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!


  1. so your the guy who invented the Nentir Vale setting huh?

    Thank you!

    Because I have been enjoying reading about the setting, with an eye to converting it to 5th edition sometime soon, and funny enough, I have just read through this adventure recently after getting a copy of the DM kit in a charity shop.

    I do indeed like that a smart group can find a way into the castle without having to lay down a seige, very cinematic idea sneaking into the castle.

    The battle maps indeed are a blessing, who did them? they're beautiful.

  2. The cartographers were Jason Engle and Mike Schley. I don't remember who exactly did what maps (the art director handled the assignments, I just drew map sketches). But, taking a quick look at the poster maps, I think they're Mike Schley. They look like his style.

  3. Thank you Richard for your reply, and once again thanks for creating the Nentir Vale, I first came across it after buying a second hand set of the Dungeon Masters Essentials kit and reading this wonderful adventure in it, I have since purchased all the rest of the Essentials lines.....

  4. I've just been re-reading Reavers of Harkenwold to prep for a new FR campaign set in Daggerdale which, in the same way as your search of the Nentir Vale led you to Harkenwold for this adventure, was just the most likely location in FR for me to set my adaptation which will cover roughly level 3-7 in a Heroic Tier campaign.

    And I'm really looking forward to it. I had also decided to play up the Robin Hood-vibe so I am pleased to see your comments about that being one of your inspirations.

    Anyway, this is a great 4E adventure and the one of the few I can recommend to those few people who still use the best edition of D&D yet published (IMO/YMMV). I really wish you had written more 4E adventures....

  5. Just came across this article. I *love* Nentir Vale. It had a very Greyhawk vibe to it, but with the bonus of no canon hanging over it (looking at you, Realms).

    The Reavers of Harkenwold is one of my favorite adventures of all time. I expanded it even more into a sandbox as I found other side quests and content that lead up to the actual invasion... and then I expanded the invasion/rebellion content with a few other PC missions. We ran a Harkenwold campaign for something like 2 years through to level 6 or thereabouts. I tied in the 4e re-imagining of Hommlet as well (Lareth became a high-ranked Iron Circle agent).