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.

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