On Brevity, Clarity and Adventure Writing

Keep things short. Don’t overexplain.

That background you wrote? It should be shorter.

That NPC personality? Do you need that much detail? Try dot points.

If you take over a page for an encounter, it’s too long. If it’s over a column, can you shorten it?

Adventures are read twice, if you’re lucky. Once to prepare, and once during the running.

When a DM runs it, they need to find things quickly. Use headers to call things out. I like those bold italic headings in the D&D adventures.

Too many moving parts? Hard to remember and hard to find during play. Try three different things as a maximum. Adjust based on feedback.

Include a synopsis of the action.

Playtest. Proofread!

5E Adventure Review: Sorrow’s Ruin

Sorrow’s Ruin is a Forgotten Realms adventure for first-level characters by Blaise Wrigglesworth. The adventurers must save a prophet of Ilmater from agents of Loviatar, the Goddess of Pain and Suffering. It offers a combination of wilderness and dungeon-delving, and it has some role-playing opportunities as well.

The adventure begins with the kidnapping of Brother Dendar, a priest of Ilmater. The adventurers follow him to a stockade controlled by the Loviatar forces. Once rescued, Brother Dendar sends the adventurers to look for Sorrow, the prophet, who is in great danger from the cultists. The adventurers need to find Sorrow and rescue a magical gem from a dungeon to end the adventure.

The adventure lacks a synopsis, making it difficult to determine the sequence of events. The text could do with fewer instances of “fairly”, “will” or over-lengthy constructions. “There is no treasure to be had from this encounter with the wolves” could be rendered as “The wolves have no treasure”. I’m particularly fond of “The Scared Ruin”, which I expect should be “The Scarred Ruin”.

Despite those issues, Sorrow’s Ruin is a coherent adventure, even if you occasionally must work for it. The shrines in the dungeon section, which encourage the adventurers to discuss elements of Ilmater’s faith, are an excellent idea. It’s quite clear that the designer wishes to encourage role-playing, something I applaud. It uses the conflict between the faiths of Loviatar and Ilmater very well to drive the plot.

There’s one element that concerns me: This is the first part of the “Chronicles of Sorrow” adventure series. So, is this series about the player characters or the NPC? I prefer for the players to be at the heart of the narrative; it’s their story, not that of the NPCs. One only has to look at the Avatar trilogy from the early days of the Forgotten Realms to see the problems with the NPCs driving the plot while the PCs just being along for the ride. The text describes Sorrow in terms that make her seem very important – and a little over-the-top: “Standing before you is the ruin’s guardian, Sorrow. This heartbreakingly beautiful tiefling is a paradox; her exquisite features are equal parts fierceness and grace.” At least in this adventure, the PCs are the heroes.

The maps are computer-generated and look fine, though a lack of contrast makes it difficult to determine gridlines. Some maps of “Valewatch Keep” may refer to “Valeguard Spire”.

Overall, Sorrow’s Ruin has some nice ideas and encounters, but the product could do with better presentation and editing.

5E Adventure Review: Rats of Waterdeep

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall, this is a superior adventure. Highly recommended!

5E Adventure Review: Red Thrall

Red Thrall is an adventure for level 1-5 characters, designed to be used in conjunction with Storm King’s Thunder. It provides additional adventure opportunities during the opening chapter, “A Great Upheaval”, and works best when integrated with that chapter, although the material could be adapted for use elsewhere without much trouble. One of the benefits of using this material is to provide additional XP – if you’re not using the milestone system, there isn’t enough XP in that section to get you to the appropriate level.

I found it a clever adventure. A monstrous, intelligent spider lurks in Ardeep Forest, and the players encounter its minions and plans as they try to save Nightstone. So, not only do the adventurers need to worry about the humanoids and giants, but also spiders and ettercaps!

The adventure takes place in four sections:

  • On the way to Nightstone
  • After Nightstone is protected from the orcs (but before the villagers are rescued)
  • As the party escorts the villagers back from the Dripping Caves
  • After the villagers are safe – the final encounter with the Big Bad!

Each encounter raises the adventurers’ awareness of the threat posed by the spiders and their master. It’s a nice logical progression, and shows thought as to how it works within the structure of SKT.

The adventure is heavy on combat and exploration elements and light on role-playing. I found it to be mostly well-written and evocative. The writing could be a little tighter; the text would be improved with less use of the word “will” and the removal of a few unnecessary clauses.

There are nice surprises in the adventure to entertain your players. I particularly like the captured hill giant that the party can befriend; that could lead to interesting play later in Storm King’s Thunder.

Unfortunately, the adventure provides no maps; you’ll have to draw your own.

Overall, this is an intelligent, enjoyable adventure which integrates into the initial play of Storm King’s Thunder well. Recommended!

Greyhawk – Old Tomes and Killer Plants

My World of Greyhawk campaign has been interrupted of late by other matters, but we returned to it this week with a classic dungeon crawl. After the past two sessions of a city-based adventure, which had not gone as well as I’d wished, I felt it was time to return to a dungeon.

Ah, but which dungeon? There are several megadungeons in my version of the world: Castle Greyhawk, Rappan Athuk, and the Caverns of the Oracle. However, none were near where the characters were, and I felt like giving them a single-session dungeon. Thus, I invented an old Suloise research facility, now ruined and buried, and let the players learn through the local lord.

Lord Geoffrey, it appears, is a student of history. In particular, his family’s history, as they participated in the attack that tore down the original facility. There’s nothing like inventing details for NPCs when the plot demands it! I knew that Martin’s character, a priest of Boccob, was interested in finding magic items, and so the dungeon was designed to enable that.

One of the fun things about this campaign is that I’m happy to draw inspiration and rules mechanics from anywhere. So, when Greg asked about hiring some teamsters to bring his spinet along, I handed him the hireling list from the first-edition AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. I then told him it was a stupid idea and stopped him from doing it. However, he was now aware of the hirelings available. And that leads into other possibilities down the track.

The travel to the site took about a week, which we hand-waved away. Not every travel needs encounters! Once there, they had to search for where the ruins were – after hundreds of years, little remained. Eventually they discovered the outline of the ruins, with little remaining save stones. However, it was possible a cellar yet remained, and so they’d have to dig. Did anyone have any shovels?

Apparently not, and so another two days were spent travelling to a nearby town, buying shovels, then returning to begin the excavation.

An opening was discovered, and Glen’s monk – not waiting for the others – dropped down inside to scout. The underground cellar was choked with roots and weeds, and, apparently, two shambling mounds! One engulfed the monk and carried him away before the others could lower a rope and assist. The monk was dead before they slew the shambling mounds – three blight spells expended in the process! Martin cast a revivify spell on the monk, and they began to explore.

Several corridors branched out from the central chamber. One door was blocked by a collapse in the room beyond. Another led to a library or experimentation lab. The devices in it were rusted and useless, but brittle scrolls and manuscripts remained. Some were destroyed as the party attempted to recover them, but one manuscript, which described the processes to create magical staves, was preserved. It wouldn’t be able to survive a long journey, however. They’d need to copy it; a time-consuming process that they didn’t have the materials for yet. This led to a search of spell lists for anything to copy texts (I described the write spell from first-edition AD&D to them), but nothing came to hand. Greg’s sorcerer would likely scribe it, aided by a helm of comprehending languages the group had picked up earlier.

The next chamber was an old wine-cellar, with racks and racks of spoiled wine bottles – and a lurking bodak. This encounter went more in the players’ favour, with Greg’s ability to ignore fire resistance being key.

The final room contained the treasure they’d sought, but also a gauth that had drained all its magic! The gauth was relatively easily defeated, but not so the two assassin vines in the chamber. One grabbed and slew Greg’s sorcerer as she stood in one corner of the room. The other grappled Adam’s paladin, but he was freed before he died. Rich’s wizard was frustrated by their fire resistance; Greg’s sorcerer would have been more effective, but he was dead! After the combat ended, Martin cast his revivify spell again, and Greg’s sorcerer was restored.

Their reward was a few jewelled trinkets. Far more interesting was the manuscript, which contained instructions for creating a staff of defense and a staff of healing. Exactly what the process for creating those staves is something I’ll have to consider. I’ll probably require a period of downtime, an expenditure of gold, the equipping of a lab, and the procurement of rare components – the last of which require more expeditions into dungeons and the wilderness!

Greg also was interested by the hiring of an alchemist described the old DMG, which would allow him to brew magical potions. Yes, I would allow more than just potions of healing to be created! However, the formula for each potion would have to be researched separately.

So are set seeds for further adventures. The group is about 8th level now, and they’ve settled down in the town of Brusington. So, let’s see what world-building stuff they can do through territory acquisition, hiring followers, making magic items, and other parts of the game that we’d like to explore!

5E Adventure Review: Pools of Cerulean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5E Adventure Review: The Laughing Horde of Ruin

The Laughing Horde of Ruin is a campaign adventure that takes the adventurers on the road from the city of Raven’s Bluff to the city of Tsurlagol, a haven for pirates. Designed by James MacMurray, this is a 99-page adventure that takes characters from level 1 to level 5.

The adventure begins in Raven’s Bluff, where the adventurers are asked to find the son of the local barkeep; the son was living in Dragon Falls, but his wife has reported him missing. The journey to Dragon Falls uses set encounters rather than a random table, allowing more detail as to what occurs. However, several of these encounters are quests that divert the adventurers from their main objective. This doesn’t always make sense. If the adventurers are attacked by bandits, that’s one thing, but going on a side-quest and not concentrating on their main task seems odd. This section has interesting encounters, but many don’t fit into the structure of the overall storyline that well.

Once the adventurers reach Dragons Falls, they get to interact with the locals. It’s not just the innkeeper’s son who is missing! The adventurers must explore a couple of dungeons to find them. One dungeon is a false lead, but it has information that leads to the true path. Eventually, it’s hoped that the party rescue the innkeeper’s son, and the adventure ends successfully.

But wait! There’s more!

There are goblin slavers to deal with, and, after that, the people who have organised them! More dungeons, then a city – and its sewers. Finally, there’s a sea battle. There’s a lot of different encounters in this adventure!

The dungeons tend to be realistic rather than fantastic, although there exist items of wonder. This is an adventure that features the ruins of previous settlements: a lost dwarven settlement and the old ruins underneath Tsurlagol. The author appreciates the effect of empty rooms, and there are notes for the original purpose of each. This should aid DMs in creating the verisimilitude of the world.

There are occasional problems with encounter triggers and structure. A rogue steals the gold from the party, regardless of how they conceal it. How did he even know about the gold? The action when it gets to Tsurlagol is convoluted in the extreme. You can see how the adventure has been written as a linear (railroaded) experience, and then the author has wrestled with the adventure to make it more non-linear. It doesn’t always work, and it’s painful to see it in Tsurlagol. The designer wants you to go into a dungeon, but the hook is weak – “if you find this jewel for me, I’ll release all the slaves”. Would you trust a slaver? I certainly wouldn’t. The alternative is to negotiate with the local council. Spying? Intrigue? Buying information off contacts to find the slaves? These avenues of approach aren’t covered. This is one time when I want a sandbox-like approach, but the focus on the dungeon prevents this. There aren’t even other reasons to go into the dungeon – just this one NPC.

The adventure also suffers greatly from being overwritten or poorly phrased. The adventure’s structure isn’t always obvious, and I found it quite difficult to read. I had the adventure for several weeks, and each time I thought I’d prepare for the review, I’d read a few paragraphs and find something else to do. I’d have appreciated shorter sentences with fewer clauses. In addition, some of the boxed text makes assumptions about the actions of the characters or how they’re feeling, something I prefer not to see.

The layout is fine, the maps are nice. The product doesn’t use much art, but I didn’t notice its lack.

Overall, there’s good material in the adventure, but lapses in how it was structured do it no favours.

5E Adventure Review: In the Face of Fear

In the Face of Fear is a two-hour adventure for level 1-4 characters written by Dave Zajac. It is the first part of the Tenets of Bane series and has been released as part of the D&D Adventurers League CCC programme.

In it, the adventurers are sent to recover a relic of Bane, the god of Tyranny, which is hidden in the desolate wastelands of Thar. To succeed, the adventurers need to survive the journey, defeat a village of paranoid xvarts, and solve a riddle. It’s a good structure for a short adventure.

The adventure handles the mission briefing extremely well. The battle of the xvart village is challenging, and a vulture-riding warlock may give the party a moment of surprise – before they burn through his 22 hit points and kill him!

Unfortunately, the adventure can run very short.

The first encounter of the journey through Thar is a combat with a tribe of goblins. However, if the party succeed at a group Wisdom (Survival) check, they avoid the goblins altogether. There goes a significant part of the running time. The trouble with this encounter is that it involves no decisions by the players. “Make a check. Roll well? Good – here’s some XP!” I’d prefer it if success allowed the party to learn about the goblins and then the players could choose whether to avoid, ambush or take some other action.

Surviving a storm in the cold wilderness? That’s handled well. The author gives suggestions for what the characters can do, and then the DM and players can build on that with their own ideas.

After the battle with the xvarts and the recovery of the Disc of Fear, it’s unfortunate that there isn’t an encounter that plays on the effects of possessing the relic. I hope this comes up in the later adventures. However, the effect of the relic on the xvarts is handled well.

There is an optional encounter of ogres chasing the party that can be used on the return journey. A series of successful checks allows the party to escape, but the pressure of the ogres makes the players’ checks more noteworthy than in the case of the goblins. I appreciated the table of suggested complications, although the suggestion that each character faces a different complication didn’t always make sense. Why would only one character encounter a stream?

The adventure is very well written, and it’s always clear what to do as the DM. This is something that often isn’t the case, so I wanted to make special mention of it. The layout is also good, although the colour maps don’t reproduce so well in black and white.

Overall, we found this an enjoyable adventure, with some excellent encounters. Recommended.

Running Storm King’s Thunder: Castle of the Cloud Giants

Our play of Storm King’s Thunder saw the adventurers choose to take on the cloud giants, at least partly because they had a lot of fire spells which would be ineffective against the fire giants, and they wanted a challenge. So, taking the airship, they flew to the Cloud Giant castle to find the object they needed to reach King Hekaton’s court.

This is an episode that requires a lot from the DM and players; there’s not an obvious route to take.

My players decided, much to my relief, not to engage in a frontal assault, instead first attempting to bargain with the Cloud Giants. They were received on the Cloud Castle by the curious Countess Sansuri and gained a basic idea of its layout as the giants escorted them to the throne room. There, the adventurers utterly failed to convince the Countess to help them.

One of the most difficult interactions in an RPG is trying to negotiate with an NPC when you have nothing in common. The adventure says that the Countess won’t help the adventurers. The adventurers have nothing that the Countess needs. The most likely outcome is that the adventurers annoy the Countess and bad things happen. The adventurers irritated her, but not to the point of combat, and so the negotiation ended with the characters departing aboard their airship peacefully. However, they had noticed the large drains leading under the cloud castle and decided to infiltrate the castle through them once night fell.

At this point, it was up to me to decide how difficult the infiltration would be. It would be very easy to turn it into a mass combat with the adventurers fending off wave after wave of cloud giants until everything in the castle was dead – or the adventurers. One or the other! However, I felt that was the wrong choice. So, I’d allow the infiltration as much as possible.

The adventurers crept up a rope through the drain to the courtyard. From there, they made their way into the castle and began searching for a way to the Countess’s rooms. Eventually, they were discovered by a cloud giant guard, who they slew. The clock began ticking. How long until someone discovered his body? What would happen next?

They stumbled into another guard post – a dead end – and slew the guard there. An uproar outside revealed that the giants had found the first guard’s body, but they slipped back into the castle and managed to avoid the patrols. They were smart – listening at doors before opening them – and so avoided being trapped. Once they found the correct set of stairs up, the upper levels were less congested with giants.

I was using the table of giant movements as a guide to how the giants reacted, but I believe that table describe reactions when an attack comes from outside the castle rather than an infiltration, so it wasn’t quite applicable. However, as soldiers tend to perform the tactics they’re trained for rather than working on their own, I was happy to use it. I still felt that a mass combat was a poor choice – and possibly could end the campaign quickly.

What I did do was have the Countess and her castellan come upon the characters as they explored her quarters. This gave rise to a fascinating fight: it began with the Countess casting haste on the castellan; he then surprised the party with his speed as he reached them before they were ready. Martin’s Wizard cast polymorph on the castellan – and used his divination magic to make sure it worked. A very fast mouse started darting around the room, but it was grabbed and placed in a bag. That was it for the castellan.

Then the Countess appeared in the room – invisible. She dropped the invisibility to cast globe of invulnerability, and the real fun started. The characters’ spells did not affect her. Martin’s wizard hid on top of a wardrobe and stayed there for the remainder of the fight so he wouldn’t lose concentration on the polymorphed giant. The fighters of the group ran in to engage the countess in melee. One dropped; the other was seriously hurt. The cleric attempted to heal both – but both were within the globe, and neither could be healed from outside! The cleric had to run into melee range to heal them!

Eventually, they were successful. The Countess was knocked unconscious, not killed. It was just as well, as they discovered the conch they were searching for was inside a Leomund’s tiny chest that could only be recovered by the Countess. They woke her and negotiated: her freedom and that of the castellan for the conch. She agreed, and the party left for the Storm King’s court. The Countess swore vengeance on puny folk and went back to torturing her captive dragon.

Oh yes, the dragon. The adventurers had heard its tortured screams, but they never investigated. Possibly just as well, as that would have led to a premature battle with the Countess. There will be games for which rescuing the dragon will be a major part of this section. Not for this group. They’d found what they came for, and now they faced the intrigues of King Hekaton’s court!

Ending Storm King’s Thunder

After 20 three-hour sessions, we have finished Storm King’s Thunder. We started in February; we finished in the last week of June. It was an enjoyable experience.

The final session consisted of the six adventurers accompanying five storm giants as they attacked the Ancient Blue Dragon responsible for the chaos in the Storm King’s demesne. The session could have been better. I should have excluded the storm giants. They reduced the combat to the dragon attacking with claw & bite in melee, and the giants far overwhelmed it in strength. This was fun for the players who I gave a storm giant to run, but – as advised – I kept Hekaton for myself. As a result, two players didn’t have storm giants.

The initial assault on the dragon’s lair saw the giants throwing lightning bolts at the great ballistae defending it. I ruled that they were too far away to determine exactly what was defending the lair. They could see the ballistae being blown apart, but not who was manning them. Once they got closer, they discovered it was gargoyles! Lots of gargoyles! This combat took a small amount of time to resolve; I think a couple of gargoyles managed to land blows, but mostly the adventurers and giants made short work of them.

Once their force reached the lair – a ruined amphitheatre – the adventurers noticed several ways into tunnels below. To my astonishment, they went in single file. Huge characters take up 15 feet of space; the corridors were 20 feet wide. The mathematics wasn’t hard. The dragon heard them coming, sat at the termination of the corridor, and used its lightning breath on the party. The storm giants were immune; the party wasn’t. At that point, only a single giant could melee the dragon, and no-one could get past it! They began a slow retreat down the tunnel – something that took time.

The final encounter involved large distances, and the poor paladin spent a lot of time running to get into melee rather than fighting. That was a mistake on my part. The rest of the party appreciated her bonuses to saving throws, but even with a bow the damage she dealt was insignificant, especially compared to the rock-throwing giants. I needed to have more things attacking, and some in melee range of the melee fighters.

Once the giants and adventurers found another way in, the dragon retreated further into the lair, disappearing out of sight. The party approached where they thought it was hiding, but the wyrm attacked from behind – it had teleported outside the lair and then burrowed back in. More melee combat ensued, which wasn’t good for the dragon. It retreated again.

The adventurers, not realising that the wyrm had teleported, continued into the lair, trying to find how she got out. At this point, the ceiling of the tunnel collapsed, splitting the party in two, and more of the ceiling collapsed over the back half of the party, burying one under the rocks. The wyrm revealed herself once again, descending from above! Rraggh!

Unfortunately, the wyrm didn’t have enough hit points to withstand the attacks of the remaining party members. They slew the wyrm, Hekaton dug himself out of the rockfall, the party looted the lair, and the campaign was at an end.

My thoughts on the campaign as a whole? It was fun. It presents a lot more going on than gets resolved in the regular play of the campaign. I was glad it ended when it did; after a while, the novelty of going up against giants wears off!

There’s a lot of potential for role-playing throughout and for additional faction-related activity. I was uncomfortable with adding material to the adventure, as I ran it as a D&D Adventurers League-legal game, but given the right group, you can expand this one a lot. The adventure seeds given by the NPCs you rescue in the opening chapters have a lot of potential. Make sure they don’t all die!

My final session should have had all the of the players controlling giants, or none of them. It’s hard to judge the balance of the encounter with just the PCs – the dragon is terrifying for 9th or 10th level characters, but with the potions of giant size, I think they could have taken it. Even with legendary actions and lair actions, the dragon’s damage is limited. Six formidable characters against a dragon? Yes, that sounds good. I’ll know better if I get a chance to run the adventure again.

After all, there’s a lot of content we didn’t see! It’s meant to be replayable. The quests the characters get in the initial town and the giant lair they explore? That’ll be different next time!

But until then, I’m going to have a break from Wednesday night campaigning until Dragon Heist is released. I’ve still got to finish Tomb of Annihilation on Saturday nights as well!