I’ve never really been a fan of the delve format WotC use for their adventures. I think it’s great that you rarely need to turn a page when you’re DMing an encounter, that’s a good thing. However, I still feel that it’s too wasteful of space. It doesn’t read in the order that you need to refer to it. I also find that it is a poor repeat of info given elsewhere, usually in the other booklet in the case of the published ‘folder’ mods. Then there’s the monsters, often a reprint of what I already have in the Monster Manuals, and with no real help with description, lore or dialogue.
It’s these last parts that I really would like to see included. One of the big selling points of published mods for me is that I shouldn’t have to do a bunch of work. I also want to be inspired, both on the initial read through (so I want to run it at all), and then again during the heat of combat (when I need all the help I can get!).
I think WotC might be aware of this too. The monster statbock has had a decent revision, that I think is for the better. Essentials appears to put more value on flavour (though I might be imagining that), and the last couple of published adventures made strides to be more colourful and three dimensional.
An area where I think easy wins could be had is in the notion of boxed text. This has been part of published mods for years now, with their heyday in modules like Desert of Desolation. They continue even now, despite vocal opponents. They don’t actually get a boxed out treatment in current adventures, but they are in italics and a crimson colour so you can pick it out of the page easily. Here’s what you are supposed to read out as the party descend into the keep on the Shadowfell:
The stairway leading down consists of finely crafted stone, perhaps the work of dwarves. A breeze chills you to the bones as you take each step down. The flicker of torchlight spills from a room at the bottom of the stairs.
That’s nice enough, concise and descriptive. Trouble is it only gets you half way down the stairs. What is needed is the first view. Later on in the format there’s the following:
DC 15 The smell of unwashed bodies is strong
DC 20 Chattering squeaks pierce the otherwise silent ruins
These are great. They give clues as to what’s ahead, which means it should be part of that preamble text I quoted earlier. After that there’s nothing at all.
This may be due to the nature of the modern D&D game, where it’s heavily assumed that the group will be using battle maps and minis. These make stating dimensions a bit redundant, and will help everyone with basic shapes and features. However, I think it’s very easy to let the props do all the work. There’s 5 senses to engage and dungeon tiles, pretty as they are, don’t give anyone the shivers, or a feeling of claustrophobia. Certainly I have a hard time fearing a Yochlol based on it’s mini, yet described aloud could give anyone nightmares.
What I’d like is fuller boxed text, perhaps with sections underlined to help DMs know when to place tiles or models. Leaving room for further exposition if the characters are curious enough. This should sum up what the party can sense. Maybe like this:
Before you lies a square stone chamber lit by guttering torches. The low smoke stained ceiling is supported by four thick columns near the centre. (Perception DC 20, there’s a section of the floor between the pillars that looks unstable, maybe a false floor). Passages exit the chamber at your left, right and straight ahead. Lurking in the shadows at the far end of the room is a squat sallow skinned creature garbed in scraps of leather and clutching a makeshift spear. (Nature DC 15, it’s a goblin! where there’s one there’s bound to be more) (Stealth DC 13, it hasn’t spotted you, yet)
For me, that’s everything the players initially need to know. Crucially, it mentions the monster in the room, which doesn’t always happen in the mods!
In this particular encounter, the chances are that there will be extra events coming on. There’s the rats in the pit, and two other connected rooms with goblin defenders. They could have their own passages included. I don’t want to see War & Peace, or make it into a read aloud solo adventure. What I want is something to fall back on, that describes the adventure for both me and the players in an evocative manner.
The rules of the encounter (terrain, magic etc) can stay as it is, and so can the tactics, although they could be better thought through. So something has to give in order to fit everything onto the page. I’d actually lose the map. It’s usually repeated from the bigger map in the overview, and the monster placement should be apparent from the description.
I’d also be tempted to lose the monster stat blocks. No, really. But that’s a post for another day.