Running Curse of Strahd, part 5 – Argynvostholt

The exploration of Argynvostholt, a large ruined manor in the heart of Barovia, began under strange circumstances. I doubt many adventurers have explored a haunted mansion whilst the entire population of a village is camping on the front porch!

The adventurers had gone to Vallaki to find the wedding dress the Abbot wanted, but they were worried about how Ireena was faring back in Krezk. So, they decided to use a sending spell to contact her, and were terrified when instead of Ireena, they discovered they’d contacted Strahd instead!

The group rushed back to Ireena before Strahd could abduct her and, not only did they evacuate Ireena, they also evacuated the entire village, as they feared what would happen when Strahd discovered the villagers had been hiding his chosen.

Thus, the adventurers and the entire village (wagons, dogs, horses) trudged up the winding path to Argynvostholt, one-time home of the Knights of the Silver Dragon, a militant order that Strahd had destroyed many centuries ago. While the villagers waited outside, the adventurers explored the main manor, discovering that the main hall was large enough for the villagers to gather, and that a trio of fallen undead knights were keeping vigil in the chapel and were not pleased to find the adventurers (and the villagers) there. This was not an easy fight for the adventurers, especially as fleeing was a poor option due their obligation to the villagers, but they eventually prevailed.

With the knights dispatched, the villagers moved into the main hall and set up camp, uncomfortably, and the adventurers continued their exploration of the place.

Argynvostholt can, with a little effort, be a very creepy place to explore: a crumbing edifice, with things lurking on the edges of the adventurers’ vision. Or you can get my group. When the barbarian of the group discovered a severed head in a closet that looked exactly like hers there was not the sense of horror I was hoping for. Instead, it was “Cool!” and “I’m taking it with me!” In later sessions, she’d throw it ahead of the group to distract their foes.

The weaker parts of play in Argynvostholt were when the party just explored room after room – many of which are empty. Play was much stronger when a smoky spirit led them directly up to the spirit of the one-time commander of the Order, Vladamir Horngaard, who could explain the secret behind the fall of the knights. His defeatist monologue strongly reinforced the corruption that Strahd had brought to the land. A later encounter with a statue that explained (in poetry) the way to break the curse on the Order was the other highlight. Previous clues to nature of the curse had been missed by the players.

My advice for playing Argynvostholt is to not treat it as a straight-up exploration scenario. Don’t require the players to map and explore every room. Summarize the cumulative effects of the emptiness and decay, and skip to encounters of interest. You can give the players some choices (do you wish to continue investigating this level or move higher?), but there’s a high chance that standard dungeon-crawling techniques will dissipate the tension and horror.

I ended this section of the adventure with a rider coming up along the road to the manor – it was a young, Vistani woman, who would prove important to the story to come.

Dungeon Master Tips: When Crowds are Attacked

It’s a staple of fantasy adventures. The adventurers are in a crowded marketplace when they hear a scream, and they see goblins pouring from the sewers. They need to fight!

At this point, what happen to the crowd? And how do you represent that in game?

The standard answer for me and many other DMs is not great: we simply have the crowd mysteriously escape. We run a combat between the adventurers and the goblins, and the non-combatants are simply ignored. There are some good reasons why we do this. Primary amongst them is that keeping track of multiple, independent characters is very hard. It’s difficult enough to do when they’re actively interacting with the characters. Working out what a NPC is doing while a combat is going one when they’re not just attacking like everyone else? That’s difficult.

Then there’s the problem that your average commoner doesn’t have statistics that make them interesting in combat. If a goblin attacks a commoner, any successful attack will see the commoner unconscious or dead.

Given that, is it possible to make these combats in public places more interesting? Yes, it is. But it typically requires a little forethought and preparation. The solution I lean towards is creating a few “vignettes” – small one- or two-round encounters or situations that play out as the main combat progresses. They need to be important enough for the players to want to interact with them; if the players feel that they’re getting closer to victory by interacting both with the vignettes and the main fight, then thing are going well.

The other side of this is that the main force of the opposition can’t be so dangerous that the players would be foolish to split up; if dealing with a side force means that the remaining adventurers are slaughtered by the main force, then you’ve got a problem. Keep the situations manageable.

It is vitally important to describe the situations so that the players can make informed decisions about which to tackle. You don’t want the descriptions to go overlong – most players can only deal with a limited amount of information at one time – so you need to be short and to the point. Remember the film The Two Towers? How would you describe this guy?

You want the players to notice him and send someone to deal with him. “You see an orc running towards the tunnel” isn’t enough information. “You see an orc running towards the tunnel with a big flaming torch” makes him stand out a lot more – especially if you then remind the players of the explosives in the tunnel!

Of course, most vignettes won’t be so important. However, consider the following possibilities:

  • You see two children hiding behind a wagon; three goblins are moving towards them.
  • There’s a burst of flame from a nearby stall; you realise that flames are moving towards a large stock of alchemist’s fire.
  • A young woman is carried screaming into the air by a pair of winged kobolds.
  • A heavy, abandoned cart starts rolling towards a group of townsfolk trapped in an alley.
  • A sniper is moving on the rooftops, taking shots at children he can see.

Exactly how much you split the group is worth considering. DDAL4-04 The Marionette takes the vignette method of combat design to its logical extreme: lots of small situations are described, and it’s expected that each adventurer takes one to deal with. Is this what you want, or do you just want them as sidelights to the main fight?

Selecting vignettes to reinforce the actions of the crowd as the combat progresses is also good. Start with ones that rely on masses of people; run ones with stragglers towards the end. Give the feeling that time is passing and people outside the main combat are still acting.

It is important to consider which characters will be free to deal with the situation; it will typically be the skirmishers, ranged characters and arcane spell-casters, so designing vignettes they can deal with is advised. If the heavily-armoured fighters are engaged in melee, it’s very hard to find a situation that warrants them disengaging. Yes, you might make it important enough, but it isn’t going to be a good decision if they take opportunity attacks and lose offensive opportunities as they race to deal with another threat.

However, having the rogue of the group racing over rooftops to catch a sniper is something that is fun – as long as it only takes a round or two. D&D is a group game, and having one character stuck away from the others rarely is as enjoyable as everyone participating together.

Creating a library of vignettes, so that you can pull out ones as appropriate to give the feeling of the fight not being just about the PCs, is something worth aiming for. A few alterations will allow them to be reused, and create more interesting situations for your players to face: a more textured approach to combat.

5E Adventure Review: A Scream in the Night

A Scream in the Night is the first of the Chaos in Melvaunt trilogy of adventures designed for convention play by the team at Baldman Games; M. Sean Molloy is the designer for this one. It features the adventurers solving puzzles left by a murderer loose in the city. It is designed for characters of levels 1-4.

This is a very enjoyable adventure, playable in a single evening; it’s designed for a four-hour slot, and took a little over two hours to play on our tables. This is an adventure that could play significantly longer depending on how much your players role-play with the NPCs, and how good they are solving puzzles.

The combats in this scenario pay a lot of attention to position; more than I typically do. Those, like me, who play using “Theatre of the Mind” rather than miniatures may benefit from drawing out a sketch map to better focus the position of the combatants in everyone’s minds.

What I like most about this adventure is the level of invention: it isn’t content to keep things the same. There are new puzzles and challenges for the players to deal with at every turn. The final chase scene – through a landscape of chaotic planar intrusions – is a stand-out, and played very well for our group.

The adventure does require quite a bit from the DM. It is well-written, but the situations are sometimes intricate and challenging to properly convey to the players. You also need to be very attentive to how your players are approaching the puzzles. I think they’re fantastic – very inventive and ones that make you feel good about solving them, even if (like my group), it only takes a couple of minutes. However, groups who aren’t inclined that way may get very frustrated; in such cases it behoves the DM to deemphasize the puzzles and concentrate on the other elements of the adventure.

You only get a cursory glance at Melvaunt here; more will come in the later parts of the trilogy.

All-in-all, this is an impressive start to the Baldman Games adventures.

5E Adventure Review: Out for Blood

One of the most consistent writers of enjoyable D&D adventures is Dan Coleman. Every so often, he runs a Kickstarter for another four or five dungeon adventures, it funds, and he quickly releases them to the world. We’re in that period now: his Kickstarter finished a few weeks ago, and we now have four more adventures available through DriveThruRPG that we can download and play.

Out for Blood is one of their number: an adventure for 15th-level characters. The adventurers are invited to a party at a manor where, during the night, a group of vampires tries to kill everyone. A bit of a surprise for the vampires that the adventurers were present, huh?

The reason for that seeming coincidence is at the heart of what makes this adventure so fun for the DM. It’s also something that doesn’t have to be revealed during play. Perceptive players may figure it out, and from there their choices can cause the story to progress in entertaining ways.

The adventure does run into a few problems in its structure. Dan Coleman derives his adventure layouts from the 4E Delve format, which works well for presenting groups of related rooms, especially in traditional dungeons. In this case, the chaos of the vampire attack ends up being presented more as a bunch of static – rather than interacting – areas. The adventurers deal with each situation as they move from area to area, but the adventure doesn’t consider the vampires fleeing and then alerting the others to what is occurring. It’s just not that dynamic.

So, you get a lot of very entertaining encounters, but not the free-flowing mayhem that the situation might generate. Honestly, I’m not sure what the best way to present such an adventure. The fact is, it’s very easy to overwhelm the DM with Too Much Information. This adventure already has a lot of information in it and each individual encounter is quite complicated. So, instead of a freeform approach which gives the actors, the location and lets the DM invent encounters based on previous occurrences, Out for Blood uses a much more structured technique that makes it much easier for the DM to run.

The formatting of the adventure strains under the amount of information in each encounter, although Dan Coleman employs various icons and visual cues to guide you to relevant portions of text. Of the various adventures of his that I’ve read, this is the one that has the most problems – things don’t quite mesh as well as I’d like. Is there much that is good? Absolutely, and the concept behind the adventure is fantastically good. However, the concept grabs me much more than the execution.

As it stands, you can have an enjoyable evening playing this adventure. It doesn’t quite ascend to greatness, but Out for Blood possesses many elements that are worth investigating.

Integrating Characters into Published Adventures

Although it is perfectly possible to run a published adventure as-written, using the various hooks and plot strands to engage the interest of your players, it is also possible to run something richer. To give the players more engagement with the story than just “a guy in a tavern needs you to do a job”.

Yes, this is easier to do when you’re writing the adventure yourself. However, published adventures offer you the chance to be inspired by someone else’s writing and ideas – especially if, like me, you don’t really have enough time to invent all-new material for the games you’re running.

The objective here is to engage the players more with the game. This works best when important events in their characters’ backgrounds link to the events of the story. To use this technique, you must first read the adventure and pick out important NPCs and places that you think will be good to use: ones that can interact with the player characters more than just “kill on sight”. Then, as the players create their characters, suggest various background elements for them to include that will become relevant later.

The hard part of all of this is remembering that those characters are meant to be important – it’s all-too-easily forgotten, both by the DM and the players! I know I struggle with it. Making reminder notes in the adventure text might be a good idea…

You can see this idea being employed in some of the unique bonds for the Hoard of the Dragon Queen adventure. Major NPCs of the adventure: Leosin, Onthar Frume, Talis and Frulam Mondath appear as potential background elements: people the adventurers know, and have a history with. The significance of these bonds then depends on the DM and the players. Including them doesn’t mean that when you encounter Talis that great role-playing will occur, but it does give the potential that such will happen.

In fact, the bonds of Hoard are mostly a starting point. To be properly significant, the DM and players should expand on the basic ideas before the game starts. Onthar Frume is your mentor? What does that actually mean? How long have you known each other? What’s your relationship like? Do you both serve the Order of the Gauntlet? (And again, especially for the DM, make notes in the relevant part of the adventure. It’s very easy to forget to draw attention to the significant elements, especially when you’re dealing with all the other things you need to run a good adventure!)

Storm King’s Thunder doesn’t set out the bonds like Hoard of the Dragon Queen does. However, it struck me when examining the early part of the adventure, that there’s a hook that requires you to deliver news of a NPC’s death to a town. That’s something that works best if a character in the group has history with that NPC, interacts a little with the NPC during play, and so has a good reason to care when they die. Or perhaps another PC has links to the NPC’s home town which the adventurers must now visit.

Later in the adventure, other NPCs give the players more quests. More potential for previous interactions – with them or with the destinations of the quests. Is there a town in danger? Link a PC to the town, and have them interact with NPCs they care about.

You don’t need to treat every adventure in this way. It would be very difficult to have previous history with NPCs in the land Barovia from Curse of Strahd, for instance. However, allowing the players to have moments where their previous background becomes important? That can provide some nice moments. One only has to see the previous relationship between Kitiara and the adventurers in the Dragonlance Chronicles to see exactly how significant the past relationships can become.

5E Adventure Review: Treasure of the Broken Hoard

Treasure of the Broken Hoard is the first D&D Adventurers League adventure for season 5: Storm King’s Thunder. As with previous seasons, it’s a collection of five mini-adventures, each able to be run in under an hour, which introduces the players to the theme of the series. It is also, as with the previous four seasons, written by Shawn Merwin, who knows what he is doing.

As such, there’s no other series of mini-adventures I’d rather take to this year’s PAX Australia to use as an introduction to D&D – which is exactly what I’ll be doing in another month.

The adventures do an excellent job of introducing players to two of the main facets of D&D: exploration and combat. There is less time devoted to role-playing, although there are a couple of opportunities for that to happen. It’s very important to understand the design brief here: these aren’t typical D&D adventures. They’re designed very deliberately as introductory scenarios. This isn’t to say they aren’t perfectly enjoyable for more experienced players – my group certain enjoyed playing through them all, as they display a lot of invention and a modicum of whimsy – but if you’re looking for the complexity of, say, Curse of Strahd, you should look somewhere else. These are designed to be entertaining snapshots of D&D adventures, and they succeed brilliantly at that task.

The story that links the scenarios together is interesting: The Dragon Cultists of the first season of D&D, Tyranny of Dragons, had hidden a lot of treasure throughout the Greypeak Mountains. The adventurers are asked to help a famed treasure hunter recover these caches of treasure, and so Treasure of the Broken Hoard details the challenges faced by the adventurers as they recover five of those caches. I really appreciate the call-back to Tyranny of Dragons, especially as the events of Storm King’s Thunder are a direct consequence of what happened in that story.

Along the way, the adventure introduces the adventurers to the various factions of giantkind; it does so cleverly, primarily using their minions rather than having giants appear directly – giants are entirely too overwhelming a foe for new adventurers! You get glimpses of the tensions between the types of giants, and an insulting note from the cloud giants to the hill giants is one of my personal highlights of the adventure.

With an experienced group, play of the scenarios was quite fast. The third scenario, in particular, took us only 15 minutes or so to complete. In contrast, the final scenario was far more involved and also far more deadly. It took my group about 2-1/2 hours to complete all five scenarios, but I tend to run scenarios faster than most; the other table we had running only completed four scenarios in the same time. Groups of new players are likely to take appreciably longer.

As a DM, I would pay the most attention to the final scenario: it’s very dangerous. It’s one of the few times that I would have liked to have some guidance as a DM as what the intention was for the first encounter of the scenario: are the adventurers meant to stand and fight, or solve the puzzle and flee? The foes are especially dangerous. It’s also very inventive, and is my favourite of the scenarios.

There are a few minor editing glitches in the adventure – a change in what type of monsters are used hasn’t been caught in every reference, and Imix is referred to as Immix consistently, but for the most part it reads well and presents no major challenges.

Treasure of the Broken Hoard is another excellent adventure from Shawn Merwin. It should prove successful at giving many players an enjoyable first experience of D&D, and provide much entertainment for more experienced players as well. It’s an encouraging start to the fifth season of the D&D Adventurers League adventures.

5E Adventure Review: The Sphere of Sunlight

The Sphere of Sunlight is a short, pay-what-you-want adventure available from the DMs Guild. It clocks in at thirteen pages long, and is designed for 4-6 first-level characters.

I can’t shake the feeling that the author doesn’t quite understand what all the words he’s using mean or how to put them together in the correct manner. “Smoke pours windward from the hearths of homes”. “Hammer striking steel reverberates off trees.”

The adventure begins with the adventurers hired by a local ranger to recover a magical artefact/macguffin, the sphere of sunlight, from a nearby tomb. As the adventurers continue through the wilderness, the DM is suddenly informed of the price of staying in town, a page or two too late to be any good.

The dungeon of the adventure consists of only five encounter areas. The adventures need to fight ruptured centipedes (I have no idea what they are), an undead horror, and finally deal with Hongden, sphere of greed, which is actually quite an interesting encounter, though, for first-level characters, it could be a bit swingy.

Unfortunately, the macguffin isn’t present in the tomb, and so the players end the adventure without feeling much accomplishment. This might work as the beginning of a longer series of adventures, but I prefer standalone adventures to feel complete, even if they then open up further adventures.

There are some nice ideas here, but the adventure is seriously in need of better editing. The final encounter is worth using as inspiration, and it’s a pity that more isn’t done with some of the background. It may be expanded by future adventures; at present, it is a flawed curiosity.