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.
Unsettled Ground by David Wright
An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 1.
Unsettled Ground is a story about clearing monsters out of a mine, and saving the miners. It’s a tale as old as time, or at least as old as D&D, but that doesn’t stop it being great when well executed. Things become tropes for a reason. Unsettled Ground is an excellent take on this somewhat standard setup, as it includes both a well fleshed out investigation section that makes the most of it’s realistic level design and some very thematic and creepy opponents.
The party starts out arriving in Bellshall, a well designed and fleshed out starting village. It contains everything needed to provide a good staging zone for any future adventures if you want to flesh it out into a full campaign, without being so developed that it would be hard to fit into an already designed adventure. There are a couple of plot hooks to chose from, depending on what might motivate your party, but which will lead to them investigating the disappearance of Forn, a gnome that liaises with the mysterious hidden mine that has put the town on the map with all the rare gemstones that it provides. Unbeknown to the townsfolk, the mine is ran by Deep Gnomes, who prefer to remain hidden, and has recently been infested by Ettercaps and spiders when they delved too deep and too greedily (well, when they stumbled into the wrong cave, but that doesn’t sound as good). The party will have to deal with these aggressors (which include an Ettercap Host, an interesting new monster that is even creepier than an normal Ettercap, because you know they’re not awful enough on their own), and rescue the miners, as well as Forn.
The adventure can be broken down into two large chunks, which will be familiar to readers of such adventures as The Death House in Curse of Strahd. The first involves the party trying to figure out what has happened to Forn. They will have to follow his tracks, avoiding some misleading signs during their investigation, in order to find the mine, and then figure out what has happened in the mine itself. They will then engage in a much more combat focused segment as they try to save the gnomes from their unsavoury end.
The initial segment involves exploring what could be called a “realistically” designed world, rather than an area designed to suit the adventure’s needs. There are zones which are of no immediate use, devoid of encounters, but which make sense from someone living in the world (for example, the existence of latrines). This roots the adventure into the world, making it feel more reasonable for the players, and also highlights the more “horror” aspects of the adventure. The idea that a normally lived in place is empty and devoid of life is perfect for inducing fear, as we immediately recognize the wrongness of it. This then pays off in the second part where the combat ramps up against the, always creepy, mix of spiders and ettercaps, and the aforementioned even grosser ettercap host. These encounters are both thematically fitting, but should also be challenging enough to be a satisfying conclusion to the earlier exploration segment, thanks to the mix of enemies and webs that provide additional environmental challenges.
This is a solid and well designed adventure, which provides a good framework for a DM looking for a high tension one shot with some solid combat. Plenty of advice is provided for the DM which cuts down on any required prep work and there are very few areas that are lacking in design (except one very minor point that states that a door is stuck but not how to unstick it). An excellent adventure if you want a horror one-shot that deals more in tension building than in gore. It is also a solid base that can easily be fleshed out into a larger campaign in the region, thanks to the future hooks provided at the end of the scenario, and the well developed starting town and NPCs.
Behind the Screens
Hello David, and thanks for agreeing to this interview.
My pleasure Sam, thanks for taking on this endeavour!
One of the first things that we can read in your adventure is the content warning about spiders, who make up the main enemies in this scenario in one form or another. I found this especially interesting given that you’re an arachnophobe yourself. Did you loose a bet? What’s the rational behind wanting to creep yourself out?
So, my original adventure that I was writing for the RPG Writer Workshop was one that 2 weeks in I realised it would have been significantly longer and essentially a short campaign.
Taking the basics of what I had (Deep Gnomes, Gem Mine and the village of Bellshall) I needed to take a different approach. Naturally I defaulted to the trope of giant spiders but I wanted something different. It did make some of the artwork decisions harder as I just couldn’t bring myself to have lots of spiders :shudder: in the images!
Since we’re talking about creepy things, let’s mention the Ettercap Host. Now, I’m fine with spiders but I find Ettercaps gross. What made you think: what if we make these even grosser?
I opted for Etteraps simply because of their connection to spiders and not wanting it to “just be spiders”. I likewise find Ettercaps gross but decided to lean into their connection with spiders and came up with the idea of having something more Alien queen like for the Ettercaps. I also liked the fact that Ettercaps don’t seem to be used that often despite their connection with spiders.
If we move from monster design to level design, your adventure made me think of The Death House scenario from Curse of Strahd. It starts off investigation heavy, with lots of tension building to start out with, and then moving into a more combat heavy second part. Was this an inspiration to you when you were designing, or a happy coincidence?
Probably happy coincidence but also likely an aspect of how my homebrew games tend to work. Despite owning Curse of Strahd and most of the other books I haven’t actually read it or Death House beyond a cursory glance.
There is also a lot of, for lack of a better word, “dead space” in the scenario. Areas where there are no encounters, nothing really to discover, but just there because in a realistic world these spaces are needed. The latrines are an obvious example, but there are also parts of the castle and the mines that exist mainly to make it seem more real. I feel like these areas add a lot to the adventure, providing verisimilitude and helping to build tension, but can make it tricky to run from a pacing perspective. Do you have any advice for DMs about have to pace the adventure and keep the tension?
It is one of those things that I ask myself when reading other published adventures which boils down to “If someone lives here, show me that they live here.”
Adding real things into the mix and empty space, particularly in Castle Hermitage, provide the DM with the opportunity to add more things or skip over. E.g. There may be more to find in the ruined castle than what Unsettled Ground provides but that’s for the DM to determine.
If you’re running this for your home group, then you’ll know whether they are likely to explore the mundane things simply because “there must be something here or it won’t be on the map!” As ever the DM can add random treasure or indeed random encounters if needed. Maybe there is a swarm of spiders in one of the latrines?
Pacing wise if you know your players, I suspect most DMs have a good handle of how it could play out. If you don’t know your players, then consider that the lack of descriptive text for some areas is a sign to downplay the importance of the room. Plus, maybe the latrines provide a break in the tension…
There are plenty of useful tools in the adventure to help the DM. Guidelines on how to adapt the encounter difficulty, flowcharts to show the story progression, monsters are referenced with the monster manual page number,… What do you think are some of the most important tools that designers can provide to DMs that we don’t see enough of?
Even though the adventure is scaled for 4th level, I tried to approach it from the perspective of the new DM. I’ve been playing RPGs since the 1984 and the one thing I want from a pre-written book is some help to run the adventure. Giving me the setting, scenes and encounters is great but also give me the references, hints, and a kind of feedback loop as if the writer is there to make sure I’ve got what I need to run it.
I originally planned to include the statblocks and all sorts of other information to reduce the need for the DM to look stuff up but that would have felt like padding the page count unnecessarily. It’s something I need to consider going forward.
So, to actually answer the question. I think it comes down to making sure that the DM has what they need to run the adventure. Get other DMs not only to playtest it but to read it and say things like “Might be worth reminding people how Darkvision works!”.
I recently reviewed Riches of the Earth, which is a story about a potato growing village that has a nearby town that made their wealth from a gem mine, which is just one of those amazing coincidences that would make these two adventures great to run together.
Awesome! I didn’t realise that, so will now need to check it out properly.
You’ve also provided other possible adventures to help the DM along with what to do after the adventure. Are these possibly future adventures for you to write, or do you want to move on to other projects?
So, Bellshall is likely to get revisited at some point but not yet. The original idea I had is still an option and links into some of the seeds that I’ve planted in this adventure so I would like to return to them. Just need to work out whether to break it into different scenarios or release it as something bigger…
Other things wise, I have 2 other DMsGuild titles in the very early draft stages and hope to get one of them out before the end of February 2021. I am also looking at the other Community Content stuff on DriveThruRPG as I have some ideas for games other than D&D that I’d like to get written down.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add before we end?
Firstly, thanks again for doing this Sam. It is much appreciated.
I think I’d like to give huge plaudits to Ashley and the team behind RPG Writer Workshop. As someone who has homebrewed stuff for over 35 years, I have always wanted to write it down but never had the tools or made the time to do it. The workshop enabled me to do it and has been the kick I’ve needed to do this. I should really have been doing this for years…
Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!
Until next time, be more kind,