By James Ohlen, Jesse Sky
Hey, quick reminder that I have a Patreon. It helps offset the costs of the website and buying adventures. Unlike some, I don’t accept adventures to review; I buy everything I review.
The city of Baldur’s Gate is the pride of West Faerûn—a mercantile stronghold ruled by the famous Grand Dukes. One year ago, a powerful merchant leader named Sarevok nearly catapulted the city into war with the neighboring nation of Amn. This crisis was averted, and the remnants of the organization were scattered throughout the Sword Coast. Now, the city is threatened from within by agents of the nefarious Zhentarim, who seek to fill the power vacuum left behind in the wake of these events. Meanwhile, the Shadow Druids plot to destroy the city by performing terrible rituals, deep within the Cloakwood. Who will rise to oppose them?
This 162 page adventure (about half of which are “adventure” and half are appendices, etc) is set within the BG video games universe and includes all your favorite NPC’s from that series. It contains enough “free roaming” that MOST of it doesn’t feel like the typical plot-based railroad. Major portions “Feel” like the town exploration part of the BG videogame, which has good points (interesting stuff) and bad points (Let me just invite myself in …) It’s over-written and poorly designed for information transfer, as is usual for this type of adventure. It also has a TERRIBLE start.
Scene 1 – Quest Assignment. It’s in an inn. Full of soldiers to ensure everyone is good. And they take away everyone’s weapons upon entering. And tie spellcasters thumbs to their belts via string. Not the party. Everyone in the inn. Just to be clear: the designer has a story to tell and no “free will” from the party is gonna get in the way of that.
Scene 2 – You go to some gibberling mounds to rescue some incompetent Harpers SO. A forest area. Full of dirt mounds. Gibberling lairs. Four larger mounds, which could contain a body underneath (I guess we all know they are dormant and not dead. Anyway …) Digging up a mound requires stealth, and a roll. Noise triggers 3d4 gibberlings to burst forth from a mound. There are 250 mounds. Things could go very wrong as the party tried to find the missing person … but hey, don’t worry though! If the gibberlings awake then the NPC harper will IMMEDIATELY choose the correct mound his wife is under and untie her in a single round, screaming for everyone to run! Ought oh! Chase scene with gibberlings bursting out! Oh, no, don’t worry, they give up in 1d4 rounds. You get it right? There’s no adventure here. There’s suffering the plot and all the bullshit fake “tension” moments the designer has put in. But there’s no real tension because anything you do will be mitigated by the designer. They are trying to build tension through fake set-piece “tension scenes.” That’s not how it works. Consequence-free D&D is how boredom works though.
When you enter Baldurs Gate the read-aloud notes urchins grasping at coin purses and well-coordinated thugs skulking in alleys. Don’t worry though, this all just window-dressing, there are no actual thugs or urchins and no help for the DM if the party were to naturally follow up on those things mentioned in the read-aloud.
And the read-aloud IS extensive. It’s everywhere, long, monologue exposition. You will find no relief! No one listens past 2-3 sentences, remember? No, you don’t remember? That article WOTC posted? No? How about your own tables, the players it attentive while you read a page of read-aloud? Or they pull out their phones and/or daydream? That’s because it’s bad design and play.
Our city wanderer table is full of exciting things like “a cat is pursued by a pack of starving dogs” and other exciting encounters that are meaningless.
Things get better once the core of the adventure starts. There are 33 locations in town to explore. They have too much read-aloud and too much DM text, full of trivia and other meaningless information that doesn’t drive the adventure. This, of course, hides the real data in the location that the DM needs, like a brief personality, etc. But … it’s Baldurs Gate from the videogame. You explore the locations, from some initial clues, and widen your explorations of the other locations from the clues you uncover. This leads, probably, to the sewers and tunnels. Sixty-ish locations under the town, leading to the basements of various buildings little mini-encounters/scenarios.
In this respect it’s the BG videogame. There’s a bunch of locations, you can wander in to them and find something happening. A little kid trapped in a cage in The Butchers meat market basement. A gambling ring with indigents facing off against gruesome challenges … that they are willing participants in, out of desperation for their circumstances. The world is brutal place. The interconnections and design, allowing the party to stumble on C which leads to D while trying to follow up A with B are done well. But it FEELS like a videogame. It feels like you are moving from A to B to C in the dungeons, busting in to basements to see what fresh hell is inside. Like you’re getting 100% by doing all the challenges in a videogame and/or exploring all of the areas. Will the party actually engage in this? Idk.
The “vignette” locations are good setups. Abstracted with detail more than I would like. Thugs guard basement doors to locations, instead of Pegleg Pete guarding the door. This abstraction garbage is a plague upon adventures. More words are not the solution but better words are. Trimming the trivia from the descriptions, read-aloud, and DM text and focusing on the evocative stuff relevant to actual play. This isn’t a call to minimalism. It’s not a call to describing everything. It’s a call to focus the writing efforts on what’s directly relevant and to make it evocative.
This thing has GREAT evocative monster art. I seldom mention art, because it’s so bad, but the monster art in this is top notch. Evocative. The rest os terrible, but the monster stuff is A+. It makes you FEEL the monster, and that’s what it should do to the DM, so they can better relate that vibe to the party. Everything should contribute to the DM running the adventure. Everything.
I’m also fond of some of the NPC descriptions. “Tharka (CG gnome acolyte) is an excitable young priest of Gond who is eager to impress Jaheira.” That’s a great description! It directly helps the DM both with her personality and what she does. It does it in one sentence. There’s not enough of this and the NPC summary sheet would better for it if if engaged in the same format/goals. Likewise, the rewards for accomplishing the quests are great. Medals, parades, people staring at you in disgust … there’s some effort made to make the players feels the consequences from the townfolk. Not enough story adventures do that. Of course, this relies, in no small part to the party following up on every quest lead they get, to solve not only the main quest but also the other two main side-quests.
There are also some epic backgrounds that the players can take at character creation. The Last Emperor, The Chosen One, etc. They DO feel epic, and yet not prescriptive, and the adventure text provides reference to how some of the locations in the adventure dovetail in to each individual one.
(And I would not that this is lacking in the main adventure. How the various quests interact with the locations and other locations is not detailed except through each individual location. This leaves you tracing breadcrumbs to understand how the adventure works. A little summary up front, with cross-references, would have gone a long way. As is, it FEEL like it’s randomly laid out and organized.)
I note also the maps are terrible. “Artistic”, they are hard to read. The map is a reference tool for the DM, first. If I can’t read the sewer map, or find the trails on the wilderness map, then you’ve done a bad job with the map.
So, lots of interesting things to stumble across. But abstracted text, and WAY too much of it to make running it at the table less than a huge effort. Lacks a GOOD summary, compounding an unfolding drama confused by too much text. The beginning, though, is DISASTROUSLY bad. Trimmed of about half its words, and being a little more specific and better summarized, it could be ok. Certainly, the originality and design is there, at least in most of the adventure, to a degree not usually seen in 5e adventures. The effort lacks the information-theory though. Improvements in that area could mean better things in the future.
This thing is $20 on DriveThru, for the PDF. The preview is garbage, showing you nothing of the actual adventure or encounters, which means you can’t make an informed purchasing decision. It’s a blind buy. This is why DriveThru needs a refund system.