I’ll tell you a little secret. This was not the blog I was going to write this week. I was going to delve into the brilliance of B6 The Veiled Society. But on October 23rd we lost an absolute legend of the game industry—Len Lakofka. So this week, as a tribute to his work, I’m taking a look at L1 The Secret of Bone Hill.
I don’t know Mr. Lakofka’s story. I’d only recently become friends with him on the Book of Faces. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but his works heavily influenced my initial ideas about roleplaying. I believe that in the shallows of 1984 Greyhawk material, I picked up Secret of Bone Hill after its location on page 30 in the Greyhawk boxed set’s Glossography. It seemed an on fit. A relatively bright and dramatic cover by Bill Willingham, it never struck my fancy as far as the cover went. But it was set in Greyhawk, so I wanted to learn more.
It did not disappoint. While Dragonlance presented sandboxes that attempted to downplay player agency, Secret of Bone hill was crazy with agency. It presented this wacky landscape often lacking context or even care for some of the detail so rife in the Greyhawk boxed set. There is this crazy church that loves to roll dice. Strange woods where orc bandits seem to just wander back and forth between strongholds. Locals that were puzzling and sometimes strangely uninteresting.
And then there is this crazy Bone Hill, which sort of makes all the (pitifully few) horror movies I’d seen so far in my life seem to come off as a bit tame. I was on board.
The Secret of Bone Hill taught me a lot about GM preparation. I don’t think it went about doing this on purpose, but Mr. Lakofka seemed fixated on probability throughout this adventure. Just ignoring the other locales around the town of Restenford, Bone Hill, and the Dead Forest—the focal point of the adventure is a place haunted by various undead, a band of bugbears, and an evil wizard named Telvar. The steep march to the barren top of Bone Hill has its own chance for random encounters, as expected, but the ruins on the hill’s flat top presents most of its encounters within a range of probability. Are you going up during the day? The probabilities change. Are you approaching at night? Well, more undead come stirring. Where was Telvar? Well, that depended on a roll of the dice.
While I found the idea intriguing and (to my young mind) realistic, I also knew it would be a pain in the ass to run. I’d continuously be rolling dice behind my screen, which, while building tension and paranoia among my players, left me feeling a tad adrift. I don’t mind making snap changes based on my players’ smart or wacky actions, but this whole Schrödinger’s Dungeon was a bit too much for me.
So I rolled during prep and stocked my Bone Hill accordingly. I made one set of notes for a daytime approach and another for a nighttime approach, and after examining the rolls and notes really hoped that the characters would approach under cover of darkness.
And let me tell you, what I rolled up was a handful for 1st-level characters. Which led me looking to come up with a story before that story. The Secret of Bone Hill doesn’t really provide a storyline for you. It presents an area of space off the edge of the Flanaese. So I did more digging.
According to the information within the Guide of my beloved World of Greyhawk boxed set, Lendor Island was the capital of the Spindrift Islands, which was at the bottom right corner of the Greyhawk map. The Secret of Bone Hill itself, Restenford, is located on the southernmost peninsula of that island. The map indicates the island has tropical jungle, but the module calls the climate mild, and the south is temperate and seasonal. That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I had yet to read about New Zealand. So, I just shrugged and thought, “magic.” The other named settlement on the island was Lo Reltarma, the capital of Lendor Island, which is ruled by the Council of Seven. Seven what? I don’t know. To be honest, I didn’t know whether the Council of Seven ruled the island or just paid off surrounding nations for shipping rights. The entire section on the Spindrift Islands (of which Lendor is one of those islands) is crazy and vague.
What’s even crazier, the folks their worship the Suel gods, and no one knows why. Oh, and the island is named after one (the god of Time and Tedium), though the Spindrift was once ruled by a wizard of the same name. Was the wizard a namesake of the god? Was he the god? And that’s the thing about The Secret of Bone Hill; it’s continuously hinting and dealing with randomness. I was struggling to make sense of it all.
I’ll give you a weird example. As I was digging in deep with The Secret of Bone Hill, I started reading Dragon Magazine. To the best of my recollection, my first issue was #93 (the one with the very hand “Ay pronunseeAyshun gyd” by Frank Mentzer). I bought it at the Fantastic Store, and that shop also had a fair number of back issues spottily stretching back a couple of years or so. I quickly swallowed up one of the back issues with the Suel Pantheon, also by Len Lakofka. Luckily, it has Lendor himself and the trickster Norebo. Norebo seemed a fit for the strange priests in the egg-shaped building filled with dice chuckers. He loved to party and throw dice, but he was also the patron of thieves and assassins, which sounded more exciting and lucrative. Jesus. Furthermore, the Suel Pantheon seemed a weird mix of all sorts of mythologies and grounded in a mist I couldn’t penetrate.
You see, I didn’t get a few things back then. I was a kid. I didn’t realize these products were written by people who have their own lives, likes, and experiences shaped their work. I had yet to learn that Gary Gygax has a way of playing with his name and likeness in the products. If you found an egg in another adventure, it was likely an homage to him somehow. I hadn’t read Vance. I was just discovering Leiber and Moorcock and muddling my way through the Lord of the Rings (I had read the Hobbit when I was younger and was an eagle in a 5th-grade school play based on that work thanks to the release of the Rankin/Bass animated movie and a hippy music teacher). Still, I lacked the contexed needed to have this whole thing even sort of make sense.
Back then, everything moved a bit slower too. The Secret of Bone Hill came out in 1981. The Greyhawk boxed set in 1983, and Suel Pantheon articles in 1984. This jumble of information about the area was dragged out in three years. Thoughts gelled, minds were changes, things were forgotten, and there was little real need to step back and wonder how this all would look to a wide-eyed and precocious 13-year old.
The funny thing is that early D&D at this point still thought it was catering to geeky college students when their audience age was dipping lower into suburban and city (predominately) white boy who also had a taste for bad cinema, comics, and heavy metal; misfits and dorks looking for a way to spice up a rather drab and often nonsensical existence.
While I struggled until later years to make The Secret of Bone Hill make sense, it had cool monsters, hard fights, and magnificent treasure. And that was enough to make a go at it.
So I gathered my crew, they rolled up characters, and we started a Lendor Island campaign. It all started with rats and orc bandits, wound its way to gnolls, and then up the hill to bugbears and undead. It lasted roughly until T1-4 Temple of Elemental Evil saw release. It was a nonsensical romp with lots of monsters, little plot, and piles of treasure. It was an after-school let’s just kill shit campaign, and it was fun. My players soon went off the map, taking a trip on the high sea, where I threw all sorts of sea monsters at them, and they finally to the Jungle of Lost Ships (inspired by the Greyhawk Glossography) before the game came to an end. It was always a casual affair, with players dropping in and out when time allowed, and no one (except for maybe me) really keeping track of the time. Every session was monster-bashing set to the gnashing of New York pizza.
It really helped me get through the most awkward of my teenage years. So, thank you, Len.