Tag Archives: Merric Blackman

How the Flawed Hooks in Descent Into Avernus Might Make D&D Players Feel Railroaded

Everyone giving Dungeons & Dragons advice tells dungeon masters how to start an adventure with a hook. This includes me, last week. That advice usually stops after the first hook, and it shouldn’t. Sure, adventures that lure characters into the unknown seeking treasure only need one hook. But just about every adventure with a more complicated premise serves hooks from start to finish. Those hooks offer choices and lure characters along a course that shapes into a story.

The hooks that come after an adventure’s start often go by names like clues, secrets, or leads. In earlier posts, I favored the term “leads” because the word matches one essential purpose: Leads reveal ways for the characters to reach a goal. (If the idea of leads seems unclear, see instead of plots, prepare secrets, clues, and leads.) The word “hook” emphasizes a second essential: Hooks entice players to chase a particular goal.

By either name, hooks and leads must accomplish two things: They entice characters to pursue a goal and they reveal ways to reach that goal. Skipping one of those parts causes adventures to stumble.

Leads point a direction, but sometimes they still need to sell a new goal.

When an adventure needs to point characters toward a new goal, the leads need to sell that new goal. Many adventures fail to close the sale. Most often, an adventure starts with a promise of gold, and then presumes that a band that may only include murderous treasure hunters will happily switch to, say, battling princes of elemental evil—for free.

My last post describes how Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus attempts this sort of flip. The opening hook appeals both to the treasure hunters and the do-gooders. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to Hell for the slimmest chance of rescuing a damned city. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.” Still, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along.

In an adventure like this, either the dungeon master or the players can rethink the party’s motivations, smoothing the rough patch. Often, no one does. Many longtime players face such situations often enough to feel numb to the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t do just to keep playing. The rest feel railroaded.

Hooks sell a goal, but they need to offer a sensible direction too.

When an adventure runs short of hooks or leads, everyone notices. The party gets stuck and the DM finds a way to drop new clues. The adventure may stall, but the obvious trouble invites a solution.

Imagine trying to start an adventure by only revealing that long ago a mighty warrior hid a magic sword in a long-forgotten location. That tidbit would only leave players waiting for more, because without any clues, the incomplete hook rates as backstory. Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal. Number 2 rarely gets discussed because DMs seldom botch it. At the start of a scenario, no DM dangles a hook that lacks any clues the characters can follow to the goal.

The more insidious problem appears when an adventure offers clues that don’t seem to lead closer to the goal. The players see a lead, but no reason to follow it. Few players want to derail an adventure that plainly offers a direction, so the players dutifully follow the lead while ignoring that dissonance that comes from doing things just because the DM pointed the way. Following an apparently useless lead makes players feel confused at best, railroaded at worst. To the DM, the adventure seems to run smoothly, so the problem goes unnoticed by the person who could have corrected it.

Descent Into Avernus suffers from this trouble. (This discussion includes spoilers, but hardly more than the adventure’s title.) D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “The trip to Hell offers no reason for the characters to believe they can improve things. You stopped a threat to Baldur’s Gate. Why now to Avernus?

“‘If the characters think they have any chance to rescue Elturel, Liara strongly urges them to pursue that quest.’ That’s why the PCs descend into Avernus. Not great, huh? Why do the PCs think they have a chance?”

Game designer Justin Alexander is more blunt. He explains how Descent Into Avernus keeps asking players to follow directions just because they lead to more D&D. “The entire campaign is just this one structure repeated infinitely: A non-player character tells you where to go, you go there, and then find another NPC who tells you where to go.” This pattern works when the NPC’s directions show a way closer to the goal. The leads in Avernus fail that standard. “The problem is that the designers aren’t designing a situation. They aren’t thinking of the game world as a real place.

“Why does the adventure assume the characters will simply plane shift to Hell without having any reason for doing so? Because an NPC told them to! Why not also have the NPC give them a coherent reason? Because it doesn’t matter!”

The design only aims to route players from scene to scene. In play, the party sees a lead that they know the adventure expects them to follow, so they do. To the DM, the adventure appears to work, but unless players feel numb to dutifully playing DM Simon says, they feel railroaded.

Alternately, when hooks clearly point characters toward their goals, even linear adventures, even railroads, can work magic.

“A good railroad, at a certain level, is like a good magic trick: The players won’t really believe that magic is real, but a good magic trick will let them suspend disbelief just long enough to be amazed. The most important technique for the railroaded scenario is to frame the meaningful choices in such a way that the players legitimately want to make the predetermined choice.” writes Justin Alexander.

“The GM never forces a card on them. In the end, they do the magic trick to themselves. When a railroaded scenario pulls this off, the suspension of disbelief is perfect: Players never feel as if they were forced to do something. They’re able to remain completely immersed in their characters, feeling as if the world is unfolding in direct response to their actions.”

In a successful narrative adventure, the DM keeps laying track by dropping hooks. Each one shows a course that brings the characters closer to their goal, so the players willingly choose to follow. 

Good hooks power meaningful choices even better than linear scenarios. When players find enough leads, they face choosing which one to follow. Making choices and seeing outcomes generates the fun of role-playing games. Leads also offer more flexibility than plots. DMs can reveal them whenever players need to find a direction or to face choices.

As for Descent Into Avernus, the adventure brings evocative locations and vivid characters to an unforgettable journey through Hell. Your heroes get to adventure in Hell! Fixing the weak connections merits a bit of creative work. For ideas, see Merric Blackman’s account of running the campaign, Justin Alexander’s Remixing Avernus, and my own post Improve the Start of Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus With These 2 Add-On Adventures.

Related: Why Dungeons & Dragons (and roleplaying) took years to leave the dungeon.

The D&D Adventures That Stumble by Missing the Hook

Every adventure starts with a hook that (1) entices the characters to follow some goal and (2) reveals ways to reach that goal.

Appealing to rogues, paladins, and players

A good adventure hook appeals to both the party’s rogues and paladins. More than popular classes, rogues and paladins represent two ways players often imagine their characters’ outlooks. Steve Winter, a Dungeons & Dragons designer since second edition, writes, “Hooks aren’t about characters; they’re about players.”

Rogues and paladins make popular character perspectives because they bring escapes from either the restrictions or the unfairness of modern life.

In our world, we often feel bound by rules and obligations. Playing a rogue who’s free from ethical burdens and who boasts the power to ignore rules feels exhilarating. Much of the vicarious joy of playing a rogue comes from gaining wealth. Certainly most players of rogue types would say their character is in it for the money.

In our world, we see misdeeds rewarded, good people suffer, and too often we feel helpless to act. Playing a paladin with the strength to punish wrongdoers, help the deserving, and right wrongs feels rejuvenating. Paladins seek chances to act heroic.

Hooks that only appeal to one type can leave other characters just following along because their players came to play D&D. For example, Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage presents a megadungeon similar to those that D&D co-creators Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax imagined for their first campaigns. But when I ran it, the paladin types kept wondering why they bothered with Undermountain. A mere search for fortune failed to motivate them; they wanted to become heroes. As the delve continued, I sought ways to add heroic missions.

Vicarious wealth and glory make a solid appeal to players, but curiosity can grab players emotions even more. Most D&D games tease a little curiosity with questions like, “What waits under Skull Mountain.” Especially compelling hooks make players ask, “How can this be so?” Television shows like Lost build mysteries that hook viewers who crave explanations.

Missing the hook

Some adventures risk only hooking one character type. Hoard of the Dragon Queen starts with the characters nearing a town under attack by a dragon and an army—foes that add up to near certain death to a 1st-level character. The adventure depends on new characters charging into the town, so it demands heroes willing to ignore impossible odds to do good. If everyone makes a paladin type, the start works. Of course, the rogues and the sensible characters probably tag along because their players came to play D&D, but their players feel the dissonance of making their characters do things they really wouldn’t. A broader hook might add rumors of a wagon load of treasure in the town. Movies like Kelly’s Heroes (1970) and Three Kings (1999) work from a premise like this.

Alternately, the characters could start the campaign knowing they must play do-gooders. Hoard includes an appendix listing character backgrounds that bring them into the adventure. D&D blogger Merric Blackman writes, “Ultimately the Tyranny of Dragons storyline is a heroic one. The characters get into it because they’re heroes.”

Even adventures that start with an appeal to every character can run short of interest for one type, usually the rogues.

An adventure like Baldur’s Gate: Descent Into Avernus can switch goals. At the start, the characters just aim to thwart some evil cultists. The opening hook brings both a payment that appeals to the rogues and a chance to smite evil for the paladins, so it works for both character types. Later though, the adventure asks players to send their characters to hell. The paladins might volunteer, but any sensible rogue would say, “I’m out.”

Nonetheless, the rogue players want to play D&D, so their characters dutifully tag along. Perhaps the expert role players invent a new goal that fits their character. Maybe they go for the sake of their friendship with the team. Maybe, like Han Solo, they go because they discover an unfamiliar desire to do the right thing. Perhaps the player does a bit of improvised world building by imagining a legend of treasure in Avernus. Most likely, the rogues just ignore the dissonance of having to do something their characters wouldn’t.

As the goals of an adventure change, the hooks still need to appeal to the entire party.

None of these missed hooks make the adventures I cited bad. I rate Dungeon of the Mad Mage as the best megadungeon to ever appear in print. Merric ranks Tyranny of Dragons as fifth edition’s best hardcover adventure. DMs grow accustomed to tinkering with hooks—many would consider such adjustments mandatory. After all, every adventure deserves a strong start.

Next: The D&D adventures that falter by letting the hooks stop in the first scene.

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 3

Lost Mine of Phandelver (2014) is fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure by Richard Baker and Chris Perkins for levels 1-5.

Adventures created to introduce new dungeon masters to D&D must be simple to run. Sunless Citadel offered DMs an easy recipe by sticking to the dungeon, but Lost Mine of Phandelver brings a more ambitious design and succeeds brilliantly. The adventure rates so highly because it allows players freedom to roam while offering enough structure and guidance to ensure that a new DM succeeds.

For new players, the adventure serves D&D’s expected and favorite ingredients. To longtime fans like Mike “Sly Florish” Shea, the elements may be familiar, but superb execution makes the adventure a winner. “Even years after its release, Phandelver remains one of the most popular D&D adventures for 5e and is my personal favorite.”

The adventure takes place in and around the town of Phandalin. This setting introduces more of D&D than a dungeon crawl can offer. Alex Lucard describes the scope. “There’s a mix of straightforward dungeon crawls, fetch quests and even sandbox-style mini-adventures, so DMs and players alike get a sampling of various adventure tropes. It’s very well done!”

Merric Blackman explains the design. “Phandelver has a directed storyline, where you’re investigating the kidnapping of a dwarf and the secret of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, and a sandbox feel where many of the characters you meet have their own goals and can send you on missions not directly related to the main quest. This isn’t a linear quest: after the initial encounter, you can choose which way to proceed through the storyline. There’s enough clues and direction so that you’ll rarely feel lost.”

The individual encounters invite more approaches than combat, so players get chances to win friends and outsmart foes.

“Phandelver is a great adventure full of opportunities for you to relax, play loose, and let the story evolve from the choices of the players and the actions of the characters,” writes Mike Shea.

“Overall I have to say Lost Mine of Phandelver is fantastic,” writes Alex Lucard. “Not only is it a great way to introduce new gamers to Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s a very solid campaign in its own right.”

Merric Blackman rates the module this way: “This is an extremely well-designed and well-written adventure. It’s fun to play and run, and offers a lot of scope to the players and DM to make it their own, while still being accessible to newcomers.”

Next: Number 2

Start at 10

Vault of the Dracolich (2013): Greatest D&D Adventures Since 1985—Number 7

Vault of the Dracolich is a D&D Next adventure By Mike Shea, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and Teos Abadia for level 4 characters.

The Living Greyhawk organized-play campaign pioneered a popular new way to play Dungeons & Dragons at conventions. In Battle Interactives, multiple tables could join together in the same adventure. The effect of actions, successes, and failures at tables could ripple to others in the interactive.

To fuel excitement for D&D’s upcoming fifth edition, the D&D team planned a gameday for stores. Vault of the Dracolich co-designer Teos Abadia explains, “Wizards of the Coast wanted to see whether a gameday could be transformed from the typical adventure format into a very exciting event: a hybrid between a battle interactive and Lair Assault.” The event proved a huge success.

“The project’s approach was a new one for Wizards,” Abadia writes. “We designers were all freelancers acting as a team, instead of writing and submitting our work separately to WotC for them to put together. Mike was the author, I was the developer, and Scott the editor (and first draft cartographer). As a result, we all collaborated heavily and all took turns scheming, writing, developing, and editing.”

During the adventure, bands of heroes infiltrate a temple of the Cult of the Dragon to recover an ancient elven staff from the dracolich, Detchroyaster. Merric Blackman describes the setup. “Vault has a number of different groups investigating different parts of the dungeon at the same time. So, from one to seven tables can play at the same time, with a DM at each table, and one further person would act as the event’s coordinator, making sure everything worked smoothly and triggering the big events that affected several tables at once.”

“The lair of the Dracolich is large enough that it accompanies four sections, ranging from a Lizardmen commune to a temple of the dead god Bhaal,” writes Alex Lucard. “Each of the four locations offers a very different experience, so if you decide to run all four parts as a mini campaign or a single party, things won’t feel repetitive.”

The adventure encourages interaction between tables. Shannon Appelcline writes, “The coordinator moves about, threatening adventurers when the dracolich tracks them down; tables briefly come together and then separate, exchanging resources and coordinating plans. Even compared with similar adventures created for organized play, Dracolich stands out for the amount interaction possible between parties. Its game-store-sized scale lets everyone share the same dungeon.

“Groups that rely solely on one strategy, whether sneakiness or smacking monsters, will probably have some difficulty. The adventure is exceptionally well-designed, and various creative approaches are required for PCs to move through the complex safely. Enemies may be defeated, fooled, or co-opted with role-playing; regardless, it will take canny and aware players to succeed.”

In an RPG.net review, Vestige describes play. “There’s a breakneck rush through the dungeon to reach the staff, and then a massive climactic battle with even more to do than there are players. That’s a solid formula for a memorable day of D&D.”

In his account of running the adventure during a game day, Merric Blackman calls the experience “fantastic” and the scenario “something quite special.”

In a post, co-author Mike Shea offers advice for converting the adventure to fifth edition.

Next: Number 6.

Start at 10

Winter Fantasy hosted 12 slots of Dungeons & Dragons and I played through them all

At the convention center in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the entire Winter Fantasy convention fits into one hall. Despite the event’s compact size, Winter Fantasy delivers as much Dungeons & Dragons as the biggest table-top gaming cons. Imagine the D&D track from Origins or Gen Con, complete with a D&D designer or two, the Adventurers League brain trust, and the game’s most passionate players, concentrated in a convention of its own. Plus, the con offers plenty of $99 hotel rooms. Sure, Fort Wayne suffers an icy February, but you come to game.

This year, Winter Fantasy hosted 12, 4-hour slots of gaming and I played D&D through them all. This post covers some highlights.

An adventure’s written pages only step toward the final product: the play at the table. My dungeon masters and the other player shaped the adventures. We may have steered things in ways the authors never intended. Here, I write about my own experiences at the tables.

DDAL05-11 Forgotten Tradition

In Forgotten Tradition, PCs explore a time-lost museum revealing the history of giants and their kin. Some of this adventure’s success rests on the players’ interest in the museum’s lore. I learned a few things.

Our DM for Forgotten Tradition admitted to tinkering with the adventure’s final encounter. I have no idea what changes he made—or if they improved anything—but I liked the result. The final showdown pitted characters against a unique, single foe. The creature proved so dangerous that my group chose to run. And then our DM turned the escape into an entertaining conclusion.

DDAL05-14 Reeducation Parts 1 & 2

Reeducation lands the PCs on a mission to rescue Seer, their patron in many earlier adventures. Most of the adventure plays as a dungeon crawl. I like dungeon crawls and I liked the story behind this one, but its challenges seemed suited for characters nearing 10th level rather than characters around level 15. My cleric kept rolling low initiatives, so the fights finished before he could act. The pattern became a running gag. Our DM would shrug and remind us they we already played at the highest difficulty.

While my cleric missed turns, another player’s simulacrum took turns. Simulacrum lets you create a duplicate that doubles all your spells and half your hit points. One player gains an extra, second character in the adventure. Yes, I know DMs should scale adventures to challenge an extra character, but the addition doubles one player’s activity at the expense of the other players (me). I’m not sore, just grateful for a start on another post listing most annoying spells in D&D. The first attracted a surge of readers.

DDEP05-02 The Ark of the Mountains

D&D epics give players an experience they cannot match at home. Epics unite many tables of players together to fight for a common goal.

After last year’s Winter Fantasy, I raved about how author Will Doyle delivered the one of the best epics ever with Reclamation of Phlan.

This year, Will proved still he knows how to craft an epic. The Ark of the Mountains challenged players to seize control of a airship in time to use it to battle a giant’s flying war galley. I liked how the fantastic premise made the battle extraordinary, even for the a magical setting. Some past epics overreached in adding magic-as-technology to the Forgotten Realms. To me, fleets of airships dropping alchemical bombs belong in Eberron. This event kept a sense of wonder and the flavor of the Realms by making the airship a ancient artifact.

The Ark of the Mountains improved on Will’s last epic by adding improvements that made the adventure easier for DMs. Rather than the 50 maps in Reclamation of Phlan, Ark reused just a few locations.

At my table, we landed a DM without a killer instinct, so the encounters seemed too easy. What kind of basilisk fails to use its gaze attacks?

DDEP05-01 The Iron Baron

My convention group loves a deadly challenge, so some ranked The Iron Baron as the best session of the con. In this epic, characters raid a fire giant’s fortress. I loved the mix of challenging encounters with varied objectives. During my session, the players won the day, but during other sessions, the heroes fell short. Evidently, epics can be lost, and learning that pleased me. The threat of defeat gives villains credibility and makes the players’ wins meaningful.

Some players felt that The Iron Baron lacked interaction—that it felt like we neighbored tables that just happened to be running the same adventure. While events rarely rippled between tables, our head DM did a wonderful job of uniting the room. As our commander he rallied us; as the Iron Baron, he shouted threats, sometimes in the untranslated Giant.

In past years, conventions ran each epic just one time and the entire convention played at once. This year, the con repeated its epics throughout the convention for fewer tables. This change lifted a burden from dungeon masters. In the past, the convention drafted every DM to run the epic, forcing each DM to prepare an extra adventure, usually at two or three tiers. Now, DMs running the epic can focus on the event, and free the other DMs from extra preparation. Plus, the epics’ organizers face more manageable groups of players.

PHLAN2-1 Hatemaster, PHLAN2-2 Demagogue, PHLAN2-3 The Royal We, & PHLAN2-S

For Winter Fantasy’s D&D experience, Baldman Games premiered 4 adventures of con-created content. These adventures served an ambitious premise: The PCs find themselves protecting the three candidates running in an election to lead Phlan. Bane, god of tyranny, forces the PCs to prove whether any of the three merits the god’s support. In the first three adventures, the PCs enter dream worlds that reveal each candidates’ fondest wishes, realized in three dystopian versions of Phlan. I have never met such off-beat adventures in organized play. I appreciated how they broke from the more typical session.

Of the adventures, The Royal We stood out the most. To start, characters took the roles of commanders on the battlefield in mass combat using simplified Battlesystem rules. Some folks at my table enjoyed the experiment. For me, the scene just showed that if D&D world worked according to D&D rules, battles would look nothing like a medieval clash of arms. After our PCs spent a couple of rounds pounding enemy units with fireballs, they routed. The units represented by cardboard counters on the map barely clashed and never impacted the outcome.

However, the rest of The Royal We delivered. The plot moved to a knotty combat encounter that featured foes with clever synergies. Next, we solved an puzzle that revealed a candidate’s backstory while entertaining and challenging us. The final encounter combined a potential fight with another problem to solve.

The D&D Experience ended with a special adventure that pitted all the tables against a series of encounters where everyone battled to repel an invading fleet. The encounters felt solid, but the enemy spellcasters obviously never read my post on self defense. Characters built around the Sharpshooter feat dish out so much damage in tier-3 D&D play that no spellcaster can start in the open and stand much chance of casting a spell.

Like some past epics, this mini-epic left me wondering about magic and technology in the Forgotten Realms. The ships packed batteries of black-powder cannon.

DDAL05-18 Eye of Xxiphu Parts 1 & 2

As levels increase, characters gain abilities that let them fly, operate in underwater, and travel the planes. Adventures gain an epic feel by inviting players to use their extraordinary abilities. If PCs just wind up in dungeons blasting monsters—but with higher damage totals—then level 17 feels much like level 1. Eye of Xxiphu delivered an epic feel. Our choices took us into an underwater funhouse where author Merric Blackman seemed to channel a measure of White Plume Mountain with a dash of extra gonzo. I don’t know if any of it had a logical explanation, but I didn’t much mind.

When my convention group met the young DM who would run Eye of Xxiphu for us, I worried that running a 2-part, level-17-through-20 adventure for a bunch of old DMs might drag him in over his head. But he showed mastery over the rules and juggled difficult encounters featuring crowds of monsters.

This DM boasted a killer instinct. Someone in our group took a risk with something in the dungeon, and our DM said, “You’re dead. No save.” Fortunately, our party included two clerics, so death only slowed us a little. Welcome to tier 4.

The adventure climaxed in a set-piece battle with us mounted on dragons—or shapechanged into a dragon—chasing a giant airship as at raced to reach a cloud castle. An epic conclusion to an epic adventure. And to an epic convention.