5E Adventure Review: The Mad Dance

Sean Hynd’s The Mad Dance caught my attention because it had a really good blurb. I read a lot of the advertising copy for adventures on the DMs Guild, and seeing one that was short, to-the-point, and giving all the important information about the adventure was much appreciated. For those unsure about what a blurb needs, the basics are: What the adventure is about, the level of the PCs, and how long it will take to play. In this case, it’s a 3-4 hour adventure for level 1-2 adventurers.

This adventure takes the characters to a mansion which is magically sealed after a farewell party from which none of the guests returned. The mansion has four areas that can be explored, each of which is well detailed.

It’s an interesting, creepy adventure. The events that the characters investigate are unsettling, and there’s more going on than first meets the eye. All of this makes for an adventure where the players have a good time working out the true details of what has occurred.

The formatting of the adventure could be much better: the space between columns is not wide enough, text boxes don’t break over pages, the fonts are erratically deployed (and once again, the problems with the Wizards template not using the fonts correctly appear – whenever a monospaced font appears in a DMs Guild product, it’s because the font is wrong). A few inline headings could be called out with bold and italic fonts; as such, they tend to be lost. The rules terminology used is occasionally non-standard; we say a DC 13 Intelligence (Medicine) check, not just a DC 13 Medicine check.

However, the formatting problems don’t detract from the strength of the adventure material. It’s a fun adventure, slanted towards role-playing and investigation. Recommended.

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D&D Terminology: Turns and Rounds

One of the slightly more confusing things in this edition of Dungeons & Dragons is the distinction between a “turn” and a “round”. I’ve seen many players not quite understand how they are different and, as many abilities refer to them, it seems appropriate to just remind people what they mean.

Unfortunately, “round” is used in two or three different manners, so it isn’t as easy as it first looks.

The simple definition:

Combat is divided into rounds. A round consists of each combatant taking one turn. Once each combatant has had its turn, the round is over, and the next round begins.

Here’s a couple of examples where the definition of turn is important:

The Rogue’s sneak attack ability can be used once per turn. This means that if a Rogue hits twice on their turn, the sneak attack damage can only be applied to one attack. However, if, on the Fighter’s turn, the Fighter uses an ability that allows the Rogue to make an attack, the Rogue gets sneak attack on the damage even if they used it on their turn. The reason? Despite being in the same round, the Fighter and Rogue have separate turns.

The Cleric/Wizard casts shield of faith on their turn using a bonus action. By the rules of spell-casting, the only other spell they can cast that turn must be a cantrip with a casting time of one action. However, when the Ogre attacks the character on the Ogre’s turn, they can cast shield as a reaction – it’s no longer the same turn.

Pay attention to what the ability actually states: round or turn.

Now, for the bit that confuses people.

A round has two meanings. Its basic meaning is the round of combat where everyone gets to act once (Let’s call this a “battle round”). When used in a spell duration, it typically means “until it is your turn again”, although whether it means “until the start of your next turn” or “until the end of your next turn” depends on the spell’s description. (Let’s call this a “personal round”).

Thus, guiding bolt has a duration of “1 round” and lasts until the end of your next turn. Chill touch has a duration of “1 round” and lasts until the start of your next turn.

The strangest example is shield. It has a duration of “1 round”, but ends at the start of your next turn. However, as you typically cast it on an opponent’s turn, it won’t last an entire round. Imagine a turn order of Ogre, Rogue, Fighter, Goblin, Orc, Wizard. The Wizard casts it to defend herself against the Orc’s attack… and then the spell ends. However, if the spell were cast against the Ogre, it would continue through the goblin and orc’s attacks, until the Wizard had her turn again!

So, be aware of the difference between the two uses of “round”.

Two other things of note:

In previous editions, we’d often say “At the start of each round” or “At the end of each round”. It’s a usage that, if you’re writing adventures, you shouldn’t use for 5th Edition adventures. Instead it’s clearer to state “On initiative count 20” or “On initiative count 0”. (See Lair Actions in the Monster Manual).

One example when the definition of “round” tripped up the designers is in the definition of “Ready”; they state “you can only take one reaction per round” meaning the personal round of spell-effects. However, for a “battle round”, which is the way they’re using the word throughout the rest of the chapter, you can use a reaction twice; you regain your reaction at the start of your turn, so if you take a reaction, then have your turn, you can use your reaction again within the space of the “battle round”. Obviously, you can’t take a reaction twice during your “personal round”.

So, that’s a bit of clarification as to the difference between “turn”, “round and the other sort of “round”!

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5E Supplement Review: The Book of the Tarrasque

The tarrasque was first introduced to Dungeons & Dragons in 1983, appearing in the Monster Manual II book. A huge, lumbering reptilian beast, its hunger was legendary, its bite possessing the abilities of a sword of sharpness, so that there was a chance that any attack would sever a limb of the target, and its metallic hide would reflect spells such as lightning bolt and magic missile back at the caster, while negating any fire damage at all. This was a monster to be feared.

Or, at least, that was the theory.

The main trouble players have noticed with the tarrasque has generally been a simple one: it doesn’t fly. Thus, many gamers, upon encountering this “ultimate” monster, have engaged their various methods of flying, and pelted with magical arrows it from the air. The Tarrasque is a fantastic melee monster, but – even with its defenses – loses a lot of its interest if the players can just avoid it. The other trouble is in finding the right scenario in which it makes an appropriate enemy. It deserves a place as the final enemy, but it isn’t an intelligent foe; it won’t be the one planning the Ultimate Destruction of the Entire World™.

Encoded Design’s The Book of the Tarrasque endeavours to provide answers to these issues, bringing the tarrasque into the toolbox of DMs everywhere. It does this by discussing how best to use the tarrasque in combat, the adventures in which you might employ the tarrasque, and a suite of optional rules you can use to make the tarrasque an even more formidable foe. The book ends with a sample adventure about a doomsday cult who wish to use the tarrasque to bring about the Ultimate Destruction of the Entire World™.

The current version of the tarrasque lacks some of the traits that the original version has; I miss the severing bite, even though it gains the ability to swallow characters. John Arcadian, who wrote the advice in this book, provides a few more abilities you could give it: a lightning breath (taking inspiration from Japanese monster movies, such as Godzilla), the ability to fling rubble from ruined buildings at characters trying to fly, and restoring the regeneration ability that was rather significant in previous editions. Quite frankly, it needs them.

John is very obviously someone who loves the tarrasque, and the challenge it can present to higher-level characters. However, as he notes, some groups are just going to defeat the tarrasque in a short period of time, while others will experience the epic encounter wished for. A lot of the advice is based on his experiences through running battles against the tarrasque in convention play, although he also provides a few notes for campaign play. I very much appreciate the selection of twenty plot seeds that can be expanded into adventures or campaign play.

Chris Snieziak’s adventure, The Machine of Unmaking, is quite unusual in form. It is very obviously influenced by the other games Chris plays, podcasts about and occasionally writes for. Let me give you an example of its presentation:

The characters are summoned by a patron who reports that a friend from a neighbouring region has asked for help in dealing with the mythic beast known as the tarrasque. The patron wants the characters to see if the friend is telling the truth.

This way of providing iconic or important concepts – and emphasizing them in bold type – which can be replaced by specific people and places is a feature of a strand of games I’m not that familiar with; I know the Gumshoe system games have used it, I presume that others have as well (especially FATE). For a D&D Dungeon Master, used to having all the specific details written down, with names and places predefined (even if we then change them later to fit our campaign), it feels odd.

The adventure is presented using a short, four-act structure. In the first act, the players investigate a ruined city that the tarrasque has moved through. In the second act, they research in the library of the capital to discover what they’re up against (and might be attacked by cultists), the third act has them faced with challenges on the way to the final boss, and the fourth act, in the World’s End Mountains, sees the final confrontation against the cult (and, likely, the tarrasque).

It’s an effective adventure, and the use of a structure alien to existing D&D adventures allows us to see how else an investigation-style adventure can be formatted. The early D&D investigation adventures, such as The Assassin’s Knot, would have very much benefitted from a better structure. The rise of investigative scenarios in, primarily, tournament play has seen D&D expand its horizons beyond the dungeon adventures of its original form, and experimenting with the structures used by more investigative-led role-playing games in the D&D system is something well worth doing.

So, what do I think of the book? That’s a hard one, mainly because, as an experienced DM, a lot of the advice are things I already know about. The sections that focus on using the tarrasque in a one-shot adventure just designed to defeat it rather than in regular campaign play leave me cold, but I can see that they’ll be very useful for DMs preparing to use it in such a form. There are bits that I find pointless or problematic, such as the advice that says a party with items that confer flying is better equipped to fight the tarrasque – well, yes: those items actually create a major problem when using tarrasque-as-written. But there’s plenty of useful things in the book as well, and the addition of variant abilities (especially the throwing-rubble attack) does a lot to move the tarrasque back to the foe a well-prepared and equipped party will find challenging.

I really, really liked the notes on how the tarrasque has been used throughout the history of D&D, and its background as a French myth.

Ultimately, this is a book for a specific purpose: to encourage you to use the tarrasque in an exciting session or campaign. The fact that it includes an adventure that shows you one way to use the monster is a definite plus; the usefulness of the rest of the book will depend on the needs of the individual DM.

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Running Curse of Strahd: Ezmerelda d’Avenir

The rider who greeted the adventurers as they descended from Argynvostholt was Ezmerelda d’Avenir, a gift to DMs everywhere.

One of the major things that you’ll often need as a DM is a non-player character who can drive the plot and give information to the adventurers that they can’t otherwise obtain or, more frequently, have missed. In this game of Curse of Strahd, that character was Ezmerelda. Once a Vistani, now a monster-slayer, she’s got a great backstory, interesting personality, and – most importantly – wants to get things done.

There are several characters in Curse of Strahd who can fulfil this role. Indeed, I could have used either Ireena or Davian Martikov as such. However, it is Ezmerelda who really grabbed my attention. You should trust your instincts; trying to force Davian into that role when I wasn’t that interested in role-playing him would be a mistake. He’s an excellent character in the right hands. For this adventure, they weren’t mine!

The adventurers were immediately charmed by Ezmerelda, and – having finished their exploration of Argynvoltholt (at least for now), were accompanied by her, first to her wagon, then on expeditions to the Amber Temple and Castle Ravenloft… She didn’t take away their agency, but was ‘merely’ there as a source of useful information on where the group might want to go next. So, when the group found Castle Ravenloft just too difficult for them, a quick trip to the Amber Temple was a source of some important information and valuable XP. How did they find out about the Amber Temple? She told them about it, suggesting that it might provide some clues as to how to defeat Strahd.

Ezmerelda’s wagon, of course, can be the source of many items the characters find they need. It’s also useful for moments of comedy. (“I wouldn’t go in there without me.” “Why?” “Well, if you enjoy melting, I guess…”) My group didn’t interact with it overmuch – they basically visited it, explored the tower it was parked beside, then left. But, if needed, it can be used.

Ezmerelda also has a fascinating relationship with an old circus performer. I didn’t play this up. There’s a lot in Curse of Strahd to provide fantastic character moments, but, for the most part, you shouldn’t use them too much. Now, if you can get the characters really involved with Ezmerelda (perhaps as a love interest), then her story can be brought to the fore, especially as she confronts her one-time mentor about his abandonment. However, if you’re not careful, it can bring the ongoing story to a complete stop. The story isn’t about the NPCs interacting with each other, it’s about the players interacting with the NPCs. So, use backstory with care.

The immediate benefit of introducing Ezmerelda was that I could finally run the Tarokka card reading, and let the players know what they needed to defeat Strahd. This was actually quite late in the adventure, normally I would prefer to run the reading long before this, but this was how the adventure played. The reading indicated that Davian was the ally they needed against Strahd, Strahd would be found in his tomb, two of the Items of Power were in the castle, and they never, ever worked out where the final object was. (It was in the monastery).

This was not new information for me. I’d drawn the cards when we began the adventure proper. When we did the reading, I just stacked the deck with the cards I’d drawn previously. (And using the Gale Force 9 Tarokka deck). While it might be fun to find out as the DM halfway through the adventure, having the PCs discover that an item has mysteriously appeared where it wasn’t before can be a bit disconcerting…

As we proceeded through the adventure, the players had a lot of trouble with the clues. What did they mean? Eventually, I had Ezmerelda confirm that, yes, those two items were in the castle (and the third wasn’t that important). It would take almost the entire adventure before the players found the items – they explored every area of the Castle except the ones the items were in!

For now, the group had found a “safe” place for the citizens of Krezk to stay, and were now going to talk to a dressmaker about a wedding dress – catching up on the Abbot’s quest!

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5E Adventure Review: Hillsfar Reclaimed

I’ve recently been rerunning the Tier 1 Rage of Demons D&D Adventurers League adventures. Hillsfar Reclaimed is the penultimate adventure in the series, and it does an excellent job of setting up the finale, while being an entertaining adventure in its own right.

The adventure sees the characters being sent into Hillsfar by the Harpers. There, they need to discover the identity of spies who have been corrupting the First Lord, and they must also steal a copy of the First Lord’s itinerary. Disguises are in order!

This is an adventure that requires quite a lot from the DM. The DM will have to invent many details about the First Lord’s Tower and the other locations visited, although the adventure gives enough material for the DM to have a starting point. I’ve run it three times now: each time more interesting than the last, because I’ve had more experience with the scenario and a better idea of what to emphasize to make it more engaging.

The adventure references events occurring in the other strand of adventures for this season, particularly those revolving around the fiendish conquest of Maerimydra in the Underdark. For players and DMs who haven’t played the higher-level adventures, some of these references will be hard to understand. Thankfully, this information isn’t needed to play this adventure, but it does put the events in context. I do advise becoming familiar with the Tier 2 adventures before running this one.

As to the play of the adventure: it’s very enjoyable. There’s a lot of potential for role-playing here. Although it’s billed as a two-hour adventure, a group that really enjoys role-playing could spend hours on it (although the DM would need to spend some time creating people for the players to interact with). The adventure needs some massaging from the DM to ensure the characters are in the right place at the right time, but it mostly flows well. There are also clues in the early part of the adventure that allow the players to better anticipate the ending; this is handled very well.

Overall, Hillsfar Reclaimed is a good adventure. Its name may not be very indicative of what happens, but, regardless, this is an excellent scenario. I do advise you immediately follow it with Death on the Wall, so your players finish the storyline while the plot is fresh in their minds.

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5E Supplement Review: Books of Knowledge

J. Benjamin’s Books of Knowledge is an intriguing supplement: a collection of magical books that adventurers can study and thereby gain various magical benefits. The author suggests using this supplement in a campaign where permanent magic items are rare; the books described tend to have lesser magical effects, and thus allow a hint of magical ability without overwhelming the campaign.

For instance, the book Art of Axe-Throwing requires three days to read and increases the reader’s normal range with thrown axes by five feet. Eyes of the Kobold allows the reader to reduce the damage they take from a trap by their Intelligence modifier, and False Impressions allows the reader to gain advantage on an attempt to forge documents.

Many of the effects are trivial or extremely specific. Take, for instance, Flumph Grammar, a book that grants you advantage on Charisma (Persuasion) checks you make against flumphs! Is this a problem? Not exactly. I delight in the flavour these books give the world. The trouble comes when too many of these effects are gained by a player. Remembering conditional bonuses is hard, especially when they come up rarely. It’s a major problem I have with the Pathfinder feat system, which delights in conditional bonuses.

However, when I come across Secrets of a Repentant Thief, which grants the reader an understanding of some of the markings used by thieves to warn of danger, good targets or other matters, then I’m enchanted again.

The book has a few flaws when it comes to the correct expression of the rules. “You may add your proficiency bonus to Insight checks” is a bit problematic. Do you get this bonus if you are already proficient in Insight? And surely it should be to Wisdom (Insight) checks? There are also more than a few missing apostrophes, and the phrasing is tortuous at times. Consider: “You may add your proficiency bonus to all Deception checks you make against humanoid creatures you are actively engaged in reading their fortunes to, and doing so at their request. Additionally, while you are actively reading a humanoid creatures fortune at their request, whenever you make a Deception check against that creature, you may make an Insight check and use that result instead.”

Instead of using the regular attunement rules, several of the books use “minor attunement”, a parallel system that works in the same manner, except you may have three minor attunement items in addition to your three major attunement items. Given the minor effects of most of these books, this is not a bad way of balancing things. I would have preferred to see this limit applied to all the books, just to limit the number of strange effects in play.

Overall, whilst I’m not certain of the game implications of this supplement, I greatly appreciate the inspiration it gives for using minor magic treasures in my game.

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5E Adventure Review: No Foolish Matter

No Foolish Matter is the sixth adventure of the third season of D&D Adventurers League adventures. It’s designed for level 1-4 characters, and sits as a rare stand-alone in a series of adventures detailing the effects of Hillsfar’s “Great Law of Humanity” on the land. Instead of dealing with the injustice of the Red Plumes and the quest to replace the First Lord of Hillsfar, No Foolish Matter concentrates solely on some of the madness created and enhanced by the exiled Demon Lords.

It does this with a carnival.

The basic premise of the adventure is that a strange sickness has been affecting villages in the area. A travelling carnival visited each of the villages just before the sickness started, and this is considered (rightfully) as suspicious by those paying attention, and the party is sent to investigate by their contacts in the factions. However, the adventure also allows for an alternative starting point, with the adventurers being in a town as the carnival arrives, and are then recruited to investigate the carnival by the village healer.

This is an adventure that needs a lot of additional invention from the DM. It is very role-playing intensive and, to be successful, needs the Dungeon Master to convey the chaotic scenes of the carnival and provide evocative descriptions of the various attractions and terrors the adventurers find. The adventure doesn’t lack descriptions for what the adventurers can find, but some DMs are likely to find them inadequate. The descriptions are a spur to the imagination; they don’t do the work for you.

As a two-hour adventure, the plot is quite straightforward: the adventurers are introduced to the situation, they investigate the carnival and discover some unsettling information, and then they proceed to the final confrontation. The bulk of the wonder and excitement comes from the investigation of the carnival, but this is likely going to require some shepherding of the characters by the DM: there are a couple of encounters that make the adventure work much better if they occur, but – as the adventure stands – the players could miss them. There are only two combat encounters in the adventure, and these are quite challenging, with a fair number of special features and monsters to keep track of. This is a consequence of the shorter play-time (and the tournament format); the combat encounters need to have more impact.

Despite these niggles, I found this a great adventure to run. It’s got a strong theme, and some particularly memorable encounters. Yes, it requires the DM to do more work, but I don’t mind this when the basic material is so inspiring. It’d be quite easy to use this adventure outside of the D&D Adventurers League storyline as part of a homebrew campaign.

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Running the Sunless Citadel: Kobolds!

Areas 13-24 of The Sunless Citadel contain the first organised group of monsters the adventurers meet: Kobolds!

The kobolds of the edition of D&D when The Sunless Citadel was first published in 2000 were not quite the same as the kobolds of 2017. Both are relatively weak, cowardly creatures, mainly known for their attachment to dragons and their skill at trap-building. However, the current version of the kobold is a much more dangerous proposition to face in battle due to their Pack Tactics ability. Even then, each individual kobold is very fragile, so the standard kobold tactics are to shoot at the adventurers with missile weapons (preferably while the adventurers are dealing with a trap), and to then retreat and lead adventurers into their traps. Only when cornered – or in defence of their leader, or dragon – do they attack in melee. At that point, have as many kobolds attack one character as possible, to maximise the potential of Pack Tactics.

If the adventurers are smart, they’ll be in a corridor or doorway where few kobolds can attack them. If not… well, they’ll learn the importance of defensive terrain!

Note how the central corridor in the lair loops around – this allows kobolds to attack from two directions, or to engage in harassment and fade manoeuvring: where they shoot and then retreat, leading the party around and around and around.

The kobolds of the Sunless Citadel are not initially hostile to the adventurers. Instead, they give the players an opportunity to role-play. The first room the party enters contains Meepo, the Keeper of the Dragon, who has unfortunately lost his dragon! Meepo is a gift to the DM: a character that would normally be an enemy, but sees the adventurers as the answer to his prayers. I try to play him for comedy value, but comedy with some pathos.

I find good role-playing as the DM to be hard. I try to make it memorable by using voices (then spoil it by forgetting which voice I use for each character. Make notes!) In the case of Meepo, if you can imagine a cross between Marvin the Paranoid Android and Alvin (of the Chipmunks), then you’re well on the way to creating a memorable character. “You’ll fail. There’s no hope. Except… you find dragon!”

(Basing characterisations on television or movie performances is one way I come up with and remember personalities).

Meepo can lead the adventurers to a meeting with Yusdrayl, who gives you the second big role-playing encounter of the adventure. Make sure you read the description of Yusdrayl in the appendix: she’s not hostile unless provoked. There aren’t many notes on how to role-play her, but I’d keep a high-pitched voice whilst giving it more gravitas; the intention here is to inform the players that they’re dealing with an intelligent (not foolish) creature, who can bring down the wrath of numerous kobolds upon the adventurers. If the party is wise, they’ll negotiate. And thus they became part of the goblin-kobold war…

If the characters choose not to go with Meepo, they’re almost certainly going to be attacked. They can still salvage a diplomatic solution to this, but most of the kobold guards are going to be very paranoid, with predictable results.

Meepo was a popular character, who accompanied many groups through The Sunless Citadel and beyond. He was even granted his very own D&D Miniature: Meepo, Dragonlord (an epic-level miniature!) I’ve found a store through Amazon asking $72 for a copy of the miniature… (I’ve linked the listing to the picture if you want a laugh; it’s not that hard to find cheaper copies!)

Any expedition into The Sunless Citadel is likely to take several trips, with characters returning to the surface to rest and resupply. If the characters make the kobolds their allies – and wipe out the goblins – you may wish to describe how the kobolds start moving into the goblins’ chambers, and how more kobolds can be seen on each expedition. If you’re feeling mischievous, perhaps the kobolds set up a cult to one of the characters (a lesser demi-god, serving their deity, of course!) and have kobolds bowing in that character’s presence, and wanting to touch his or her cloak…

Alternatively, if the kobolds become enemies of the characters, you should consider their tactics if the party leave and retreat. Consider adding more traps to slow down the characters, adding reinforcements (a small number), and changing where the kobolds are deployed. Once things get to a bad state (over half the kobolds killed), I’d have the entire clan get up and leave when the party are absent. Then, if the goblins are still about, they start inhabiting the kobold chambers and gathering reinforcements in the same manner as the kobolds would…

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5E Adventure Review: A Dish Best Served Cold

A Dish Best Served Cold is the fifth adventure in the D&D Adventurers League fifth season. It’s written by James Introcaso (who is known for babbling about tabletops and doing great interviews), and is written for the second tier of levels, optimised for 8th-level characters.

It’s also the second in the Stagwick-arc, a tale about the relationships between the frost giants and settlers in Hartsvale. In this adventure, the truce between the giants and the settlers is threatened by a group of self-appointed border guards, the Blood Riders, who have kidnapped the son of a local giantess. The adventurers must rescue the giant and not start a war.

As the adventure is meant to be played in a two-hour slot, there’s not much time for an exploration of its themes. It begins with the meeting with the giantess, proceeds to an investigation of the camp where the kidnapping occurred, details a few encounters that may occur on the way to the Blood Rider encampment, and then has the players trying to rescue the giant.

The adventure handles all of this well. It has just enough time to develop the plot, providing clues to the players as to the true story, so that when the final encounter occurs, it doesn’t have to be resolved with the adventurers fighting all of the Blood Riders. There are good opportunities for role-playing and combat; exploration takes a back seat in this adventure. Not surprisingly, it’s a fairly linear tale, with minor variations possible due to character choices and encounter selection.

The chief problem the adventure faces is a lack of background information about Stagwick. The adventure isn’t short on background information about why the Blood Riders have taken this course of action, but their relationship to Stagwick, who King Hartwick is, and why the adventurers should be helping giants… all of that isn’t explained. And that’s a problem if you come to this adventure cold. I’d like to know more about the region I’m protecting – even a sidebar setting the stage would be invaluable here.

There are a few editing errors. My favourite is the “swatch of destruction”, which, alas, is not a magical, destructive timepiece. (It should be “swath” or, if you’re Australian, “swathe”).

Overall, it’s an effective adventure. Personally, I think the adventure idea is strong enough to support a longer, more intense adventure, but James has done a fine job for the two-hour slot. It could easily be run as a one-shot outside of the Storm King’s Thunder storyline, although I highly recommend giving the players more information on the truce between the giants and the humans in the area; it makes the goal of the adventure more compelling.

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Running the Sunless Citadel: First Steps

The Sunless Citadel is the first adventure in the new Dungeons & Dragons book, Tales from the Yawning Portal. This adventure is designed for beginning characters, and is also a very good choice for Dungeon Masters as their first adventure.

Here are a few tips for running your first session of the adventure!

Character Selection

The Sunless Citadel is a dungeon adventure, where much of the action will take place in ten-feet-wide corridors. By the rules of D&D, two characters can stand next to each other in a corridor. Typically, a party of adventurers will want two characters with good Armor Class and Hit Points standing at the front of the group, able to protect the more vulnerable members of the party. The default choice is a heavy-armor Fighter and a melee Cleric, but there are other character types that can work, for instance the Paladin, Monk and Barbarian can fill this role. Look for characters that have an Armor Class of at least 15 and a Hit Point total of 10 or more, armed with a melee weapon.

The group will want at least one character that can heal (Bard, Cleric, and Druid are the best selections), and having a character who can cast area-effect spells (e.g. Sorcerer, Wizard) to defeat swarms of weaker creatures is useful. The Sunless Citadel includes a few traps, so a character skilled at finding and disarming traps wouldn’t go astray. Although the Rogue is the normal selection, any character with proficiency in Thieves’ Tools can fill the role (one way of gaining the proficiency is through the Criminal background).

The archetypal party is the Fighter, Cleric, Wizard and Rogue, but you don’t have to have exactly those classes, and more players allow even more types of characters, with roles then overlapping.

If your group has never played Dungeons & Dragons before, I strongly recommend starting with pregenerated characters; you can allow the players to change the characters after they’ve got a feeling for the system.

The Village of Oakhurst

The Village of The Sunless Citadel is not described in detail (as opposed to the village of Phandalin in the D&D Starter Set). This is fine: you don’t need much information about it. You can assume it has stores that can sell the equipment listed in the Player’s Handbook, and a temple that can cast healing spells on the party if they require them. Apart from that, it provides a safe place for the characters to rest between expeditions.

The adventure gives a list of “Rumors Heard in Oakhurst”, suggesting that the players can discover the information by asking around. I recommend that you tell the players that information at the beginning of the game, even if they don’t ask for it. The rumors give them clues as to what to expect in the dungeon, and foreknowledge makes the players’ engagement with the adventure greater as they discover the truth of the rumors.

For the first session, I would begin by explaining why the players are going to the dungeon, using the Rescue Mission hook, inform them of the rumors, and then go immediately to the adventurers approaching the ravine in which the Citadel lies. Start the adventure! Don’t delay the enjoyment!

Travelling to and from the Dungeon

Assuming the adventurers haven’t enraged all the inhabitants of the dungeon, thus causing them to set traps for the party on the escape path, there should be no trouble travelling to and from the dungeon. When the party decide to leave, tell them that they take a few hours travelling and then return to Oakhurst; likewise for their return journey. There’s no need to make this adventure harder by adding in wandering monsters in the wilderness. The one exception is if you want to run the twig blight encounter in the wilderness to demonstrate to the party that there is something wrong in the area; however, only do this if the party will enjoy the distraction, not if they’re badly hurt and close to death.


The adventure suggests nominating one player as a mapper who then draws the map of where the party has explored.

Don’t do this!

Although mapping is a time-honored tradition from the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, it’s also a great way of wasting time and frustrating the players. There are groups of players and dungeons that I’ll use a mapper in, but this is not one of those dungeons – and you’ve likely not got one of those groups, especially if it’s the players’ first game.

Instead, you (as the Dungeon Master) should sketch out the map for the players as they explore the dungeon. I have a book of graph paper with 5mm squares (I guess quarter-inch squares in the States?), and I use this to draw the dungeon for the players. This allows them to easily visualize the layout of the dungeon, and prevents a lot of miscommunications.

For those groups who use miniatures and battlemats, it’s unlikely your battlemat is big enough to display the entire dungeon. I’d still use the graph paper in this case, just drawing on the battlemat when necessary for a combat.

Early Encounters

The first encounters of any game have the players full of anticipation. What sort of game will it be?

The Sunless Citadel begins with a combat against giant rats as the players first come to the chasm. The rats try to hide and ambush the party: You should make one Dexterity (Stealth) check for the rats. Each character whose Passive Perception is lower than this result fails to see the rats and is surprised (see PHB page 189) and can’t act in the first round. This is a great time to amp up your descriptions of the rats, how they’re Really Big, and running from the rubble, shrieking, to engage the adventurers!

Afterwards, suggest to the players that they look around – there’s an Investigating heading that describes what the players can find.

From here, the adventure switches to a mix of the three pillars of D&D: combat, role-playing and exploration. There are traps (that’s where the rogue comes in handy!), tricks (talking statues), monsters, and a few creatures to talk to. It’s having a variety of encounters that keeps the game interesting, and allow you to learn and use different skills as a DM. Don’t be worried if you do some badly – I’ve been running the game over 30 years, and I still make lots of mistakes.

The adventure is designed to channel the characters towards the kobolds – areas 6-12 are likely going to require the players to become more experienced first (and find a key deeper in the dungeon). I’ll talk about the kobolds in a later post. For now, good luck!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Play Advice, Tales of the Yawning Portal | 6 Comments