On the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide

The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide is the first non-adventure book published by Wizards of the Coast for D&D 5th Edition since the core rulebooks. It’s an unusual book, as – unlike most of the campaign books released in the past – it is aimed primarily at players, not Dungeon Masters. This isn’t to say that Dungeon Masters won’t find it a useful book, but that it’s important to understand the primary scope of the book.

I’m coming to the book as someone who picked up the original Forgotten Realms Campaign Set in the late 1980s, investigated the Realms heavily for a couple of years, then stepped away from it for a couple of decades. I returned to the Realms mainly through the adventures released as part of the D&D Encounters seasons of 2010 onwards. Although I’ve read a few of the recent novels, my view of the current Realms is shaped primarily through the adventures.

The newest adventures are set in the region of the Forgotten Realms known as the Sword Coast – a great stretch of land covering the western shore of the main continent of Faerûn. This land includes the great city of Waterdeep, as well as the important centres of Baldur’s Gate, Candlekeep and Neverwinter, all of which have featured in well-received computer games. This is the land that the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide describes. One of the things it is very good at doing is giving context to the cities you see references to in the adventures. When your travels in Hoard of the Dragon Queen take you to Baldur’s Gate, all of the players and DM can use this book to understand where you’ve ended up. Although the Guide isn’t primarily a source of adventure ideas, there is enough in it to help the DM bring the place to life and potentially inspire a side-quest or two.

There’s actually quite a lot of information on the various towns and settlements of the Sword Coast in the book. Baldur’s Gate gets about 2 pages (including a half-page map). It had only a third of a page in the original Campaign Set book! There’s been a lot of development of the setting since it was originally released, and I think this book does an excellent job of conveying the essentials (and a bit more) of the areas it covers. For areas outside of the Sword Coast, it’s not really the book you want. Cormyr hardly gets a mention, nor does the Moonsea. It explains what the terms are, but little more. The book is a lot better at describing Luskan, Waterdeep and Mithril Hall, major places in the Sword Coast. The Underdark isn’t developed all that much, but that’s what Out of the Abyss is for. Nor does it really cover the threats to the region, which a DM seeking to invent adventures might want, although there’s a lot of politics and intrigue you could draw from the book!

I’m very pleased by the style in which the information is presented: from the point of view of a native of those areas (the book uses the viewpoints of several different people). The conversational style of the book makes it a delight to read. It also opens up the possibility that not all of the information is correct… something that DMs may have a lot of fun with.

I’m rather less pleased with how the map of the Sword Coast was printed; it splits over two pages and the page fold means rather important places like Neverwinter and Waterdeep are hard (or impossible) to find! Thankfully, Wizards have released a high-res version of the map to download for free. It’s big, though – over 25 MB!

One of the tremendously important things the Guide does is update the timeline and provide answers to some of the events that happened during the Sundering. If you were curious as to what officially occurred in Murder in Baldur’s Gate, you can find out here. The changes in rulership of Waterdeep during The Rise of Tiamat are also acknowledged, and I found the descriptions of what was happening in Neverwinter to be very interesting – with the place having changed since the days of the Neverwinter Campaign Setting, as you’d hope they would, it having been a decade or more since then!

The recent history of the Realms also clarifies a few matters of the timeline. In particular, Murder in Baldur’s Gate occurred in 1482 DR and Legacy of the Crystal Shard in 1485 DR. The year of this book appears to be 1489 or 1490 DR, around or just after the year of the Tyranny of Dragons, although I think Princes of the Apocalypse is set in 1491 DR. (Chris Perkins recently revealed that Out of the Abyss actually overlaps the other adventures, which explains why the demon lords are summoned about 1486 CY into the Underdark in Archmage – the upper world just didn’t know about it!)

As a DM, I’m not directly interested in the new player options, but although they’re not extensive, there’s quite a range of options and my players have become very eager to try them out in play.

I’m very much enjoying reading the book. There’s a lot of information I was unfamiliar with, and more that explores how the world has changed. The section on the gods of the Realms is superb. At US$40 for 160 pages, it’s a relatively expensive book, but – for me at least – it’s worth it.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Forgotten Realms, Review | 1 Comment

Chris Perkins on upcoming D&D storylines and products

Chris Perkins gave a seminar at GameHole 2015 about Wizards’ future plans for D&D adventures and products. The Gaming and BS Podcast recorded the seminar and posted it. I’m very grateful to them!

There were a lot of interesting topics covered in the seminar. I’ve written a summary of some of the key points below, although I may have misinterpreted some of what he said. So, if you have time, listen to the seminar (it runs at about 90 minutes).

However, for those of you who prefer reading this sort of material, here’s the summary!

Story First and Product Plans

  • Wizards have no interest in releasing product unless they have a story to tell. Gone are the days where they were bound by the requirement to release a book (or more) a month.
  • This is partly driven by business realities; partly driven by knowledge of facts gained through surveys and face-to-face discussion at conventions. They’ve found there is a limit to how much material people can absorb. After a while, the material they release has no value and is no longer serving anybody. A lot of 3rd and 4th edition products were bought and never used or used very little.
  • “We don’t sell products so that 5% of our audience can use 5% of it. We’re now trying to sell products that 100% of our audience might use and they’ll use all of it.”
  • This improves the perceived value of D&D, and creates more shared experiences, the way that everyone knows Tomb of Horrors.
  • The goal is to create stories that (hopefully) years from now people can remember.
  • The first story was “Tyranny of Dragons”, which Wizards partnered with Kobold Press for the TRPG product and also partnered with Gale Force Nine, Cryptic and WizKids for related products – computer games, board games and accessories.
  • The second story was “Elemental Evil”, which revisited a classic Greyhawk storyline and attempted to show off things that weren’t in the original adventure, such as the Princes of Elemental Evil.
  • The third story was (is) “Rage of Demons”. Although nominally set in the Forgotten Realms, Rage is largely set in the Underdark and can be run in any campaign world which has an Underdark.
  • Rage’s story originated when Wizards learnt that R.A.Salvatore was planning a pair of Drizzt books set in the Underdark and which could be used as bookends for the entire stories. Wizards also wanted to use nostalgic elements from early D&D; thus they took the demon lords that they liked from AD&D’s Monster Manual & MM2 and designed the story about them being summoned into the Underdark.
  • How would the Demons react? Well, Juiblex and Zuggtmoy wouldn’t mind that much. Demogorgon and Orcus wouldn’t be that happy, so what would they do? It’s a very big and ambitious story.

Where do Wizards stories go next?

  • The core rulebooks are very multiversal in their approach, with material from many of the D&D worlds.
  • Three major things:
    • Future stories are not limited to one world. Wizards will be looking at other worlds. Some stories will return to the Realms, or will use multiple worlds. One goal is to go beyond the Forgotten Realms.
    • Wizards want to continue to draw upon the past; bringing to light past elements of the game, especially ones that were neglected, partly to introduce new players to some old concepts.
    • Wizards also want each new story to feel different from the ones that precede and follow it. To balance the mood and feel so that they feel distinct.
  • Tyranny was all about Dragons, with Tiamat as the key returning element from the past.
  • (Incidentally, Wizards do not own the characters from the D&D cartoon and so can’t use them).
  • The story that follows Rage of Demons will not be anywhere near the Underdark.
  • The story that follows that will also be quite different.
  • Elemental Evil was very dungeon-dependent.
  • In the future, Wizards might want to do intrigue. Would it be city-based? Planar-based?
  • The story after that could be horror or something more light-hearted or flaky, or steam-punk and pulpy (like Eberron).

Size of the Wizards Team

  • The Wizards team is fairly small at the moment. Chris was actually hired to work at TSR, but never got to work there as it was going bankrupt, and then was bought by Wizards.
  • When TSR merged with Wizards, the D&D team was just under 50 people, with teams dedicated to supporting individual campaign settings.
  • The team is currently 15 (and has no teams for settings), and works not only on TRPG material, but also work with the novelists and with their other partners (miniatures, computer games, game accessories, etc.) And they’re also thinking of and other ways of increasing the range of the games, such as Loot Crate and plush owlbears. (Apparently the owlbears were a thing at this convention).
  • The Story Team consists of Chris Perkins, Richard Whitters (art director, stolen from the Magic Team and loves D&D more than Magic) and a story writer called Adam Lee (worked on Ravnica and Innistrad). The Story Team is also hiring a new concept artist. The rest of the D&D team also pitch in with story ideas, and the team also pay attention to ideas suggested by the larger playing community.

Future Adventures

  • From talking with a convention attendee, Chris began thinking about historical-based adventures.
  • At present, they’re working on four stories – two for next year, and two more in fairly developed states.
  • Shorter, modular adventures are being released through the D&D Adventurers League.
  • Short adventures present a number of problems. They’re too fleeting to really gain much traction with players, and thus don’t give the big shared experiences that Wizards is currently aiming for. They also give retailers a lot of problems – their presence on the shelf is a problem (no spine to display). Stores and distributors get a lot more excited about the bigger books and boxed sets.
  • Wizards do consider short adventures important, but for now the main support for short adventures will be through the D&D Adventurers League.
  • There’s a “World of Warcraft” model Wizards are using: Blizzard want to release a mammoth, not a bunch of mice, and would rather wait for a year or two for each big release. This allows time for people to experience it and give feedback on it for future releases.
  • Wizards are also experimenting with their digital partners for “D&D-light” experiences. Their partners find it easier and better to tie their releases and marketing efforts to these big storyline releases. They want a bigger story they can sink their teeth into.
  • There is an upcoming story that goes back to a past adventure (which doesn’t feature dragons and thus isn’t Dragonlance). Vampires might feature in an upcoming story. Given Adam Lee worked on Innistrad, a Gothic story may come up. (I wouldn’t be surprised if the August (October/Halloween) release is a Ravenloft story – Merric)
  • Chris was talking to Matt Sernett about Githyanki and the creches they have on the Material Plane to have & raise their children.
  • The release plan has changed so that Wizards don’t tell people what they’re making until quite soon before a release. 3-4 months is the perfect window to build excitement, but telling a people a year in advance is just too long. The excitement dissipates.
  • Giants are a great opponent to use, but they do provide problems to their digital partners due to scale. (Tiamat proved troublesome!)
  • Chris has always wanted to revisit the A series (Slave Lords), but hasn’t got a good story for it yet. Likewise, Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is a great adventure, but how do you create a 4-6 month campaign about it? (Chris then realised a method. Possibly including dinosaurs).
  • Two upcoming storylines are codenamed “Cloak” and “Dagger”
  • Codenames are unfortunately necessary, mainly because all titles need to go through trademark search. It’s a lot harder to find non-trademarked names these days, so until Wizards won’t use a name that they know will be on the final product. It helps them not become attached to a name they can’t use.
  • A recent playtest for “Cloak” featured the PCs going up into the icy mountains to find a temple under a mountain that is now the repository of evil. A sect of good-aligned wizards and temples were keeping the evil trapped, but that was 400-500 years ago. What now? It’s a fragment of a story that will come in the future.
  • In “Dagger” you are going around plundering the ancestral tombs of barbarians – but that doesn’t tell you much about what the overall story is like.

Homebrew and Campaign Settings

  • A great bulk of D&D players (55%) play homebrew, but about 50% of those homebrewers pillage from other settings for their own world. About 35% play in the Forgotten Realms, and then everything else takes up 10%. Very few people are running Dark Sun, Hollow World or Mystara campaigns. Greyhawk may be 5%.
  • Chris used Dungeon Magazine as a bellwether to determine how popular campaign worlds were. This explains why there was only one Birthright adventure. It just wasn’t popular enough.
  • Chris wrote more this year than ever before. In one of the adventures he wrote, he had a big section on how to adapt it to other worlds, and the adventure was very easy to drop in anywhere (as the names of the locations are new).
  • The new adventures tend to be very modular – you can break off bits and run them in your campaign, and are designed to be very home-brew friendly.

Sword Coast Legends

  • The Wizards team are trying to help N-Space in coming up with ideas for content going forward.
  • Chris Perkins will be running a campaign open for the public on Sword Coast Legends in the next few months.
  • Wizards will be trying to tease a few things about upcoming storylines in SCL and in the live games at PAX. (Acquisitions Incorporated!)

Consultants and Expanding the Audience

  • Wizards now bring in outside designers to consult and help develop stories. (Hasbro have been very good in providing support with this).
  • The designer comes in for a week with Wizards to talk about possible stories. These might not go anywhere, but perhaps they’ll work.
  • Pendleton Ward was very successful as a consultant.
  • R.A.Salvatore was brought in as a consultant on Out of the Abyss.
  • They’re looking at a wide range of people: not just people from the D&D design community. (He’d resurrect Gary Gygax if he could…)
  • Unfortunately, this wasn’t in place for Elemental Evil, because otherwise Chris would have wanted Frank Mentzer to consult on that storyline.
  • We won’t see most of the results of these collaborations until next year.
  • Wizards hope this will keep D&D fresh, will create stories that appeal to more than just middle America, and that show D&D to people in a whole new light.
  • Chris doesn’t want anyone feeling discriminated against by their D&D products. He wants to dispel as much of the prejudices against D&D as possible. D&D should be safe and fun and smart and friendship-inducing.
  • If a story with dinosaurs expands the D&D audience, they want to do it.
  • D&D is broader than just the RPG, though. A boy and his tarrasque might not be appropriate for the RPG, but perhaps for a Penguin book? (I’ll call him “Stampy”!)

D&D with Laser Guns

  • “Plants in Space!”
  • Using vegepygmies is troublesome. They’re not the most serious monster. So do use them in a really dark story as creeping threats, or in a wild-wacky adventure? Very easy to split the audience, which is a problem.
  • (There’s a lot more in the podcast. About 50 minutes in).
  • Wizards need to pay attention to the mood of the adventure.
  • Dungeonland adapts Alice in a whimsical but deadly way that you take seriously, but you can’t take WG7 Castle Greyhawk seriously.

Length of Adventures

  • The three adventures so far have been levels 1-15.
  • This model will be changing up in the future. Some may be strictly low-level, others mid-level, some high-levels. Others may allow you to choose the levels they run at.
  • This is being changed for a few reasons.
    • Wizards don’t want to be predictable (and boring) with their releases.
    • People take longer than 4-6 months to play most adventures released so far. The next adventure released will be shorter, the one beyond that will be even shorter. (It’s hard to have a shared experience when you can’t play all of the adventure! – Merric)
  • One upcoming adventure will be very short, but is very, very replayable: it can be played 200 times and you would never play the same adventure twice. The adventure can be played two or three times in 6 months, and it really changes up the model for adventure design.
  • They’ve talked about slower progression as well, and would like to experiment with a 6-month adventure where you only go from 1st to 5th level. (Much easier to deal with as a DM and with players who don’t want to grapple with the rules).
  • This really relies on the story being right for it; that’s the big challenge for Wizards in creating it. Could the story be about politics?

Intrigue and Politics

  • Intrigue stories are tough as you always have a player who wants to play the barbarian who kill people. Political intrigue stories are a hallmark of Chris’s own home games. He loves players not knowing who the good guy is, and solving things without combat.
  • To deal with this, you need to overlap stories, so the barbarian also has things to do while the political intrigue is also ongoing.
  • If you can gain a political ally by doing a dungeon adventure, it helps both styles of player.
  • Dungeons are easy. Cities are terrifying for a Dungeon Master to run as they offer so many options.

World Books

  • The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide was designed to give more information about the Forgotten Realms. It was born out of feedback that DMs wanted some introduction to the Realms so they could better run the published adventures, but not so much that they drowned in the details – an ongoing problem the Realms has had.
  • The character options were there to acknowledge some of the wacky options that were prominent in the Realms, such as half-drow.
  • They’re not sure if the SCAG will succeed – they’ll pay a lot of attention to feedback on the book, but it hadn’t been out long enough (as of the date of the seminar) for that yet.
  • More world books will likely appear in the future. Wizards want to surprise and delight, and if they only did big adventure books, that wouldn’t be surprising.
  • The next book will depend on what people ask for, what Wizards thinks they need and if it’s different enough to stand on its own merit.


  • All of the existing Greyhawk information is still out there and perfectly useable.
  • If Wizards do a Greyhawk adventure, do you split the Greyhawk material into a separate world book or can you put it in the adventure?
  • What timeline of Greyhawk would we use? The original (576) timeline of the boxed set? Would they use the later timeline (591)? Chris doesn’t have the answer – it would be dependent on feedback from the D&D community.
  • The big challenge facing Wizards with Greyhawk is that it’s D&D at its most core, but for most people don’t understand what that means. What makes Greyhawk, Greyhawk?
    • It’s not low-magic, but magic is more exclusive.
    • There are a lot of barbarians.
    • There are the Scarlet Brotherhood, which are a pulpy organisation (Aryan monks!)
    • Mike Mearls describes it as being like Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books.
  • A rather interesting feature about Greyhawk which makes it unique is that Greyhawk has Iuz, a half-demon tyrant. It also has strong kingdoms, which the Forgotten Realms doesn’t. (The Realms has a few small kingdoms, but is mostly city-states and wilderness).
  • Wizards might do a story focused on Iuz. Chris wouldn’t give us the Greyhawk campaign setting, but rather a story about Iuz and all the stuff he is doing, with Iuz being the glue that holds the story together. The Great Kingdom wouldn’t be there – you can get the old sourcebook about it – instead the focus would be on Iuz, and perhaps a war story with Iuz as its heart, and not feeling like the Realms or Dragonlance. (Chris got actually quite excited about it. I hope it becomes a product!)

The Living Forgotten Realms

  • Wizards considers the Forgotten Realms an ongoing world, and the adventures will have an effect on it.
  • The three published adventures aren’t actually sequential: Out of the Abyss overlaps the other two adventures.
  • Wizards will be dealing with the consequences of the adventures in future stories. There’s an upcoming adventure that uses survey data from previous adventures. (Tiamat wasn’t actually killed by most tables…)
  • However, Wizards don’t want to do it too soon when people are still playing the adventures.
  • The idea is to create it as a tapestry with stories hooking into other stories.
  • The Wizards team recently drew up a list of Forgotten Realms characters and worked out how they were affected by the events of the recent stories.
  • To some extent, it doesn’t matter what is official to your home game, because your canon is what you create yourself for your group, not what Wizards do. However, they do consider events for the official world.
  • If the events of Elemental Evil affect a future story, Wizards will tell you.
  • An upcoming dragon (in “Dagger”) has been affected by the events of Tyranny of Dragons, and his mindset has somewhat changed. His actions will surprise us!

Other Stuff

  • It was suggested to do an adventure where the DM didn’t know where it would end up – a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style, and with elements you could break off to run with smaller groups. Different tracks that close off when players make a choice…
  • “Cloak”, the next adventure, has switches that allows DM to change its nature somewhat.
  • Wizards are getting a lot more feedback through social media, especially because there are so few products. So the Unearthed Arcana column gets a lot of feedback because it’s the only thing to talk about… this is proving very useful. (Although they still get bombarded with questions about the older D&D material. There’s a LOT of D&D material out there now, and Chris has trouble keeping it all straight).
  • Giving DMs ideas in adventures that they can spin off into their own adventures is something they want to do. (Chris gave the example of the mind-flayer running an insane asylum, which they suggested in Out of the Abyss but couldn’t fit as a fleshed-out encounter in the book. Chris hopes some DMs do and he hears stories about it!)
Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, D&D Adventurers League, Design | 13 Comments

An Afternoon with Sword Coast Legends

As a break from my busy RPG and work schedule, I spent a bit of today playing through the default Sword Coast Legends campaign. I haven’t really gotten that far yet – I’m in Luskan, uncovering the plot against the guild at present – but I now have the experience of several hours playing the game.

And I’m enjoying it. A lot more than I would have expected, especially given what I’ve read about it.

One of the reasons I’m enjoying it is that it presents the Forgotten Realms as I expect it to be presented. There’s a lot of lore, and the characters stay true to my perception of the world. Hommet is an absolute joy – his revelation that he got kicked out by the Harpells (and the reaction of pure disbelief of the others… how is it possible to offend the Harpells?) is absolutely awesome.

Along the way, I’m learning things about the Realms I didn’t know before. I’ve spent a LOT of time on the Sword Coast recently – the last few years – and it’s a delight to still be discovering things. The sewers of Luskan are the ruins of Illusk? Awesome! (And meeting the Dead Rats, outcasts of which were significant in some of the Neverwinter games I ran, is likewise awesome).

I’m very pleased to see the game run smoothly on my less-than-top-of-the-line computer. The combat goes by pretty fast and painlessly. There will be some who want a major tactical game. I’m not one of those people; I enjoy combat, but I enjoy winning combats more. And getting XP. And that works well. The lack of a strict conversion of the D&D rules has bothered me less than I expected.

The game is not flawless, of course. Some of the quests are somewhat arcane or obscure in their requirements to be completed. I’ve spent a lot of time wandering around aimlessly because I haven’t had enough clues for the current quest. And the game doesn’t feel as rich (side-quest wise) as did Baldur’s Gate. And some of the NPC dialogues go a little too long for my taste… but they’re balanced by some good conversations at other times.

It’s not a perfect game, but it’s good enough to keep this (not-a-computer) gamer happy.

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5E Adventure Review: Cat & Mouse

Cat & Mouse is an adventure by Richard Pett set in Kobold Press’s Southlands setting. It’s written as an introductory adventure for that setting, for 4-6 first level characters. Players unfamiliar with the setting will likely be surprised by a few of the plot points, one of which involves a gnoll proposing marriage to a catfolk. I know I was!

The adventure has an urban setting, the great Egyptian-themed city of Per-Bastet. A wererat thief has ended up in possession of a magical artefact that gives him power over cats – a great prize in the City of Cats. Of course, other factions within the city want the artefact for themselves. Two of them – a gnoll merchant and a lady catfolk contact the adventurers to recover the artefact for them. The adventure sees the players looking for the thief and the artefact, and – once the artefact is in their possession – dealing with the competing factions.

Urban adventures are difficult to design and write. Players can very easily do things the adventure doesn’t account for, requiring the DM to do a lot of improvisation. Good urban adventures need to detail the personalities and motivations of the key NPCs, as well as covering the key locations of the adventure. In addition, they need to lay out all of the information in a manner that is easy for the DM to read and then reference during the adventure. It isn’t easy!

Richard Pett gets most of the way there in Cat & Mouse, but there are aspects of the design that puzzle me. It doesn’t help that the product includes some poor layout choices, including narrowing a stat block’s column to make room for a map, and a number of headers that are the wrong size. The amount of space devoted to the gnoll merchant’s home seems out of place when considering how much it will be used (just for a short meeting); if it’s detailed for later use, wouldn’t the home of the lady catfolk also require exploration? That location is not detailed in the text at all, and the catfolk’s personality and motivations are rather ill-detailed in comparison to the gnoll’s. (Also, the gnoll seems surprisingly poor for a merchant…)

A number of editing errors also detract from the adventure. The one that particularly amused me was the offer by the gnoll to pay “50 percent as much” for the artefact as the catfolk would. Richard, you mean “50 percent more”! These errors are more prevalent in the 5e conversions of stats, and the ability descriptions aren’t written all that well.

The adventure still has an excellent concept, and more than a few good encounters in it. It offers a lot of chances for the DM and players to make it their own. The ending is very open-ended, which is nice to see, although it is likely to be challenging for the DM to run.

I feel that Cat & Mouse is about 90% of the way there. A bit more development and some better formatting choices would have made it an absolutely excellent adventure. As it stands, it’s merely “good”, which is still a lot better than many of the adventures to cross my desk.

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5E Adventure Review: Caves of the Kobold Queen

Cut to the Chase Games ran a successful Kickstarter to bring the Wrath of the Kobolds trilogy of adventure modules to us. The first two adventures: Caves of the Kobold Queen and Curse of the Kobold Eye are now available through DriveThruRPG, as is a prequel adventure, Night of the Mad Kobold, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. This is a review of WK1: Caves of the Kobold Queen, which is presented as a 34 page pdf (and is available also in Pathfinder and Swords & Wizardry formats in addition to the 5e format I’m reviewing here).

The adventure is designed for a party of four to six characters of levels 1-3 and is optimised for 2nd level characters. The basic idea is that kobolds have been kidnapping travellers and villagers, and the adventurers are called in by a local mayor to rescue the kidnapped villagers. However, everything isn’t as it seems, and the assorted intrigues and betrayals that underpin the adventure elevate it from a standard low-level adventure into something quite special.

Caves is written with new Dungeon Masters in mind, and has numerous sidebars from its author, “Weird Dave” Olson, which offer advice on particular encounters. This is a dangerous adventure; the main caves hold hundreds of kobolds, more than enough to end the careers of many novice adventurers (and more than a few more experienced ones). It achieves its goal of feeling like an old-school adventure, and a superior one at that. Players will need to be attentive to events and understand that discretion is the better part of valour; otherwise there is a high likelihood that their characters will meet their ends in the caves.

The adventure includes a short journey through the wilderness, but does not include a wilderness map – something that irritates me. The maps of the caves are well-drawn.

Perhaps the weakest point of the adventure is its editing. For the most part, the adventure is well-written, but there are enough errors of punctuation, grammar and spelling to draw my attention. It would definitely benefit from a better editing process. “In the wild and rocky hills north of the town of Ormkirk, dangerous kobold raiding parties have been striking at travelers and townsfolk alike for several weeks, stealing them away under cover of night from out of their homes.” I’m really impressed that travellers are being stolen from their homes!

The adventure does not overcomplicate things. It presents a situation with a number of competing factions, and lets the players affect it as they wish. You can play it as a straight hack’n’slash game, or you can take advantage of the intrigue to make it something special. I think this is a superior effort, despite the flaws in its presentation.

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Entering the Wilderness: Tracked Exploration

Although hex-based exploration was the dominant form of wilderness exploration in the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, a few adventures used a hybrid approach that drew on dungeon design. That is, they limited the ways that players could move between encounters. Occasionally they would be hard limits – the depiction of the Underdark in Descent into the Depths of the Earth was that way – but more often they would give easy paths between encounters while players could still take harder routes through untracked wilderness. The adventure Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth was that way. Players would typically travel along the valleys/mountain paths between encounters, but they could go across the mountains if they wished.

Mountains are a pretty good way of channelling players, because it’s very hard to just cross a mountain. Tracks and paths through forests also provide a way of presenting options for movement that aren’t hard limits but still help focus the choices of the players. Once you get to fields and plains, then the obstacles for moving off the paths are much less, but roads and trails still give the players guidance on which way to go.

Offering guidance to players is tremendously useful. Although most players don’t like having their decisions being made for them, I’ve seen many confused faces when I give players a blank map and ask them where they want to go. So, giving them a set of limited options (while still allowing player choice) and also offering them the greater potential of having an encounter at the end of the journey is a useful technique to employ.

In this style of wilderness exploration, the players are still exploring the wilderness and they don’t know how it is all laid out. For obvious reasons, you should put most of the set encounters along the pathways or at their destinations (mountain valleys, forest glades and the like). Having set encounters off the paths works best if they’re linked to a pathway encounter. So, the bandits could ambush the players on the road, but clever players could track them to their lair, deep in the untracked forest. There you can place treasure, more monsters, and perhaps a trick or two.

Off-the-track encounters could also be indicated by visual signs: a pillar of smoke or circling birds, for instance. Things that give players a reason to leave the path.

When designing this type of wilderness, you still need to draw a map of the area, and key encounters to hexes on the map. A random table of encounters allows you to provide uncertainty, as well as giving you more options if the players go off-track.

The odd off-track encounter that doesn’t have clues to its existence is fine, but you do have a perennial problem with D&D adventure design: Designing encounters that no-one actually sees. With a published adventure, even the more obscure encounters are likely to be discovered by a group of players. When you design only for your own group, you can waste a lot of time designing encounters that they never get to! Which is why guiding the characters down paths can be so effective.

The next article in this series will look at wilderness travel when they players know where they’re going – and when you can abandon the hex grid!

A section of the wilderness map from the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design, Play Advice | 1 Comment

5E Adventure Review: The Bards of Ur

Johua De Santo has written quite a few adventures by this point, and The Bards of Ur is the latest of his Patreon-supported games to see release. It’s a short adventure of 8 pages, and is apparently designed for mid-level adventurers, although I’m not quite sure what that means. Levels 5-10? Possibly.

The concept behind the adventure is a good one: a group of mysterious bards has been travelling from town to town. Unknown to the authorities, they’ve been kidnapping young people, and planning to sacrifice them in a ritual that will summon the Demon Lord Ur to the world. When the nephew of a local lord is kidnapped, the players are contracted to discover what is going on.

There are some unusual design decisions in the adventure, none more so than this: “The adventurers have a 17 out of 20 chance of passing through the town of Lockguild.” I don’t think I’ve ever seen an adventure give a random chance for encountering a town before! Given how important Lockguild is for foreshadowing later events, I have no idea why a DM would ever wish to not include it. Indeed, if the players encounter it and attempt to bypass the town, there’s a 50% chance a mysterious fog causes them to become lost and return to Lockguild… The actual encounters in the town are very interesting, so I advise just using the place

Those expecting investigation and infiltration of the troupe will be disappointed, as the players eventually catch up to the Bards just as they’re enacting their summoning ritual. With the city folk slaughtering each other under the Bards’ influence, the players will need to defeat the leader of the Bards in combat. If they fail, Ur will be summoned, which is likely to be very bad for everyone concerned. The Bards themselves take the form of one our rock bands, which would add to the strange atmosphere of the situation if this were emphasised by the DM. (In fact, the description of the band makes it clear that they are KISS, which fits the adventure very well).

The ideas in this adventure are great. The implementation is less so. The final encounter feels under-developed. It would benefit greatly from a map, or – indeed – any additional details rather than just the combat stats of the Bards. It doesn’t help that a single fireball spell will likely end the combat. When most of the Bards have fewer than 15 hit points, you’re not looking at a long combat. Only their leader, Yr’Tr, has more hit points, and at 33 hp, even that isn’t going to help him survive long enough to pose a threat to the group. “For mid-level adventurers” is getting revised down to “for level 2-4 adventurers”. The combat statistics for the Bards are presented as quick summaries, and don’t use the 5E method of having slots for spell-casting.

The adventure isn’t horribly written, but could do with another pass of editing and several more passes of development. The juxtaposition of a rock band into the standard D&D-type setting needs to be explored better than it is here. More investigation, more strange occurrences, and a better final scene would do wonders. As it stands, there are great ideas here, but they are not used well. This feels more like a base for a DM to design around rather than a complete adventure.

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