D&D Basic Review – B6: The Veiled Society

Released in 1984, B6: The Veiled Society is an innovative adventure. Its designer, David “Zeb” Cook, had already made several contributions to the D&D adventure line: Slave Pits of the Undercity, The Isle of Dread, Dwellers of the Forbidden City, Master of the Desert Nomads and Temple of Death as well as writing the original set of the D&D Expert Rules (1981). In The Veiled Society, he moved to an adventure style that, as yet, D&D had not done much of before: the urban adventure.

The Veiled Society is actually a fairly short adventure, only 16 pages in length. The remainder of the product is taken up by paper fold-up buildings, with the cover having some cardboard PC and NPC figures for use with the buildings. The scale of the buildings seems odd; a city scale ruler seems to indicate the scale of 1″=800 ft. or thereabouts, which is greatly at odds with the use in the adventure with the scale being 1″=10 ft. I’m not sure I quite understand what it’s used for!

The adventure is set in Specularum, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Karameikos, which was introduced as the homeland of the adventurers in the D&D Expert set. Interestingly, this is the first Basic adventure which really pays attention to the geography of the Known World. The city is small, about 5,000 people, which keeps up the tradition of surprisingly low population numbers in early D&D products, such as those in the Greyhawk setting. 5,000 people seems entirely too low for a major city. Venice in 1490 was about 180,000 people; Rome at its lowest point in the early 1400s (when mostly abandoned) was 20,000 people. The first of the Gazetteers in would later state that Specularum has 50,000 inhabitants, evidence that the designers had begun to realise exactly how low the early numbers were. I also note that the street map in this product appears to show a much larger city, especially as it contains both an old and a new city! I suspect that Karameikos was originally conceived as a relatively newly-founded duchy, back when the Expert set was first released, but this adventure requires an older settlement. Unfortunately, the number of inhabitants had not been updated since the Expert set.

The core of the adventure is concerned with three feuding noble families, something that reminded me immediately of those in Romeo and Juliet. It is perhaps an indication of how little reading I’ve done on medieval and Renaissance history that Romeo and Juliet still is my primary reference for feuding families of this era! The adventure cites the medieval cities of Germany and Italy as inspiration, although the city itself doesn’t get much more than an overview. Each of the feuding houses gets between two and four paragraphs of description. The adventure relies a lot on the DM to fill in what the players can find in the city.

Urban adventures were still new for TSR at this stage. There had been a few adventures featuring settlements, for instance, The Village of Hommlet, and Against the Cult of the Reptile God, although their main adventure locations were dungeons. Cult used keyed locations and a couple of events to drive the story. The Assassin’s Knot is the most urban-based of previously-published adventures, but it has a number of structural problems that make it a challenge to run even for skilled DMs.

In contrast, The Veiled Society is written for novice DMs. It’s presented with a moderately linear flow, aided by an event-driven structure.

Despite its linearity, it’s an ambitious and innovative adventure. It begins with the player characters entering the city during the Festival of Lucor. In the festivities, they witness an altercation between members of two of the families. It’s an effective way of introducing the rivalry, and soon after the characters are contacted by agents of two of the families, offering them work. To make things more interesting, the two agents contact different characters; this will be used in a later encounter, and allows the possibility of players working towards different ends.

However, the first actual adventure is not related to the offers; a local goodwife has a problem with noises in her cellar and needs the player characters to investigate. What are the noises? A group of hobgoblins and slaves working for the Veiled Society, tunnelling under the city to create secret passages for the Veiled Society’s agents. The players can also discover the body of a young noblewoman who has been slain by the society.

This is excellent adventure design: it presents a mystery immediately which arises from regular adventuring activities. The characters are probably interested in solving the mystery (especially as the authorities are initially interested in them as suspects), but the solution isn’t immediately presented. Instead, the tension in the city grows as a riot erupts against the Torenscu family, who are blamed for Lucia’s death. Of course, the characters are caught up in the riot, and have to decide whether to aid it or escape from it.

The most problematic section of the adventure is when the agents who made job offers to the party return, and the group learn what their missions are. Some of the group tasked to protect a noble and the rest are ordered to kill him. This obviously poses some severe problems to party unity, although it is a really good way of also bringing into the sharp relief the tensions dividing the city by replicating them in the party.

The adventure concludes with the Veiled Society attempting an assassination attempt on the party, which leads to a chase and eventually the discovery of the Veiled Society’s hideout and the true perpetrators of the city’s troubles. The end is open-ended enough that the players could end up joining the Veiled Society or exposing it – giving rise to several further adventure possibilities.

It’s worth looking at the chase. Chase rules were fairly rare in RPGs of this era, especially ones that took place in a city. There are pursuit rules in the AD&D DMG, but they’re pretty basic and a little bit confusing at the same time, although the James Bond 007 RPG, released in the previous year (1983), had the best chase rules yet seen in a RPG (and possibly ever). In this adventure, the DM gets to place the fold-up buildings to show the streets ahead of the character (in a rolling method, removing previous buildings as they are passed so he or she has enough for what’s ahead). The pursuit has characters moving at their basic movement speeds along the streets, with a small chance (1 in 5) of catching up even if they’re the same speed as those pursued. There are a few obstacles and an ambush during the chase to keep things interesting, but overall, it’s not really successful at creating a great experience.

A large part of this is due to any fighter or cleric worth their salt in Basic D&D is going to be wearing the extremely affordable plate armour and thus will be limping along at a very slow speed compared to the ambushers. Does a lone magic-user want to get ahead of the group? Not really – well, not if he wants to live!

The Veiled Society is a well-written adventure. It’s very clear in its presentation of what is going on and how the DM should run the adventure. Each section begins with a short piece of fiction that depicts discussions between some of the major nobles, which proves to be an excellent framing device, allowing the DM to have a much better idea of the rationale behind the encounters facing the players. This is especially true given that otherwise they don’t get much text describing them. It’s a technique that has been rarely used since.

Unfortunately, the cover art is less than inspiring, and there isn’t much interior art – two pieces, drawn by the talented Jim Roslof, which don’t seem quite right for this style of adventure. There are a lot of maps, which aren’t great works of beauty but are mostly effective.

Overall, this is one of the gems of the D&D Basic line, taking a complicated premise and presenting it in a manner that a novice DM can handle it, and opening up the possibility of more urban adventures down the track.

[Copies of The Veiled Society can be found on Amazon (print) or DnDClassics (pdf)]

2 comments

  1. Pingback: 5E Adventure Review: Winterheart | Merric's Musings

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