L2. The Assassin’s Knot
Fourth in a series of classic D&D modules reprinted
in their original form for our online audience.

Introduction by John D. Rateliff


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The year 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 Player’s 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 Mentzer’s five-box set. Although few realized it, TSR had entered a new era. Gygax’s 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.

Ask 10 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 you’d 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.

Reputation, 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.

L2. The Assassin’s Knot is such a neglected gem. It’s unusual for several reasons. First, so far as I know, it’s 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 Assassin’s 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.

Second, 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 Assassin’s 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 after another.

Third, 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 baron’s 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 they’re 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 Assassin’s 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, I’d say it works best as a one-on-one, with one player trying to solve the mystery aided by various NPCs or henchmen.

While 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 magazine 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 it’s just proof that you can’t keep a good module down.

Bibliography

  • L1. The Secret of Bone Hill 1981
  • L2. The Assassin’s Knot 1983
  • RL Children of the Night: Ghosts (1997)
  • Dungeon Magazine adventure: "Priestly Secrets" (#71, Nov/Dec ’98)
  • Return to the Keep on the Borderland (1999)
  • L3. Deep Dwarven Delve (silver anniversary box) 1999

Notes

1: Efforts 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).

2: Mark 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 Evil.

3: More 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.

4: It’s 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.

About the Author of this Introduction

A noted 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 Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide, 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."

Classic D&D Online Reprint Series
The Assassin’s Knot
Ravenloft: The House on Gryphon Hill
Dungeonland and The Land Beyond the Magic Mirror
Palace of the Silver Princess

 





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