Ramping up my reviewing.
Happily playing games for many, many years.
The Assassin’s Knot is the second adventure in Lenard Lakofka’s Lendore Isle series. It is also a mystery adventure: the Baron of Resternford has been assassinated, and the players need to find out who did it! This type of investigation was still new to D&D at this stage, so Lakofka had little in the way of previous examples to guide him.
It should not be surprising to anyone familiar with Lakofka’s other work that his solution to designing an investigation is to provide a lot of detail about the characters and locations the group has to investigate. What I found surprising is that he doesn’t detail those characters that have no relevance to the investigation; Gary Gygax had detailed the entire town in The Village of Hommlet, but Lakofka only details those areas that are important: major services and the chief suspects. It is a great relief to not be wading through a lot of text to find the important parts.
Time pressure is added to the adventure by a timeline of what will happen if the players don’t catch the killer; further important NPCs will die, and Resternford may fall to an ambitious neighbour.
With all this detail, how can you go wrong? Quite easily, in fact. The trouble with The Assassin’s Knot is that it’s very hard to judge how the adventure will progress. A great deal of responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the DM, who may well be unfamiliar with the skills required by this adventure. At this stage in D&D’s development, the event-based design that would see a lot of play in the Dragonlance series didn’t exist. However, Lakofka uses a form of it here, with a number of suggested events for spicing up the adventure, mainly in the form of delaying tactics from the villains. I find it strange that if the group isn’t paying attention there’s a suggested encounter that delays them even further!
The investigative style of the adventure looks a bit strange when you read the recommended size of the group: 6-10 characters of levels 2-5. Investigative adventures tend to want smaller groups, so there is an odd tension between the physical challenges posed by the adventure and the investigative role-playing.
The actual town where most of the action takes place, Garrotten, is known to the players as being a rumoured hideout for assassins – “if you want someone killed, go to Garrotten,” they are told – and indeed, the rumours are true. However, most of the inhabitants of Garrotten know nothing about the assassins despite the town’s unsavoury reputation!
Unusual features of the town include the town’s armourer, a neutral evil half-orc with an intelligent weapon that wishes to slay lawful good characters (get within 10′ of him and there’s a 25% chance the weapon take control and attacks). Some of the inhabitants are psionic; this is one of the rare instances of the use of the AD&D Psionic system in an official adventure. It should be noted that this can actually aid in the running of the adventure, so it isn’t just a “look at the weird rules I’ve included” addition to the game.
Most striking about this adventure is the world-building. Along with the psionics, I can’t think of many AD&D adventures that use an assassin’s guild – lone assassins, certainly, but an entire guild? Lakofka also uses three of the Suel deities he’d written about in Dragon magazine to good background effect (Kord, Xerbo and Osprem), and it’s hard not to chuckle at the way the chaotic priest of the temple of Osprem works out how much they charge for spells – basically rolling d10000 for high level spells, d1000 for mid-level spells and d100 for first-level spells. Apparently this frustrates the other priest who has to do the book-keeping!
All of this detail makes the setting of Garrotten very rich and full of interesting elements for the DM and players, but the play of the adventure is mostly up to the DM’s skills. I believe there are enough clues for the players to actually progress and solve the mystery, but things could fall dreadfully flat. A high degree of attention is required during play of this adventure to make it work properly. By no means is it a scripted adventure: you’re given the starting parameters and some ideas for what the NPCs will do, but from then it’s up to the DM and the players with only a few hints from the text.
It is quite likely that the final act of the adventure will become to a dungeon-crawl as the party make their way through the lair of the villain; this is quite effectively handled, with a number of interesting magical effects present.
Physically, the module possesses a double cover, as Pharaoh did, which contain the maps as well as a roster of the characters of Garrotten. The maps are drawn by Stephen D. Sullivan and are functional and attractive, but the artwork of the adventure ranges from adequate to quite poor – the cover is particularly poor. No artist is credited in the text.
There are some really good ideas in The Assassin’s Knot, and I like the structure of the writing a lot more than Lakofka’s first adventure, The Secret of Bone Hill - this has a lot more advice on starting the adventure and ideas for making the encounters memorable. It’s a challenging adventure that won’t be to everyone’s taste, but there is enough to the adventure that rewards closer attention.