RPG Review: Lost in the Sands by Gerard Dwan

Welcome back to our 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: This article includes affiliate links.

Cover image of Lost in the Sands by Gerard Dwan. It shows a large sand dune, lit on the right hand side by the sun while the left side of it is in shadow.
Cover image of Lost in the Sands by Gerard Dwan

Lost in the Sands by Gerard Dwan

An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 3.

Review

In this short adventure the party will attempt to save a town from invasion only to find out that they’re too late, and are now destined to try and save those that they can and get them to a safe haven. The plot hooks provided require the characters to be willing to participate simply because it’s the right thing to do. It might be possible to entice them with an additional bounty however if needed, and indeed an award is presented at the end of the adventure. It would be relatively simple to mention it right from the start. Once the characters are ready they are thrown right into the action, as the start of the adventure is designed to be a hectic rush. The party arrives late, the fight has already started, plunging them almost immediately into combat. This continues as they must move on to try and save the town’s mayor from capture. It’s only once the characters are out of the ruined town, with the mayor under their protection, that the pace slows down slightly and the party isn’t rushed from one disaster to the next.

The party is now tasked with getting the mayor and his guard to a nearby town that has offered them somewhere safe to stay. To do so they have to stock up on supplies for helping cross the desert from a nearby village, which will require dealing with a shady shopkeeper, winning a camel race and avoiding an ambush. There are some interesting aspects here, notably showcasing how characters have to adapt to different environments, which is a good lesson to learn if you want an exploration heavy campaign. The camel race also introduces quite an interesting choice for the players. The race is based on a series of skill checks, where each success moves the camel forward in the race. What is most intriguing however is that each camel has different statistics, with different speeds and corresponding difficulty levels for the checks. The players therefore have to make a significant choice when they decide what camel to ride, trying to balance the risk/reward from choosing a faster camel depending in part on their skill bonuses. The adventure concludes once the characters have stocked up on the required equipment, enabling them to travel to the nearest safe town.

The module appears to be an excellent start for beginning players and DMs. There is a considerable amount of advice provided for DMs to adapt the adventure easily, depending on the number of characters and their average level. There is also a section at the beginning with DM advice and what is needed for prep before the game starts. These two segments, combined with the intended low character levels, point this adventure as being directed towards newer players. Unlike most adventures there are no tactical maps provided here, as the combat is all designed for theatre of the mind. This lowers the barriers to entry for new DMs, as it doesn’t require figurines or printing out maps, and means that it could also be easily played over voice chat for those that want to run a one-shot without having to figure out the workings of a VTT.

The plot occasionally requires that the players following the direction of the DM so as not completely derail the adventure. Also, there are a few moments in the adventure which might make players question the narrative, such as wondering about missing people, or the environment changing suddenly. The module does however also provide plenty of opportunities if the DM wants to integrate the adventure into a larger campaign. The invader that instigated the action isn’t defeated, providing a possible larger narrative. There are also seeds of future adventures woven into the narrative, such as a freed NPC whose presence isn’t explained and the mayor’s advisor still being kidnapped. These loose ends will either be an opportunity to seize or something that you really don’t want to deal with depending on your philosophy as a DM.

This adventure provides a short, punchy one-shot for a DM looking to introduce new players to the hobby. It provides a good basis for a larger campaign or series of adventures if wanted, with plenty of ideas to get your creative ideas sparking. Given the hooks for future adventures that have been left it is relatively easy for the DM to simply go wherever the players want to take the adventure. While the adventure is sparked by an invasion the main obstacle is simply finding a way of traversing the environment, which is an interesting change of pace for an adventure and one well worth exploring.

Behind the Screens

Hello Gerard, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. The spark for the adventure is when a town is invaded by an over-aggressive neighbour. However, I feel like the main obstacle that actually pushes the narrative forward is simply the environment itself. The party find themselves unable to simply move from one town to the next, which requires them to adapt. Do you feel like when we create adventures we focus too much on the trope of “the Big Bad Evil Guy”, and ignore other possible antagonists such as the environment itself?

Hello and thanks for taking the time to review and interview! When players are looking to Dungeons and Dragons to escape (common in 2020), I feel like they’re often looking for an obvious enemy, so environmental antagonists are uncommon. However, it does add an additional level of complexity and makes the experience a little more immersive. It seems like Wizards of the Coast may have started to play with the idea again with ‘Iceland Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden’.

Your adventure has a somewhat bittersweet ending. While the immediate danger of the invasion has been avoided, the town has still been lost. This gives the players an incentive to try and reclaim the land. There are also possible plot hooks for future adventures spread throughout the adventure: the mayor’s adviser has been kidnapped, a dryad is either imprisoned or liberated, but their role in the invader’s plan still isn’t clear. Do you intend to follow up on these plot lines with future adventures? Or are they there to provide scope for the DM?

It’s a little bit of both. I certainly hope to continue writing and you’re completely right, there are many areas to expand from this adventure. I also hope that it provides inspiration for the Dungeon Master to go beyond the source material and have the context needed to either include it as a ‘side quest’ or extend it to an entire campaign.

I’d like to touch on the camel racing. I couldn’t help but draw the parallel between this part of the adventure and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Stranded in the desert, in need of specialist equipment, required to participate in a race to satisfy a shady trader, possibility of freeing an enslaved store worker. Was this intentional?

Yes! As a matter of fact, many parts of the adventure were inspired by The Phantom Menace. I wanted to bring my good friends (and prequel meme-rs) into the game and I thought it made the most sense to bring in elements from our common interests. There are other aspects of the adventure that are good for first time players: starting with a battle scene that protects the player from death, just like the initial encounter ‘Lost Mine of Phandelver’; it offers a linear story line; and it gives the DM the flexibility to use in any setting. As far as the Star Wars inspiration, the ‘Aggressive Neighbor’ is taken from a certain power-hungry senator and the quest giver is an homage to a unpopular amphibian from the series.

Also on the subject of the camel race, you’ve presented the players with a very interesting choice. They have to decide whether to risk a camel with higher skill checks but also a higher speed, or one that is more reliable but slower. This is quite a typical choice but not one I’ve often seen in D&D. What was the aim of this mechanic? And did you do through several iterations before settling on this design?

This was inspired by (now obviously) pod racing. In Dungeons and Dragons there is dinosaur racing rules in Tomb of Annihilation. It took a few iterations to get the right amount of camel description, trim down the rules to make it a bit simpler and offer some level of challenge during the race. I also wanted to stick with a single rider in the race to make it easier for the DM to track what’s happening. Enter the pit crew. Whoever is not racing is able to assist (retroactively) in the performance of the race. Getting the pit crew checks just right was a challenge, but I’m happy with where it landed and I’m thinking of adding a supplement that provides additional camel options!

Finally, you’ve very kindly decided to donate all proceeds to the Extra Life charity. Would you mind telling us a bit more about why Extra Life?

Extra Life is a unique charity that provides 100% of funds raised to the Children’s Miracle Hospital network. This means no overhead, no CEO or board making lots of money, and more dollars going directly to local hospitals. The way funds are raised is typically through game day events. This year has been a challenging year for charitable causes, so I need to do all that I can to support those who need it.
I have had many personal experiences at Boston Children’s Hospital, a member of the Children’s Miracle Hospital Network and as a gamer, it’s the perfect opportunity for me to give back to such a worthy cause. In addition, Dungeon Masters Guild allows content creators to directly contribute sales to Extra Life. So, not only is it a worthy cause, but it is also immensely easy for me to contribute.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add before we end?

Just a bunch of thanks: to you, thanks for putting this whole thing together; to my wife, for giving me the flexibility to write the adventure; to the playtesters for their valuable feedback; and to the RPG Writer Workshop, I wouldn’t have known where to start without it.

Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!

You can find the adventure on the DMsGuild here, and more work by Gerard here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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