Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 17: Reavers of Harkenwold

Welcome! I hope you’re enjoying the summer. We’ve finalized our vacation plans for July, settling on Glacier National Park as our main destination. We’ve been to Yellowstone a couple of times, but Glacier will be new for us. I hear great things about it—if you have any “can’t-miss” suggestions about enjoying the park or the area nearby, please let me know! I think we’ll work in a half-day at Palouse Falls along the way out, and maybe look for another good stop on the way back. My wife and I are big fans of the wine country around Yakima!

On  to my next stop in looking back at adventures: Reavers of Harkenwold!

#22: D&D Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit
After my work on P1 (King of the Trollhaunt Warrens), I was assigned to work on the first adventure in a new H-P-E adventure series. Our working identifier for the new adventure was simply HH1. Because we were a good long ways ahead of the game, I wasn’t tied down by an existing title or concept—I had carte blanche to think up the beginning of the next D&D adventure series and do whatever I wanted with it.

As I have noted once or twice in this series, my first impulse when I get the marching order to do what I want is to ask myself what I haven’t seen published for the game in a while. The answer I came up with this time was basically, “When was the last time we saw a good Robin Hood adventure for D&D?” I’d worked on a couple of adventures that were close to that concept: Red Hand of Doom and Shadowdale: The Weave Unwinding. But Red Hand of Doom was really more of a “cast of thousands” battle against an invading horde, while Shadowdale was a high-level scenario tied into the current Realms storyline. Nothing was out there for a group of low-level characters to fight the Sherriff of Nottingham or stage a Scouring of the Shire, so that’s what I settled on.

While I had a lot of room to come up with the adventure I wanted to write, I did have one important requirement: It needed to fit into the Nentir Vale, the default setting in the 4e DMG. (Nentir Vale, by the way, was a very late addition to the 4e DMG. We had that book pretty much done, and at the last minute the brand team and the R&D management team decided that we ought to provide something for novice DMs to use as a starting point. So, I was called in to create a county-sized “sample” world to serve as a chapter in the DMG. Nentir Vale is what I came up with.) I studied the Nentir Vale pretty carefully, and decided that Harkenwold was the best place for the kind of adventure I wanted to write. Thus the title Reavers of Harkenwold was born.

Around the same time, we were also developing the idea that we might spin out the new H-P-E series into a tighter story arc than the first group of adventures. I participated in a small committee with the other designers to cook up a suitable story arc, which led to an idea for a strong devil theme across the new series. That gave me a great hook for the bad guys who would serve as the unwelcome oppressors in bucolic Harkenwold: The Iron Circle. Awesome! I spent the next few weeks in March of 2009 knocking out the adventure, using the same two-booklet and slipcase format we’d been using for the previous 4e adventures.

Then we decided not to do a new adventure series. No HH1, no Reavers of Harkenwold.

Well, I was a little saddened by that, since I felt I had a decent adventure on the table. Unfortunately, part of being a pro game designer is watching things you worked on get canceled. It’s kind of the way you get to join the club. Fortunately, my disappointment did not last long. As we reconsidered our plans for 2010 products, the D&D Essentials concept came into being. Chris Perkins, head of the design team at that time, immediately recognized that Reavers of Harkenwold could be re-purposed to serve as the adventure for the D&D Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit. He took the adventure I’d written for the 96-page 4e adventure format, and boiled it down to its new size and purpose so deftly that I hardly noticed a difference. So, my adventure survived, and wound up being a well-received introductory adventure for our “4.5 Edition.”

I’m rather proud of the tar devils (new monsters introduced in the adventure). Classic D&D devils ought to have strong observable characteristics that create an identity for the monster: for example, spined devils, barbed devils, beard devils, bone devils, etc. The idea of a tar devil feels infernal, and has that same sort of visual identity or theming that existing devils possess; it’s a good fit for the flavor. Mechanically, the tar devil guards have an excellent “stay near me” aura to lock down PCs, and the harriers have a nice signature attack with their hot tar balls. Monster roles and monster powers in 4e work really well, and the more I worked on 4e-era monsters, the more I came to appreciate how poorly monsters often worked in other editions. Unfortunately, I doubt tar devils will ever be seen again in the game. It’s surprisingly hard to introduce new demons or devils into the D&D game, since players are so heavily invested in the existing hierarchy of fiends. (I also whiffed on storm devils from the 4e Manual of the Planes; oh, well.)

The castle map is good—DMs collecting poster maps from 3e and 4e products rarely got usable depictions of castles, and that would seem to be one of the things you can never have enough of in a D&D game. I wish I could have mapped the whole thing, but there’s only so much you can do with one poster map and a sandboxy adventure that might or might not use different pieces of it. I’m also really happy with the way the “infiltrate the castle” challenges worked out. D&D adventures in the 3e or 4e era very rarely made use of any kind of “sneak past the monsters” material, since the combination of better-balanced encounters and awards-by-encounter made it difficult to get players to buy into the idea that some battles shouldn’t be fought. But we’ve all seen a hundred action movies where the brave rebels come up with a plan to get into the villain’s stronghold, so I did my best to provide the DM with ways to adjudicate the player’s use of clever ploys or audacious imagination—and make sure the adventure rewarded the PCs for thinking like heroes.

I wonder if Reavers is perhaps a little too hard for a true novice DM to handle, which might make its inclusion in the Dungeon Master’s Kit a little problematic. But in my defense I’ll point out that I didn’t design it for newbies, that’s just where it ended up. Most people seemed to like it well enough, as far as I can tell.

Next Week: Gamma World!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 16: King of the Trollhaunt

Hello! A strangely quiet week here at the Baker household—both of my daughters are off on a mission trip, so it’s just Kim and I holding down the fort (with our big baby of a Lab). Last night we snuck out to catch a Mariners game. I found a nice ticket-resale site and came across a pair of really good tickets that someone had to dump at the last minute, so we sat 8 rows from the field and only paid $15 apiece for the seats. Of course, the beer still costs $10 at Safeco, but you’re allowed to bring food into the park, so Kim and I enjoyed Jimmy John subs while watching the Mariners get thrashed by the Royals. At least we didn’t pay $50 a seat for the privilege.

#21: P1, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens
Ah, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens. My contribution to the adventure was the Trollhaunt and the Great Warren, including Skalmad and his magic eye. I also came up with the backstory of the sad fate of Prince Etheran. My co-writer, Logan Bonner, covered the town of Moonstair, the troll attack, and the Feywild material that forms the conclusion of the adventure. As in Thunderspire Labyrinth, I didn’t have any input in the adventure title or the “catalog copy”—it was my job (and Logan’s) to write an adventure that matched the title we had in hand.

Trollhaunt was my second adventure for D&D 4e, and the first adventure Wizards published for paragon-tier play. I worked on it immediately after Thunderspire Labyrinth, and had a better handle on skill challenges at that point. The “find your way to the dungeon” challenge at the beginning of the adventure is actually pretty interesting. I also came up with a challenge for negotiating with a dragon, and Logan included a couple in his section of the adventure. 

For some reason, when I thought about the idea of “the Trollhaunt” and what sort of environment might be overrun with trolls, I kept thinking about the old Star Trek episode The Galileo Seven. So, when you read or play through the Trollhaunt trek, just imagine thick mists hiding big giant dudes who occasionally throw fifteen-foot spears at you.

One little goal I gave myself in the design of Trollhaunt: I wanted the players to get to know Skalmad, the troll king, and face him several times in the course of the adventure. All too often adventures that feature an interesting bad guy have exactly ONE meeting of heroes and villain—the climactic battle scene. I wanted to see if we could think up a way for the PCs to fight Skalmad multiple times. That notion led to the Eye of Moran and the Stone Cauldron. If you play through Trollhaunt, you will come to hate Skalmad, and that’s good.

The map of the Great Warren was challenging, because we had hard rules in place about making sure that any area map we created for an adventure had to be re-usable as the insert maps in the tactical encounter spreads. So, I had to map out this sprawling maze in 5-foot squares. I took two full pages to make the biggest spread possible. One interesting feature: If you don’t mind getting wet, the stream tunnels provide a whole different path to explore the complex, and make this a very non-linear map. However, it has always been my experience that PCs hate getting wet (they’re like cats), and I wonder how many groups out there realized how valuable this alternate pathway could be.

Funny story about the art order: Check out the spot illo on page 4 of Adventure Book One. I had a hell of a time getting that through our art approval process. Chris Perkins thought I was absolutely nuts to ask for an ominous-looking sack, but I just knew it had to be there. When the trolls of the Trollhaunt inform the people of Moonstair that the noble Prince Etheran is not welcome in their realm, they do so by throwing his head over the wall in a bloody sack. The PCs later recover a letter from the town mayor to the lord, in which the mayor diplomatically says that, “a troll warrior delivered a token proving your son is dead,” which I thought was a masterful bit of understatement. Anyway, it turns out that making a sack look threatening is tough, and I had to fight for that little bit of gallows humor in the adventure. Sorry, but the bloody sack is just funny to me for some reason.

One other thing I’m proud of in Trollhaunt is the will-o’-wisp. Working early in 4e, we only had one Monster Manual to pull from, and I was bummed that the will-o’-wisp hadn’t made the cut for the first monster book. So, I got to design the first 4e appearance of this iconic D&D monster. It turns out that a monster like the will-o’-wisp works so much better with 4e’s idiosyncratic monster powers and templating of actions than it does in earlier editions of the game. In 1e, you’d see lights in a swamp, and there was nothing to make the characters actually follow them into danger. Plus, the idea of lurker monsters that join other fights is perfect for the making the will-o’-wisp an interesting encounter. IMO the 4e wisp finally delivers on what the monster was trying to do since 1978. I think 5e could benefit from incorporating a little more of 4e’s monster design tech.

So, overall, I like P1, and I’ve used it (or pieces of it) a number of times in my own games. It seems to have been well received, with a good mix of story, colorful demi-Celtic trappings, and memorable fight scenes. I ought to update it for 5e sometime.

Next Week: Reavers of Harkenwold, the adventure from the D&D Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 15: Thunderspire Labyrinth

Hi, there, welcome back! I’m continuing with my retrospective on the various adventures/scenarios I’ve written for RPGs over the years—most of them in various editions of the D&D game, of course.

In other news, wow, the Mariners are unpredictable this year. I thought they would break out of the gate fast and be a top-flight team throughout the season, but clearly I was wrong about that! However, I’m going to make an insanely bold prediction: I think the M’s are going to heat up and put together a very significant winning streak. There is a ton of talent on this club, and I think they won’t be kept down forever. In fact, I think they’re going to be fighting for a playoff spot in the last couple of games of the season. Whether they can claw their way in or not, I couldn’t say—it’s unfortunately true that wins in September don’t count any more than losses in April. But I think we have not yet seen the measure of this team.

Okay, on to the D&D stuff!

 #20: H2, Thunderspire Labyrinth
My first adventure for 4e Dungeons & Dragons was H2, Thunderspire Labyrinth. Over the years TSR and Wizards had waffled over the question of whether the “letter+number” designator on an adventure module really helped the consumer at all; in this case, the H stands for “heroic tier,” meaning it’s an adventure designed for characters under 10th level.

My co-writer was Mike Mearls. I did the sections on the Seven-Pillared Hall, the Chamber of Eyes, and the Horned Hold, as well as some of the upfront presentation. Mike’s contribution was the awesome Well of Demons section, and the Tower of Mysteries. As it turned out, we didn’t really collaborate all that closely—the adventure’s sections are very episodic, and don’t lean too much on each other. That’s okay by me, because I viewed the ruined city of Saruun Khel as a gigantic sandbox and wanted to make sure the players could engage the adventure just by wandering around if they wanted to.

Thunderspire Labyrinth offered some tricky presentation and philosophy questions right up front, simply because it came so early in the 4e product run. (Yes, Keep on the Shadowfell was released earlier, but we had to start on H2 before H1 was completely done.) Not being entirely sure how to present a good 4e adventure, I erred on the side of caution at first, and shot for a middle-of-the-fairway dungeon crawl experience in my sections. (Mike, of course, was a little more ambitious.) If you’ve been reading the blog, you might recall that I felt the same sort of trepidation about Forge of Fury, and adopted a similar approach. For the same reason, I shied away from some excellent opportunities to create skill challenges in the adventure—the subsystem for navigating the giant ruined city really should have been set up that way, but when I was writing H2 I just didn’t know enough about skill challenges to feel comfortable placing much reliance on that system.

I didn’t pick out the name of the adventure: This was one of those assignments where I had to write to suit a title that had been created months before I started work. Chris Perkins also gave me the basic premise of “underground market city, where the surface races and Underdark races can deal with each other.” So the Casablanca-like vibe of the Seven-Pillared Hall really originates in the initial catalog blurb that Chris and Bill Slavicsek came up with; all I did is execute on their concept.

One strange thing about Thunderspire Labyrinth: I wound up featuring duergar (gray dwarves) in the Horned Hold, which marked their debut in 4th Edition. Ironically, I’d done the same thing in Forge of Fury at the beginning of 3e. So, in two consecutive editions, I rolled out the duergar for the edition. One of the things about 4e is that we stepped back and considered the question of whether monster stories/context ought to undergo development in the same way their mechanics were being updated. At the time we felt that the "just like <good guys> but EVIL" races weren't necessarily holding up after you got past the drow, so we gave the duergar a very devilish new twist. In retrospect, we learned that folks are way more touchy about the story elements of the D&D universe than we'd imagined, and many of our "new takes" actively angered our fans. 

People with a sharp eye for detail have noticed that the scale of the map depicting the Nentir Vale in the 4e Dungeon Master’s Guide conflicts somewhat with the description of the Old Hills given in H2. That was not my fault—I knew perfectly well that the range of hills shown in the Nentir Vale wasn’t all that big and hardly constituted a mountain range that could hold a place like Thunderspire, since I wrote up the Nentir Vale chapter in the DMG. However, the decision was made to make sure that H2 was located right smack in the middle of the Nentir Vale. Sorry if that bugged you, I didn’t do it!

Looking back at H2 now, I am pretty proud of the Seven-Pillared Hall and the super-flavorful setting of a whole ruined city to roam around in. The dungeon is infinitely expandable, and the Mages of Saruun are scary and ambiguous villains for a low-level party. The Horned Hold is an evocative setting, but it’s pretty static—working under the constraints of the tactical encounter format and my own caution in balancing fights for the new edition, I deliberately kept things simple in my sections. Fortunately Mike Mearls dialed it up to 11 in his part of the adventure! As I grew more familiar with 4e, I felt more comfortable in writing more ambitious material.

Next Week: P1, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures Part 14: Cormyr, Shadowdale

My apologies for falling a day behind; this week has been busy and I just didn’t stay on my schedule. It’s also been unseasonably hot for June in Washington State. Normally we don’t push 90 around my house until mid or late July, and June can often be a cool and rainy month. Not this year, it seems! I wouldn’t mind so much—after all, an arid 90 is way, way more comfortable than a humid 90—except for the fact that we have no AC. We can often manage okay with strategic use of fans, but there is no denying that the house is hot.

Continuing on with my series of reflections about RPG adventures I’ve worked on, we move on to my last two 3rd Edition adventures: Cormyr and Shadowdale.

#18: Cormyr, The Tearing of the Weave
In the spring of 2006, I drew the assignment of joining a collaboration of in-house designers to knock out the start of an epic adventure trilogy set in the Forgotten Realms. My co-designers were Bruce Cordell, Dave Noonan, Matt Sernett, and James Wyatt. I was unenthusiastic about the prospect, not because I didn’t like those guys, but simply because we were all up to our elbows in working on the 4th Edition system and the 4th Edition version of the Forgotten Realms. Cormyr, Shadowdale, and Anauroch occupied the unfortunate position of being adventures for a system we were finished with, set in a world we were about to drastically re-envision. Worse yet, the audience knew that 4e was coming, so sales of tail-end 3e material were already dropping off. It seemed to me that the three big adventures just weren’t going to be worth the trouble.

Another tricky part of the triple-project was that the adventures were intended to work alongside a major storyline being developed in the Forgotten Realms novels. Early on in the 3e era, I was the team leader for Forgotten Realms RPG products, so I worked closely with the Book department on broad FR themes. But by 2006, I was no longer heading up a Realms team and wasn’t in the driver’s seat for the last half-dozen or so Realms products in 3e. The addition of big, hardbound adventure modules to my schedule caught me by surprise.

Finally, one more new requirement was handed down for the project: The adventures would all make use of the “Tactical Encounter” format, which Dave Noonan came up with a few months prior as an exercise in looking for new and better ways to present material for the DM. While I liked the Tactical Encounter format for certain purposes, I found it difficult to wrap a lot of narrative or description around the structure. We wound up using a sort of semi-tactical encounter presentation in Cormyr that presented the formatted encounters at the end of each chapter, and did not rigorously obey the requirement. (It was one of the few times that Bill Slavicsek, my boss at WotC, was seriously sore at me. Or one of the few times that he let me know that he was, at any rate.)

My part of Cormyr was Chapter 4: The Path of Shadows. I tried to have some fun with an extended journey in the Plane of Shadow and present plenty of mood along with the adventure. The thing I remember about this adventure was the evil boat I came up with for the journey through the swamp: the Necreme. That was kind of cool.

#19: Shadowdale, The Scouring of the Land
The second adventure in the trilogy based around Shar’s attempt to use the Shadow Weave to supplant Mystra, Shadowdale presents a very different type of story in which the PCs are cast as the leaders of a good uprising against evil oppressors (a classic story that is generally underserved in D&D adventures). My collaborators for this one were Eric Boyd and Thomas Reid.

In Shadowdale, I assigned myself Chapter 3: The Dread Lair of Alokkair. This was a classic site in Shadowdale that hadn’t been used as a setting for an official D&D adventure in many, many years, and it was just too cool to let a whole edition pass by without visiting it again. So I looked at the old info on Alokkair’s lair, and set about expanding and updating it to fit in with the overall story arc depicted in the adventure series. (It would be nice if the PCs had a compelling *reason* to go muck about in a lich’s lair when there’s a land to free from evil conquerors, after all.)

Thomas and Eric did a great job with the liberating-the-dale and beneath-the-Twisted-Tower chapters, which made this into a pretty solid adventure. I’m particularly proud of the “death tyrant” the PCs meet in area 24, and the advice to the DM for running the encounter. I never got the chance to run that at a table, so I don’t know exactly how it would play out, but I think it’s one of the more fiendishly clever things I’ve ever done as a designer. I won’t say more than that because I don’t want to spoil it for anybody!

I had no real involvement with Anauroch, The Empire of Shade (the third entry in the trilogy). So, I don’t have much to say on that one, sorry.

Overall, Cormyr and Shadowdale were tough ones for me. Part of being a pro is getting in there and punching hard even when you’re working on something because it’s on the schedule, not because you were hoping you could. I think Shadowdale is the stronger of the two, but they both seem to have been well received.

Next Time: My first 4th Edition adventure, Thunderspire Labyrinth.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Twenty-Eight Adventures Part 13: Red Hand of Doom

Thanks for stopping by! At Sasquatch we’re gearing up for some summer work we’re not quite ready to talk about, although I hope to be able to say something soon. We’ll be at GenCon (in our very own booth this time), and we’ll be showing off our upcoming Ultimate Scheme game and selling various versions of Thule—and, with a little luck, some signed copies of Princes of the Apocalypse, Thule posters signed by Todd Lockwood, Thule GM Screens, and maybe some of our adventures in print format. If you’re planning on coming to Indy, come by the Sasquatch Game Studio booth and say hi!

OK, on to the adventure of the week. Look, I'm almost halfway done!
#17: Red Hand of Doom
In 2002 and 2003, our headcount in the RPG R&D department was beginning to trend down sharply. The magical days of Pokemon were definitely in the rear-view mirror by that point, 3e was already out in the wild and 4e was not yet in development, and of course the effects of joining Hasbro were slowly rippling through the organization. Shortly after the 3e release, it made sense to have dedicated team leaders when R&D could be split into three or four teams of 6 or 8 people each. But by late 2003 we were definitely in retreat, and my days as a full-time team leader were at an end. I resumed a half-time design schedule, and started back in again with Complete Arcane (where I came up with the warlock!), Stormwrack, and Risk Godstorm. Then in December 2004 I was assigned to write “a superadventure for 2006.” That project became Red Hand of Doom.

I was given a wide-open slate to do pretty much whatever I wanted to do, although there was a directive that the adventure ought to touch on Tiamat and dragons—we were already planning the Spawn of Tiamat miniatures and knew we wanted to feature Big T in our 2006 products. With that broad direction, I sat down to think up what would make a cool super-adventure. If you’ve been reading along with this blog for the last couple of months, you know that my adventure process often begins with something like, “Has anybody done [X] lately? Isn’t it time to do [X] right?” In the case of RHoD, the X that occurred to me was a good stop-the-horde adventure—a staple of fantasy fiction that just didn’t show up at D&D tables as often as it should.

In tying together “stop the horde” with “Tiamat,” I realized that hobgoblins would be just right for a serious invasion scenario. Banners with multicolored five-headed dragons seemed a little sophisticated for a hobgoblin horde; they needed a more primitive symbol, something powerful and simple. The idea of a hand as a representation of a five-headed dragon came to me, and thus the title Red Hand of Doom was born. (I later learned there was a Solomon Kane story called “Right Hand of Doom.” I’d never heard of it before I came up with Red Hand of Doom. Weird but true!)

There was some real confusion about whether or not it should be set in the Forgotten Realms, so I created a location (the Elsir Vale) which was a very close analogue of a particular area in the Realms. Then I built the outline and dove in, knocking out the first part of the adventure. Things were going great! But at that point I got pulled in for an emergency assist on Magic of Incarnum, and was tapped for 30,000 words to help fill out that book after the development team took it apart. After that, I was assigned to work on the new Axis & Allies Miniatures game. That was a ton of fun, too, but all of the sudden I was only able to write about a third of Red Hand of Doom. I got through the set-up, the Elsir Vale description, Part I, and a good number of the stat blocks in the Appendix (mostly rank-and-file like Doom Hand monks and Blood Ghost berserkers).

At that point, we brought in James Jacobs as a freelancer, and he knocked out Parts II, III, IV, and V. It wasn’t until May of 2005 that I returned to Red Hand, and spent a month stitching up my stuff with James’s stuff to make a seamless whole. (The free-floating events in part II came from my second pass.)

Fortunately, James Jacobs did a pretty good job picking up the work that was assigned away from me. Red Hand of Doom turned out pretty well! If Forge of Fury is the adventure of mine that has been played the most, Red Hand of Doom might be the best-regarded of all the adventures I’ve worked on. EN World named it #5 on the list of Best Adventures of All Time (and #1 for 3rd Edition) in 2013—check out the YouTube videos.

Things I like about Red Hand of Doom . . . I like the Drellin’s Ferry material in Part I, and the fact that the PCs get to see a town they care about overrun by the horde. The adventure is brutal on players who think that they’re clever enough to kill a horde by throwing fireball spells at it instead of trying to be *leaders* and unite the defenders of the Elsir Vale. I really wanted to cast the PCs in the roles of “the Captains of the West,” to borrow a term from Lord of the Rings; if you play through this adventure, your character gets to be awesomely heroic, and that is a ton of fun. I really dig James’s work in the drowned city in Part II, and the Battle for Brindol in Part IV is pure epic. He did great work! Oh, and one more thing: Mike Schley’s maps are beautiful.

If I have a regret about the adventure, it’s just that Part V feels a little too much like a letdown after the gigantic Battle for Brindol in Part IV. In retrospect, I wonder if it almost might have worked better as an either-or thing, just to really encourage player agency. You can beat the horde by rallying the defense of Brindol, or you can go find the fane and try to win there. Or maybe if I’d been really clever I could have set it up so you could do them in either order. I’m also a bit sorry that I had to hand over so much of it to James. As it turned out Magic of Incarnum vanished without a splash, although I did have a lot of fun working on Axis & Allies Miniatures, and that became one of my guilty pleasures in my last five years or so at Wizards of the Coast.

Next Week: Cormyr, Tearing of the Weave.