Did some printing work on my 13th Age adventure environment today. Just to see how it looked in hard copy. Pleased with how it came out, and it’s been very instructive from a format and layout point of view. I need to work on those! Still, it looks pretty cool as a chap-book. Pics below!
Once inside all the packaging, you’ve two ways to go: the campaign/city guide, or the adventure. I went straight for the adventure.
Here’s the scoop, it’s a gem. It’s not perfect, and won’t suit every group, but it’s really quite special indeed.
You get a lot of adventure for your money. This is 32pp in a two column magazine type format, but with very little art, no stats and no maps. That puts a lot of word count in the book, and it’s well written stuff too. No stats?! Don’t worry. This adventure has been written as edition neutral, and the foes are statted out in full online for free, where you get the choice of 3.5, 4 or 5th edition. No maps? Well, not at a tactical level anyway. But now I’m getting ahead of myself. Hold on.
Here’s how the thing is structured. Spoilers a go go. The city is home to the last two inheritors of the divinity of the god of murder, Bhaal. In a highlander type move, there can be only one. And then he gets knacked by our heroes, the party. Hurrah! The city is saved, but not for long. That spark of murder is now on the loose and is looking for a chosen one. Bhaal gets busy manipulating and influencing, driving the city to destruction. Unless the party intervenes.
The plot is based around three main NPCs and their agendas. Each faction approaches the party, asking for their help and allegiance. It’s a free choice, and the party could go with two, but will almost certainly not be able to pick all three. As the plot goes on, they could do what they like about this set up. They could stay loyal, they could set them against each other, forge alliances afresh, whatever.
Then the adventure lays out 10 stages to the unfolding plot. These are events, written from multiple angles, mirroring the factions. They are presented as if the party don’t disrupt things, though of course they will. They’re not set in stone at all. They can flex in timing, location and in content to react to the parties influence. Each stage results in a behind the scenes winner, and the scores get totalled up by the DM so that the Finale showcases the ‘winning’ faction, which by that stage could include the party itself.
The stages escalate. They start off with fairly run of the mill little errands and missions, though none of them dull. None of the factions are ‘good guys’ though, and before long the stages turn darker and more morally complex. The catalyst for this turn in the events is the influence of Bhaal as he sets everyone to increasingly murderous intent. Now, given the predilection of adventurers to using fatal violence as the default solution to their issues, it might not be obvious at which point they’ve crossed the line to being baddies, but it will happen. That time will come, and every group will deal with it differently. Personally, I can’t wait to see the discussion at my table. This is not just kick in the door and grab the loot. This is sophisticated gaming.
In fact, there’s startlingly little direct combat here, and no catacombs to explore or items to lift. There’s stealth, guile, intimidation, politicking, negotiation, diplomacy, bribery, robbery and everything else you can imagine. The city is the only location (more on that when I’ve read that book) and the whole thing is wide open for exploration, and crucially, change.
The finale is one that isn’t inevitable, but highly probable, and it’s one that will leave an indelible stamp on the city, and the characters too. It’s a great ending, and it think it will prove enormously satisfying to conclude for the players and the DM who will have negotiated this very memorable mini campaign.
It’s a difficult adventure though. The DM has to be very agile, and able to build encounters from slim materials with probably little notice. The players will have to be clever, work well as a team, and plan their approaches carefully. They’ll also have to pick up on subtlety. There’s loads to do, and it can go wrong quite easily. City adventures are notoriously hard to run, and this one’s no different. The biggest potential pitfall is letting the NPCs drive all the agendas leaving the party mere observers. There are some scenes where that’s more likely than not, so care will need to be taken. Proactive parties will flourish.
The tone is striking too. It’s very low on fantasy. There’s not a spell named in the whole thing, and it seems very human and real, almost medieval despite the fantasy naming. It’s set for levels 1-3, but that’s by the by. I think this feels more like levels 5-8, just because of the stakes, not the monster roster. As I read through it, and knowing very little about Baldurs Gate as a setting, it reminded me of Middenheim from Warhammer. I also thought it could be transplanted into modern day or a sci fi setting very easily indeed. It feels very HBO.
I really like this adventure. Yes, it will take work to build into something but the potential is there for a spectacular experience. Usually I get grumpy if a paid for product doesn’t do enough heavy lifting, but in this case, you’re buying a huge amount of sheer plot. As a work of imagination it’s big, big enough to make you want to schedule your first session so you can start seeing your players faces as the story unfolds.
Next: the city guide. Icing on the cake? Or cheap padding?
I’m going to take you back. Back to the interregnum. The time last year when 4e was being wound down, and the playtest for 5e was underway. It was a big transition for D&D, one that continues today. It was also a time when the D&D fan didn’t really know what to look for on the shelves. WotC experimented a bit, and this is one of those offerings.
It’s an adventure, for levels 1-3, and it’s set in Baldurs Gate in the Forgotten Realms. Now, I’m a real novice when it comes to all things Realmsian, but I’m led to believe that Baldurs Gate has a lot of traction in the wider hobby, what with those new fangled computer game things. This adventure is subtitled as being part of an ‘event’ called The Sundering. Not sure what that is, but like comics, it’s safe to assume there’s always some meta plot going on in the background, probably to allow for crossovers, into novels etc. so that’s fine. The intro says it’s set in the years following 1479, when the gods designate mortals to be their Chosen with a capital C.
It’s written by Ed Greenwood (Realms creator), Steve Winter (TSR alumni) and Matt Sernett (who I last saw writing for 4e) so there’s a spread of talent right there. Steve Winter ended up at Kobold Press who delivered the less than stellar Hoard of the Dragon Queen for 5e. Hmmm.
A word on format. The adventure itself is a 32pp magazine style offering. It’s accompanied by a 64pp city/campaign guide, and the whole shebang comes wrapped in a custom 4 panel, landscape, DMs screen, plus paper sleeve. I love that. It reminds me of the old school 1e adventures that came with the card covers that doubled as screens. Photos of all this below.
Plot wise, this is a murder story, and not a dungeon or hex crawl. It’s designed to be one where the DM is forced to improv along the way, and pursue factional agendas which the characters interact with throughout. It’s flagged up as experiential rather than a straight down the line mission. I’m down with all that, because it’s laid out early so there’s no surprises. Even the stats will need a DMs intervention, because this one is written with no edition in mind. The stats for 3.5, 4 and Next are available online to be plugged in. Even the number of foes is malleable. I’m not convinced that 4e especially will be well served by this approach, but we will see.
Ok, I’m excited by this set up, and the materials are enticing. I’ll set to spoilers next time out and let’s see if it lives up to its initial billing. Here are those shots.
Ok, let’s round this sucker up. Ultimate spoilage. The Cult have made a somewhat unlikely alliance.
There’s this Cloud Giant, and he flies around in an ice castle powered by his dead wife’s spirit right? The Cult use his castle and hospitality to ferry the hoard to the Well of Souls so they can bring Tiamat back from Hell. There’s a pair of Red Wizards in tow also, and they… Well, I don’t know what they’re really doing there to be honest. Anyway, the castle has an army of ogres garrisoned there, they look after the ballistas and try to stay away from the vampire who patrols the place after dark. Oh yeah, there’s some Stone Giants too, but they don’t like the plan. And then there’s old Rezmir the half black dragon, who’s all tooled up and locked in her room sulking waiting to be murdered. She’ll have the last laugh though as her treasure somehow teleports away when she dies. Ha! Oh, and there’s a big white dragon guarding the hoard at the centre of the flying iceberg that castle is built on.
You read that right. Now, at this stage the only thing to do with this whole adventure is smile, and stop trying to take it too seriously. The authors didn’t. This is right up there with the best/worst of D&Ds crazy menageries like White Plume Mountain. Seriously, I hate/love it! It’s bonkers/brilliant. It makes zero sense. There’s a door that has DC 70 to open. Some walls disappear when you touch them just like in video games. There’s a chamber you can’t get to, but if you do you have to work hard to get inside a sarcophagus, and it’s empty. There’s a kitchen full of kobolds, and they are led by a griffon.
I’m barely scratching the surface of the madness you can find in this episode. And that’s not mentioning the bit before you get into the castle where you have to talk to the strange eyed villagers and their incorrectly numbered map. You might get a free Wyvern flight out if it though.
And nothing you do actually matters. This castle has one destination, no matter what approach you take. It doesn’t work. Nothing you can do. Actually maybe that’s for the best, because if you’ve been busy keeping tabs on the regional map during this epic overland crawl you’ll find that the proper destination for the adventures conclusion is a stones throw from it’s starting point. Yep, a massive circuitous route, almost entirely back to day one. Brilliant!
As you can probably tell, I’ve started to lose the plot a little by now (and I’m not alone in that). Sorry.
Let’s sum up.
This series of adventures tries ever so hard to not make the mistakes of 4e adventures. It does that by being hard to follow, vague about its contents, and over emphasises the possibilities of non-combat without backing that up with anything solid. It’s an epic plot, albeit one that could be said in one sentence, and then it gets smudged together with faceless factions and ludicrous situations. It’s been edited in the dark by someone who had more pressing things to concentrate on. It’s been packaged beyond its station. It’s simply not cohesive, coherent or competent in any form.
For the flagship game in the hobby, as it’s opening salvo from the ‘story first’ cannon, it’s a wet, rushed, wobbly, underachieving squib of a product.
If you get quality gaming out of this, bow down before your DM and thank them from the bottom of you heart. They spent good cash on this, and through the power of imagination, improvisation, and sheer bloody mindedness, they delivered you a great experience, in spite of the shoddy tool they had to work with.
Shameful. And it’s only part 1 of 2.
For me there can only be one answer. Drum roll please. It’s…
It’s Dungeons & Dragons.
They say your first love is the one you’ll never forget. And so it is. From the earliest experiences of opening up the biggest rulebook to a game I’d ever seen, to finding out there was no board, no winner, and no end, I was hooked. Even then I knew it was bonkers, that it made little sense at best even when it was trying so hard to be accurate. But it was the only game in town. The other choices were Tunnels & Trolls (I was way too serious for that), Traveller (couldn’t get a handle on it) or Runequest (same). AD&D made it easy, because that was what everybody had played, and it was in stores, and even normals had heard of it.
I loved D&D.
She became my best friend and confidant. She was a little older than me, and sophisticated to my eyes, even though I already knew some people thought she was a bit silly. Gauche even.
Over the decades she had always been there, sometimes only at high days and holidays, where I politely enquired after her health and asked what she was up to. Sometimes she looked a bit sad, a bit down at heel. I hugely regret leaving her behind in the 90s to take a gap decade. Sure, I travelled, I met interesting new things, and some of them turned into extended relationships, but they never lasted. I knew I was searching, questing, and I never thought to look so close to home, to that crazy, sassy, clever girl I’d put back on my shelf in 88.
It took the end of a millennia for me to realise what I’d missed. I saw her then, and she had never looked better. She had a new style, but it was still her underneath all that modern glamour. She spoke sense, and warmth, and she had ideas. She was an inspiration, and I fell into her embrace, abandoning all others.
It was a whirl. I’d never felt so alive. I was crazed with creativity, working all hours on little creations to make her happy. I wasn’t alone. She had so many suitors. But she always looked at me with her own special way, one meant only for me, and I knew that.
They say things have to change, that nothing can stay the same for ever, and they’re right. But when she changed, so did I. I was ready. She got a bit intense for a while and started being more picky and demanding of her friends. I was fine with that. Screw them. I had to defend her honour many times, sometimes making an idiot of myself in the process. I didn’t care. She was worth it.
Now she and I have that kind of relationship where we can just exist together in comfortable silence. We don’t have to try so hard. We still have amazing times, and always will, but usually we just sit and smile, and reminisce. We decided it a long time ago, we were going to grow very old, and very happy together.
My name is Baz, and I fucking love Dungeons & Dragons.
Here’s another kinda-sorta standalone episode. The party could apparently completely skip this part if they wished, and skirt around it giving chase to the proper baddies who have already moved on to the finale. I think this is somewhat unlikely though. Mainly because there’s no way of knowing that the villains have already gone, and there’s no map support for the environs. This despite the text referring to ‘area 1′ which I certainly can’t see anywhere.
The party arrive with a pop through the portal and find themselves looking at a Hunting Lodge high in the forested mountains. Who wouldn’t want to at least check that out? There’s a mention of extra portals nearby, but they can’t be used, so I’d forget about even mentioning them if you want to get on with the game. You know what players are like. The Lodge is the home of (yet) another sub-boss for the Cult of the Dragon, this time Tanis the White. We haven’t been introduced to her as yet, so no foreshadowing or anything clever like that. The introduction mentions yet another Cult notable called Varram, and the possibility of rivalries, but he’s nowhere to be found.
The Lodge could be approached as a kill and clear, or as a chance to negotiate and build alliances. Frankly I suspect the former is going to get more table time. The concierge of the Lodge is a massive four armed hunter, a troll no less, called Trespin. He’s a demon worshipper, suitably bloodthirsty, and rather hungry for battle. He wears a soaked set of furs all the time, protecting him from fire attacks you see. Looks like he really is ready for a scrap. So much for diplomacy then.
On the other hand, inside the Lodge proper, there’s only Tanis in residence as a senior member of the cult, and all servants are expecting only friendly visitors. I guess if Trespin is dealt with fairly quietly, then there’s still a chance for the party to smile and wave their way past a lot of trouble. Actually no, there are a pair of gargoyles that attack as soon as they see drawn weapons just inside the front door. Essentially, it’s going to be a DM call as to whether or not the Lodge reacts to the parties entrance with fear, respect or hostility.
The Lodge is laid out over two floors and a basement, all keyed and inhabited by a variety of foes and challenges. Of interest, there’s some prisoners that can be found which will give the party pause. There’s no right or wrong way to deal with them, but they will be difficult to ignore, no matter the alignments in play. By the way, area 12 is unlabelled (sigh) but it’s likely to be in the top right corner of the map. There’s 24 kobolds in there so good luck tracking initiative and HP if it does all kick off.
It turns out that there are two main things for the party to learn from this episode. First, where to go next, which given the manner of their arrival here, isn’t obvious even when they learn the name of the place. Second, to get some handy ID in the form of a banner which is found in the linen room (where else?). I don’t think either of these are particularly obvious, so as DM I’d advise listening to the players closely to ensure they have a sense of plot direction at this point.
All of this can be learned from today’s Cultist in Residence, the aforementioned Tanis the White. She’s got bodyguards, dangerous stats of her own (level 9 wisdom spellcaster. They never refer to class in the statblock), and home advantage. Despite all this, the assumption is that she sees the party as potential allies (not burglars), and she waits in her office for them to come on up and parley. Again, at the risk of banging on about typical party approaches, I suspect the first thing she sees of them is when they kick in the door and seize a surprise round. I could be wrong. In fairness, she doesn’t fight to the death, and the text gives the DM plenty of info she’s more than willing to dump having surrendered, been bribed, or what have you.
I actually quite like this episode, even if the assumptions therein probably don’t line up with reality. There’s interest in most rooms, and some loot too. I think it’s unlikely every nook and cranny will be explored, but it’s a decent place for a rest up. Although presented as a side quest, or at least as optional, it offers the best chance yet to really get a grip on the cult’s plan’s and movements. It would be a shame to miss out on that. As is sadly typical by now, the poor relationship of map to text lets down the utility value of the episode. Nothing fatal, but still, an irritation.
Next: The Final Episode! Castle in the Clouds.
A while back I wrote an adventure supplement for 13th Age. It was a great experience, and people have been very generous in their feedback.
Turns out there’s a sizeable 13th Age community in France, and they’ve done me the enormous honour of asking if they could translate and promote my work.
Which makes me an internationally published author. Or, smug in two languages. Your choice!