Category: D&D 3E

Musings on Adventure Path Structure

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!

Print-on-Demand versions of classic Dungeons & Dragons titles

Well, this is interesting!

Wizards of the Coast and OneBookShelf have enabled print-on-demand for a initial range of titles on the DMs Guild.

This is fantastic news for people who want hard copies of those older products. However, it does come with a few caveats…

The main thing to consider is that those products won’t be printed exactly like the original printing. A single softcover or hardcover book? That’s easy. Poster maps? Urgh. Not so good. Detachable cover? Well, only if the glue isn’t that good…

I’d be surprised if the maps for old adventures (like Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure) were printed on the inside of the cover rather than on separate pages in the book as well.

The notes for the Hollow World Campaign Setting indicate that instead of 3 books and four maps, “this print edition combines the Dungeon Master’s Sourcebook, Player’s Book, and Adventure Book, plus the maps, into a single softcover tome.”

So, if you want the books in their original format, you’re probably still better off trying to find second-hand copies. However, if the format doesn’t matter so much to you – especially for the original hardcovers and adventures – this is going to be pretty good.

My experience with the Elemental Evil Player’s Companion is that the printing is going to be good, though not to the level of the standard line of non-POD books from Wizards.

The initial list of offerings:

  • Den of Thieves (2E adventure)
  • WG5: Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure (1E adventure)
  • Hollow World Campaign Setting (D&D Basic)
  • I10: Ravenloft II: The House on Gryphon Hill (1E adventure)
  • SJS1: Goblin’s Return (2E adventure)
  • AC1: The Shady Dragon Inn (D&D Basic accessory)
  • Beyond the Prism Pentad (2E adventure)
  • Dragonlance Adventures (1E hardcover supplement)
  • Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast (D&D Next adventure)
  • X2: Castle Amber (D&D Basic adventure)
  • L1: The Secret of Bone Hill (1E adventure)
  • Draconomicon (3E hardcover accessory)
  • Uncaged: Faces of Sigil (2E accessory)

D&D Adventure Review: Shadows of the Last War

I was recently asked if I had written reviews of the adventures set in the Eberron Campaign Setting. The answer is yes, I reviewed the original three adventures. This review was originally written in 2004; I’ve revised the original text to make it more applicable to today’s audience.

Once upon a time, Wizards – and, before them, TSR – produced adventures on a regular basis for D&D. However, because of the small profit margins on adventures, during the 2000s they mainly left the production of adventures up to 3rd-party publishers (using the OGL) and Dungeon Magazine. Every so often, however, they did publish the odd adventure, mostly to support a new campaign setting.

Shadows of the Last War was the first full-length adventure published to support Eberron, a setting drawing inspiration from Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Maltese Falcon, which also included more than a few elements we might now call steampunk. Shadows is the sequel to the short adventure The Forgotten Forge found in the core Eberron book; two more adventures would follow it in 2005 to form a series.

You could use Shadows of the Last War as a stand-alone adventure, and you could adapt it to another setting, but I do feel that you would be cheating yourself if you used it that way. It works well as part of the series.

The adventure takes characters across the continent of Khorvaire and into the mysterious Mournland, with the characters on a mission to find artefacts in a ruined artificer’s workshop. The adventure was written by the creator of Eberron, Keith Baker, and it throws you right into one of the biggest mysteries of the Eberron setting: What happened on the Day of Mourning? (Not that it answers the question, but travelling through the Mournlands provides ample opportunity to reflect on the question).

Much as in a good pulp/noir book or movie, the characters are opposed by other factions, and a chief joy is seeing how the group deal with forces more powerful than them who they can’t challenge overtly. It really made me want to watch Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Maltese Falcon again just to get into the right spirit of things. It is a solid adventure to begin with, but played with the factions in mind, should become exceptional.

The adventure does require reference to the Eberron Campaign Setting for a number of elements; in particular, the setting book contains the map of the wilderness and descriptions of magic items. The adventure offers a variety of wilderness, city and dungeon adventuring, although some elements of the module are not quite as fleshed out as you might expect. The basics of the adventure are very well done, but the DM will need to improvise if the players move too far from the outlines.

The module is somewhat short at 32 pages. Keith Baker estimates that it should take two sessions (or about 8 hours) to complete. The design is not of a dense dungeon crawl, but of several different acts in different location. I think the variety is excellent; it’s not a monotonous dungeon crawl!

In addition to the adventure itself, the package includes 16-page short-story booklet: Death at Whitehearth by Keith Baker. This describes events in the main adventure location (Whitehearth) during the Last War. I greatly enjoyed this story; it helps you understand the world of Eberron and the backstory behind the adventure. I would encourage players to read the story before playing the adventure, so they have a better understanding of the setting and adventure location.

There are many things to admire about Shadows of the Last War: It has interesting traps and tricks, a variety of encounter locations, lots of role-playing opportunities and intelligent opposition. Don’t discount that last – it’s hard to write well or effectively.

One concern I have is the linear quality of some of the story. There are opportunities for differences in player approach, but the final dungeon really feels like “Do A to get to B which allows you to do C to get to D.”

The biggest problem with the module are assumptions that certain NPCs will survive. It’s unlikely that the players will be able to kill then, but we’ve all seen what happens to quite well-thought out plans once players get involved…

The final encounter is where things could become completely unstuck: although it makes some provisions for different player behaviours, there is one assumption it makes that is utterly unwarranted, and could seriously derail further adventures in the line.

Physically, the module is moderately attractive without being stunning. It is very nice to see portraits of all the main NPCs in the module, although I do not personally like the style they were drawn in.

I was especially pleased with the maps: they’re aligned to a grid, and the grid uses a sensible scale. The one problematic map is that of the Broken Anvil Inn – why is most of it aligned diagonally compared to the grid?

Although the font for the bulk of the module is fine, I am not so pleased with the italic text which is mainly used for descriptions to be read to the players – I found it a little difficult to read easily.

Despite those niggles, I do consider this a worthy adventure, and a good continuation of the Eberron line.

Wacky Stuff with D&D – The Dragon Turtle Incident

I’ve played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons over the years. Every so often, the players do something extremely awesome and unexpected.

There was once a time in my game where the characters had spent a session negotiating with the Sea Princes of the World of Greyhawk setting and they were now on their way home.

Because just getting home would be boring, their ship was soon attacked by a Dragon Turtle. In the ensuing combat, one of the player characters was grabbed by the turtle and was soon in a very poor state, trapped in its jaws and unconscious.

We were using the 3rd Edition of D&D and ranged healing spells were something of a rarity; no-one in the group knew any. However, they had picked up a quiver of arrows of healing. Instead of inflicting real damage, they healed whatever they hit! The archer of the group decided that shooting them at the PC stuck in the dragon turtle’s jaws was that character’s only chance of surviving.

Not that it was a good chance. Lots of penalties to the attack roll loomed.

It was at this point that the player of the entrapped PC reminded me that he’d picked up a cursed item – a shield of missile attraction. I hasten to point out that the shield didn’t attract missiles to itself – instead it attracted them to the bearer and meant that any arrows would automatically hit him. Being cursed, the character in question couldn’t discard it. Normally this would be a big problem.

In this case, it was an advantage: the archer fired healing arrow after healing arrow at the trapped PC, and thanks to the cursed shield, they all found their mark and healed the character enough that the party were able to slay the dragon turtle and rescue him.

See, there are times that cursed items can save you!

A Short History of Monster Stat Blocks

Including monster statistics – stat blocks – in adventures is a challenge. The earliest adventures – the Giant adventures by Gary Gygax – listed the name of the monster and its hit points and nothing else. It’s a little hard to tell if this was an aesthetic choice or one born from the fact that the rules were still somewhat in flux (the AD&D Monster Manual was out, but the adventures had been written for original D&D). The advantage of this format is that the text isn’t interrupted by a lot of extraneous text. This makes the adventure easier to read and prepare, but more difficult to run. An even shorter variant leaves out the hit points – this is the way that Wizards does it in their current adventures, with (potentially) the full monster descriptions appearing in the back of the book or in the Monster Manual.

Hill Giant stats from G1: Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, the first (official) AD&D adventure module, published in 1979.

There’s another article that will look at how the choice of formats affects adventure layout, usability and readability, but for now I’m going to look at the major variations of D&D stat blocks through the ages.

During AD&D and Basic D&D, stat blocks typically included enough details that you could run the monster without referring to the rulebook, except in the case of special abilities. This was simpler because of how Hit Dice worked: attacks and saves were directly tied to the monster’s Hit Dice or Level, and DMs would typically refer to the DM Screen.

NPC stats and those of monsters with special abilities might get a little longer, but you’d rarely get a full description of a special ability; instead just a reminder that it existed. You’d have to look up the monster in the rulebook for a full description.

Pit Viper stats from B4: The Lost City, published in 1982.

Undead Scribe stats from Die Vecna Die! published in 2000.

Between these two stat blocks, not all that much has changed. The late 2E block is slightly more complete, including Intelligence and Size, but you can see the similarities. The late-2E form of the stat block was then used as the basis for the 3E block. However, 3E had more statistics.

This meant that the stat block got longer. A lot longer. The advantage of this stat-block was its completeness. Compared to what came later, it also wasn’t so space-hungry, but it still wasn’t that short. As an aside, having to include Saving Throw modifiers, Skills and Ability Scores really does add a lot of text to each stat block.

Mercykiller Soldiers, from Lord of the Iron Fortress, published in 2001. This is actually one of the shorter stat-blocks in this adventure!

Although the 3E stat block was longer than that of AD&D, it was fairly compressed and hard to read in play. Thus, during the 3.5E years, Paizo and Wizards developed a clearer version of the stat block. Which was incredibly space-hungry, but did split up the stats so that it was a lot easier to find relevant information.

One of the bigger problems of these stat-blocks is that they’d often include a lot of information that wasn’t actually needed during play. Do I need to know the monster has a “Keen Sight” ability that adds 4 to its Perception skill checks? Not when that’s already included in Perception! But 3E was the era of tinkering with monsters according to the rules, so Paizo tended to include a lot of detail. As I recall, the end boss Kyuss in the Age of Worms campaign took two-and-a-half pages to cover. Yes, that’s just a little too much space for my liking.

The format saw some adjustment from product to product. Here’s an example of a late-3.5E stat block from Wizards. You’ll note that it now divides the stats into various sections: basic information, defensive information, offensive options, and then attributes, feats and skills. This format made it much easier to find various abilities, at the cost of slightly more space.

Kundarak Blockguards, from Eyes of the Lich Queen, published in 2007.

The 4E stat block took the late 3.5E stat block as a base, and slimmed it down. The biggest change was in the nature of attack powers in this edition. A monster having a +5 bonus to hit and dealing 1d8+2 damage was unusual – most attack powers were far more complicated. So, they consequently took up more space on the page. On the other hand, the 4E designers didn’t want long stat-blocks, so monsters just weren’t as complicated.

Another major design consideration in 4E was that they wanted to have as few references to other books as possible. If you examine the 3.5E block above, you’ll see Combat Gear, Feats and Special Abilities that aren’t explained. This changed drastically in 4E monster design, and especially as 4E monsters didn’t use spells as we understand them. Instead their abilities were included in full; there wasn’t the option of just listing “magic missile.” This reaction is entirely understandable, as it was getting harder and harder to “just run” 3.5E stat blocks, but the simplification probably went a bit too far – some spell-casting monsters really lost versatility as a result.

Draconic Wraith Souleater, from P3: Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress, published in 2009. I may have chosen a Shawn Merwin adventure not entirely at random, although it’s not his strongest.

Another, more subtle change of this edition was that there was no difference between a 4E stat block and a 4E monster manual entry. This was a very significant change: the Monster Manual entry was now a stat-block, and is something that 5E uses as well.

5E monster design restored spells (and a central spell list) to monsters, allowing more variety, and the Monster Manual monster entries draw very clearly on the late 3.5E and 4E versions of the stat block. Of course, Wizards doesn’t actually provide these stats in-line in the adventure! Instead, a line will reference 5 goblins, with the monster reference being drawn out in bold text; you’d then go either to the appendix or the Monster Manual to find out the stat blocks. No hit points are given (unlike G1), mainly because of the standardized hit points for most monsters.

So, in theory we have a stat block that takes up a moderate amount of space on the page and is pretty clear to read, but most Wizards’ adventures don’t use in-line stat blocks.

The Merfolk stat-block from the D&D Basic Rules – it’s one of the shorter blocks, in fact!

However, just because official 5E products do one thing doesn’t mean that third-party publishers need to do the same. We’ve seen a lot of various versions of shortened stat-blocks (the better to have on the page), as well as publishers having stats in the back of the book. Necromancer Games spent quite a bit of time debating the issue after its first Quests of Doom adventure compilation – and yes, I had some input here – so the Quests of Doom 2 book uses a stat-block which is a hybrid of AD&D and early 3E versions: most of the information you’ll need is in the stat-block, with reminders of more complicated abilities, although you’ll need to look at the full monster entry to see what those do. The stat blocks appear in the encounter descriptions.

– the Necromancer Games format

When I’m writing adventures for my home game (yes, I do have a game that isn’t a D&D Adventurers League game!), I tend to use a shortened stat-block in the text. Here’s a couple of stat block from the last session I ran:

Grotesque Golem: AC 11, hp 120, 2 slams +6 (2d10+6 plus weakness DC 16), magic resistance, golem immunities, immune non-magic weapons, Str +6, Con +5. CR 5.

Horrible Machine: AC 18, hp 170, blade +7 (3d10+5), resists weapons.

I tend to assume any ability score not listed is +0 (even if it isn’t, if it is close I like saving space). Or make something up on the spot… the Horrible Machine would require a longer block if I was intending the adventure to be published!

The purpose of including a monster stat-block in the text is to simplify the job of the DM: they can run the encounter without needing to reference an appendix or another book. However, it has implications on how the adventure is written, which I’ll deal with that in a future article.

Meanwhile, in Pathfinder-land, they use a combination of monster references (for common monsters) and in-line stat-blocks for unique monsters, with their stat-block format being a variation of the late-3.5E format they developed. There’s not just one way of doing things!

A couple of interesting releases on D&D Classics…

Wow, didn’t expect these this week:

The AD&D Player’s Handbook is one of the true classics of the Dungeons & Dragons line. Gygax wrote it to update and consolidate the system after the original D&D books had spawned a number of (occasionally contradictory) supplements and new classes in magazine articles. The result is brilliant. Although the DMG is praised more highly, for my money, the original Players Handbook is the much tighter-written book. Of particular interest are the later sections offering advice on adventuring, which offer a lot of insight into the early days of D&D.

A couple of oddities exist in the text, thanks largely to the way the system was written: at no point did Gygax ever have a “finished” AD&D as he was always tinkering with the system, and so the Players Handbook introduces AC 10 – no armour was AC 9 in both the original game and the Monster Manual – and the Monk is described as attacking as a thief; this was upgraded to attacking as a cleric in the DMG.

There are also quite a number of references to modifiers for parrying, initiative from encumbrance and the like that are never spelled out in the DMG, but have spawned numerous house rules over the years.

The book isn’t perfect, but it’s worth picking up for a look at one of the best expressions of the game. (It still has my favourite take on the Illusionist class, by the way!)

The other new release of note is the Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook from 3E. This is likely to never be described as the best book of the D&D line, but my group had a lot of fun with it. It gives you something to spend your money on: a stronghold. The stronghold could be anything: a keep, a fortress, a house, a tower, a hidden thieves’ guild…

What the book gives you are a lot of ideas for what goes in the stronghold: armouries, barracks, guest bedrooms, laboratories and the like, and a system for determining how much all of it costs. After selecting the elements, you have a rough idea of how much space it takes up so you can map it out and then build it!

The book doesn’t cover any of the later play that revolves around a stronghold (such as defending it from attack or the like), but the cool things you can build were enough to keep my players entertained and fuelled an entertaining portion of the campaign as they sought to make their dreams reality. There’s little rules-specific material here, so I’d have little problem using it in my 5E game – although I might need to adjust the costs a little. I haven’t really looked at how much the 3E and 5E economy differ yet!

Sale of D&D pdfs at DriveThruRPG!

Until February 22nd, 2015, there’s a sale of Wizards’ D&D pdfs at DriveThruRPG.

The discounts are variable – The World of Greyhawk Fantasy Setting (AD&D 1E) is $8.49, down from $9.99, while the D&D Rules Cyclopedia (D&D Basic) is $4.99, down from $9.99. Every title is at least 15% cheaper.

Note that the “cover price” is the price the book was originally published with; a lot of the books tend to sell cheaper than that as pdfs.