Better Play of Dungeons & Dragons: Know Your Goals

As a player in a game of Dungeons & Dragons, one thing you should do at the beginning of every session is to work out what your goals are for the session.

Yes, those things. What you want to accomplish. Your goals can be as simple as “kill every monster you meet and take its treasure”. (That was often my goal as a teenaged player of D&D). Or they can be more story-based: Do you want to rescue the princess? Find the enchanted fleece? Seek revenge on the lover who spurned you?

Goals can be shared by the group or personal to your character. Escort Frodo to the Crack of Doom to destroy the Ring is the shared goal of the entire Fellowship. Marry Arwen is the goal of just Aragorn. (I presume!)

If you’re not sure what you should be doing, discuss it with the DM. If you’re the DM, and the players don’t know what they should be doing, you need to give them ideas. This can be really important when running a sandbox adventure like Princes of the Apocalypse or Storm King’s Thunder: Make sure the players know what they can do, and, if they don’t have a reason to go to the Really Important Area They Should Visit, give them a reason. That’s part of your role as the DM. Nothing frustrates players more than not knowing what to do next.

If you’ve got personal, character-related goals, then those are very good ones to discuss with your DM. DMs tend to be very good at remembering the big, important story points whilst forgetting character details that matter to you. If you feel your personal story is going nowhere, you should talk to the DM about it.

Once you’ve got your goals set, you can work out what you need to do to complete them. “Marry Arwen” was a long-term goal for Aragorn. There were plenty of things he needed to do first before he could marry her – become King, defeat Sauron, destroy the Ring. Those sorts of things.

If a goal becomes impossible to complete – or too dangerous at the current time – set it aside, and find another goal. You want to take down the Dragon King at 1st level? Work out something more achievable! If your healer is knocked unconscious in a dungeon, you’ve got a new goal: get out and wake up the healer! Don’t continue to your destruction!

If you’re playing a D&D Adventurers League adventure, typically the goals of the adventure will be given to you in the opening encounter.

Once you’ve got goals, it’s time to start working out how to accomplish them. Research. Question NPCs. Talk to your DM. Discuss the situation with your fellow players. Make a plan.

Long-term goals generally break down into a series of steps or subgoals you need to accomplish first. Choose one of those to be your goal for the session. Work towards that.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that being clear about what you’re doing makes for a much better game. Wandering aimlessly around a swamp? Not that good. Searching the swamp for the buried city of Xak Tsaroth? That’s much better. Be clear on what you want to accomplish, and set out to accomplish it!

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More on D&D Initiative: Weapon Speeds, Teamwork and Ranged Combat

As I’ve mentioned before, D&D combat is not really the most realistic of systems. This doesn’t matter much, because it’s fun! However, with Mike Mearls talking about providing an alternative initiative system, it’s revived my interest in the various initiative systems D&D has used over the years – an abiding interest of mine.

Mike’s system, for those who haven’t seen it, requires all combatants to announce their actions at the beginning of each combat round. They then roll initiative dice depending on which actions they’re doing. The DM then counts up from 1, with combatants acting when their initiative score is reached. If a character does more than one action, they add all the dice together and end up acting later in the turn.

  • Ranged Attack: 1d4
  • Melee Attack: 1d8
  • Cast a Spell: 1d12
  • Other Action: 1d6
  • Swap Gear: +1d8
  • Bonus Action: +1d8 (or 1d6)
  • Movement: +1d6

Spell effects that last “1 round” end at the end of the round after they were cast, rather than after your or the creature’s next turn.

Dexterity does not affect initiative (Mike says it’s strong enough already).

Mike notes that it promotes teamwork within the group, as each player must co-ordinate their actions with the other players. Another aspect of it is that it can speed up combat. This seems counterintuitive, but it’s because everyone decides on their action together rather than waiting for their turn and then having to analyse the situation and decide on their action. All the analysis is as a group activity (and keeps everyone engaged in the game); the resolution of actions isn’t as time-consuming as the decision of what to do.

Now, one of the things that is not there – but has been requested by a few people – is the concept of weapon speeds. That is, some weapons strike faster than other. This was a feature of earlier versions of D&D, going back to the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement.

Weapon speeds look great. It makes sense to people that a dagger, a tiny little weapon, can strike more often than a two-handed sword, which is so big and bulky and slow.

Except… does the dagger actually manage to strike more often than a sword, when the length of the sword is such an advantage? I mean, there’s a reason that the sword was the dominant weapon throughout a lot of history and the dagger wasn’t – if the dagger always got to strike first, then we’d surely see a lot more of them about? I don’t know the answer to that; at what point does the opportunity to strike override the speed to strike?

The original Chainmail (and AD&D, and Magic Realm) rules actually had two separate initiative systems. In the first round of melee – that is, the round that you close to combat – the longer weapon struck first. In the later rounds, these systems have the “faster” weapon strike first – or at least have an improved chance of striking first.

The strangest way of dealing with this was in AD&D, where a fast weapon against a very slow weapon (such as a dagger vs a pike) had the chance of striking additional times – albeit only on a tied initiative roll (that’s a 1 in 6 chance in that system). This rule came up very rarely and was likely often ignored by players; it certainly disappeared out of the rules when 2nd edition came along.

Mike suggestion for those who do want to use weapon speeds is to use the weapon’s damage dice as the initiative dice. Thus, a dagger uses 1d4, a greatsword uses 2d6 – the longsword and other versatile weapons depend on how it is being used. Me? I’d prefer to keep all weapons at the same speed.

I find the oddest thing about Mike’s system is how ranged weapons have a 1d4 speed. It’s an unfortunate effect of needing ranged weapons to be discharged before movement – if you moved and did nothing else, you could get adjacent to a ranged character before they shot and cause the attack to have disadvantage. If a ranged weapon had the same speed as a melee weapon, and the character moving then made a melee attack, this wouldn’t be so much of a problem. How do you feel about a set modifier for movement? Say +1 for every 5 feet travelled with a maximum of +6? Or +1 for every sixth of your movement rate moved?

Personally, I don’t think an archer engaged in melee combat should be able to fire at all (let alone with disadvantage), but that’s as much a part of starting with the AD&D rules as anything else. (That, and I want missile weapons to have disadvantages… oh, and have a chance of hitting your allies when they’re in melee…)

I’m going to try using Mike’s rules this Friday, so I’ll have an article up sometime on the weekend on how they played, and on what my group thinks could improve them.

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A Look at Initiative Systems in Dungeons & Dragons

Combat in Dungeons & Dragons is not particularly realistic. Its mechanics exist to make a good game rather than accurately relate what would happen in a real fight.

The current initiative system can be described as a cyclical system. At the beginning of each combat, an initiative roll is made (a Dexterity check) by each combatant. The combatants are then ordered from highest roll to lowest, and then each takes a turn, from first to last, with the first taking a second turn after everyone has had their first turn. It cycles around and around until the combat ends.

This system was first brought into D&D by the 3rd edition of the rules. The main difference between the 3rd edition rules and the current rules is that in 3rd edition, you could delay your turn and change your position in the order. That option doesn’t exist in 5th edition.

This initiative system has the advantage of being very simple to understand. Realistic? Hardly. One of the features of real life is that everyone moves at once. (When you see an army charging at another army, does one person in the front-line move, then a second, then a third? No, everyone is moving simultaneously).

The current initiative system also has the drawback of being deterministic. Once you know the order of combatant actions, it will be the same throughout the combat.

Mike Mearls recently posted a system that he’s been trialling to remove the deterministic approach to initiative. The basic idea is that each combatant announces their action at the beginning of each round, then the order of actions is randomly determined, with each action having a dice roll determining when it happens in the round. Let’s call this a stochastic system, which just means random (although the randomness is within bounds determined by the actions chosen, each of which uses a different type of dice).

Mike Mearls’s system does a very good job of bringing tension back to combat, because you can no longer be sure that you’ll be able to act before the monster. The more complicated your actions, the later you act in the round.

One thing his system doesn’t do is allow movement to be simultaneous. This is a hard one to do. I’ve occasionally handled it in the following manner, with one interpretation of the AD&D system:

  • Each combatant announces actions
  • The Dungeon Master decides what happens, with a set of rules determining who strikes first through a group initiative roll and a bunch of complicated modifiers.

In such a system, like Mike’s, the combatants announce actions at the start of each round, not knowing when they’ll take them; in the current system, combatants only announce actions on their turn. (Is Mike’s system a preannounce system?)

The drawback of my interpretation of the AD&D system is that the Dungeon Master must keep track of the actions and then order them all. The advantage it has is that you get a more realistic structure for combat. Two combatants move towards each other? Then they’ll meet in the middle and exchange blows. This is something I prefer to the current system, where there is a definite disadvantage to moving to a position where the other combatant will be able to then attack you with all their attacks.

Another problem with preannouncing actions is that what happens if the situation changes? Do you lose your action? Do you lose your spell slot? If your fighter friend kills the Big Bad before you cast magic missile, is the spell still cast for no effect? Typically, I would allow the action to be retargeted, only being lost if no targets remain; in a 5E game with Mike’s system, I’d not require the slot to be expended.

Another part of earlier initiative systems that is not part of either Mike’s or the 5E system is the idea of group initiative. In such an initiative system, all creatures on one side move and act together.

The advantage of such a system is that you can maintain a defensive front. In the current initiative system, a fighter can charge out first and get surrounded, despite his companion also running into the fray – theoretically by his side.

Instead, we have an individual initiative system, where each character acts independently of the others.

All of these issues interlink to make the decisions required to design an initiative system quite a complicated one. The current 5E system has one great advantage: it’s simple. The drawbacks depend on your preferences. For me, I’m not fond of the deterministic system that doesn’t allow simultaneous or group movement.

I’ll be giving Mike’s system a try in the coming weeks. It doesn’t address all of my concerns, but it’s worth seeing how it affects things.

My previous commentary on Initiative systems:

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Dungeon Exploration: Wandering Monsters and Tracking Time

Dungeons & Dragons began in the dungeon. It’s the form of the game that I keep returning to, because dungeons are cool. They provide an environment that allow the players to make interesting choices, whilst allowing the DM to easily understand their structure. With the release of Tales of the Yawning Portal, we’ve been given seven classic dungeon scenarios to play with.

I’m a very big fan of having wandering monsters (also known as random monsters) appear in dungeons. The idea with a wandering monster is to keep the characters on their toes, and to remind them that the dungeon is a living place with monsters going about their business (or patrolling to see if there are any adventurers causing problems!) You’ll find that many of the dungeons in Tales have wandering monster tables.

Wandering monsters work like this: You make a check on the table whenever a certain amount of time passes.

In original D&D, it often worked like this:

  • Every 10 minutes, roll a d6. On a 1, a wandering monster encountered the party.
  • Roll d% on the wandering monster table to discover what monster is encountered.

In newer D&D adventures, it often works like this:

  • Every 1 hour, roll a d20. Use the encounter on the wandering monster table. (A range of values, such as 1-10, are listed as “No encounter).

I like using the original method when there is a wide range of monsters that might appear, but the modern method typically works well. Note that you can entirely change the frequency of the checks, along with the chances of having an encounter. Want to make an encounter occur on a 1-2 on a d6 every 10 minutes? Go for it!

Wandering monsters increase the danger of the dungeon, and have a tendency to derail an adventure’s plot if too frequent or deadly. One of the major effects of wandering monsters in the new edition is to prevent characters from taking short rests. It’s rather hard to spend an hour resting when monsters attack every half-hour! This can have a severe effect on the effectiveness of certain classes, especially the warlock, which depend on taking short rests. I typically want a balance between the two extremes: short rests whenever the characters want, or no short rests. One short rest per expedition sounds about right. There are two ways of handling this. One is making the wandering monster checks “fail” with a frequency that gives some chance of resting the hour. The other, which is the method I prefer, is to designate certain rooms in the dungeon as safe areas to rest.

The other side of running wandering monsters is working out how much time passes as the players explore the dungeon. This is something that I typically handwave (it feels like you’ll have spent an hour, so let’s make a new wandering monster check!), and it’s something that isn’t really covered in the current rulebooks. Yes, you have a travel speed (typically 200 feet per minute if moving stealthily), but how long does it take to search a room? Much of that is left to the Dungeon Master to determine.

I tend to fall back on the older forms of D&D to track these durations. In original D&D, the “turn” meant something different than it does today. The “turn” was 10 minutes duration, and was used during exploration as a useful abstraction of time. How long did a combat take? 1 turn. How long did it take to explore a room? 1 turn. Indeed, combats would only take 2 or 3 minutes (or even less in Basic D&D, with its 10-second rounds), but you’d call every combat “1 turn” because it was easier to track. I typically make check marks on a piece of scrap paper to keep track of time, making wandering monster checks as appropriate.

One big difference between modern D&D and AD&D is the speed of characters when exploring. In AD&D, a group of characters with one player in plate mail would explore (and map) 60 feet of corridor every ten minutes. If they weren’t mapping, they moved at ten times that speed: 600 feet every ten minutes. In modern D&D, a group of characters can travel 2000 feet in that time!

So, to use the “exploration turn” (or 10 minutes) as a useful abstraction, you could say:

  • Movement between rooms (including listening at doors & mapping): 10 minutes
  • Dealing with the contents of one room (exploration & combat): 10 minutes
  • Role-playing: 10 minutes+ (depending on actual time spent).

If the characters are progressing down a lot of tunnels without entering rooms, work out a distance after which 10 minutes passes. Say, every 300 feet. Or 2000 feet. Or 60 feet.

Why do it this way? Because then it’s easier to track how much time has passed, which is important for those wandering monster checks! (Or when the group gets tired and needs to rest, or when their torches/lanterns run out!) I use check marks in groups of six (rather than five) – each six is an hour – making it easier to read.

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5E Adventure Review: Volo’s Lost Encounters

Jean Lorber’s Volo’s Lost Encounters is a selection of five small adventures designed for a variety of levels, which are likely best employed to break the monotony of travel. I’d estimate most of the adventures shouldn’t take longer than a couple of hours to run, although Jean suggests 2-4 hours; I tend to run games quicker than most. The adventures use monsters depicted in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, hence the name of this collection.

I was instantly charmed by the first adventure, Roll for Inspiration, which sees a stone giant creating “art” by rolling rocks down a slope. Each rock creates a path, and the resulting design is quite attractive. Unfortunately, the path the rocks take pass over a road along which trading caravans travel. This, as you might imagine, causes some trouble, which the adventurers will have to deal with. The concept behind the adventure is extremely strong and creative; it makes perfect sense once I read it, but I’d never have thought of it.

The second adventure, By the Power of Hyena!, details a gnoll raid on a village. The adventurers come upon the raid in progress, and must stop the gnolls from completing a ritual that transforms hyenas into full-grown gnolls. It’s a simple scenario, with a few nice touches, such as a time limit before the ritual is completed.

The third adventure, An Army Marches on its Stomach… or Yours, has the adventurers meeting a goblinoid warband that is seeking food but not trouble. The resolution to this adventure could require combat or role-playing.

The fourth adventure, Noble Hearts Break Best, has a very strong story: the adventurers meet a knight who is being corrupted by an elven woman. All the knight must do to secure the love of the elf is sacrifice a village girl to the fey spirits. Unfortunately, he’s been mostly beguiled to follow the elf woman’s suggestions. The adventurers will need to persuade the knight to be true or otherwise defeat the elf – and her friends.

The fifth and final adventure, Think of the Children, places the adventurers in an unusual place: witnessing the children of an orc encampment being kidnapped by raiders. The choice of aiding the orcs or not is left up to the players; it’s the most problematic of the adventures and the one I’m least likely to use.

These are strong adventures. They are well-written and formatted, and the maps are very good. I’m not particularly fond of the stylistic decision to have “STEALTH checks” or a “a DC12 SURVIVAL check”; the normal D&D styling is “Dexterity (Stealth) checks” and “a successful DC 12 Wisdom (Survival) check”. Having a standard format for writing rule elements in adventures is very important to aid your readers (DMs) understand what you mean. I’m not quite sure what to make of the “Challenge Ratings” for each encounter; 5E uses an Easy, Medium, Hard and Deadly system paired with the level of the adventure to rate the difficulty of encounters. For such short adventures as these ones, with few combats, you want combats on the Hard or Deadly end of things.

Overall, I highly recommend this product. It isn’t flawless, but it’s got a lot of good ideas and interesting situations to play with.

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5E Adventure Review: For the Sake of Shaleigh

Have I mentioned how much I hate monospaced fonts? If you are using them for the main text of a DMs Guild product, you are doing it wrong. Such is the fate that befalls For the Sake of Shaleigh, a pay-what-you-want adventure by D.L.Wilson. Or, to get in to the spirit of it, a pay-what-you-want adventure by D.L.Wilson for characters levels 2-3.

The adventure sees the party attempting to help a half-elf recover his friend, Shaleigh, and then rescue a number of prisoners taken by an evil cleric. Imps, druids, gnolls and giant hyenas stand in their way. The plan of the adventure is very linear, but there are a number of nice inventions in the text, not least the reaction of a group of druids to the way Shaleigh is a bit more bloodthirsty than they’d like.

However, the good ideas in the adventure have trouble getting through the formatting and the other problems with the text. For instance:

This room is the main barracks of the gnolls. There are two Gnoll Pack Lords and (X) gnolls. They are all battle ready and happy to fight.

While most adventures are happy to tell you the number of monsters you must fight, this one makes you guess!

Probably the most dangerous fight is against a Fang of Yeenoghu, (X) gnolls and (Y) giant hyenas. I have used giant hyenas before with low-level characters and it didn’t end that well for the characters. The designer suggests that the giant hyenas attack any adventurers reduced to 0 hit points. If you ever want to kill a character quickly, that’s the way to do it!

Two stat-blocks are included in the adventure: one for Shaleigh and one for the evil cleric. They are notable in how much space they take up – each taking two pages to describe something that should be half a page of less. With the mono-spaced font, they’d not look out-of-place in a 1970s-era product.

Overall, what For the Sake of Shaleigh gives you is a serviceable tale, a dangerous gnoll lair, and many problems with the writing and formatting. There are some clever touches, though. A reformatted version of the adventure that fixed the errors would be worthwhile considering. As it stands, I can’t recommend it.

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5E Adventure Review: Into the Belly of the Beast

Jeff C Stevens’ adventure Into the Belly of the Beast is a wilderness adventure set in a swamp for a party of 5th-8th level adventurers. Having found a map to treasure, all the adventurers must do is get to it.

The journey isn’t easy. A swamp goblin village, a hag’s hut, a troll’s lair, and a cave formed from the bones of a dragon lie between them and their goal. This isn’t the easiest of adventures. Inventive play and the ability to not attack everything in sight will help them survive the challenges!

While the individual areas are inventive and entertaining, the structure of the adventure could do with work. My chief problem is that the adventurers enter the swamp while following a map – but the map shows their destination on an island with a fair bit of water between it and other solid land. It would seem more likely that the adventure is conducted from a boat rather than on foot. The adventure assumes a more guided approach to the encounters than seems likely given the map.

It doesn’t help that the section headers have been placed in the wrong areas. The contents list “Chapter 2” as starting with encounter E; the heading for Chapter 2 occurs just before encounter D.

Me? I’d redraw the map to depict the path (and its forks) leading to the treasure, and then go from there.

It’s worth having a look at this adventure, but you’ll just need to do some work on linking it all together.

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5E Adventure Review: Windride Hangover

Windride Hangover is a short adventure for first or second level characters. It also presents the very real possibility of the adventure ending in the first encounter if a key NPC is killed.

Discovering the text notes “should Vesryn somehow survive the encounter” and also says “the remainder of the module assumes he survives”, leads me to think that someone hasn’t thought through the logic of this adventure very well. That said, there’s a lot of excellent ideas in play here.

The adventure is primarily a set of mysteries, all revolving around the “Windride”, a magical rite of the followers of Shaundakal, god of travel. The characters get to learn about the Windride, see some really unusual (and enjoyable) events relating to the rite, and finally have to deal with some kenku that think the Windride is the solution to their inability to fly.

The main problem with the adventure is in the presentation of these ideas: the formatting isn’t great, the writing could be tighter, and there’s the distinct possibility that events won’t unfold the way the author intends.

You’ll probably need to do a bit of work expanding and fleshing out the adventure – as well as dealing with the general problems with its structure – but the ideas in the adventure are strong enough to make it worth investigating. It’s a good example of how one idea can spark a host of related ideas that create an interesting scenario.

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Adventure Structure: Curse of Strahd

One of the bigger problems with Princes of the Apocalypse is that it has an adventure structure that allows the players to very quickly end up in areas that are far too dangerous for them. However, the story is pushing them towards those areas. What’s the quest? Rescue the prisoners. Where are the prisoners? In a dungeon designed for level 12 adventurers. What level are the adventurers? Level 5. Ah…

At any point when the adventurers need to gain levels to face the threats of the story, then something has gone wrong. XP and levels are a very gamist mechanism. They date from the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, where the players could set the difficulty of the adventure by choosing which level of the dungeon they wished to explore. (The deeper you went, the more difficult it became). If the players realized they’d gone too deep, they could run away and return to an easier level. (Knowing when to retreat was very important back then. It’s still important now, but not in the same manner).

If you have an adventure written in a linear style, then milestones work very well to avoid the XP grind. Both Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat are of this style: although each section of the adventure gives the players a lot of latitude in how it is dealt with, the overall structure is linear.

However, if you have an adventure in a sandbox setting, allowing the players to go where they wish, but also have a strong story (goals) for the adventurers, then problems can set in.

If you run Curse of Strahd without thinking through the issues, you can get this exchange: “We need to kill Strahd.” “What level are we?” “Ah… need to kill more dire wolves first!” Thankfully, Curse of Strahd has a stronger quest-based structure than Princes of the Apocalypse that allows the players to avoid thinking about the XP requirement.

This strongest form of this structure is found in the reading of the Tarokka deck. “How do we defeat Strahd?” “You need to find these items”. Having a series of quests gives the adventurers a clear motivation, and gets away from the “You must be this high to face Strahd” problem.

The “proper” play of Curse of Strahd goes like this:

  1. The adventurers are introduced to the Land and its problem.
  2. The adventurers are given the prophecy that gives them what they need to find to defeat Strahd.
  3. The adventurers find the allies and items they need based on the prophecy.
  4. The adventurers use the items to defeat Strahd.

The bulk of the play of Curse of Strahd is likely to occur in the third point above: as the adventurers search the Land for the way to defeat Strahd, as revealed in by the Tarokka deck.

Curse of Strahd also contains numerous NPCs who can give quests to the adventurers. This provides a parallel way of moving players through the adventure, of giving them reasons to investigate things before the final battle with Strahd. I suspect it’s the primary method most Dungeon Masters use to guide adventurers through the adventure. It’s less of a blunt instrument than the “You need items A, B & C” method, but it has problems if the adventurers decide they don’t need to do what the NPCs want. The quest-line of “you need these items” is a stronger motivating force for such adventurers.

The main issue with the Tarokka reading is this: the random locations can be too dangerous for the players or aren’t varied enough. For this reason, I suggest you predraw the cards before the adventure, then adjust them so the players are sent around the map to find the items. The original Castle Ravenloft adventure was for levels 5-7 and all the items were within the Castle (as was almost all of the adventure). The adventurers not being high-enough level? Didn’t come into it. With the expanded Curse of Strahd adventure, it’s best to have more reasons for the adventurers to explore more of the land.

The other issue with the reading is that the descriptions of where the items are can be too vague. The players need some clues of where to start searching for the Tarokka reading to positively influence their movements. In one of the Curse of Strahd campaigns I’ve run, the players never discovered one of the items because they didn’t realise it was referring to a location within the Abbey. Ah, that’s a problem! If this occurs, further explanation of the clue is needed – either from the seer, or from helpful NPCs the players visit.

There can be a time when an obscure reading is an advantage, however: when you want the adventurers to come to that location later; such as when it’s in Castle Ravenloft or the Amber Temple. That can then be presented to the players as a further quest. You seek the Amber Temple? First you must find the wise man, Van Richten. He can guide you there. How can you find Van Richten? Find his apprentice! Where’s the apprentice? And so on! You can use the steps of the quest to guide the adventurers to places of an appropriate level.

When do you introduce the Tarokka reading to the players? It doesn’t have to be immediately. You can allow it as a site-based encounter that they stumble into, such as in one of the Vistani camps when they explore it. However, if you’ve got a group that have done some of the initial quests and are now lost as to where to go next, you can use a character such as Ezmerelda. Have the NPC find them and do the prophecy. At that point, the adventurers have new goals and potentially an ally to point them in the right direction.

Curse of Strahd is a great adventure, but it does require a little work from the Dungeon Master to keep events occurring in the order they should, and to keep the players engaged.



Posted in Curse of Strahd, D&D 5E, Design, Play Advice | 4 Comments

AD&D Adventure Review: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan

The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan is the first module of the “C” or “Competition” series of modules. It was originally used (as Lost Tamoachan) in the 1979 Origins tournament, and this module was the first to give a scoring system within its pages. Although most of the previous modules released by TSR had been tournament adventures, this was released to be used as a tournament adventure by the wider D&D population.

The product has a gatefold cover, with the map of the shrine on the interior, a 32-page booklet with the adventure, and a 8-page illustration booklet. Illustrations are provided by Erol Otus, Jeff Dee, Gergory K Fleming, David S Laforce and David C Sutherland III – and a couple of uncredited pieces by Darlene Pekul. The adventure booklet is sparsely illustrated. The original tournament adventure began with the player characters falling into the lowest level of the shrine (a ziggurat) whilst fleeing from pursuers. With the entrance behind collapsed and the air bad and poisonous, the three characters – a half-elf magic-user 5/thief 7, a human fighter 6, and a human cleric 7 – needed to get out of the shrine as quickly as possible. The adventure allows the players only two hours (in real time) to escape. I’m not sure how many actually made it out!

The module doesn’t thrill me, in no small part due to the Meso-American mythology it uses. I’m very familiar with other mythologies, but the mythology of this adventure is so foreign to me that I find it quite unsettling.

It is notable that this adventure is one of the first to use actual boxed text for the DM to read out to the players. The descriptions of each room are extensive. The amount of boxed text may be excessive due to the time it will take to read out; however, as some vital clues are given in the text, it’ll be necessary to convey the information to the players. There’s a lot of attention to detail and flavour, and the challenges of the adventure are varied, challenging and quite deadly. This isn’t an adventure for the faint-hearted!

Another interesting point: The pregenerated character sheets for list the cleric as able to speak Suloise and Old Oeridian. These are languages of the Greyhawk campaign setting (first released in 1980), so it seems that the authors were paying quite a bit of attention to Gygax’s setting. The character backgrounds also make particular use of that setting.

With 54 encounter areas over 21 pages, there’s quite a bit of incident in the adventure. Whether you’re fighting Aztec vampire bats or running away from a big rolling ball, or exploring a chamber with a model of the ancient Olman city in it, The Hidden Shrine of Tamaochan shows all the hallmarks of being well-researched and lovingly crafted. However, neither of my two experiences DMing the adventure have been great. White Plume Mountain excites me, and I find it a tremendously fun to run and play, but The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan lacks that. In a lot of areas, there’s just too much detail – or areas that look interesting but don’t really amount to much.

For instance, there’s a wonderful diorama that depicts the Olman Hell, but it’s just one trap after another. Your best option is to ignore most of interesting areas; they’re just there to destroy you. Finding the way out is paramount.

The original version of the adventure suggests that you can play the adventure the other way around – with the party beginning their explorations at the top and going down, rather than being trapped at the bottom and exploring up. This does work, but one of the main points about the shrine is that there isn’t really a moment when you feel you reach the climax of the adventure. The final escape is almost anticlimactic, and there’s no “great” room at the bottom of the ziggurat to thrill the players doing it in the opposite order.

It may be a classic adventure due to its detail and unusual mythology, but I do feel it is lackluster as a D&D scenario.

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