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.
The Floods of Hardbuckler by Francisco Villaverde
An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 4.
Designed for a party of 4 to 5 level 3 characters, The Floods of Hardbuckler sets the characters off on a quest to save a town from a magical environmental disaster. If you’re a fan of the Forgotten Realms then the name may be familiar to you. For everyone else, Hardbuckler is a town not far from Elturel, mainly inhabited by gnomes. In the adventure background, recent unnatural constant rain has caused the caves that the gnomes live in under the town to flood, putting their homes and families at risk. Drawn in by notices posted in nearby towns offering a reward for anyone who can solve the problem, the party find themselves hunting down a group of local druids who might know what is going on.
The adventure covers the sort of amenities that you can find in Hardbuckler, and describes the inn and library in greater detail. These two locations both show of the damage that the rains have done, with the library desperately pilling books on desks to try and keep them dry, and the inn suffering from food shortages as stockpiles are ruined. There are a few points here and throughout the adventure where you may need to be careful if you have experienced players that tend to pick holes with in-game logic. Notably the librarian states that they only thought that tools to control the weather only exist in myths and legends. Control weather is an 8th level spell, so while not common probably shouldn’t be seen as unheard of. These details have no impact on the plot, but could cause friction with certain types of players.
The party will then move on to the Reaching Woods, as advised, to look for the Circle of Druids. This is done through a series of mini-encounters. The first encounter begins a bit abruptly, with the party simply stumbling across a group of aggressive explorers, but the flow is better after that, as each encounter leads to the next. Depending on how the party acts, they will follow one of two possible routes to the druids. These encounters are all pretty short, but have a nice mix to them. There is combat, skill checks or even simply a lore point that is revealed before moving on again. I was originally taken aback a bit by the briefness of them but after testing I feel like they actually work very well, maintaining the pace of the adventure, making the players feel a constant sense of progression through the woods. Sometimes investigations in other adventures can feel like a series of location that need to be fully explored and exploited before moving on, however in this case there is only ever one thing to find in order to move on to the next location, and it isn’t really possible to fail and get stuck. So while the investigation segment might not be particularly deep, and some of its encounters are stronger than others, it’s an interesting take that makes for a really nice change of pace to the usually slightly slower investigation segments. I think that if you really want to up the tension and make the most of the quick pacing here, you could probably play up the rain at the start saying that it had got worse and that the party really needs to get a move on. In general, I’d say that this adventure really benefits from making the players feel like they’re racing against the clock. This plays to the strengths of the adventure which might otherwise feel slightly flat.
This investigation leads to the party saving a friendly druid who explains what’s going on and that they need to stop it. This sets up the final confrontation and it’s quite the finale! I’m a sucker for an evil druid at the best of times, so maybe I’m biased, but this one especially is excellent in both its conception and execution. There is the boss, with several minions of varying strength and possible reinforcements, and really nice thematic lair actions. Chef’s kiss. It might be overwhelming when presented like that but the author has prepared for that eventuality and has provided a helpful list of tactics, with descriptions of each round and the different rules to help guide each monsters actions. This really reduces the amount of work that the DM has to do, allowing them to focus on making this fight the best experience possible. This is an amazingly designed boss fight that really integrates a lot of different elements well.
This adventure has a couple of issues, which are compounded by the very compact layout that has been chosen which doesn’t help with readability. However, all of these minor problems are negligible given the other aspects on offer in the adventure. This has the potential to be a really impactful tightly paced adventure, and I feel works best if the players feel that they’ve got very limited time. The conclusion alone is worth it if ever you have wanted to blend all the possible elements of a boss fight into something quite exceptional.
Behind the Screens
Hello Francisco, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. A good starting point might be the choice of setting. Unlike a lot of of the works from the RPGWW, you’ve decided not to go completely setting neutral, but actually base it in the Forgotten Realms. Why this choice, and more specifically why Hardbuckler?
I chose Forgotten Realms because it’s the most familiar to me, but also because I love the lore around it. I started playing TTRPGs as a kid, D&D 2e, driven to it by Baldur’s Gate, and I just fell in love with it immediately. I also enjoy bending the often rigid rules of the setting and try to surprise players with uncommon events (such as an evil druid or a tribe of benevolent and civilized orcs). Hardbuckler had been on my mind for some time; I like the idea of a city made by and for gnomes where the “tall people” are the outsiders. Also, the underground city flooded by the rains gave it a nice extra flavor.
Once the party leaves the town they go through a series of encounters to try and find the circle of druids that they hope can help them. When first reading through I originally thought that they we’re a little short, a little too shallow. There isn’t really any deep investigation or exploration of each encounter and I was worried that there was too little player interaction. However, when I play-tested this section I found it to be quite refreshing. The really quick pacing of the encounters gave it a real sense of movement. Was this the point? Or was there another rational between having shorter simpler encounters?
The main reason behind the short encounters was that I feared the adventure would run too long. I wanted players to feel, as you said, that things are moving fast and their actions have to be quick as well. I honestly thought the same as you after I wrote them, that they were shallow and uninteresting. But after some re readings and solo playtesting I figured that the brevity makes the players slide through the narrative. So, in short: yes, the point was to give it a sense of movement and quick pacing.
Since we’re on the notion of pacing. I was wondering about how you intend for the adventure to flow? Given the speed of the investigation I feel like there might be something to gain in emphasizing the sense of urgency from the rain, to really push the party forward?
I totally agree. I overlooked this point and after you mentioned it I realized I made the same mistake I sometimes make when writing other narratives which is assuming the reader will just read my mind through the pages. It sucks and I can’t seem to shrug the habit. Given your observation though, I will try to make the urgency clearer in the next version.
Ozzy the badger druid. I mean, I like badgers, and they can be terrifying animals, but, why exactly?
Honestly, there is no reasoning or intention behind Ozzy. It came to my head, found it funny, wrote it down and that was it. While I was editing and proofreading, a friend told me she loved the character so I kept it there. I would love to have some deeper explanation for him, but the truth is I have none. I feel as I should develop the character more in other adventures, or maybe even in a short story, I don’t know why I love him so much!
I’m a sucker for an evil druid antagonist. There is just so much potential there and I think that’s really visible here. You seem to have gone a bit towards the “eco-terrorism” route. Was there any reason behind this choice?
The evil druid angle is something I’ve been trying to write for a long time. I never (ever) played an adventure or campaign where druids are antagonists; mostly because the rules and lore about druids in D&D were rigid to an extreme: forced to be neutral, passive and generally unambitious, which I always found unfair (just as paladins forced to fight for noble causes, though that has changed over the years). I took the “eco-terrorism” route mostly because it appeals to the essence of the druid in using his connection to nature as a weapon against the horrors of civilization. I don’t imagine a druid taking up arms (or claws) against an enemy that has a clear advantage over him and more tools to defend itself. Using the power of nature against it in a not so violent but cruel way seemed like a smart move for the villain.
So I really want to get into the nitty gritty of the boss fight. This is just amazingly well written. I love the complexity, with the boss and the lair actions and the different types of minions, and I really like how you have provided tactics which helps balance it out by reducing the mental strain on the DM. There’s almost a sort of “computer program” nature to the tactics. Firstly, why did you decide to go with something with so many moving parts? Secondly, why did you want to go so deep into the provided tactics?
First of all, thank you for the compliment! As to why I decided to have an encounter so detailed and complex, it’s mainly because I love playing encounters such as these, and they always stick to my memory for years after. I also think that after MMORPGs were established as a staple in gaming culture, these type of encounters became more attractive to players. That is why there is (as you accurately put) a sort of “computer program” feeling to the boss fight. I realize that it’s a dangerous line to walk on, however, because there’s a huge risk of stifling the players’ creativity in how to approach a particular encounter: I’m sure you know that players sometimes surprise you in the most unexpected ways, and that is very enriching to the game. I micromanaged the tactics to keep the encounter balanced; I figured that if I didn’t write specific events and behaviors, the encounter would be too hard for unexperienced players or too easy for experienced players; I struggled to keep it “epic” and not completely impossible at the same time, and not place the responsibility of making it enjoyable and fun solely on the DMs shoulders.
Is there anything else that you would like to add before we finish ?
I would like to mention, as a disclaimer, that English is not my native tongue, so I apologize for any syntax or grammar errors, in these answers and the adventure as well. I had a lot of fun writing the adventure, because I took it as a challenge and after finishing it I was over the moon with satisfaction. Knowing that people out there play it, regardless of what they may think about it, fills me with joy and pride.
Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!
Thank you again for taking the time to read it and review it, it was fun answering all your questions. I hope you find the answers useful and thorough.
Until next time, be more kind,