I’m going to put a HUGE SPOILER TAG on this post because I’m going to talk about problems with a D&D module that I ran this weekend and which not too many people will have been exposed to.
Over the weekend, I ran DDEX1-3 Shadows Over the Moonsea, a D&D Expeditions module for Adventurer’s League.
Before I begin, let me give you the format of these adventures.
The DDEX series is the “Expeditions” series of Organized Play (Adventurer’s League) for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. In Adventurer’s League, there are many options for play, including:
- Encounters: a 2-hour adventure in an ongoing campaign that is run in-store (using the Hoard of the Dragon Queen module, either the free short version provided to stores, or the full module sold as a book)
- Expeditions: a 4-hour adventure, run in-store using the provided Expeditions modules (6 of them are currently available). There is no way to access Expeditions if you are not sponsored by a store.
- Epics: run only at conventions. There is no way to play an Epic outside of a convention.
- Home Games: held in-store or at home, using “any other officially published adventure,” which currently includes Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Lost Mines of Phandelver (the adventure in the Starter Kit).
All adventures have an appropriate level rating for the adventure. For example, most of the current Expeditions are for levels 1-4. If you are level 5, you can’t play that adventure. Characters can go from one format to another– as long as they were built and played using the AL guidelines and they track their play on their log sheet, you can take your PC to an Encounters game anywhere, play at home or in a store, whatever. And DMs get experience points for running the games, so my paladin gained 300 XP on Sunday, just by virtue of me running this module.
Although it’s important to prep, as a GM, for any adventure, the reality is that organized play GMs often do not have a lot of time to prepare the adventure and make adjustments. They never know exactly who will be playing until they sit down to play.
I have long maintained that all organized play adventures need to be written not for the great GM, who can save any game and make up a great adventure on the fly. They need to be written for the mediocre GM, who is learning or maybe not that creative (or maybe a little hungover… you know what I mean if you’ve ever played convention games!)
This adventure fell into the Expeditions format. It is approximately 4 hours long and should contain a complete story in one session. I don’t like to do a lot of prep for RPGs, so these modules really need to have everything in one place to work from (most of the time, they do). Some of these modules are very mediocre. Once in a while, however, you get one that is just bad.
This is one such adventure….
WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!!!
Where do I begin?
In our party, we had three 2nd level adventurers, including a cleric, a fighter-mage, and a rogue. One of the players wasn’t feeling well, so her participation was half-hearted at best.
In the first 25 pages of the module, there are over 30 typos and grammatical errors. On one page, I highlighted 5. None were so awful as to be unreadable, but they were downright depressing.
The module is railroady, but that can work. The adventure is written as an investigation story, where the PCs are trying to find a “ghost ship” that is raiding along the coastline. There’s some role-playing in town before they leave, and they do some questioning. I adlibbed some of this, since the PCs weren’t really going towards the NPCs who had the information, but the PCs found it out by asking other NPCs. The important information is “head along the coast to the southwest. The ghost ship attacks every 4 days.” I played this part like a Gumshoe adventure– if it was an important clue, I made sure they had it. If not, they could get it easily (aside from very low dice rolls throughout the entire session).
They eventually find a fishing village on an island which looks like it will be the next target. They take a ferry over to the village. This village is described as “degenerated,” backwater and inbred are the implications, though you later learn the village is also filled with demon-worshippers.
There, they meet Elisande, a spunky 12 year old urchin who was orphaned a few years ago.
Elisande’s dialog is written out in this adventure– the only dialog which is written. Unfortunately, it’s written in a thick dialect.
I give props to WotC for trying to be inclusive by providing what may be a Caribbean accent, or possibly Cajun/Creole (different DMs and players have disagreed with me on this accent)…. whatever it is, though, it’s definitely ethnic, and certainly associated with blackness. When I read it, it sounded like a bad version of Jar Jar Binks. The players are supposed to like this character!
It is also, unfortunately, heavy, and to my ears, mocking. It is too easy for use of this accent to be seen as “punching down.” When I read it on the page, I didn’t think it was that bad. I read it out loud and slapped my hand over my mouth and said “Oh, my god, I’m going to hell if I read this.”
As written, coming out of the mouth of a privileged white woman… I could not read this accent. It was disrespectful. It made me uncomfortable to think about how easily this would read as some horrible role-playing version of blackface.
I have gone around and around on my reaction to this, by the way, having been given feedback by other GMs who say “it’s not that bad” and from those who say “oh, yeah– you can’t read it like that.” In the end, it comes down to this: I was not comfortable reading the dialect as written, and I refused for the same reasons I would not tolerate an adventure that mocked someone’s gender, age, debilities, or sexual orientation.
I changed the accent. I gave it a gentler, rural “bumpkin” accent. For one thing, that’s an accent I’m more familiar with, and it carries the same connotation the authors were going for. It may be equally offensive if you’re from the South, but it’s “punching sideways” for me to use an accent that mocks members of my own race. Also, I had just visited my family in Missouri, so the accent was fresh in my mind.
That was all handled in the prep portion, and although I continued to have misgivings, I carried forth.
The party has an opportunity to ask around in the village, interact with villagers, even convince them to prepare their own defenses, and find some weird disturbing secrets in the woods.
They find the secret in the woods and kill the monster that protects the village, thereby ensuring that there will be no one to help them when the other bad guys arrive. I’m trying not to give too many spoilers, here. This part of the adventure more or less worked, though it did have 1 PC able to act, compared to the rest who failed saving throws.
The villagers are written to be severely distrustful of strangers. There is, literally, one person in the entire village eager to talk to outsiders, and that’s Elisande, who makes a convenient prop NPC. Elisande is written to have some utility in the adventure, but my party never made use of it.
But they fail to really crack the RP shell of these isolationist villagers. There are ways they can do so, but after the first couple of signs of resistance, the players declare that “they all deserve whatever happens” and build themselves a blind up in the trees, from which they (with Elisande and a friendly, if deformed, goat) can observe the village being attacked by the ghost ship and burned to the ground.
Which is exactly what happened.
Partway through the attack, they leave Elisande up in the tree and head down to follow the skeletal attackers back to the ghost ship. In the process, they confront a group of these attackers. It is only after they kill a few of them that they realize the “skeletons” are kobolds in skeleton costumes (bones glued to dark clothes…. repeated Perception checks didn’t reveal this… I did mention the terrible dice rolls, right?)
The follow the surviving kobolds (which is most of them) to the beach and head to their ghost ship.
The PCs come up alongside in a rowboat and board over the side using a ladder. There, they come upon a scene of terror! A pirate ship lately from hell itself has come up out of the seas to attack. It has rammed the ghost ship and pirates are fighting kobolds, both ships are on fire, it’s a hell of a day at sea!
This was the part of the adventure I wasn’t well-prepped for, and which proved to be the worst for a low-level party. In this encounter, the climactic scene, there are two groups, fighting each other, and the PCs are caught in the middle. The kobold group is led by some human cultists, including a spellcaster of 6th level. The pirates are led by a captain who is 9th level and therefore has 3 bone-crushing attacks per round. The pirates resist most damage types, though the PCs do have a silvered handaxe they can use against him.
The adventure is very clear about this scene: the kobold and pirate “mooks” can take each other out, but the captain and cultist need to be dealt with by the PCs.
There are guidelines for scaling the adventure for a low-level party. At no point in those guidelines does it say “remove or adjust the hit points or level of the two bosses in this fight.” This is terrible. I don’t know that better or more creative prep would have helped me on this one– I tend not to think in terms of reducing the threat of major adversaries in that way. I do know that, having played or run it once, I would be better capable of running it again with severe modifications.
Also, from an adventure-writing perspective: I know why the pirates show up in terms of the fiction. What I don’t understand is why there’s a pirate sub-plot at all. It added nothing to the adventure except needless complexity and dead characters. Not every adventure needs a surprise over-powered foe!
The fighter charges up and faces the cultist, who backs up out of the way via ropes. The pirate captain comes in and strikes the fighter with two longsword attacks and a shortsword.
Things go from there to worse, as the PCs face one pirate before using a kobold to distract him. The rogue stays back while the cleric charges up. Fighter-mage and cleric fight side by side, but they’re barely making a dent, and they’re running out of healing spells and potions.
Finally, they take down the cultist leader and only have the pirate to contend with. When I call the fight over, the pirate captain still has almost 30 hit points, the rogue has 8 (enough for 1 hit), and both the fighter and cleric have stabilized, unconscious, on the boat deck. Also, the boat is rapidly being engulfed in flames. The village is burned to the ground– most likely the little girl and goat are dead of smoke inhalation. They even abandoned their horses (which were on loan, so they owe the church of Kelemvor 75 gp each, something I did not mention at the end of the adventure because I felt so bad for the players) to the flames.
It should have been a TPK. The rogue came up with a quick plan, but (rolling poorly) didn’t execute it well, so I ruled one of the PCs died, to be brought back by their faction later (loses XP and GP for the adventure, but I ruled he could keep the silvered axe and downtime).
In the end, I awarded the minimum XP and GP to the survivors. They hadn’t really tried to engage the adventure or help save the defenseless village or interact much with any of the NPCs except the ones who literally tag along behind them and won’t give up. They did try to interact with the crones, but gave up very easily when the crones kept teasing them and trying to play word games (as written in their character descriptions). The one PC who did the most RP interaction with the villager is also the one who died.
Summary: It was a very frustrating experience. It was cringe-worthy in terms of editing, and downright offensive in terms of portrayal of a non-mainstream culture. I was frustrated by some of the players’ choices, but the session could have bounced back if it had had more redeeming qualities.
Unfortunately, it didn’t, and I find myself still stewing, 4 days later, wondering why it was so bad, and how to improve my own GMing on the fly (as well as in-prep, but I hate prepping) to prevent such an awful adventure from abusing my players again.