Category: Review

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.

OD&D Review: The Dragon’s Secret

The Dragon’s Secret is a 52-page adventure written for the Swords & Wizardry system by Jennell Jaquays, one of the great game designers who started in the early days of role-playing games. Swords & Wizardry is a variant of the original D&D rules published by Frog God Games, and as such, I’ve chosen to tag this review with the Original D&D tag. Conversion to 5E statistics requires some work by the Dungeon Master; some monsters are in the 5E Monster Manual, but others don’t exist in 5E lore at present, and the DM must create those.

Jaquays created the original dungeon was in the 70s during the early days of Dungeons & Dragons. The adventure shows a portion of her original notes for the dungeon; they are not dissimilar to those in my short dungeon from last week, by which I mean they’re short and undetailed. This presentation expands that significantly. Each encounter breaks down its elements into Backstory, Lore, Secrets, Curios, Treasure, Denizens and Tactics/Roleplay sections. The descriptions of these sections are brief but effective. This format makes the adventure very readable and easy to run.

The adventure features a wilderness section and a dungeon, with the dungeon being the main attraction. The backstory for the dungeon is that it was once a cathedral built to honour a gold dragon and that dragon’s lair. Little features like the “dragon” really being a greedy rogue polymorphed by her partner to bilk the locals add to the amusement of the backstory. The dragon is long dead, but her treasure remains. The ruins of the cathedral feature a host of unsavoury personages and monsters, some of which are wanted by the law. The adventure provides four reasons for the players to enter the dungeon. I’m very glad to say that they’re not all the same reason phrased differently; you can choose one that suits your players. And yes, one is to find the dragon’s hoard.

While the adventure doesn’t have a wilderness map, it does have random encounters that can occur around the cathedral. Each has a paragraph describing why the monsters are here; some are linked to the dungeon, others are just wilderness predators. The most notable encounter is with the “fowl folk adventurers” – anthropomorphic bird creatures. I first encountered “duck” adventurers in the RuneQuest RPG, for which Jaquays wrote several significant products, but the range of birdfolk is expanded here with a goose and a crow also present. The capsule descriptions of their personalities – only a paragraph each – are brilliantly done; giving enough information to role-play without overwhelming the DM with information. For instance:

Dor of Duckmarsh: He’s the band’s leader and a bit of jerk towards others, despite working well as a team. He is often condescending towards non-ducks. No one’s ready to stick a shiv in him over it… yet, but none of the others consider him a friend.

The dungeon consists of three main levels with a total of 34 areas. There is a wide variety of encounter; traps, tricks, monsters and puzzles. The traps are varied and occasionally quite deadly. There are many innovative uses of illusions; in one room, the walls appear to move towards the characters, but if the characters move to the centre of the room to evade them, they’ll fall through an illusionary floor into a pit trap! Which then hides a second pit trap – and there are zombies as well!

This feature of the original dungeons – areas with unusual tricks to challenge and entertain the players – is very strong in this adventure. Does it make perfect sense? Not really – but I’m a fan of the old funhouse dungeons such as White Plume Mountain, and this adventure amuses me greatly. Jaquays describes her earliest dungeons as being “monster hotels”, which gained more interesting areas during development and play – and this is based on a very early adventure. Jaquays notes it was possibly written in 1976 or before! The work of the mature game-designer is evident in this presentation.

The writing is full of humour. Asides such as “What’s worse than zombies and spiders? Zombie spiders!!” bring a smile to my face. There are not a lot of opportunities for role-playing with denizens of the dungeon, but there are few rogues who have sought shelter there that give the players a chance to converse with someone other than themselves.

The maps and artwork are rendered attractively in black and white. As noted, the writing is of high quality, although a few minor editing errors have sneaked into the text: a misplaced apostrophe here, a missing word there. Occasionally, the layout stumbles, with a full-page textbox intruding between the start and end of a paragraph, or some art otherwise breaking the flow.

The product ends with a couple of new player character races for Swords & Wizardry – fowl folk and aardvarks – and a small selection of new monsters. It also includes a handout for one of the major puzzles.

Sidebars in the text describe a few homebrew rules. I note that one is the “deadly” rules for falling damage, which makes a 10-foot fall inflict 1d6 damage, a 20-foot fall inflict 3d6 damage, and so on (6d6, 10d6, 15d6, etc.) This method of dealing falling damage was intended to be used in early D&D but was removed during editing – causing much puzzlement to players when reading the thief-acrobat in Unearthed Arcana, which assumed that the rule was in the Players Handbook!

The adventure is available in both print and pdf from DriveThruRPG. Overall, The Dragon’s Secret is an entertaining dungeon, with many features to challenge players. Highly 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!

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!

5E Supplement Review: Waterdeep Primer

The Waterdeep Primer is a 24-page document compiled by Jason Hardin that introduces the reader to key facts about the City of Waterdeep, an important city in the Forgotten Realms. With the upcoming adventure season revolving around this city, this is a way to learn some lore before the official release.

The primer covers the history of the city in four pages, the geography in six pages, and most of the remainder deals with factions, societies and groups of power. Covers, contents and bibliography take up five pages. The bibliography is very important, as it shows you the primary sources to gain more information on the city, albeit in previous editions.

Details on each topic are necessarily brief, but informative. The writing is clear, with enough details to pique the reader’s interest. I liked that it describes notable establishments and particularly liked the descriptions of education and mages academies in the city.

The primer only mentions a few characters of Waterdeep and doesn’t give detailed descriptions of them. We won’t know about most of the characters currently in Waterdeep until the adventures get released, as most of the characters we know lived about one-hundred years before the present time in the Realms – since 4E’s release, we’ve only learnt a little about who lives in Waterdeep these days.

The product serves as a reference for both Dungeon Masters and players. There might be a couple of secret factions a DM wouldn’t want their players to know about, but for the most part its information should be common knowledge.

If you’re unfamiliar with the city or want a quick refresher on the setting, this should suit your needs. Recommended.

5E Adventure Review: Ghost of the Mere

Ghost of the Mere is an adventure for 12th-level characters, set during the time of the Tyranny of Dragons. It’s designed so it can be run as an additional quest during Rise of Tiamat. You’d benefit from owning Hoard of the Dragon Queen for information on Castle Naerytar.

The adventure sets up an interesting situation where the characters are sent to stop the black dragon of the Mire of Dead Men but must deal with a rising undead threat at the same time. The adventure’s structure isn’t linear. The interaction with the various characters in the adventure, including the lizardfolk Snapjaw, a captured Dragon Cultist, and three hags, allows the play to take several paths.

Most of the play surrounds three key locations: Castle Naerytar, the ruined Uthtower, and the Dragon’s Lair. There’s a focus on running the big dragon battle well, and the locations are interesting places to use.

The encounters can be very challenging for the players, with a lot of moving parts.

The main problem I had was trying to work out the shape of the adventure. The adventure assumes the characters begin by talking to the lizardfolk of Castle Naerytar; however, an introduction for the characters that explains their mission and sends them to the lizardfolk is missing in two of the three hooks. There’s also a lot of text. Lots of background details, occasionally in places that disrupt the flow of the adventure. It’s not easy to read.

It’s sort of a sandbox, as it doesn’t dictate how the adventurers must approach things. There’s no map of the swamp, but the key locations have maps.

There’s a lot of ambition in this adventure. It demands work from the DM to pull it together, but there’s enough here to make it intriguing.

5E Adventure Review: The Golden Apple

In The Golden Apple by Luciella Scarlett, a party of Tier 1 characters chase a rogue eladrin into the Feywild, get caught up in the machinations of the fey courts, and have an opportunity to stop the rogue causing a war between the courts.

This is a great basis for an adventure, and I’m very fond of tales of the fey.

The adventure begins in medias res. Riva, the villain, has beguiled the characters into stealing a golden apple of discord from a dragon. The action starts as the characters wake from the beguilement and follow Riva into a portal rather than stay around and be eaten. They arrive in a forest of talking trees – Riva has managed to get a head start – and must discover from the trees where she’s gone.

Eventually, the characters arrive at the Summer Court where they see Riva presenting the Golden Apple to the Summer Queen. Regardless of what the characters do, the Summer Queen ignores them and throws them in prison. However, the Queen brings the characters to a meeting of the Fey Monarchs, where the magic of the Golden Apple does its work. As the monarchs fight, the characters get a choice: Do they aid Riva in her plans or stop a war from starting?

There’s a lot of opportunity for role-playing in the adventure, and that role-playing often occurs in places of wonder. There’s some combat. Exploration tends to be confined to “we’re in a wondrous place”; there are rarely choices about where to go next. The action is very linear in form.

The major issue I have with the role-playing is that little of it has any impact on the story. There are two major interactions with the Summer Queen, but neither allows the characters to change her mind in any way or alter later events. I would have dearly loved for another NPC – an advisor, perhaps – whom the players could influence, and who could then play a part in the climax. Boxed text abounds, and groups that are weak at role-playing may end up passively listening to you read the adventure rather than participating.

However, the structure works regardless of whether the players choose to pursue Riva and disrupt her plans, or just want to find a way home. The interaction with the Summer Queen, as she comes under the influence of the Golden Apple, could be terrifying for the players as they realise their characters are hostage to her whims. Give me players that are inclined towards role-playing, and we could have great fun with this situation.

The weakest part of the adventure is the introduction, which manages to avoid explaining what’s going on in the adventure, while still being overlong. Yes, it sets forth the background of the courts of the fey, but it doesn’t mention what Riva’s plan is. The opening of the adventure requires a lot of explanation. It’s effectively a page of boxed text, even if some is presented as dot points. I like this implementation better than running the raid on the dragon’s lair, but I think the set-up could be conveyed more efficiently.

The writing is very good, although occasionally overlong. The boxed text, in particular, is very lengthy. The illustrations are also drawn by Luciella; they are rendered in black and white and, although I admit I’m not particularly fond of their style, do a good job of depicting important characters and locations. No maps are provided, but I don’t feel that the adventure requires them. (I note in passing that 5E does not have a “surprise round”).

Overall, this is an adventure with excellent concepts. It has the potential for strong role-playing scenes, but it could frustrate players with its structure. Recommended.

5E Adventure Review: A Night of Masks and Monsters

Ashley Warren’s A Night of Masks and Monsters is a single-session adventure for level 3 characters. Set in the city of Ibrido, the adventurers get to experience a masquerade party where the masks have unsettling, magical properties, and the host has unsavoury plans for his guests!

This is an adventure with excellent ideas, which doesn’t always execute them well. That it lacks a synopsis is noticeable. The basic play should go like this:

  • The adventurers are invited to a masquerade party in the city of Ibrido by Marquis Prospero, a fan of their deeds.
  • When the adventurers reach the city, they find a memorial to a strange winged creature who was found dead and are informed by a human woman, Kara Krasandel, that it occurred after the Marquis’ last party.
  • The adventurers enter the party, deal with a drunk and meet the Marquis.
  • The adventurers investigate for clues about the missing people.
  • The Marquis reveals his true identity and schemes, and the adventures must deal with his treachery in combat.

I’d prefer to see Kara recruit the characters more directly; as it stands, she lets them know only one piece of information. If the players don’t have a good reason to be more aggressive with their investigations, much of the best parts of the adventure won’t occur. The dead bird man is supposed to have the tattoo of two masks on his body, a major clue in the adventure, but this is omitted from the text describing him.

Information on what activities are available at the party is scattered over three sections of the adventure: the main text, an appendix with details on the manor, and another appendix with details of the guests. The separation of the guests from the main text feels wrong to me; it makes interacting with the guests seem unimportant to the play of the adventure, and causes a lot of page-flipping.

The arrangement of the action into three scenes is odd; the character’s arrival isn’t considered worthy of a scene, and a scene “on the bridge” mainly takes place in the castle. I’m curious as to what happens to the citizens attending the party who show signs of the plague – is there another area in the Castel that they’re entering? Or is this just badly phrased, and these unfortunates are merely watching the nobles as they enter the party (and reminding them of the divide in Ibrido)?

These are issues with the organisation and execution of certain sections of the adventure, but I think the underlying basis is sound. I very much liked the effects of the masks, and the story is intriguing. It has the potential for both role-playing and combat, depending on the desires of your group. It can run as an investigation with the players talking to all the guests, or they could be more sneaky and try getting past various locked doors to discover secrets in that fashion. I enjoy that it has the possibility of more than one approach.

The layout is nice, with a few lapses. The writing could do with a little more polishing (and the removal of numerous “will”s).

Overall, this is a memorable adventure, once you work through the various presentation issues. Recommended.

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: The Lich’s Heart

The Lich’s Heart is a free adventure by John Thompson for 10th-level characters. It has a very short and sweet blurb on the DMs Guild:

This is the adventure I wrote to propose to my girlfriend.

It reads like an old-school adventure. The adventurers explore a ruined castle, encountering various tricks, traps and monsters. Some puzzles require items from other areas of the castle to solve. I very much like the puzzles involving books; they’re very elegant and satisfying.

Nothing is too complex; the rooms have descriptions to give them flavour, but there isn’t an abundance of details. Monsters are simply described and most lack motivations.

The maps are hand-drawn on graph paper; the presentation is very basic and, occasionally, the columns run into each other. There are numerous errors that could have been fixed with proofreading. It is, by no means, a professional product.

However, I found it a charming adventure. It hearkens back to the early days of D&D, and it includes enough surprises to entertain me. The ending is perfect. Recommended.