RPG Review: Zahra’s Woeful Wedding by Chaakir Benzina

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.

Cover image of Zahra's Woeful Wedding by Chaakir Benzina. The sub heading proclaims: "don you finest robes in this heist adventure for four to five third level characters". The image is of a bard playing a lute in front of a indoor pond. The surroundings are reminiscent of a Moroccan palace.
Cover image of Zahra’s Woeful Wedding by Chaakir Benzina.

Zahra’s Woeful Wedding by Chaakir Benzina

An adventure for D&D5e, designed during the fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop, but not included in the bundles. You can pick it up on its own here.

Review

This heist adventure will have your party trying to discreetly obtain a sack of rare spices right out of a wedding reception, but they might not be the only ones up to no good on this festive occasion. Assisted by the well crafted read aloud text and detailed descriptions, your players will be immersed in the ambiance that the author has carefully created by just layering on intricate cultural and social customs to really make the world come alive. The adventure is broken down into two main segments, the first is a more calm opening investigation section with plenty of roleplaying, skill checks and even a little minigame if they feel like it. It then moves on to a much more fast paced segment as the different plots collide, culminating in the final (and likely only) fight.

Hired by a local merchant, the party is tasked with stealing some rare and expensive spices. The adventurers will have to infiltrate a wedding party, assisted by a bard that is in the debt of the merchant, and try to discover where the spice is being held. They will be able to use a variety of skills to investigate, and may indeed discover that they aren’t the only ones acting strange, which should prepare them for the events of the conclusion. The author has included several ways of getting the same information for this investigation section, which is always a good idea to avoid your players being stumped simply because they’ve missed an area or failed a check.

The more open flow of the adventure narrows once the party has discovered the location of the spice and moves to try and retrieve it. This is marked by an increase in the pace of the adventure to suit the more high pressure segment of the heist, exactly as you would expect if this was an Ocean’s film. The adventurers learn more about the secondary plot and have to solve a puzzle to get to the spice they need, before being immediately thrown into the next section of the adventure.

The primary plot of retrieving the spice is now pretty much over, and the secondary plot line comes to the fore to provide the climax of the adventure. It’s at this point that it becomes clear to the party that the bard ally that helped them get into the event is now in trouble, and the hosts aren’t quite what they seem. This leads to a fight against a couple of dopplegangers, one of whom has had legendary actions added to spice things up a bit. While not the most interesting part of the adventure in my eyes, this provides a suitably chaotic and climactic fight to the adventure that mirrors the final rush of a heist movie. It’s also a way for more moral adventurers to feel slightly less crumby about stealing from a wedding.

This is an adventure that plays to the strengths of the heist format. It’s designed with an initial slow, roleplay heavy build up that ends with a chaotic rush that would be perfectly in theme with a blockbuster movie. This is all beautifully encapsulated in some great descriptions that really mix in a lot of cultural and social references that make the world much more vibrant. A great and evocative scenario that executes brilliantly on both of its themes.

Behind the Screens

Hello Chaakir, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. I want to talk about the richness of the world that you’ve included here. There are loads of extra touches that you’ve included here: houshe, sonia, tunqa. These are just some of the cultural and social references that make the wedding so vivid and really immerse the players. Where did the inspiration for all of this world building come from?

Thank you so much for doing these reviews and interviews with TTRPG creators, it means a lot! I’m delighted that my worldbuilding stood out. When I was conceptualizing this adventure I made it a point to identify what lies at the core of my relationship with games like D&D. It became immediately apparent that stories existing in all the little corners of a particular world are what drive my own immersion as a player as well as my design philosophy as a creator. Accomplishing this in a single adventure can be difficult, so when I decided that I really wanted to anchor the players to the world surrounding Zahra’s Woeful Wedding, I knew that drawing upon my cultural and social influences would go a long way. My parents were born and raised in Morocco and I was born and raised in the Netherlands, so my perception of my culture and my parents’ home country was always like that: little stories dotted over a land I wasn’t entirely familiar with. To me, it was all about finding the aspects of that culture that resonated with me most and implementing them in a contained environment. This opened the appropriate doors to make things like houshe, sonia and tunqa resonate with other players as well, as they are existing anchors in my own life that I am intimately familiar with.

While your adventure can be pretty easily adapted into any setting, there are references to a larger world, the “Medin” region for example. Is this something that you created for the adventure or is it something that you’ve been using for a while, and if so can we expect future adventures in this world?

The city of Medin was created for this particular adventure. When I landed on the first strong concept for the adventure, I knew I needed a larger world surrounding the events and characters to achieve the feeling of a lively world. Setting the adventure in a wedding allowed me to add the necessary breadcrumbs that make Medin seem truly vibrant and larger than the scope of the adventure, and it also gave me the tools to design a wedding environment that is informed by the world it occurs in. I really enjoyed bringing Medin to life in Zahra’s Woeful Wedding, so I would love to expand upon it in future projects.

The heart of your adventure is a heist plot. These can be hard to pull off in D&D, as the default to combat can often come quickly if things go wrong for the characters. Was this something you considered when planning the adventure, and provided safeguards against (like setting it at a wedding, where the players may think twice about starting a fight)?

There are many considerations when creating a heist adventure. You are correct that the wedding setting was one of the ways I would be able to pull in social encounters more than combat ones, and I quickly scrapped the idea of possible combat encounters in the main event for that very reason. It was important to me that the players have an appropriate perception of the job they’ve taken on, which essentially meant finding ways for them to care about the wedding event itself and the people attending it. Samir Skali, one of the major NPCs, served this purpose among others. Connecting the players with Samir from the very start and exposing them to his own personal reasons for attending the wedding would help players think twice about their actions once they reach the estate. Another big consideration was making information available in abundance, so that players rarely feel like they need to take drastic actions to complete their objective. As a heist plot, I made a deliberate choice to centre the action on what was happening around the heist to avoid players having too much tunnel vision.

I really like how you use pacing in the adventure, even if it’s implicit, to mirror a heist movie plot. The initial segment is quite open and slow paced, with plenty of time for exploration and planning. It’s only when they actually put the plan into action, actually stealing the spice, that the pace ramps up. It moves quickly from that point to the conclusion with little room for deviation for the players, much like in a heist film where the main characters loose control of the situation somewhat to provide dramatic tension. Was this something you thought about during the design process, or did it happen organically as you applied the heist format?

This was absolutely part of the design process. Pacing was on my mind from the start, and it was an early decision that immediately after acquiring the spice, the players would be thrust into the larger plot with little to no control over it. This played a big role in the map I designed of the estate (located in the Appendix). The estate can be explored however the players wish, but the direction in which they move was very deliberately designed so that they would have to return through the main event after completing their objective, forcing them into the action. To strengthen this, it was important to communicate that the wedding evolves to another stage after the initial reception, which coincidentally offers the players their best window for the heist. Once that window passes, and the players have succeeded, the rest of the adventure is inevitably out of their control. While I am a fan of players being able to freely explore as much as possible, the possibility of deviation towards the end of the adventure felt antithetical to what the narrative was designed to build towards.

On a more mechanical level I wanted to dig into the more “investigation & planning” section of the adventure. You’ve included plenty of redundancy in your adventure design, which is very important for investigations. There are several ways of the characters obtaining the same information, so they aren’t stuck because of one missed element. However, given that there are two plot lines running at once, there is still room for the characters to get things mixed up and lead to interesting discussions. Two questions stem from this. For designers, how should we approach including information for investigation sections? And secondly, do you have any advice for DMs on how to portray the information provided so that the players understand what is related to which elements?

I feel like the way in which you should approach information as a designer depends a lot on the contexts surrounding the adventure. For Zahra’s Woeful Wedding, the main event itself as well as the location meant the information would run through many different channels, whether it be someone welcoming you at the door with a refreshment or a library containing books with historical tidbits that could guide the players in drawing valuable conclusions. On a design level, you should always identify the overarching context in which your adventure takes place, and find ways to tie the different pieces of information to the historical, societal and cultural aspects that exist within it. This means you should take great care communicating this larger context and how the bits of information that can be acquired throughout the adventure relate to each other or contradict something else. Designing in a flexible way might help here, where one piece of information could potentially be acquired in multiple ways, as long as both convey the same context. For DMs, I think it’s important to analyze your players’ line of thinking throughout the entire session to evaluate how they approach the investigation. Everyone processes information differently, and it is important to account for this when planning and when running the game. If you notice your players are drawing the wrong conclusions or linking the wrong pieces of information, consider altering the next piece of information they find to more strongly contradict a previous one, so that different contexts are defined.

Is there anything else that you would like to add before we finish?

I just want to thank you again for doing this, and I want to thank everyone who has purchased Zahra’s Woeful Wedding. I hope more people get to run it and have fun with it!

Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!

You can find the adventure on the DMsGuild here, and more work by Chaakir here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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