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.

Adventure Structure and Design: Storm King’s Thunder

As most of you are likely aware, Storm King’s Thunder¸ the latest adventure from Chris Perkins and Wizards of the Coast, is now available in stores. It’s an adventure for 1st-10th level characters which sees them facing off against a lot of giants.

It is also, in a lot of ways, the companion to the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide. Your players have read that book? Good. They’ll then be able to visit many of the places in it during the course of the adventure. In any adventure where you visit a lot of places, it’s nice to actually know something about them in advance.

The adventure is very fascinating when you examine its structure. While Curse of Strahd felt very much like a sandbox adventure, as did – to varying extents – Princes of the Apocalypse and Out of the Abyss, the new adventure has a more linear and structured flow… but in its own way.

It also demonstrates one of the chief benefits from designing for an audience of millions. You can design stuff that some groups won’t use – because lots of other groups will use it! This is a far cry from designing for home games, where time spent on adventure design for adventures the players don’t go on is time that could have been better employed elsewhere.

So, what does SKT do?

It has an introductory adventure that covers levels 1-4. Its purpose? Introduce a few themes and get the players to level 5 as quickly as possible. Or, players could bring in level 5 characters from another adventure, like Lost Mine of Phandelver. Yes, that works too.

It then allows the DM to choose one of three towns that are threatened by the giants. The players only go to one of them, not all three, and thus the challenge will be different for different groups. This is level 5.

After the town the adventurers went to is saved, then a bunch of new quests are offered to the players, and we get the “sandbox” section, where the players attempt to complete small quests while wandering around the wilderness and getting a feel for the land they need to save. This is level 6. (Chapter 4 of the adventure, which covers this information, is also the DM’s notes to the information presented in the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide.) The quests they are given are different depending on which town they started in and who they befriended.

Eventually, the players run out of quests and the DM starts up the main plot of the adventure by not-so-subtly sending them a guide to get them to the next section: a visit to a giant temple where they learn who they actually have to confront to end the threat. This is level 7.

To reach their final goal, they need to pick up an item to reach there. The players have a choice of what giants they want to face to get that item: Hill, Stone, Frost, Fire or Cloud. This is level 8, and is the second time a significant section of the adventure will be different depending on their choice. There are 64 pages of the adventure devoted to describing the lairs – that’s a lot of design, a lot which won’t be used in one play-through.

So, the players reach their goal, and at some point may go on another quest before finally defeating the overall villain. That’s levels 9 and 10. And the adventure ends with, hopefully, the players victorious!

And, as a devotee of adventure design, this is an absolutely fascinating structure. It’s structured – there is a well-defined progression of encounters – but the path taken through it will be different for each group. At a gross level, there are 15 major variations as to how the adventure progresses, with additional various occurring during the wilderness trek depending on choices made during the defense of the beleaguered town. Some sections may run similarly – particularly the ending – but a group could quite easily play the adventure three times and get a lot of new content each time.

This is an exemplary example of good adventure design. I feel that the one-book model makes it far more feasible (imagine trying to do this in a six-volume Pathfinder Adventure Path!)

It’s also worth noting that at all times the players have goals: there are tasks they need to accomplish. They aren’t set loose in the wilderness with nothing to do. The adventure always gives them a direction, but mostly allows them to choose how to accomplish it.

I’m used to adventures that are linear: you visit each location in order. I’m used to adventures that are sandboxes: you visit locations in the order that pleases you, and might not visit them all. I’m not used to adventures that have large sections of content that won’t be used on one play through because the design excludes the use of certain sections based on a structured path.

This is fascinating, incredible stuff. If you get a chance to DM or play Storm King’s Thunder, take it. And then play it again, and discover how the second run differs.

5E Supplement Review: Priestess

In the earliest days of Dungeons & Dragons, a stream of new and variant classes appeared in the pages of The Strategic Review¸ The Dragon and other fan magazines. One category of class was the NPC Class, a character class designed specifically for use by the DM’s non-player characters. Often, they would have various features that made them inappropriate for use by the players – either they were too strong or too specialised, or didn’t have class features that aided adventuring. However, they were often interesting to peruse, to get ideas about what existed outside of the printed rules, and spur ideas for adventures.

Jason Thompson’s Priestess supplement is of that sort. The class is inspired by tales true and fantastical of the ancient world; of priests that required to be in a temple to use their magic. Or – to be more true to the version Jason has created here – priestesses that must be in the presence of an idol to their god.

The priestesses described here are very much spell-casters: d6 hit dice, no proficiency with armour, and only proficient with simple weapons. Their spell list includes a handful of unique spells, but primarily draws from the cleric spell list with a few appropriate wizard spells thrown in for good measure. It is very much a support role, with only a few offensive spells in the list, although they have a larger range of offensive cantrips than the typical cleric, with chill touch, shocking grasp and poison spray being the additional cantrips they can cast.

The unusual feature of the class is that they must be in the presence of an idol of their god to cast spells at all, or use many of their abilities. It is a major hindrance of the class, with a 25 lb. stone idol required for 1st to 3rd-level spells; a 125 lb. idol is required for up to 5th level spells, and past that it gets even more difficult, with the top level idol weighing in at 15,625 lbs! At that point, the priestess is unlikely to venture far from their temple ever again. It is this restriction that is most flavourful, and makes the class unsuitable for use as a player character.

Being in the presence of an idol grants additional powers, typically the use of spells above and beyond the regular limit. To gain this extra power, “boons” must be acquired by sacrificing to the idol; exactly what sacrifice depends on the aspect of deity worshipped. It’s an evocative, possibly broken, mechanic.

The class is a strange one to evaluate. The simple fact is the requirement of having your idol with you in order to cast spells means that it is unsuitable for most campaigns. 25 lbs. for just 1st-3rd level spells is already very heavy, and it gets worse from there. In addition, the class has the melee combat strength of the wizard, without a compensating level of offensive area-effect spells.

Thus, it’s something used by the Dungeon Master, and at that point the class becomes too complex for easy use. There are a lot of features to remember here, and that is a problem. Do you want to spend an hour or more designing a foe that may only last 15 minutes in combat? And can you remember all it does in combat? The change away from the universal creation system used in 3E happened for a reason.

So, what then for the priestess? It’s a well-designed and lovely-looking product, with a lot of good ideas held within. It’s flaw is that the class doesn’t really fit with how many of us play the game today.

The best thing to do with it? Remove the idols from the class and turn them into special magical items that holy defenders of the temple can use; you could think of them as lair abilities. The delineation of the types of idols and abilities remain the same, and their function – as something that the priestess of that ancient, evil temple can use against the players – is made more broad.

I really like the ideas here; I just think they could be employed better in a slightly different manner.

5E Adventure Review: The Secret of Karnov Mansion

The Secret of Karnov Mansion is a 3-4 hour adventure for 4th or 5th level characters. In it, the adventurers are invited to a nearby mansion where, they are told, they will be offered a job. Unfortunately for the adventurers, the job turns out to be not so great: they’re the intended prey of the family of weretigers that now inhabit the mansion!

The opening has the adventurers meeting the family in a social setting before everything goes pear-shaped. This presents a few problems for the DM. In particular, this section requires the players to believe that everything is fine until the trap is sprung – and that the trap must execute properly. As I mentioned in a recent article, forcing characters into a trap is problematic. At least, in this case, the trap is fairly short-lived, and the players aren’t deprived of their equipment. However, using this start to the adventure may not be appropriate to your group. Characters with high Insight skills may rightfully wonder why they didn’t pick up on the clues beforehand…

Once the adventure proper is underway, it is primarily a dungeon delve. Individaul weretigers encounter the adventurers in various rooms, and there are interesting tricks and traps to entertain the players and the DM. The dungeon layout doesn’t make a great deal of sense. It exists primarily to allow the adventurers to find the various challenges before reaching the final encounter – where the leader of the weretigers and any other undefeated members of the family face the adventurers in a battle-royale to finish the scenario.

The motivations and history of the various characters work very well; however, the adventure doesn’t explain the background to the scenario in its introduction. The DM has to work out the background by reading through the entire adventure. It would have helped if this information had been presented up-front.

The presentation of the pdf works pretty well, although there are one or two clunky moments, where fonts or formatting are slightly out-of-place. The maps are mostly good, although their colouration has a few problems, especially the white doors on a light background.

All-in-all, this is an inventive adventure that should give a good evening of entertainment for you and your players.


Counting down the hours on the latest Campaign Coins kickstarter

For those who haven’t seen it, the latest Campaign Coins kickstarter is in its final hours.

I’ve found using these coins in play can significantly alter the attitude of players to treasure… and make them very reluctant to pay money to merchants!

They’re so pretty! And dark and evil…

And they have a couple of special coins for Rob Schwalb’s Shadow of the Demon Lord…

The Trouble with Capturing Adventurers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5E Adventure Review: Fear of the Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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