Below my review of the adventure is an account of how running the adventure went.
A player in my Curse of Strahd game (the one who fell to evil in the Amber Temple) invited me to DM D&D Adventurer’s League. But this is not just a one shot adventure for 4-6 players. This is an EPIC game. Eight DMs including myself will run eight tables all playing the same adventure at the same time. As in the PCs (40+ of them) will be in the same adventure like if you were running a raid or instance in an MMORPG.
If you don’t play D&D or aren’t familiar with these terms let me explain. Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) is a tabletop game that is typically played by at 4-7 people similar to a live table version of an RPG videogame. All but one person are characters in the game (Player Characters or PCs). One person runs the world/monsters and reacts to the players’ activity. That person is the Dungeon Master (DM). Adventurer’s League is D&D’s new name for their organized play program, where you can take one character to conventions and stores the world over to play in D&D games written under the guidelines of the game designers. In the Epic program, multiple tables are running the same adventure at the same time but in the same universe. So the game goes from 3-6 characters to 24 or more characters. I hope that makes sense.
The adventure we’re playing is called “The Iron Baron” and like all D&D published adventures these days it ties in to a specific hardcover adventure, in this case, Storm King’s Thunder, the latest one as of this writing. The one with the giants. The plot in this Epic Adventure is that a Fire Giant, aka The Iron Baron, is up to some shit and you need to stop him.
Like previous essays, I want to review this adventure. It’s as much for me to understand the book as it is to entertain readers. So, let’s dive into this.
Begin rant: You may recall about two years ago I ran an organized play adventure. I spent about 8 hours running Lost Mine of Phandelver. The week before I ran it, I was told by the person in charge of organized D&D for our area that the players could only earn 100 XP per chapter of the adventure and I could only give out one magical item. In the actual adventure, you earn 6500 XP and there are several different magical items but you only earn 100 xp “officially”. That seemed so stupid to me. I didn’t write the adventure and it went up to 5th level. Officially, fine. Unofficially, take it up with someone else. I can understand that the point of organized play is that you can only play so many games which limits your ability to grow your D&D character. Our Curse of Strahd game has been going on nearly 10 months and we’ve gone from 3rd to 10th level. Adventurer’s League progress is likely slower.
At the end of the day though, I’m not here to carry water for Adventurer’s League, I’m here to put on a fucking D&D show and by Crom I intend to do so. The AL stipulations are something to work around. Every player needs a logsheet. Got your logsheet? Beautiful. What the fuck are downtime days? I guess those exist because otherwise Joe Bob Bard’s character would probably spend the months between adventures working as a carpenter and making fat stacks of money. Or William Weaponsmith goes and makes 13 longswords. I can see why they have a mechanic for that sort of thing but I kind of hate the gamey-ness of it. Whatever, get your fucking logsheet, spend your downtime, and come to play some D&D.
So after some announcements from the sponsors, we finally get into the plot of The Iron Baron. There once was a Dwarven Kingdom. Its ruins were taken over by a Fire Giant, the Iron Baron. He has gathered an army around him and has enslaved much of the area’s population. But his true mission, beyond the wealth and resources this place provides him, is to build a sort of magical iron catapault that can fire balls of magma (a magic cannon basically). This would be very bad for those who do not possess a magic magma cannon. The PCs mission is to infiltrate the Fire Giant’s base, free the captives, and destroy the weapon.
Let’s set aside that getting the plans for the magma cannon sounds like a great idea for an adventure.
The PCs are hired by a group called SEER which seems to be the Forgotten Realms equivalent of SHIELD. The PCs will be infiltrating this Dwarven Fortress in the guise of a caravan that has been captured by SEER NPCs prior to the adventure. Each table of players forms one wagon of the caravan.
An NPC named Red Ned briefs everyone. The wagons contain food, building material, and captives. The players will take on the guise of wagon drivers, guards, captives, or hide in the wagon. Each wagon also gets a bomb. Mechanically it casts Fireball at 5th level (10d6 damage) but in RP, it’s a magic bomb. At the gates of the Fortress, the lead wagon needs to call out a password that will get the wagons inside. Once inside, the guards will inspect the wagons.
After the inspection, the group splits up. This is an adventure for groups of 7th level and 3rd level PCs. The higher level PCs’ job is to destroy the magma cannon that the Iron Baron is building. The lower level PCs’ job is to get the prisoners out before the place blows up. Anyone gets a chance to kill the Iron Baron, take it. I’m getting a very Star Warsy feel from this and will be giving inspiration to the first decent reference.
So, I really like this opening briefing scene. It feels very cinematic. I’m wondering if one DM or the person running the show is going to tell everyone this at once or is each table getting the briefing separately. One thing I would add to this is a ticking clock. I would say the caravan was captured four hours ago. It’s a 2-3 hour hike up the mountains to reach the Dwarven fortress. The adventure budgets 15 minutes to complete this scene which is just prep work and roleplaying. I would make sure of that by telling the PCs that any longer than 15 minutes here the guards will make the guards suspicious of the delay.
Nomenclature is inconsistent in this adventure. The Dwarven Kingdom is called Ammarindar. But the adventure itself only makes reference to the Molten Vaults which I guess are a suburb of Ammarindar?
The next part of the adventure is getting through the gates. This part isn’t described clearly enough. The wagons go through an illusion onto a trail that leads into the mountain. What kind of illusion, the text just says, “a clever illusion” that apparently Red Ned didn’t warn you about. Then the lead wagon needs to say the password. Then the gates open.
In the Iron Baron, if the lead wagon can’t remember the password, the gates stay shut. That is a lot of pressure and a dickish person trying to make an Evil Dead reference (Klatu! Verada! ….Nic*COUGH*) will ruin the day for 40 people who paid to be here and the store that made special preparations for the event. Fortunately they can be opened by an Athletics check. With 40 adventurers, half of them able to help, someone will get these doors open. But it’s also not clear what happens if this gets fucked up. There are 20 murderholes but somehow they can see inside and outside the gates? Do the guards inside form up? Do we need to roll initiative for 40 goddamn PCs? Also, twenty murderholes each with a goblin inside? I’m picturing this wall of cubicles each one reeking of goblin shit. I would love to see the map for this but this is the only section of the adventure with no map.
Once the gates are open the Hobgoblin guards inspect the wagons. Having recently gone through a national border, I’ve got some ideas for how to run this scene if only to work through some anger at this nosy motherfucker who wants to know who is running my goddamn business while I’m on my goddamn vacation. NO ONE’S RUNNING IT I GUESS I SHOULD GO HOME INSTEAD OF SPENDING MONEY IN YOUR FUCKING COUNTRY. Okay rant over. You might also want to recall some questions from Papers Please.
One curiosity here, apparently none of these guards remember these caravan guards from when they left? Is that just goblin racism? Red Ned provided you with uniforms so you’re not just assholes trying to sell stuff to the giants, you apparently work here. This goes double for any elves or gnomes which the text says the hobgoblins single out for abuse, wouldn’t the guards know which elves work here? But if they work here, why are they being questioned by the guards so sharply? If they don’t work here, why did Red Ned have to take a caravan instead of just getting some wagons together.
The point of all this is that the encounter is built to anticipate that you might fail without being a point of failure. Which is good, you never want an adventure to proceed from an assumption things happen a certain way. Although for all the text explaining what happens if the PCs trigger the alarm there is no map of this section of the dungeon. Every other section (where combat is inevitable) contains a map. The adventure is trying to have it both ways. It provides copious details about what happens in the event the PCs get caught but not the most basic one, a map.
I would roleplay these hobgoblins as hardasses while behind the screen trying to be lenient. The PCs shouldn’t fail this unless they roleplay it poorly or they rely on the dice and the dice screw them. The reality is I don’t want to be the DM who was too hard on the group and has to say “THE ALARM SOUNDS.” Although if this was an actual checkpoint at a fortress I wouldn’t have eight lanes with teams checking people in, I’d have a queue and the same team questioning everybody. That would be a really boring adventure though. “What’s this encounter? We have to queue up.” My point is that from a security standpoint, it is complete idiocy to admit 40 strangers inside your death fortress and THEN conduct a search. Like, if you find something, you want them OUTSIDE THE FUCKING GATE.
I don’t really understand how this is going to work with 40 players, I guess each table gets a portion of the enemies to fight? And like the gate password I mentioned earlier, it only takes one asshole to ruin everyone’s fun here. The difference here is that the adventure isn’t over because you’re inside the gate. The alarm has just sounded. But in a group of 40 people playing D&D, what are the odds they’re all going to take this seriously and roleplay smart? Not good. One pre-teen playing a badass who refuses to back down when challenged by Hobgoblin guards will be the culprit I think. That or a blown stealth check. I’m all in favor of giving players one free fuckup or a chance to talk themselves out of this but If Johnny Pre-teen mouths off to the guards I’m setting that little bastard straight. I may be projecting.
I think my biggest problem with this encounter at the gate is that it is too goddamn complicated if shit goes bad. If it does, there are FIVE varieties of monsters to fight including 3 variant hobgoblin stat blocks. At least the automated attacks go off at initiative count 20 and last. This is a recurring problem in this adventure, too many different types of monsters per fight especially when those monster’s abilities really just boil down to “hit guy with weapon” or “hit guy with weapon twice.”
There’s a second encounter in this chapter that seems to only occurs if the PCs triggered the alarm at the gate. If you go in without the alarm, there are four goblins in the next room which is pushover territory. The only challenge is that these guys could trigger an alarm too. And there is a horn in the center of the room for them to do so. But if the PCs haven’t triggered an alarm by this point, the only way the PCs should be able to fuck this up is if they do something stupid. The text even says that the goblins surrender. There are 40+ adventurers and 4 goblins. The real attraction of this room is to scout it because this is where the final encounter takes place with the Iron Baron.
From here the 40+ players split up. The lower level PCs go to rescue the prisoners and free the slaves while higher level PCs go to sabotage the Magic Giant Magma Cannons. I do wonder (again, if this were real) if it would make more sense for a couple high level PCs to stay with the low level group. Even with bounded accuracy, one level 8 adventurer in a combat for 3rd level PCs would feel like Batman.
So the lower level PCs go to something called the Gaolery which I don’t think is an actual word. Gaoler is a word pronounced exactly like Jailer. I believe the term the author intended to use was DUNGEON as opposed to Gaolery/Jailery. Not sure why this Dungeons and Dragons adventure is avoiding a perfectly acceptable time to use the word DUNGEON. Since we’re going into a literal DUNGEON.
This section of the adventure for the lower level tables is split further into two objectives, the dungeon and the slave barracks. Each one is tackled by a separate group of adventurers. First though, is a combat encounter. The encounter is with a group of goblins but there are also three statues that can be triggered to whirl around and deal damage. The encounter isn’t terribly tactical, the statues don’t have initiative or anything, they just hit everything in the room. I can’t see how it’s not in the players interest to have one person trigger the trap in order to kill the goblins and then deal with it at their leisure. Once activated, does the trap keep going until deactivated? The text doesn’t say.
The point here is for the PCs to use a sewer pipe that goes under the portcullis to open them up. That seems like a fairly obvious security flaw. You’re a dwarf, you built a portcullis with a sewer pipe that allows someone to easily get past your portcullis? It’s inconvenient but clearly doable. I feel like this encounter was written around the name of the encounter, “Dance of the Stone Fathers.” The author had this idea for a trio of spinning dwarf statues and everything else was built in service to that. Never mind if anything else here makes sense, everything else is but window dressing for that. But I’m not even sure how the trap works. The trap is triggered by a lever or a dial but which is it? The text switches between both terms.
After the Stone Fathers comes a fight with some basic goblinoids and a named NPC. There isn’t much to say here, they’re straight up fights. The tables “split up” here with one fight taking place in the slave barracks and the other going to the jail/dungeon/gaol/gaolery. One thing that does stand out is that the flavor text describes Nivek the Ogre torturer as clad in spiked chainmail with a whip. His stat block describes a basic minotaur. Something went wrong there. If you want him to play as a minotaur instead of an ogre, why not just write “Nivek uses minotaur stats.” It has to be an error because instead of a whip dealing Greatclub damage it just says “greatclub” under his weapon.
Tier 2 – The Higher Level Portion
For some reason that is entirely without reason the event planners have decided that I will be responsible for a higher level table. I do have experience DMing this level which is probably why doing so for strangers makes me nervous. I don’t have a clue what grab bag of abilities they’re going to bring and as they’re strangers there is no incentive not to bring their finest broken characters. Aside from the rule that technically you are supposed to bring your properly leveled Adventurer’s League Character.
The “Tier 2” section of the adventure is really just a mirror of the low level version. The first encounter is a trap encounter still very 4E style and still very confusing to run. As the low level version was called, “Dance of The Stone Fathers” this one is called “The Purifier” with the levers/dials triggering nozzles of searing fiery liquid rather than spinning statue blades.
The adventures all have more or less identical second parts for the 4th Encounter of the Day. There is an encounter with a named NPC. There is a secondary objective in the encounter. There are environmental effects that are probably nowhere near as effective as the monster’s spells and abilities. The higher level parties split between The Forges where the Iron Baron makes his weapons of steel, magic, and elemental fire or The Iron Bombards, also known as the Magma Cannons.
I have a few things to say about these encounters with the Forges/Cannons despite being a higher level version of the Barracks/Gaolery. The named NPCs in this encounter have lair actions which are cool, although they’re only called lair actions in the back of the book in the stat blocks. Disabling the Forges/Cannons requires Athletics to destroy, a spell to overload, or Detect Magic AND an Arcana check. Question. Have you seen anyone take Detect Magic yet? It’s a plot coupon spell. Everytime I see it in text I think, “if no one has this spell, no one will experience this content.” Adventure Writers, I implore you, do not put plot coupon spells in your adventures.
Another issue I have with these Forges/Cannon encounters is the number of different monsters. If the players did everything right and the alarm was not raised there are four different monsters in this fight. If the alarm was raised, there are six different types of monsters. That’s a lot of stat blocks to look over for powers. Again, it’s very 4E where the monsters needed a balance of Brute, Soldier, Lurker, Skirmisher, Artillery, Controller. And 5E is much the same except with the monster roles less formally defined. It is still a lot to keep track of. I’ve already got to watch a table full of players, do you really expect me to have any degree of mastery over the tactics of potentially six different monsters?
I would be more comfortable if there was some guidance as far as the XP budget or level of the encounters but there’s none of that. The instructions for balancing the encounters are limited to “add this monster if your party’s average level is higher than 7, subtract this monster if it isn’t”. I realize that the Challenge Rating (CR) system is a crapshoot. One CR 4 monster is not equivalent to another. But some transparency here would go a long way towards making me feel better about not tinkering with these encounters to ensure fair and challenging. Instead, the adventure really feels like a grab bag of different monsters from Volo’s Guide and every fire themed monster. Both types of new Hobgoblins from Volo’s make an appearance and The BBEG, the Final Boss, The Iron Baron, is the Fire Giant Dreadnought also from Volo’s Guide. Then you also have custom monsters in the form of the named NPCs. The Named NPC for the Magma Cannon is a CR 5 Azer, homebrewed so far as to be completely unlike the Azer from the Monster Manual. The challenge of the Monster Manual Azer (CR 2) is that you take fire damage for fighting it in melee. That trait is completely absent from this one. The writer took an Azer, made it Large, not deal damage when hit, and encased it in plate armor which somehow doesn’t increase its AC. The Azer in this adventure gets completely robbed of Azer like traits.
Another Named NPC your group might fight is a Salamander named Vigorel. It’s got a ton of fire and charm spells and looks like a fun opponent to fight. But then the Salamanders later in the adventure have vulnerability to cold and resistance to non-magical damage. They also have multiattack with a weapon and their tail. And like the Monster Manual Azer, Salamanders are supposed to deal fire damage when hit in melee. Vigorel does none of these things and is just immune to fire. Again, like with Nivek the Ogre/Minotaur, I have to ask, is this a mistake? The feeling I’m left with is that except for the Iron Baron (which is a straight out of Volo’s Fire Giant Dreadnought except with +1 AC) the author was not very careful in designing these NPCs. Nivek the Ogretour is clearly wrong or unfinished. Hadutha the Azer and Vigorel the Salamander are lacking iconic traits that would make them seem more like an Azer and a Salamander. My guess is that giving them these extra abilities would’ve made them too difficult. Then don’t use iconic monsters in your adventure if they lack their iconic monster traits. Or explain it. I would run this as, Vigorel is puny for a Large creature which is why it lacks multiattack. I feel the need to repeat this but Hadutha is encased in some kind of armor which prevents her tremendous heat from affecting the PCs and increases in size. Although for some reason Hadutha’s AC is strictly “Natural Armor” despite being encased in armor powerful enough to give her a lair action that is basically free burning hands.
For the final encounter, the PCs need to get back to the warehouse (the second room of the adventure) and take elevators out of the dungeon. Maybe I missed something, but I don’t think anyone said the PCs should take elevators out. I think they’re going to assume they need to take the front door out. Note to self, mention this during the briefing. Likewise, the number of rescuable captives in the adventure overall is also undetermined. Only the Cannon encounter details that there are 15 captives there. So I would reason that the Tier One lower level parties rescue more people if only to make them feel important.
The final challenge of the adventure is the Iron Baron himself. He is a Fire Giant Dreadnought, CR 14 squaring off against a level 7 party. In Curse of Strahd, your level 9 party faces off against a CR 15 monster with no less than 3-5 artifacts, including one that gives permanent disadvantage to the undead and protects the entire party (yeah I nerfed the dick out of that one). This is a CR 14 monster after the party has already been in 2-4 combat encounters already. He is going to beat them like red-headed stepchildren. The encounter should be about getting away from this motherfucker, not beating him. Only one party fights him though, the other party fights a fiery iron golem but somehow different that the legion of other fiery iron golems in this dungeon. The Iron Creature is equivalent in power to the Iron Baron but there has been ZERO foreshadowing on this thing. I would foreshadow the hell out of this thing during the Forges because otherwise the people not fighting the Baron are going to feel like chumps.
What verdict can I render at the end of the day? This adventure is very much like a 4E style delve. The Inspection makes for a merry bit of roleplaying but the rest of the adventure is a series of fire and or giant themed opponents waiting to be butchered. There isn’t going to be a followup adventure based on the player’s success or failure here. And without that sense of continuity it’s hard to pretend something is at stake here. I think that’s my problem with organized play. Home campaigns go as long as interest can be sustained. But in the Adventurer’s League after the giants there will be a new crop of monsters menacing the Sword Coast because a new book came out. Story? What story?
But it’s still D&D. I can still come in with a positive attitude determined to give these players their money’s worth. And they are literally paying the FLGS to run this event. The adventure is more combat heavy than I would typically bring to my home table. The draw isn’t as much the story as it is the spectacle of 40 adventurers on a raid to kill the Irön Barön. Umlauts because it’s gotta be fuckin’ metal. Since there is no continuity and the spectacle is the point I can do no less than to make this as epic as possible. Think of it like music, you might listen to your favorite album at home in its entirety savoring every note. Epic D&D is a concert, you’re there for the greatest hits, to pump your fist in the air and get entertained. A Home Campaign is a marriage, to be tended, nurtured, and blossoming into something beautiful. A one shot game like this ought to be as dirty and depraved as possible and by the Gods I will make it so.
Annnnd it is over. How was it?
Sweet fucking Christ that was a long day. I should start by saying the players had fun. I enjoyed myself too. Really that’s what it’s all about. And I can’t see a situation where I would turn down a friend who asks me to DM a game for them.
But. It is fucking haaaard to DM a combat slog for people you don’t know who bring highly optimized characters.
If I hadn’t been asked I don’t think I would have chosen of my own free will to DM this particular published adventure for this particular group of players. I don’t mean to impugn their style of gaming and I certainly don’t want to come off as ungrateful for the very kind words they offered me during and after. They really did make me feel very honored to run a game for them. It’s just, this adventure is 95% combat and there were seven level 7-9 power gamers who all knew each other. It was nowhere near my cup of tea. To quote Total Party Thrill’s excellent episode on munchkins (http://www.totalpartythrillcast.com/2016/02/25/tpt-30-munchkins-the-mystic-theurge/) a power gamer becomes a munchkin when they become a problem. But what if all the players are power gamers, who’s the problem then?
All right, enough philosophy. This adventure played out more or less exactly like I thought it would. I knew it would be a combat slog. The alarm was not triggered although it came close. Their persuasion check was close enough. What sealed it was a successful stealth check by the party rogue. It was DC 10, had they blown that I would’ve felt obligated to sound the alarm. With that, it was more or less easy pickings to get to the trap room. I realized that with the Alarm blown the encounter at the Trap Room (The Purifier) would be too hard. Without it? Way too easy. In hindsight I should’ve had the ogre run straight for the trap trigger but I think the ogres only realized that in hindsight too.
Another problem with this adventure was that the rooms were too goddamn big. It took time to move around. In 4E, adventures gave starting points for monsters. I would’ve appreciated that in this adventure too. I had the monsters too far away which gave the PCs too much time to prepare cast spells and fuck up the monsters. Halfway through the encounter in the Forges (my group went to the Forges rather than the Cannons) I remembered the Ironmongers (the pseudo-golems that make up a lot of this adventure) have resistance to non-magical damage. There was no fucking way I was slowing this game down anymore so I elected to not apply it.
If there was one thing I perceived as a problem in this game, it was that things took too goddamn long. My Curse of Strahd game ended with the PCs level 11. So I have a good deal of intermediate to high level DM experience. But over the course of months I got to know the abilities of my 5 players very well. Everyone knew what was going on. When the Paladin/Rogue went nova he would add his shit up while I moved onto the next creature. When the Druid did something he managed it. That was the culture of our table developed over time. Probably the thing that took the longest were the battlemaster’s manuevers but I’ve known that guy for near 6 years. The slack I cut him for taking a bit longer than the rest of the table in no way transfers to a one shot for 7 random players specced out to be optimal combat players, especially in an adventure with less roleplaying than I prefer. There’s a familiarity that I need with my players to really relax and enjoy myself.
With this group there was this constant hostile drumbeat in the initiative. “Who’s turn is it? Who is up next? WHO’S UP?” It grates on my nerves. Instead of having fun, I’m asking myself, “how does this one motherfucker have 24 AC?” “How many attacks does this other motherfucker have?” “What in Pelor’s holy fucking name is a wound and why do you deal them?” “What the fuck is precision and why does it bump your to hit bonus?” The party druid earned my darkest ire. My Curse of Strahd game had a druid and I loved him as much as any of the other players. I’m not saying, “I don’t hate druids because I have a druid friend.” What I am saying is that the guy playing the Rogue seemed to share my opinion that a PC’s sacred mission is take your goddamn turn as quickly as possible. The Druid just took too goddamn long to resolve turns. I’m sure he’s a wonderful person and he’s great at playing a druid. But it’s a nightmare in a high level combat slog adventure with 7 players at the table. I pick on the druid because druids have Conjure spells and I have never seen one that did not bring a game to a screeching halt. I feel the need to emphasize this again, the players were lovely people. But the effectiveness of the conjure spells seems to stem entirely from their ability to vex the DM. I offered him inspiration to not summon a horde of table time stealing creatures but he seemed honestly crestfallen that he couldn’t do his trick.
As much as my description of this game seems to be an extended way to say “Never Again” I’d do it again if asked if only for a chance to do better. For one thing, only running games for a carefully vetted and familiar group is a weakness in my DM Fu. Maybe I’m just okay at running Curse of Strahd. I need to branch out, bring in other people. People change, move, lose touch and I don’t want to lose access to the hobby because I lost access to my group. So how would I have done better? For one thing, Transparency. I prefer to keep mystery in my home game. What I mean by that, AC. Save DCs, Hit Points. I wish had shared that with the PCs to shave time. I wish I had dictated where the PCs start and where the monsters start rather than doing something that made more narrative sense so the fights would be fairer. The Druid player took the lead in calling out who’s turn it was. It was disorienting but exceedingly helpful for a table that big.
The entire experience reminded me of that part in Reservoir Dogs where they discuss their nicknames. Mr. Pink doesn’t want to be called Mr. Pink. And the mob boss Joe says that no one gets to pick their own names or trade. Because then you get five guys who all want to be Mr. Black and they don’t know each other so no one has a reason to back down. It’s sort of like that. You don’t know how to they roll and they don’t know how you roll. I don’t want to give out items that lead to someone having 24 AC and if I do I want to write an adventure so that I still feel like I’m challenging that player. Maybe it’s all a control thing. I like an environment I have more control over and a published adventure with players selected by lot takes too much of that away. I’m sure someone is saying, “well go to more conventions and play with more people and this will diminish.” But I still just don’t think it’s my jam.