Tuesday, January 24, 2023

The Crypt of Olaf the Black, but it's JV West's "The Howler"

Whew, that was an interesting session.

Who showed up?

  • Jax & Goober
  • Frederick
  • Fulvus
  • Otto
and introducing:
  • Mareth, an elf of uncertain provenance 

The party remained in Dawold, having a serious hangover breakfast of extraordinarily large omelets, when a longship docked, unloading its cargo, including a sodden, hungover elf. He said he was dropped into the ocean by a giant eagle, but his breath suggested otherwise.

Otto gave Mareth (as he introduced himself) the remainder of his breakfast, and the party recounted their prior adventure with the cult. The party bummed around town for a bit, getting more info on the collapsed, half-built tower.

At this point I laid out the regional map, as it is developing, with settlements, roads, rivers, and prior explored locations.

You are here

"Where do you want to go?"

Chris/Frederick, another avid note-taker, looked at his character sheet. "I'd like to ask around if anyone knows where the Crypt of Olaf the Black might be located." He recovered a map showing the rough location of the crypt in a past random loot draw, and had been holding onto it. 

Ok, you ask the village headman, since he's been here longest. The chap was not sure, but knew that there were numerous barrows in the forests to the west of town in an area conveniently not visited yet by the PCs. Word was that Olaf had been a magician who fell under a curse... 

And I had Howler, by J.V. West, prepped to run.

The party made their way west without much issue. Mareth asked Jax about nearly every plant they encountered, and its potential uses. (FYI, Mareth is the 2nd 6 CHA elf that has joined the roster of players. Our local elves are socially awkward weirdos). 

Anyway, they came upon some standing stones, possible tumulus' and barrows. As they were searching about, an inebriated ogre burst from the brush, yelled, "WOOHOO!" downed a bottle of whisky and hucked it at the party (it went wide). Jax, who took "Ogre" as their foreign language elective at Barbarian University, greeted the drunken fellow. Taken aback, the ogre ("Rorkker") exchanged slurred greetings and claimed that the party was in "his" forest. Otto, meaning to be hospitable, pulled out his own bottle, took a swig, and then tossed the remainder to the ogre. Rorkker downed it and yelled, "LET'S PARTY!" charging the PCs.

Yeah. I rolled a 1.

Well, he was drunk...

Rorkker stumbled on a rock and knocked himself cold. The party hogtied the unconscious fellow and relieved him of some meagre treasure.

The party soon found a barrow with markings consistent with those on Frederick's map. It had been very recently opened, and with some inspection it was determined that whoever went in likely had not come out.

The party entered, discovering a pile of skeletons, apparently formerly animated guards of the place. Tiptoeing through the dispatched skeletons, they found a second room with a ritual pool and astrological/magical emblems. Otto had a large spider drop on his head, but then sprayed it across the room in some panicked overkill.

Peering down a hallway, Mareth sensed a possibly dying body at the far end. Suspicious, the party sent Goober to investigate. Which was pretty much the best possible option. The dog set off numerous arrow traps in the walls, which fired harmlessly over his back.

From Mythbusters, but you know the scene...

Avoiding any remnant darts, the party came upon poor Rains Calibrin, on his last breaths. He rambled on about his lost companion, a monster that screamed, and had "sucked dry" a set of elven armor. Succumbing to his wounds, the poor chap passed.

Adequately freaked out, the party nevertheless soldiered on. They entered a large chamber with a broken statue and debris indicating prior explorers. Searching a side passage, Jax and Fulvus found some mushrooms. Of course, Fulvus and Mareth (wanting to fit in) tried them. The "lucky" mushrooms gave them temporary bonuses.

More spiders dropped from the ceiling, Frederick, oft-assailed by the critters, stood back and sniped at least half of them, leaving the party to slay the rest.

At this point they entered the last room. Peering into the dark, the group spotted a couple of sarcophagi at the far end. And something moving fast across the ceiling.


Battle closed as the thing dropped, frantically looking back and forth at Frederick, Jax, and Fulvus (the three characters with significant magic items) before leaping on Frederick. It clawed him, then let out a fearful scream, freezing Fulvus and Otto in fear for a round. Leaping to Jax, it did the same. Jaz "heard" Faith Perpetual scream and go silent. Mareth was now frozen in fear. The party rallied, and killed the damned thing. In its dying moment, it blazed with arcane energies, and Fulvus and Jax saw visions of a mage so obsessed with magic that he became cursed to consume it.

The party then attacked the remaining sarcophagi. Because why not. Even though they had warnings of a curse. Sigh. With some clever lid manipulation, they were able to defeat the mummies within (low HD "Hill mummies") and recover a few trinkets.

Faith Perpetual whispered to Jax, restored by the blast of released energies, but was definitely in need of a rest.

The party stepped back into the sun, glad to have that little adventure behind them. Only to meet Rorkker, who was freeing himself from his bonds. The ogre stood, slapped Jax on the back, sending her reeling, yelled, "GOOD JOKE!" and stumbled off into the woods...

Review Time:

I've had Howler in my files for quite some time, as well as several other of James V. West's products, particularly his most excellent "Black Pudding" zines, which I use as a model when I write up a silly player character class now and then.

Howler is written as a single-session investigation of a barrow and its immediate area. West's fun pulp-comic style art accompanies the text. 

The adventure itself is presented with backstory and a couple sets of random encounters and set-pieces for characters searching the area of the "Howler Hill" and its tomb. Rorkker was one of the random encounters, but one too fun to not include.

Because the players had done intelligence-gathering in town, I got them to the tomb entrance without much searching and delay. The module itself includes content for digging around other graves, undead occurrences, wandering critters and finding the body of Rains Calibrin's (see above) companion not far from the tomb (follow the blood trail back...)

As described above, the tomb itself is pretty much a 5-room dungeon, and is described well enough to create some good atmosphere. I was adjusting on the fly to replace "Black Olaf" as the unnamed cursed wizard, and justification for a few of the tomb features. The 'box text' at the beginning of each section was paraphrased, and led to enough inquiry by the players to round out the spaces with detail to fit the scene. The Howler may detect or hear intruders as they enter each room. In my case, he was in the final tomb room, but alerted by their fight with the spiders, plus the various magic items carried.

The module is reasonably easy to run. There is a d20 list of abandoned adventuring gear (some of which may be drained magically) to find randomly in each room. If I were run this again, I would pre-roll for individual rooms, since its a bit balky to pick at the table. To be honest, because my players have already accumulated some magic items, I cheaped out and didn't roll for too many random items overall. For a batch of 1st level mooks, it could be a windfall.

Descriptions are a bit long (something I'm guilty of, too) and not the punchy or bullet list descriptions that have become more common, especially with the OSE official product and similar. So although I'd given the tomb a good read through and made some game notes, I still had to re-read on the fly to catch some details or descriptions for my players. 

The Big Bad: This is the heart of the adventure, with a magic-eating not-really-undead. Depending on how it's run, this could confound and frustrate players. Especially if the Howler escapes the tomb after draining an item or two. The monster description and powers, again, is wordy, over a page, so I needed to highlight a few passages ahead of time to pull out the relevant data. A box with stats and abilities listed would be helpful. And as usual, I still missed some details, especially once combat commenced. Although the Howler injured a player and drained a handful of items, the fight wasn't as dynamic or desperate as it could have been, partly because I missed a detail or two. Having the Howler 'boxed up' and highlighted would be helpful. 

One fun random element is the release of arcane energy with the death of the Howler. Magic items drained in combat may be restored, as well as found items within the tomb. Additionally, random weapons and object carried by the PCs may become enchanted. After the session, I made a few random rolls, and a few of the players may discover either enchanted weapons or former mundane items that now grant a bonus or ability. These will appear, as needed....

Likewise, the two low-power mummies ("hill mummies") that remain in still-sealed sarcophagi could be a decent challenge, particularly for a degraded party. The two sarcophagi are challenging enough to crack, and potentially not accessible. My players have a combination of tools and sheer doggedness, so they got them open. They were also able to avoid some risk by good initiative rolls and fast actions. That said, I'll be "borrowing" these mummies as servants in another mummy-themed adventure I'm working on.

Other than the potential magic items, valuables are slim for a B/X style play. The PCs ended up with some grave goods and curiosities, as well as a couple of magic items each (to be ID'd later...). I threw in a treasure item or two, but the intent of this adventure is to provide potential magic items for characters.

Overall, a fun adventure, with a potentially infuriating baddie. As I mentioned, a tighter, more bulleted description approach would aid the usability of the product, but I had a good time running it.

The module is 24 pages, including covers and OGL, and free in pdf format. 


A DM-ing note: 

As I've mentioned I'm running my game through Meetup, with a rotating cast of characters as well as a few "usuals." I did get a DM from one player that they wouldn't be returning, as they were looking for a game style with more risk or a higher of chance of failure in the event of brash actions. As I've discussed before, both my adventure design, and DM style, doesn't really contribute to dead PCs. I still find myself a novice in many ways, and learning the management on my side of the screen.

Anyway, I'll miss the player for their experience, creativity, and enthusiasm. They kept me on my toes. I also appreciate their feedback and thanks for my own creativity and hosting a fun game.

I started the group as a set of one-shots, both to introduce people to Ye Old Game, as well as to get myself out and running stuff. I didn't really expect individual people to keep showing up. But people want to play. So my sessions are in transition, from a few individual adventures, to a loose lore and worldbuilding, and likely more along the lines of an open table or West Marches campaign. Success is a pleasant surprise.


  1. Cool beans. Thanks for this excellent play report and review. I haven't touched Howler in years, though I ran it several times between 2014 and 2018. It was the first D&D-based module I ever made, so I was leaning pretty hard into the classic style with the box text and all that. If I did it again today I'd probably leave that out and do more bullet points. But I like having created something of that style and I don't have any intentions of changing or updating it right now. Your suggestions, though, are very good and I think they would improve the adventure.

    1. Thanks James,
      Yes, it's a fun scenario and adventure, and I was able to play up the atmosphere quite a bit to keep the players a bit paranoid. I do agree on style. I do take cues from older adventures, too, but do try to keep to a more terse style. It is difficult to keep things simple sometimes! I have been accused by a certain reviewer of 'failed novelist syndrome' or something similar. Ha. I'm currently revisiting an older adventure of my own to revise and modify the content to make it more useable and complete, myself.