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.

Running Out of the Abyss: Gauntlgrym

Life has been a bit crazy recently, with work, more work, and even more work conspiring to take me away from blogging and reviewing. However, with a few projects now on pause for a few days, I’m getting the chance to return to the blog and have a few updates (and, with luck, more than a few reviews).

One of the odder circumstances that recently presented itself was what happened with my Saturday evening D&D group. Instead of saying, “Hey, we’ve finished Curse of Strahd, let’s play Storm King’s Thunder!“, they went “Hey, we’ve finished Curse of Strahd, let’s keep the same characters!” Now, running a group of 7th and 8th level characters through Storm King’s Thunder doesn’t allow that much play. It’s written for levels 1-10. You do the last two chapters and finish. So, instead, I gave them a choice: The Rise of Tiamat or midway through Out of the Abyss. They chose the latter. And so I’m now running Out of the Abyss, which is the adventure we skipped. We played Princes of the Apocalypse for a year, then went directly to Curse of Strahd. So this is all new to us.

So, let’s talk about my experiences with Out of the Abyss

We began with the events in Chapter 8: Gauntlgrym. If you’re playing the adventure from the beginning, this is the point where, after finally escaping the Underdark and all the Demon Lords, you take leave of your senses and go back down. For higher-level groups, such as my own, this is the hook for the characters to enter the adventure.

The PCs are summoned by King Bruenor Battlehammer, are asked to find a way of stopping the madness infecting the Underdark, and they also get a chance to recruit some allies from the factions.

King Bruenor should be extremely familiar to anyone who has read R.A. Salvatore’s novels – he’s first introduced in The Crystal Shard and is a main character for many of the sequels. At this point in the series, he’s been killed, reincarnated, and just led the dwarves to a great victory against the drow that had claimed Gauntlgrym (as related in Archmage). Although the definition of “just” is a little up to debate. Out of the Abyss states it was “in recent years”. The taking of Gauntlgrym occurs at the same time that the Demon Lords first get released, so this implies that the Demon Lords have now been around for a few years.

Bruenor is basically everything you want of a dwarf: brave, gruff, occasionally kind-hearted, and an exceptional leader. He knows of a lot of the things the characters have done, at least in major population centres, so he respects their heroism. And, because Gauntlgrym is a place where the forces of the Underdark are likely to attack, the madness down below is a real problem.

At this point, the characters gain a very definite quest: get to a repository of knowledge known as Gravenhollow, and use it to discover the cause of the madness in the Underdark. This is an A-B quest, where the characters must first go to a Zhentarim trading post, and learn how to get to Gravenhollow. (Of course, the trading post has its own challenges, but more on those later).

The characters also need to interact with the factions, who can offer them aid in the Underdark. At least, the factions call them aid. I, as the DM, call them “more annoying NPCs to keep track of!” Here’s the thing: when you have five-foot wide corridors (as much of the Underdark is), a group of 21 characters entering combat is going to lead to a lot of frustration from the characters at the back who can’t participate. It just calls for some strategically placed rockfalls. Lots of NPCs really means two things. One, you can kill them to demonstrate how dangerous it is. Two, you can split the party, perhaps leaving some behind to fortify areas, or deal with two locations at once. If you choose the latter option, give the NPCs to those players who aren’t taking their PCs along.

It’s nice to see the factions taking an active interest in events. After they play a large part of Rise of Tiamat, the factions slip away in Princes of the Apocalypse and the early part of Out of the Abyss. They’re not going to play a big part in this adventure, but they will make some difference.

I chose, very deliberately, not to have the big dinner with all the faction representatives. It sounds great, and it could be, but for me to run it properly it’d rely on gaining about six more co-DMs to run all the faction representatives and Bruenor. Running multiple conversations at once is not my idea as fun as a DM. I prefer to keep my interactions more on the one-to-one level; it’s much easier to provide characterisation that way without being distracted by having to run other NPCs. (That said, if you can recruit some people to do a proper dinner and act in-character as the representatives, you’ll have a very memorable session).

Throughout all the negotiation, the less roleplaying-orientated players in your group may be getting bored. Thankfully, Gauntlgrym is a place where monsters can turn up at any time. Not only that, but there are suggestions in the adventure for a little intrigue using doppelgangers and assassins if you so desire.

My own choice was to have external forces attack the dwarves, rather than adding more intrigue. I like to think of Gauntlgrym being like Moria when Balin was there: the dwarves controlling a small part of it, but the deeper parts still under control of dark things. If you play this right, you can show the players what a precarious situation Bruenor and the dwarves are actually in; the threat of the madness in the Underdark overwhelming them is very, very real.

I rushed through this section a little faster than I could have. It’s quite easy to spend three or four sessions exploring the relationships here, and fighting Bad Things as they appear. If you’re running this as part of the D&D Adventurers League, you probably want to do this, because being unable to use milestones means you’re often lacking in ways to give experience points to the characters; Gauntlgrym gives you a few interesting monsters and situations with which to challenge the characters.

In the end, we spent a little over one session (about 2-1/2 hours) in Gauntlgrym. The Harper character, a Wizard, was able to gain the aid of a Shield Guardian. The two Zhentarim gained a bunch of rogues to aid them. The Order of the Gauntlet sent a few soldiers. And the Lords’ Alliance representative met the Lords’ Alliance character. Neither was that convinced there was a problem down below – so the Alliance didn’t send anyone with them. The Emerald Enclave didn’t feature.

Two attacks occurred during their stay: fire elementals and a wraith. The wraith was really interesting, as it had already killed a lot of dwarves and twisted their spirits into spectres. So, the spectres attacked first and then, when the characters engaged, the wraith attacked from behind. The characters were victorious in both instances, but the battle against the wraith had some scary moments.

And then, they left for the Zhentarim trading post. More on that later!

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)

Thoughts on Unearthed Arcana: Bardic Colleges

111416_0713_Thoughtsont1.pngThe second of the Unearthed Arcana series on expanding options available to characters is now out. Its topic? Bards!

The two colleges included in the Player’s Handbook are both excellent and providing interesting variations on the basic topic. For me, it’s hard to top them – both represent character types that I enjoy playing. So, how do the new colleges stand up?

College of Glamour

The College of Glamour has as its concept bards that are imbued with the power of the Fae. This is an excellent concept; one that ties in strongly to current fantasy literature and older tales.

The “Mantle of Inspiration” allows your friends to fight for longer by imbuing them with temporary hit points, which is a nice ability, although it’s paired with a strange ability: your allies can also move closer to you when you invoke the Mantle. Just closer to you? There must be some literary source there that I’m not aware of. (In the Dresden Files, the fae can grant the ability to ignore pain, thus you fight stronger but don’t realise when you’re about to die…)

“Enthralling Performance” is the latest take on a mass charm ability for the bard; we’ve seen similar in previous editions. This one is the best version of the power I’ve seen; its effect is excellently described. The rules for how and when it breaks are a bit wordy, but line up well with similar charm abilities in the 5E spells.

“Mantle of Majesty” runs into problems. It’s a bonus action to activate, and allows you a bonus action to command creatures; thus, you have to wait a round after activating it before you can command someone. Hmm. I’d prefer it if the initial activation also allowed a command effect, as I’m sure that’s how many players will assume it works. The ability also seems to imply that all your charm spells now can’t be saved against; I hope that’s an error, and it applies only to the commands you give.

“Unbreakable Majesty” also has significant rules problems. One of the interesting points about the sanctuary spell is that monsters and NPCs don’t actually make a saving throw against the spell unless they try to attack you! So, in a diplomatic situation where there are no attacks, “Unbreakable Majesty” actually does nothing!

I like the idea of these later powers, but the rules issues cause to many problems for them at this point. So, this college needs more work!

College of Whispers

The College of Whispers presents a version of the assassin-bard or master manipulator.

Its first ability, “Venomous Blades” allows you to deal extra poison damage by expending a use of bardic inspiration. This is a power that, while not quite as versatile as the “Combat Inspiration” power of the College of Valor, can deal significantly more damage, but without the additional armour and weapon proficiencies granted by the College of Valor, it’s likely closer to balanced than you might first think.

Also gained at third level is “Venomous Words”, a fantastically evocative power that will likely only see use in very role-playing orientated games or by non-player characters. For a standard, adventuring bard, you’re rarely going to use it. In the right campaign? It’s gold.

“Mantle of Whispers” is another tremendously evocative power, and again one that requires a certain sort of campaign to be run to be of use: one full of intrigue and role-playing.

“Shadow Lore” keeps up this evocative theme; it’s a dangerous effect, but one that, at fourteenth level, isn’t overpowered. Once again, not a combat power, but one for intrigue campaigns.

There are fewer rules problems with the College of Whispers than the College of Glamour, but it is a far more niche college. I approve of this: yes, you want meat-and-potatoes colleges that any adventuring bard could take, but the two colleges in the Player’s Handbook are already of this sort.

So, at present I give the College of Whispers a thumbs-up; not for every campaign, but fantastic and much-needed in some games.

Thoughts on the Unearthed Arcana Barbarian Primal Paths

Barbarian primal paths have a problem, and that’s the Totem Warrior path. When one ability (the Bear Totem) is so good – gaining resistance to ALL damage except psychic – it’s hard to compete against that. With that in mind, here’s a few notes on the new Primal Paths that are spotlighted in playtest form in a recent Unearthed Arcana column.

Path of the Ancestral Guardian

Back in 4th edition, the default fighter was given several abilities that made it “sticky” – opponents would often be forced to attack it, and had moving past it to attack other, more vulnerable, characters. In many ways, this was due to the changing of the size of adventuring parties. In 1st edition, a party of nine characters, including three fighters in the front rank, made it impossible for monsters to get around them to the back rank when fighting in a 10-foot-wide corridor. The current edition of D&D, with movement made even easier around characters, the requirement for a “sticky” fighter is higher.

The Path of the Ancestral Guardian, therefore, allows a barbarian to take that role. The first ability gained, “Ancestral Protectors” is the stickiness: you can ‘mark’ (using 4E terminology) a foe which then can only attack your allies at a disadvantage, and has trouble getting away from you. The drawbacks to this power are significant: only one foe and it takes a bonus action (so two-weapon barbarians need not apply).

The next ability, “Ancestral Shield”, allows you to transfer your resistance to non-magical weapon damage to another character; unfortunately, it is a transfer, so you don’t have your resistance when you do this. This is a very corner-case ability. There may be times when it’s useful, but given (a) you have to be raging and thus in combat and (b) you’ll be hit more often than most characters, all-in-all this is a horrible power: entirely too situational, and rare that the situation comes up.

“Consult the Spirits” is a good flavoursome ability of little import, and “Vengeful Ancestors” allows you to do a small amount of damage to a foe that hurts a friend.

Overall, I’m not a fan of this primal path. The big problem is that it gets away from the core Barbarian experience – stand in the middle of combat and smash things – to something that weakens the core elements of the barbarian.

Path of the Storm Herald

This primal path is a lot more interesting; increasing the damage you deal to your enemies is always interesting, and the entire suite of powers are evocative and powerful. Too powerful? Possibly – but I’m in favour of anything that stops every barbarian choosing the Bear Totem…

“Storm of Fury” has two paths that are basically identical (Desert and Tundra) – they deal damage to every enemy that ends in the aura. Death to kobolds! The third path, Sea, deals more damage but only to a single foe. Being enemy-only is a good bonus, and the damage can become quite significant over a longer battle.

“Storm Soul” is great – resistance to a damage type and environmental effects, and the sea version allowing you to breathe underwater? Colour me a fan. “Shield of the Storm” extends the protection to your allies, although only having a 10-foot aura means that, when underwater, everyone will have to stay quite close to you or they’ll begin drowning…

And “Raging Storm” is really, really good, causing more problems with enemies moving than gained through Path of the Ancestral Guardian, though at a higher level.

Overall, I’m a big fan of this primal path, but it’s so good, it means that most of the other primal paths aren’t as worthwhile taking. Storm of Fury is better than the Berserker path ability (which has a drawback as well), and all the abilities are active and are useful in most circumstances. Hmm.

Path of the Zealot

Huh. This path allows you to be raised without needing a material component – of great comfort to all the clerics of Pelor that must keep tending you after you throw yourself into the midst of combat…

The idea of having a divinely-favoured barbarian is a good one, and of the three paths in the document, I’d say this is the closest to being balanced with the paths in the Player’s Handbook. “Divine Fury” can deal a significant amount of damage – although it should be noted that it affects allies as well as enemies!

“Zealous Focus” is great for resisting those domination or death effects that would otherwise take you out of combat, but there is a very high cost for using the ability. Ending your rage and not being able to use it again until you rest? It makes the level of exhaustion from the Berserker path look much more attractive.

“Zealous Presence” is very situational. It takes your action to use, which means you can’t attack (and generally barbarians are the highest weapon damage-dealers save rogues in the party). So, for it to be worthwhile, the rest of your party will need to be able to make attack rolls and with a potential that enough can hit that it makes giving up your attacks worthwhile. Given the rogue likely already has advantage, and the wizard isn’t casting attack spells at this level, it’s a special adventuring group that finds this useful. As I said, situational.

“Rage Beyond Death” is a classic barbarian power – the ability to keep on going even when you’d otherwise be dead. Just make sure you get healed before your rage ends! Note that you’ll die if you take damage that equals or exceeds your maximum hit points while at 0 hp; this power won’t save you then.

Path of the Zealot has its good points and its bad points. Great first and last abilities, the middle-level abilities aren’t so good. But that probably makes it more balanced, at least compared to Path of the Storm Herald.

That’s my take on these new paths. In a few hours, we’ll see the next set of archetypes that the folks of Wizards have for us…

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.

Adventure Complexity and the New Dungeon Master

Dungeons & Dragons is an amazing game. It’s one of the most enjoyable pastimes you can have and, especially for Dungeon Masters, can require varying amounts of your time: from just a couple of hours running a session, to many, many hours preparing, designing and planning your world and future adventures.

These days, I typically use published adventures for most of my games. They allow me to run games that are completely different to what I’d design myself (which can, at times, get repetitive). I’m an experienced Dungeon Master with several decades of experience and can run most adventures you put in front of me. If you’re starting out, it’s different.

Here’s a secret: Not all adventures are good for beginning DMs to run. Some require more skill than you currently possess.

This is especially true of the current run of official Wizards of the Coast adventures. Most beginning DMs should be able to handle the adventure in the D&D Starter Set – just as well! However, if you’re a first-time Dungeon Master, you’re likely to find the beginning section of Out of the Abyss extremely challenging, if not impossible, to run well or to run at all. Indeed, I am very wary about running the start of Out of the Abyss, and I’ve been DMing for about three decades!

So, should these adventures have warning labels on them? “Experienced DMs only”?

My belief on this issue is no; although perusing a few reviews of an adventure before buying it is probably a good idea. The reason I don’t think such a label helps is because the reasons that people find DMing some adventures difficult vary from person to person. Dungeon Mastering is a collection of several skills: running combat, running non-player characters (NPCs), crafting storylines, evoking the world through descriptions and so on. We all differ on the areas we’re good at handling and the areas that give us trouble. Where I have trouble having just two NPCs accompany an adventuring group, there are new Dungeon Masters out there who delight in this, and create a much better game than mine with the same material.

An adventure I find complex is not necessarily an adventure someone finds difficult to run.

I have also recently seen the suggestion that adventures should be simple so everyone can run them. This is something I strongly oppose. The original run of 4th edition adventures were written simply so that anyone could run them. The result? The most depressing set of linear, boring adventures you could imagine. Not every adventure was bad (there are a few good ones), but the homogeneity of the approach became less and less appropriate, so that the high-level adventures, which needed to show off the best of the game, were extremely underwhelming. The amazing bits in some of the original designs were flattened out to fit the linear approach, and the result was less than it should have been.

Having an adventure that is challenging to run isn’t a mistake; it’s what should happen. These are adventures that challenge the DM to improve their skills, to become a better Dungeon Master. Relish them!

Nor should complexity just be limited to the higher levels of play. If the story works better with a complex beginning to the adventure, that’s where it should be.

If you’re a new Dungeon Master, it’s fine to not be ready to run every adventure that is published. It’s probably still a good idea to own and read the official adventures, just so you can become aware at the range of play available (and this run of adventures is one of the finest I’ve seen in the history of the game). However, if you think running multiple NPCs at the beginning of Out of the Abyss is too much? You can leave that adventure for later and run something else.

Each adventure provides its own set of challenges. Hoard of the Dragon Queen needs you to run set of potentially deadly encounters at its beginning for first-level characters and try not to kill all the PCs in your group. Princes of the Apocalypse requires you to craft a story that gets the PCs where they need to be (and not trying to take on 10th-level foes at 3rd level!) Curse of Strahd requires you to evoke a horror setting and have an ancient vampire play games with the characters. Storm King’s Thunder requires you to handle political intrigue. Learn from them, and rejoice in the range of different play that Dungeons & Dragons allows!