GAZING BACKWARDS INTO THE ABYSS
In the dingy fall of 2012, a little over nine years ago now, when I had newly returned to Classic style RPG play and the online community around it seemed full of possibility I wrote Hel's Crow's Final Rest. The blog Ramblings of the Great Khan had put together a little contest for short viking themed adventure, and this was my two page entry.
An RPG friend of mine, mv, has been working on improving their layout skills and asked around for short things in search of layout. I offered a few old adventures and mv picked Hel's Crow's Final Rest. Over the past several days mv and I have gone back and forth about layout and I drew some new art for the old adventure to offer it up again in a more contemporary form.
It's interesting looking back at one's own old work. A glimpse into a different time, and 2012 was a different time. The "OSR" was a younger school of RPG design, having just emerged on Google Plus and started to merge its Revival and Renaissance into a shared conception of play. My experience with post 1995 gaming was largely limited to running Patrick Wetmore's Anomolous Subsurface Environment and playing a few of the early online games on Google Plus. Rule sets hadn't proliferated and Labyrinth Lord was the primary retro-clone. The term "OSR" wasn't even in general use and many of the personalities that would come to dominate the scene and innovate within it hadn't started blogging. Yet in 2012 there was already a robust culture of play exploring rules light older editions of a variety of games (not just Dungeons & Dragons) and a community of creators focused on setting design, adventure creation and rules hacking shared via blog, but not yet the production of new derivative systems for sale. Hel's Crow's Final Rest is a product of this time of vigorous amateur adventure design. It's a simple location/situation based advetnure, but strikes me still as fairly representative of the sort of small adventure in 2012 - a little compressed to fit into its original two pages, but very much an example of mid-period "OSR" design.
At its core Hel's Crow's Final Rest is a faction based negotiation built around a single encounter. Again this is because it's not a dungeon crawl, but a short adventure. One could argue it's scene based even, but it's still designed with a location as its subject - the Sea Shrine of Aski. My adventure designs remain focused on location, even today, and like Hel's Crow's Final Rest try to derive much of their play from faction negotiation. This necessitates unclear moral lines (which Hel's Crow has - though it has obviously good and obviously evil factions) so that there's no obvious best choice for players. Here the players are asked by a powerful evil force to recover an artifact from the shrine sheltering refugees from Aski, and can do that through trickery/negotiation or through violence. Heroism and direct confrontation with evil in the adventure leads only to a quick and messy death, while monetary success (and thus level advancement) is far more likely to come through the characters decision to engage in evil acts themselves.
The cartoonish Norse setting reflects the grim character of this quandary - but I think manages to do so without fully embracing the "Grimdark" sensibilities that would later become an OSR hallmark. Such dark themes and lack of clear "good" choices are a useful tool for designing with high lethality systems, producing adventures that have a high degree of player choice and moral ambiguity/decision. Such settings set player expectations by cautioning them that characters can die easily and that survival depends on making choices and problem solving. An alternative of course has always existed in "Gonzo" settings which use absurdist humor to similar effect, and in 2012 the question of which style of setting Gonzo or Grimdark would dominate future OSR design was still an open question.
What Adventure Design Lessons Does Hel's Crow's Final Rest Offer?
It may offer none, it's very much marked by its time, but the locations are succinct without losing too much flavor, as are treasure and monsters. Notably I think it creates a situation where the players need to behave as peacekeepers between factions, something I always finds leads to interesting play. Design-wise Hel's Crow also does something that's still useful:
1) It places a scene/encounter firmly in the context of a location. The factions within the adventure are not abstractly placed in the world, they are rooted in a small map and with that setting and imagery. This provides an advantage to referees in that it gives context and a concrete space for the situation and encounter, rather then vague goals and relationships. Vague NPC descriptions, relationships, and lists of goals are perhaps useful for placing a larger faction onto a regional map, but within the context of an adventure a creature is best if it wants specific tangible things on a map: the destruction of another faction, a specific item or access to a specific space.
2) It departs from the Gygaxian vernacular to some degree. Not much. Vague allusions and Norse names or terms may not seem like a meaningful departure from the implied setting of early Dungeons & Dragons, but it doesn't take much to break the hypnotic spell of Tolkienesque maundering. Precisely because D&D has produced such a specific aesthetic, simply renaming your wights "draugrs", calling a warship a drakkar, placing setting specific (or simply odd) treasure, and offering a few illustrations can disrupt it. Every stat line in Hel's Crow is a lightly reskinned from Basic/Expert D&D with at most an additional power. Yet the mechanical simplicity of the system makes reskinning very quick and easy, because abilities are only lightly tied to description.
DOWNLOAD HEL'S CROW'S FINAL REST HERE
There may be other elements I've missed looking at this old adventure, check it out for yourself and let me know if you find anything interesting either as an adventure to play or artifact of a different era of adventure design. It's under five pages and free.