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.
The Soul Violet by Bobby Ellis
An adventure for D&D5e, part of the RPG Writer Workshop Fall 2020 bundle volume 3.
The Soul Violet is not for the faint hearted, steeped as it is in grey morality and complex choices. This is a roleplay heavy adventure, where the party will be tasked by a war torn village with retrieving the adventure’s eponymous magical flower that can restore the land to it’s previous fertile state. The bulk of the adventure will be spent travelling to the Soul Violet (and back from it) overcoming obstacles on the way, before culminating in a suitably dubious moral dilemma. There are a lot of interesting ideas here, and a lot of ambition, but it occasionally misses the mark and lacks a little bit of polish. Though it’s safe to say that the good outweighs the bad, and there really is a lot to like here.
Firstly, this scenario is just bursting with ideas. The starting village has four different shops, with plenty more unique NPCs on top of that, the road counts another six possible encounters again with accompanying NPCs and challenges, and then after all of that there is a really original conclusion with a time travelling lake. The NPCs include talking squirrels, treants with glasses, arcanaloths in disguise and many more interesting and intricate ideas. Oh, and if that isn’t enough there’s a slew of new magic items perfect for low levels players that provide new options without being overpowered.
The plot itself delivers on its promise of being roleplay heavy based around moral dilemmas. This is a grey world, where everyone is hiding something and has dubious morality. The characters will have to make plenty of their own hard choices here as well, notably in their decision of how to play out the conclusion, but also throughout, in various encounters on the road. Some of these can have quite major impacts on the characters (up to and including selling their souls to a devil) and others are more minor, deciding whether to give up a few coins or not. This array provides a nice way of helping the players decide what their character’s personality is like, especially since this adventure is designed for low level characters, and will probably be played soon after their creation.
It’s important however to provide a bit of nuance here in terms of tone. While overall the adventure is quite gloomy, set in a war torn world, filled with signs of recent damage and plenty of refugees, with what is likely to be quite a dark ending, there are occasional glimmers of light. This is especially the case with the starting area, with its teashop ran by a giant toad or with its talking squirrel, for example. There is a certain feeling that you get from some old fairytales, it might look happy and light on the surface, but there is darkness lurking underneath. There is also an aesthetically pleasing contrast between the slightly whimsical nature of the starting village, with the depressing and rather gruesome description of the second town that the party much travel to. If the idea of contrasting dark themes with a whimsical presentation troubles you, then you might feel like there is too much tonal disconnect here however.
This is an adventure that has taken risks, wanting to build something that isn’t normally covered within the standard play style of D&D, and while it succeeds in providing a unique experience there are parts that miss the mark. It suffers from a general lack of polish, with some layout errors and typos. It isn’t unusable by any means, but it does make reading it less enjoyable, and it can make quickly referencing something harder than it needs to be. Slightly more importantly are sections where the adventure doesn’t quite provide the tools that the DM needs. Certain encounters are fun and intriguing, but they aren’t really immediately actionable. While the first and last chapters are more structured, the middle of the adventure is mainly left up to the DM, with little guidance from the author. It feels like a “tool box” for an adventure, with plenty of ideas and encounters that are great for fleshing out a world, but which is somewhat lacking in structure. This can be a positive or a negative depending on your style, but this isn’t an adventure for an inexperienced DM.
This is not a traditional adventure. Not everyone will be happy at the end. It requires being clear with the players at the start what sort of adventure this is: morally grey, with hard choices that have consequences. It provides plenty of tools to engage your players and flesh out the world, making it highly adaptable and suitable to a more sandbox style of play, thought it occasionally suffers from a lack of polish and clarity. A good adventure with a lot to offer to a DM looking for a change of pace and a scenario that will help their players define their character’s personality.
Behind the Screens
Hello Bobby, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. This is an ambitious adventure in its scope. There is an almost “sandbox” like feel to how you have set it up, describing the start and end points, plenty of encounters on the way, and enough plot to give the party a reason to explore. You seem to reinforce this by leaving up quite a lot of the pacing to the DM. Was this the original design intent, or something that just happened as you added more ideas into the mix?
This adventure is for lower level adventurers, but when I really think about it, and one of the things I heard from play testing was that it is certainly more tailored for experienced DM, both in the themes presented and in the way that the adventure is structured.
I give a lot of leeway to the GMs to set the pacing and who their players meet in the adventure mostly out of fact that the adventure is meant to be very combat light and rely very heavily on role play. Personally, I feel like that’s really hard to do when railroading a party. Personally, I think rail roading gets a bad rep, but in this situation, I wanted to make sure both the players and the GM had a lot of options available to them to avoid combat in the given situations.
The easiest way to do that without writing a massive novel for an adventure that’s only meant to last a few hours was to just allow GMs the ability to decide which characters and situations they included for their group of players.
When reading the adventure I definitely got the feel that this is one of those stories where it’s not the end that counts but the journey that the characters go on. There is a great mix of moral choices in the adventure, some big, some small, that really make the players focus in on what their characters personalities are like. Did you design this adventure for level 1 to 3 characters to really make them question these aspects of their characters early, or was there another reason behind the level choice?
The level choice for the player characters was multi-faceted. One of the biggest reasons was that it doesn’t introduce really over powered characters into a situation where they can simply brute force their way through it, or use a high level spell to magically solve a problem.
It also grounds them into the world and situation a bit more. On its face, the adventure their being sent on is really simple. Go get a flower. It’s below the status for high level adventurers, but if something this simple can have so many moral implications involved, just imagine the world shattering effects the exploits of higher level PCs can have.
Your adventure is very grim and grey in it’s morality. Nearly all the NPCs are hiding something, and there are some quite deep subjects used. Is this something that is more from your own personal tastes, or a consequence of wanting an adventure based around moral choices?
As for the adventure being grim and grey in its morality, it’s a real mix between both my tastes and what I thought would make for a better time for players. Morality isn’t black and white. Great people do bad things, and a lot of times their achievements came at the expense of others. That doesn’t make them bad, it simply is. Beyond that though, I really wanted the players to feel like their choices mattered. I wanted them to feel like they truly impacted the small part of this world they were being put into.
The scenario isn’t all doom and gloom however. Some parts are almost whimsical in nature, especially when you describe the NPCs of the starting village with talking squirrels and people changed into giant frogs. The contrast is quite stark with the rest of the descriptions. How do you suggest that DMs approach setting the tone for the adventure?
That contrast between grim dark and whimsical is actually my biggest joy when it comes to writing. It’s sort of my go-to style. Much like our very own lives, just because there are bad things going on, just because there is darkness in the world and people dealing with negative affects, doesn’t mean there aren’t happy or silly people and beautiful moments to be had.
As a tool for a DM, I think it’s a nice way to slowly raise the temperature on the cooking pot, as it is. People want to have fun sitting down and playing a game of D&D. They want to laugh and enjoy their times with their friends. Obviously, players not willing to step beyond the idea of “I just want to be silly and hit stuff” probably won’t have a good time with this adventure, but for those who are out to play a game that goes a bit deeper into the role playing aspect and want to face interesting consequences, they deserve to have some lighthearted moments as well.
On a more mechanical design level, I wanted to talk magic items. Your adventure is bursting with lots of new little magic items (as well as a nice example of an old magic item interaction with the bag of holding). How do you suggest that designers make magic items suitable for low level parties?
I don’t think every magic item needs to be a crazy game changer. I think with low level parties, the perfect magic item introduces a new way to do a task or solve a problem that they might run into as well as adds to the lore and fantastical feeling of the setting. Or at least does one of those things. Some of the best moments for me as a GM are when my players use these simple magic items that at face value don’t seem to be very useful, and deploy them to solve problems in a really creative way.
It also makes the players feel good. One of the items for example I have available in the adventure is a permanent blue dye that you can only get by asking the right person. Pretty pointless on its face. But it made sense for the NPC to have it, lore wise. During play testing, a player used it to make an ink bomb and it randomly went off while someone was trying to pick his pocket, marking the thief. It completely changed the interaction. It made the player a star of the moment just because they wanted to try something hours earlier. In my mind, that’s what makes cool low level magical items. These small things that allow for that creativity.
Finally, while your adventure is setting neutral, you have provided quite the backstory and hints at a larger world, as well as plenty of plot hooks for the DM. Can we expect more adventures in this world?
I had originally just planned on this being a one-and-done setting. But during play tests, I got a lot of questions about the background for the setting, people wanted lore dumps for things like the Burial Mound and the Lake of Time and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think it would actually be really fun to have a continuous setting where my adventures can take place.
Is there anything else that you would like to add before we finish?
I just hope people have fun with it. This is only my second published adventure so I know I have a lot to learn in regards to writing and adventure design. I hope people find the story unique. For players, I really hope they feel like their choices mattered and they didn’t feel railroaded out of having fun, and for DMs, I just hope that I provided something that was fun to read and run and easy to prep.
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,