RPG Review: Smog on the Water by Avelino Danandha

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 Smog on the Water by Avelino A. Danandha. The subtitle proclaims that it is a 5 hour D&D adventure for characters of 8th Level. It has a content warning for visceral images. The image is of a small house, underneath which is the opening to a sewer with a pair of spooky eyes peering out from it.
Cover image of Smog on the Water by Avelino Danandha.

Smog on the Water by Avelino Danandha

An adventure for D&D5e, part of the RPG Writer Workshop Fall 2020 bundle volume 2.

Review

Drawing it’s inspiration from the lore behind yugoloths, Smog on the Water is a mysterious and quite dark tale, where your party will have to save a small village from a very dire fate. Set in the Forgotten Realms, this scenario could be pretty easily adapted to any smallish town as needed. This town has been suffering from a spree of deadly green clouds that have inflected terrible suffering and death on anyone caught in them. They need a group of adventurers to find out the source of this disaster, and put an end to it.

The majority of the adventure will be spent investigating the mysterious deadly fog clouds. They will have three locations to investigate, plus two more optional ones that can add extra depth, all of which really underscore the dark ambiance that is described throughout the scenario. The NPCs that they will meet are likely to be at best suspicious of them, as they follow their own plans and objectives. It also pulls off one of my all time favourite tropes: introduction the antagonist early in the adventure, without the players knowing it.

This generally suspicious atmosphere takes an even darker turn as the characters see first hand the ravages of the fog, either by visiting the infirmary (in something reminiscent of a war film) or by witnessing an attack of it directly. Once they’ve poked around the town a bit, they should head down into the sewers to find the source of the fog. Again the descriptions here are on point. They will also discover more little clues that something is wrong, which add to those found earlier. There are multiple ways to explore this section, however the author has helpfully provided advice on how to adapt the clues and the adventure depending on the approach that the party takes.

This long investigation concludes with the party discovering the antagonist’s base in the sewers and making their move to put an end to the deadly fog by trying to retrieve the Book of Keeping that is at the origin of it all. This is likely to be quite a hard fight for the party, though they will have some advanced warning of what they will face if they’ve been paying attention to the investigation. The combat as written also requires the antagonists acting before the players to set things up, so you can lower the difficulty simply by changing this slightly.

The conclusion of the adventure is interesting, but could be contentious depending on your group. The Book of Keeping is a powerful artefact, so the author understandably provides conclusions where it is removed from the characters: either by destroying it themselves, or it being stolen from them by one of the NPCs they met earlier. I do however like the option provided for what happens if the characters die, which I must admit is practically worth a TPK. These downer endings are quite in theme for the adventure, which projects a gloomy and dark ambiance throughout.

Smog on the Water is a dark and mysterious investigation adventure deeply rooted in D&D lore, culminating in a thematic and challenging fight. The ambiance is spot on throughout, making for an almost oppressively grim tale of demon summoning, suspicion, and dubious motives. There are lots of excellent little touches that I haven’t mentioned here, but this is an great example of using theme to complement the plot perfectly, without ever going over the top. The adventure you’re looking for if you want something with a darker theme for your players.

Behind the Screens

Hello Avelino, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. There’s a lot to unpack in this adventure. Can we start with the initial inspiration for the adventure? I I really love adventures that grab on to a bit of D&D lore and build on to it, like you’ve done here with the Book of Keeping. Did you see the yugoloth lore first, or did you have an idea about a deadly fog and work backwards?

The adventure was definitely inspired straight from the Monster Manual and the Player’s Handbook. I intended for the adventure to be a mystery and to have a spell effect as its core problem. I was thinking of cloudkill at first but then soon realised that mezzoloth has that. The part that the yugoloths are tied to the book of keeping came later when I read more about them in Monster Manual.

A lot of the adventures from the RPGWW are setting neutral. Did you set yours in the Forgotten Realm because of the lore connections, or was there another reason behind the choice?

I set them in the Forgotten Realm just to provide myself with a familiar setting when writing them, but to also provide a fresh and new environment to the setting, therefore, the village in the adventure was not in the official lore. I also wanted to involve the use of an underground sewer system in a small “hidden” village to give that mysterious feel to the adventure. Lastly, a setting-specific adventure to me is a lot easier to modify and incorporate as a supplement, whether in homebrewed or official settings, because DMs can easily add, remove, modify, or reskin its established atmosphere to their own world/games.

While we’re talking about differences with the majority of the RPGWW, your adventure is also recommended for a higher level than most others, sitting firmly in tier 2 compared to the tier 1 of most of the others. Did you intend on this from the start? Or was it simply a consequence of wanting to involve yugoloths?

Initially, I intended for my adventure to be at the low 2nd tier level, i.e. 5-6th level because those levels are just my personal favourite ‘low’ level due to characters’ power spikes for combat. However, the adventure being at level 8 is purely a consequence of involving the yugoloths.

I’d like to talk a bit about the tone of the adventure if possible. It’s quite dark in it’s intent, I mean villagers suffer from what is in effect biological warfare. In general it seems like everyone is quite suspicious, one of the NPCs is using the party, while another is the actual antagonist. You really manage to set the tone, without actually having to spell it out. You convey it through the descriptions, through the acts of the NPCS. It’s a good case of showing not telling. Do you have any advice for designers wanting to convey tone in their adventures?

Although dark, I was aiming this to be more of a mystery and investigation rather than a horror. As a new designer/writer, an advice that I can give is to leak out clues slowly along the story. I also feel that providing ‘How to Roleplay’ important and ‘shady’ NPC is crucial in designing such tone in the adventure, to help DMs running it.

While we’re talking about the tone, I know that my own players tend to end up taking everything pretty lightly and goofing about a fair bit. Do you have any advice from your own experiences on how to set a darker tone with your players?

Generally, to set a darker tone with my players, I usually tie their backstory into the adventure. With this adventure, although it’s a one-shot adventure, the optional player hooks help DMs and players to achieve that. With my experience running this adventure, I describe worries from the NPCs to give players a sense of urgency, as well as using some visceral description (players need to be warned in advance though!) to achieve a darker tone.

I really like the trope of introducing your villain as an NPC at the start, and you also have another NPC betray the party in the conclusion. Do you have any advice for DMs on how to run these characters? In a way that they can be both antagonistic, but not enough to have the party attack them too early? Also, in the conclusion do you think that the DM should have the NPC steal the Book of Keeping in a cutscene, so that they players can’t respond, or run the risk of them fighting the NPC and retaining the treasure?

Yes, running those particular characters can be tricky, that is why I put guides for DMs in roleplaying them. The advice I can give is to read their intentions carefully and the module entirely to get a good feel in running these NPCs. Providing favours to the PCs before the reveal would also help in gaining PCs’ trusts. In case the party attacks early, that particular NPC has enough features to deplete party’s resources or to flee, resulting in a very flavourful story and adventure.
In the conclusion, the NPC should attempt to steal the book, and DMs are encouraged to try to do so, but the players should also have a chance to prevent that. Knowing the nature of the yugoloths, having the players retaining the treasure isn’t much of a problem as the yugoloths are not loyal, hence, using the book (moderated by the DM) is not as easy and can be quite dangerous. Whatever the outcome, the reveal should happen. The intention of the reveal is to provide a near-cliffhanger feel, that there are more books of keeping and a bigger threat exists, but the town is saved for the time being, however.
The intended cliffhanger feel is also planned to drop hints that there should be more adventures about the Book of Keeping, as an extension to this one.

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

Thank you so much, Sam for doing this and I hope I answered your questions! I also hope to see more of your products in the future!

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 Avelino here. You can also follow him on Twitter.

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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