a town with with fishermen require a bait shop. It’s not like they don’t catch their own bait. And to be honest, Restenford does not appear to be much of a tourism hotspot. The bait shop can’t do much business, if any; but selling bait isn’t why it exists….

Zahrdahl the Trickster
Zahrdahl the Trickster: 3rd level Illusionist, AL NE
Zahrdahl poses as a bait dealer, poor and dirty, but is really an illusionist spy for the Duke of Kroten to the northwest. [L1 – 25]
It’s a front. Most people of note probably suspect that he’s up to something. If not, they must be scratching their heads, wondering what this wretched, dirty little man is doing in town. I have to ask, whom is he really spying on? Grellus? Or Pelltar?

There’s another Gordian knot to unravel, just out of town.
The Church of the Big Gamble
Norebo Suloise, Luck, Gambling, Risk CN m [WoGA – 63]
Symbol: Two eight-sided dice
Vestment: Robe, bare head
Colors: Brown/dark green
Animals: Satyr/rabbit
Worshiped in: Woodland mound
Types of clergy: Clerics and druids
Alignment: CN(E)/Non-lawful
Majority of Followers: Thieves and Gamblers
[FootPrints #5 – 20]

Faldelac, High Priest, 10th level cleric, AL CN, who wears an amulet of inescapable location.
Is that a thing? It is.
Amulet of Inescapable location: This device is typically worn on a chain or as a brooch which pins on. It appears to be an amulet which prevents location, scrying (crystal ball viewing and the like), or detection/influence by ESP/telepathy. Actually, the amulet doubles the likelihood and/or range of these location and detection modes, however. Normal determination attempts, including detect magic, will not reveal its true nature. [DMG 1e – 137]

He might detect the surveillance over time. Spellcasters have a chance of detecting scrying equivalent to their percent chance to detect invisible creatures. Faldelac, a 10th level cleric, with 14 Intelligence, would have a 15% chance of detecting scrying, per round of scrying. [DMG 1e – 60]

Why is Falelac wearing a cursed amulet? How’d he come by it? Why did he not have it identified before donning it? Who is capable of scrying, anyway? Who might have a crystal ball of clairaudience? I wonder.
He’s not particularly amicable, either.
Faldelac is very short-tempered and will not tolerate an insult or obnoxious behaviour. He will quickly act to remove undesirable adventurers from the forest, and will initiate such action at a time when the party is most unaware. [L1 – 4]

Rumours regarding Faldelac:
The cleric on the hill is an honorable man. Go to him for help.
I have seen a high priest come to town from time to time though I have not met him.  They say he has a church somewhere within a dozen or so miles of town. [L1 – 3]
How could Faldelac build a temple so close to town and nobody know where it is or who he is? That seems so…secretive. Is it really a temple to Norebo? It is situated on a woodland mound, but I can’t help but think that such environs don’t really suit the Suel god of luck and gambling. If anything, its local implies devotion to the natural world. But Phaulkon already has an abbey in town. Phyton?

Auburn, High Priestess, 9th level cleric, AL CN
Other curates, one of note, mentioned later.

Why the God of Chance would wish to have his Church of the Big Gamble hidden away in a forest, and not in the centre of town is perplexing, at best. It says so in Len’s notes, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around the god of luck and gambling being so boreal.

Encounter Probabilities: 100% to observe birds and animals. It is 40% likely that such an animal, including the foxes, falcon, or raccoons, will come to the party and beg for food. This chance increases to 90% if the party makes camp. [L1 – 3]
If the berries are eaten, the person will be violently sick for 2-7 days. If the forest is entered during the winter this circle and knoll will be found to always stay above 60°F, even if snow is falling elsewhere. [L1 – 5]
If it weren’t for all the birds and woodland beast I might suggest Syrul…again. Because it all appears to be a lie.

Falelac & Auburn (left)

[The] High Priest will read from the scripture: "Oh, Master of Lots, bring the Divine Intervention in my behalf this day; all praise to thee, who controls the Destiny of Wagerers!", or "Oh, God of Chance, may the dodecahedrons of fate come up naught-naught!"
[L1 – 5]
It’s an odd litany, considering he arrives carrying a leather cup containing two ivory and jade "percentile" dice. [L1 – 5]
It's like he doesn't have a clue what he's rolling....

One more note about the Church of the Big Gamble:
This is the best the party can hope for in the way of aid on their adventures in this area. If they attack the place, the DM must be ruthless! [L1 – 5]
See the druid’s home above about what the PCs can expect if they decide to shit on the altar.

Not all encounters are dangerous. Some may be fortuitous:
Tolvar, 3rd level Magic-user, AL CN
Tolvar is an adventurer down on his luck. For a good offer he will become a henchman. [L1 – 6]

Locinda, half orc, female 3rd level thief/fighter AL CN
She can be hired for an expedition. She is an adventuress who recently arrived on the island. [L1 – 6]

Martin, 2nd ranger, AL NG
Martin is also a potential henchman. He is on no special mission. However, he is easily offended and expects people to take him at his word. [L1 – 6]

Others not:
Volcifar, 3rd level assassin, AL LE
Volcifar is lawful evil but will pass himself off as lawful neutral. […] He is very unlikely to murder a party member, even for a quick gain, but if an animosity builds up between a player character and himself he might then try to do him or her in. […] If the party has too many characters of good alignment, especially chaotic good, he will likely drift away after an adventure, perhaps taking a good item with him. [L1 – 6]

We come to the eponymous Secret of the hill.

As noted above, the place is riven with undead, for good reason. It’s been a haven for evil for centuries, and it casts a long shadow still. That would leave a mark. And it has. Zombies, skeletons, wights, wraiths. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

The Wraith
The wraith was once a mighty, evil warlord who now acts in concert with the magic-user to further its own hate-filled purposes. Likewise, the skelter and zombire who roam this site […] are unique beings, once utterly evil henchman of the wraith in life but then physically destroyed and cursed with undead forms, sustained by the powerful evil of this ancient and diabolical spot.
[L1 – 8]
The skelter, like the zombire, is the animated remains of a once very evil low-level magic-user. [L1 – 8]

What is the wraith’s evil purposes? And what was his name? Len does not say. He does mention that others have come to put an end to them in the past. And failed.
The skeleton is the remains of a lawful good 15th level magicuser who once came to this ruin to do battle with the evil creatures within. His attempt, though valiant, was not successful, and he is now kept here, imprisoned, not wholly alive yet not wholly dead, and this torture has gnawed at his spirit for centuries. [L1 – 15]

A new evil has since taken up residence.
Telvar, human 6th level Magic-user, AL CE
Telvar’s name might be an issue. It’s too close to Tolvar, to my thinking, not to mention Telmar, a curate at the Big Gamble. Granted, Telvar and Tolvar could be brothers, twins. I suppose Telmar might be a relation, too, as well. That might be interesting. Grist for the mill.
Why ever Telvar’s reasons for coming, I have my doubts that his intent is fully in line with the wraith’s aims.

What’s to be done with all this information? Whatever your heart’s desire.
You could decide that Telvar and Tolvar, and Telmar, for that matter, are descendants of the evil overlord, and that Pelltar is keeping watch on Bone Hill. Why? Maybe Leomund sent him. You could swap out Pelltar with Leomund, for that matter.
Volcifar may have be drawn to Bone Hill, just as innumerable others have been. Indeed, he may even be conspiring with the orc bandits in the hills. So might Locinda, for that matter. Locinda may be there to discover why her brothers were murdered.
Is Martin a spy for the baron? He could very well be. I have to say that I would be very much disappointed if he were not. I do hate loose ends.
There are boundless possibilities to be imagined.
I wonder if that was Len’s intent? Or was he constrained by page count and pressed to leave out more text than he had wish to … you know, all those bits that explained what the secret of Bone Hill might have been, for instance.

I can’t help but believe that this was always intended to be a thinking man’s module. It was suggested for two to eight 2nd through 4th level characters rather than the usual six or so 1st through 3rd; that means its tougher than your standard, run-of-the-mill introductory adventures. It most certainly is, there being level draining undead within. I expect that those who "boldly go" very likely "quickly went" — beyond the veil, I mean. Players were never meant to duke it out with everything they met; and that in most instances, stealth was the better part of valour.
Len DMed it as a mystery, I think. Or so I imagine.

All secrets and mysteries aside, this is a difficult adventure, by any reckoning. There are quite a few mid- to high-level NPCs scattered about, and each would be a challenge to any party of 2nd level characters, however many there might be. To say nothing of the undead present. They drain levels! Nothing raised my hackles more than coming face to face with energy drainers.

Do I think that Bone Hill is a masterpiece? I do. It’s a diamond in the rough. It does require the DM to do a lot of work to pull it off. Yes, it does. It’s going to take tonnes of work. So, why is it a masterpiece, then? Because of its myriad possibilities. Because it’s a mini gazetteer. And because of what Len hints at in his prose, if you are willing to dig in and unearth what he’s buried within its 28 pages. And he buried a lot.

“Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist

One must always give credit where credit is due. This post is made possible primarily by the Imaginings of Gary Gygax and his Old Guard, Lenard Lakofka among them, and the new old guards, Carl Sargant, James Ward, Roger E. Moore. And Erik Mona, Gary Holian, Sean Reynolds, Frederick Weining. The list is interminable.
Very special thanks to Lenard Lakofka, without whose imagination, this adventure, and this review, could not have been possible, to say nothing of The Restenford Project.

The Art:
The Secret of Bone Hill cover, by Bill Willingham, 1981
Restenford Map, by Bill Willingham, from L1 The Secret of Bone Hill 1981
Area Map, by Bill Willingham, from L1 The Secret of Bone Hill, 1981
Gnolls illustration, by Harry Quinn (?), from L1 The Secret of Bone Hill, 1981
Pelltar's Tower illustration, by Erol Otus, from L1 The Secret of Bone Hill, 1981
Welcar illustration, by Jim Roslof, from L1 The Secret of Bone Hill, 1981
Gig Gamble illustration, by Stephen D Sullivan (?), from L1 The Secret of Bone Hill, 1981
Graveyard illustration, by Erol Otus, from L1 The Secret of Bone Hill, 1981

9025 World of Greyhawk Folio, 1980
1015 World of Greyhawk Boxed Set, 1983
2011A Dungeon Masters Guide, 1st Ed., 1979
9045 L1 The Secret of Bone Hill, 1981
9034 B2 The Keep on the Borderlands, 1980
9026 T1 The Village of Hommlet, 1979, 1981
9147 T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil, 1985
Footprints magazine #5, 2005
The Restenford Project


  1. I have my own thoughts on this. Overall, despite whatever one can say about it that's bad, there's something about this adventure that's alluring. An adventure like this needs to exist.

  2. A very inspiring review of Len's adventure. I am also partial to L2.

  3. Loved the whole L series (just got the L3 as a PDF). Its spirit of exploration is amazing. I played it at 13 and DM'd it for my son's friends when they were about the same age.

  4. Great stuff - although I never read it. My brother bought that one and The Assassin's Knot.

  5. Interesting article, David. I recently pulled this from my stack to review for a new group, now I'm going to go back and read again for your points of reference. Very cool, thanks for the article.