The town of Whitehaven is beset with undead. The townsfolk are quick to blame the so-called Witch of Whitehaven, who lives nearby with her partner in the Surbrin Hills. Yet a more insidious evil lurks in the midst of town, cloaked in a holy man’s robes. And far underground, an ancient evil artifact stirs. The town is in need of heroes. Will you answer the call?
This forty page adventure details a baddy in a town becoming one with evil, blah blah blah, and some blame shifting to the local witch. It’s trying. It’s got some decent ideas and tries to implement good design. The major, major sin in this is the complete inability to understand the purpose of what an adventure is … exemplified through levels of useless verbosity in descriptions and backstory that match Dungeon magazine. What decent ideas there are is not worth the effort to dig them out.
David, I’m going to address you directly. I don’t know if you’re ever going to see this. I don’t really care if you do or don’t. This blog is entirely for my own benefit, but I’m a hypocrite, and in my arrogance I’m going to just assume you’re going to see this. You don’t deserve what I’m going to say, no one does, really. But I note that you’ve also been told, repeatedly, that this is an awesome adventure and been given five stars over and over again. Those people have done you a disservice. The culture in online D&D circles is to love everything and give everything five stars. I’m going to appeal to the academic in you to recognize the truth in what I’m saying. (Although, I see you mention “policy” as well, which leaves me disheartened on your background …) You have some ok principals that you follow in design, but you have no idea how to actually write an adventure. Work on that. But you tried, and the good things you did have me making a stronger effort than usual to explain what you did wrong, for the two thousandth time.
Let’s first cover a few of the better things David does that, frankly, surprised me.
There’s an evil artifact in this adventure, the Orb of Undeath, used by the baddie. Generally the Black Falcon Idol of Doom is only usable by the bad guy, melt when he dies, kills the user instantly, turns you to evil immediately, etc. In other words, the designer shoves in a mechanical bonus for the baddie and then doesn’t allow the party to have the item. That’s crap design. In this case though the item is left for the party. There’s some DC20 8d6 damage nonsense throw in, but it’s not outright banned from usage. That’s good. The party SHOULD get unique magic items, artifacts SHOULD be given to them, and when you toss in “its evil” or something else like it then you also give a little nod to the roleplaying aspects of the game. It’s MORE than just a mechanical bonus/effect at that point. The game is magic. The game is mystery. The game is wonderous. Mechanical shit is none of that. The appendix description is a little heavy on backstory and mechanics needing more in the way of evocativeness than the mechanics. It also does no favors by making the intelligent item cold, unfeeling, and bereft of humor. Since it communicates it could use a personality that is more than a lack of personality. Again, it’s a wondrous item and should come across as such.
There’s also a tendency to give advice on how things can go wrong. If the party doesn’t find the lever then you can do this other to make the adventure go forward. This happens in several places. First, it’s nice for a designer to note how things can and do go wrong when the irresistible force of the party slams in to an adventure and offer assistance to keeping things moving along. It’s gets to my core conceit: the adventure should be a tool to helping a DM run it at the table. So, Good Job! But, I have to ask, why put those roadblocks in at all? Or, rather, perhaps we can divide it in to two piles. Things can and do change when the party hits the adventure and advice on that is good. But in other places DC checks are placed as obstacles to continuing the adventure. I call this Roll To Continue Playing D&D. If the adventure depends on the party making a DC5 skill check then why is in there to begin with? In the first encounter we roll to find blood tracks, etc to track down some farmers. If this fails then you hear the farmers cry out for help. Woah! Why the fuck am I rolling the dice in the first place then? Or, putting the secret room behind a hidden level … and putting an imp in the adventure that leads the party to it if they fail to find it.
There’s also a good scene or two. At one point you catch two witches in the process of interrogating a demon in a circle. Fun! There’s some hackney shit should “forgiving” if you attack one of them, but, still, the setup is good. There’s also a nice bit where the townfolk rebel against the evil in their midst while the party is out fucking around in the woods with the witches. I can’t say enough how refreshing it is to see that. There’s some buildings on fire, some blood, people hold up in homes, attacking zombies, all its missing are a couple of bodies swinging from lampposts. It’s nice to see villagers not fuckwits for once AND that the game world has shit going on in it outside of the parties actions (or, maybe, as a result of the parties actions.) I note, also, that this gets to Rients assertion that gameworlds should be shaken up. It’s written like crap, but the core sentiment of this little section is a good one. There’s also a nice little bit of advice on what happens is a bad guy escapes, the consequences of that.
Now, on to the shitshow …
What is the purpose of an adventure? It is to help the DM run it at the table. That’s it. AT. THE. TABLE. All those people commenting on the rich backstory, etc, are fuckwits. Why? Because that does not contribute to running it at the table. In fact, it makes it HARDER to run at the table. When the party goes through a door in to a new room that DM gets to glance down at the adventure for a fraction of a second, grok the nature of it, and then communicate it to the party. Everything the adventure does needs to contribute to that. While the party is reacting the DM has a little more time to glance down and take in some more information. If you have to stop and read a page, or a column or information then the adventure has failed. [Aside: you can also write “sticky.” This is fucking hard. Google: Old Bay, the elderly hill giant who retired to eat giant crabs.] You have been infected by people changing what the concept of normal is. First, this the professionals, who write based on pay per word. All they care about is taking one idea and strapping enough words on to it to get paid. Second, there are failed novelists who write adventures with rich backstory, with no intent of running at the table, and companies who cynically pander to this market knowing that most adventures will never get run so why not cater to the larger market of people who only read adventure … and to whom this endless backstory/motivation shit appeals to. Finally, people have grown up on this shit and think that’s how you write an adventure. They know no better, It’s the normal way. IT’S FUCKING NOT. Fucking publishers.
Motivations, backstory, justifications, if you have to have them then stick the shit in an appendix. Then the fuckwits get their nonsense and you get to the keep the core of the adventure focused on its purpose: helping the dm run it at the table. When you bury important details in columns-long text you are not helping the DM run the adventure. On page seven important towny flavor stuff (wary/excited about strangers) is buried in otherwise garbage shit that is irrelevant. (Meaning, someone will justify it as tangentially relevant.) NPC’s with a column long description on how to roleplay them? No thanks. You get a sentence each, at most, for description and personality, and then you bullet point or use whitespace to effect to make it trivial for the DM to locate what they relate. Backstory and motivations in the main text? NO. Only what you need to run the adventure RIGHT THEN goes in the main text. What is relevant, IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY RELEVANT to the parties interaction? [Aside: Pedants like to take this to the logical extreme and say that’s my position. A special note to them: Fuck Off.]
Note location W3, The Tower, a location in town. The Name is “the Tower.” Then there’s a bunch of read-aloud. THEN you get a paragraph of DM’s notes telling you what the purpose is. How the fuck does that help me locate the mayors office when I’m running this thing? Seriously? Reading ALL of that? If I hand this to someone blind and say “tell me where the mayors office is in the first section” then thats a much more realistic simulation of running it at the table.
And, speaking of read-aloud … yes, there’s too much. You get three sentences. Maybe two. That’s it. There’s a study. WOTC wrote about it. People don’t pay attention after that (at the table, that is.) Bullet points. Improvise. Creative a terse and evocative description for the DM. The DM is the MOST powerful tool a designer has. Terse writing/organization contributes to running it at the table. EVOCATIVE writing leverages the DM’s brain to fill in the void left by the terseness and is MORE effective at creating atmosphere than ANY length of verbose writing. If you can jab a FLAVOR in to the DM’s brain then they can extrapolate indefinitely. Ug, and the FEELS. You don’t get to write read-aloud telling the party what they do/feel. “As you walk cautiously …” no. They didn’t walk cautiously. They ran willy nilly. But your fucking read-aloud doesn’t jive with that. Do you get it? “As torches spark to life.” No. We all have darkvision. We used continual light spells. We burned the place down.
And, of course, we have to suffer through mundane room descriptions. “There’s a side table in the dining room.” Well, whoop de doo! That’s certainly added a lot to the adventure! Seriously, what’s the point of this? To tell us what a dining room looks like? It’s fucking dining room, we know what a dining room looks like. Concentrate on the aspects of the room that are important.
Oh, what else? A thousand things. The hooks are all mission assignments. Those are boring. That’s an appeal to “do you want to play tonight or not?” D&D. It’s the most throwaway form of a hook. You practically have to beat two farmers to get the first part of the adventure. They are sent for help and yet you need to beg and plead and to be allowed to help them. I fucking HATE adventures that make you fight for the hook. Obviously, the bad guy is actually good and the good guy actually bad. Duh. This is so obvious I almost didn’t mention it. The first whiff of this is in an inn and its immediately obvious, so much so that I’d just stab the baddie in the throat right there … which to its credit the adventure addresses later on in some advice. But, still, wouldn’t it be refreshing if the wise woman was actually the bad guy?
Oh, the LG honorable ghost knight doesn’t have the heart to protect the party from the evil shadows attacking them since they were his followers once. Geee, LG much? The undead attack stuff is not handled well, there’s not much build up to it, no tension. A will O the Wisp is just presented as another thing to hack down, ignoring thousands of years of it luring people to their doom. (My favorite one imitated the scent of gold … in a game where dwarves could smell gold.) Important facts, such as things in the village like rescusing people, should have been presented in an overview section, etc, to introduce how the village was meant to work, etc. Same for the wilderness section, which just has section headings.
You can write adventures to make money. You can write adventures that are actually this kind of novel-thing that most fall in to. Or you can write adventures meant to be run ta the table. If you’re gonna do that then THINK. Question the core assumptions that have led you to think that more is better.
This is $3 at DriveThru. The previs is twelve pages! Nice! Pages five and six show you begging farmers to be allowed to play D&D tonight. Page seven shows you a VERY long inn entry that fails at transferring information to the DM efficiently and effectively … as well as Ye Olde Mayor’s Tower … that you have no way of knowing without digging in. The last page of the preview shows you some of the developments/advice for the unexpected. Overall, a good preview, with the writing typical of what you should expect to see in the rest of the adventure …