Tag Archives: Scourge of the Sword Coast

User hostile: How to make a good game book painful to use

Dreams of the Red Wizards: Scourge of the Sword Coast has the seeds of a solid adventure. While characters visit the town of Daggerfall, they investigate mysteries like a theft and a suicide. Leads take them to a variety of dungeon sites in the region, mostly overrun with evil humanoids. At the conclusion, they can learn the secrets that tie the threads together. Recently, I finished running the adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. See “Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D next to fourth edition” for more.

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast

As an adventure, Scourge of the Sword Coast may be solid, but the product plumbs a low for usability in play.

When I reach a such a damning conclusion, I begin to question my adequacy as a dungeon master. Perhaps, an adequate DM can spend a couple of hours perusing the 75 pages, understand all the nuances, and recount details 10 weeks later when players uncover answers.

But I am not alone in my conclusions.

Ace convention DM Ed Kabara writes, “As a GM I felt things were too cluttered with important information being mixed with bits of encounters. I felt like the story needed a diagram to really help me to organize my thoughts regarding the plot.”

On the The Tome Show podcast, the round-table reviewers ask for more attention to formatting and organization, cite the need for a more help running the adventure, and suggest adding a timeline.

For a taste of what makes Scourge so difficult to run, imagine your players finish a key encounter, and you face this line on page 63, “If the characters save Shalendra, they can learn the story of Baazka and the specific location of Bloodgate Keep.”

First, you cannot actually reveal the specific location of Bloodgate Keep, because that lies in the next adventure. If you look for something more specific than “in the Forlorn Hills,” then you will waste time.

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Can you find anything?

Page 15 from Scourge of the Sword Coast. Quick! Find Baazka’s story.

Second, suppose you cannot remember all the details of Baazka’s story, so you page back through the text looking. Page 23 includes a “Baazka” subhead, but not his story, so you keep paging back. Meanwhile, you have lost your players attention. On page 15, you face this page with a “Shalendra Floshin” heading atop a column of undifferentiated text. Perhaps that hides the information she tells the players. Should your start skimming, or try the adventure background on page 3? Quick, find Baazka’s story before you lose everyone to their smartphones or to chatter.

I wish my example came from a single bump, but every time I reference this text, I find myself hunting. Every time, I wind up thinking that I remember seeing more about that, but I have no idea where.

Some of the challenge stems from the authors’ ambition. Scourge combines a sandbox with a plot, as multiple villains scheme even as the characters adventure. Like any sandbox, the text organizes around locations and characters, but all the details of the story lay threaded through these descriptions. This is why reviewers keep pleading for diagrams and timelines and advice on running the adventure.

I wish Scourge of the Sword Coast stood out as an anomaly, but it just represents another low as Wizards of the Coast grows increasingly indifferent to the usability of their products. The adventures that preceded it were just as bad. Dead in Thay mostly consists of keyed dungeon locations, but piecing together the information for my players’ handout seemed like a detective’s job.

How does Wizards of the Coast take perfectly good game content and make a book that creates hassles at the table? I suspect they focus on cramming as much content as possible into a book’s page budget, without allocating pages to indexes or other usability improvements, without scheduling the necessary drudgery of adding cross references, play aids, and index entries. I think the authors and editor approach game books as they might a novel, something to be read from start to finish. I think the typesetters and designers approach game books as a magazine that must lure potential buyers at a newsstand. Neither group of artists seems to have accepted a bitter truth. You produce technical documentation. Your stories will only come alive if you create documents that enable players to bring them to life at the table.

Next: Five ways to create more usable game books

Converting Scourge of the Sword Coast from D&D next to fourth edition

The regular players at my regular Dungeons & Dragons Encounters games include a mix of fourth-edition loyalists and folks indifferent to edition. Although I would happily run D&D next, I have bowed to the group and still run Encounters in 4E. That means converting the current Encounters season, Scourge of the Sword Coast, to 4E. The conversion creates a few challenges beyond just finding fourth edition stats for the monsters.


Combats in D&D next take far less time than in fourth edition.

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast

Scourge of the Sword Coast lasts 12 encounters sessions. The season starts with two sessions introducing players to their home base of Daggerford and another session for the finale, leaving 9 weeks for the bulk of the adventure. Typical parties will visit four adventure sites, each with 20 or more numbered locations. The adventure budgets two sessions per site. In each site, most parties must win several battles to meet their objectives.

In D&D next, a party can role-play, explore, and finish a few fights in a 2-hour session. In 4E, not a chance. At most, players can drop a sentry, and finish one battle.

My fourth-edition time budget means that I have to cut locations, enemies, and material like a sailor jettisons weight as my ship takes water. I must condense each location to a couple of key encounters, and two fights. (If a session fails to include at least one battle, some of my players will leave disappointed.)

The surplus of material brings one benefit: Because Scourge of the Sword Coast includes far more material than I can play through, I can give the players plenty of choices, confident that their path leads to something in the text.

Encounter scale

In D&D next, every combat encounter taxes the party’s resources, while in fourth edition, only big encounters challenge a party.

Unlike characters in D&D next, 4E characters typically regain all their hit points and most of their spells and powers after a fight. Some attrition comes as they slowly lose healing surges, but 4E characters rarely run out of healing surges. Characters’ encounter powers make them more powerful during the first rounds of a fight. Characters can focus encounter powers on outnumbered enemies, leaving few survivors to return attacks. After the encounter, characters regain all that firepower without meaningful losses. They might even gain action points and grow stronger. No 4E player will waste a daily on a small encounter, so even that small element of attrition never factors in. In 4E, small fights just add flavor without challenge.

Between battles, fourth-edition characters regain most of their resources. This design aims to encourage players to adventure on instead of resting after a five-minute work day. While 4E removed some built-in reasons for players to quit early, the best reasons for pressing on still come from the adventure’s narrative, or at least from wandering monsters.

Smaller combat encounters dominate Scourge of the Sword Coast. In the adventure sites, D&D next players must pick and choose their battles, perhaps avoiding some. The sites have organized defenders, which means if the characters retreat, they face pursuit and give the monsters a chance to reinforce. In D&D next, this adventure design works.

For fourth edition, I’ve focused each site on a couple of big fights. The organized defenders make this change reasonable. Once a fight begins, the monsters can rally guards from other locations. One battle featured the party pursueing monsters through a network of cellars, struggling to prevent the fleeing goblinoids from joining more waves of reinforcements.

Adapting difficulty

Fourth-edition D&D makes preparing monsters and encounters easy.

This conversion process highlight one of my favorite aspects of fourth edition. The game makes adjusting monster and encounter difficulty simple. The Adventure Tools’ Monster Builder allows me to search a list of all the monsters published for the game. I can find suitable replacements for creatures in the adventure. The original monster level hardly matters, because the tool lets me add or subtract levels. The tool automatically adjust hit points, defenses, damage and so on. I favor fourth edition’s approach of building encounters with a mix of monsters in different roles. So even if Scourge of the Sword Coast only lists vanilla goblins at a location, I pick a variety of goblins for my encounter.

As much as I like the scalability of 4e monsters, the demands of organized play have forced authors to rely on scaling more than I like. Later Living Forgotten Realms adventures typically scale the same monsters across an entire tier. I once ran an adventure that pitted my table’s first-level party against a group of trolls, including minions. Somehow, seeing new characters one-shotting hulking trolls offended my D&D sensibilities.

On the high end, I ran a battle interactive that scaled kobolds to eighteenth level for my high-paragon table. Flavor aside, the mathematical adjustments utterly failed to make these kobolds into anything more than an opportunity for players to demonstrate their powers. Even the most elite kobolds in the entire world cannot hope to challenge 18th-level heroes.

I’m not criticizing the volunteer authors of these adventures. The job of creating adventures that scale across 10 or 20 levels poses enough challenges without requiring different types of monsters at different levels.

Fourth edition also makes balanced encounters easy. Include one monster per character. Optionally, add as many minions as you have figures—minions never swing the tide of battle. When running the organized defenses of Scourge, I often start with a few defenders and then add extras as the battle develops. Even against waves of attacks, 4E characters prove resilient enough to escape defeat.