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.


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  2. You were right and Bill was wrong. I imagine that happened even more often after 4E was released.

    BTW, these were really good adventures with a solid storyline. It's a shame that they get a bit overlooked because of when they were released in terms of the 3.xE life-cycle... and were large, expensive, hardcovers in a world where there was a bit of fan hate.

    I've used a lot of Shadowdale for a 4E Shadowdale-based campaign (at the very least, the two maps of Shadowdale were brilliant) so I am personally glad they were published and I bought them! :)