On Introductory Adventures

My first real experience with a DM was with the adventure Keep on the Borderlands, a classic adventure that many, many players had as their first adventure since it was published with the introductory Basic D&D rules for about a decade.

The thing is: it’s not a very good introductory adventure if you’re a new DM.

Well, half of it is: the dungeon half. That bit is fine to run as a new DM. It’s not hard to run a battle against 4 orcs, and the dungeon is entertainingly laid out and gives a lot of opportunities for the player characters. An experienced DMs can do even better with it, but you don’t need to be one to run it and entertain your friends.

Unfortunately, the adventure does its best to make it hard for the group to get there. First the characters need to visit the Keep, which will be their home base. And the Keep has two major problems: none of the NPCs are named, and none of them are quest-givers. The DM needs to invent all of that themselves, which is difficult when you’re ten years old and new to this whole DMing business.

And then the group need to wander the wilderness looking for the dungeon, which isn’t that entertaining.

I ended up working this out eventually, and just skipped to the dungeon.

Now, with a lot of experience, I’ve realised there are two types of low-level adventure. You’ve got ones for experienced DMs, and you’ve got ones that teach how to DM. Keep is meant to be the latter – and does give a lot of good advice – but in those early days, designers didn’t have much of a clue about what complete novices needed – especially not if they were really young! The current D&D Starter Set is much, much better at introducing a DM to the game.

So, if you’re just starting out, be aware that all low-level adventures might not be written for you. Low-level adventures don’t have to be simple!

If you’d like to hear and see me ramble on about this, try this video below:

Posted in D&D 5E, D&D Basic, Design, Play Advice | 3 Comments

5E Supplement Review: The High Moor

The High Moor is a 28-page supplement for the D&D game that offers information on a section of the Forgotten Realms, drawing on information presented in previous books and updating it for use with the current edition and the current date in the Realms. It is nicely written, and gives a good overview of this wilderness area.

The High Moor is not known for human civilisation, although a few scattered ruins are a reminder that brave and foolish souls have attempted to live here in the past. Now, most humans on the moor live in a barbarous state, fighting goblins, orcs and other monsters. The supplement gives summaries of eight locations of interest that might lure adventurers to the moor, as well as giving a good overview of the hazards they might encounter: monsters, plants and terrain features.

The supplement doesn’t just confine itself to DM-specific information. Two new class archetypes, for the Barbarian and the Ranger, are presented here. They have abilities linked to the moor, although they are not dependent on playing a campaign on the High Moor and can be used elsewhere. The abilities they grant are unusual and seem well-judged, although I haven’t looked closely at their balance.

The book concludes with a selection of tables to aid in running adventures in the High Moor, allowing you to randomly determine such aspects as weather, terrain and monsters. Three new monsters, the Crimson Death, the Fyrefly Swarm and the Golden-Ringed Dragonfly. It’s nice to see the Crimson Death again, one of my favourite “old” monsters.

The encounter table is quite interesting, as it gives situations, such goblins who have fallen into a sinkhole and are now fighting off troglodytes, rather than just a flat monster table. I like this approach, although I would have appreciated a standard random monster table in addition, just because the situations will eventually exhaust themselves and – for a general sourcebook like this one – having a more generally applicable table would be good.

The High Moor doesn’t overdetail anything. It provides you with inspiration for setting adventures in the area, and it provides enough historical information to give context to encounters and adventures. This book won’t do the work for you, but if you find yourself wanting to know more about the area, I can recommend you start here. It’s a worthy product.

Posted in D&D 5E, Forgotten Realms, Review | Leave a comment

War and Nations in Dungeons & Dragons

Throughout the history of Dungeons & Dragons, the primary focus has been on the exploits of bands of adventurers, typically exploring dungeons, killing monsters and gaining treasure. However, every so often, there’s a glimpse of an older style of play: one where the characters hold positions of responsibility and command large armies on the field, often to protect nations they’ve carved out of the wilderness.

It has also been one of the worst-supported forms of play.

Throughout the early forms of the game, the reward for becoming a high-level fighter was to gain a small army upon building a stronghold. If you carved out a realm from the wilderness, you also gained money through taxes. The first few editions didn’t say very much about what happened then. The most extensive version of the realm-building rules was released in the Companion Rules, but they weren’t integrated into the main strand of the game.

I’m not a big fan of abstract ways of resolving mass battles. I prefer to use miniatures or counters to do it. Most of the abstract methods tend to lack drama and boil down to rolling dice. I despise the system that Paizo came up with for their Kingmaker series – one of the biggest piles of untested shit I’d seen, with a set of “tactical choices” that failed to provide valid choices. There was one tactic to use, and the rest were just a way of losing battles.

For, if you rule territory, you’re going to get into battles.

The DM has been left almost entirely on their own when it comes to the other side of ruling: diplomacy. To be fair, this is an area that requires a lot of DM inventiveness, as they need to come up with situations that allow the role-players in the group to have an interesting time working out how to deal with competing demands. There’s likely to be a brilliant campaign there, and, with war the penalty for failure, you can build up the stakes.

One of the unfortunate aspects of most official D&D world design is that it seems the designers have forgotten that you can have a war between two nations. When I think of wars in the D&D settings, they’re all World Wars. The Greyhawk Wars. The Last War of Eberron. The War of the Lance. How does the game change when you’re in a warzone between two nations, one of which you consider home, but it isn’t this world-consuming war?

I believe that one of the unfortunate effects of alignment is that people get caught up on the Good vs. Evil axis. If a nation is considered “Good”, it won’t attack another “Good” nation. It gets boiled down to Good vs. Evil. However, you can easily have two nations, both following the precepts of “Good”, that go to war with each other. It’s happened enough times in our own history!

The trouble with battles is then working out what the players do. A fighter is a great warrior, but their impact is much less on a battlefield of 50,000 or more soldiers. I enjoyed the method in Heroes of Battle for engaging the players, but it didn’t do much for resolving the outcome. Do you need a method? Can the DM just decide? Well, if the PCs are just acting as elite soldiers or forces, you can. It works less well when they’re the rulers!

What I need to work out here is the form of story you tell that uses battles. The story then informs the detail you need when resolving them. Something to think about!

Posted in D&D, Design | 6 Comments

Running the Sunless Citadel – Goblins

The second group of enemies the players face in The Sunless Citadel are the goblins.

In Dungeons & Dragons, goblins make up the lowest rung of a group of related humanoids: goblins, hobgoblins and bugbears. Occasionally, we refer to them all as “goblinoids”. It’s quite common when designing adventures to have a hobgoblin or bugbear leading a group of goblins, and that is the case here. What’s particularly interesting is that the hobgoblin ruler, Durnn, usurped the leadership of the goblins from Grenl, a goblin shaman. This allows you to play out the confrontation with the goblins in ways that don’t just involve slaughtering goblins.

The exact method you use will depend on what your players want to do. If you’ve got a group that just likes combat, there’s no need to complicate the game. The goblins make for interesting opponents. Their distinguishing ability is Nimble Escape, which allows them to use Disengage or Hide as a bonus action. Goblins know they can’t survive in melee combat, and so Nimble Escape allows them to stay out of it as long as possible. There are two basic tactics for goblins:

  • If not in melee, attack a character with a short bow from cover, then use Nimble Escape to hide.
  • If in melee, use Nimble Escape to disengage and run away, then use the short bow to attack.

Goblins engage in melee combat only if they have to. Most fighters will be able to slay goblins with a single strike, so their reluctance to stand toe-to-toe is quite understandable. The layout of the dungeon does mean they’ll often be at much closer range than they’d like. It’s also worth noting that these goblins take prisoners, and if the adventurers are forced to retreat and leave their dying friends behind, their friends are likely to wake up in the goblin prison.

A tip about hidden enemies: They can move when hidden, as long as they can’t be seen clearly. After a goblin hides, it should move to a different location, so the adventurers don’t know exactly where it is.

If you have a group that wishes to talk to the goblins, they’ll have to capture and interrogate them. The goblins know a basic set of information about recent events – the adventure refers you to what their prisoner, Erky Timbers, knows – but you can add in additional information as you see fit. I’d bring up the following points:

  • The goblins consider the Sunless Citadel to be theirs, and the kobolds are evil invaders that need to be driven out!
  • “Durnn is our great and glorious leader!” However, a successful DC 9 Insight check would reveal the goblin doesn’t believe that, allowing the next bit of information to be revealed.
  • “Grenl was our leader. She was great. Then Durnn took over, and he makes us work!”

Durnn, the hobgoblin leader, doesn’t want to die. This is an important note if you want to promote role-playing in these encounters. If the adventurers enter and are obviously strong – or if they kill a couple of goblins – then you can have Durnn try to negotiate with them for his survival. However, as the adventure notes, Durnn doesn’t want to appear weak. I’d handle this as follows:

  • Durnn introduces him as the leader of the great Goblin Tribe of the Sunless Citadel, with innumerable goblins under his command.
  • Durnn respects strength and the adventurers have proven themselves to be worthy opponents. After praising their fighting ability, he offers a truce.
  • Together, the goblins and adventurers could wipe out the kobolds and split their treasure!
  • Durnn likes the druid below because the druid gives him gifts.
  • Durnn wouldn’t accept a deal that puts him in a role which makes him look weak; if that occurred, the truce would be off and he’d command the goblins to fight to the death. While he lives, they’ll do so.

Grenl is interesting. She’s not about to betray Durnn because she fears him too much, but if the players kill the hobgoblin before her, I’d have her switch sides, call upon her goblins to attack the hobgoblins, and seek an alliance with the adventurers. Another approach would be for her to offer her services as a negotiator between Durnn and the adventurers, and once she could talk privately, offer an alliance with the goblins in exchange for Durnn’s death.

Grenl does share an enmity with Durnn, however: She wants the kobolds gone. She also wants the druid gone, as he supports Durnn’s rulership.

With these motivations in mind, you have the potential for some interesting interactions.    

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Play Advice, Tales of the Yawning Portal | 3 Comments

Using Published Adventures in a Homebrew Campaign

One of the more unusual products to cross my radar was The Ultimate Fantasy Collection. Curated by Glen Cooper, this product gathers together nine adventures from the early days of the DMs Guild, adds in three supplements, and provides the lot at a discount.

However, Glen decided to do something interesting. Instead of just offering the adventures in a bundle, he decided to write notes for each adventure and to provide a campaign framework that would allow a group to play each of the adventures in turn.

I had an extremely small role in this process: Glen asked me to provide an introduction, and to write notes about his adventure. This I did, and the product went on sale last month. (I did this gratis; I like to help innovative work when I can).

With the weaving of these adventures together into a campaign framework, Glen did something that D&D players have been doing since the first D&D adventure was published: incorporating adventures by different authors into an ongoing campaign. What’s unusual is that he’s then shared the result with you. It’s probably worth picking up just to see how he did it. We DMs tend to not talk about this process a lot, mainly because we’re busy doing it instead of writing about it! (You can see classic examples of this process in the mid-80s superadventures of T1-4, A1-4 and GDQ1-7).

I run one homebrew campaign at present, which I supplement greatly with published adventures. There are two primary ways I use published adventures.

The first way is using it as a major adventure for the players. I have used both Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil and Gary Gygax’s Necropolis in this manner in previous campaigns. These adventures made up significant portions of the campaign, but they didn’t represent the entire campaign; this is as opposed to how I ran Princes of the Apocalypse, where that adventure was the entire campaign, and I didn’t use anything else.

Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil was used as the capstone for a campaign that lasted six years and took up only the final year. I adapted the adventure to run for the highest levels in the game, rather than its original mid-level presentation. The adventure features a confrontation with major cultists of Tharizdun, whom I’d used as recurring antagonists throughout the campaign, so the adventure made sense to use in this context.

During the campaign in which I used Necropolis, I’d introduced the idea of the “Rainbow Portal,” a device that could send characters to other worlds. The group thus found a world based on Egypt and there explored the final resting place of the Set Rahotep – something that took them several months. It was another exciting adventure opportunity, rather than being something I’d built the campaign around.

The second way is using an adventure as a side-quest. A short diversion or supplement to the main campaign path. A lot of the adventures on the DMs Guild are of this sort, adventures that take no more than a session or two to play.

It’s useful to build up a stable of good, short adventures for this purpose. You might not use them immediately, but, when the opportunity arises, they’re there to drop in at a moment’s notice.

The oddest adventure I ever used as a side-quest was Queen of the Demonweb Pits. This is not an adventure you’d likely ever associate as a side-quest, but during the play of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, one of the characters drew the “Void” tile from a deck of many things, and it imprisoned his soul on another plane. Which plane? As I’d read Queen of the Demonweb Pits many times, it immediately occurred to me to place it there, in the Demonweb, in the care of Lolth. Thus, the characters descended into the Vault of the Drow, and from there entered the Abyss. After fighting their way through to Lolth’s throne, they discovered that Lolth was quite amenable to their overall quest of stopping Tharizdun, and so returned the character’s soul. After that, we returned to the Temple and completed the campaign.

One of the chief reasons for using published adventures in a homebrew campaign is that it allows you to explore different design styles. When I write adventures, there are a few tropes I tend to use over and over again. If I use the work of other authors, they have different design quirks, and so the players have the ability to experience an adventure written from a different point of view.

The other reason I use them is simply a matter of time. With a full-time job and two nights a week given over to running D&D Adventurers League games, the amount of time I have left to design is less than I like. Even less once I start writing blog articles and reviews!

Once you’ve decided to adapt a published adventure, you can change anything you don’t like: setting, monsters, characters, tone. Exactly how much depends on how much work you wish to do. I was aided in the conversion of the Temple by having a computerized tool to reset the level of the monsters, with all numbers scaling to meet the new level. (Alas, the tool was for 4th edition; I don’t know a 5th edition equivalent).

It’s important to keep track of your players’ wishes in this process. If they’re reacting well to one element of an adventure, see if you can develop it further. Just because the adventure’s author wrote something down on the page doesn’t mean you’re forced to abide by it. Change things to make the adventure better for your group. The glory of Dungeons & Dragons is that you can do this; you’re not playing a computer game and limited by the imagination of the game’s designer. Go forth and create!

Posted in D&D, D&D 5E, Design, Play Advice | 6 Comments

AD&D Adventure Review: White Plume Mountain

In the late 1970s, Lawrence Schick took the best bits of the dungeons he’d designed, stuck them all together, and gave the result to TSR as a sample document hoping to persuade them to hire him. It worked. His sample document was published as S2: White Plume Mountain without changing a word, much to his surprise.

It’s also one of my favourite adventures of the era. Looking back at the period, some commentators have discussed the concept of Gygaxian Naturalism, which is how Gygax designed AD&D and its modules to provide a more realistic world, where everything made sense and flowed from the assumptions of the setting. This is most obvious in adventures such as The Village of Hommlet and Keep on the Borderlands. The Caves of Chaos might have a few too many different monsters living in proximity, it’s not completely unbelievable. The idea of the border post with its soldiers, travelers, inn, guilds and suchlike is all based very much on a projection of the real world into the D&D world.

This is not White Plume Mountain.

With a collection of turnstiles, inverted ziggurats, cursed wishing rings and ogre magi, the world of White Plume Mountain doesn’t look that realistic.

However, the adventure is a lot of fun to run and play. Despite the deathtraps and difficult encounters, the adventure feels light-hearted. This is a long way from the approach of Tomb of Horrors.

The adventure begins with a simple hook: the wizard Keraptis has stolen three powerful weapons from their owners in the Free City of Greyhawk. The heroes need to travel to White Plume Mountain and reclaim them. It is notable that Keraptis is never seen in the adventure; the group deals exclusively with his traps, tricks and monsters.

The original printing is quite short: 27 encounter areas in 12 pages. It introduced the Kelpie (a malign, shapechanging form of seaweed) to the game. When it was reprinted with a colour cover, it was expanded to 16 pages by putting in more artwork. The artwork in the original printing is by Erol Otus, Darlene Pekul and Dave Sutherland. For the revised version, Jim Roslof, Jeff Dee, Davis LaForce and Jim Willingham add their skills. I really like the artwork in this adventure, which adds a lot to its charm.

However, despite its brevity, it is packed with incident. There are logic puzzles, riddles, strange environments, deception and rather deadly monsters. Fighting a giant crab in a bubble that if punctured will bring boiling hot water down on you? That’s unusual, rare and spectacular. I found Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan a bit cold and remote; that’s never the case with White Plume Mountain. It just wants you to have fun with it.

I ran part of White Plume Mountain on my 33rd birthday, and it was a memorable experience. This isn’t an adventure to obsess over how to integrate it into your campaign world. Instead, it exists to challenge your players and their characters, and to let everyone have a good time when doing so. You might not always be in the mood for an adventure like this one, but when you are, it delivers the goods.

Posted in AD&D, D&D, Review | 2 Comments

The Shared Experience in Dungeons & Dragons

Last night, I ran Giant Diplomacy for my D&D Adventurers League table at my local gaming store. Around me, three other DMs were doing the same, attended by 23 players. Most of those players have been with us in the four preceding weeks as we’ve run the other adventures in this series. Together, we’ve all shared the experience of playing these adventures. Afterwards, we typically compare our experiences, discovering how each group handled things differently, and what triumphs (or disasters) they achieved.

This is not how D&D was when I first entered the game in the early 1980s. However, the concept of the shared experience was there.

There were two main ways in the early days of having a similar experience to other groups. The first was through play of the published adventure modules. The first few years of D&D saw no adventures being published, but in 1978, the first three AD&D adventures were published: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl, and Hall of the Fire Giant King. These were followed by more adventures over the next five years, and then even more.

The very first adventures published were played by a lot of people. They were the only ones available, and so if you wanted to run a professionally-created adventure, you didn’t have much choice. It helped that most of the adventures were pretty good, and their reputation spread by word-of-mouth.

And thus, you got a community of players who, though they’d never played together, had played through a common set of adventures, and thus had a shared experience.

The other way was a more local phenomenon: that of the players who went to a D&D convention where they all played a specially-written scenario together. Obviously, this didn’t involve as many players than those playing the printed adventures, but you still had people who had shared the experience with you. However, the experience of the published adventures was a much stronger one over the entire D&D community.

As we got to the mid-80s and later, the adventures lost their ability to unite people, partly because there were so many of them being published, and partly because a lot of them weren’t much good. To some extent, this was replaced by the rise in campaign settings, so that two people who played in the Forgotten Realms setting could compare notes, but we began losing this idea of sharing play experiences beyond saying “We both played D&D.”

A new form of sharing a D&D experience came through the rise of Organised Play. In OP, the idea of the convention scenario was expanded to a world-wide level. Thus, an adventure written for one convention would be played at many conventions around the world. This did expand the reach of those scenarios, but it was still restricted to convention-goers, and those that actually chose to play that adventure. As the years went by, the play of these adventures expanded to include store play and home groups, thus expanding their reach and making them more of a shared experience.

This became even more true with the D&D Encounters program, which had people playing exactly the same part of the adventure each week. However, there were several inherent problems with the program, chief of which was how heavily railroaded the experience had to be, taking away from one of the main strengths of the game: the ability of players to not follow a script. That it was also part of the relatively unpopular 4th Edition didn’t help either.

The release of 5th Edition did wonders for revitalising the shared experience of D&D. And it did so in two ways: one planned, and one unexpected.

The planned one was the release of only two significant adventures each year. When the game was released, you had Lost Mine of Phandelver from the D&D Starter Set and Hoard of the Dragon Queen (the first part of the Tyranny of Dragons storyline). And that was it for months. So, if you were going to play D&D and not create your own material, your choices were limited, just like in the early days. It helped significantly that Lost Mine is a really good adventure, regarded as one of the best ever released for D&D. If your first experiences of D&D are with 5E, it’s likely you’ve played Lost Mine.

Then, with each new adventure release coming about six months apart, people had time to complete one and then play the next. (Or, at least, the one after that). With the play of the hardcovers also being promoted in game stores, we got a much stronger shared experience. As well, because we weren’t being drowned by a lot of other releases, we’d talk about them a lot in all the ways the modern world allows us to do.

The unexpected one was the rise of Actual Play. At least, I didn’t expect it, and I’m pretty sure the people at Wizards didn’t expect it either. However, they’ve certainly embraced it, as the Stream of Annihilation shows. When you have groups like Critical Role streaming games, this creates a new type of shared experience: of watching the game, and watching with lots and lots of other people. If you watch Doctor Who or Game of Thrones, you know that you’re not alone and you’re part of a community of fans. Now that is extended to a new way of participating in D&D.

I love this. I’m not an Actual Play devotee myself – I’m entirely too busy with running my own games of D&D – but for many people it provides a new way to learn about the game, to participate in the game, and to interact with other players of the game.

This is not to say that doing your own thing is bad. I happily run a homebrew campaign, and have for most of the past two decades. Creating your own material is a large part of the game. But staying in touch with what other people are playing? That’s now easier than ever. And all of it strengthens the D&D community.

Posted in D&D | 1 Comment

On the Tomb of Annihilation

Chult. Land of Dinosaurs. Far to the south of the Daleland and Waterdeep.

With that, you have seen most of my knowledge of the land. Look, I’ve got the Jungles of Chult supplement/adventure, but I’ve never had an occasion to properly delve into it.

Tomb of Horrors, though… yes. I’ve played that. I’ve run it, and I’ve run adventures inspired by it, including the not-confusingly-titled-at-all Tomb of Horrors from 4E, which builds a big campaign around several dangerous dungeons. I own Return to the Tomb of Horrors, a big boxed set from 2E. Haven’t had a chance to play that yet.

So, this will be the third big adventure that is inspired by Tomb of Horrors. I’m going to be very surprised if this is just a version of Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors. It’s going to be something new. It has to be, as Tomb of Horrors has been around for a very long time. It even got a reprint in Tales of the Yawning Portal. Once the new adventure comes out, it’ll be fascinating to compare the two – how much has the story been deepened? How much more deadly is the dungeon?

Of course, by calling the new adventure Tomb of Annihilation, you’re not really raising the hope of the players of their characters surviving, are you?

I’m really looking forward to this one. It’s going to be something new – and, unlike Storm King’s Thunder, I’m going to make sure I get to run it.

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Running White Plume Mountain

White Plume Mountain, which has been reprinted as part of Tales from the Yawning Portal, is one of my all-time favourite Dungeons & Dragons adventures.

It’s not an adventure you can take too seriously. It’s got stuff in it like a turnstile, a magic ring that talks to people and tries to convince them it’s the best thing ever (and should be fought over), and a sphinx who is forced to ask questions but really hates doing so. Oh, and super-tetanus.

If you’re running a campaign that is very serious, stay clear of this adventure. It does horrible things for your suspension of disbelief. It’s the epitome of “a mad wizard built this”. However, the unbridled creativity in it makes it a lot of fun to play if you’re not taking the game too seriously.

Here’s a few notes on some of the encounters and how I run them.

The Bedraggled Sphinx. Found as the characters enter the dungeon, the sphinx is sitting in about a foot of water and she hates being wet and forced to serve Keraptis. When I role-play her, I moan a lot about how this is the worst job ever, and she’d be ever so grateful if the characters would just answer her riddle and go and kill the wizard. (She’s magically forced to aid Keraptis, she’s not forced to enjoy it).

In 5E, it’s most likely the characters aren’t going to defeat the challenges of the dungeon in one go. Thus, they’ll go out (“You’re leaving? Please say you’re not abandoning me! Keraptis must be destroyed!”) and return – each time she asks a different riddle. If you can’t think of a new riddle, go online and find one.

I like this one: “Inside the Green House is a White House. Inside the White House is a Red House. Inside the Red House are lots of babies. What am I?” That gave my players a few minutes of cogitation.

Two things: Riddles are meant to be fun, not impossible. I’m happy to give clues if I think the players are (a) absolutely stuck or (b) on the right track but needing a little push along. Alternatively, the characters can just destroy the wall of force and fight the sphinx. At that point, the sphinx will unleash extra sarcasm on them.

Green Slime Under Water. If there’s ever a trap that wants the players to use 10 foot poles, it’s the slime. Green slime isn’t hard to get rid of, but it can kill characters if they don’t deal with it quickly. The last time I ran this, I had a party using 10 foot poles. Which became 9 foot poles, and then 8 foot poles before the slime was destroyed.

On another occasion, a character blithely walked through the slime, then walked back through the slime before he realised what had happened. In the meantime, it ate his slippers of spider-climbing

The Magic Ring. This is an artefact from an older version of D&D, where players competed strongly for treasure. (Under one reading of the rules, you gained XP for the treasure your character ended up with.) This ring? If it works as advertised, it’s incredible. The original version stated its abilities in the form of the game stats, which made sense within that way of playing the game. I’d like to think that people can resolve their differences peacefully these days and the ring won’t start a fight, but people will be people. (Except in the Adventurers League, where you’ll have to dice for it).

Geysers and Chains. This is an encounter that is really challenging to run well. Draw this one out and use miniatures or tokens to represent where the characters are. If you like, use Strength (Athletics) and Dexterity (Acrobatics) checks to jump from one to the other, but I wouldn’t worry too much about those checks: it’s hard enough as it is.

The tension here comes from the players trying to get the rhythm right of their movement. If only one character is on a platform as a time, can they move across in time?

The original D&D game used 1 minute rounds, which means characters weren’t moving as far. In 5E, characters move a bit too fast across this – if you slow down the movement speeds (because the discs are swinging, etc.) this works a lot better.

The Giant Crab. Any missile shot that misses (arrow, spell or bolt) is going to puncture the forcefield. The bubble is also quite low, so large weapons (pike, two-handed sword) might also do so – I’d have them do so on a miss, or possibly only a natural 1 if I’m feeling kind. Fireball and lighting bolt spells? Oh dear!

Really Hot Armour. This is a situation where the players can be very inventive. If a scheme sounds crazy enough, let it work. It’s best when the players come up with interesting solutions to these problems, rather than just using the prosaic; however, the best way to stop invention is to keep saying “No”. You don’t have to approve every idea they come up with, but if it sounds good, let it work.

The Frictionless Room. The crazy idea one group came up with was to slide the bodies of the dead (fireballed) ghouls over the floor and thus have a cushion on the far side. Another group suggested using a mattress from a different room (unfortunately, they couldn’t work out how to get it over the water back to here). This room is likely a lot easier if the group have Wave.

It should be noted that in the original text, a character falling into the blades instantly contracted super-tetanus and died in 2-5 rounds, no saving throw, with only magic able to save him or her! Brutal!

Like the corridor of Very Hot Armour, this encounter requires the players to think, and the DM not to shoot reasonable suggestions down. (Just uninventive ones that don’t have a chance of working). If you think something sounds reasonable but you’re not sure if it’d work, have them make an ability check against DC 15 or something similar to see if it succeeds. If you very much like the idea? Just have it work!

Sir Bluto, Mass Murderer. I almost completely TPKed my party when they entered this room. I was extremely harsh (and they didn’t have their wizard with them), and the next thing I knew they were almost all dead. I actually reset this encounter and ran it again – this time with the wizard and without having the enemy gain surprise and make everyone entangled and prone before they could act…

Even with a fairer set-up, this is an absolutely brutal fight. The enemy are really tough even without their nets.

The way I ended up running it is by rolling initiative, and with each kayak entering the chamber on a consecutive round. So, one kayak in round 1, the next in round 2, etc. The Kayak enters at the beginning of the round (say initiative count 30) and so if the players roll well, they have a chance to act before the opponents. Then the nets are thrown – if the net succeeds (I allowed the characters to block them with oars), the kayak and the characters within become prone – and it requires a Dash action to extricate oneself from the kayak. (They’re not made for easy egress!)

Be careful with this room – it well could be beyond your players’ capabilities.

Ziggurat Zoo. There are a lot of ways this could be played, but I run it as four separate encounters – each layer being its own encounter. The one difference is that the manticores might get a shot against the characters when they enter – the line-of-sight only really exists at the long end of the chamber.

Smashing the glass makes it into fewer encounters. I don’t think regular scorpions can swim. Can Giant Scorpions? Is it more interesting if they can?

Show the picture of this to the players, and draw out a cross-section of it as well so the players can get the distances right in their heads; it’s a little tricky to visualise correctly, especially with the glass walls.

Master Qesnef. Qesnef is your chance to have a lot of fun role-playing. An urbane character, he can explain to the adventurers everything they missed, the true purpose of the maze, and he is the one trustworthy character here. Really.

It’s nice to end the adventure on a positive note, surely?

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5E Adventure Review: Flames of Kythorn

Flames of Kythorn is one of the Elemental Evil series of D&D Adventurers League adventures. An adventure for 3-7 characters of levels 1-4, it presents the players with a fascinating situation, and then just can’t handle the landing.

The basic concept behind the adventure is that a cultist of Elemental Fire has tricked an artist into painting magical pictures that cause those who view them to become pyromaniacs – eventually, his hope is to burn the entire city of Mulmaster down. Just what Elemental Fire wants to do. The characters become aware of this when an innkeeper throws a flammable drink onto a noblewoman, and then lights the drink. As this was at the showing of one of the artist’s paintings, clues begin to mount up as to the cause until the characters discover the artist and his patron.

At least, that’s the hope. Unfortunately, the DM is going to have to intervene somewhere because the clues are incredibly vague. They’re great at leading the characters in circles rather than to the true culprit. I think the idea is that once the characters have heard a couple of things about the mysterious patron they should investigate him, but finding where he lives is tremendously hard (if not impossible) in the adventure as written.

The boxed text is fantastic at not giving you relevant information. A pyre is started to burn down a shop… but that’s not in the boxed text. A brooch is referred to again and again, but is only described in an appendix (where you discover it was actually a magic item) and you have to guess it’s a magic item because it’s not listed in the encounter where you gain it.

The hooks for the adventure are vague, and the beginning is tremendously unfocused. Go enjoy yourself at a party! Oh, and while you’re there something happens. The most recent time I ran it, I just skipped to the Something Happens and kick-started the plot. Adventures can start with briefings or start in medias res. What’s it called when you have to wait even to get to the bit when the adventure begins? The Hands of Fate opening?

Despite all these problems, Flames of Kythorn has some tremendous ideas and imagery. It is definitely salvageable, and one of the things it does right is to introduce players to different aspects of life in Mulmaster; something this series really needs.

It’s just an adventure that needs a lot of work: good ideas, but flawed implementation.

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