5E Adventure Review – Ruins of Matalo: Discovery

Ruins of Matalo: Discovery is a short adventure by Cindy Moore for 5th-level characters. It is one of the initial Guild Adept releases on the DMs Guild.

The adventure sends the characters into the jungle of Chult to discover the fate of a recent expedition of Order of the Gauntlet troops. As one might expect, undead are involved, and the characters will need to track them down to complete the adventure successfully.

The adventure is good at introducing the troubles the Order of the Gauntlet are having in the jungle, and in providing some entertaining encounters. There’s one encounter that gives full XP if the players avoid it rather than provoking an attack; that’s design I support. Giving XP for the players being smart rather than just killing everything they see? Yes, more of that, please!

The quest eventually leads to the Ruins of Matalo, where the characters must deal with the villain who ordered the attack on the Order of the Gauntlet. More on the ruined city can be found in other Guild Adept products; this adventure only uses it fleetingly, and primarily in a way that allows the characters to discover it and then explore more of it later.

Despite the good ideas behind the adventure, it is let down badly by a lack of editing. There are many errors that even a cursory proofing run would have found, and the choice of wording is often clumsy. The adventure presumes you have a copy of both Tomb of Annihilation and Tales from the Yawning Portal as it doesn’t provide monster statistics for monsters from those books. Discovery includes one new monster, an aarakocra necromancer, which has the interesting stat line of “Hit Points: 100 (3d8)”. At least, with that level of hit points, it might stay around long enough to threaten the party!

The adventure is quite linear in form, and the final encounter is underwhelming. It’s just a simple combat, which doesn’t make use of the background given for the necromancer. Some of the other encounters also feel quite perfunctory; all-in-all, it is a mixed bag of good ideas and poor execution.

With further development, you could grow the seeds in this adventure into something memorable, but as it stands, I found it a disappointing release.

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5E Adventure Review: Cellar of Death

The new Guild Adepts program from Wizards of the Coast and the DMs Guild has seen a few interesting products released to support Tomb of Annihilation. In the coming weeks, I’ll take a look at each of these products, but I decided to start with Cellar of Death (also known as Cellar of DEEEEAAAATTTTHHHH!), a short adventure by James Introcaso that can serve as a prologue to the entire Tomb of Annihilation story. It can also be seen as the Rogue One to Tomb of Annihilation, although it is hoped that the PCs survive this one!

The adventure uses some interesting techniques. At its heart it is a dungeon crawl: the adventurers need to beard the lair of a lich to steal her phylactery while their Harper allies distract her with a major attack on the stronghold. However, the adventure begins with an intensive role-playing scene where the players collaboratively create a major NPC who has been very important to them. They then bury that NPC, as the NPC has become a victim of the Death Curse that underlies the Tomb of Annihilation story. The intent is that by spending time creating this NPC and detailing how each adventurer knows him or her, it invests the players in the character and thus makes the Death Curse more impactful.

Whether this succeeds will depend greatly on the dynamics of your group. The adventure doesn’t depend on it; it exists to facilitate some intense role-playing in the group and provide a memorable beginning to the campaign. Personally, I’d prefer it if the NPC created this way had an ongoing role in the campaign; there’s a lot of adventure in Tomb of Annihilation, and this NPC won’t have enough impact. My preference would be to use this player-created NPC to take the role of Syndra Silvane. Thus, you’ll have a character that the players care about dying before the adventurers’ eyes: a much better impetus for the campaign.

The dungeon itself is well-constructed, with several memorable encounters. The way a Gray Ooze is disguised is ingenious, and there are plenty of incidental details to intrigue the players. The final encounter in the dungeon could go very badly for the adventurers; it’s a tough encounter, especially if you don’t have a cleric. For a group of four first-level characters, I’d likely reduce the number of monsters if the adventures have expended a lot of resources getting there. The dungeon is laid out in a loop, with two ways of getting to the goal.

The adventure has some time pressure built in, suggesting keeping track of time elapsed in the real world to judge when the lich might confront a tardy party.

The map is very nicely drawn by Dyson Logos, although I’m not fond of the way one tunnel travels under a side-room: for this map, it just causes confusion. There are times when having tunnels running above and below each other leads to interesting play; it’s inconsequential in this instance and would have been better avoided.

Overall, this is an enjoyable and interesting adventure, which would make a good opening chapter to Tomb of Annihilation. Cellar of Death can also be played on its own without too much alteration. Recommended!

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5E Adventure Review: A City on the Edge

The Tomb of Annihilation season of the D&D Adventurers League adventures begins with the player characters going to Chult on order of their factions – Harpers, Zhentarim, Order of the Gauntlet, Emerald Enclave and Lords’ Alliance – and quickly becoming involved in recovering an ancient artefact smuggled into the port city of Nyanzaru by beings unknown. Yes, it’s A City on the Edge, the first adventure of Season 7!

As is standard for these releases, A City on the Edge is a collection of five short adventures (each lasting approximately for one hour), each being a mission for one of the faction representatives in the city. What isn’t standard is the author: it’s not Shawn Merwin but instead Rich Lescouflair. Shawn got moved on to the second adventure in the series, and Rich showed himself more than capable of providing five entertaining adventures.

I’m going to be running these adventures at PAX Australia, and I’m looking forward to that! I did have the opportunity to run them for my friends over the last month; although I was somewhat exhausted and flu-ridden for the final three and thus couldn’t quite devote the normal attention to them.

However, the second adventure has dinosaur races! The adventurers get to ride dinosaurs in a race! How cool is that? They get to ride young Allosauruses, and I just wish I had enough dinosaur minis to properly represent the race.

The adventures are varied: Break up a smuggling ring; Win a competition (involving arena combat and dinosaur races); Explore the jungle in search of kidnapped townsfolk; Explore beneath a ziggurat, and Fight the spies who have manipulated everything from the start. As you might expect from one-hour adventure, they race through the encounters, and there’s limited time for role-playing, but neither are they one-encounter adventures. Each mission has its own structure and provides interesting choices for the players.

I’m particularly amused by the drunk Harper agent, whose inebriation can cause problems for the players later on – it provides a lovely encounter where something suspicious can be explained away as being utterly believable. It’s also wonderful to see that not every faction contact is entirely competent.

The highlight for our groups? The dinosaur race! How can you not love racing dinosaurs? The rules for these are simple but very effective – although one group took entirely too long to finish the race as no player (including the DM) seemed to be able to roll above a 5! There are times that the dice gods hate you.

The first four adventures can be played in any order, with the fifth adventure bringing all the threads together and providing a conclusion of sorts; the immediate threat is dealt with, but it’s likely that the next DDAL adventures will take up the unresolved plot elements and continue the story. It’s a good story, with pieces of an amulet of unknown powers providing a “collect them all” dynamic, while actually finding out what the amulet does makes everything a lot more sinister. I’m not sure that the conclusion of each mini-adventure properly disposes of each amulet part; it’s a little complicated working out how they all end up together for the finale, but it isn’t something you need to think about too much. Just assume that, for once, the factions start co-operating as they’re meant to!

Some pretty nasty things happen to NPCs in this adventure, and it brings out the dangers of Chult very well. If you’re running the Tomb of Annihilation hardcover, you may well consider this adventure (and the following DDAL adventures) as a good lead-in to the main action, as Tomb is at its weakest in the early stages. It really would like additional adventure material to get the characters past the early levels.

I’ve seen several comments about the missions that boil down to “they run longer than 60-70 minutes!” Yes, if you add in a lot of role-playing or you have a group that is slow at making up their minds in combat, the missions will run long. Each mission ran in about 60 minutes or less for my group, but I’m tremendously experienced at pacing adventures to fit time limits. You can make almost any adventure run over its advertised time; part of the skill of a convention DM is to control the pacing of the group to fit the time you have. We’ll be running these in 90 minute slots at PAX Australia because we know most of the players will be inexperienced. If you’re taking two or more hours to run these, that’s a function of your group and your DM style. The missions are rich enough so you can expand them if you want to – that’s one of the signs of a good adventure.

I highly recommend A City on the Edge. It provides a good introduction to the factions, has a cast of varied characters, provides the players with a range of situations to tackle, and has a good overarching plot. This is exactly what I want from the first DDAL adventure of a season. Well done, Rich! Please write some more!

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Examining Phandelver: Mine Minis

We played the final session of our Lost Mine of Phandelver campaign this weekend. It was a longer session than usual, which was devoted entirely to the exploration of the Wave Echo Mine. However, “longer” in my hands is still fairly short – it was about four hours in total. The exploration of the mine can take a lot longer, especially if you play up the claustrophobic nature of the mine and have more role-playing, but this session was very combat-heavy and dedicated to finishing the adventure. (Our next session will begin Tomb of Annihilation!)

Unusually for my sessions, I used miniatures. Yes, I own a lot of miniatures – over 3,000 of them at last count – but these days I prefer Theatre of the Mind play to allow games to proceed quickly without the need to keep setting up a grid and the minis. However, there are times when it’s a good time to use them, and this was one of those times.

Along with the miniatures, I brought a selection of my Dwarven Forge cavern tiles. I didn’t bring all of them; just enough to assemble the rooms I needed.

Thus, the party entered the mine…

It took very little time before we got to the first combat: a “random” encounter against two grick. The rogue and ranger took cover behind some of the stalagmites and columns in the chamber, and the druid and cleric quickly found themselves in melee, with the sorcerer hanging back and the paladin making his way around to attack the grick from behind. The druid’s shillelagh spell was quite effective – creatures with resistance to non-magical weapons tend to cause low-level groups difficulty.

People with a lot more money and time than I do have created the entire mine with the split levels it has; I couldn’t be bothered. Instead, a lack of tiles indicated the 20-foot deep pit the gricks crawled out of – and which had the tunnels that led further into the mine.

I chose to begin the session with a combat, and so chose one from the random encounter table; rather than just having the players wander around the mine until they found something, we started with a bang and then continued from there.

I didn’t bother setting up the terrain for the corridors they explored. It takes a lot of time for little benefit. The terrain came out when the combat began.

The next combat was against a group of five bugbears; the group wanted to surprise them by opening the door “quietly”, but I generally don’t allow that to happen – the door creaks, the bugbears are alerted. Old D&D had surprise through doors be 33% of the time (for both sides unless one listened at the door first), but that doesn’t happen in 5E that much as I run it. I discovered I hadn’t brought in enough bugbear miniatures, so I did what most people do – used proxies! The undead minis represented two more bugbears; if a bugbear mini was slain, I replaced the undead with the slain mini to make it work better.

The distinguishing feature of this combat were the cramped quarters everyone was fighting in. With spaces occupied by allies counting as difficult terrain, it was very difficult indeed for the party to get into the room; especially after the bugbears trapped them at the doorway. The paladin was hit by a critical hit, which did a LOT of damage, and the cleric was hard-pressed to keep the paladin alive!

The adventure’s map says the corridor leading to the room is 10 feet wide, but the dungeon tiles reduced that to 7.5 feet – enough for only one PC to stand abreast. That’s really tricky; you have to be careful when using tiles that you don’t reduce space so much that players can’t participate. I made sure in later combats that the corridors were wider. It’s one reason I like Theatre of the Mind – the corridors allow people to participate even when they couldn’t if minis were used!

The next fight was in a split-level cave. This one was harder to represent – I didn’t have enough tiles, so only the first row of the higher levels on each side was created. I expected most of the combat to take place down below, anyway.

I’ve run this battle a few times now (as I’ve run Lost Mine of Phandelver quite a few times), and it can be a really tough battle: on the left you can see the nine ghouls, all ready to throw themselves at the party. That’s more than enough to cause a Total Party Kill, unless the adventurers run or – as they had in this case – a cleric ready to Turn Undead. That sent most of the ghouls scuttling off, and the adventurers were easily able to deal with the rest – although the paladin spent a turn paralysed!

The undead miniatures – ghouls and ghasts – are amongst the oldest in my collection. The light grey ghoul miniatures come from the very first set of D&D Miniatures from 2003: “Harbinger”, was its title. Miniature technology may have improved since then, but I’ve a lot of fondness for that first set that allowed me to actually collect lots and lots minis – and not have to paint them!

Painting miniatures is something I can do, but it is very time-consuming, and takes me away from playing the game (and writing about it!) The cavern tiles were pre-painted; my first set of dungeon tiles weren’t – you can see a few in use as stairs and doors here – and I’ve never really found time to properly paint then. A grey primer is about it!

The next battle, against zombies and a flameskull, took place in a REALLY BIG ROOM! And another one with a split-level. The tabletop came into play again…

Things could have gone really badly here, because the party were all bunched up in the opening passageway when the flameskull cast fireball on them. A party of third and fourth level characters. I expected at least one death – possibly all – but every single player rolled high on the Dexterity saving throw, and only one character even fell unconscious! It was very, very lucky.

A wand of magic missiles found in an earlier room, plus the sorcerer casting the same, managed to destroy the flameskull before it got to attack again, and after that the zombies fell pretty quickly.

I do actually own a flameskull miniature, but I only took a photograph after it had been destroyed. Some of the zombie miniatures here also date back to that first D&D Miniatures set in 2003!

A long rest was called for at this point – and I made sure they took it outside of the cave, where they wouldn’t be suddenly ambushed by monsters!

The next fight? We were getting near the end – a drow supervising a few bugbears. The giant spider is the druid, who wanted to cause an impression. He certainly did – the drow will never be the same!

Of course, one reason the drow will never be the same is because he was a doppelganger! This isn’t the first doppelganger the party has fought, and they realised half-way through the battle something was wrong, based mainly on how the drow fought. Clever, clever players!

The party wanted to push the bugbears back over into the chasm below, but no luck. The bugbears kept making great Strength (Athletics) checks to resist the shove attempts. However, bugbears can’t survive when a group of adventurers is very good at dealing a lot of damage! The rogue using sneak attack and the ranger using Colossal Slayer did a significant amount of damage.

Soon enough, the party found their goal: the Black Spider – a drow who was behind all of the schemes and plots that had bedevilled them over the past few weeks. He was guarded by a pair of bugbears and four giant spiders – could the party defeat him?

The answer? Yes – with ease! Magic missiles from wand and spell struck the Black Spider and he died without being able to do more than taunt the characters. The bugbears proved a little more trouble, but they soon went down, and from there the characters used the cover allowed by the passage to fight the spiders without allowing more than one or two to attack. (Choke points work, boys and girls!)

With that, the adventure was pretty much done. There are more encounters in the mines, but we’d done the important ones. I find it important to leave out inconsequential encounters when you’re trying to tell a story in a limited amount of time. Getting to know when you can expand on the story, and when you have to just hit the important highlights is one of those DM skills you gain with experience.

Did the players enjoy the miniature use? Yes, they did. I probably should use miniatures more than I do, but just pick and choose the encounters in which I use them rather than insisting on them all the time (or not at all!) Miniatures aren’t needed for every combat. For really complex or really simple combats, miniatures can be a hindrance, but that leaves a lot of room to use minis.

In two weeks time, Tomb of Annihilation will start… and I expect to be blogging about it as my players explore the jungle land of Chult!

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5E Adventure Review: The Brain Gorger’s Appetite

The Brain Gorger’s Appetite is an adventure by Alex Kammer for level 1-3 characters. Set in the mining town of Ockney’s Hold, it tells the story of a barony that has come under the sway of a drug-addled brain gorger.

The adventure begins with an investigation into why the Baron has begun acting so oddly of late, progresses to the manor of one of his counts, and ends in a mine where the adventurers must finally face the brain gorger. The concepts behind the adventure are fantastic – who doesn’t love to see a criminal syndicate employing a brain gorger who has become addicted to the drugs he’s trying to steal?

The adventure is generally well done, with some very nice touches. I like that the characters get to encounter members criminal syndicate sent to find out why their agent has gone rogue, and that the NPCs want to discover what’s going on rather than just proceeding to a fight. It’s a nice moment while it lasts. Unfortunately, it will likely still end up in a fight once the criminals discover the party aren’t really on their side.

The investigation itself has a few rough edges. I feel it relies a lot on the players rolling well on their Investigation checks or interrogating just the right NPC. There’s some redundancy of clues, but not quite enough for my taste. A bad roll at the wrong time eliminates a lot of options. There are times when the story is expected to proceed in one way, but the ingenuity of players is likely to find interesting ways of derailing the adventure. It’s not too problematic, but I’d likely make finding some clues automatic rather than requiring a good roll – that the players have decided to explore the right place is enough.

I’m not fond of the adventure’s opening encounter, which has the PCs attempting to gain jobs as caravan jobs. It’s there to demonstrate that the shipments of ore aren’t being sent out and link into the later parts of the adventure, but it’s a lot of text where the players don’t get to make choices. The adventure also displays the D&D world’s typical disregard for common sense. Take this: a group of inexperienced warriors try to get their first job as caravan guards. Of course, they’re sent undercover into the Baron’s household! Since they want to guard caravans, they must be equally good at investigation and spying!

This, of course, is also the problem with many, many other adventures. The juxtaposition just drew my attention in this instance.

The second half of the adventure is superior to the first half, as the player characters get to grips with where they should go, although a few tough fights lie in front of them. No one section of the adventure is overlong, which is a great relief: it moves through a number of scenes, providing variety and interest for the players.

A number of good black and white illustrations provide relief and illumination from the text, and the layout is good. The maps are particularly pleasing: very clear and well drawn.

The Brain Gorger’s Appetite is the first of a series of adventures, and although it finishes a portion of the story, certain plot threads, such as the Baron’s behaviour, are left unresolved at its end. Despite having a clunky beginning, the adventure gets better as it progresses, and is likely to entertain your players.

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Examining Phandelver: Getting Back on Track

My latest session of Lost Mine of Phandelver found the player characters in the hills, having run out of clues and not sure of where to go next.

Whenever a mystery needs to be solved for the plot to progress, you have the potential that the players reach a dead end. They might not have found the clues, they might have killed the NPCs rather than talking to them, or they haven’t put the clues together the right way.

It’s then up to the DM to lead the players back to the plot. However, it works best if you do it in a way that fits the story.

The roadblock my players had discovered was that they didn’t know where Cragmaw Castle was, a really important location to the plot. Between sessions, I scanned the adventure to discover clues that they hadn’t found. There was one, a druid, who could tell them where the castle was. The solution to this impasse was to direct them to the druid.

Could anyone in the adventure direct them to the druid? Yes, there was someone in Phandalin who could, but they hadn’t interacted with that character and it seemed unlikely that they would.

However, Sildar Hallwinter, the Lord’s Alliance contact in the town, and the one that wanted the PCs to find Cragmaw Castle, was able to interact with that character. It seemed possible that while the PCs were away doing some of the sidequest that he’d found that NPC, and learnt about where the druid could be found. So, when the players returned to town and visited Sildar, he conveyed the information to them. The players found the druid, and learnt where Cragmaw Castle was. We’re back on track!

I prefer, where possible, to use the encounters in the adventure to guide the players in the right direction, but it’s often not possible, especially when the adventure is designed so that there aren’t multiple ways of finding clues (a common design flaw). At that point, it behoves the DM to find new ways of getting the information to the players. Being at a roadblock and being uncertain how to proceed is terribly frustrating for players.

Do the PCs get help from a friendly NPC? Do they find a undestroyed note from the villain’s henchman that leads to the next important location? Does the cleric have a vision from their deity showing them something important? Yes, you could just tell the players, but finding a way to provide the information as part of the game is something I find preferable.

It helps if there’s a challenge for the players after they get this information. I was lucky that Phandelver provided that as part of the adventure; it wasn’t a case of just walking up the street to the druid’s house. Perhaps the NPC has been kidnapped. Perhaps the clue is in a small dungeon. Something to make the players feel they earned it.

As a player, you’re well advised to take notes and to review and order them after a session so you’re prepared for the next session. Having important information at your fingertips will help play the game. Of course, even taking notes is no guarantee of remembering them, but it does help.

It doesn’t matter how obvious the DM thinks the clue is, players will fail to find it. When this happens, work with the players to bring them back to the plot, and don’t let them sit frustrated too long. You can’t get to the epic finale if the players don’t know where it is!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Lost Mine of Phandelver, Play Advice | 3 Comments

Greyhawk Campaign: Scouting the Lands of Iuz

My ongoing Greyhawk D&D campaign continued last night with the characters scouting the borderlands of Iuz. Iuz, for those of you unaware with the World of Greyhawk is a land ruled by an evil demi-god (Iuz!) that borders on one of the major good kingdoms of the world, the Kingdom of Furyondy. The new King of Furyondy is somewhat foolish, and, upon receiving a lost heirloom of his house from the heroes, declared his intention to invade the cursed lands. The adventurers have been sent in as advanced scouts.

This is not something they’re used to. Or particularly good at.

The session went like this: they were ferried across the river that divides the land of Iuz from Furyondy. They were aware of the location of the border forts that Iuz had built, and they made their way towards the nearest. They ran into a giant boar being hunted by a party of orcs – they killed the orcs, realised it was being hunted, then slew most of the orcs, though some escaped. They then took a detour from the most direct route and ended up overlooking the road that led from the border fort into the interior of the land of Iuz. Where did it lead? They don’t know, and didn’t find out.

While hiding and watching the traffic on the road – a party of human slaves pushing wagons to the fort, then a relief column of orcs led by humans – they were attacked twice by orcs led by priestesses of Iuz, who were able to find the characters, despite their precautions. After the second fight, which consisted of 30 orcs, an orc leader and the orc priestess, they slipped back to the boat and returned to Furyondy. That ended the session.

The leaders of the armies of Furyondy are likely to be less than impressed than this information. What’s the land like? Where are the towns? How many forces do the keeps hold?

That’s fine. They didn’t expect much anyway from the party, who they thought were fortunate incompetents who had been favoured by their foolish king.

The foolish King, Tobias III? He’s likely to be less happy.

I didn’t do a lot of preparaton for this session, but I did work out the general layout of the land and what the players would discover if they went inland or explored the forts in more detail. What I certainly didn’t do was define goals for the players. Their mission was “scout the land of Iuz” with no details as to what that entailed. It’s not surprising that they did such a poor job of it. If you want a group to do things, it helps greatly to have a list of specific goals for them to discover. Compare this expedition to the scouting expedition in Chapter 2 of Hoard of the Dragon Queen. In that case, the mayor tells the characters several things he wants to know:

  • Where is the raider camp located?
  • How many raiders are there?
  • Who are their leaders?
  • What’s motivating the attacks?
  • Where will the raiders strike next?

With those goals, the characters have a very clear idea of what they need to find. Much better than “Scout the lands of Iuz”, which gives no real expectations of what constitutes success. That said, it absolutely fits the lack of planning of King Tobias III.

The one interesting aspect the players discovered is that they were found so quickly by the forces of Iuz. Upon returning, they’ll discover that the regular army scouts all disappear without trace when they attempt to cross the river to scout the lands of Iuz. So, just getting back alive has been an accomplishment! This aspect will likely be developed in further adventures.

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Greyhawk, Play Advice, Session Report | 2 Comments

Examining Phandelver: Side Quests

One of the excellent aspects of Lost Mine of Phandelver is that it includes a number of side-quests. These are quests which don’t advance the main storyline that you can get from NPCs you meet.

Side quests allow a Dungeon Master to present a view of ongoing life in the world. Necromancers investigate buried ruins (and cause problems with wandering zombies), orcs strike from a hidden base, and sages seek knowledge. You can provide as wide a view of the world as you like. Players of computer games like Skyrim and Baldur’s Gate will be well aware of the possibilities available for world-building from side quests.

There are a few notable things about their use in this adventure. First of which is this: Many of them are really short. In a two-hour session, we were able to complete three of the quests, mainly because they’re “travel to this location and have one encounter”. This is a technique that is particularly useful for when you’re designing home adventures.

Why so? Because adventure design takes time, and designing adventure sites that might never be visited is a waste of your time. It’s different for published adventures, where some group out there will find your obscure little quest, but when you’re designing for your own game, you want to spend the most time on stuff you know will be used. Designing one-encounter quests is much easier than designing dungeon systems. Indeed, you can probably just note a few monsters down, list their treasure and determine the environment in which they’re encountered. 3 Ogres in Forest Glade, 1000 gp. There you go! Now I just need a hook to get the players to the ogres.

The hook is important because it’s the main tool of the world-building. If the ogres are menacing merchants on the nearby trade road, that say one thing about your world. If they’re stealing children from nearby towns, that’s another – and you’re describing a much darker and more disturbing world.

The quest also tells the players something about the NPC that gives it to them – a glimpse into their motivations and goals. In Phandelver, the fact that many of the townsfolk want to deal with the Redbrands and the mayor doesn’t is something that all the groups I’ve run Lost Mine of Phandelver for have picked up on, and some groups have even pushed for his removal. Each of the faction contacts in town has a quest relating to their faction, and that lets the players understand what the factions stand for.

Even if the players don’t go on the quest, the hook and the NPC inform the game.

If you’d like to do bigger quests, then a technique many DMs have used is to let the players choose a quest to do at the end of a session. The DM then takes that information to design the next session’s adventure, while hoping the players don’t change their mind!

Because space is limited in the Starter Set, most of the NPCs each give only one quest. If I’m running the adventure in a home game (or designing my own adventure), I’ll have the NPCs give additional quests after the first one is completed. You want to develop your important NPCs, and if one quest leads on to another and another after that, you get that opportunity. The players appreciate them more, because they have recurring interactions with them. If Sildar keeps finding new quests to advance the Lords Alliance in the area, it helps cement his role as the Lords Alliance contact, and also rewards those characters who are members of that faction: they feel they’re doing something useful.

Side quests can have links back to the main plot, but they don’t have to. One of the tricks when employing them is to allow the players the time to complete them. If the main plot is all-important, than all these side journeys can’t be taken. It’s hard to guard the merchant’s daughter for a night when the world ends at midnight! If I do have a criticism of Phandelver’s structure, its that you are exploring these side quests while also looking for a kidnapped dwarf; isn’t one more important?

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design, Lost Mine of Phandelver, Play Advice | 4 Comments

Prelude to Annihilation: The Death Curse

A pall has fallen over the Forgotten Realms. The dark necromatic arts – on a level never before seen – have broken the bonds between this world and the next. The greatest power of the gods, that to restore life to those taken before their time, has been abolished, and those who have been previously restored to life are now weak and dying. How long before the great and mighty of the world leave us?

Yes, it’s time for Season 7 of the D&D Adventurers League, and the events surrounding Tomb of Annihiliation. As of the 25th August, any play of a Season 7 adventure or a Con-Created content adventure by a character means that resurrection magic does not work, and any character who has been raised in the past is mysteriously weakened.

This is a temporary state – eventually heroes will defeat Acererak and lift the curse – but we’ve got about 4 months of this to live through. And hopefully not die.

The full rules to Season 7 are, of this writing, not yet available – I expect we’ll see them soon – but the Death Curse rules are. They’ve already had an effect on our games, one day in.

The player in question was unlucky – no doubt. He was meant to be playing a different adventure, but a lack of players meant he had to play a CCC adventure instead, to which the Death Curse applied. Last week, a TPK on his table meant his character had to be raised (using Faction Charity), so he was the first player in Ballarat to meet the full force of the curse. His 5th-level Warlock went through the adventure with a mere 25 hit points rather than the 45 hit points he would have been otherwise entitled to. Luckily, he was a warlock, able to stay out of melee combat, and he used counterspell to negate a couple of area effect spells that may have proved his end.

One thing is certain: the Death Curse will have an impact on the feel of this season. No raising (and the Hard mode where death saves are 15+) means the threat of death becomes more pressing. Of course, this edition of the game is far nicer to players than, say, Original D&D where you died the moment you hit 0 hit points. You’ve got plenty of chances for your friends to help you. Although having a healer or two in the party is likely to be even more important while the Death Curse is in effect.

I quite sympathise with players who aren’t fond of the curse. This has some effects on existing characters. There may be characters that you’d prefer not to play for four months. Thankfully, after then, the curse should be lifted. Unless Acererak wins, of course!

The option of using a surrogate character if your primary character dies and then – once the curse is lifted – applying your XP and gold to your original character is a useful one, though it isn’t without flaws. Not being able to keep magic items is a definite drawback. If this environment is going to be in effect, it does have to mean something. It is, at least, a lot less annoying than the Curse of Strahd “Trapped in Barovia” clause, which has kept the Season 4 DDAL adventures from being on rotation in my local store. The strength of the DDAL adventures is being able to play any one at any time; this isn’t the case with Season 4, and it’s a pity. The Season 7 adventures? They’ll be useable for years, with or without the Death Curse.

Three weeks to go until Tomb of Annihilation hits wide release. Less than two weeks until it hits WPN stores (except in the APAC region. Guess where I live? Argh!)

WPN stores already have the first two D&D Adventurers League adventures for this season. I have to work out when to schedule them.

How will my players deal with this threat? I’ll soon find out!

Posted in D&D 5E, D&D Adventurers League | 1 Comment

Whimsical DMing: Francis the Raven

During my second Curse of Strahd campaign, one of the characters was a ranger. Along the way, he befriended a raven, using speak with animals to talk with it and learn interesting things about Barovia.

We named the raven Francis.

It’s dangerous giving me control over “intelligent” animals. I’ve got a whimsical streak, and it came out in full force with Francis. And the ravens of Ravenloft in general.

One of the other PCs once flipped a silver piece to a raven. It liked it, and started following him around. Along with a friend, who wanted nothing more than a shiny coin of his or her own. Once it got one, two more ravens appeared. You can guess where this went… eventually about 100 ravens were following the party around. That lasted for most of the adventure – while they were outside, at least.

Francis was the special raven that the ranger befriended. He provided a way of communicating with the flock, and would occasionally perform little jobs for the ranger. Badly.

Commands like “Fly up to that tree and tell us what you see” would get the answer of “a tree”.

Francis would occasionally be helpful, often by accident, but I used him for comic relief more than anything else.

One time the ranger, probably hoping to stump me, asked Francis what all the other ravens were called.

“That’s raven number 1. Raven number 2. Raven number 3…”

This went on for some time, with Francis continuing to enumerate the ravens. During this time, speak with animals ran out. Francis continued to caw.

A few minutes later the ranger, curious, recast speak with animals.

“Raven number 92. Raven number 93. Raven number 94…”

He probably deserved it.

Posted in Curse of Strahd, D&D, D&D 5E | 1 Comment