The free, issue 4 of Dragon+ includes the Dungeons & Dragons module Shackles of Blood by Joshua Kelly. This adventure comes from the Adventurers League Expeditions program. Normally, this program only lets you play such adventures in public venues such as game stores and at conventions, so the download introduces home players to the program. Shackles of Blood features a turning point in the Rage of Demons storyline, and concludes with an unforgettable final battle.
At this year’s Gen Con, I ran Shackles of Blood several times. Now, I will tell you how to make this good module into a great play experience.
If you plan to play this adventure, stop reading now. But if you intend to run it as a dungeon master, or simply want to peer under the hood with me, keep reading.
The dungeon master’s dilemma
The thorniest aspect of Shackles of Blood stems from the way leads characters into a virtually unwinnable encounter. The set up serves the aim of capturing the PCs so they wind up in that great final battle. During one session I ran, when the players’ capture left them feeling defeated, one said, “Don’t worry, this just leads to the last encounter and, trust me, you want to play the last encounter!” He had already playtested the adventure.
At Gen Con, the dungeon masters running Shackles felt conflicted about sending players into an encounter they could not expect to win or even avoid. Most DMs feel that railroading ranks as the worst abuse of their power. To be fair, none of the players at my tables felt railroaded. They had never read the adventure, so they never knew it was a setup.
The adventure begins with PCs charged with finding a family of halflings, the Tinfellows, who disappeared from a valley near the city of Hillsfar.
Meanwhile, a group of Hillsfar’s Red Plume guards plots to capture the PCs so they can be forced to fight in the city’s arena. Even if the PCs avoid an ambush, their investigation leads them to be overwhelmed by Red Plumes firing crossbow bolts laced with sleeping poison.
Tactics for the Red Plumes
When the Red Plumes battle the PCs, they fire crossbow bolts until one of the PCs fails a save and falls unconscious. Then a Red Plume can bring a knife to the sleeping character’s throat and the demand surrender in exchange for the character’s life. Of course, he’s bluffing, but the players will typically stand down. Because they chose to surrender, they feel like heroes opting to fight another time. Any PCs who call the bluff become the focus of attack.
In the battle with the Red Plumes, avoid letting the PCs scatter so that some escape. Hold a few Red Plumes back at the perimeter of the battle. Some PCs may still use invisibility or other tricks to get loose. If they succeed, a divided party makes running the adventure a bit more challenging, but the free PCs will trail any captives.
If the players manage “the impossible dream” of escaping the Red Plumes, the adventure supposes that the party will return to their patron. (They probably won’t. See “Choices players never make.”) She tells them to get captured intentionally. After the players win against impossible odds, they must go back to lose on purpose. How unsatisfying!
Normally, players would trash a lousy plan that puts them in shackles and deprives them of their gear, but for the sake of the adventure, they will abide. Then you, as the DM, must improvise a narrative that puts players into chains.
Dismantling that unseen railroad requires a better plan B. Here is what I recommend.
In the unlikely event that the players escape capture during their investigation, they cannot rescue the entire family of Tinfellows. In my tweak, the players can rescue some of the Tinfellows, but most have been sent ahead to the arena at Hillsfar. Now, whether the players get captured or not, they must return to Hillsfar to rescue Tinfellows from certain death.
This pursuit leads the PCs to a meeting with Margery “Mags” Thrier outside the Hillsfar arena.
Unless your table features the first-ever all-human band of adventurers since the era of little brown books, the party must find a way to get their non-humans into Hillsfar and to the arena. Some party members might adopt disguises—it works for Breex Vandermast. Others could pose as captives bound for the arena. If you prefer to avoid this challenge, move Mags and the slave market outside the Hillsfar gates.
Mags explains that she purchased the Tinfellows legally and refuses to relinquish her property without compensation. The Tinfellows languish somewhere deep under the arena, slated to fight, and undoubtedly die tomorrow. If the players would be willing to trade places in the upcoming battle, Mags will set the family free.
Mags’s pet Goliath tries to startle the players. When they prove their nerve, she questions them about their combat experience. Inevitably, some party members will rise to pose as tough guys.
If the players worry that Mags will betray them, she steps to a betting kiosk and places a bet on the PCs in the next day’s battle of the bell. “Now if you lose, I lose, but I have a feeling about you lot.”
Once the players agree to take the Tinfellow’s place, Mags warns that if they fail to fight, the Tinfellows will fight, and die, in an upcoming contest.
Because of the non-human PCs, the entire party must surrender to the guards and go to that cage on the arena floor.
Dismantling the railroad
Now that you have a plan B that leads to the final encounter, you don’t need the PCs to lose to the Red Plumes. Instead, that confrontation can end in a draw or even a win. The Red Plume captain has no reason to see his men die in a fight with the PCs. If the players slay a couple guards, I suggest having the captain call a truce. He can tell the players that the Tinfellows have already been sold to Mags at the arena in Hillsfar. He might even promise not to take any more captives from the hills. You can decide whether he tells the truth.
Meeting Breex Vandermast
The half-orc sorcerer Breex Vandermast serves as the adventure’s final villain.
Whether the players find themselves on the arena as willing or unwilling fighters, they must meet Breex before the battle. This can happen as written, on the road to Hillsfar, or later with the PCs caged on the arena floor.
Either way, Breex tells the PCs how much he will relish seeing them die in the arena. He taunts the non-human characters for their filthy taint, and then turns his disgust on the humans for joining such rubbish. Describe Breex’s filed down canine teeth. Tell how his ears appear clipped to a human roundness, and how he wears a powder that lends his skin a more human tone. When the players identify Breex as half orc, I guarantee that his hypocrisy and bigotry will inflame them. During the arena contest, my players searched the stands for Breex, eager for a chance to strike at him.
The Bell in the Depths
The adventure ends with a battle in the Hillsfar arena that pits the PCs against a team of halfling gladiators. The contest spans platforms erected over the flooded arena floor. Both sides race to ring a bell atop a central tower.
Describe the battleground as fenced and flooded enclosure on the larger arena floor. That way, when blood-crazed spectators spill onto the floor to climb the pool’s walls and tear at its bolsters, its collapse and sudden draining seems inevitable.
In the battle of the bell, a 15-foot gap separates the halflings’ tower from the bell tower. The halfling thugs have a 15 strength, so they can jump that gap. This means that if the halflings win initiative, they could ring the bell before the players even act. Let the halflings’ overconfidence and their urge to preen for the crowd slow their assault on the bell. On their first turn, the thugs take positions on the bell tower.
The halfling spies can use Cunning Action to gain an extra dash action on their turns. If the halfling druid casts Longstrider on a spy, the ally can cross the arena quickly and assault any PCs who choose to stay on their tower. In my sessions, the druid never managed to concentrate on Barkskin long enough to matter, so Longstrider made a better buff. Because the druid lacks long-range attacks, don’t make him an easy target. Instead, he buffs allies and carefully advances into Thunderwave range.
A halfling who uses a dash action can swim the 4 squares from a starting tower to an assault tower in a single turn. That pace brings them out of the water before the quippers can attack.
Don’t bother holding Breex’s entry until all the halflings have been incapacitated. Bring him out when the contest starts to lull. The players will be eager for the showdown.
As the Red Plumes struggle to quell riots, the PCs will have no trouble rescuing the Tinfellows. After prevailing in the arena battle, the players will feel they earned this easy success.