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.
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.
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.
- Ilvara Mizzrym, an ambitious priestess and the commander of the outpost, who is described as cruel and taunting.
- 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.
- Shoor Vandree, an elite warrior, Ilvara's current lover and lieutenant, and Asha's cousin. He is described as proud and cocky.
- 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.
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.
|This is in the book. There's a lot more where that came from.|
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.
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:
- The Candy Wizard Mummy: the one who originally created this land, now interred in the Food Pyramid of the desert.
- 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.
- 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?