Category: D&D Adventurers League

5E Adventure Review: Bedlam at the Benefit

Bedlam at the Benefit is a 2-hour D&D Adventurers League-legal adventure for Tier 1 characters released as part of the CCC program. The adventurers are sent to raise money for a children’s hospital, but things go wrong, and they must rescue the guests and themselves from a chaotic incursion.

This adventure is brilliant. The role-playing section that begins the adventure is glorious; it structures the role-playing brilliantly, allowing meaningful interactions with the NPCs, while still allowing those who don’t enjoy role-playing to participate. The story is exciting, and the use of a skill challenge to reveal details about the plot as the adventurers track the kidnappers to their lair is inspired. It also provides a few moments of potential horror – the final encounter, in particular, can be terrifying.

Two things detract from this brilliance.

The first is that many of the checks and battles are too difficult. A Neogi potentially deals 36 damage a round. One Neogi against a party of 3rd-level characters is, in itself, challenging. A Neogi, a Gibbering Mouther and 6 Neogi Hatchlings against the party? That’s too much for many parties. The scaling for “Very Weak” (1 Neogi and 4 Hatchlings) is even more absurd. If the party have a lot of area-effect attacks, it might go well for them. If they don’t – then I pity the poor fools! I reduced the difficulty of this encounter significantly in play.

The main skill challenge sets a base DC of 16 and says a group of five must pass ten successes before they fail five times. A 3rd-level character has a +5 bonus to their best-trained skills or a 50% chance of success. If you flip a coin ten times, will you get ten heads before five tails? It seems unlikely. The structure of this challenge is excellent, but the initial DC is too high.

The second is the lore on the Chained God. The use of the Chained God as the ultimate adversary is a great idea, but the characters “remember” a lot of lore about the god during the descent into the underground tunnels. Unfortunately, the history of the Chained God in the Forgotten Realms is almost non-existent, and it’s very, very unlikely that any of the heroes have heard of him – or know anything further. This probably won’t affect your appreciation of the adventure, but it felt wrong to me.

While running the adventure, it’s likely you’ll need to adjust the difficulty of encounters to challenge your group appropriately.

Despite this, the overall story and structure of the adventure are superior. The encounters all have a purpose, and it flows well. The adventure is a good example of the amount of story you can tell in 2-hours; though it may underestimate the time needed for one of the combats.

The detail given to the NPCs doesn’t overwhelm the DM, but presents information that makes the role-playing meaningful, and each of the sixteen characters is distinct and memorable.

Ultimately, I very much enjoyed this adventure. It’s ambitious, and it realises its ambition excellently; the role-playing encounter by itself is worth the price of admission. Strongly recommended.

5E Supplement Review: Moonshae Isles Regional Guide

The Moonshae Isles Regional Guide presents an introduction to the folk (or Ffolk) and factions of the Moonshae Isles, a storied part of the Forgotten Realms. The Moonshae Isles are an archipelago inspired by British Isles mythology: Druids, fey and a lot of invasions.

I was first introduced to them, as were many others, by Douglas Niles’ book Darkwalker on Moonshae. I revisited it a couple of years ago. It’s not a flawless book by any means, but it’s a significant book: the first novel set in the Forgotten Realms. And, for all the problems with the novel, it tells a compelling tale. The setting and characters are excellent.

In the timeline of the Forgotten Realms, we’re now about one hundred years past the events of that first novel. Shawn Merwin, Robert Alaniz and Eric Menge have crafted this guide to get players up-to-date with the current state of the Moonshae Isles. They do an excellent job. The Guide uses 27 pages to detail the locations, cultures, gods and peoples of the isles. The authors have focused on giving you a sense of the history of the region and the current state of affairs. The area is full of unresolved conflicts, which makes it a great place in which to set adventures.

The “Golden Age” of King Kendrick is now history. The Ffolk, the heroes of the original book, are only just hanging onto one or two islands in the archipelago. Northmen, Fey, the Stormmaiden’s followers and the Amnese all have control of the other islands. However – and this is something I appreciate – not all of these forces are evil. Some are mercenary, some may be the good guys, and their ambiguous motives allow DMs to construct complex adventures that feature interesting interactions.

I want to emphasise how well-written the descriptions are. A location or culture may only get a few paragraphs, but they are to the point and provide an excellent overview of the importance of the feature. In particular, they provide information useful to the DM and players for using them in a Moonshae Isles campaign; plot hooks and adventure ideas abound. You’ll still have to do a lot of work to turn them into adventures, but the inspiration is here.

A further 22 pages of the work detail player options: new backgrounds and organisations to which that characters can belong. There’s a list of Moonshae names – very useful! – and a special Moonshae trinket table!

The Organisations are particularly interesting, as this book isn’t just for general play; it’s also an introduction to an Adventurers League campaign in the Moonshae Isles. Those of us who have played in regular Adventurers League games are familiar with the regular five factions – the Harpers, Zhentarim, Order of the Gauntlet, Emerald Enclave, and Lords’ Alliance. Those factions aren’t as relevant in the isles, and so seven new organisations are presented for adventurers to join. These exist alongside the regular factions, so you could conceivably belong to both an AL faction and a Moonshae organisation at once.

The organisations are:

  • Defenders of the Earthmother
  • Harbingers of Liberation
  • Initiates of the Flame
  • Kendrick Loyalists
  • Moonshae Trade League
  • Sarifal Faithful
  • Wardens of the Deepshaes

Each organisation has a description of its goals, why characters might want to join, and its politics and resources. This information is not that detailed and is of less use to non-AL players than those playing the adventures that Baldman Games is organising.

I found the backgrounds more interesting. They are:

  • Breasal Scout
  • Hero of the Ffolk
  • Llewyr Wanderer
  • Marked by the Beast
  • Northland Seafarer
  • Sarifal Outcast
  • Touched by the Fey

The backgrounds tend to be more specific than those you find in the Player’s Handbook, which is a good thing. I’m unsure of how “Marked by the Beast” will play; it puts a history of lycanthropy in your background, which has no real game effect but should affect your personality. Generally, however, the backgrounds provide a lot of good role-playing potential.

The layout, maps and art in the book are of very high quality, and the writing and editing likewise. As a lovely nod to the past, Douglas Niles, the originator of the Isles, wrote an introduction to the book.

The book does not feature new spells, items or monsters. I’m fine with this, but some may feel their lack.

Overall, this is an excellent overview of the Moonshae Isles. At some point, I plan to play some of the BMG adventures seen in the area, and I’m very interested in how the ideas in this book inspire the events in those adventures. If you’d like to explore a new area of the Forgotten Realms, I strongly recommend you get this supplement!

On the Importance and Challenges of Organised Play

Over the last four years, I’ve been running hardcover adventures using Adventurers League rules in our local store. Mostly weekly, though for a bit over a year, I was running twice a week. There’s not that much that would be *too* different if I was running them for home play.

For the most part, the groups playing those hardcovers were constant throughout. Occasionally, a new player would join in, but mostly the same players were playing at the end as those who started the game.

Most of the problems I’ve had with running hardcovers using AL rules disappear with the revisions. In particular, the new magic item rules mean all players get a chance to get useful items, and I can give “XP” for role-playing sessions.

Our one-shot games (those that use CCC, DDAL and DDEX adventures) provide opportunities to play for people who don’t have ongoing games. They also allow players who have higher-level characters to participate. Tyranny of Dragons and Princes of the Apocalypse do end! And those characters can get played again.

At the D&D Epic we ran on the weekend, some players used 20th-level characters that had made their debut in Hoard of the Dragon Queen four years ago! They were thrilled to get a chance to play those old favourites again!

The most important thing about Organised Play for us? It’s the community it builds. It provides a central gathering point for the Dungeons & Dragons players in Ballarat. Without that, we end up splitting apart, playing just at home with our friends, and with little crossover.

When I moved to Ballarat, I had no friends in the city. I didn’t play a game of D&D for three years. I only got back into it because I’d made friends at the local Magic: the Gathering club and they proved to be interested in playing D&D. Although the club did have D&D players, they weren’t running Organised Play. They played homebrew games, and they were a clique. I didn’t know any of them, and I never got to join in.

A few years later, with a new game store in town, I dipped my toe in the water and started running Organised Play games in the Living Greyhawk campaign. I advertised, and some players showed up. Some didn’t remain to play LG games with me, but we became friends. I’m still playing with them in our home games, fifteen years later!

My interest in Organised Play increased once the D&D Encounters program began in 4E. It took a while to get going in our area. Eventually, we had two tables going each week! It grew during the playtest. When 5E was released, we’d grown to four whole tables every week! At present? We’re hosting seven tables every Wednesday and a similar number every Saturday. We had nine tables for the Epic last Saturday!

Is Organised Play for everyone? Not a chance! But it provides a way for people to meet, to interact. Lots of our players play home games together, and they find new players at the Adventurers League sessions. If someone wants to learn how to play D&D, we’re running games that new players can join. If someone moves to the area, they can meet other people with their interests easily. If someone is moving from town to town, they still have the opportunity to play games with a continuing character.

I’ve heard so often of people stopping playing D&D when they finish university. They go into the workforce and lose touch with their groups. Without a place to reconnect with the game, they may not come back.

This, for me, is why I’m so supportive of Organised Play: To allow players to meet other players and to give them games they can enjoy.

It’s important in an OP campaign to have a form of rules to govern play. Although we should rightfully give a lot of trust to the DM and players, there are limits. If a first-level character turned up at my table, dual-wielding vorpal swords, I’d be concerned. There needs to be a baseline. It can’t be the DM just arbitrarily banning stuff at the table – that isn’t sustainable and leads to a lot of bad experiences. The challenge in writing the OP rules is to be as light as possible while still keeping the abuses to the minimum.

This gets more difficult when you realise how much D&D has been changing – and even more since 5E was released! The experience D&D gives has broadened. The D&D community has more voices – it’s not all about gold and killing monsters. Some of the changes to the AL rules are due to this. Others are due to the light touch on rewards proving to be too light, with abuses arising from it. And others are due to a desire to try telling new types of stories.

It’s important to remember that, when you consider the D&D community as a whole, it’s made up of players with very different tastes. Even within the Organised Play community, they vary wildly.

“In the olden days”, D&D games at conventions were ALL pregenerated characters, tailored to the adventure. They gave great experiences. Some of my friends have been talking about how great they were and would like to see more of these. I would too! However, one-shots all the time isn’t so great for weekly play. Having pre-generated characters isn’t great for players who like building their own. If you only play one-shot adventures, you don’t grow attached to your character over months or years.

The “Living” Organised Play campaigns were born out of the desire to keep those continued characters. Over time, they pushed aside the one-shots with pregenerated characters – at least, as officially offered by the RPGA/DCI/Wizards OP. We’ve occasionally had versions of those old-style one-shots with pregens. Rrakkma and Under Speculation have been the most recent examples from OP, although neither has really taken advantage of the roleplaying aspects of the game – providing challenges that relate to the personalities of the characters. Those adventures are a challenge to write well, but there are many talented designers who have provided many for conventions over the years. Even if Wizards aren’t supporting them specifically, the games still exist.

You give up things no matter where you play D&D. In a home group, you can tailor the game as you like it, but you don’t have the same connection to the community as we do in-store. For the “Living” campaigns, you get to keep your character from week to week as in a home game, but your influence on the overall story is diminished. If you only play one-shots at conventions, you get to meet lots of new people and experience a great variety of styles of play, but you don’t have an ongoing character. Some people play in several ways – I myself have a homebrew game as well as running sessions of Adventurers League play in our local store.

Even within “Living” campaigns, there are many ways to approach it. Ask Teos “Alphastream” Abadia about his experiences organising “Ashes of Athas”; it’d be a completely different response from the AL admins experience organising the Adventurers League games. Every form of D&D play provides different experiences, and some of the things we “lose” by choosing one might not be that important to us! (If you run a published adventure, you make allowances for how it’s constructed. Same as in Organised Play).

The most important thing for you to do? Find the style of D&D game you enjoy. Try a few, if you can. I’m happy with my homebrew and my Adventurers League games – I hope you get to play in great games as well!

5E Adventure Review: Cauldron of Sapphire

Cauldron of Sapphire, the penultimate Tier 4 adventure of Season 7, is a superb adventure. Robert Adducci crafted what I believe is the first regular-series DDAL adventure to get Tier 4 right – and yes, I do include my own efforts in that. (I don’t include the special Epics or Author-Only adventures, as I haven’t run those yet!)

Cauldron, like my Eye of Xxiphu, mostly takes place underwater, but raises the challenge by putting the characters near a volcano. This means that they must also deal with superheated, acidic water! The visuals of the adventure are excellent. I delighted in an early scene where great masses of pumice rose up from below as the party descended.

Most of the encounters don’t immediately begin with an attack and provide opportunities for role-playing. My players delighted in that and caused much chaos amongst their foes. Not every monster has the same motivation, and the characters can save some from corruption. The adventure isn’t “everyone lives!”, but it does offer a lot for players of all types.

The imagery gets more disturbing as the adventurers get closer to the conclusion; there are serious forces of corruption loose. The great ur-demon Dagon can potentially make an appearance as the climax. The choice of monsters reinforces the theme of corruption, and it’s great to see the use of a sibriex from Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. My group found the combat encounters – those the party didn’t talk their way past – challenging. It was also nice to have an adventure where the conclusion wasn’t the players facing Red Wizards and casting multiple meteor swarms!

As with many D&D Adventurers League adventures, the structure is mostly linear. Unusually, there are no maps at all. It’s well-written for the most part, but somehow omits the nalfeshnee stat block, a monster that appears in a couple of encounters. The WotC mandate of not modifying the printed stat block in the adventure but instead noting changes in a sidebar was frustrating, once again. Robert used reskinned monsters well.

There are a lot of environmental hazards present in the adventure, and the number of moving parts can make running combats tricky. However, the results were well worth it.

Cauldron of Sapphire is a superb adventure and, even if you don’t play in the D&D Adventurers League campaign, it’s worth examining its techniques. Strongly recommended!

D&D Adventurers League Changes: Gold

When I first played D&D, using the AD&D rules in the early 1980s, every gold you earned gave you XP, and thus gain levels. You also gained XP from killing monsters, but based on what I observed from the published adventures and comments in the Basic and Companion rules, about three-quarters of your XP would come from treasure. (Some players did away with this, but there was a lot of treasure in the published AD&D and D&D adventures, as analysed in this old EN World thread).

The sums were much larger from what we expect today. A second-level fighter had probably gained about 1,500 gold pieces to reach that level; a tenth-level fighter? Likely about 200,000 gold pieces for their next level.

The question then becomes, on what do they spend their gold?

These were the activities proposed at that time:

  • Employing henchmen and hirelings (and armies)
  • Building strongholds
  • Training for the next level
  • Researching spells and crafting magic items.
  • Taxes, tithes, living costs, etc.
  • Replacing and upgrading equipment
  • Spell component costs
  • NPC Spellcasting

Variants of these costs have continued through the years since in D&D campaigns. They typically didn’t work that well, and you’d have a lot of gold left over.

So, what do you use gold for in the D&D Adventurers League?

Henchmen and strongholds don’t work within the structure of the campaign. Training costs are no longer part of D&D (for the most part), and the lifestyle costs don’t come up that much (and aren’t that significant).

That leaves research, magic item crafting, equipment, NPC spellcasting and spell component costs.

Researching brand-new spells? Not a good fit for DDAL play. The equivalent ability is wizards scribing scrolls into spellbooks, which still exists.

Crafting magic items? Not a thing in default DDAL play (or in many D&D 5E games).

Replacing and upgrading equipment? That’s something. But once you have your platemail, most of the costs are pretty trivial.

So, on what do the high-level adventurers of the D&D Adventurers League spend their money?

  • Wizards scribing spells into their spellbooks
  • Potions of healing
  • Spell component costs
  • Living costs (only when coupled with downtime activities)
  • NPC Spellcasting (Raise Dead and Restoration spells, primarily)
  • Special events (Fai Chen’s, Faction Rewards)

From that, you can probably see the problems with the economy: Most of the uses for gold are for spellcasters; wizards in particular. The special events don’t even occur for many players. You have characters that need a relatively small amount of gold, and some characters that need a larger amount of gold.

Meanwhile, the amount of gold being given out in D&D Adventurers League games? It was huge. Not so much at Tier 1, but in the later tiers, most PCs would accumulate far more money than they needed. The guidelines for how much gold to give out in a DDAL game weren’t as nailed down as the XP awards, and tended towards giving out a lot!

Gold is interesting when you don’t have enough to do everything you want, but can do some things. If you need to choose between casting heroes’ feast or buying two potions of supreme healing, you’ve got an interesting decision. If every time it is “I do both and still have more than 10,000 gold pieces!”, then there’s no decision to be made.

The suggested method that the D&D Adventurers League want to use next season is this: You don’t gain gold from adventures. Instead, whenever you gain a level, you gain gold according to the tier you’ve achieved. Tier 1: 75 gp. Tier 2: 150 gp. Tier 3: 550 gp. Tier 4: 5,500 gp.

When we discovered that, howls of surprise and dismay began. This change breaks immersion for me more than any other that has been proposed. I’m fine with the abstraction involved in advancement checkpoints and (magic) treasure checkpoints. This gold one feels more wrong.

Part of that is due to the way a typical DDAL adventure goes: You go on a mission, and you get rewarded for it. That’s still how it works for advancement and treasure checkpoints. However, the gold reward delayed until you level? That feels weird, and I’m far from the only person to note this.

Mike Mearls had this to say on the subject:

We’ll see how it plays out. If the amount of gold and how often you earn it is an issue, we’ll make changes. For instance, we could pretty easily tie a GP reward based on the tier you gain in addition to each treasure check earned. So, if an adventure gave 2 treasure checks, it would also give 2 * that tier’s GP reward packet.

Having gold rewards at the end of adventures (or sessions, for hardcover play)? That feels better. It still doesn’t fix the “we found a hoard of treasure in this hardcover and couldn’t take it” feeling, but at least gold rewards would be more constant.

It should be emphasised that the rules are currently still in draft form, and Wizards and the admins are still gathering feedback. While some things are unlikely to be changed, others are – and I think the gold rewards will be one of those.

The other aspect of the dismay comes from how low the rewards are. If I plug in the suggested treasure from hoards in the DMG, I get the following approximate values:

Tier 1 7 hoards (Challenge 0-4) 150 gp per level
Tier 2 18 hoards (challenge 5-10) 3,000 gp per level
Tier 3 12 hoards (challenge 11-16) 15,000 gp per level
Tier 4 8 hoards (challenge 17-20) 175,000 gp per level

That’s a bit of a gap compared to the suggested rewards in the DDAL! Now, I’m fine with them being lower due to fewer things you can spend money on compared to a home campaign. However, the difference in rewards at Tier 2 and 3 is surprisingly large.

Strangely, though the amount of money available to characters has sharply diminished, the number of things they can spend money on has increased! The new rules make spell scrolls and a small selection of potions available for purchase, and the list of spells you can get NPCs to cast for you has also increased.

I like that spellcasters can get scrolls. I like that all characters can get potions. I just wish they’d have enough money to do this!

Copying spells into a spellbook is also an issue: at present, it costs 50 gp per spell level to do so. That would take most of the money for a level-gain for one spell of the appropriate level for the first two tiers.

Although I like having less money in the game, a few things about this proposed method strike me as rather odd!

EDIT: For some reason, lifestyle costs remain (and must be spent when you spend downtime). Odd. I’m not sure how much that adds to the game.

Changes to the D&D Adventurers League! Magic Items!

If you’d like to pick a topic in D&D that has seen many varying viewpoints, try the awarding of magic items. How many? How powerful?

If you read the old magazines and rulebooks, you’ll find a lot of advice about not giving out too many magic items. There were horror tales of “Monty Haul” games where everyone had vorpal swords and were slaying gods. It’s something that horrified Gary Gygax and Tim Kask. They had a vision of how D&D had to be played, and it was the “right” way. Meanwhile, the groups with the vorpal swords were having a lot of fun! And it seemed that in the TSR offices, more magic items were being given out than you might have assumed from the articles.

Magic items have significant effects on the feel and play of the game. My general rule is this: If the players are enjoying the number of magic items you give out, then you’re doing it right. The challenge for the DM is to design adventures that account for the power of the characters with those items. This is much easier when you’re the DM giving out the magic items and writing the adventures.

When you consider Organised Play, the adventure designer has no idea what items are being used by the players. The designer hopes the DM can adjust things based on their knowledge of the characters. When the DM is seeing the players for the first time, which often happens in convention games, things get problematic.

In these cases, it’s nice to have a baseline of play.

In the four years of its existence, the D&D Adventurers League has had an erratic approach to magic items. If you play Hoard of the Dragon Queen or Curse of Strahd, you’ll hardly find a magic item in them – except for a couple of incredibly powerful ones. If you play Tales from the Yawning Portal, you’ll find lots and lots of items. Meanwhile, the one-session DDAL and CCC adventures typically offer one permanent magic item for each adventure played – whether two or four hours!

You occasionally sit down at a table to discover that another player has eight items compared to your one. And, though there are rules for distribution and trading, it’s not always easy for players to use those rules. The feeling a player has when someone rolls better than them and gets that +1 longsword which they can’t use but wants to trade for another item? That’s not a good feeling.

Another issue comes from the type of items discovered. You might play sequences of adventures where the fighters can’t find magic weapons and armour, but the spellcasters are finding it hard to carry all the wands and staves they’ve acquired. Or it can go the other way around. In a home game, you can adjust this easily. Not so easy in an Organised Play campaign.

So, there’s a new method coming for Season 8 to distribute magic items. For those who have played other Organised Play campaigns in the past, it may seem familiar. There are certainly similarities to how magic item acquisition worked in the old Living Greyhawk campaign – but it’s somewhat simpler.

As with the Advancement Checkpoints system, starting on August 30th, you get Treasure Checkpoints for playing sessions of the D&D Adventurers League. The rate you gain these checkpoints is not quite as straightforward as for advancement checkpoints. They boil down to:

  • One treasure checkpoint for every two hours playing Tier 1 or Tier 2 adventures.
  • One treasure checkpoint for every hour playing Tier 3 or Tier 4 adventures.

In hardcovers, it is the time played while moving towards your goals. In short-form adventures, it’s the expected time the adventure should run for.

These checkpoints can be redeemed for magic items (or valuable non-magical items). Some items are evergreen and can always be acquired. Others are available on a seasonal basis; Season 8 has a list of items you’ll only be able to get while that’s the current season. And other items you can only get if you encounter them in an adventure. There are other rules regarding to the tier of items you can spend your points on, but I urge you to read the full rules to get the details.

The checkpoint system addresses the problem of someone “stealing” an item you want. (You can both get it, if you like, and you don’t need to make the decision immediately – once it’s unlocked, it stays unlocked.). It flattens out the distribution of items, so players have similar numbers of items. And you can always get items that your character can use – weapons, armour, spellcasting focuses, or the like.

Special and unique items can still be found in adventures, but instead of instantly being able to use it, you will need to spend treasure checkpoints to get them.

I hope that with these changes, it’ll be a little easier to predict the power of adventurers, and easier for DMs to challenge them in play, while still allowing characters to have interesting items.

Wizards of the Coast and the DDAL administrators are also removing a few magic items from the Adventurers League that have proven to be problematic in play.

Some magic items are just too darn powerful. You’ll find some good examples in Curse of Strahd. These items were designed for a story reason – so the players could take down a vampire even when they weren’t high enough level. The entire structure of the adventure is built around that. When they’re in a normal adventure, they make the characters a lot more powerful than expected.

Is this a problem? It certainly can be! Consider one party with the Curse of Strahd items and another party without. Both parties are the same level. Now try to write an adventure with undead to challenge both! The gap gets too big to bridge easily. Now, DMs can adjust to some extent, but it’s work. When you get to the point when the amount of work to run the game isn’t fun, you lose DMs. And that’s not good – we already have trouble finding DMs.

The solution they’ve adopted for these story-based items is to turn them into special story awards. So, when you get the Icon of Ravenloft, you can use it – but only in Curse of Strahd. That preserves its importance to the adventure’s story, but it then doesn’t cause problems in other adventures.

There’s a few items – like the elemental weapons in Princes of the Apocalypse – that are meant to be destroyed as part of the conclusion to the adventure. If those weapons were still out in the world, then the Elemental Cults would be sending teams to recover the weapons – something that can’t be covered in DDAL play. So, into the story award pile for those weapons.

The mithral splintmail +1 has been removed because that it was a mistake – it shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Some items, like the deck of many things, are great in a home campaign but are just too powerful and random for a campaign in which people from all around the world participate.

And then there are items like Hazirawn, which is an evil sword. A powerful evil sword that wants to kill spell-casters. Some DMs handle it well, many don’t. In a home campaign, you have techniques to deal with items that cause problems which aren’t available in Organised Play. The simplest solution is to get rid of these sort of items. Going forward, I hope to see more cool items that can be kept, but – certainly in the hardcover adventures – there are items that are fine for home games that present issues in Organised Play.

If you run Curse of Strahd or another hardcover adventure after August 30, you’ll find out how to handle these items in the Content Catalogue. I’m impatiently awaiting its release!

What if a character has one of these items? The proposed method of dealing with it is to replace the item with 12 treasure checkpoints, which you need to use immediately to purchase a legal item. Not surprisingly, people don’t like losing good items. Nor do they like it when the list of replacement items is relatively generic. The admins are still taking feedback about these changes, so the procedure might get more generous – perhaps a special list of replacement items, or one-off items you can spend the checkpoints on. There’s still a month until the rules go live, and the admins are gathering feedback on the changes – and some details can still change.

I wouldn’t expect the basics of the system to change, though. That problem of characters having wildly varying numbers and power of magic items? That’s a real problem. You might not see it if you always play with the same players, but it’s something I’ve noticed even amongst the players at my local store.

You lose the thrill of immediately getting an item, and that is a sad thing to lose.

One complication of the system is that the treasure checkpoints are linked to the tier at which you gain them, so points you earn at Tier 1 can only be spent on Tier 1 items. Points you earn at Tier 2 can only be spent on Tier 1 or 2 items. And so on. This is due to the abstraction of the points; in a regular game, you’d get them immediately, and wouldn’t get items “out of tier”. The original system proposed in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything had the points immediately being spent; this revised system allows you to bank them, but limits the tier of item you can spend them on. You get some inconvenience of tracking them, in exchange for more freedom on how they’re spent. I suspect the tracking won’t be too difficult, but it’ll take a little adjustment.

It should be noted that valuable non-magical items (such as platemail) are also available through this system – and they could then be sold for gold.

But gold is another story – and perhaps an even more controversial change. I’ll deal with it in my next article!

The D&D Adventurers League is Changing! Don’t Panic! (Experience Points)

Once upon a time, players gathered around a table and delved into a dungeon. They slew and avoided monsters, and they came out with treasure. For this, they were awarded XP. Most of the XP was for the treasure they gained, but a small amount (one-fifth according to some advice) was for the slaying of monsters.

In a recent session of Dungeons of Dragons, a group of players gathered around a table and explored the cursed land of Barovia. They saved people and solved problems, and they came out of it with no gold and no XP, because they slew no monsters.

This latter situation, one that some of my friends experienced, indicates a problem with how rewards could work in the D&D Adventurers League. There’s been a shift in how we play the game, but it hasn’t always been reflected in the rules of Organised Play.

If you ask the D&D designers how they handle advancement, you may find they don’t say “XP”. Jeremy Crawford tells his players when they advance, doing so when it feels right for the story. Mike Mearls uses milestones. Some published adventures don’t have enough XP to gain levels needed by the adventure.

One solution that has been tried is including story awards – awards for overcoming challenges or completing goals. They’re a great idea, but it’s something of a pain to design them. Do they replace monster XP? Do they scale based on the level of the PCs? How much is this trap worth? What happens if the adventure doesn’t list an award?

The milestone system is simpler but causes problems when players miss the session where the milestone is awarded – a definite problem in Adventurers League play. Also, awarding a milestone for a 2-hour adventure is a bit much, but not advancing when you play one of those adventures isn’t great.

Even when the XP system works in a DDAL adventure, the tiering of the adventures has unfortunate side-effects. A first-level character in a home game faces first-level challenges and brings home first-level XP. In a DDAL adventure, the scaling of monsters means they face first-level challenges… but XP is not scaled in the same way, and they bring home third-level XP. A four-hour adventure for Tier 1 characters might take a brand-new PC from level 1 to 3! This is a little faster than the designers intended. And then players can languish for very long times at level 4. This is the effect of a set XP award for tiers of play, rather than adjusting for the level of the PCs – and the way the XP tables work.

What did the D&D designers originally intend for advancement? The comments I read indicated characters should advance as follows:

  • Level 1 and 2: 4 hours per level.
  • Levels 3+: 8 hours per level.

The new system for the D&D Adventurers League, which goes live on August 30th, is very close to this. Characters gain 1 advancement checkpoint per hour spent progressing (gainfully) through an adventure, regardless of the method. They can negotiate, explore or fight. It takes four advancement checkpoints to gain a level if you’re Tier 1, or eight advancement checkpoints if you’re Tiers 2 to 4.

Stated otherwise:

  • Level 1 to 4: 4 hours per level
  • Level 5+: 8 hours per level

This puts the new system more in line with the original intent.

Here is one change to the system from what was originally described in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything: Characters can advance at half-speed, and double the amount of time to gain levels. You can use this to allow lower-level characters to catch up to players who are higher level. If your friends missed a couple of sessions, you can still play with them, but you can slow your advancement as they catch up. Alternatively, other players enjoy taking their time through the levels. That also works!

One interesting wrinkle in the new system is that it allows the gaining of checkpoints to be linked to the success of the players in an adventure. As DDAL adventures stand at present, you get 75%-100% of the experience available based on what you fight and how you succeed. This calculation is often poorly structured – many players can tell you about times when they’ve done everything and haven’t gained full XP. If a four-hour adventure gives 3 or 4 experience checkpoints based on your success, then you’ve got the same effect, and probably more accurately.

The part of the new system that is going to affect me the most concerns the play of hardcovers. I run them quickly. I’m very efficient at running combat, and we don’t spend a lot of time in interactions. There’s roleplaying, but it’s not our strongest point. So, an adventure rated as 8 hours might take us 4 hours to finish. I’m sure you can see the challenges I’ll have. Players who take significantly longer can use the half-reward scheme; I don’t have that option.

This is only one of the changes that has been revealed to how the Adventurers League works. Magic items are also changing, as well as gold awards; the last is causing a lot of discussions. I’ll return to these topics over the next few days.

I’m in favour of this change to advancement, despite how it’ll make hardcovers more challenging for me to run. Not having the Curse of Strahd problem where a great session led to no awards? Brilliant!

5E Adventure Review: Oubliette of Fort Iron

Greg Marks’ Oubliette of Fort Iron is a significant milestone in the D&D Adventurers League range. It was released in 2015 as part of the second season, and it’s the first two-hour adventure for the league, a format that has come to dominate the range.

The adventure is mostly a linear dungeon-crawl, with encounters split between combats and hazards. None of the three combats is “vanilla”; they all have some additional feature – terrain or otherwise – to make them more challenging. Three combats in a single 2-hour adventure might often be too many, but it’s quite achievable with Tier 1 characters.

The setting for the dungeon is clever, although it’s possible that the players might not realise the nature of the area they’re exploring. I think there’s an opportunity missed in the finale to reveal what’s going on. A group of Black Earth cultists arrive to fight the party for the treasure, but there’s no negotiation with them – or, indeed, conversation of any kind. The text that describes what the treasure looks like comes in the resolution, but I’d have preferred it a little earlier – and with a little more import as to what the characters have discovered.

The hook for the adventure – they’re hired by the granddaughter of the famous merchant, Aurora, to find a lost treasure – is excellent, and the faction missions are clear and achievable.

Despite all the excellent work in the design of the adventure, it ultimately feels disposable. The players get to stop a plan of the Black Earth cult (even if unintentionally), but it’s still a stand-alone adventure with few ties to the larger story of the season.

Still, if you’re looking for an entertaining adventure with some interesting challenges, this is one to consider. Recommended.

5E Adventure Review: Rats of Waterdeep

Rats of Waterdeep is an adventure set in Waterdeep for first-level characters. Designed as part of the Guild Adept program by Lysa Chen and Will Doyle, it presents an investigative scenario sent in the poor quarter of Waterdeep, where a strange plague is turning people into rats!

I love that the adventure’s resolution is open-ended. It sets the scene very well – the adventure’s background is one of the best I’ve read – and then allows the characters to discover what is going on. The story can become one of revenge, of betrayal, of disaster, or of love redeemed depending on the choices of the players. Players who enjoy investigations and role-playing are likely to enjoy this one.

The adventure has an attractive map of the important streets, with notes for the DM on what is in each area. The map works very well as a quick reference during play.

The players can find a lot of clues in the first encounter, which can lead them in different directions. Only a few of the clues are hidden away behind ability checks; this allows players to progress even if they roll badly, but rewards those who chose appropriate skills. I think it’s possible to “solve” the mystery very quickly if you take one route, but the interest of the scenario comes from piecing together the clues and working out what is happening.

The main non-player characters are nicely described, with histories and personalities that make the job of DMing them a lot easier. The encounter with the Xanathar feels wrong to me; because, in established lore, the beholder crime-boss is very paranoid and secretive and works through intermediaries. This may have changed in the upcoming Waterdeep books, but I’d be tempted to replace the beholder with just one of his minions.

The adventure is very well-written and beautifully laid out. An effective stylistic choice is the use of boxed text that reads like the voice-overs as part of a noir movie!

Overall, this is a superior adventure. Highly recommended!

5E Adventure Review: Pools of Cerulean

Pools of Cerulean is the second adventure of the Tier 4 D&D Adventurers League adventures for the Tomb of Annihilation season. The adventurers are tasked with recovering a shard of the Soulmonger before a party of Red Wizards recover it first.

If this seems like the plot in Streams of Crimson, you would be correct. It is the same plot. What differs is the location – the adventurers need to cross the Land of Ash and Smoke to find the shard, and the land has been corrupted by manifestations of the Feywild.

The resulting adventure is not brilliant. It’s adequate, and there are some nice narrative tricks, but the action feels like a set of disconnected set-pieces. The one aspect that does work is when the party find survivors of the Red Wizards’ expedition; they give the potential for some entertaining role-playing.

The first encounter commits the cardinal sin of being skippable – there’s no reason the characters can’t make their way around the edge of the glade and find the trail again. Even if the players wish to fight, poltergeists and banshees do not make a terrifying encounter for 17th-level adventures, even with the environmental effects in play.

The second encounter is far better. There’s a reason for characters to engage – trapped mercenaries fused to rocky trees from the band they’re following – and the combination of flameskulls and rock worms (reskinned remorhazes) is interesting. The concept that the flameskulls are, in fact, corrupted pixies is a brilliant and horrific one, and it gave a nice frisson for my players.

The penultimate encounter, an ambush, suffers from characters having weapons of warning and the Alert feat. Surprise ain’t what it used to be! What’s nice is that there are options to negotiate with the attackers, especially if the party paid attention to information learned previously.

The final encounter runs into a basic problem of many high-level encounters: all the enemy is visible when the encounter begins. My table used a high-slot banishment to remove all the foes except for the archmage, disintegrated his wall of force, and then killed him from range. High-level encounters when the party has spell-casters? Yes, this happens all the time. Incidental note: a globe of invulnerability is not an anti-magic shell. You can cast spells from within it.

Throughout the adventure, corrupted creatures from the Feywild have a chance of appearing and attacking the party. These are reskinned regular creatures, but their horrible appearance may fool the party into underestimating them – there’s a zombie beholder amongst them! They’re weaker than the party, however, so they tend to be flavoursome rather than threats.

There are nice touches in the adventure, but they can’t save it from feeling distinctly average.