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.

Troubles with Ethical Dilemmas

I recently played the first of the Star Trek Adventures organised play adventures, Decision Point. It was my first experience with the system, which meant we ignored a lot of the mechanics and concentrated on the story.

The story revolved around an ethical dilemma: Do we break the Prime Directive of Starfleet (non-interference) and save some of the population of a doomed planet? Or do we observe the Prime Directive and let everyone die?

This could be a fantastic tale. It didn’t work so well for us.

We ran into a basic problem: None of the players was on the opposite side of the debate! We all agreed not to break the Prime Directive, and the largest source of tension was gone. Oops! In such a situation you would like players on either side of the issue or undecided in the middle and available to be swayed by argument.

I think one of the problems with the situation was this: We weren’t given a reason to care. There were no alien NPCs that were sympathetic. We weren’t given a glimpse of the alien characters’ lives, and we had no reasons to empathize with them.

This sort of stuff can be difficult to pull off in an RPG, especially in an episodic game where the entire scenario plays out in one session. In a multi-session game, you have more time to build up the characters’ relationships with the NPCs. It gets easier. In a single session? You must hit it early and do it well. Can it be done? The Inner Light is a 42-minute TV episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that makes you care very much about the (doomed) characters. It should be very achievable in a 4-hour RPG session.

It helps when the dilemma is well-defined and isn’t overcomplicated. I felt this situation had problems. The two choices were:

  • Break the Prime Directive, save a small portion of the planet’s population, but endanger another race
  • Keep the Prime Directive, not save the planet’s population, but save the other race

The involvement of the other race made the decision significantly easier for each of us. As we didn’t care for any members of the doomed race, why should we endanger another one?

It’s easy to see what I’d prefer. You’ve got to care about the decision and the people in it.

There are times when the situation is sufficient to give the conflict. There are a few elements that instantly engage people, such as endangering children. The trouble is those elements can also be triggers for some players. However, the entire business of using an ethical dilemma gets you into those areas. They’re meant to be serious; they’re meant to challenge people. If a player finds one too challenging, that’s the time to be sensitive and adapt and adjust.

Cutting down the design to avoid triggers? If you’ve got a game which should be about these tough decisions – as I believe Star Trek Adventures should be – then you run the risk of neutering it. Do we remove challenging material just because a few people won’t be able to handle it? I’d prefer not. A lot comes down to how the GM handles it.

Getting the players to care about the situation is a real challenge of design. Use NPCs, use the situation, use whatever tools you can to engage the players. Don’t assume the players will automatically follow along. There are times everything fails, but at least be aware of the possibilities. If you can get the characters to befriend an NPC; you’ve accomplished something that helps a lot when that NPC will be affected by the choices of the players.

If the decision is hard and has consequences? That’s what you want!

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: 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.

In the Dungeon: Left or Right?

Shawn Merwin and Chris Sniezak recently touched on the phenomenon of most groups always turning left when they came to an intersection in a dungeon, as part of their Down with D&D podcast.

The decision to “turn left first” is one I’ve observed at many tables over the last couple of decades. My feeling is that it comes partly from the decision to take the first option – we ask “do you turn left or right?” rather than “do you turn right or left?” – and then is reinforced with familiarity. Certainly, when exploring the mazey dungeons, a good strategy for not getting lost is to always turn in the same direction – it makes retracing your footsteps much easier!

One of the funniest D&D experiences I had came from this. We were playing the Mark of Heroes campaign, and it gave you the option to design your own adventure rather than play an official one. So, one of my friends designed a dungeon, and I played in it rather than ran it.

We had one player who was a very strong proponent of the “always turn left” strategy, and my friend designed the dungeon with him in mind. Unfortunately, for her, when we played the adventure, I was playing and our “always turn left” player was absent. So, at the first intersection – as I was very sick of people always turning left in my games – I got the group to turn right.

We waltzed right into the boss’s chambers and defeated him. If we’d turned left, we’d have to defeat a great number of minions first. We did mop them up on the way out, bolstered by the loot garnered from the boss!

I think players will tend to a default response to how they travel through dungeons because so many of the passages are all alike. To make the decision more meaningful, the DM or designer needs to give out information that informs the choice. If there’s a rotting smell coming from one direction and the scent of roses from the other, that at least gives the players something with which to work.

Exactly what sorts of meaningful information we can give is worth exploring further!

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.