Welcome to the first in this series of reviews of some of the works from the Fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop. Each review will be followed with a brief chat with its author(s) where we will be delving a bit deeper into some of the aspects that most intrigued me. Every two days there will be a new review and mini-interview out, so keep tuned to discover some of the amazing things that these bright new authors are coming up with.
Spoiler warning: It is simply not practical to review a product without mentioning anything about it. I have attempted to remain vague where possible, however I can not guarantee that you will not learn something about the adventure by reading this review.
Declaration of interest: I am part of the affiliate program for OneBookShelf. If you use the links provided in this article to purchase a product I get a small kickback from it.
In the Land of the Dead God by Sanae Rosen
An adventure for D&D5e (with a 13th age conversion is in the works), included in the DriveThruRPG RPG Writer Workshop bundle.
Set in the fascinating Tuje Wasteland, In the Land of the Dead God tells a thrilling story of daring rescues and high octane dino-chases. Designed as a one-shot, the author has also provided ways to incorporate it into a larger campaign, either your own or in conjunction with some of their other works. The adventure can largely be divided into two parts.
The first introduces the players to the world that they are now located in: the Tuje Wasteland. It starts with a relatively simple fight which eases the players in but also lets them know straight away that they’re not in Kansas anymore. After this initial encounter, they travel to the main population centre in the area, in the company of locals. All of this section invokes the feeling of a world that is considerably estranged from the traditional “woodland and grassy fields” feel of a lot of D&D adventures. The description evokes the dry land and barren rock that the characters find themselves in. The fauna is significantly different to what were used to, and the local culture is richly described without submerging the DM in details. If however the DM wants to know more, then they are directed to extra resources on-line where they can find what they need. This immersion in another world is helped by the carefully chosen images that accompany the adventure, including the custom made menus of the bars and eateries that the characters can visit, which are great at communicating the setting to your players. The market town where the characters get their quest and stock up on supplies is well designed and would work perfectly as a good staging area for a larger campaign, if required, as it has pretty much everything you need.
The second part is when the action ramps up as the characters set off on their rescue mission. The adventure provides several reasons for why and how they get their quest, which means that it can fit naturally into the narrative rather than you having to find a way of herding your players to the quest giver. What follows is a fast paced rescue mission that culminates in a fight on dinosaur-back as the characters try to get back to town before being overcome. This fight is quite frankly great, providing simple and clear mechanics for the fight that really change up the traditional gameplay of D&D. It really evokes Mad Max themes for me, while still maintaining an appropriate D&D atmosphere.
In conclusion, this adventure provides both a unique setting and unique gameplay. It includes gorgeous maps and handouts that will draw your players in, and efforts have been made to reduce the amount of work needed by the DM such as providing the tactics that monsters use for every fight. All together a great experience that should shake up your table’s game night.
Behind the Screens
Hello Sanae. Thanks for agreeing to the interview. The Tuje Wasteland is one of the most interesting settings I’ve seen in a while. What inspired you to make something so unique?
The main reason is that I really love worldbuilding, and also had a bunch of free time in the weeks leading up to the workshop.
The other part is that my original idea required that the game happen in an arid climate. I shelved the original idea, but the setting stayed the same. And I’ve realized that once you say something concrete about a setting, people immediately latch onto how it might relate to something from the real world. So if I say it’s a dry wasteland, people might immediately picture the Middle East, as I realized when I started looking for stock art. Actually, the game was kind of inspired by the climate of the area around where I live now, which is in North America. But once people have a mental image, they’re trying to fit everything that happens in the game to that mental image. This is both kind of creatively constraining, and also you then have to worry about fairly representing the real world cultures people are imagining. So I felt like I should say what the setting definitely is. And once I decided to do that, I ended up spending a lot of time on it, because I really enjoy that kind of thing.
There is some great worldbuilding in this adventure, with things like in-world menus that you can show your players. You’ve also fleshed out the background of your world on your website, and provide links to it in the adventure itself for GMs that want to go further. You’ve even made a language! Have you always been such an avid worldbuilder?
I got into worldbuilding long before TTRPGs – even as a kid, I was drawing maps and inventing worlds. However, to a degree worldbuilding can be this self-indulgent thing, people mostly aren’t actually interested in hearing you monologue about your world. So I realized that I need a way to get people interested. And I think RPG adventures are great for that, because you can basically create a world for people to play around in, and people actually appreciate it. So in a sense, this is all an elaborate scheme to get people to pay attention to my worldbuilding.
Your adventure climaxes in an amazing dinosaur-riding chase-fight that you even wrote special rules for. Firstly, did you play the Mad Max soundtrack when you played through this? Secondly, what made you want to write such a great “set piece” encounter, rather than just a straight forward battle?
Well, it probably isn’t a coincidence that I had watched a Fast and Furious movie for the first time the week before. But a lot of it stemmed from my decision to include dinosaurs as mounts. Once you introduce riding dinosaurs you have some expectations to live up to. And I felt like the default mounted combat rules don’t quite capture the fun of a chase scene.
It also solved a problem – I wanted the enemies to feel like a formidable force, but if you have the players massacring twenty people, it does kind of change the tone of the adventure, and the enemies no longer feel threatening. But with a chase, you just have to make sure the enemies can’t keep up the pursuit, and if you watch a chase scene in action movies, usually that happens, albeit with explosions and car crashes. This works especially well at level 5, where players have a lot of tools to impede their enemies.
In the adventure you reference one of your earlier works with a few callbacks, which is nice for those that have played it and doesn’t detract from it for those that haven’t. Are we to look forward to more adventures in this world?
I definitely hope so! I have a lot of ideas that I had to cut to keep the scope reasonable. I’d even love eventually to make a mini campaign setting, and enough adventures to combine them into a larger campaign. But this has been a strange year, and I suspect next year will be strange in its own way as well, so I’m not sure what will happen.
You are going to the effort to produce a 13th age version and a D&D version of this adventure. Does working for two systems change how you approach your projects?
This is the second time I’ve done this, and I’m trying to learn from the mistakes of the first one. One fundamental difference is that 13th age has Icons – they act like factions which each have a figurehead. You have one associated with the forces of nature, another one associated with knowledge, and so on, and there are implicit conflicts between them. Players choose to have relationships with these icons, and in the game, you randomly pick which icon relationships are relevant that session.
This means you need NPCs with varied motivations and alliances, or at the very least locations and challenges that players can draw on in different ways. So because 13th age has this collaborative aspect of storytelling built in, I wanted to start out by making sure I could make that work fairly well. I realized last time that if you don’t start out thinking of the game that way, that makes it a lot harder to do the conversion.
Also, if I intend to convert to other systems, I have to publish under a different license, which prevents me from using a lot of the official monsters, which I think makes me more willing to write my own unique monsters.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add about your adventure or your other works?
As you mentioned, I have another adventure that isn’t really a prequel to this adventure, but could happen before this one in an episodic style of campaign. Unfortunately it doesn’t have dinosaurs.
Until next time, be more kind,