The Trouble with Capturing Adventurers

One of the great tropes in adventure fiction is capturing the protagonist and letting him find a way to escape.

Unfortunately, requiring the capture of adventurers is extremely problematic in the middle of a game of Dungeons & Dragons. It is something that needs to be very carefully handled.

The problem derives from the nature of D&D. The essence of the game is that you present challenges to the players, who then discover ways to engage with them: either by defeating them or by avoiding them in some manner. Player agency: the ability of the players to impact the story. When you remove that agency – and especially by forcing the capture of the adventurers – it’s something that can create some unhappy players, which is not what you want!

Honestly, there’s only one forced capture scenario that I really like: when the adventurers begin the game captured. When it’s part of the set-up condition of the campaign, then everyone knows ahead of time what the starting point is and can plan accordingly. This is the technique that Out of the Abyss uses, and it’s a good one. If a player doesn’t like the scenario, at least they know going into the campaign what the start is – it isn’t a surprise to them mid-way through.

The unforced capturing of characters is also not a problem; the situation that happens as an organic part of play. You might have a dangerous foe in the adventure, and the players either choose to surrender to it or it captures them… but they could have avoided it or had the possibility of defeating it. That’s fine. You aren’t forcing the capture of the adventurers; it’s just something that happened in the game. At that point, you can continue with the adventurers as prisoners and see what happens next.

However, the situation that causes all sorts of problems is when the story requires the characters to be captured mid-way through. An early example of this can be seen at the end of A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, where the players end the adventure being captured and thrown into the dungeons. The last adventure, A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords is a classic where the players need to escape with very limited resources, but the end of A3 can be uneasy. A much worse example can be found in the Avatar Trilogy (Shadowdale, Tantras and Waterdeep), which showed us all the worst ways of removing player agency.

The recent D&D Adventurers League adventure Shackles of Blood also ran into this problem. Mid-way through, the adventure would really, really like the characters to be captured. And it does so by sending a very dangerous force against the players and allows the players to fight them. And, because it’s a structured, organised play adventure, if the characters get away it causes all types of problems for the DM to get the plot back on track. The adventure does try to offer suggestions as to how it proceeds afterwards, but it’s difficult for the DM and players. When I’ve run Shackles of Blood, my solution was to explain to the adventurers during the game that allowing themselves to get captured will allow them to track the perpetrators to their lair. It’s a solution; it may not be the best one.

The “adventurers are captured by an overwhelming force” situation is the most problematic of all the ways of forcing capture. It’s also the most common. Adventurers are really good at getting out of those situations though, and the heavy-handed DM soon discovers that he or she has to find another way to capture the adventurers – and will often end up with very unhappy players.

If you find yourself designing a scenario that absolutely requires the adventurers to be captured, and it needs to happen mid-way through, you have a problem. At this point, my preferred solution to this situation is to not have an encounter where the adventurers fight against the capture at all. Instead, I would begin the session with “Your foes have captured you. You are now in their dungeon”, and let the players come up with an explanation as to how it happened.

Although what I really prefer to do is to think about the scenario and work out how it could proceed if the characters are not captured, and then design the adventure accordingly. But, as you can imagine, that is a lot of work.

So, if you need to capture the adventurers, think about how it’s going to play. It’s one of the toughest scenarios to pull off successfully.

5E Adventure Review: Fear of the Dark

Karl Resch’s adventure, Fear of the Dark, is set in the time of the Rage of Demons, where madness and fear stalk the Underdark. The plot of the adventure is simple: A Zhentarim caravan has gone missing underground, and the adventurers must find out what has happened to it by exploring an outpost overrun by invaders. For the most part, it’s a standard dungeon crawl, but it has a few features that make it notable.

The first of these is the chief villain: an insane kenku, who is written to be an ongoing threat throughout the adventure, using hit-and-run tactics to confuse and injure the adventurers. This is a strong use of his abilities, and means that finally dealing with the threat is likely to make your players very happy.

The second is that it plays with the idea of mixing potions. Throughout the adventure, the party can find remnants of full potions – what happens when only part of the potion remains in a shattered vial. These remnants can be mixed for unpredictable effects, which may help or hinder the adventurers in their quest. In addition, the style of potions gives clues as to what occurred at the outpost. It’s a nicely realised idea.

The third is that it gives a good amount of attention to the major allies and villains, who get significant descriptions of their histories and personalities in the appendix.

There are a few editing glitches, and a number of formatting problems related to the fonts selected. It should be noted that the default Wizards template provided for DM’s Guild authors doesn’t properly use all of the fonts – you need to manually set some of them. This is particularly noticeable in this product’s text boxes, where the font is the monospaced one that the template incorrectly defaults to. The adventure is presented in the D&D Adventurers League format and includes all relevant monster stat-blocks, making it very easy for a DM to use. One note: it refers to a potion of resistance (poison). My initial reaction was this was a potion of poison masquerading as a potion of resistance! I guess I’m too fond of the old cursed and deceptive items of AD&D…

The adventure can be easily completed in a single session, as the outpost consists of a total of nine encounter areas, many of which are exploration or role-playing encounters. The maps are hand-drawn, but very nicely realised, although I would have appreciated a key for some of the features and a map scale. (My introduction to D&D map-making in the 80s interprets the symbol as a pit trap! I think it’s meant to be a crate in this instance…)

This is an enjoyable adventure that allows the players to have a bit of fun in the Underdark. It requires a bit of work from the DM to properly portray the villains, but I believe the effort is worth it. Recommended.

5E Adventure Review: Weapon on the Wall

Weapon on the Wall is the first product of Kelnas. It’s a 5-hour adventure for 2nd-4th level characters, and it has some interesting ideas in it. It also suffers greatly from how it introduces the adventure.

The major problem is that the hook to the adventure is that there’s this very special weapon (denoted as “Weapon” in the text) that hangs on the wall of the local weapon shop. The adventurers notice it as they’re in the store… and the shop owner won’t tell them about it unless they pay him a lot of money. The adventurers shrug and leave. And the adventure ends.

Huh. Note to adventure writers: You want to hook players into the story. Putting a roadblock like that in the way only works if you’ve managed to invest the players in finding out about the weapon first.

As a DM, I’d happily ignore that part, and have the owner tell all comers of the strange tale of the Weapon. It’s a good tale. It leads people to an interesting place: an abandoned mine. So, let’s get to that as quickly as possible.

I’m very happy to see an encounter where the monsters come in waves; just as the party thinks they know what they’re facing, more monsters arrive! It’s a great technique, and one that more adventures could use.

The bulk of the adventure concerns the old mine, which has four encounter areas. It’s not quite linear – there’s a choice for the order of the last two encounters – but it’s so small it doesn’t matter much. The best part of the mine is the final encounter, which is quite interesting in its set-up; it’d probably benefit from a dedicated stat-block being presented for the final boss.

The pdf format seems a bit odd to me, with the text appearing pixellated. The adventure is well-written, with only a few editing glitches. It has a fairly basic layout; the maps are hand-drawn but work well enough.

Overall, there are some good ideas and encounters in the adventure, although it doesn’t quite hang together as well as I’d like. It’s a good one to adapt to your own use, though.

On the Art of Improvisation

One of the most important skills in the Dungeon Master’s toolbox is the ability to improvise.

And, based on my long experience with the game, it’s a skill that takes time to develop. Like most skills, you get better at improvisation by actually improvising, and paying attention to what your players think of the result. Many of the games I’ve run have been improvised. Even when you prepare material, there’s likely to be some improvisation involved. After all, it’s the key thing that distinguishes role-playing games from other games like Chess, where the rules are cut and dried. However, the amount of improvisation you use in a session will vary.

The advantage of preparing for a session is that you can get a better grasp of what is available for the players to do. You can think about various avenues of approach beforehand, and try to anticipate what choices the players might make.

The advantage of improvising a session is that the players aren’t bound by your preconceived ideas of where they will go. The flip side of this is that you might need to make up a lot of stuff. And continually coming up with good stuff – or any stuff at all – is hard work. Honestly, for many DMs, you’re better off preparing rather than just relying on improvisation. You’ll need to improvise anyway, because that’s how the game works.

And beginning DMs are unlikely to be that good at it. That’s based on my experience. Thirty years ago when I began DMing? I was terrible!

You get better at improvising and design the more experience you have. What kind of experience? Any kind! Of course, doing a lot of improvising helps you get better at improvising, but simple life experience gives you a huge resource of things that you can incorporate in your game. Every book you read, every person you meet, every job you do – it can all be used when improvising an adventure.

There are two pieces of advice I can give you:

#1: Trust Yourself. Pick an idea and go with it. See where it leads. Elaborate on it. Don’t second-guess yourself.

#2: Pay Attention to your Players. If something isn’t working, the reactions of your players will tell you about it. Don’t exclude them from your consideration as you proceed.

Of course, those two directly contradict each other at times. Can you trust yourself when your players hate your idea? Well, yes, you can. And yes, there will be times when whatever you do, things go badly. Can I run terrible sessions, even with thirty years of DMing experience? Absolutely I can!

About a month back, I discovered that only one player had turned up for my regularly scheduled game of Curse of Strahd. Meanwhile, another table had just collapsed – and we hadn’t yet organised a replacement DM (or players). So, instead of just cancelling the game entirely, I decided to improvise a short adventure so everyone could enjoy themselves. After we finished, I decided to write it down – the result got published on the DM’s Guild today as The Witch of Underwillow.

I knew, going into the session, that it was for a group of characters that would likely soon be playing Curse of Strahd, so I set it up in that milieu, with the characters having just arrived in the village of Barovia. It needed to be a quick quest, so I knew that a quest followed a particular structure: a hook, the challenges, the final encounter. The hook? Let’s have a baby kidnapped by wolves.

So: the characters investigate, find the trail, and set off along it. They meet wolves and fight them. Then they get to the place the baby was taken: the witch’s lair. Witches make good low-level opponents in Barovia. I wanted to make it feel strange and unearthly, so I described how the path led underground, under a willow tree. Good unsettling stuff.

I set a couple of challenges – not directly fighting challenges – that I wanted the players to accomplish before they fight the witch. For one of them, I took as inspiration the Knights and Knaves puzzle. That’s where you have two guards, one of whom lies and one of whom tells the truth. Then I told the players that both of the guards are liars. And got amused by the results. (I’m pretty pleased with the solution to that one).

Finally, I was prepared to spring the final twist on the adventure – what the witch was actually doing. I had a plan. I was all ready to reveal it… when they attacked and immediately killed her. Oh well. There goes that idea… I had to make something else up. Such are the perils of improvisation and role-playing games in general. At least I could use the idea in the adventure!

The point of the story is that I improvised the adventure primarily based on my previous experience of adventure structure and encounters. (The two guardsmen came directly from Doctor Who: The Pyramids of Mars, though I’ve encountered the puzzle many times since then). I just put my own spin on the material. Improvising doesn’t mean you have to be original all the time. Get your inspiration from anywhere you can – and then twist it slightly.

Introducing Dungeons & Dragons Through in-Store Play

One of my delights in life is introducing the game of Dungeons & Dragons to new players, who then discover that it’s something they want to play again. In this quest, my local gaming store has become integral to the process of acquiring new players.

We run D&D Adventurers League games at the store every Wednesday and Saturday evening. The games are a mixture of the shorter (2-4 hours) DDAL adventures and the longer hardcover adventures released by Wizards of the Coast. This allows us to offer a variety of experience for all types of players – and with varying schedules. All the games are D&D Adventurers League legal, so players can reuse their characters at other tables – and other stores and conventions if desired.

In recent days, I’ve noticed a larger influx of new players than normal; although we always tend to have people starting with us. It’s very pleasing.

The advantage we have in getting new players is that we play in a publicly-accessible location. All the gamers in Ballarat tend to know about Guf – a combination Internet-café and game store (trading card, board games and RPGs). And because we run D&D consistently, week after week, players know that they can reliably play games with us.

Having this consistency of playing times is tremendously important. A potential player might discover that we play D&D months before they join us, but because we always are there on Wednesdays and Saturdays, they don’t have to wonder when the next game will be. If you can achieve this, it’s a great advantage.

The other consideration is in offering games suitable for new players. This can be a struggle, and it’s especially a problem for a store that only has a handful of players. The solution of the 4E years was for the main program to primarily be for new players. Which was great for them, but much harder for everyone else to stay enthusiastic when they never got to experience higher-level play. The hardcover adventures are much better for keeping long-term players around, but they can be a struggle to integrate new players into.

These days, I accept that not every time is great for a new player, although they can still jump into an established game. We have enough players that we can run a low-level games at least once per night, providing new players with at least some opportunity to join in, even if not every time slot has a low-level game. Staggering the start of the hardcovers (so that new campaign begins every few weeks) and running a lot of level 1-4 DDAL adventures helps give new entry points for players. When the experienced players are willing to play a lower-level character for a week or two to help a new player in their first games, you have a good community.

The rules of D&D aren’t that hard to learn – at least, not from the player’s side – but the use of pregenerated character sheets makes it much easier for the new player to jump right in. I design my own (the Season 4 set are on the DMs Guild), and my chief target was the new player. Thus, the character sheets put the important information in front of the player, offer advice on how to play them, and try to be interesting whilst not too complicated. It’s a challenge to get them right, and one that I’ll continue to refine as we continue the program. The sheets have been very successful, however.

The other aspect of this is to have a table of helpful players and a helpful DM to make things welcoming to the new player. It doesn’t always work that way, but I’m pleased that – for the most part – the players are very welcoming to new players. Having an experienced DM or other player at the table to help with the rules (and lead by example) is good, but I was watching a table last night where only the Dungeon Master was experienced – all the others had been playing for 3 months or less, with one of them in their first session. But everyone helped each other, and they had a great game.

As the organiser, I do have to pay attention to table dynamics. When you have disruptive players, then you have a problem. If players don’t want to return due to one player’s behaviour, it behoves you to intervene. It’s not a task I enjoy, but it’s one that, if you want a healthy community, you must apply. You’re likely to handle these situations better than I do, but you shouldn’t ignore them.

So, to summarise, what I consider most conducive to introducing new players to D&D in a store environment:

  • Regular playing times, with tables suitable for new players
  • Running adventures suitable for new players (and adventures for more experienced players, to build the community)
  • Pre-generated characters, to aid them in their first sessions before they decide on the character they want to play
  • Having a tables of DM and players that are friendly and willing to answer the questions of the new player

The big advantage of playing in a store over playing at home is that you can build a community of players. Most of our players also play in home campaigns, but coming in at least once each week allows them to keep in touch with the greater local gaming community. This also helps work against the disintegration of home games: if players have to drop out, the rest of the players know people who could possibly replace them.

The choice of running D&D Adventurers League adventures (and the hardcovers with DDAL rules) was a deliberate one, so that players had consistency of play and a shared experience; another aspect of the game that can be very important.

5E Adventure Review: Mad Mage’s Mansion

Vladimir Arabadzhi’s Mad Mage’s Mansion is a four-hour adventure for two characters of levels 1-2, and is presented as a 33-page pdf file. He describes it as a “small party adventure”, and such things are a rarity – and useful for a DM who has a couple of players who want to play a game, but can’t find more players! In the case of only having a single player, the suggestion is made to play a second adventurers, either as a DM PC, or have the player control both characters. I fully support this decision; playing adventures with just a single character is extremely difficult, mainly because a run of bad luck will take the character down without anyone to back them up.

The adventure also has a page of useful tips for playing with small parties, well worth considering.

The adventure describes the small hamlet nearby and the road to the mansion, which employs the fun trick of having a pair of rogues saying they’ll guide the party to the mansion, only to try to rob the party. That’s something I haven’t seen since The Village of Hommlet, although in that case, the rogues waited until after the players left the mansion with loot!

This is primarily an exploration scenario; there’s little role-playing in it. It does include number of combat encounter, although the combats will likely run very quickly. Low level and only two characters? Yes, combats should speed by. And there’s probably going to be some running involved. The inclusion of a cockatrice is just mean! A few CR 1 combats could be tricky if the adventurers meet them before gaining a level.

What Mad Mage’s Mansion does really well is the exploration aspect. It describes every room, and has numerous clues and areas of interest. Some of the areas are just mundane and as described, others have secrets that the players can prise out.

The formatting of the adventure is excellent, with appendices containing much useful information for the DM. The proof-reading is, alas, erratic. There’s a lot of clumsy phrasing and numerous errors. I also noted that many of the ability checks required are quite difficult for first-level characters.

Ultimately, though, this is a very entertaining adventure. I would not find it difficult to scale up for a larger party of adventurers, but it’s nice to see something written for the very small group in mind.

5E Adventure Review: The Claw of Winter

The Claw of Winter is an adventure for 8th-level characters written by John Prichard. It is set in the kingdom of Cormyr in the Forgotten Realms. The presentation of the adventure draws very heavily that of the D&D Adventurers League adventures, even to having a similar format of rewards, monster statistics and encounters. It even includes downtime days and renown, although this is not an official DDAL adventure.

The form of the adventure, which leans heavily towards role-playing and investigation, would also be familiar to those who have played D&D Adventurers League scenarios. The basic idea of the adventure, which sees the adventurers investigate a murder in a small village near to a monastery, is excellent, and the story includes a number of very good plot twists. One of my contentions about writing good investigations is that you need to have a number of overlapping stories, enough to provide entertaining diversions and false paths for the players to investigate while tracking down the true solution. The Claw of Winter manages to provide those stories.

That said, the adventure still has a number of significant flaws, primarily in the early and middle stages of the investigation. The writing is often rough, and requires more polishing. At one point, the text draws attention to a key suspect leaving a tavern, but fails to explain what’s happening. You can work it out from a later encounter, but it’s something that can confuse a DM running the adventure.

The adventure makes use of a few interesting pieces of Realmslore, which I was happy to see, and includes two conversions of monsters that haven’t appeared before. I was very happy to see a catoblepas presented here; it is nicely done, although perhaps not quite as deadly as it was in the early editions of AD&D.

The formatting of the adventure is quite basic, but mostly clear. It suffers from a poor choice of font sizes; the boxed text, in particular, looks miniscule compared to the regular text. The headings likewise prove a poor fit for the main font; it’s likely the main text was increased in size without the remainder of the text styles being updated to match.

Ultimately, the realisation of The Claw of Winter doesn’t quite live up to the quality of its ideas. Despite the problems with its presentation, you should be able to untangle the strands and use it to present an entertaining adventure, but you’ll probably have to do a bit of work to clean it up.