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.
A Mischievous Mess by H.R. Bumga
An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 1.
A wonderfully sweet and chill adventure, A Mischievous Mess is a story about trying to get your house in order, or someone’s house anyway. The husband of a local noble thinks that his house is haunted, and would like a group of adventurers to look into it before his husband returns home. Something is indeed odd about the house, but it isn’t a ghost. For centuries, the manor has been looked over by a family of brownies, but these little fey beings have a vicious side if their charge is neglected. Without his husband or the maid to keep things in order, the noble has let things get into too much of a mess for our little brownie friend. This has turned him into his grumpy boggart form, and he has been causing minor mischief ever since.
The party will have to investigate the various rooms of the manor house and as well as its grounds to find the origins of the supernatural problem: the boggart. On their way they may be helped by the brownies mother, or by another new creature: the shapeshifting phooka, wonderfully adapted from Celtic folklore. This latter creature is also having a few problems of its own, adding to the supernatural goings on and adding a bit more complexity to the adventure, as the party might end up barking up the wrong tree. Once the party has got to the source of the problem they will have the choice between either eliminating the boggart (and therefore the brownie), or trying to fix the place up to make the boggart happy, turning it back into a brownie.
The adventure itself is very wholesome and relaxing in nature, with fluid easy to use mechanics. There is very little combat expected in the adventure but the author has put a lot of work into the new creatures, the brownie/boggart and the phooka, so that should the characters decide to go a more aggressive route then there should be some nice tricks for the DM. The adventure really supports are more investigative approach based on skill checks and social interactions. The skill checks are progressive in nature, rather than a binary fail/succeed, so higher results provide more than low ones but they all reveal something at least. This is notably the case if the characters choose the “cleaning” option for the conclusion, where low results might lead to a combat and a high one to random loot. Occasionally, the text makes reference to “an observant character might notice” or the like, without providing any numerical guidance. This leaves it up to the DM to decide the best course of action, whether to require a roll or to just provide the information based on passive perception or the like, depending on how much help the characters might need with their investigation. Though this might leave a less experienced DM occasionally without help it’s nothing that cannot easily overcome once a decision on how to interpret it is made.
Above all, the adventure is a wonderful location with a strong narrative focus with the main draw of the adventure being the exploration of the plot and getting to know the various characters. There’s an impressive array of characters, backed up by a well fleshed out dramatis personae, including a master tea-blender, an adorable lemon cake making brownie mother, and an orc gardener, not to forget the aforementioned brownie, phooka, and the quest giver. There are excellent descriptions throughout the adventure, which is festooned with just delightful little touches that warm the heart (the miniature dining table made from a teacup was a personal favourite). The author has also included some encounters as “wandering encounters” allowing them to be included in the narrative as the DM feels appropriate rather than being in one fixed location. The adventure also concludes with a series of choices for the adventurers that reward them for being true to the narrative. At the end, the party will have the opportunity to reveal certain secrets about the characters that they’ve met, and will receive extra rewards if they navigate this in a way that suits the personalities of the characters in question.
Weaving Celtic folklore with family drama, A Mischievous Mess is a joyous jaunt through a light-hearted investigation. It’s the sort of low stakes, relaxing adventure that is a perfect palate cleanser if your party has been having a bit of a rough time lately. It is also the perfect sort of adventure for a friendly low stress one shot to relax with. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a nice change of pace, it’s just oh so delightfully fun and refreshing.
Behind the Screens
Hello H.R., and thanks for agreeing to this interview. We often start by talking about the inspiration for the adventure, and this isn’t going to be the exception. When reading the adventure I got flashbacks to watching “The Borrowers”. Can you tell us about where the original idea seed came from and how it blossomed?
I actually didn’t know “The Borrowers” had a movie until this! I used to read the book series as a kid. I haven’t thought of it in years so seeing this comparison warms my heart a little. I actually drew inspiration from another beloved children’s series, The Spiderwick Chronicles. There’s a companion bestiary called “Arthur Spiderwick’s Field Guide to the Fantastical World Around You” that I checked out from my elementary school’s library a dozen times before even knowing there were novels that went with it. I loved the brownies especially, these fussy little friends in the walls. As a kid, I really gravitated towards books with mischievous magical creatures, and the Field Guide was an endless source of inspiration for play-pretend games. This adventure was a way to bring that ‘play-pretend’ back to life.
I really like how you’ve translated the fey creatures into D&D from their original folklore origins. Have you always been a fan of Celtic and Scottish folklore or was this something you researched for the adventure? And how did you go about the process of codifying these creatures into D&D mechanics?
Though I drew inspiration from brownies and the phooka from the Field Guide, I also really enjoy Celtic, Gaelic, and Scottish lore! I’m actually Wiccan, and a lot of my religious beliefs derive from that part of the world, so there’s a certain kinship I feel to the myths and creatures that originate there. The phooka especially is heavily tied to one of the Wiccan sabbats, Samhain, a holiday most folks recognize as Halloween.
As for codifying these creatures for D&D, I wanted to have an interesting blend between these fey creatures and the parts of the game I enjoyed. I first looked into what characteristics they had in folklore and then tried to draw similarities to features that existing D&D monsters have. For instance, the phooka’s shapeshifting ability comes from the Imp’s shapeshifting in the Monster Manual. I also wanted to create monsters that would not only be mechanically interesting in combat, but in roleplay as well. I wanted to make creatures that DMs could plug into their broader adventures if they saw fit, creatures that could exist divorced from the adventure. On the subject of building their statblocks, I really have to give a little shoutout to my partner and developmental editor, Alex Niederberger (@soundsofbones), who was incredibly helpful when it came to balancing and playtesting.Editor’s note: We reviewed Alex Niederberger’s adventure To Undo the Glue earlier in this series. You can read it here.
I also love how you’ve made the adventure narrative actually have consequences in the conclusion. The players can reveal some secrets at the end of the adventure, and it would have been easy to make it “they reveal everything for the best reward”, but here they actual get the best reward by respecting the wishes of the characters. Do you have advice for designers looking to make NPCs personalities deeper and have a greater impact in the adventure ?
When it comes to building NPCs, I think designers ought to ask themselves one vital question: What does this NPC ultimately want? That “want” can be as simple as a turkey sandwich or as complex as saving the realm from destruction, but nailing down the “want” opens the narrative design process up to a ton of depth. Then you can ask why they want that, what will happen if they get it, or what will happen if they don’t. One of the best follow-up questions you can also ask: what’s in it for the players? That’s also extremely important. That’s what takes it from an interesting story to an interesting interactive story. That’s why I made the rewards dependent on the characters, because I wanted to literally reward players for caring enough to investigate and then respect the wishes of the characters in the story. To me, that’s more compelling than a regular loot box.
Mechanically, you’ve made it so that the skill checks are all progressive, rather than being a binary succeed/fail roll. What do you think makes this sort of skill check so useful, and how should designers go about implementing them?
I actually borrowed the concept of progressive skill checks from another TTRPG system that I love, Monster of the Week, where mixed successes are built into the mechanics. I think progressive skill checks are really useful in D&D for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it offers a range of possibilities for what the characters can and can’t do in a situation, rather than just two. I remember playing campaigns where I came up with a neat idea, but rolled poorly, so it just didn’t happen, which always felt stunted. It’s more satisfying to get creative and ask not /whether/ an action succeeded, but /to what extent/. It makes your spaces more dynamic, especially because our actions in life are rarely ever so binary in success and failure.
My favorite way to employ this progressive skill check situation is with Perception checks. In my experience, when a party enters a new area, more than one player often chooses to make a Perception check. Rarely do two people roll the same number. I start with the lowest score and work my way up, giving more details and plot-relevant information as I go. I tell the player who rolled a five that they see that the room is a kitchen. Everyone else at the table would also have noticed this. I move on to the person who rolled a 10, who might notice that there’s some flour on the floor. Then, to the person who rolled a 17, I say there are footprints in the flour leading to a bookcase, but there are no footprints retreating. You acknowledge everyone at your table, and the experience builds on itself.
For designers, I think it’s useful to think of the absolute success of a check, the absolute failure, and then ask yourself what the situation would look like with a grey area. Think of different avenues where a character maybe mostly succeeds but misses something. Or, the reverse: they don’t achieve their goal, but maybe they get a clue. If you want to make it really interesting, make the character fail to achieve their goal, but find a completely unexpected outcome, whether it’s a dead-end clue to lead to nowhere, a prompt to a side encounter, or a solution they might not have initially thought about.
When reading the adventure, it is impossible to not just smile at some of the descriptions and just relax into the atmosphere. This is a very “low pressure” adventure, there is no great climactic battle, or creepy dark mystery to hook the players, just a really wholesome narrative. It’s just delightful. What do you think makes this sort of adventure work? What is the key to drawing players in to this sort of adventure?
Thank you for that! I appreciate that it made you smile and you found it delightful. As a designer, I’m prone to create what I’m drawn to and what kinds of adventures I like to run or play. Ultimately, TTRPGs are a fun escape, and for me, an escape from the stresses and pressures of the real world is a low-stakes, wholesome adventure. That’s not to say I don’t play a more intense game here and there, with might boss battles and high pressure. Those are great! Generally though, I gravitate towards the humbler stories where sweet, happy endings are nearly inevitable.
Furthermore, I think an overarching campaign really succeeds off of balance. If your campaign is all tense, all dramatic and high energy, it can be stressful. Or worse, those intense moments can lose their punch. I think including calmer stories helps your overall plot breathe. Your characters can relax, recharge, and then when you hit them with the next big plot point, it feels all the more vital.
Something that’s also important to me about A Mischievous Mess in particular is that it’s easy family-friendly. I don’t often find too many adventures like that. My little brother is 14, loves D&D, and I feel so fortunate that we have a hobby to share. While I think he could handle darker, more intense stuff, I also wanted to create a comfortable environment for the two of us to possibly share. Plus, I originally came up with the idea for the adventure when he was 9 or 10.
He lives a few states away from me, so running the adventure will have to wait out this pandemic, but still, I look forward to being able to play with him.
Is there anything else that you would like to add before we finish?
It’s honestly been such a treat sharing this story and making my way into the TTRPG community. I know that there is a lot of contention in the community here and there, and that it’s far from perfect, but the little corner that the RPG Writer Workshop carved out has introduced me to a lot of really remarkable people. I feel incredibly fortunate and I owe a lot of my success in getting this adventure published to that course. Not only that, I can now call myself a real D&D/TTRPG designer, which is really exciting. There’s a lot of hurt in the world, but having the opportunity to work on what I love while being supportive by other awesome creators has made my world a warmer place.
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,