Drums of the Dead will be my 4th time running a D&D Adventurer’s League “Epic” adventure. For the uninitiated, at conventions or special events at stores D&D AL will allow you to run “Epics.” An Epic is one adventure being run by 8+ tables simultaneously and the tables influence each other in a variety of ways. The story of the adventure is also much larger in scale, it’s not a story that can be played through with 5 player characters.
It feels bizarre that at this point I have more experience with D&D Epics than with AL proper. I’ll be running a couple adventures and the Epic at Dreamnation in a few weeks. I just got the adventure and I’ll be running it for characters of 11th – 16th level.
The First epic I ran was “The Iron Baron.” 40+ adventurers attacking a Fire Giant’s weapon factory where he is making anachronistic magic artillery guns. Free the prisoners, destroy his forges, destroy his cannons, and blow it all up. The people I ran it for are amazing lovely people who curbstomped my ass in that pretty standard combat heavy delve style adventure. I was not ready for how badly I was going to get beaten. I think the lesson I took from Iron Baron is “don’t be afraid to change the adventure to make it more fun for YOU the DM.” The problem is that as my first Epic I had no clue what to expect. Making things more fun for me here would’ve meant SIMPLYFYING things. The number one way I could’ve done this would be reduce the variety of monsters in each combat. This adventure was using 5-6 different monsters per encounter and it was just a nightmare. But as a corollary, don’t be afraid to make things hard. In AL, the PCs tend towards Combat Beasts more than suboptimal Mastermind Rogues who want to speak eight languages. At the time, I wasn’t sure I’d do another Epic but you know I really wanted to do better and I liked the players who were kind enough to keep inviting me back for future epics.
The Second epic was “The Ark of the Mountains.” The army of PCs are trying to capture an elemental powered airship first from the guardians living on the airship and then from the Cloud Giant pirates also trying to capture it. It made better use of the EPIC format than either of the other two epics I’ve played. The price of this was inconsistency and chaos. It was too random. Your objectives were randomly determined, your enemies were randomly determined, and there were random events that could happen at any moment that ranged from “Get a short rest!” to “Take 45 Damage Motherfucker!” I tried to run this one in Theater of the Mind which was a mistake in hindsight because the maps were built like arenas and meant for grid combat.
The Third epic, “Relics of Khundrukar” I thought went better. This time I felt fully prepared and if anything I made the combat a bit too hard since I got stomped the previous two epics. If there was one weakness it was that I did not make the objectives in each encounter clear. “Prevent that Duergar from blowing up this thing.” “Use your arcana skill to disarm the Hellfire trap.” The other thing was that even though I made the combat too hard, I still should’ve been ready to bump it up if a player sat in at my table. These adventures are weighted in the player’s favor so do not be afraid to PUSH them in the name of fun, of course.
Virtue #1 for running one of these Epics is TRANSPARENCY. These tend to be chaotic events featuring 40+ people playing a combat heavy dungeon crawl. Tell your players what the to-hit bonuses are, tell them the AC, and tell them what skill they need to use to achieve the objective. Lift the screen. You, the DM, have enough on your plate to worry about. Try not to hold your cards close to the chest. This is a big dumb music festival, not an intimate acoustic night.
Now we come to Drums of the Dead. The story here is a good old fashioned zombie apocalypse. A group of well-meaning people who haven’t heard these sorts of stories accidently created an infectious zombie disease while trying to come up with a cure for undeath. This is unusual for D&D. Every D&D adventure has undead and walking corpses at some point but very few embrace the modern Zombie Movie aesthetic that becoming a zombie is an infectious disease. Typically the undead are created with sorcery rather than a bite. And to make things worse, the Red Wizards of Thay are marching on Port Nyanzaru, the city from Tomb of Annihilation, with a walking fortress that has magic drums which can guide the undead. Drums of the Dead is a cool title but that explanation is kind of stupid. It would be more interesting if it was just “Walking Fortress + Zombie Horde descend on city.” Make the Drums completely metaphorical.
The first thing that strikes me about this adventure is that this thing is HUGE. I went back and checked, Iron Baron and Ark of the Mountains are about 60-70 pages each. Relics was a lean mean 44 pages. Drums of the Dead weighs in at a tree destroyingly massive one hundred forty five pages. That’s 145. I don’t usually feel guilty about printing my D&D shit at work but this time I got in early, did the deed, and hid it in my car. That’s is more than half the length of Curse of Strahd, an adventure that my group played for over nine months and I still reference this book for the campaign we’re in nearly two years after we started. This is a three hour adventure. I’m going to run this and then not use this anymore. I did save Relics of Khundrukar because it has a couple nasty Duergar NPCs I want to use in the future.
There is a reason for this. The previous three epics put PCs of each “tier” of play through roughly the same adventure with different monsters. The Level 1-5 characters are going through the same maps as the level 11-16 characters but one group is fighting goblins and the other is fighting giants. The story isn’t different. Drums on the other hand has the lower level characters going through a completely different adventure than the higher level characters. Levels 1-10 are finding a cure for the zombie apocalypse. Levels 11-20 are attacking the walking fortress and the necromancers leading the army. In theory, I appreciate that. You have different parties tackling different objectives. In theory, it makes sense. In reality, I am working 50-60 hours per week. I signed up to run the level 11-16 segment of the adventure. What if I show up and I suddenly need to run the level 5-10 segment? Any prep I do is not transferable anymore, and it would’ve been for the previous epics. I need to read and comprehend all 145 pages of this to run this three hour adventure. That is kind of an unrealistic expectation for a bunch of random people running a game for other random people.
Now that is not to say this is all adventure text. Drums of the Dead includes puzzles, certificates, maps, handouts, and of course monster stats. Although the previous adventures did this in less than half the space. The point I’m trying to make is that This Adventure is Too Long for What It Is. If you need 145 pages to make a three hour adventure, stop, go back, re-write. This is why writers work within word counts. It’s not just so the minimum is met, it’s also so you don’t accidently put four pages on human barbarian tribes in your adventure about Giants. Of course, I know this got edited and approved and I have no clue what was actually asked for. And who knows, maybe this will be the greatest adventure I’ve ever read. I really have not read in any detail yet. This just seems so different from previous Epics. I know it’ll all come together eventually but I can’t say I’m looking forward to prepping this leviathan. I feel guilty now like the author is going to see this and there’s nothing about the adventure they wrote here yet, it’s just me bitching about there being three PDFs totaling 145 pages for a three hour adventure.
I will be updating this post with impressions from the adventure as I begin reading through it in detail. I also signed up to run two other adventures Saturday and one session of “open play” Sunday at Dreamnation so I have a shitload of adventures I need to be prepared to run for this activity I ostensibly do for fun. This is really going to cut into my Stardew Valley time. Year 4 is the year I turn the place into a complete winery and Truffle Oil dispensary.