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.
Road to Rock by Jacob Colosi
An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 1.
If Jack Black made D&D a adventure this would be it. Road to Rock is fun, irreverent, and whimsical but don’t let that fool you into thinking that it isn’t also deep and well designed. The objective is both simple and original: there is a secret concert going on tonight, and an NPC needs the party’s help to find it. This “low stakes” objective sets the tone for the adventure well, making it clear to everyone that the aim is just to have fun. The adventure is combat light, with the emphasis being on roleplaying, exploration and just having fun. This means that it’s easily scalable to lower and higher levels, and advice is provided throughout where necessary.
The adventure path is free flowing, branching out after the initial encounter to three separate locations, which can be visited in any order, before leading to two possible ends: the good ending or the great ending. These areas all gel together nicely, as each area provides clues to the two others. The DM is free to provide the clues to the other locations, or to the final location directly, depending on how long they would like the adventure to last. Each location also has an secret easter egg to find, which lead to the great ending rather than just the good one, adding just an extra touch of complexity for those groups that are looking for it, without being obtrusive.
The encounters themselves are varied. There is an encounter about using your social skills and a bit of lateral thinking to negotiate with a highly strung green hag singer, an interesting use of the rules from XGtE to make disarming an array of complex traps into a pseudo-fight against a radio tower, and a combat encounter against a group of meenlocks. Depending on the clues found and choices made, an additional combat encounter can be found at the end of the adventure, to defeat the rival band of flaming skulls that have been trying to trick people into their concert instead, before the final closing scenes.
This adventure requires the players and the DM to lean into rule of cool rather than a cohesive lore or being overly precise with the rules. It benefits from being lax and free flowing in its approach. This requires buy in right at the start on the type of adventure it’s going to be with the players. It also means that it works best as a one-shot, as it’s style risks clashing with the normal run of a campaign. If you do wish to include it in however, the use of liminal spaces might be sufficient in justifying the changes, on the grounds that the feywild doesn’t run on the same logic as the material world.
Road to Rock is an adventure about kicking back, laughing, and having fun. While there are tactical maps it can be easily run in theater of the mind, reducing work for everyone and fitting well with the more relaxed style. The story is good, and systematically surprises you with new ideas, new ways of using old tools, and innovative use of spells to mix the fantasy of D&D with a more contemporary plot. All of this is wrapped up in a fabulous bundle with some exceptional lay out and design. An excellent buy for anyone that wants some light hearted fun, I can’t imagine the group that wouldn’t get at least some enjoyment out of it.
Behind the Screens
Hello Jacob, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. I have so many questions for you, it’s going to be hard to limit them. The first thing that I think anyone will notice, even in the preview, is the layout and visual design. It reminds me a lot of the “Weekend and Strahd’s” adventure. It does so well at complementing the adventure itself, the reader knows right away what they should expect from it before they’ve even read a single word. Did you want to do this striking visual design right from the start, or is it something that came later in the process?
I’m a professional graphic designer and like to use my side projects (like adventure writing) as an avenue to be expressive and exploratory with visual design. In my day job I’m usually creating work that is more modern, so it’s great to be able to use my own projects to explore more “genre” and stylized work. I’m also hoping to grow my portfolio of layout and design work in the rpg/gaming sphere, so I definitely wanted this project to be a piece I can reference in that respect.
I definitely see the connection you’ve made to the “Weekend at Strahd’s” adventure – the colour scheme is taken directly from a Keith Haring piece and the visual language draws a lot on the aesthetics 80s glam rock. I actually referenced Oliver’s (author of Weekend at Strahd’s) work a bit while designing my layout, as he’s done a lot in the space to push what adventures can look like on DM’s Guild.
If we move on now to the content of the adventure itself, I wanted to know what interested you the most about writing a more light-hearted and comic adventure?
My personal style leans into the silly, irrelevant and absurd as well, so when I’m trying to find an idea that excites me I often draw from things that lean into those styles. This adventure was originally inspired by a Lady Gaga song about a unicorn on the road to love (hence my title), and my drive to write comes from being able to share my own sense of humor. Also, as the idea for the story came together, I realized this would be a good opportunity to explore the non-combat side of D&D, having the players rescue NPCs from complex traps, negotiate between two opposing parties, and explore scenes to find secrets.
The way that the party can find little easter eggs that will unlock the “best” ending is a sort of video game idea that I haven’t often seen in TTRPGs. Why did you want to include this as an option extra, rather than it just being the default solution?
The whole concept of the adventure became about emulating the emotion of wandering a city, discovering unexpected places and not necessarily finding the thing you originally set out to look for. I wanted to write something that felt like an indie coming of age movie. I didn’t want the default ending to be finding the concert because I felt the ending where you get to party with all the friends you met along the way much more in line with that original vision.
However, I also love playing with game mechanics and felt like the addition of the secret clues was very interesting and allowed for the players to really feel like they were discovering something through exploration. As well, in my playtest I noticed my players were very excited about the scavenger hunt aspect of them and got really into looking for them. So keeping them as additional – extra rewards for those who take the time to explore the scenes – really helped give the adventure a “play it your way” feel.
I was wondering about the addition of tactical maps in the adventure. It’s a nice addition, but I wonder if really just emphasising theatre of the mind the whole way wouldn’t have been an interesting way to go?
I view the maps more as just an additional tool the DM can use to help make their lives just a bit easier. I personally always use maps when running any type of combat situation, even when I’m using theatre of the mind – I keep the map behind the screen and keep a rough track of where everybody is. At the end of the day I view it just as a personal preference and an aid for those who have a hard time visualizing.
There are some really creative uses of traditional D&D elements in the adventure. For example, the modification of magic mouth into a record player. There are also just some really fun ideas here that are somewhat between Eberron tech and something very feywild, like the Satyr Subway. Is there any plan to expand this universe at some point?
A lot of that just comes from the shared sense of humour between me and my gaming group. Taking things that are modern and just tagging “fantasy” in front. When writing, to make it a bit more professional, I refined it a bit so “Fantasy IHOP” becomes International House of Pixies and “Fantasy Subway” becomes carts pulled by giant badgers. It’s mostly just me trying to fit my ideas into the framework of D&D. As for expanding, I’m sure any new adventures I write will play just as fast and loose with meshing fantasy tropes with modern concepts – but maybe an idea for a quasi-satirical fantasy setting is in there somewhere.
There are also some fun little jokes in here too, and you play with music tropes (playing something backwards to get a hidden message etc.). My personal favourite is “Now That’s What I Proclaim Boogie”, but I was wondering if you had a favourite you wanted to tell us about ?
I quite enjoyed writing the “Behind The Bards” section and fleshing out all the band members, particularly Nelly Paterson and her drum dome (after Neil Peart’s drum set-up). Almost all the NPCs are named – some extremely tangentially – after some sort of musical reference. I always chuckle thinking about how I named Roscoe after Radio Free Roscoe, an old Canadian kid’s show on Family channel.
Is there anything else that you would like to add before we finish ?
I just wanted to say thanks for taking a read through my adventure and giving me a chance to reflect on it a bit. Writing this adventure was a great distraction from the current world state and I’m extremely happy with what I ended up with. I look forward to seeing more of your interviews with the other workshop creators!
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,