The rules for the Assassin (a Roguish archetype) in the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons include an extremely powerful ability: Assassinate. It’s the signature ability of the class, and it can be very effective. A reminder of what it does:
You have advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn’t taken a turn in the combat yet. In addition, any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit.
However, as it uses the Surprise rules – and those rules were different in earlier versions of the game – I’ve seen many people be confused about how it works. This article discusses the rules and their interpretation.
The starting point is Jeremy Crawford’s explanation of surprise, from Sage Advice November 2015:
The first step of any combat is this: the DM determines whether anyone in the combat is surprised (reread “Combat Step by Step” on page 189 of the Player’s Handbook). This determination happens only once during a fight and only at the beginning. In other words, once a fight starts, you can’t be surprised again, although a hidden foe can still gain the normal benefits from being unseen (see “Unseen Attackers and Targets” on page 194 of the Player’s Handbook).
To be surprised, you must be caught off guard, usually because you failed to notice foes being stealthy or you were startled by an enemy with a special ability, such as the gelatinous cube’s Transparent trait, that makes it exceptionally surprising. You can be surprised even if your companions aren’t, and you aren’t surprised if even one of your foes fails to catch you unawares.
If anyone is surprised, no actions are taken yet. First, initiative is rolled as normal. Then, the first round of combat starts, and the unsurprised combatants act in initiative order. A surprised creature can’t move or take an action or a reaction until its first turn ends (remember that being unable to take an action also means you can’t take a bonus action). In effect, a surprised creature skips its first turn in a fight. Once that turn ends, the creature is no longer surprised.
In short, activity in a combat is always ordered by initiative, whether or not someone is surprised, and after the first round of combat has passed, surprise is no longer a factor. You can still try to hide from your foes and gain the benefits conferred by being hidden, but you don’t deprive your foes of their turns when you do so.
One of the notable things to take away from the explanation of surprise is this: You can’t surprise a creature if it has spotted (or heard) any foe. Not just you. If you’re hidden, but your dwarven fighter friend is clanking away and rolled a 0 for their Dexterity (Stealth) check, you’ll still be hidden (and can gain advantage against targets that haven’t spotted you), but because the foe spotted your friend, it isn’t surprised. Surprise is a state that individual creatures can be in; it’s no longer the case that the entire opposition is surprised or not.
The next thing is that surprise ends once a creature’s first turn in the initiative order has finished. This has some unfortunate implications to the assassin who rolls low for initiative. Those high-Dexterity creatures who rolled better initiative than you? They’re not surprised any more by the time you act. Although the weapon of warning (can’t be surprised, advantage on initiative rolls) is very good at frustrating assassins, it’s also the assassin’s friend. Advantage on initiative checks? Yes, please!
Given all of this, the Assassin has one major problem using Assassinate – the other members of the party. Those dwarven fighters just keep causing you to lose surprise, don’t they!
Back in AD&D, the entry for elves and halflings read like this:
If alone and not in metal armor (or if well in advance – 90′ or more – of a party which does not consist entirely of elves and/or halflings) an elven character moves so silently that he or she will surprise monsters 66 2/3% (d6, 1 through 4) of the time
That suggests the solution. All you need to do is adventure alone! Or adventure by scouting ahead – 90 feet or more – in front of the party. (Talk to your DM about how far you need to be ahead of the party to be considered “on your own”). Of course, the trouble with doing so is that your friends can’t help you when you get into trouble…
A related issue that often comes up in play is the player who announces “I attack” and expects to surprise the opponents (and thus get to attack before anyone else). The transition from negotiation to combat (or exploration to combat) is not explicitly handled as an exception the rules. Thus, if a player wishes to attack first before anyone can react, this is not possible. Upon a player indicating their intention to attack, move into the combat sequence – determine surprise, and determine initiative. Yes, the player might end up attacking last; the initiative roll indicates that he’s not as fast as he thinks, and everyone else has reacted.
If you’re feeling kind, you might allow a character who attacks whilst in the middle of a negotiation to make a Charisma (Deception) check against the passive Wisdom (Insight) scores of everyone else; creatures that don’t perceive the character’s attentions could potentially be considered surprised. However, this is a non-standard ruling and should be used only if you feel it enhances your game.
Although rare, it can happen that a creature is unaware of the existence of enemies, yet is not surprised and gets to act before its foes. In this case, I would have the creature acts on its initiative count as normal, doing whatever it was doing before the combat sequence started.
Tabletop Babble is a new podcast from James Introcaso, once the host of the Round Table on The Tome Show. In his first podcast, he interviewed Mike Mearls. It’s a fascinating interview, where Mike discusses the state of D&D and its future. James kindly gave me permission to post a summary of the interview. Note that this is a summary, not a transcript; it is likely to be very much worth your while to listen to the entire podcast, as Mike and James go into more depth than I do here.
Mike Mearls is the head of the Story Team for D&D. He does long-term creative planning for D&D, which consists of looking at what games they want to do, the storylines they want to explore, and what settings they want to bring back. Chris Perkins may come up with the concept for an individual story, but Mike weaves those stories together with an eye on the bigger picture of D&D, especially in relation to other branded products, such as video games, board games, t-shirts and miniatures. He’s trying to make sure that there’s always something interesting happening. (James Introcaso compares Mike to Kevin Feige…)
Mike believes that the slow release schedule has been a big part of the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons. D&D can be big and intimidating, and in earlier editions, the breadth of options allowed for many broken (over-powered) combinations, as well as characters that were (mechanically) quite difficult to understand. Similarly, with settings, the amount of detail published for (say) the Forgotten Realms, would intimidate Dungeon Masters, as they didn’t feel that they could get enough of a handle on them to properly run and design adventures in the setting. The wall of information presented by previous editions so daunted potential players and Dungeon Masters that they wouldn’t even try the game.
The new edition has given an opportunity to all these people a chance to do so, without as many of the barriers that were there. The big “shelf of books” was a big part of the barrier to new people picking up the game. There weren’t clear starting points, and there weren’t clear lines of conversation about the game.
That last is interesting. Mike thinks that, in previous editions, because the release schedule was so cluttered, everyone was talking about different things (and the latest book might not get any attention at all). For a new player, it wasn’t clear what to get after the Player’s Handbook, because people were talking about many different products. Now, with the “event” release schedule, conversations are much more focused on the new product. So, new players might get directed to Storm King’s Thunder, because it’s the new product that everyone is talking about.
Another aspect of this is how the digital culture and D&D culture have melded together. Mike compares the D&D experience to one of his current favourite games, Overwatch. In Overwatch’s case, its publishers built the community for the game before the game was released, through a beta release, through announcements and teaser trailers. Thus when the game was actually released, new players discovered there was an active community around the game, making it easier to approach, with streaming and discussions active.
In D&D, the adventures now have blog-posts, podcasts and youtube videos giving tips and people actually playing them, allowing new players a much easier time of understanding how they work and how to play them. If you buy the starter set, you can find lots of advice and videos and other help you play the game. There’s now a convergence around this which makes for much more of a community feel: “You aren’t playing the game alone anymore.” It’s very easy to step into Storm King’s Thunder because that’s what everyone is talking about.
The release schedule thus focuses everything. You don’t have fifty different products to worry about; only a very small number of them. It’s easier for new players to connect.
Mike admits the D&D team didn’t foresee all of this. The decision to have a slow release schedule comes from surveys that indicated people didn’t want to buy lots of products. Mike, himself, never owned that many D&D books. In 2nd edition, he had the Complete Fighter (a gift), and the core rulebooks, but he didn’t have the urge to buy all the other books. Setting boxed sets? Yes, and Dragon and Dungeon magazines. It was only with 3rd Edition, when he had a full-time job, that he started getting everything, but looking back he thinks his 2E collection was closer to the typical player’s than the much more complete set of 3E. The kicker is that he was using barely any of the 3E material he collected.
Greg Leeds, the former President of Wizards of the Coast, challenged the D&D team to think about why they were producing a book (or more) every month. Was this the best business model? Were they sure this is what people wanted? And so, after a lot of discussion, they came up with the three products a year model. It felt like a reasonable pace, where players had enough time to read the products and use it, and so, by the time the next product came out, you’d be excited for it.
Mike is particularly happy with one rule that isn’t in the Player’s Handbook, but is used in the D&D Adventurers League, that characters can only use the Player’s Handbook plus one other source to create their characters. Players don’t need twenty books to create their characters: at most, they only need two. It sets a more realistic expectation of the typical player, the type of player that were excluded by the “you must have it all” philosophy. So, a new player can join the D&D Adventurers League without needing 20 books first.
Mike tells the story of a player who started trying to play D&D 4E using Player’s Handbook 3, because they treated it like a video game, where you always get the most recent core version of the game. The assumption they made was that the first PHB was outdated – and that everyone would be using the PHB3 instead.
So, the accessibility, the community, the slower product release, and the rise of fantasy in pop-culture have combined to make Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition a success.
The rise of fantasy in popular culture is quite important. Back in the 80s, if you mentioned you were playing a dwarf, the default assumption would be the dwarfs from Snow White. With the Lord of the Rings films (and many other fantasy products), dwarf now gets equated with Gimli.
Of course, there’s also the upcoming D&D movie (James attempts to get Mike to tell us the plot, but no luck there). The D&D team are involved in a similar manner as with their other licensees – the team acts as experts on D&D lore, making suggestions on locations, creatures and the like. Thus, their partners might need a big scary monster that isn’t a dragon, and the D&D team give suggestions on what it could be. Likewise, for locations in settings.
In some cases, the team makes suggestion on scenes as to what might be more iconic to the audience; for instance, what spells would be used by a wizard in battle. So, what the D&D team do is try to make sure the show (and products) conform to what people expect from D&D. Mike feels that in the 80s and 90s, studios were pretty casual about existing fans, and didn’t try to make sure the lore was right. Now, the studios understand a lot more the importance of the fans, and that getting them on your side to become advocates for the film or show is very important.
Mike thinks the early 2000s, with the release of Lord of the Rings, the Spiderman films and the negative reaction to the Star Wars prequels woke up people to the importance of all of this.
The Unearthed Arcana column is currently producing a lot of playtest material. The D&D team is approaching this from the viewpoint of story first. The story is not easier to create than the mechanics (it’s very easy to say something does 5 extra damage!) The upcoming mystic (psionic) class is a case in point; Mike thinks they’ve spent more time trying to work out what psionics is in the D&D world. How do psionics work in a fantasy world, when there’s already magic in it, and how do you distinguish the mystic from the spell-casting classes?
The team has worked through a lot of concepts as they try to get the visuals and the story right. Their view of the mystic has become that it’s a lonely vocation. Mysticism is about the self, with the psionic power coming from within, and trying to perfect yourself, and unlocking your inner potential. When the team looked at the visuals of this – how does a mystic look? – they came up with the idea of sculpting an inner astral form with your power. When a mystic evokes a discipline, the mystic is using their perfect self to impose their personality reality on the world. This leads to both looking at the personality of the mystic and its visual appearance.
Another effect of the story-first approach is that, when discussions aren’t all mechanics-based, but rather about the story of the characters and the game, it has proved easier for new players to join in those discussions. Talking about a dragon living in the tunnels beneath a sky-castle is much more engaging than just mechanics. Mike compares with the stories that get told about Skyrim – the stories are about the narrative rather than just “I have a powerful magic dagger!”
James asked Mike about his excitement level for the next storyline… a question made harder for Mike by the fact he’s working up to 5 years ahead, and so has a lot of storylines to be excited about! His answer was fun: He’s so excited about the 2017 storylines, that now he’s flipped into worrying that the 2018 storylines won’t match them! There’s one piece of art he’s been using in presentations that all the licensing partners have become very excited about. Mike never wants to be in the position of saying “We’re experts, we’ve done it”. He always wants to be learning and going forward… but the 2017 storylines are going to be hard to top.
Mike’s been happy with all their products, but he always sees things he wants to improve.
Mike asked on twitter a while back about what products Wizards could produce to help people get off the fence and start being Dungeon Masters. One of the things that has come out of that is that Wizards are now looking at the D&D Adventurers League and what role it plays. Not only in its traditional sense of a campaign where you can take the same character from table to table, but as a way of helping people to become Dungeon Masters and becoming better DMs. Mike suggested that over the next year you’ll see a lot of changes to the way Wizards approaches the D&D Adventurers League – not so much on the play side, but on support side, providing articles, podcasts and videos that help DMs prepare the games, breaking down the preparation step-by-step and producing Actual Play videos to help DMs. So, Wizards will be taking more of an active role on the social and teaching side of things.
So, while there has been a rise in videos showing the art of Dungeon Mastering, Mike hopes to shine more light on preparing to run adventures, and showing that it’s not as hard as some might fear.
It’s imperative that D&D keeps growing; Mike thinks it important that they find the barriers to people starting to play the game and remove them.
The 1984 Basic Game adventure for the Dungeons & Dragons system, Journey to The Rock, is an oddity. Written by Michael Malone, who only has one other design credit (an adventure in Dungeon Magazine #57), the adventure is surprisingly slight, and manages to avoid using dungeons; for the most part, it’s a wilderness adventure.
It should be noted that the original plan for the Basic D&D line was that the Basic adventures would be dungeon-based, with the Expert set introducing the Wilderness rules. This wasn’t always followed, for instance, Keep on the Borderlands has wilderness and town sections, but the focus is on the dungeon. Journey to The Rock is the outlier.
However, once you examine the adventure, you realise that the wilderness is written in a dungeon style. Players are discouraged from leaving the paths, and all the encounters take place along the paths. Thus, the play is kept simple for beginning Dungeon Masters and players. The relevant wilderness rules from the Expert set are reprinted in this adventure.
The adventure feels curiously incomplete. It’s the set-up for a major ongoing campaign, but that campaign is only glimpsed through this adventure. The backstory is fantastic: a city and its people banished to another plane, with only two survivors seeking to bring it back. However, only one of the survivors appears, and the quest is only the first part of what he needs to do to recover the city. There’s so much that never came to fruition. What a strange nonesuch!
Not all of the backstory makes that much sense. The city was banished thousands of years ago, yet why has the survivor who hires the characters not found someone to recover the magical amulet? It’s not like it’s that difficult (the adventure is for a group of level 1-3 characters, after all!) And the very fact of how the amulet is hidden from the person who must recover it is somewhat bizarre. Did the people of Tuma want their city saved or not?
The adventure feels very much like a tournament scenario, which it likely originally was. After the players are recruited, they have three paths to the final encounter, each having fewer than half-a-dozen main encounters, although a set of optional encounters, briefly described, add an additional eight encounters onto each path. Puzzlingly, the optional encounters look like random encounters with a die-roll to determine which to use, but the adventure suggests to run them in order. Use of these optional encounters is likely recommended, as they add much needed-bulk to the adventure.
The final encounter gives the DM the option of prefacing it with a combat encounter if the party isn’t too damaged. This is an interesting move. It shows a shift towards “story-first”, where the players should get to finish the story even if their characters would otherwise be unable to. The final encounter is a role-playing/puzzle scene, where the players can use clues from earlier encounters to help them make the correct choice. (The map is one of the oddest I’ve ever seen… it’s a huge, empty room with a few randomly-placed areas of interest).
Despite the holes in the plot and the lack of encounters, those encounters that do exist are described in some detail and present more interest than just “kill another monster”. I’m very fond of the mad-man who accosts the party with tales of a ship travelling on the land; something that proves to be true a short time later. (The explanation? Gnomes. It all makes sense). The players have a chance to pass through the ruined city of Tuma, which only occasionally exists on this plane, where they can meet some its eldritch defenders. Not every encounter is great, but there are enough good ones to show that the adventure offers something of interest. Above all, the adventure does value players who can think and don’t always meet every danger with sword drawn.
There are seven new monsters described in the adventure. These are used to make the players think, and to provide challenges that can’t be solved just by memorising the rulebook. Although, at this stage, we probably don’t need even more humanoid-type races, they fit much better into the ancient world of lost cities and unknown races that the adventure evokes. It’s not really a Conan adventure, but there are echoes of that setting in its writing.
Is it a neglected gem? Not really. The adventure has enough issues with its writing and construction that, even at my most generous, I can’t quite recommend it that highly. However, neither is it hopeless. This is an adventure that manages to have some inventive encounters and provides some opportunities for the players to use their minds instead of their dice. For that, I commend it: it has managed to engage my interest.
When 3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons was released, it also gained a series of eight adventures that took a group of adventurers from levels 1 to 20. Starting with the Sunless Citadel and continuing through to Bastion of Broken Souls, it demonstrated something that previous editions hadn’t provided: a complete “Adventure Path” series that went the full range of levels. However, players only familiar with the Paizo Adventure Paths would likely not recognise the structure of this original series.
The adventures were mostly stand-alone, to begin with, with only a couple of links between them. Yes, you got a (very) few references to Ashardalon and Gulthias, names that would become important in later adventures, but this wasn’t like – say – Tyranny of Dragons or Kingmaker where everything is part of one connected story. It was very easy to take one of the adventures and just play it; you didn’t need to play those that came before or after, because each adventure was self-contained. At $9.95 each for 32-pages of adventure, they were pretty neat.
The structure of the Sunless Citadel path reminds me most of the structure of many late-1E and 2E campaigns: one where the DM would throw together a bunch of unrelated published adventures because they looked fun. Certainly, this is a style that I’ve played in and employed (many times), with a few adventures hinting it at a later threat, because the DM has looked ahead and seen what the later adventures will hold. The design is “standalone first, connections later”.
So, when I ran my original 3E campaign, we started with The Sunless Citadel, moved through the next couple of adventures, and then wandered off into adventures of my own design – only coming back for a dip into Deep Horizon. And I’m not even sure it was the same campaign… for most of the last 16 years, I’ve been running 2 (or 3) campaigns, sometimes on a weekly basis. And Deep Horizon happily didn’t reference anything else in the other adventures.
Towards the end of 3E, Paizo started publishing Adventure Paths. These covered levels 1-20 to begin with (later fewer levels, due to the poor experiences people had at the highest levels). They’ve continued doing so, using their Pathfinder system. At present, I can see over one-hundred volumes on my shelf of their AP releases – it’s something like 20 Adventure Paths, including their initial releases in Dungeon Magazine.
These are ongoing stories. You start at the beginning, each adventure directly leads into the next, and by the end you’ve played an entire campaign that is (mainly) one story. However, they have a major problem to deal with. The problem isn’t that they’re bad or repetitive (although both could be true), but rather that the periodical release of the adventures – plus the underlying system – causes them to be relatively linear in form. One of the features I encountered when running 3E (over many, many sessions) is that two or three levels gained makes the monsters that were a challenge at the original level now utterly under-powered at the new levels. This is quite unlike how most of 5E plays – it takes a lot longer for monsters to become nonthreatening.
So this has a particular effect on adventure design: each section of an adventure must be set for a particular narrow set of levels. Once you exceed those levels, you need to proceed to the next section lest things get dull. When you add that these adventure paths are published as six chunks, the adventure thus has a straight line pointing in the way to proceed. Players can have a little freedom in each section, but the arrow inevitably points on to the next volume.
Now consider the new Wizards adventures for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. There’s only one of them that could be published as a Paizo Adventure Path – and that’s the Tyranny of Dragons duology. (Even that does interesting things with the form, but it is the most linear and could be broken into more chunks if necessary).
Every other adventure presents an adventure environment. Storm King’s Thunder comes closest to the Paizo form – but could you imagine Paizo printing an AP instalment where you only use 1/5th of the adventure and ignore the other parts? That’s the structure of the Giant Strongholds in SKT. Curse of Strahd and Princes of the Apocalypse are primarily sandboxes, allowing the players to encounter threats in any order (though there are hints as to the best way to encounter things). These are only presentable in a single-book format. Out of the Abyss spends the first half as a sandbox, before wandering into a more traditional quest structure (while still allowing the DM and players the ability to use it as a sandbox if they really feel like it…)
The “bounded accuracy” of 5E makes these sandbox/environment adventures far more interesting than in 3E; the various locations stay relevant for a larger range of levels. Ogres? Yes, you could encounter those from levels 1-10, and they’re likely to still be relevant at all levels, though the nature of the encounter still changes. They could hurt you even when you’re high level – a far cry from the power curve in 3E.
One of the reasons I’ve been so excited about the 5E adventures is because they’re trying new things in their form, something aided by their presentation as single hardcover adventures. They don’t all appeal to everyone, but there are new things being tried, and we’re seeing a lot of exploration of the possibilities of adventure design and presentation. It’s a very exciting time to be reading and running Dungeons & Dragons adventures!
Oh, and Happy New Year! I hope you have a fantastic 2017!
The adventurers had, by this stage, basically cleared the Air, Earth and Water temples. The Air Prophet was dead, and the Earth and Water Prophets were somewhere else – current locations unknown. Not that the players were paying that much attention to the location of the prophets.
Their current location was the Fane of the Eye, the twisting caverns that linked the four temples – and which make little sense when you try to line up the maps of the adventure. (There’s now errata to the overland map scale. It still doesn’t make that much sense). Some of the passages were blocked by a black mist that made the adventurers particularly paranoid. When the DM isn’t telling the players what the mist does, then the players are free to work out the worst possibilities and act as if they were true.
The most significant encounter in this area – at least according to Thumbelina, our dwarven (sorry, giant) barbarian, was the discovery of the dwarven (giant) thrower, a magic item of great power that the spirit of a dwarven hero guarded. This item, in the hands of a high-strength dwarf, is extremely powerful, and Thumbelina loved it.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned Thumbelina before, but it’s been a while since I discussed this campaign, so here’s a reminder: Thumbelina is a dwarf who was raised by giants. She considers herself to be a giant, and she is very, very sensitive about her height. The best way to start a fight with her was to call her short. As I (and everyone else) considered her wonderful, I took care to have her foes call her short at every opportunity. Her standard response was to growl, “Who are you calling short?” and, unless restrained to then go berserk and attack them. Once she got the dwarven thrower, the damage the party was inflicting on the opposition grew substantially. A raging dwarven barbarian with a dwarven thrower? That’s scary!
Magic weapons are important in the later stages of this adventure; fighters without such weapons were having trouble. Thankfully, weapons were being acquired, especially the artefacts held by the prophets. My players finally decided to brave the black mist, and discovered it wasn’t a disintegration field after all! It just felt a little weird and hadn’t turned their food into green slime at all.
What they did find was the centre of the Fane, where Marlos Unrayle, the Earth Prophet, guarded the Temple of the Elder Elemental Eye. Fighting a medusa always gives the possibility of petrification, but Marlos – even with Ironfang – isn’t otherwise that dangerous, and he didn’t have enough other guards with him to properly challenge the party, especially not an enraged giant (dwarf). With his defeat, the party took possession of his magical weapon (although no-one wanted to use it), and then proceeded to ignore the great altar in the cavern. Rescue the prisoner, yes (a poor commoner abducted from Womford), but they didn’t spend any time investigating the altar.
I bring this up because investigating the altar doesn’t get them anywhere. It allows them to see all four elements brought together, but that’s about it. It’s just an unknowable thing. Ultimately, the “Elder Elemental Eye” is mostly irrelevant to the adventure, and its ultimate plans are unrealised – it’s likely the players never find out about it.
One thing the players did do is interrogate the prisoner to discover if he knew anything about the Womford Bat. It was an ongoing point of curiosity in our game. No, he knew nothing.
The next area the adventurers wanted to investigate was the Fire Temple. They first attempted to get to it from below – there’s a platform that magically can raise creatures and objects into the Temple. Unfortunately, it requires a magic command word, and the adventurers didn’t have it. They considered going up to the surface and then trying to find the outpost of Elemental Fire on the surface, before they realised they could just return to the Earth Temple and take the tunnel to the Fire Temple. (The remaining denizens of the Earth Temple just let them go. They weren’t going to get involved!)
One thing about the Fire Temple: the denizens there know fire magic, which the players became extremely aware of, after I fireballed them three times in one combat. Somewhat blackened, the group retreated to lick their wounds, leaving behind the bodies of a couple of dead fire mages.
Their next expedition was more successful, and the group happily made their way through ogre, magmin and cultists as a great battle developed around the forge area. Quite a lot of magic was expended on each side, and the fighters were very happy with how much damage they were dealing.
Then they came upon a fire cultist who didn’t attack them, and, in addition, revealed himself to be a member of the Zhentarim who had infiltrated the cult. He gave them the passwords to use the platform to return to the Fane level, as well as alerting them to the presence of the Nodes beneath the Fane, where the final prophets has gone – to perform some ritual or another. He also offered to take Ironfang from them – and allow the Zhentarim to deal with it. The group were happy to do this, and handed it over.
It’s worth noting that the group as it currently stood was very much lacking healing magic. Player changes (and character changes) had left the group without a dedicated cleric. druid or bard. Jesse decided after the assault on the Fire Temple that he’d switch characters to the bard he’d used in Tyranny of Dragons. For the bulk of this campaign, his character had represented the Zhentarim, and began each negotiation with the words “Hello, we’re the Zhentarim. We’re here to help!” He always managed to get that out before any other player – something that rather frustrated our Harpers, but that everyone found incredibly amusing. His new character was a Harper.
And so, shortly after his new character joined, it was revealed that the “Zhentarim” cultist was in fact lying – and they’d given one of the main artefacts to the leaders of the Fire Cult. Jesse was not amused by this. “Why did you trust the Zhentarim?” he asked. I was greatly amused.
Over the course of running Princes of the Apocalypse, the characters spent a lot of time in the Temple of Black Earth and its connected outpost, the Sacred Stone Monastery. When my group first encountered the Monastery, they weren’t powerful enough. They could defeat the gate guards, but that fight left them hurt and needing to rest. So, they would retreat and come back the next day. Meanwhile, the monastery replaced the gate guards – with tougher and tougher foes. And sent some scouts to find the party (the adventurers killed the scouts).
Eventually, getting sick of this, one of the priests in the temple, Qarbo, invited the characters in and explained to them that they were attacking the wrong people. Did they really want to find the delegation? Go bother the cultists in Feathergale Spire. Qarbo even demonstrated a couple of brainwashed delegates to them who told the adventurers that everything was fine.
My group, being extremely easy to lead around, followed Qarbo’s suggestion. Unfortunately for Qarbo, my group was extremely easy to lead around, and so were sent right back to the monastery by the Feathergale Knights. And then they slaughtered Qarbo, freed the prisoners, and took their first view of the temple below – and discovered that it was very dangerous. Thankfully, they retreated and used information from the rescued prisoners to go back to the Feathergale Knights and start bothering them again, eventually leading to their sacking of the Air Temple.
The entrance to the Temple of Black Earth is one of the most dangerous in the adventure. The cult has it very well-defended. In theory, a group of characters who are too low-level will go away and try to find some other way in (as my group did), but the danger comes from the players being stubborn and just trying again and again and again (see above for how my group handled the monastery). One of the biggest challenges in Princes of the Apocalypse is giving the players enough leads and quests so that when they reach a place that is too difficult, they can attempt something different – and letting them know that this is an option. There’s enough material in the adventure so you can do it, but actually conveying that information to the players isn’t always easy.
When my players returned to the Temple of Black Earth, it was from below – from the connecting passages through the Fane of the Eye. This time, they were higher level, but the opposition was still dangerous. There’s a lot of opportunity for the Earth Cultists to attack them from multiple directions. When you’re running Princes of the Apocalypse, it’s a good idea to make a copy of the map, then write on it where each of the groups of enemies are… and then move them in relation to the adventurers as the game progresses. Opponents fleeing from a combat can alert further groups, until the entire complex is alerted and defending against the adventurers. It requires some smart play to overcome the massed opposition.
The most dangerous thing for a group of adventurers to do is to follow retreating cultists. If you check the map of the Temple, there’s a lot of connecting passages and loops. So, it’s very easy for the party to be attacked from both sides at once. It’s definitely entertaining for the DM – and likely the players as well. You want to give the players a feeling of accomplishment, and that works best when they feel like they’re fighting something dangerous. The Temple of Black Earth gives plenty of opportunity for that to occur. In my game, while the adventurers were fighting in area 23, I had reinforcements coming along the corridors from the north and east. The group got the idea in a hurry and fled, though they were able to slay their target.
The other aspect of the Temple that makes it interesting to run is Yarsha (in area B6), who would like nothing more for the characters to murder the second in command, Miraj, for her, so she can become the new deputy, and then to go away. This occurred in my game: she allied with the characters, told them where the “prophet” was – actually Miraj, rather than the prophet – and then laughed maniacally to herself once the characters left.
As it happened, because the characters had already killed the Air Prophet, the real Earth Prophet was down below in the Fane. They encountered and slew him later. However, as I never really told the players that each prophet had his own special weapon (they worked it out later), they weren’t aware of the deception. Yarsha is still down there, but given the characters were eventually successful at closing the nodes, I don’t she’s living the life of power she expected.
The town of Womford was made (somewhat) famous to my players by its tales of the “Womford Bat” in Princes of the Apocalypse. The bat, unfortunately, does not make an appearance in Banquet of the Damned, a new adventure by Benoit de Bernady, save in an appendix, but you do get two feuding bakers, a mysterious fire, and a demonic corruptor.
The early stages of this adventure are an investigation; the adventurers are hired by the local baron to find out who set the fire. The way this is handled is interesting: the actual perpetrator isn’t the villain of the piece (or one of their agents), but the heroes’ investigations lead to the perpetrator being uncovered! It’s an unusual technique that pays off. If the players fail to find the clues, there’s a rather nasty consequence for Womford, which then propels the heroes back onto the main storyline. Again, this is good design.
The adventure ends with potentially a pair of combats (and possibly an exorcism). In all, it should likely take one or two sessions to play through. There’s a good selection of encounters, and some excellent ideas within.
That said, it’s not all smooth sailing. The writing, while mostly good, has a few clumsy constructions or repetitions of phrases. One of the main characters, Mortimer Wormstooth, gets a set of contradictory motivations. (He’s bitter, a well-respected philanthropist, and a good man who let a bully define him).
My main problem with the adventure, which I recognise as primarily a stylistic one, is that that it’s a bit too easy to discover exactly what the adventurers are up against. These days, I prefer, when possible, to not tell the players the exact name of what they’re fighting, instead letting it define itself through its appearance and actions. The demonic antagonist is not one I’m familiar with. It’s a really spectacular design and the effects of its plots are really creepy. I’d rather the players reached the final encounter thinking they were up against a witch, and then discover the true nature of the threat. However, as I said, this is a stylistic preference; the adventure works as written.
Overall, Banquet of the Damned is a strong adventure, well worth investigating. I do suggest you ignore the advice about when to play the adventure. “You can play the adventure any time the PCs travel through the village of Womford during the autumn.” Place it anywhere you like; there’s nothing really stopping you. Waiting for the characters to visit Womford during the autumn? You may have to wait a while!