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.
Midnight in Moonlight Grove by Karl Kreutzer
An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 3.
Midnight in Moonlight Grove is one of those perfect blend adventures, where everything clicks into place to form something truly special. It’s both a solid and well thought out adventure that makes good use of all three pillars of D&D, whilst still retaining elements of childhood whimsy that elevate it above the rest. The party find themselves in an idyllic little village on the eve of the harvest festival, except everything isn’t quite as it seems, as they will soon find out when emotions start running high. The village peace is disturbed by a bar fight, leading the party to a mystery that has gnawed at the roots of the village for generations.
The adventure is broken down into three main sections. The first sets up the story, introducing some of the main actors, and starting the intrigue. The party witness first hand the strange going-ons in the town as tempers flare and they find themselves in the middle of a bar brawl as village relations break down. This leads them to being hired by some local notables to look into what is happening leading to the second section: the investigation. The characters meet a variety of cool NPCs during this phase (including a part deer centaur, a foxkin, and an actual spider) as they try to piece together what is happening and perhaps more importantly, why. This leads to the final frantic confrontation that marks the climax of the adventure as the party must decide what path they take, whilst facing off a vengeful spirit.
There really is a lot to love in this adventure. It makes excellent use of some of the less present mechanics from the 5e Dungeon Master’s Guide, as well as older rules, to develop all three pillars of D&D. The characters have to overcome skill challenges (which aren’t officially part of 5e but which are described in enough detail to be usable here) when trying to diffuse certain situations. Several social encounters use the social interaction rules from the DMG, which are really underused, as a way of codifying these conversations to help DMs that might be less comfortable on using pure roleplaying when deciding the outcome of social encounters. One of the aspects I really enjoyed were all the little hidden extras that can be found for those that want to make an effort: talking to animals, avoiding traps, and plenty of rumours, both true and false, that can help guide the investigations.
It doesn’t slouch on the combat encounters either. The scenario starts with a bar fight that wonderfully mixes both a skill challenge and a fight against animated beer kegs that have a beer breath attack! The other combats only appear towards the end of the adventure but are perfectly themed with custom monsters, including magically enchanted cauldrons and voodoo dolls. It culminated in a fight that is perfectly designed to capture the chaotic feeling of a wild and vengeful spirit lashing out, in what is basically a modified beholder which is really cool surprise for lower levelled characters. My only minor complaint about the mechanics of the adventure is the occasional reference to “critical successes” on skill rolls, which aren’t officially part of 5e and aren’t explained in the adventure.
The theming and storytelling of the adventure is also very much on point. It pulls off one of my favourite tropes: introducing the villain in disguise at the earliest possible opportunity, foreshadowing the plot and even revealing the whole back story in a cryptic way if you so wish. It really works well with the hag theme that runs throughout. The monsters are also perfectly tied in to the theme, either that of the hags minions or rooted deeper into the narrative origins of the adventure. This is completed by lots of little extras provided by the author to flesh out the world with interesting NPCs and even a random table of strange happenings to draw the players into the mystery and provide clues for the adventurers. I could go on even longer, waxing lyrical over the creepy journal entries or the raven, ooh that raven. All of this is wrapped up in wonderful vivid descriptions. The read aloud text might be overly long for some people, but it’s not omni-present and generally only happens in situations where the players have plenty of time, so it’s not what I’d call a problem.
With its excellent layout and art, Midnight in a Moonlight Grove is an amazing adventure to pick up for anyone. The story is well thought out and backed up by very well executed mechanical choices, which culminate in a conclusion that takes into account their choices throughout the scenario. Your players should be able to find something in it to engage them, and draw them into the narrative. This isn’t just a well designed and solid adventure however, it’s also one that has plenty of instances where a certain whimsicalness shines through, reminding us of the joys of childhood. Midnight in Moonlight Grove is one of those adventures where you can feel that its deeply rooted in a place of love, and is all the better for it.
Behind the Screens
Hello Karl, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. I really loved this adventure. I generally like to dig into the theme to start off with. This is a really excellent use of a hag’s curse as an adventure background. Where did the idea come from?
Hello Sam. You are welcome, and thanks for reviewing Midnight in Moonlight Grove. I love hags and knew early on I wanted to feature one. I also wanted to explore the repercussions of a “hero’s” bargain with a hag in the long term. Was the bargain worth it to the hero? What about his descendants? What about those people that benefited from the bargain without ever knowing about it? What would happen when the truth was revealed?
I like that you’ve woven the hag theme all the way through, with the custom monsters, and the various different random bits of strangeness that provide clues to what is happening. I especially like the early villainous cameo in the bar, it just screams hag to me, the way that she is playing with the characters, practically giving the story away simply for the fun of it. Do you have any advice on how to run a hag for perspective DMs?
Hags are wonderfully complex antagonists. I try to make every hag their own realized character. They have their own plans and motivations, and these do not always have to be at odds with the player characters. Hags are always looking to turn a situation to their advantage and would rather bargain than fight, so my advice is, let them.
Bargaining with a hag should leave the players feeling paranoid at best. While there should be a benefit to the players to make the bargain enticing, it always benefits the hags plans. If your players decide to make a bargain with a hag and fail to keep up their end of the deal, do not let a simple Remove Curse or Restoration spell get them off the hook. They made the bargain willingly and should come up with some inventive ways around it. I never stick with the stat block provided in the Monster Manual or Volo’s Guide, though they are great starting points. Modify their spell lists to give them the spells they need to pursue their agenda. Give them minions disturbing and fun and make up some creepy magic items for them to have in case of emergency. I always give my hags a way out (often more than one) when things get dangerous. When you reach the big showdown, remember all the minions and items they have at their disposal and consider giving them some lair actions too for fun. Your players will love overcoming this final battle, and you will have a blast with all of the little tricks you can use to surprise them.
There are also some really solid uses of different less known mechanics. Skill challenges have been referenced by quite a few third party references, despite not having official rules in 5e, but what I’d like to focus on here is the use of the social interaction rules from the DMG. I rarely see these employed but I think you’ve done really well here in providing a way to codify the results of the conversation, rather than just leaving it entirely up to roleplaying. Why did you decide to use these rules, and do you have any advice for designers who might be wondering on how to employ them?
I like to give GM’s options in my adventures. There are many rules in the DMG that just get forgotten, or DMs don’t know are there. I wanted to highlight some of them. I found the Social Interaction rules in the DMG to be necessarily vague, as they are made to work for every kind of social interaction in the game. When I implemented the Social Interaction rules in Midnight in Moonlight Grove, I wanted to give specific outcomes to the conversations in my adventure and whether the NPC’s start out as friendly, indifferent, or hostile based on how the characters approached them. Hopefully, this makes the DM’s life easier if they chose to use the Social Interaction rules. On the player’s side, the Social Interaction rules allow a socially adept character to shine without relying solely on roleplaying. I know I am not always the wittiest or most socially adept person, but sometimes I like playing characters that are. Using these rules takes some of the pressure off of a player when it comes to these in-game situations while still letting them be the character that they want to be.
Your monsters are also really creative. I’m a major fan of the Scuttlepot and the Beer Kegs, which are both wonderfully funny whilst still being solidly designed. What’s your philosophy behind custom monster design?
First of all, thank you. I am glad you liked them. The Scuttlepot is one of my favorite creations. My philosophy behind character design is to make my creatures fun for the DM to use. Aesthetically I want it to fit the theme of my adventure. Mechanically I love recharge actions, legendary actions, and lair actions. The latter two I especially like trying to work into lower-level encounters as a surprise. I am still relatively new to monster design, so I start by looking at other creatures with similar CRs to what I want. This gives me an idea of what the stats should look like then I work out from there. If a similar creature already exists to what I am looking for, I will modify the actions or abilities to fit what I want. If there is no similar monster, I try to break the potential monster down a couple of different ways. Is it a solo monster or a group of monsters? Does it do a lot of damage with lower hit points, or does it rely on high hit points or damage resistance but lower damage output? After that, I start to look at special abilities, legendary abilities, and lair abilities.
When I design a monster for my home games, I can tweak on the fly if I over or underestimated the CR, but for an adventure like Midnight in Moonlight Grove, the key is playtest, playtest, playtest. I had to adjust my final encounter a couple of times to dial it in.
We can’t talk about monsters without talking about the moon spirit finale. The encounter is a modified beholder mechanic, which both lets lower level characters encounter this sort of monster, but also really plays into the wild avenging spirit feel that you wanted out of the encounter. Why did you chose to go down this route rather than going for a simpler more level appropriate combat encounter?
The surprise factor. In every playtest I ran or observed, the reaction I got from the players when that first lair action hit was great. It just made the encounter memorable for them. It makes it more fun for the DM, too, when they have a little something up their sleeve. Players can easily overwhelm solo monsters. Instead of tossing a wave of minions at them, you can make an encounter a little more even when you surprise the players with low-level legendary abilities or lair actions and make the encounter feel more epic. That was what I wanted out of this encounter. I wanted it to feel big!
There is so much more in this adventure I’d love to talk about but this article is probably already going on for too long. So, is there anything else that you would like highlight before we finish?
I want to thank Storytelling Collective (formerly RPG Writers Workshop). I am not sure I would have put out a roleplaying game adventure without their help, and I hope this will be the first of many to come. Thank you for reviewing these titles. It means a lot to new authors like myself for someone to offer up their time to review our products.
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,