Category: Review

Adventure Review – B8: Journey to The Rock

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.

5E Adventure Review: Banquet of the Damned

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!

5E Adventure Review: In Dire Need

In Dire Need is the fourth adventure of the Storm King’s Thunder series of D&D Adventurers League adventures. It’s a two-hour adventure for level 5-10 characters. As such, it’s short and to the point: A group of dwarves is trapped by a group of ogres and giants, and the adventurers need to rescue them!

The adventure structure includes the briefing, the travel to the dwarves (which includes a few random encounters, both combat and environmental), and then that most difficult part: first reaching the dwarves – as there are more than a few ogres in the way – and then rescuing them.

The way the designer handles this last section is by describing the situation and then letting the players determine how to approach it. This allows inventive players their chance to shine. The drawbacks are twofold: the first is that if you have players who are less effective at coming up with solutions to complex problems, this can be very frustrating for them; you’ll likely have to prompt them with potential solutions. The second is that it requires you, as the DM, to properly explain the situation to them. When you’ve got a situation that has so many moving parts, this can be difficult. It is something that I have struggled with.

The adventure suggests three main ways of getting the dwarves out: sneaking out, climbing the cliff walls, or riding an avalanche in a giant sarcophagus lid. The third is undoubtedly the most exciting end to the adventure, although it may be too improbable for some tastes. Don’t try to think too hard about it. The other solutions? Realistic, but a little underwhelming, unless run well by the DM. If you can keep up the tension, then they’ll work better. When the party just needs to make skill checks, it functionally works, but not in an exciting way.

The trapped dwarves are given enough attention that the DM can roleplay each of them distinctly, if he or she chooses, although it’s likely you only need to concentrate on a few. And there are a few ancient giant artefacts to make the setting that bit more interesting.

I like In Dire Need, but the adventure wanders into areas that test the limits of what Dungeons & Dragons is good at. There will be groups who really enjoy the adventure, but players who want more guidance may find it challenging.

5E Adventure Review: Uninvited Guests

Uninvited Guests, the third release of this season of D&D Adventurers League adventures is a gem. It is one of the most impressive adventures I have DMed over the years. It is designed for 3-7 characters of levels 1-4, and plays in about two hours; it is also a masterclass in how to write short adventures.

Short adventures, especially for organised play, are often very linear, with player actions having very limited consequences. It’s a drawback of the form. Not so here: the players have several opportunities to make meaningful decisions, and some of those decisions can change the entire course of the adventure. The two tables that ran the adventure at our store both made different choices and the stories we told afterwards were very different. This is some achievement!

The adventure revolves around the village of Parnast, which was first introduced to 5E players in Hoard of the Dragon Queen. Parnast had been subjugated by the Cult of the Dragon in that adventure, and now, with the cult defeated, the village is struggling. Game is scarce and morale is low. With the delivery of a statue to the local shrine (as related in The Black Road), the village’s tavern-keeper sees the opportunity to lift the spirits of the villagers by holding a feast – but a feast without meat would be a poor experience. Thus, the adventurers are asked to go on a hunting expedition.

Parnast is excellently realised. Its poor state is depicted in the food served to the adventurers and the villagers, the simmering resentments about collaborators, and the grief of folk who have lost loved ones. Several villagers are described, and all are interesting and allow the players to learn from different viewpoints how the villagers are coping with their problems.

The adventure features a significant amount of role-playing, although combat is not neglected. The situations allow the personalities of the player characters to affect the outcome; at my table, the players took inspiration from their faction allegiances to inform their role-playing and decision-making.

I found a few minor editing mistakes in the adventure, but none of major consequence. The maps are basic but perfectly legible.

Overall, this is one of the best adventures I’ve seen released for Dungeons & Dragons. It’s short, offers meaningful decisions, and is consistently entertaining. This one I highly recommend.

5E Adventure Review: The Black Road

The second adventure in the latest season of D&D Adventurers League adventures is a treat. The Black Road finds the adventurers protecting a caravan as it travels through the Anauroch desert. Their destination is the Shrine of Axes in the village of Parnast, to which a new statue must be delivered, but there may be one or two challenges along the way that may delay them…

This season has moved strongly towards releasing mostly two-hour adventures, which are very popular with stores and conventions with limited time slots. I’ve run The Black Road in two hours, although this is an adventure that has enough incident that you may find that three hours is a more realistic time-frame for running it. The adventure has a range of challenges in it, with role-playing, combat and quick decision-making all featured. It’s not a puzzle or exploration scenario. Due to its length and nature, it’s mostly linear (as you may expect a caravan journey to be), but the last encounter allows several paths through it depending on the players’ decisions.

The adventure provides five faction-based hooks to get the characters into the adventure, as well as one hook for characters that do not belong to a faction. Each provides a slightly different set of goals that provide a hint of what to expect in the adventure – and what to look out for.

The encounters are well-chosen, and most provide more interest than just “goblins attack”; they require the players to think! There’s one encounter that I found very difficult to run: one where the players must protect their camp when a sandstorm hits. This is an encounter that works best with inventive players who are good are coming up with quick solutions. It’s possible that, like my group, your players don’t know enough about the environment to make informed (or good) decisions. It’s easy as a DM to know what’s going on based on the adventure text, but not realise that the players don’t have your level of knowledge. And yet, just listing options doesn’t reward the creativity that is the encounter’s goal. It’s a great idea for an encounter, but relies a lot on your group as to whether it’s enjoyable or not.

The final encounter is very interesting, as it allows the opportunity to do some role-playing and discover answers as to some of the events in the adventure; although players with a less investigative bent may miss that information. They are, at least, going to have a challenging combat, where the terrain is likely to be as important as the skills of their foes.

The adventure is well-stocked with maps and player handouts. It also gives you a printable Magic Item Certificate that, while no longer necessary for D&D Adventurers League play, can be given out to players who like having tangible evidence of their rewards.

There are a few minor editing errors, but none of any great significance; at least I didn’t notice many as I ran the adventure. The main errors are in the “scaling the adventure” sidebars which aren’t always accurate.

Overall, this is an excellent adventure, which is well worth buying.

5E Adventure Review: The Witchfire Curse

The Witchfire Curse is an adventure for first-level characters that, at its heart, presents a dungeon crawl, but also presents a story that engages the players and makes it much more than “just” a dungeon crawl.

The set-up for the adventure is this: the town of Durgon’s Rest has been cursed and the witch responsible for the curse has fled. Thus, the adventurers are hired to find the witch and break the curse. However, not everything is as it seems.

Hints as to this can be discovered early if the adventurers investigate the witch’s house. This isn’t an in-depth investigation scenario and the adventure is mostly linear in form, but groups will likely delight in discovering secrets the townsfolk don’t know. However, there isn’t much room for error here; if the players miss a clue, you’ll have to improvise to get them back on the right track. The redundancy of clues required in a good investigation scenario is missing. It’s a flourish on the main adventure, not the adventure itself.

In addition, things are muddied by a rumour chart that has several false rumours which are not addressed by the rest of the adventure. The thing about false leads is that they do have to lead somewhere. Watch an episode of NCIS: most of the clues turn out to be nothing, but they all explain where they came from – the investigators discover why the clue was present. Saying that the burgomaster has been seen on a hill practising witchcraft when there is no alternative explanation for why he was on the hill is poor design. Give an explanation in the burgomaster’s description; it eliminates the false lead and allows the players to concentrate on the real leads!

However, this downplays all the good work that links motivations of allies and enemies. The dungeon is well constructed. It uses a few monsters that have slight variations from the standard, and the dungeon is also pleasingly non-linear. It includes a couple of new magic items, and manages to have a personality that isn’t just “here’s another monster to slay!” Your goal as the DM should be to guide the players to the dungeon, allowing them to pick up some information beforehand, and then see what happens next.

The NPCs and monsters are going to be entertaining to play; the villain is well-motivated, and things tie together very well.

The adventure may be a little difficult for first-level characters to complete; CR 2 monsters are extremely dangerous, and the party must fight two of them. There also seems to be a misapprehension of the rules: you can’t cast a 1st level spell and a bonus action spell in the same turn (misty step then thunderwave in the same round is not allowed); which is probably just as well for the party. Writing for level one characters can be hard.

The presentation of the adventure is very good, with copious art and nicely-drawn maps. The art can tend towards being a little basic, but it works well enough.

Despite the various issues, this is a superior adventure that I recommend. Most of the problems can be fixed by the DM, and the good ideas outweigh them.

5E Adventure Review: The Miller’s Stone

The Miller’s Stone is the third of a series of adventures set in the ruins of Leilon, a small town in the Forgotten Realms. This is a short adventure, consisting primarily of five combat encounters. About three of the eight pages are stat-blocks.

The situation is simple: the nearby mayor of Durgin’s Hold wants the players to retrieve some magical millstones rumoured to be in the town. Indeed they are, but the adventurers must deal with some kuo-toa and their pets before they can retrieve the millstones. And that, in a nutshell, is the adventure.

It’s well laid out, with stat blocks provided for the monsters, and has a very nicely drawn map. The various areas have descriptions and logic behind them. It’s a perfectly fine little adventure, which should give an evening’s entertainment.

What it doesn’t have is much to make me consider it special. This is a good, basic adventure, but it doesn’t have those special, exceptional moments of creativity that would make it a must-run. It is mostly just a series of combat encounters with some good terrain to keep them varied.

The writing is occasionally very clunky – “The front half is half of the floor” – but is mostly fine. A few formatting issues bedevil the stat blocks, with bullet points replacing dashes from time to time (so -2 becomes ●2).

Overall, it’s a solid, if unexceptional, adventure. If you need a side-quest for your 6th-8th level characters, you may find this one of use.