5E Adventure Review: The Executioner

DDAL04-03: The Executioner is the third of the fourth season of D&D Adventurers League adventures. (The program formerly known as Expeditions). It is also, I’m sorry to say, the worst adventure of them all, by a fair margin.

Quite frankly, it’s shit.

It’s an adventure without a beginning, without an end, and with a weak middle.

A lot of the problems come down to the conceptual stage. It needs to introduce a villain to the story, but the players can’t confront him because they’ll likely kill him (a problem with most recurring villains in D&D). It needs to introduce an artefact to the story, but the players can’t find it because it’s needed later (and they’ll take it!) So, instead it tries to work indirectly. Here’s the horrible things the villain has done. Here’s what the artefact does. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really let the players know what’s going on, so even that strategy fails.

The adventure begins in a tavern, where the players are having their first hot meal in days. It was originally my assumption that it’s because it falls just after the events of The Beast, where the players have spent a few days wandering around a forest. Unfortunately, for the plot to work, it needs to be about a month after The Beast. So, why is it the first hot meal? No idea. Apparently, the players have been stuck in Oraşnou by the blizzard. It’d be nice if it mentioned that. (Yes, I know that the adventure needs to account for players playing them out-of-order, but notes as to their structure if played in order would be good).

There are a lot of rumours in the tavern, several of them false. And then: “Once the characters have had some time to get a feel for what is going on in the village, they should naturally begin to set out and begin investigating.”

So, this is a village where the players have been living for several weeks… and they only now begin investigating the rumours?

And – this is quite important – there’s nothing in the rumours to make the players want to investigate. Incredibly, the actual hook for the adventure isn’t in the rumours at all! There’s a sidebar “Keeping the adventure moving” which mentions it: “An ancient artifact is rumored to be here in Orașnou, some of the locals think it is the source of the icy weather.” The main text of the adventure is devoid of the actual hook.

Assuming you eventually prod your players into investigating, they can break into the Burgomaster’s house after they deal with the guards. They won’t find the artefact, but they will find some interesting clues.

These clues lead to a store, the store leads to a customer, the revelation of the customer’s identity comes as a complete shock, and finally the customer gets away while the village is attacked by the customer’s minions.

That’s actually not a bad storyline. Unfortunately, the adventure allows you to investigate it out-of-order. So, the big reveal can actually come close to the beginning of the adventure, which means nothing else that happens matters.

I’m a big fan of ending stories like this on a cliffhanger. “The Villain is X! Roll credits!” I’ve used that method in the past, and it’s extremely effective. But you need the players to have gone through significant challenges and tension beforehand. That is rather lacking here.

Instead, you have what is an extremely damp squib of an ending. It’s not even “defend the village!” and then “Mister X has escaped! What will he do next?” Instead, the Burgomaster arrives back, wants to know what the players have been doing… and possibly gets his guards to attack them! (And he’s somewhat friendly to them next adventure? Huh?)

We had three tables running the adventure last weekend. Afterwards, all of the players were wondering what just happened. “That’s it?” The adventure runs short, fails to properly introduce the villain, fails to let them know much about the artefact – and what it does tell them means nothing unless they’ve actually read or played Curse of Strahd beforehand.

It’s incompetent.

My method for rescuing the adventure – somewhat – was to have the proprietor of the Hare and Hair (who’d they’d befriended in The Beast) begin the adventure by asking the players to investigate the Burgomaster’s House because it’s rumoured he’s stolen an artefact that is responsible for the winter. That gives the players a goal: find the artefact. My player then followed the clues as I described above, and were able to complete the adventure with a modicum of their sanity intact. It still wasn’t a good adventure, but at least it had a more coherent structure.

The ending still sucked, though.

Ultimately, this adventure is an object lesson for everything you should not do when writing an Organised Play adventure. Or even a regular D&D adventure. The design brief for the adventure looks like it was problematic from the beginning, and the actual implementation then couldn’t do much with it at all. There are a few good ideas, but they’re sabotaged by a truly awful beginning and a structure that is incredibly weak. A good DM can salvage something from this, but it should have been much better.

(An unofficial patch by the adventure designer can be found here).

3 comments

  1. jayoungr

    I got an e-mail a couple of days ago saying this product had been updated. Here’s the text of the message:

    “Due to reviews of the adventure and actual-play experience, DDAL4-03 The Executioner received a number of revisions, tweaks, and clarifications. The original designer – Jerry LeNeave – had pre-assembled a substantial list of additions and adjustments, and Greg and I made additional updates to the document.

    “The narrative should be much cleaner now, with more obvious ‘bread crumbs’ for the players to follow during the course of their investigation. We also strengthened the bond between the characters and the central non-player characters in the village, and referenced events from DDAL4-02 The Beast, as we are strongly encouraging players to hit these in sequential order.

    “This version of the file represents the combined vision of the designer as well as the admin staff.”

    Like

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