So I'm going to talk about the classic module Village of Hommlet. (Thanks for sending it, Troll & Toad.)
Mandy, hunting around for a module to run:
"I'm not going to read this--because it's called The Village of Hommlet."
Also, it has a ten-year-old in bellbottoms and a pink cape on the cover.
Now maybe Mandy is a soulless, decadent, Hollywood sophisticate but, seriously, I feel like the name of the place you're adventuring in should be at least as evocative as the name of real-life place you actually live in. Later modules err equally in the other direction, but there's quite a lot of nominolinguistic turf between "Village of Hommlet" on the one hand and "Doomcrusher Forge" that one might profitably ply.
Someone will no doubt bring up Metropolis and the City of Townsville and how they like the whole "stuff is comforting and normal and is then disrupted by horrible weirdness" paradigm, but I don't care, it's a dumb name. Especially because it tells the potential used-classic-module buyer nothing they need to know and is deceptive because the packaging is the only thing about the module that is dumb. So people who want dumb will be sorely disappointed.
My reviews here are written from the point of view of explaining what's actually usable in the thing--especially to people who've never read them before and have no nostalgic attachment to them--mainly because I myself personally find it hard to get this kind of information about game stuff.
Most reviews of modules I read are like "Oh, yeah, remember this? My party loved the giant hog-monster!" or "Full of (great stuff/total bullshit) (buy it!/avoid it like the plague)!"
The Village of Hommlet is particularly hard to find out anything genuinely useful about before you go hunting for a used copy. Here's what you can find: it's a sandbox. It's a town. It's called "The Village of Hommlet".
These are not lies.
(Here's something people often forget to mention: there's a dungeon in it. Not tiny, either--thirty-odd rooms.)
I can see how this is frustrating to the would-maybe-be-purchaser of this alleged-from-his/her-P.OV. classic module, especially since the packaging is so exquisitely uninspiring.
Substancewise, I'm going to be as fair and un-nostalgic and even-handed as I can and judge the Village of Hommlet according to the ranking system I laid out here. Only I'm going to be sort of lazy and general about it rather than counting the points because Village of Hommlet is actually pretty good and so gets lots of points and I'm not actually insane enough to go through it and add them all up.
-You get one point for each thing described.
Village of Hommlet gets lots of points for things, especially considering how short it is. 16 pages plus maps and about 20 things per page--mostly places and NPCs.
Clarity at High Speed
-You lose that point if you tell me anything about it that could just as well have been randomized or made up on the spot by anybody with a brain, like: "the church doors are eleven feet high and made of oak."
Arguably maybe losing points here but not really. All the villagers have some meager savings and all these savings are squirreled away in some given location in their house or on their person. The locations are better than me having to make up a place for every wheelwright to hide his loot (what am I paying Gygax for, otherwise?), but the actual amounts aren't. 36 g.p. 12 s.p. Great, thanks! However, these amounts take up so little space that you lose no time because of them.
You lose a point if you explain the function of a thing when I already know what it does. Like if you say "the Cathedral of Chuckles is the center of the worship of the Great God Chuckles" you're wasting your space and my time.
The Village of Hommlet beats out nearly every major-publisher module I've ever seen in this regard, with Gygax clearly writing in his "this is a game for adults" phase here.
Although the entries are still written in paragraph form rather than (my preference) telegraph-esque code (Farmer. Cheese. Wife ugly.) so highlighting is necessary. Also, some non-primitive graphic design could've clarified things further, but that obviously wasn't going to happen. Not perfect, but very good on the efficiency front.
-0 points if there's a map that's keyed with only numbers or letters referring to paragraphs spread out across the supplement. Five points if it's keyed with the names of places and/or some sort of distinctive shape telling you what something is just by looking at it. Twenty points if the spread with the map manages to both locate a place and encapsulate most of the important things I need to know about each location.
5 points for a workmanlike job on the map. Also, I'm tempted to include a bonus here since it's the whole Village and everything is keyed--every single place in the Village is on the map and every place on the map has info about it.
-You gain a point for adding a descriptive detail that affects the style of the thing. That is: creates some sort of shift in the idea of the thing by its mere presence. For example: telling me the church is shaped like perfect sphere, or an antler, or is made entirely of leather, or is a monolithic grey streaked with long dark stains from centuries of rust and rain.
Not a lot of points for character in the Village of Hommlet. It's the standard D&D town, although maybe that's unfair since it's also The Standard D&D Town. The Inn of the Welcome Wench might garner a few character points for its name, and the mouth-watering food descriptions.
I'll also note here that there's a nice drawing of the exterior of the dungeon that actually gives the PCs an idea of where and how they could enter it and what that would entail and so is clear and detailed enough to count as more than just flavor-fluff and which is the kind of thing I always appreciate.
Adventure Fuel And Completeness
-You gain points for adding distinctive features to things that create playable depth --information, "adventure seeds", mini-challenges--to a thing you've created...
Well, everybody does have treasure--that's adventure fuel right there. The main events here are: some of the townspeople are spies for various factions and there's a dungeon. The spy/NPC thing is a pretty good bang-for-your buck in terms of small-details-generating-big-adventures, but there's not a lot of variety in the adventure hooks provided. Spies and suggestions to go to the dungeon (and the off-screen Temple of Elemental Evil) are mainly what you get here. Nothing terribly exotic, but all very self-contained, which is cool.
Five points for each part of the basic premise of the city that is actually interesting. i.e. "The City of Charneldyne is a bustling metropolis at the heart of the orcish empire" would get 0 points, whereas ""The City of Charneldyne is a bustling metropolis at the heart of the orcish empire and is built entirely from the bones of slain foes" will get 5 points.
I'm sure I'll get flack for this, but I am awarding no points for this. There's a village, it's near a dungeon. Ok, congratulations, you're playing D&D. Your mileage may vary.
Twenty points if the setting as a whole is actually interesting. Like Viriconium.
Neither gain nor lose points either way if it's just basically a medieval place.
You lose twenty points if it goes out of its way to be uninteresting, like Stamford, Connecticut.
Neither gain nor lose points here.
However, I feel like the Village needs some bonus points for never ever being stupid. The town is described soup-to-nuts and has nothing stupid anywhere in it. Also: the dungeon is a few sessions worth of action and also has nothing stupid anywhere in it.
That is a truly unique situation for a published module. This is possibly simply because the VoH takes few aesthetic risks--it takes less chances, so it's going to be less likely for something to strike an off-chord. However, there's something to be said for a module whose beat is steady enough that the DM can add his/her own horribly dissonant notes without clashing with existing ones.
In other words, the VoH is the kind of thing that can be altered at will without fucking up any of its internal logic--which is nice.
The workmanlikeness of the setting is everywhere evident. It is a reliable piece of module-ation and I feel like there's something a little unfair about completely condemning it for not challenging fantasy-gaming tropes it, in itself, helped to define (village, wenches, ale, dungeon, giant spider, you die, etc.).
Divide the number of points by the cost in U.S dollars of the setting.
This is a tough one: on the one hand, a used VoH costs, on average, about twice as much and has half as many pages as a comparable modern module.
On the other hand, that low page count is actually a blessing if you want value-for-time rather than value-for-money. There's no wading-through-padding here and the density of information-per-page means the module doesn't send you flipping page after page trying to find some information that may or may not be there. Most of the NPCs are taken care of in three lines of text.