(5e) Crimson Harvest

By Andy Tam
Self Published
5e
Level 4

… The agricultural exports that once brought it wealth and decadence has since all but withered to naught. A group of intrepid adventurers has taken on the task the escort a vital cache of grains to the ailing town, but what seem to be a simple run-of-the-mill escort job takes a sinister turn for the worse. Ultimately embroiling all involved into a spiral of decay and madness…

This 58 page adventure features a cult in a village and about sixty locations in the manor home/dungeon.There are hints of an adventure in this, but it’s written like a linear plot based thing rather than a normal adventure. The benefit of the doubt would seem to indicate a lack of understanding of how to design a non-linear adventure.

Digging around on DMGuild, I was struck that everything there is either A) not an adventure, B) Some AL nonsense, C) Connected to the latest book. I went out of my way to find something relatively independent and came to this. The baddie here is a Warlock, in service to her patron. Nice! Reminds me of the days when druids were baddies. There’s also a civil war going on, with the village in question being majorly impacted. Muddy fields, bodies face down in the dirt, spilled blood, starving and desperate people … that’s pretty cool. I mean, it’s just gonna be used as a throwaway once this adventure is over, but what if it weren’t? Nice campaign regional.

This thing also tries. It’s got an encounter on the way to the village with an old woman trader doing some profiteering, a source of information, who also steals from the party at night. And it tries to add atmosphere, mostly by having a section at the start called “Atmosphere” with some bullet point ideas. And the entire concept of a village, starving during a civil war making civil hands unclean, desperate people, bodies down in the mud, a good ol’ hanging tree ala Witcher 3 (who also tried and failed at wartime) … ah, warms my DM heart. As does a certain brevity in combat encounters; only a few sentences each, on average!

Oh, and then there’s this bit right up near the top of the adventure, one of the few few words …

“Crimson Harvest is a dark fantasy story presented in the form of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure …”

Ok, no, it’s not as bad as those words would imply. But, man, seeing that can cause your heart to shudder.

The hook has the baddies luring the party to town. Lure adventure suck. They are right up there with Challenge/Test adventures. Then the guy who hires you will commit suicide rather than be captured, if you attack him. This is not going well. Really? He kills himself? He’s bought in that deep? And still passes for normal, enough to put one over on the party? Just let the fucking party capture him, who cares? Besides, the hooks are all lame anyway. Hired or assigned a mission or Yet Another Missing Loved One. My next PC is going to home from an extended close-knit family of about 600 relatives, just to mock all these lame ass Loved One hooks.

The read aloud is extensive. Extensive read-aloud should never be included. Can I say that categorically? Are there exceptions? I don’t know. But it’s close enough to the truth to say it categorically. Plus, it waxes poetic and flowery and presumes to tell you your character’s actions and feelings. Find some vials? The read aloud tells you open them and sniff. Uh huh.

And that atmosphere that I mentioned had bullets? It’s mostly generalized and abstracted, giving you little concrete or inspiring to work with.

But that’s all minor nits compared to the major failures, on two key points. First, it fails utterly in some pretty basic design issues. Like it wants to split the party. This is a fucking disaster for DM’s, because it ALWAYS leaves a group of your players bored and disengaged. The only way this works is if have the ability to regroup almost immediately, and that don’t happen here. It also REALLY hates maps. Which is to say it loves them too much, in the wrong way. Clearly someone put some effort in to making battlemaps for everything, nice and colorful and detailed. But the main DM map is a zoomed out version, hard to read. And basic information like “how many villagers attack the party in the tavern?” are left unanswered because the information is not in the text OR on the map, as the adventure indicates it should be. So you can’t run it, by design, unless you use the battle maps which tell you the enemy count and location … and then the information isn’t on the maps? And, if it IS there, and I missed it, then it’s not clear enough. There’s this weird abstraction of detail, like in a tower with a boy. There’s no map, I think, but the locations are numbered like there is one. But they are weird, like #1 is  painting and #2 are the aforementioned glass vials and #3 is a chest, like there’s a map somewhere of a big room with numbers on it. Feel free to stretch your legs and try new things in design, but you should also make sure they work.

The second major issues is the entire adventure. Or, rather, how it designed. It’s clear that the designer is going for a kind of open ended sort of thing, something akin to a sandbox/independent location that the party find themselves in. But I don’t think they know how to do it.

There’s a strong bend to the writing that is linear and plot based. This then this and then this … not quite that but about as close and you can without having scenes. The militia, as cult members, are stationed outside the manor home to keep the party out. There’s a strong element of capturing the party or directing them to certain hidden entrances. If this adventure is The Wicker Man then everyone in the village is right on the edge of clubbing the party over the head. It doesn’t come off as much as a village with a problem but rather a kind of armed camp ready to assault the party, turning the adventure in to a hack fest almost immediately. The maps have a strong linear dungeon bend to them rather than presenting the place as a “normal” manor house. Look, I hate simulationist stuff as much as I hate linear stuff, but this is clearly close to the plot side of the spectrum, too much for its own good.

Getting out of the 5e echo chamber and seeing examples of good adventures would go a long way to helping the designers next effort. Pruning back the prescriptive writing elements and either returning to traditional map/key or putting more work in to the color battle maps actually helping the DM.

This is $3 at DMsguild. There’s no preview. Andy, go create a preview that shows a few encounters so people know what they are buying!

https://www.dmsguild.com/product/263425/Crimson-Harvest

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14 Responses to (5e) Crimson Harvest

  1. Yora says:

    “it’s written like a linear plot based thing rather than a normal adventure.”

    Sadly, that is a normal adventure.

  2. dragonsdoom says:

    “And the entire concept of a village, starving during a civil war making civil hands unclean, desperate people, bodies down in the mud, a good ol’ hanging tree ala Witcher 3 (who also tried and failed at wartime) … ah, warms my DM heart”

    I’ve been playing Witcher 3 recently and I’m wondering how it failed at wartime in your eyes. Too static? Not enough roving bands of militia? Not trying to pick a fight here, just wondering what I might be overlooking.

    • Bryce Lynch says:

      The tree and the battlefields are good, but it seems like the rest of the places are a little too clean and happy.

  3. Gus L says:

    It seems worth noting that 5e designers, or New School design (even in the WotC tomes) can get interesting tone and detail right often enough but anything beyond a series of linear scenes seems to be near impossible. I wonder if it’s just the ethos/design principles like Yora above is suggesting – and certainly the ‘build encounters within a narrative framework’ advice in the new DMG doesn’t help, or if it’s some set of mechanics as well?

    • Anonymous says:

      It’s funny, the more I hear about 5e, the less I like it, not that I liked it at all from the beginning.

      • Gus L. says:

        I don’t think that’s exactly fair – there doesn’t seem to be much preventing a decent faction based dungeon adventure or hex crawl in 5E, at least nothing more then you’d find in AD&D 1e (terrible encumbrance rules say). It strikes me more that it’s the traditions of tactical set-piece combat and narrative illusionism from 4/3.5e/PF that make for a set of design principles devoted to creating a narrative that hits cinematic beats: introductory encounter – clue revealing set-piece combats and a final climatic fight with a BBEG. Rather then design an environment the goal often seems to be a path that feels like an exciting adventure – but which if you look at the scenes as “rooms” is simply a very linear dungeon of lair fights strung together by “corridors” of GM monologue and NPC revelations. That’s my impression at least of crap like Dragon Heist and Rise of Tiamat.

        Again though I’m pretty sure it’s mostly design principles and play ethos not mechanics. Of course there’s interrelations in a good system where mechanics support design principles and ethos and I wonder deep those interrelations go in 5e?

        • Bryce Lynch says:

          I hear you. I wondered as much once, which led to Fiasco, and the understanding and disillusionment with that branch of gaming. When a system is designed to support something, and you play like that, something clicks.

          I’m falling in to the “5e is better at 3e than 3e was”, and 3e is supports the narrative you described.

          With G+ dying I’m getting back in to blogs, and hitting some old articles… the design (genius?) behind gp=xp is seen through the lens of a dozen systems that all seem to contribute and people take for granted. Can you resource manage in a game with cantrips?

          • Gus L says:

            I think 5e is usable – I don’t know it that well, but I think it can be easily pummeled into a lot if shapes. The death of G+ is a bit grim, I mean I’ll have to start blogging again or something…

            I think you can run a resource, risk/reward, exploration game with cantrip if you design those cantrips right. No light. No create food. Firebolt is fine – 5e combat is nasty. Like it needs a PC only crit mechanic to make fights more swingy and less likely to result in a need for a ling rest. That’s the thing though – it’s totally doable I think. Crimp some spells, introduce random encounters (no rests then), xp=gp and create a workable encumberance system and you can run Ye Darkest Dungeon on the Borderlands – at least a low level.

            Of course ethos is problem still with players expecting the linear fight tunnel, and wanting the CR tactical game. That’s not a bad game mind you – D&D tactics – but it’s not the game I’ve been hooked on since “Fighter Fred” got a grey ooze to the face in 1984.

            I want that magic to be available to new 5e folks. As an option or style even – and it doesn’t just come from killer GMs or grimmdark w/duck monsters. Fred didn’t need to explore that cave, and his buddy Charlie the Crusader (also a fighter) knew to beware of wet stone afterwards.

          • dragonsdoom says:

            I can report I’m running a satisfying 5E game with pretty okay resource management mechanics. I’m not an expert at the style, but crimping the spells like Gus said and a couple pages of house rules on encumbrance and resources is giving some new players some of that magic.

      • Jeff says:

        Tomb of Annihilation includes a hex crawl, albeit one with a predetermined goal – the characters are trying to find X, once they realise that is where they need to go.

        The DMs Guild guide to the adventure recommends that the DM rolls up something like 40 days worth of random encounters in advance, and then springs them on the party at appropriate intervals regardless of where they go. This is to save time at the gaming table and ensure the DM isn’t struggling to run wandering monsters on the fly. I find that very depressing.

        • Gus L says:

          ToA’s hex crawl wasn’t very good. Weakest part of one of WotC’s better adventure tomes in my opinion. The problem wasn’t pre generating random encounters though.

          The problems were: Absurd size, no terrain or regional variation, no terrain descriptions, landmarks or weather system, encounters a confusing mass with very few non-combat encounters.

          The entire thing stuck not just as the trite neo-colonialist ‘dark continent’ reading of Africa where it’s just an unvaried mass of jungle, but also a waste. If the party is going to be hex-crawling for hours of game I need a more interesting set of tools (river v. land travel, meaningful supply mechanics, weather, hunting, etc.) beyond a big random encounter list – even if some of those aren’t bad.

  4. Shuffling Wombat says:

    5E could do with some (good) exemplars of medium sized (say 32 sides) modules. We have The Chapel on the Cliffs (which the author noted was a conversion from B/X) and A Night in Seyvoth Manor amongst those reviewed by Bryce. I like both, although the themes of the former might have been done even better in Cleric’s Challenge 1. Are there any Goodman Games 5e adventures that people would recommend? Otherwise it is time for the talented authors who visit this website to do the needful. I’m sure it would get plenty of sales (although I confess to preferring the TSR edition sets).
    There is a module “The Shadow over Dunsmore Point” on Drivethrurpg which has an excellent list of inspirations. Any experiences with that? Might Bryce be kind enough to have a look at it?

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