The Assassins Knot
a series of classic D&D modules reprinted
in their original form for our online audience.
Introduction by John
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cover for a larger image
was 1983. The D&D boom was in full swing, with TSR quadrupling
its audience every year. The early days were long behind: the classic
core AD&D rulebooks -- the Players Handbook, Monster
Manual, and DMG -- had been in print for several years and
played so intensely that many gamers had them practically memorized. D&D
itself was in its classic third edition with the original Basic/Expert
sets (by Tom Moldvay and Zeb Cook, respectively), soon to be supplanted
by Frank Mentzers five-box set. Although few realized it, TSR had
entered a new era. Gygaxs contributions were becoming rarer and
rarer as he withdrew from design to oversee corporate efforts to break
into Hollywood.(1) Most of the other very early employees had either moved
on or been promoted into management, leaving the actual design of game
products to new talent.
gamers to identify the "golden age" of D&D or AD&D
and you might well get 10 different answers, but one feature of those
early days no one can deny was the shared experience. With relatively
few modules in print and the audience at an all-time high, odds were that
if youd played a published adventure, most other gamers had as well.
Most of those early modules achieved classic status, some of them being
collected and reprinted again and again in the years that followed. The
drow ("D") and giant ("G") series, and the special
("S") modules all passed into legend. T1. Village of Hommlet
and B2. Keep on the Borderlands provided starting points for many
a campaign, a home base from which adventurers could venture out and to
which they could return between exploits. Classic series like the "B"
(basic), "I" (intermediate), and "X" (eXpert) -- arguably
the high points of classic D&D/AD&D module design,
much imitated ever since -- had all been launched, as had the "A"
(assassin), "C" (campaign), and "N" (novice) series.
however, is a funny thing. Some of those early modules remain legend even
today -- witness the revival, by popular demand, of several via "return
to" products in the last three years.(2) Others either took years
to gain an underground reputation (the "U" series) or have remained
in relative obscurity.
The Assassins Knot is such a neglected gem. Its unusual
for several reasons. First, so far as I know, its the first direct
sequel to another module. Other closely connected stories had been conceived
as a unit -- the A series, for example, were different rounds in the same
tournament. But The Assassins Knot picks up on themes from
L1. The Secret of Bone Hill and shifts them to a new locale, much
as the abortive T2. would have done to the village of Nulb and Temple
of Elemental Evil. It seems perfectly normal now to create a sequel that
builds on events in an earlier module or disrupts an established setting,
but it was a new idea back in 1983.
most early adventures followed a simple pattern of describing a dungeon
and stocking it with monsters. The best of them went beyond the dungeon
itself to consider the surroundings and effect of events in the outside
world on the dungeon inhabitants behavior, but basically monsters
just waited in their rooms for adventurers to come by and kill them. The
Assassins Knot departed dramatically from that paradigm by presenting
a smart set of NPCs who had a clear goal and the means to see it realized,
unless the PCs stopped them. These villains had a life that went on outside
the scenes the adventurers were in; they had a timetable of when each
stage of their plot kicked in. Player characters who expected to save
the day with a simple dungeon delve got hopelessly misdirected toward
patsies set up by the real villains, who inexorably carried out one killing
the "L" series was remarkably self-contained, considering that
it consisted of only two 32-page modules.(3) The first provided a pleasant
little town with a fully-described population as a home base, complete
with two mini-dungeons of its own (the dungeons beneath the barons
castle and the abandoned thieves lair). The surrounding hills are
nicely stocked with various wilderness encounters to keep a party busy
for some time. And once theyre ready for a real challenge, the whole
scenario climaxes in the ruined castle on Bone Hill itself, choke full
of evil undead, spellcasters, unpleasant humanoids, and weird magic. To
this the second adventure adds political tension, misdirection (the three
framed innocents), and a nice cast of villains.(4) The "cell"
structure of the Assassins Guild and careful detailing of who knows
what invites an investigative approach, more like a Call of Cthulhu
adventure than the average AD&D campaign of the time. In fact,
having run this adventure more than once, Id say it works best as
a one-on-one, with one player trying to solve the mystery aided by various
NPCs or henchmen.
this adventure has been out of print for many years, and the Lendore Isles
were more or less trashed as an adventure setting by later (late nineties)
developments in the Greyhawk campaign setting, there have been
a surprising number of references to it over the years. Even before the
"lost" module L3 was recovered and published, Dungeon
had run an adventure
set in Restenford (the setting of L1) that took into account events in
Garrotten (ibid, L2): "Priestly Secrets" (#71, Nov/Dec 98).
The setting also reappears briefly in a forthcoming class-builder's guidebook,
and characters or monsters from it appear in the Ravenloft adventure
collection Children of the Night: Ghosts (Arrness) and in Return
to the Keep on the Borderlands
(Thomas and Holga). Perhaps its just proof that you cant keep
a good module down.
The Secret of Bone Hill 1981
The Assassins Knot 1983
Children of the Night: Ghosts (1997)
Magazine adventure: "Priestly Secrets" (#71, Nov/Dec 98)
to the Keep on the Borderland (1999)
Deep Dwarven Delve (silver anniversary box) 1999
that sadly resulted only in the D&D cartoon, the long hoped-for
"D&D movie" only becoming a reality many years later
(in fact, this month).
of Amber, Return to the Tomb of
Horrors, Return to White Plume
Mountain, Against the Giants: The
Liberation of Geoff,
and the forthcoming
Return to the Temple of Elemental
modules were planned in the series, but they were canceled after the game
industry crashed in 1984. One, however, finally saw print in 1999 (L3.
Deep Dwarven Delve) as part of the special Silver Anniversary box.
also probably the only published adventure to include a random encounter
chart for the castle privy, detailing the exact chance of meeting each
of the major NPC villains on his or her way to or from the facility.
the Author of this Introduction
Tolkien scholar with a Ph.D. in fantasy, John D. Rateliff has been gaming
for 20 years and working professionally in the industry since 1991, mostly
at TSR and Wizards of the Coast. Editor of Night Below and Return
to the Tomb of Horrors,
and co-editor of the new D&D Player's
he also designed Return to
the Keep on the Borderlands
and Reverse Dungeon.
John is probably
the only professional game designer to hail from Magnolia, Arkansas. He
he is currently working on a new edition of The Hobbit for the
Tolkien estate. In his spare time he reads (fantasy and works on prehistory),
games (whenever he can make time for it), and makes lists. Don't ask him
about "the cat-bite incident."
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