Tuesday, November 8, 2022

Enough Dweeb Adventures

I have a hypothesis: Wizards of the Coast's 5E adventures are for fucking weenies.

I know, it's a tall claim to make. Let's prove this through rigorous scientific analysis.

[Okay, in all seriousness, I recognize that I'm really preaching to the choir here. But use this article for 1) knowing how not to write dope adventures, and 2) explaining to your friends who are squares what the difference is between dope adventures and mayonnaise adventures.]

The principal variables I want to examine are villains and conflict. They reveal a lot about a designer's sensibilities towards what's cool. Because as we all know, the bad guys are always cooler than the good guys.

Dork Shit vs Bitchin' Shit

I'm going to go through five of the earliest adventures published for 5E, briefly summarize them, and then discuss both the fluff of their villains and conflicts as well as how the scenario allows PCs to engage with them. I need to do both because merely dunking on bland flavor is too surface-level. The structure of the scenario and how players interact with challenge elements is what determines their ability to invest themselves in the conflict, feel emotions about it, and take it seriously. To put it another way, this is about everything that makes the experience boring.

But my framing of these adventures isn't very flattering, and with only their isolated descriptions, it might be difficult for you to draw your conclusions. To really make my point, it's necessary that we compare them to some sick adventures. So after each 5E adventure, I'll analyze another adventure that has some of that spicy "X factor" I feel is missing. Some are even fairly analogous!

Warning: full spoilers ahead.

Lost Mine of Phandelver

The conflict centers around the recent rediscovery of the titular "lost mine of Phandelver," which in days long past not only provided this local region great prosperity through the unified efforts of humans, dwarves, and gnomes, but which also housed the famed "Forge of Spells," used to create magic items. The main villain is a dark elf... uh... warrior? Mage? Um... guy, named Nezznar, but who goes by the alias of "the Black Spider." His motivation is to take over the mine for himself and use it to gain... uh... power. Specifically, he wants the Forge of Spells... but like, just because. I mean, I guess you don't need a great reason. Magic items are cool. But that's not exactly evil, is it?

He relies on the loyalty of several factions and agents he's somehow recruited, including the Cragmaw tribe of goblins (led by a bugbear named King Grol who has a club), a gang of humans in the local town called the Redbrand Ruffians (led by a sorcerer with the fucking awful real name of "Iarno" but who goes by the nickname "Glasstaff" because he wields a glass staff, which is framed as a twist in the adventure??), and a bunch of doppelgangers.

I'm not super clear on why everyone works for him. I'm guessing he's rich? But you aren't given a lot on this guy. In terms of personality, he's just generally "curious" about the PCs but will want to kill them regardless. So, you know, he can't be that curious even if the text says he is. And in terms of strategy and conflict, he seems to mostly tell his followers to kidnap people who get in his way. Seriously, there's a ton of kidnapping in this adventure. And pretty much no one in the setting knows about this guy or really cares about his activities. In fact, I don't get the impression that anything he does ever has an impact on the world around him at all, except insofar as several innocent people have been kidnapped because they were inconvenient to him. But also, there's little-to-zero (more often zero) concern or pressure from anyone else in the world for something to be done to find any of these missing NPCs who were kidnapped. They're almost always found accidentally by the PCs. So yeah, those are the main acts of evil committed by "the Black Spider" (hilarious alter ego for a dark elf): a few kidnappings, a couple murders committed by his followers (literally all of whom were definitely already in the business of doing murders before ever meeting this guy), and the pursuit of very vague "power" by gaining a magic artifact.

Likewise, the ways in which players engage with this villain and his villainy is mostly by happenstance. There are hooks that draw them in, whether it's for treasure or curiosity or altruism or whatever. And when that happens, there often happen to be agents of Nezznar involved. But not because the players are following an investigative thread that will lead them to him. It's just because he's got agents everywhere. And when they do conflict with his agents, there aren't repercussions, either. The couple of sidequests that don't involve his agents (the banshee quest, the Red Wizard of Thay quest, the green dragon of Thundertree, etc.) don't feel substantively different from the quests that do. You could easily remove the "the bad guy has a note from his secret boss Nezznar on him!" from any one of these quests and move it over to one of the quests that doesn't have that and basically nothing would change. In fact, you could remove it from all of them and just have the PCs naturally and inevitably end up at the lost mine of Phandelver on their own after a few levels, discover Nezznar and his minions there, and have essentially the same interaction with him.

The Black Wyrm of Brandonsford

Made and published by Chance Dudinack, a bit more of a halfway point between fairy tale fantasy and classic D&D adventurous fantasy. The conflict centers around the shifting power balance in a little woodland community after a marauding black dragon shows up. The main "villain" is the dragon, whose motivation is simple greed, hunger, and bloodlust. It is a true monster. But "villain" is in quotations because of the nature of the scenario's conflict. This is a good example of what designer Jacob Hurst has called "black powder adventure design." You present the players with a jam-packed sandbox of content with a very delicate status quo, and then introduce one little chaotic element that creates an explosion of consequences. Normally, that would be the players themselves. In this case, though, it's almost like the players have just walked in on the aftermath of an explosion caused by the introduction of the dragon to this local area. And then the players serve to disrupt it even further.

So yeah, the source of most of the conflicts in this sandbox is indeed that dragon... but at this point, the dragon is merely a (very scary) result on the random encounter table and nothing more. There are many NPCs and factions who have been harmed by the dragon and are invested in it being killed, and there are hefty boons to be gained for doing so. But there are also NPCs and factions invested in the new situation that the dragon has created. And dragon or not, any one of those NPCs or factions could themselves end up serving as the main "villain" to your players based on their actions and motivations. And the most straightforward means for them to engage in this scenario is to go to the human village, meet NPCs, hear about their problems and rumors, and pursue them to some end. There's no "plot" but everything is interconnected enough that even minor sidequests tie into the overarching situation.

The biggest change in the local dynamic is that, with a violent dragon now on the loose in the woods, the humans of the local village won't leave the safety of their town, which has opened an opportunity for the fair folk to take over the woods once more. So now there are NPCs being harassed by fairies, dumbass NPCs who want to fight back against the fairies and dragon, a scary-but-helpful witch to seek out, an angry giant who kidnapped a monk, and probably most importantly, an army of goblins led by Hogboon the Goblin King, hell-bent on conquering the forest for their kind.

Everyone has a motivation, a problem, and a connection to at least one other NPC or faction. Players who value treasure, lore, or altruism all have multiple plot hooks dangling in front of them at literally every turn.

So now that we've covered conflict, let's talk villains. How's this dragon? Well, it's pretty standard stuff, but all of it's strong. Dudinack makes a very clever decision: the dragon doesn't have a name. You'll find throughout this post that I consider this a very safe and effective option compared to the alternative. This is subjective, but I also really enjoy the aesthetic details that are offered. "Built like a fat alligator" and "poison saliva oozing from its mouth" are both very memorable. But more importantly, this dragon has a backstory:

A family of dwarven brothers once lived in a cottage in the woods, leading simple lives mining under a hill. That is, until they came across a stash of buried treasure several weeks ago. One of the dwarves became so consumed by his greed that he killed his brothers to take it all for himself. His terrible greed transformed him into a dragon.

This is probably the most thematically powerful detail in the entire adventure scenario. It firmly roots the flavor of fantasy in mythology and folklore, directly inspired by the Norse legend of Fafnir but transformed enough to be still generic and evocative on its own. And for the players, it's important. They have several means by which they can learn this tale, including from the ghost of one of the dwarven brothers. It gives them an angle to attack the dragon perhaps by means other than brute force, and it makes the dragon's motivation a little more specific than "be evil." But even just "killed his own siblings for money" is a sufficiently evil act to sell me on an adventure villain, y'know?

But of course, the more original villain to examine is good ol' Hogboon. Much like King Grol of Cragmaw Castle, he too has a castle HQ for his goblin clan. But his goblins actually show up on a random encounter table, meaning that they'll be a problem relevant to the PCs' and their day-to-day lives even outside of a handful of scripted and forced plot moments! Not only that, but his goblins are described as being drunk, dressed in ill-fitting piecemeal armor, and singing songs.

And that's just fun. Is it so hard to add two or three details to something to make it fun?

And his castle is better, too. It's actually the ruins to a temple of some Celtic-like wilderness god, which helps with worldbuilding and reinforcing tone. Meanwhile, Cragmaw Castle is fucking blank. And Hogboon's goblins are not ordered to simply kill all intruders. They specifically try to capture intruders and bring them to Hogboon for either 1) sentencing (always a fun scene for a hammy GM to play out), or 2) receive a quest hook! Hogboon wants to hire the PCs to capture the Dragon and bring it to him, which is an amazing situation!

And do you want to see the character description? Here it is in full:

Hogboon, the Goblin King. A boar-headed man dressed in a dashing nobleman's frock. Imperious, egotistical, and rude. Snorts and spits when he speaks. Wears a ring with a glowing green gem (The Emerald Ring of the Goblin King, pg. 17). Counting up a pot of glittering gold coins.

I say, without any exaggeration at all, that this is more information than is given for any of the villains in the Lost Mine of Phandelver (or many other WotC 5E adventures, for that matter). If you don't believe me, you can check both texts. It's true. And these are better details, too.

Is Hogboon evil, though? Well, sure. He sends his minions to rob and kill. But they're described as being pretty bad at the conquest parts of his orders. And that's something I thing works really well. They're a problem, yes. But they aren't, like, a "halt everything and save the day ASAP, heroes" kind of plot device. But they're also a big enough problem that they can't be ignored by the PCs, either. Even if the players are busy doing unrelated things like seeking out the witch or investigating the disruption to the dwarven trade route, Hogboon's goblins will be a factor to deal with at every turn, as ally or enemy.

Lastly, here's the description for that Emerald Ring:

If you kill the wearer of this ring and take it as your own, you become the new Goblin King. Goblins from Faerie will obey you unquestioningly. While you have the ring, you will also be hunted by the agents of power-hungry fairies who want the ring for themselves.

WotC would never include something that awesome. That is the stuff that adventures are made of. That's the kind of opportunity lying in wait within a published adventure that, if discovered, will lead to a series of events players will almost certainly talk about for years to come.

Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat

So already these next two will be a bit unfair because everyone knows these two adventures fucking suck. But we're doing it anyway. Okay, the conflict centers around a series of attacks across the land on vulnerable communities by the forces of evil. The main villain is the Cult of the Dragon, whose motivation is to 1) find the five magical dragon masks, and 2) steal enough treasure to power a ritual that will summon the evil dragon goddess Tiamat into this plane. The leader of the cult is a man named Severin Silrajin who has the red dragon mask that magically lets him communicate with dragons. Which seems weird to me since dragons can... y'know, talk. The book describes the black dragon mask with a lot of cool magic features, but it gates the other four's descriptions behind an online supplement that I can't view. So that's cool.

The cult operates in cells that are mostly independent, with the highest rank being a "Wearer of the Purple." The cult also hires mercenaries, works with dragons and giants, and has an alliance with the Red Wizards of Thay (a popular villainous faction in the Forgotten Realms that's basically just a bunch of red-robed necromancers). There are other villainous NPC leaders of the cult throughout the campaign as well, such as a wearer of the purple who serves as the main villain for the first stretch of the campaign. Her name is "Frulam Mondath," and the text tells us that she... is a woman, and uh... is lawful evil? Uhhh... she uses a halberd? In fact, that's about as much as we are told about every single villain, including Severin, the main antagonist. No personality traits, motivations, visual description, relationships, anything.

Within the context of the fiction, their acts of villainy sound pretty serious. Pillaging towns and seeking lost artifacts for a ritual are pretty good, and eventually they start gathering up prisoners to be used as mortal sacrifices in that ritual. Tiamat has always been one of the best parts of D&D mythology so she gets an A+ for her villain grade, but what about the rest of it? Well the NPCs that comprise the leadership are all void of literally any details and the DM is explictly told that they are interchangeable with nameless NPCs created on the fly in the case of players killing off key NPCs "too early" and disrupting the plot. No, I'm not exaggerating, it actually says that. When the adventure literally tells you that the villains are disposable and can be replaced with nameless, faceless equivalents, that's a pretty bad sign for how cool or inspired the creativity is.

And I don't think I could tell you anything about this cult other than "they like dragons." The few bits of color we're given about them, from magic items to characters' names, are always... empty? They contain the word "claw" or "scale" or "tooth" or "fang" and they don't inspire any of the feelings which make fantasy so gripping. Even the name is as effortless and bland as possible. "The Cult of the Dragon." Really? You wanna know the name of the temple where they summon Tiamat out of? "The Well of Dragons."

Structurally, the conflict doesn't play out very well for the players. But this is less because the underlying story elements are dweebish and more because this is a notoriously badly designed scenario, one of the most egregious and clumsy instances of constant, nonsensical railroading in the history of published D&D adventures. But yes, the ways that PCs engage with the conflict and combat the villainy basically consist of, "go where the NPC leader tells you to go, find out something about the cult to report back and/or grab the magic MacGuffin, maybe kill a big monster." No matter what, the campaign always ends with the PCs arriving at the final summoning ritual just as it's getting going and needing to put a stop to it at the last second. There is no way to keep the cult from reaching this stage. There's a really cool idea of the second adventure (Rise of Tiamat) centering around the PCs raising support in a Forgotten Realms "Council of Good Guys" and gathering assets for the final battle by doing a bunch of favors and missions... but it's all fluff. There's a scorecard the DM gets which tracks all the assets the party can earn towards this goal and all the assets the Cult might have at the end, and you're encouraged to ask the PCs how they would like to see each of their assets used. But this has no mechanical consequence and cannot have any impact on the showdown itself or the ultimate result of the adventure. So that's a lot of wasted potential right there.

To be clear, I like most of the tropes here. I like classic, even cliched, high fantasy adventure. I like dragons and cults and political intrigue and heroic drama placed before a backdrop of warfare. There are a lot of things in this campaign that should be working in its favor for me, and yet it manages to squander all of that.

Winter's Daughter

Made by Gavin Norman, published by Necrotic Gnome, fairy tale-like setting. The conflict centers around an ancient forbidden love between a long-imprisoned fairy princess and a long-dead mortal knight, who desire to be reunited. The main villain is really the circumstances, but those same circumstances present some interesting opportunities for aspiring adventurers to entangle themselves in this drama.

In a sense, the villain is the ancient Cold Prince, the wicked king of fey and the father of the princess, who is responsible for her imprisonment to begin with but who was defeated in the war with the mortals long, long ago. And he could certainly emerge as a great threat in the scenario if the players find a way to release him from his otherworldly banishment. But in another sense, the villain is the elf girl, Princess Snowfall-at-Dusk, who uses enchantment to manipulate a PC into bringing her what she needs in order to be reunited with her lover, tricking the PC into becoming enamored with her themself (and, inevitably, being heartbroken to learn that they were just being used). Or, depending on how the PCs approach things, the ghost of the knight, Sir Chyde, may be the "villain" since he does indeed haunt his own tomb and the magic ring found within (which the PCs may only be interested in because they're a bunch of greedy grave robbers).

But maybe most obviously, the villains of this adventure are the Drune, a cult of sorcerers who are guarding the stone circle near Sir Chyde's tomb and using it to commit human sacrifices. The "watchers of the wood" wear black robes and golden torcs, wielding silver knives and crafting iron owls that hang from trees throughout the woods. It is known that they want to use the standing stones to tap into the magic of the world of fairies, meaning that it's a pretty natural outcome of any adventure the PCs engage in here that the Drune will see an opportunity.

Do you know how many fucking cults there are in WotC's 5E adventures? And do you know how many of them are pretty much just described as "wearing robes and a mask"? And do you know how many are motivated solely towards the aim of "acquire power" in the vaguest sense? A depressingly high number.

Now of course, this is a very small and contained scenario, especially when contrasted against the full level 1-15 campaign of HotDQ+RoT. But the nice thing about a tight location-based scenario like this that allows for an emergent story is that it can manage to bloom into something way, way bigger if the PCs get invested. And in this case, they can invest in the parts that intrigue them personally.

Out of the Abyss

The conflict centers around, first, the PCs being stuck in the Underdark and trying to escape, and then later, a bunch of demon lords getting unleashed into the Underdark and needing to be stopped. The main villain for the first stretch is a party of dark elf slavers, whose motivation is to chase down and recapture the PCs after they escape imprisonment in the opening scene. The main villain for the second stretch is a bunch of classic D&D demon lords, whose motivation is... well, it's never actually said anywhere. But they're demon lords, whaddya want? They live to destroy and corrupt and cause suffering and rampage and all that.

For the first stretch of the campaign, the PCs are just on the run, with the book providing a simple procedure for general Underdark obstacles that show up in their path every few days (rockfall, lava swell, gas leak, horrid sounds, etc.), plus some random monster encounters. It's mostly "travel by montage" with a lot of handwaving, but it isn't merely filler. The penalty for failing at any obstacle is that the dark elf slavers get a little bit closer to catching up, which the DM is keeping track of. In addition, there are a handful of "set piece encounters" that are a bit more intensive which the book says you should insert as desired. There's this one that's, like, a huge chasm full of spider webs and a couple goblins that's pretty tricky to get through, plus one that's a cave system where a warband of gnolls is hunting hook horrors and the PCs just stumble into the middle of it. There's a pretty good one where the party accidentally gets trapped in a cave system that they discover is a lost temple to the demon prince of ooze, which is losing oxygen and filling with water. The point is, if you're on board with the common 5E style of "scene-based adventures" rather than some kind of sandboxy thing or "combat as war" thing then this is about as good as it gets.

...But it's got some issues. Y'see, the stakes of "the drow could catch up if you fail enough" thing doesn't work as well as it could. The text really, really, really wants the players to attempt to flee if the drow ever catch up, and even recommends ways of having the party get "rescued" by, like, a random purple wyrm attack or something if they decide to stand their ground and fight. But if they do just flee, then what was the consequence? They were already fleeing. The whole adventure has been them fleeing. The drow only caught up because the party was failing at fleeing! If they do flee, do I reset the pursuit score to where it started? The drow can't be more than a hundred feet behind at this point, because fleeing already failed.

But okay, it says that if the party fights the drow and lose, then they get recaptured. They either go all the way back to the starting prison or they go to Big Drow City if it's closer. Then the adventure functionally starts over. This isn't exactly a satisfying sequence, is it? Especially since there isn't a way to track the party's progress towards escaping the Underdark, either. The book says that the DM just kinda decides when it feels appropriate for the party to be finished with this portion of the campaign and has reached the surface. So either they do well at the obstacles for a while until the DM is bored and decides they've earned their escape, or they fuck up at enough obstacles that the villains catch up. Then, they either flee the villains and are back to what they were doing a few minutes before, or they get recaptured and "start over," but either way this section of the campaign is still going to end when the DM has merely decided they think it's gone on long enough anyway.

And, oddly enough, the book doesn't even acknowledge the possibility that the party might defeat the pursuing drow warband. Which is funny, because it's not a particularly difficult encounter. And it also doesn't even matter, apparently. Later in the book, at about the halfway point, it finally addresses the scripted "final showdown" between the drow and PCs. Once the DM has decided (again, arbitrarily) that the party is within reach of escaping the Underdark, the DM is also instructed to spring a pre-decided final encounter where the drow magically catch up, regardless of whatever the pursuit level had been at, and have a big battle and/or chase scene. The text reiterates that any previous encounters with them would have inevitably ended with the party narrowly escaping (and were, thus, not actually a meaningful consequence at all), and now that it does accept the possibility of defeating the drow in a fight, it also is forced on the party instead of being something they have agency over. Lastly, it does say that if any drow were previously killed during the initial escape sequence (AKA, not during a previous encounter where they caught up, but only in that very first jailbreak adventure that opened the campaign), then they should be replaced with generic drow with identical stats.


Okay but how are we doing with flavor and personality and all that? Well, there's automatically a lot going on here that's working better than usual, mostly because the Underdark is just, like, the only cool part of the Forgotten Realms. In fact, you can tell that it's good because it doesn't even actually come from the Forgotten Realms. It was stolen from Greyhawk, because it just works. I've always been a bigger fan of devils than demons in general, but when it comes to the guys calling the shots, the demon princes are the clear winner. Orcus, Demogorgon, Lolth, Juiblex, and Zuggtmoy are all fucking great. Hell, even the lesser ones are pretty good, like Baphomet, Yeenoghu, and possibly Fraz-Urb'luu. But they're just kinda rampaging during this adventure. They aren't scheming or commanding cults or causing plagues or widespread nightmares or anything like that. They're kinda just kaiju in the background. So the only "fleshed out" villains are the drow pursuers, who are, once again, kinda weak. Let's run through them.
  1. Ilvara Mizzrym, an ambitious priestess and the commander of the outpost, who is described as cruel and taunting.
  2. Asha Vandree, the junior priestess who is also described as ambitious and who might like to get Ilvara out of her path, but isn't actively doing anything to make that happen and is too scared to actually scheme or anything.
  3. Shoor Vandree, an elite warrior, Ilvara's current lover and lieutenant, and Asha's cousin. He is described as proud and cocky.
  4. Jorlan Duskryn, an elite warrior who's been maimed, Ilvara's former lover and lieutenant, who was once charming but is now resentful and bitter.
So firstly, the names aren't very good. The few traits each one is given are pretty much just the traits that all drow are described as having. "Ambitious," "proud," "charming," "scheming," etc. aren't really things that can set a dark elf apart. That's like describing a dwarf NPC's personality as "bearded." I do like that they have some relationships and conflict which the PCs can manipulate, but as far as I can tell, the PCs neither have the opportunity to learn this stuff nor the opportunity to really use it, since they're just gunna be fleeing from these guys all the time. I guess they could learn and use this stuff during the imprisonment portion, except all the drow they interact with in that section are specifically nameless, generic guards and not these four.

From there, I just don't really care for the Forgotten Realms' worldbuilding. Maybe I've been spoiled by Veins of the Earth, but there's basically nothing new or fresh in here. The Underdark is almost entirely populated by regular stuff you'll find in the Monster Manual, with a strong bias towards elementals (i.e. the most boring monster type). FR gnomes, myconids, fish-people, and oozes are all goofy and played for laughs, unfortunately. I don't mind, like, one silly society, but I don't think you can get away with doing it again and again and then try to claim that this is "one of the darkest and most brutal D&D adventures yet." Meanwhile, the duergar and drow are both just kinda boring. It's the same problem as before: pulling their punches, going for the most bland or obvious flavor possible, and never wanting to get weird.

The Waking of Willowby Hall

Made by Ben Milton, published by Swordfish Islands, classic D&D fantasy but in a more adventurous and whimsical way. The conflict centers around a haunted mansion that the PCs get stuck inside of because of a raging giant outside, but which they desperately need outside of because of the raging undead on the inside! The main villains are 1) Bonebreaker Tom, the angry cloud giant whose golden-egg-laying goose was stolen and whose rampage has caused the current situation, 2) the undead of Willowby Hall, who were woken up by Tom's rampage because he's currently swinging around a church bell making a huge holy ruckus, and 3) the rival adventuring party stuck in the mansion who stole the goose to begin with (which they've inevitably lost somewhere inside). Their names are Helmut Halfsword (fighter), Lisbet Grund (thief), and Apocalypse Ann (magic user).

Each person's motivation is simple. Tom wants his goose, the undead want to sleep, and the other adventurers want to get rich. The PCs could of course try to deal with Tom by returning his goose to him (good luck), or they could try to deal with the dead by either killing them all or putting them to rest or something (again, good luck), or they could try to deal with the adventurers by... any number of ways. Oh, and of course, any one of these three could be pointed at one or both of the other two. In fact, the unholy evil that's cursed the mansion will gradually get destroyed by the bell's ringing the longer it goes on. So is the answer to just let Tom stay pissed for awhile? Well, maybe. Except that this same process is causing the building to collapse, which isn't great for the folks inside.

In short, it's a really dynamic, volatile situation.

As for flavor, it's hard for me to articulate why this style is "whimsical" and "charming" whereas the house style of WotC is "boring" and "corny." A good example: I really enjoy alliterative names despite how silly they are, but part of why I like these ones is because they're also just solid name ingredients. "Ann" and "Tom" are perfectly good names for fantasy characters, "Lisbet" is an archaic version of "Elizabeth" which evokes the medieval (think of the names in Game of Thrones), and "Helmut" sounds both German (in a funny way) and like "helmet" (in a funny way). Meanwhile, the names in Forgotten Realms are just... kinda ugly and generic and forgettable? Look at some of the names in those WotC adventures. "Iarno Albrek," "Frulam Mondath," "Iymrith the Dragon," "Ilvara Mizzrym," etc. They all sound like they were made with a random generator and then immediately put into the book without the writer ever, like, saying them aloud to test if they sound good or memorable. I especially dislike the norm of fantasy works using nonsense words as names instead of just, y'know, good-sounding real names. I don't care if it sounds more authentically alien to have a character named "Urstul Floxin." It sounds fucking terrible. Wanna know the names of my most played PCs? Sir Conrad, Seymour "Knucklebones" Dragoon, Oliver Sinclair, Tycho Mercurius (this one's a wizard, cut me some slack), and Black Layla. Most members of my group don't really ever forget or mispronounce any of those.

And no, it's not particularly weird like I want from the Underdark. But I like vanilla just fine, because it is a flavor. WotC adventures aren't "vanilla" like people often claim. They oftentimes literally have no flavor. If you insist on exclusively populating your adventure with standard monsters from the Monster Manual, at least include some details. Ben's adventure has lots of skeletons in it, but they get random tables for their outfits, equipment, and activities they're up to. These aren't brilliant or anything, but they're something. They take up very little space and yet are immeasurably better than just "1d6+1 skeletons" and nothing else.

Curse of Strahd

This is by far the most acclaimed and popular adventure published for 5E by WotC to date. Every single ranking you'll find will consistently put this at number 1, praising both its structure and its accomplishments in recreating and even improving upon the original version from back in the day. It even got a special boxed set re-release. So with expectations set high, let's crack it wide open.

The main villain is the evil vampire Count Strahd von Zarovich. The conflict centers around him being a dickhead. It almost feels like he needs no introduction, but for those who don't know him: imagine Dracula. And... yeah. He's Dracula. I mean, he's gotten a visual update in 5E so he doesn't look exactly like Bela Lugosi's Dracula anymore, but he still looks, like, 80% Dracula. Of course, he has been given an original backstory to flesh out the character. But it's one of those hilariously melodramatic and contrived tragic backstories that was really popular in Gothic horror fiction during the 1800s. If the setting had a bit more of a sense of humor about itself, I wouldn't mind. But whenever someone asks me to take those tropes seriously, I just... I can't.

Summary cutting out 99% of the details: he was in love with a girl, she rejected him and committed suicide, she keeps being reincarnated century after century, he finds her reincarnation and desires her, the cycle repeats. As all of Ravenloft is about terrible punishments for your sins, this cycle is, apparently, a permanent personal hell for him, but I always felt like this was much more of a tormenting hell for the soul of that poor girl who did fucking nothing.

The 5E version gives him two additional goals. The first is that he'd like to find the legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing so he can torment him in the dungeons of Castle Ravenloft. The second is that he wants to find a worthy successor, specifically curious about the PCs. This is a good excuse for him to spare them during an early interaction: he wants to get a feel for the PCs and see what they're made of, just in case one of them would be a good candidate for Dark Lord.

I like that he has multiple goals, because it entangles him in many aspects of the campaign and provides multiple avenues by which the players might get involved with him or have conflicting interests. The text also says that he is drawn to charismatic and attractive PCs (btw he is definitely pansexual) and will try to drive wedges in the party, which is some good, gameable advice for roleplaying him.

Structurally, the underlying adventure is pretty solid. It's a big sandbox in Strahd's little demiplane, the PCs get a tarot reading from a not-Romani fortune teller early on which randomizes some aspects of the adventure (really awesome gimmick right there), they get to make their own goals but will almost inevitably eventually go to Strahd's castle to kill the motherfucker. The problem is typical "WotC has no idea how to format a book for use at the table" nonsense. It's an absolute mess. More than nearly any other 5E adventure, it's most guilty of the crime of read-aloud "boxed text," to an actually absurd degree.

This is in the book. There's a lot more where that came from.
I imagine the boxed set has to be an improvement, just because the book is so bad. If you took the time, you could probably extract everything that you actually need to run the campaign and put it into a 10-page booklet, a few maps, and some lite map keys. With that in your hands, yeah, it's actually a good scenario.

But when WotC succeeds at adventure design, they don't necessarily bring the goods in flavor or setting.

So the thing is, I have always suspected that Ravenloft is secretly just the greatest success story in the history of branding. It has long enjoyed a respected reputation in D&D's legacy as the gothic horror setting, but I almost never find myself on board with everyone else. Every now and then I see something that's cool, but 90% of the time I'm in an "Emperor has no clothes" situation. I like gothic fantasy, but in my head I'm hoping for Bloodborne or Darkest Dungeon or maybe even Castlevania. Instead, Ravenloft very often seems to traffic more in the zone of Scooby Doo and it's bizarre to me that no one around me ever calls this out as corny. Don't get me wrong, it's still D&D. There are still monsters who'll try to kill you and who you'll have to kill right back. Dark and mature elements still find their way in, from war and plague to torture and tragedy. But it's punctuated by all the most hilariously cliched tropes of TV-Halloween-special tradition you can think of. 

The setting often falls back on harmless horror for young children. It's about as gothic and scary as my goofy Halloween adventures I write. And yeah, I write those adventures because I do have a great love for "horror for the whole family" and the kinds of scares you can use on kids, but no horror should be this limp or toothless. One of the most frequently-used horror elements in Ravenloft is "the thing moves on its own ooooOOOOoooo spoooOOOoooky!" The gates open (and them slam shut!) on their own, the carriage drives itself, the drawbridge lowers on its own, etc. Almost every page in CoS has this trope. And like... this isn't scary. No one is scared by that. In real life, sure. But no one who ever sits at your table is ever, ever going to sincerely be shocked or nervous when you narrate, "and then... the door behind you suddenly slams shut!"

Other things don't strike me as "kiddy" but just, like, not good. The first time my group and I pulled up a map of the Demiplane together, we spent awhile just laughing our asses off at some of the domain names. "Darkon," "Sanguinia," "Demise," "Forlorn," etc. There's often no attempt at horror, instead padding out the dungeon with "1d6 skeletons pop out of the wall and attack the party" again and again. Reading through it, I was surprised just how hack-n-slash D&D's iconic "horror adventure" is.

Of course, I've also seen some Ravenloft content over the years that over-compensates and ends up being really edgy and kinda cringy. And while the line is subjective, I'll also admit that I've seen some stuff I actually liked. For example, in the 3rd Edition version of the setting, they added a new method to escape the Demiplane of Dread: a unique artifact called The Scroll of Return, a "get out of jail free card" from the Demiplane that the DM grants as a huge reward to end the campaign. But what I find fucking metal is the backstory: it's said to have been written on the skin of a celestial who voluntarily sacrificed its life to allow for the item's creation. That right there is exactly the kind of hardcore, Biblical "fuck the forces of darkness" energy I want out of angels.

But then I look at Curse of Strahd and it tells me that Castle Ravenloft is populated by dancing, asshole broomsticks like the ones Mickey Mouse enchanted in Fantasia. Seriously.

Apparently, Ravenloft works just fine for plenty folks. Call it snobbish of me, but I just want my gothic horror to have a more refined and tasteful sensibility towards the dark and horrific. Genuinely grim, disturbing, and even a little transgressive, but not indulgent, stupid, or excessive. The 5E setting guide has a section talking about sub-genres of horror that's helpful, outlining the differences between gothic horror, body horror, cosmic horror, etc. But in spite of acknowledging those possibilities, Curse of Strahd would apparently rather just do an amusement park-type "house of scares" approach.

The Cursed Chateau

Made by James Maliszewski (Grognardia), published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, gothic horror fantasy. The conflict centers around a haunted manor that's been scarred by years of trauma and sadistic abuse, which now traps visitors in order to continue the cycle on them. The main villain is the spirit of Lord Joudain Ayarai, whose motivation is to escape his perpetual, undying boredom. Yes, really.

Since he was a boy, Lord Joudain has always been the absolute worst type of aristocrat. He is educated and handsome and charming by privilege of his upbringing, but is an utter psychopath and delights in the suffering of others. Over his lifetime, his boredom pushed him into darker and darker hobbies, eventually getting into black magic. Finally, he figured that this life simply wouldn't be able to satisfy him, and that only the next life could be exciting enough to hold his interest. He committed ritual suicide, but was surprised that his soul didn't move on to Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory. Instead, he's trapped in this chateau.

All of this can be learned fairly easily through natural play. Many clues are left in the dungeon, including bits of Joudain's diary and other records of his life, along with some environmental storytelling, all of which the PCs can use to piece together the backstory and goal. That said, it also will be pretty mysterious and spooky early on when the players are just confused and tormented by ghosts. You see, Joudain is not the only spirit haunting the chateau. It's also filled with the ghosts of his many victims over the years, and the ghosts of his loyal and equally reprehensible servants. The list of ghosts is an important ingredient of the adventure, because each one is a unique NPC with a specific history, personality, and relationship to all the others which will inform their hauntings and help to flesh out the depraved villainy and tone.

Structurally, the adventure is constructed in a very flexible and fun way. You are given the map of the manor's floorplans, a room key, and a d100 table of random encounters. Every time the party enters a keyed area (even one they've been to before), the DM rolls on the table and throws that event at them. From these interactions, the "story" naturally-yet-chaotically emerges. They range from minor hauntings like "a door suddenly swings open and loudly bangs against the wall" or "a swarm of bats flies over you before disappearing" to major ghost interactions, usually calling forth one of the aforementioned NPC ghosts and having them do something horrible.

So what's the goal? This sounds like an awful place to inhabit, but where's the conflict? Well, anyone trapped in the chateau can't leave unless they set Lord Joudain's soul free. And unfortunately, the only way to do that is to give him what he's been searching for since the day he was born: horrible, sadistic entertainment. The DM is given a system to track Joudain's Fun, adding points whenever the PCs suffer, sacrifice, fail, die, curse the gods, or help him settle some grudges with the other ghosts. They lose points (usually more points) whenever they heal, are successful at stuff, have faith, try to escape, etc. Once the (surviving) PCs earn 100 points, Joudain's soul is placated and they can leave. While it may be profitable on its own to pilfer a wealthy mansion, this is not really an adventure with a reward. It's a trap, the stuff of anti-adventure that's actually appropriate to the horror genre. The worst part is that, once the PCs have pieced everything together, they have to make the choice themselves to suffer for Joudain's entertainment.

Part of why the "random hauntings" system works so well is that a lot of them are genuinely fucked up. Like, if they were all as simple or cliche as the two examples I gave, it wouldn't really land. It would be just as corny as Ravenloft. But here's one that'll make your players upset: "The character with the lowest Constitution feels an invisible hand cover her mouth and nose, causing suffocation." (use suffocation rules here, possible to end the effect early with the right sort of cleric spell). Or how about the ghosts themselves? Naturally, most of them visibly show how they died, which tells a small story by itself. But these aren't the kinds of deaths that make for fun visuals, like Nearly-Headless-Nick in Harry Potter. No, we have a girl without fucking skin

In Lamentations of the Flame Princess fashion, this is very much an R-rated scenario and contains a lot of terrible things that might not be to your taste. As always, use your grown up judgment when it comes to what material you use and how you use it. This is definitely over the edge for some folks. But I want to talk about its tone nonetheless.

I said before that good horror doesn't need to get edgy or excessive, but we can't always agree on where the line is drawn. That said, I would argue that gore and torture are not, by themselves, intrinsically trashy or bad. It depends on the type of gore, y'know? A single, well-chosen image of violence that strikes the right nerve can be incredibly disturbing, and I think this adventure nails that type of horror. It's a haunted mansion like Willowby Hall, but with a completely different tone and attitude towards the undead, and I enjoy them both. More importantly, they each have a lot more personality and are more fun to run than Strahd's castle. And I won't pretend that Lord Joudain is an amazing villain or anything, but I do prefer his American Psycho-style "rich people are violent sociopaths" tropes over Strahd's "tragic" incel bullshit.

Perhaps most importantly, this is an adventure that isn't afraid to make the villain, y'know, villainous. Evil. Cruel. Irredeemable. Usually, those types of bad guys are 1-dimensional. Joudain isn't, though. He's a very well-realized character who the PCs will get to know quite well by the time they're done, yet it never makes him more sympathetic. To me, if I want an adventure that I can take seriously and which has real stakes, I kinda need there to be some awful, fucked up action involved. Specifically, I need the villain to do it, so I know who I'm rooting against and why it matters so much for me to oppose them. So many mainstream products are squeamish about depicting anything off-color, but I recommend you save at least one unforgivable crime for your villain to perform.

Storm King's Thunder

Thankfully, this is a much, much better formatted book than Curse of Strahd. It opens with a "Dramatis Personae" of all the major NPCs, it has a great flowchart outline of the adventure that helps you visualize how it plays, its location keys are... well, they're still horrendous, but at least a lot of the chapters end up being short in comparison to the "locations of Barovia" chapters. I dare say I'm almost excited to complain about this one!

The conflict centers around a vacuum of power among the GIANTS. The old order has been dissolved, factions have broken out in competition over the role of "king of the giants," and the Forgotten Realms is the battlefield on which these giants are duking it out. This one has some similarities to Winter's Daughter, in that the true villain is merely the tension arising from the intersection of complex interpersonal drama between powerful figures. There are lots of characters (especially giants) who can serve as villains in some capacity or another, because there's a power vacuum! But because this is still a 5E adventure meant to last a whole campaign, there's still a main plot that the PCs will get railroaded through (at least in the early and late levels, when the most "story" happens). So really, the main villain is Iymrith the Blue Wyrm, a scheming dragon who's been manipulating events and characters from the shadows to bring about the downfall of the storm giants, the ancient rivals of dragonkind.

So the nature of this campaign's conflict is kinda tricky. There's lots of backstory and context with big, important NPCs... but none of it is within view of the players. Learning that context will become necessary for them to both care about and attack the conflict, so there must be some delivery vehicle for it, right? Well... not really. The players' only view of things is that, "we are regular adventurers going on heroic adventures in the Forgotten Realms, and also there are rampaging giants on the loose in a lot of places." It's sort of like the demon princes rampaging in Out of the Abyss, but that's a very, very straightforward conflict that the PCs will clearly see the effects of for a long time before they're summoned by an NPC to save the day.

By contrast, the surface-level threat in this adventure (routine giant attacks on smallfolk communities) is still just, like, one more monster encounter among many sorts of different fantasy creatures that routinely threaten people in this world. If the players are interested in investigating it, though, then hoo boy do they have some detective work to do. WotC claimed early on that Storm King's Thunder is "based on" Shakespeare's King Lear but that's pretty disingenuous. They did indeed borrow all the core characters, but they were fucking chickens yet again. God forbid a dark or tragic story element be used, right? So no, King Lear does not go crazy and punish his only good daughter. Instead, he is wise and good and rightfully grants her the whole kingdom... meaning that there's literally no conflict. So to inject one in, we get an unbelievably elaborate scheme concocted by Iymrith the dragon that involves infiltrating the Storm King's court, manipulating his daughters, arranging the queen's assassination and the king's kidnapping via a cult worshipping the Kraken, encouraging and supplying all the other giant lords in their violent pursuits of power, and framing one of the miscellaneous human adventurer factions for all this somehow (??). I've left out some pieces in there. She also wants to expand her treasure hoard. And she has a Yuan-Ti cult and worships their god and draws power from him. That kinda comes out of nowhere in the very, very end of the campaign.

I will concede that many of those elements are indeed cool. But not if 1) you can't commit to a cohesive vision, or 2) you don't let the players experience it. Shakespeare is cool, but they didn't end up doing Shakespeare. Krakens and Yuan-Ti are cool, but they kinda come out of left field and are very out of place. Courtly intrigue and whispers from the shadows are cool, but... well, I'll explain later.

The aforementioned flowchart outline of the adventure looks kinda like this: 1) Dramatic opening arc that sets the stage for many plot elements, but is pretty standard flimsily-railroaded 5E schlock, 2) the PCs' choice of completely meaningless fetch quest (please, please read Justin Alexander's review of this. It's so funny and so fucking bad), 3) the open-world portion of the campaign (easily the most famous and acclaimed part, but also the furthest removed from the "plot"), 4) suddenly thrust back to the plot with a series of more flimsily-railroaded 5E schlock arcs that carry the PCs to the climax without any room for their input.

If you have players who are okay with being railroaded through a plot without any decisions, then sure, they'll get to fight one or two evil giant lords. Some of them are pretty good, too. The queen of hill giants is ordering all her husbands and subjects to bring her as much food as possible with the goal of growing to become the largest giant in the world, believing that the gods will then reward her for it by elevating the hill giants to the top of the hierarchy. That's hilarious and awesome. The fire giant duke has a plan to wage war against the dragons by reconstructing an ancient colossus, which requires that he first invade the capital city of the dwarves to steal/kidnap their fire primordial they use to power their forges. But most of the rest are pretty dull and not exactly ready-made to clash with the PCs in their schemes. The cloud giant lord literally doesn't even have an evil scheme that threatens the PCs' interests in any way.

But really, we need to talk about Iymrith the dragon. Firstly, doesn't it kinda suck that the climax of the "war between humans and giants" campaign is a fight against a dragon? Don't get me wrong, I love both dragons and the slaying of dragons. But WotC has been pretty good about making sure their adventures have plenty of those, and this just feels like the one adventure that didn't need that. Giants are one of the few fitting rivals for dragons in fantasy, but 5E doesn't show them much love.

Okay, but this is at least a smart and scheming dragon, right?

...Yet again, the book surprisingly doesn't actually tell you much about her. She's an ancient blue dragon (no unique art for that, by the way) but usually disguises as a storm giant. She has became a royal advisor to the Storm King's daughter who now sits on the throne, and has become a sort of motherly figure to the three daughters as she manipulates them. But the PCs can't really see any of that. In fact, whenever the PCs are around, the text says that Iymrith is totally dismissive of them.

Worse yet, the main goal of the entire adventure is nigh-impossible to accomplish. If you manage to railroad your players all the way through to the final arc of the campaign, the last big task to do is expose Iymrith for the snake she is. Once they've done this, they've set the stage for a final showdown against her with the help of the storm giants. Except, the PCs have no way to know who the fuck Iymrith is by this point in the campaign. They arrive at the storm giant court ready to treat with the wise ruling daughter and plea with her for an end to the senseless chaos, and to show her that her trusted motherly advisor has a tongue of worms... but the PCs don't know that. No NPC they've met by this point knows it, and the one encounter they've had with Iymrith thus far was in her dragon form. And even in that moment, they don't stand to gain much info from the encounter because, again, the DM has been instructed to run Iymrith as totally dismissive of the PCs. So from the player's point of view, there was a random unexplained attack by a blue dragon during one of the arcs about halfway through the campaign, and then many many many levels and quests later, they are sent to the storm giant court to do... what exactly? They probably have no idea that the main antagonist is in their midst.

And even if they did, what happens then? The adventure really, really wants the storm giants, as a faction in general, to be ultimately sympathetic and eventually "the good guys" (despite a few rotten daughters in the mix). But they have been pretty thoroughly poisoned by the influence of an evil dragon for awhile now and... honestly I can only see any reasonable player looking at this royal court simply concluding that "evil giants want to do evil things in collusion with this evil dragon." What redeeming qualities are they meant to see in the storm giants that would motivate them to seek an alliance with them against all the other giants? I get that historically they've been pretty chill with smallfolk, but the entire conflict started here today because of the dark and wicked influence coming out of the storm giant court.

Let me use a Star Wars analogy. Imagine a campaign set in the Clone Wars where the players are a squad of clone troopers sent on missions here and there throughout the galaxy. Then, the final arc sees them sent to Coruscant to save the day and stop the bad guys once and for all. In their position... what would they think that even means or consists of? Wouldn't they be confused at that very idea, seeing as they think the villains are the droid armies? Wouldn't it be weird to expect them to just know that Chancellor Palpatine is secretly a sith lord? They aren't even force sensitive or in touch with the Jedi Council, so they have no sense at all that there's anything even weird going on at all in their government's leadership. And imagine then that the only party to which they can make their pleas is fucking Anakin. How do you expect them to seek this path to a solution, let alone succeed at it?

Otherwise, there's bits and pieces of details about Iymrith scattered throughout. She has the unique power to construct gargoyle servants, which I find a bit weird but I fuck with it because I love gargoyles. Her lair is a ruined amphitheatre half-buried in sand, which is a good visual + battlefield. She has a hobby of raising purple wyrms, which is a bit weak to me but sure. But even the good bits mean nothing if the players never see it, and they definitely aren't ever going to meet this antagonist.

And that's the thing that's so un-cool and dweebish about this particular adventure. It isn't just me disliking Forgotten Realms worldbuilding like always. It's that it's all invisible backstory. An adventure that happens entirely in the backstory to the session you're playing is not cool. It's the same blunder that every dorky new DM makes when they mistake D&D for an opportunity to write their own novel instead of, y'know, running a game for their friends to play in. Except this instance of that blunder is about 250 pages and costs $20-30.

So how about that open-world section of the adventure that everyone likes so much? This book includes the closest thing 5E has gotten to a true setting guide/gazetteer for the Forgotten Realms, so can you at least repurpose that material for a big player-driven sandbox campaign? Well...

Yeah, you tell me if you think you could run a sandbox with that much info for each point of interest. If the players ever get the ambitious to, y'know, adventure in any of these places, be prepared to just make all your own content for it. You get little more than a creative prompt for each one, usually only describing its history for some reason, and not what you'd actually find there.

But then again, it's not actually a sandbox. It's just a section of the railroad that's disguised as one, and is often described as such by people who take the book at face value. But just read through the chapter and see that it's actually structured like everything else: PCs are given dumb fetch quests by NPCs they have no reason to care about and are whisked from location to location, precluding the need for these location descriptions to have anything to interact with.

Oh, also the DMPC Storm Giant who whisks the PCs from plot point to plot point is named "Harshnag." Fuck that.

Big Rock Candy Hexcrawl

Made and published by W.F. Smith (Prismatic Wasteland), whimsical folk Americana satire. This adventure is a big open-world hexcrawl (meant for use with the tiles from Settlers of Catan, interestingly) where the PCs come to a mythical paradise full of candy. There's no intrinsic conflict here, just a lot of weird stuff to explore and interact with (you can tell that I'm biased towards a specific type of adventure scenario). That said, there are some solid "villainous" characters populating this land.

Some of the encounters are just evocative of the silly "candied-American wilderness," such as the terrifying ooze-like gummy bears and licorice snakes, the Bigfoot-like "Skunk Ape," or perhaps the fearsome Frosting Dragon or the cursed Mr. Stay Puft (a "Type 6 Sugar Demon"). Other encounters reflect the "capitalist vs socialist" themes, like the treacherous union scabs, incompetent wood-legged cops who use rubber-toothed bulldogs, or some holier-than-thou Starvation Army soldiers who demand donations.

But my favorites are the big characters. They include:

  1. The Candy Wizard Mummy: the one who originally created this land, now interred in the Food Pyramid of the desert.
  2. The Fiddling Devil: in the business of acquiring souls through some foul legal play, you will surely be dared to a fiddling duel with him if you meet him at a crossroads.
  3. And best of all, a Robber Baron: accompanied by 1d6 goons, stashing their ill-gotten gains away in hidden mansions, and literally blood-sucking. The adventure even contains an excellent random table to generate a dastardly Robber Baron on the spot, folding in nearly all the best ideas from the setting as a whole.

Of course, this is pretty sparse material. The whole adventure is printed on a three-page brochure, a total of four half-pages compared to a standard RPG book. Is that enough to work with? Can we really say this adventure does a good enough job at establishing strong villains and conflicts? Well, I think it's a great example of effective minimalism. You only need a couple evocative details to make a memorable image or NPC interaction. The "conflict" is the D&D staple of "you want treasure, these locations have treasure, there are things defending the treasure." Except in this case it's candy because, again, reinforcing the flavor of the setting. And any gaps left over can probably be improvised just fine.

That's not a cop-out answer, though. You see, cartoon-y settings are far and away the easiest kind to improvise. I'm speaking from a lot of experience here. I've run an Alice in Wonderland game as well as Jim Henson's Labyrinth: the Adventure Game, and both of them were the smoothest DMing experiences of my entire life. Partly because the material I was given was really good, but mostly because the spirit of the setting was so easy to work with that I could just... channel it.

Think about the process of improvisation. You get a situation where you need to come up with something, right? Ideas start entering your head. In general, they'll start with obvious ideas and then progress into smarter ideas. But importantly, there'll be a lot of stupid ideas you have to sift through. Your brain will generate goofy, ridiculous ideas that you have to dismiss before getting to the "right" options. But in a game that's already goofy and ridiculous, you can just run with it! And I have, a lot.

The party is in Goblin City, navigating the labyrinthine streets. Roll on table for some color. "There's a goblin wedding taking place!" (Hmmmm is that interesting enough? What if...) "...but it's in the middle of a busy intersection, and dozens of goblin cars and carts are swerving around it. There's many accidents, a big pileup to your left, screams and flying body parts, sirens in the distance, all the while the goblin wedding calmly proceeds in tender emotion, love in the air and tears in the eyes of proud goblin parents."

And it's not just me. One of my group members once ran a game of Crash Pandas for us and I could see the exact same thing happening to him. Sure, he prepared a lot of great, goofy material for the scenario. But he also had to do a lot of improv, and there was zero hesitation every time. Meanwhile, my normal DM ran a game of Paranoia for us earlier this year, and it was amazing. While the tone and subject matter was of varying interest to each member of my group (personally, I adored every bit of it), the important thing is that my DM was in the fucking zone. 99% of the time, he's just like most DMs: stumbling over his words a bit during narration, pausing frequently to consult notes, having trouble speaking in-character as NPCs, etc. Nothing really bad or anything, we still love his game. But it was kind of shocking to see him running a game without that. Every goofy Orwellian Cyberpunk idea that came into his head was perfect, because the world of Paranoia isn't one that needs a map or a setting guide. It just needs to be understood, and the rest comes on its own.

That's why I give so much credit to Big Rock Candy Hexcrawl despite its length. In such a small space, it does a better job establishing its spirit than some D&D settings which have been around for decades and have gotten a dozen or more supplement books. Meanwhile, Storm King's Thunder is... hold on I gotta check... 128 times longer and has... not that much more to work with. Certainly not in the open-world section, and certainly not in the way of flavor or inspiration.

So what gives?

Look, this is, like, the definition of subjective. This is purely a matter of taste. If you had fun playing these adventures then that's what matters. If you like the WotC adventures and settings more, that's equally valid to my own opinion. 

But like... man. It's just fucking worlds apart, isn't it?

And it really sinks into every detail, y'know? The names, the lore, the little bits of flavor and color, and so on are always just so... lame. I mean, a dark elf who goes by "the Black Spider?" This "X factor" missing from WotC's adventures is what learned scholars refer to as, "the sauce." As in, "Nah, miss me with that Forgotten Realms jabroni shit. We're gunna play in the Veins of the Earth. That's a setting with some fuckin' sauce."

Maybe worse than that, WotC is most guilty of pulling their punches. The Redbrand Ruffians do not carry red swords as their name would imply. Tiamat's dragon masks don't actually do much, and are textbook MacGuffins. Iymrith the Blue Wyrm has the power to control winds and creates sandstorms, but the text emphasizes that this is purely cosmetic and has no mechanical consequences in combat. Curse of Strahd does this constantly. The random encounter table + room key descriptions prescribe many, many hack-n-slash fights with 1d6 zombies/ghosts/ghouls/whatever that have no context, personality, grounding in the adventure, etc. But then also there are constantly elements that could be interesting monsters but then aren't. There's a room in his castle with a floating skeleton described as wearing rusted armor and tattered livery, which investigation shows was once Strahd's guardsman. Cool! But then the text also clarifies that it's not a monster skeleton, just a normal, inanimate skeleton that's hanging from a wire and only looks like it's levitating. The castle has a section where the party gets "attacked" by the decorative armor on the sidelines, only for the text to then reveal then they aren't really animated and that this is "meant as a joke" by Strahd on his guests. There's a fucking read-aloud boxed text that says, "A low moan seems to travel the length of the corridor as it rises and falls, intoning sadness and despair" only to then immediately inform the DM, "The moaning is only the wind." And like, I get that horror is more effective when there's a good amount of creepy-but-mundane fakeout scares first, but not if the fakeouts are more potentially interesting than the horror that follows. "1d6+1 zombies" isn't enough godammit.

I was optimistic for Spelljammer. It fits the mold of "goofy setting" I was describing before. However, when the books were announced, something that spoiled the hype a bit was the disappointing page lengths. People felt that it was a rip-off and there was no way they could be getting their money's worth. As you can tell, these folks have probably been routinely ripped-off by buying 200-300 page RPG books for years and never realized it before, and would be bewildered to find out how many of the rest of us are buying RPG books less than 20 pages that provide us more fun, gameable content, and inspiration. In a perfect world, I'd consider the short lengths of these Spelljammer books to be a good thing because it might mean that WotC has learned something about good formatting, efficiency and density of good content, and cutting out filler garbage.

But, at least based on word of mouth, it sounds like they would disappoint me. I can't know unless I read them myself, but maybe you can see why I have so little faith left in WotC regarding this sort of thing.

I like 5E a lot, but rules are only one ingredient in the pie. I need adventure scenarios, but I frequently find myself dissatisfied with the ones on offer. Meanwhile, the process of creating my own adventures that satisfy my standards is extremely laborious. Whether you care about story and narrative and drama and all that epic gamer shit, or you're more interested in overcoming challenges and using your noggin', or you just like powergaming and cheesing combat encounters... what the hell are you meant to get out of these 5E adventures?

No wonder such a high percentage of attempted campaigns fizzle out. Sure, there's lots of logistical issues that make D&D a hard game to commit to regularly. But has anyone considered that maybe it's just hard to get players invested in this goddamn mayonnaise fantasy?



  1. This blogpost needs two (2) more examples, it was too short. Otherwise very enjoyable read!

  2. I remember playing Curse of Strahd and the game instantly devolved into slapstick humor, and honestly I have no idea how that doesn't happen with every campaign in Barovia. That place sucks, but it sucks in a hilarious way.

    Great post!

    1. I think it probably does more often than not tbh. The idea that Ravenloft's reputation is mostly down to good marketing and art direction tracks for me - the original was explicitly written as a Halloween special! It's full of puns, Strahd plays a big organ, and the tarot remix thing was there so they could replay it every year. I would lay any amount of money that playing Strahd like "I nevah drink.... vine! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ahhh!" in the voice of The Count from Sesame Street is way closer to how the Hickmans actually ran Ravenloft than any kind of serious horror gaming.

  3. You can do a lot with Curse of Strahd - just not as it is printed by WotC. There are good accompanying books from the DMGuild and if you invest another 20$ you'll really get alot of fun out of it. Even some olschool vibe. It works with other WotC adventures, too, like Princes of the Apocalypse.

    But of course, this is work that should have been done by the Wizard authors. As stand-alone adventures nearly all 5e adventures fail tremendously. The newer, the worse.

  4. Hmm... your review of Strahd has inspired me. I'm going to make my own adventure but it'll be like, "The Castle of Dharst" (Strahd backward mostly kind of) with "Han Velsing" and the like. And I'll write it all without reading any official material, see what happens.

  5. WOTC stuff is pedestrian at best. It has no flavor. Very generic. I like the ruleset, but not the supporting stuff. Even 5e monsters are boring. I pretty much only play OSR or BECMI/AD&D adventures at this point. I haven't bought anything from WOTC since 2019 (for various reasons, but one was because there stuff is trash).