(Full article contains spoilers!) I bought the D&D Stranger Things Starter Set, and I was all kinds of excited to run it. I read through it a few times, thought “hmmm…” about some of the choices, but overall it reads like a fairly straightforward adventure.
Last night, I ran one of the DDAL modules for Season 9. Season 9 introduced war wagons and has a very heavy Fury Road vibe to it with a lot of car chases. Tomb of Annihilation tried to do this as well with dinosaur races– those worked a little better, especially when they focused on the race, rather than adding combat into the mix.
As a result, these modules often feature a chase sequence, and this module does as well. In fact, it has a “45 minute” chase sequence that kicks off the adventure.
This chase sequence was chase+combat, took 3 hours, and nearly killed one of the PCs.
First, the chase starts out when the pursuers are 60 feet away from the party. The war machines have a move of 60′ (this is not statted, but implied by “taking the Dash action to move an additional 60 feet each turn….”) so the chase effectively starts when the chase is over and the pursuers have all but reached the party.
The party, meanwhile, has a movement rate of 40 and can Dash for an extra 40. So for the first 5 rounds, the PCs can get about 20 feet away, IF the war machine doesn’t dash.
If the party is underpowered, they also has an option to deploy some countermeasures, but these barely came into play because it costs an action to use any of them.
It is unclear whose action is required for the war machines to Dash. I said it was the driver’s, which left a gunner and a meleeist. The meleeist can leap onto the party’s cart once they’re adjacent to the party– which, as mentioned, pretty much happens in Round 1.
From then on, the enemies don’t need to do much to stay within firing range and keep shooting at the PCs while their boarding party rips them to shreds.
Here is the main problem with the chase rules in D&D: “On their turn, each participant rolls a d10 and consults the table to see if a complication arises at the end of their turn. If so, it affects the next participant in initiative order.”
OK, so I ran that part slightly wrong, but not in a significant way– I had it affect the current participant.
The problem is, there’s a table with 10 options. There are 6 war machines, 3 party members, and a party wagon. If I give the driver of the PCs’ wagon an initiative turn and the NPC they’re escorting, that means I have 11 initiative actions each turn (assuming I don’t give separate initiative to *each* monster on each war machine).
In the course of the 8-round chase, that’s 88 dice rolls of d10s. Any given number will come up 8 times. Most of the options were things like “moves at half speed” or “has 10′ of difficult terrain.” However, one of them was “Fireball! Dc 15 Dex save or take 8d6 damage.” LOL Wut?!
This means there were about 8 fireballs and many of them went to the PCs. Granted, a couple of the fireballs wiped out the enemies as well, but… it was not a good time.
And that’s on top of the slow grind of combat that is D&D normally. Did I impose disadvantage for fighting on top of a racing wagon? Disadvantage slows things down, so I absolutely did NOT do that!
3 hours later, here’s what I’d change:
Start the chase sequence where the enemies will need at least 1-2 rounds to close in on the party’s vehicle. During this time, the PCs can prep, ready the countermeasures, etc.
Simplify initiative! Each war wagon has an initiative– and all of their passengers share that initiative. In the module, pairs of war wagons had the same initiative, which makes sense if the first wagon’s complication role hits the next wagon’s.
The driver of the war machines can only do one thing– drive. His action is spend on driving, and there is no Dash for the war machines– they are already going as fast as they can. This gives the party wagon an opportunity to get away, as they might be able to outrun the war machines early, because on round 5, the animal-drawn wagon tires out and can no longer Dash, giving the war machines a chance to catch up.
Roll for chase complications for the drivers only.
Skip all of this entirely and turn the chase into an exciting montage. Don’t use the chase complication table except as a suggestion for things the DM can bring into the montage. You’d get through the chase in 15 breathless minutes and everyone would feel like they’d actually been in a fast-paced chase instead of a 3 hour game playing 2 rounds of Car Wars.
I realize these might be explained better in another module, and therefore maybe I’m restating the obvious. But this is a standalone module, and the DMG’s chase rules are no better.
So, I bought the D&D Stranger Things Starter Set, and I was all kinds of excited to run it. I read through it a few times, thought “hmmm…” about some of the choices, but overall it reads like a fairly straightforward adventure.
Warning: This is a super-spoilery blog post. Like, I am delving into this module and its weaknesses. If you are planning to play this adventure, stop reading now.
Let me start with the box set’s production, aka what’s in the box:
The adventure, Hunt for the Thessalhydra. More on that below.
The Starter Rules, which include character creation, equipment and magic items, spells, and monsters from the adventure.
5 pregenerated PCs at level 3. They’re made using the point-buy rules. They are fairly straightforward. A paladin, a cleric, a bard, a wizard, and a ranger.
2 miniatures of the “demogorgon,” which is the monster from Stranger Things Season 1, and not the classic demogorgon monster from early editions of D&D. One of these miniatures is vaguely painted. The other is not, and the quality is not awesome. PCs only encounter one demogorgon in the adventure, so there is no need for two miniatures.
Things I felt would have been good additions to this box:
Tokens for the other monsters in the adventure.
Tokens or minis for the 5 pre-gen characters.
A token or mini for the Thessalhydra! This is the big-bad-boss monster of the adventure, and there was nothing to represent it during the fight.
Splitting out the monster section from the rest of the Starter Rules so that the GM could have the monster stats in front of her while the players referenced the spells.
The things I went “hmmm” about most were the choice of having the same monster appear several times in more than one place, the random maze, and the unhittable princess.
In short, it reads a lot like an adventure my 12 year old self would write. Which would be fine if this were, in fact, written by the fictional Mike Wheeler from Stranger Things.
But it’s not. It’s meant as an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, and today, in a world where we have so many excellent adventures available, this one’s weaknesses really stand out and make it a poor representative of D&D.
I ran half of the adventure for a group of 3 female players. All had played an RPG before, but not D&D. None were Stranger Things fans. 2 were teenagers. I say half because I ran out of time, despite playing for about 4 hours. Here’s what happened:
They have the initial interview/quest-giving with the local lord, who charges them to find and kill the Thessalhydra.
They went to various local bars, splitting up to find clues.
They followed clues to the troglodyte caverns. They rolled just under what they needed to find the caverns, and on a failure, they encounter a group of trogs on their way back from hunting. Cue fight sequence, which should have alerted the troglodytes inside the caverns (they used a very noisy spell), but I decided to handwave that because dying in the first fight seemed pointless.
They enter the caverns and wander around a bit.
They encounter a group of trogs who run away, into the next room.
The next room has the troglodyte king, who speaks Common and leads them to the Cursed Labyrinth to find the Thessalhydra.
They wander around the Cursed Labyrinth endlessly until I gave up and said they found the Lost Knight. It was bedtime at that point, so we ended the session.
The troglodyte fight was nearly lethal to the level 3 wizard in round 1 due to multiattack. Disadvantage in sunlight helps, but only if you fight them in sunlight (fortunately, the first fight was outdoors). And there are so. many. troglodytes. This fight is also not required in the adventure– it’s only if they fail their nature check that it even happens.
The worst part of the session was the Cursed Labyrinth. This is a randomly-generated maze using a random table. There is a 3 in 20 chance of a “Special Encounter.” Otherwise, the results are some description of a hallway, how far it goes, and which direction it turns. The Special Encounters are also a random table, where you have a 1 in 6 chance of encountering the Lost Knight. Encountering the Lost Knight and solving his riddles is the only way to leave the Cursed Labyrinth. For some reason, the Lost Knight is trapped in the labyrinth, even though he is the only one who knows how to get out of it.
When you do the math on the Cursed Labyrinth, your party would, on average, need to go through about 40 randomly-generated (but otherwise barren) hallways before encountering the Lost Knight. In that time, they might also encounter 1 or 2 other Special Encounters which would provide some variety to the endless hallway descriptions.
I recommend changing the labyrinth entirely. Mazes are bad in D&D games, and random mazes are worse. They seem like a great idea when you are a brand new GM, but they are actually just confusing and boring.
Instead, run the labyrinth as a montage of confusing passageways that disappear when you turn around. Have the players describe using skills, spells, and clever thinking to get through the maze, but do not randomly generate your maze’s map. Put more than the Lost Knight in there to interact with– perhaps there are merchants selling trinkets to the lost and lonely, perhaps there are monsters, perhaps there are just interesting traps and puzzles. Make it feel like the oubliette in the movie Labyrinth— a confusing space that constantly changes, but which isn’t, at the very least, ever boring. And finally, when they do encounter the Lost Knight and solve his riddles, give a reason for why he can’t also leave (perhaps he is dead when he leaves, in which case having him follow them would be an interesting and poignant moment).
OK, that is literally as far as we got in a 4 hour session. Nobody was terribly interested in continuing the story, which is telling. When I run games for my niece and her friends, there is usually some desire to return to the adventure if they can– this time, there was nothing.
The Lost Knight helps the PCs get to the Upside Down, where they are now even more lost than ever, and the demogorgon is here.
There is an NPC called the Proud Princess in this adventure whose plot armor is literally impregnable. She’s immune to damage and can’t be hit except with a critical hit. It’s…. I don’t know what to say about this, except it’s bad writing to have an NPC like this. She has knowledge, which is great– but she is so powerful, no party in their right minds would ignore the opportunity to try and convince her to go with them and aid them in their own quest. She is the Elminster of this adventure. She exists only to give them information on how to summon the demogorgon and how to reach the thessalhydra. And so, I suggest that rather than find this information here, perhaps they find a book in the labyrinth. Or have some knowledge from their arcana or nature skills in the party.
Anyway, she tells them how to get to the thessalhydra.
In the last portion of the adventure, the PCs reach the lair of the thessalhydra– which it turns out to live near the local lord’s castle, and they probably could have found it because it does, in fact, leave tracks in the dirt when it goes in and out of its cave.
They went to the troglodyte cavern and the Upside Down for absolutely nothing. OK, then. I don’t think it would be too hard to change the thessalhydra’s lair to somewhere inside the Upside Down, with a portal to an area near the castle. Perhaps, early in the adventure, the PCs could even have found tracks that lead to a tree and then disappear entirely– a foreshadowing of the fact that the thessalhydra is shifting back and forth (and a much better tie-in to the Stranger Things universe).
The thessalhydra has a small tribe of troglodytes what worship it. I’d change these to any other small monstrous humanoid, because there was already a sizeable troglodyte group in the first part of the adventure. And the thessalhydra is a tough monster to fight and kill– make sure the PCs are facing it without also facing the troglodytes (even though the trogs’ job is to guard the thessalhydra!) Putting the thessalhydra inside the Upside Down to fight would achieve this goal handily.
Were I to run this again– and I likely will run it again– I would heavily change the cursed labyrinth. I’d certainly change the princess (perhaps make her incorporeal) and probably make the lost knight someone who leaves with them and turns to dust when he does or something. And because I’m frustrated by D&D’s “crunch,” I’d probably run it with a different, more narrative system. I don’t think this is a great starter to RPGs in general, and I don’t think it’s even a good introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. However, with a lot of tweaking, a good DM can save this module.
12: How to make work inclusive? Most of my work has content warnings and safety tools embedded into it. I’ll be honest, though; I can always do better.
13. Participate in streamed games? Yes, I’ve done this. I’ve streamed my own games on YouTube and Twitch, and I’ve been a player in a streamed game. When I was a player, the focus on “the show” part of the game felt intrusive to me– the game wasn’t enjoyable, and when I challenged the GM on a ruling, I was kicked out.
14. How are your game mechanics and characters intersectional? I am not sure. In Threadbare, at least, every toy defines their own gender, and the game focuses on using bodies that don’t work the way they were designed to work.
15. Favorite tropes to subvert? My least favorite trope in fantasy is “teenagers gain immense power through puberty, save the world, find their one true love.” Like…. I was such a mess when I was a young person, this just doesn’t make any sense to me, especially the true love bit (for a number of reasons, including the very Bad Idea it is to attach yourself to someone you’ve just shared a stressful world-saving event with). As a result, I prefer to play characters who are older, have lived a life, are maybe starting their adventure in their middle aged years, and maybe even had other plans for themselves.