As said in my last post, the group has finished Curse of Strahd. Please clap. While it would be lovely to take a vacation to the other side of the screen for a year, during the course of Curse a golden opportunity presented itself for a sequel. During Curse of Strahd, one of the players (The Tiefling Sorcerer) was compelled by a cursed Staff of Frost to seek power at any cost. This (as was intended by the writers I suspect) led the player to take on as many Dark Gifts as possible in the Amber Temple rendering the character basically unplayable with flaws and a chaotic evil alignment. Obviously that’s not fair to the player so I came up with a way for them to get out of it, a sadistic choice! The player was freed of their curses/gifts if they released one of the Dark Powers from their amber coffin in the temple. The sequel is the party dealing with the consequences of this action and attempting to stop whatever entity was released. Writers kill themselves for chances like this; in D&D players hand you them on a platter. Your characters stop the villain? Okay now you should probably stop the malevolent being that created the villain.
Since I am not as well versed in the Ravenloft setting I suggested/let it be known that the sequel could/would take place in Eberron, the world created for 3.5 D&D by Keith Baker. I’m familiar with the setting and there are a couple great places where this plot would work.
The reason I’m writing this post is that I’m thinking, “wouldn’t it be fun to write Director’s Commentary to this campaign on my blog.” I very much like Directors’ Commentaries or sort of Documentaries about how people make creative works. I think on my top 5 favorite movies, one slot belongs to Apocalypse Now/Hearts of Darkness/Apocalypse Now watched back to back in that order. It makes me appreciate the work that much more to know who broke their hand in what scene or the practical limitations of a set or the intended effect of a choice the director made.
I have to be careful though because my D&D players have found this site. So I can’t write “this thing will happen in the third act.” Although they were very good about not watching Chris Perkins’ Dice Camera Action during Curse of Strahd, me sharing direct details about their D&D game is a bear of a different color.
I started knowing what happened after The Dark Power Was Released. The problem exists, it’s out there. Next problem, how to get the PCs from Barovia to Eberron? This solution was an idea on my “D&D idea list.” What if someone on Eberron cast the “Summon Mightiest Heroes” spell and the PCs showed up? I thought about how in movies and D&D games The Party is a group of heroes that grew up in the world. They’re residents. In Marvel, all the Avengers have backstories and paths that place them in a place to step up and save the world. What if, in The Avengers, the alien fleet shows up to destroy New York and the Avengers weren’t there? What if appropriately leveled heroes didn’t exist? What if instead, SHIELD opened their own portal to Summon The Justice League? Obviously in that instance everyone goes to the bar while Superman handles shit.
By intentional design, Eberron is light on high level NPCs compared to a world like say, Forgotten Realms. It’s a world where the PCs are intended to be Special. There is no Elminster or Drizzt that really ought to be handling this shit. In addition to getting The Party into the world I need them to get a sense of their power level relative to the world and The Avengers/Justice League is a good equivalent. Eberron has a lot of Eldritch Knight types running around but only a handful of Level 11 people. The Rulers of Nations are in the mid to high teens as far as “levels” go. A level 8-12 character is a powerful general or extremely influential person in the world Eberron. My point is that when your characters level up in a world their prestige and the kinds of adventures come organically from the 11 levels of story you’ve built up. In Curse of Strahd the players went from running in terror chased by wolves to kicking in Strahd’s door looking to kick ass. So when I began actually writing hooks and adventures I’m keeping in my mind, “Would Nick Fury ask the Avengers to do this?” If the Eberron equivalent of Nick Fury would delegate this shit to “The Army” he should do that. He should only be calling the Avengers for Avengers level shit. I don’t care how big they are, the Avengers should not be clearing rats out of someone’s basement.
With the idea of what I wanted to do I began data mining. This seems to be a time consuming and often useless part of campaign prep and yet I keep doing it. I gathered my Eberron materials and any published adventures I thought would inspire me. I thought about where my adventure would be set and read the campaign books for information about those places. Obviously a DM can do whatever they want but I often have trouble working with a completely blank page. I need a creative push.
After some consideration I decided to begin my adventure in the Floating Towers of Arcanix in Aundair. For one thing, the canon location has a circle of stones that can be used for planar travel. Could I put the stones in another area of Eberron? Sure. But why? There isn’t a reason to change the canon just yet. This area provides a few advantages as I see it illustrated clearly in an article by creator Keith Baker (http://keith-baker.com/dragonmarks-53014-vol-the-dark-six-and-the-trouble-with-aundair). For all I can remember, I was the one who called Aundair boring, it was certainly a point of view I held at one point. For one thing, Aundair is the most magically inclined of the European inspired nation states of Eberron. It’s a good place to establish how Eberron is different from Ravenloft. Karrnath was suggested as a place for Barovia if you want to put Barovia in Eberron. Aundair feels more like the iconic Eberron with magic technology and scheming factions. The other thing is that compared to the other nations, Aundair starts at some pretty clear and well defined disadvantages. It’s the smallest and least populous of the “Five Nations,” who were combatants in the war prior to the start of the campaign. Eberron is a “post-war” setting and Aundair’s losses in that war were deep and easy to explain to players who might not be familiar with the setting.
So how much do I need to write after this? Next up I thought of NPCs. If there is one lesson I’m taking from Curse of Strahd it’s that life is too short to play NPCs I don’t like. If I’m going to have to get inside a character’s head I want to have some fun. I want to play interesting characters like Rust Cohle, not Cop #2 in the background. If you’re a DM you are privileged enough to play any fictional character you want. Why not make it an all-star crew? I came up with 3-4 NPCs and what their opinion of the party might be and what they want out of life. After that, I used Maptools to make a map of the areas I wanted to go through. I thought of a few areas that might be interesting to visit at a Magic School (Which Arcanix is) and what might be in them. If this process seems familiar it’s because you might’ve read Mike Shea’s “Lazy DM’s Guide.” Where do you start, who are the NPCs, and what do they want? It’s the core of an adventure. I complicate things by writing my own maps because I’ve found 5E to work better with a grid rather than theater of the mind, as much as I wish I could get Theater of the Mind to feel right.
After that’s done, I try and come up with monsters if the PCs want to fight them. This is tough because I want this adventure to be done in a single session. It’s meant to be an introduction so there are a few things I know I can cut to get the PCs to the finale if they’re playing with their food. When I say things, I mean Combat Encounters. With a high level party combat can be slow as hell sometimes but fortunately we’re all somewhat familiar with each other so we can move through combat pretty quickly. This takes a while because I dick around too much trying to find just the right monster for the encounters. Designing encounters was easy in 4E. It was actually too easy. You needed to deal x amount of damage per round per level and it didn’t actually matter what the monster actually was or the story of the combat. It was too algorithmic. 5E brings in some spikes but which makes things interesting at the cost of predictability.
With this the night’s entertainment is done. I have enough material to guide the players through four hours of action. I try to end a session with an inkling of where the PCs are going next. I don’t want to tell them exactly what to do but for this opening act I’m giving them a firm push. What they do with that is up to them, then I’ll prep the next session based on which hooks they bite and where their interests lie.
This post was lighter than I expected on specifically what’s in these encounters but that’s because I don’t want to tell my players exactly what I did. We are planning to start in another month. I’d love to do session by session recaps if I have enough time. Until then I just have to wait like a kid staring at a Christmas tree for the presents to appear under it. If you have a question or comment the best place to reach me is on Twitter, I’m @SnarkKnight1