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.
Shark-Raid-O by FeverDreamStudios
An adventure for D&D5e, part of the RPG Writer Workshop Fall 2020 bundle volume 2.
Shark-Raid-O is a tier 3 adventure where the adventurers will try and defend a desperate sea elf village, and it’s sacred shrine, from an invading sahuagin army. A solid one-shot adventure relying on players taking the initiative and lateral thinking, it culminates in an impressive and challenging pitched battle against an entire army and its dragon turtle siege weapon. Easily adaptable to any setting, Shark-Raid-O offers a unique take on representing large battles in your game, making combat not just about damage output.
The adventure can be broken down into two segments: preparation and battle. The usual introduction section is brief, wasting no time in throwing the party into the action. A variety of patrons play the role of the possible quest givers, each with their own motivations that slightly modify the outcomes of the scenario, and who will teleport them directly to the location of the sea elf village. This is highly effective if you’re looking to run this as a one-shot, saving considerable time, but also makes sense given the suggested level. By level 14, travelling is no longer the dangerous challenge it once was, and this also gives the players a taste of the advantages that they will be gaining in these levels, as more and more options open up to them to facilitate their lives.
Once they’re in place, the adventurers get a brief tour of the area and village, some background information, and a timeline: two days to get ready before the attack. They are then left to decide how they want to proceed in preparing the village’s defences. This provides the characters with plenty of agency to use their skills in creative ways, though they should be able to get hints if needed by observing how the villagers are preparing. How well they manage to prepare will have an effect during the conclusion, changing the damage suffered and the rewards that they receive. The village itself is populated with a variety of interesting NPCs, which should incite some players to try their best to protect them, should the possible rewards prove insufficient. Talking to the NPCs can also be an opportunity for the party to find a possible spy lurking in their midst.
The highpoint of this adventure is however clearly the final battle against over a hundred sahuagin led by a dragon-turtle-riding lighting-throwing priestess. It starts, if the party is paying attention, with a more standard encounter against a scouting party, before moving on to the larger battle itself. Simulating a large battle is no easy feat in D&D, and can often lead to either overly granular simulation or complete abstraction. Here, the author makes a good attempt at making it fit within the current framework of the system, and focusing the action around the adventuring party and their impact rather than trying to run the entire battle. The adventurers role is to stop the dragon turtle, which will halt the rest of the advance, and the rest of the enemy forces are abstracted as a flowing tide that they can try and stop or simply try to move through it as best as they can to reach the dragon turtle. This allows for the players to employ all of their tricks and lateral thinking to stop themselves being overwhelmed, while they also try to direct sufficient attacks towards their real target. This makes for a tense and strategic battle, where they must juggle their resources between offence and defence.
After the party sees off the sahuagin leader and their dragon turtle, the rest of the enemy army retreats, unable to achieve its goal without them. The rewards that the party receive, and the damage and losses that the village suffers, are described in the conclusion section, and depend on how well the adventurers prepared the village and dealt with the attackers. The choice of the original quest giver will also have an impact, as each of the patrons have their own particular wishes and expectation, and will reward the characters accordingly.
This is an ambitious adventure in its scope and design. There are lots of NPCs for the DM to keep track of, and abstracting the battle is likely to require a fair amount of work on the behalf of both players and DM to understand what is and isn’t possible within the bounds of the rule set. The author has however tried to facilitate this where possible, with a clear presentation and layout, and the inclusion of graphs and flowcharts to help explain things. The adventure also included three different battle maps, though only one or two is likely to be needed, it’s nice to have a choice. It is also possible, and maybe even favourable, to run the entire scenario in the theatre of the mind.
Despite its light-hearted name, Shark-Raid-O is a challenging adventure that is best suited to players that enjoy thinking outside of the box, paying careful attention to the plot and taking notes, and are looking for a strategic challenge. Its compact nature makes it easy to slot into any campaign, or as a relatively high level one shot for more experienced players. An enjoyable adventure for experienced players and DMs who want to be challenged.
Behind the Screens
Hello FeverDreamStudios, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. I wanted to start by talking about the level choice. A level 14 adventure is the highest in this series. Did you always intend to design for tier 3, or was it something that came from the story that you wanted to tell?
I knew for this adventure, I wanted it to be heroic fantasy and I wanted the adventure to feature a battle on an army scale, so I estimated the players would be around level 11. With this in mind I began designing the combat encounters and environmental challenges. Since the final battle features a dragon turtle, I increased the player level up to 14 and scaled up the other encounters accordingly.
Your adventure cumulates in an invasion from an entire sahuagin army, accompanied by a captured dragon-turtle. Large scale battles are always a challenge in D&D, and can tend to quickly get bogged down, or require a completely separate system to run. How did you go about developing the mechanics for your final battle?
I decided to prioritize quality of life for the DM when it comes down to it, but I don’t think I sacrificed much in the way of realism. My battle mechanics are relatively simple I think, which helps any DMs, especially ones newer to tier 3 adventures. In my mind, the sahuagin didn’t really have a strong battle plan, as they weren’t expecting much resistance from the sea elves. By essentially treating them as an environmental hazard, I think it allows the DM to focus more on the players’ actions in combat, as well as Ovorrys and the dragon turtle.
Quite a bit of the adventure relies on the characters being proactive. They are free to use whatever skills they want to help defend the village, and in the final fight the players will have to balance using their abilities to avoid being overwhelmed, while also dealing enough damage to end the invasion. Were you worried that this might be expecting too much from players when you were designing it? Do you have any advice for DMs if their players are stuck?
The way the adventure is set up, the players have a lot of room to get creative for setting up the village’s defenses. Not only do I leave it open ended, but the characters themselves have a lot of time to prepare for the attack. During the battle itself is when things may get a bit hairy. The more prep they did, the less they have to worry about casualties, but improvisational skills can still help them pull through. All in all, I think players aren’t typically short of ideas, so I am not too worried about the preparation phase. As for the DM, if your players get stuck during the final battle, here is my advice: focus on the primary objective, which is freeing the dragon turtle. There are two ways of doing so outlined in the adventure, so feel free to explain those to the players. At the same time, be open to your players suggesting wacky unconventional ways as well.
Since we’ve talked about players getting stuck, it seems only fair to talk about DMs getting stuck. You’ve included some DM aides that we don’t often see in adventures: flow charts and battle tactics diagrams. Do you have any advice for designers on how to approach what tools they provide DMs with?
My starting point is this: imagine you are presenting your mechanics to a bunch of coworkers in an office environment. What visuals would you use for your presentation? Text is the backbone of D&D adventures, but any expert in communication, persuasion, or rhetoric will tell you that words are never enough.
I’ll let you in on a secret: I made those visual aides in Microsoft PowerPoint.
If we move away from the more mechanical aspects now, I’d like to talk a bit about the narrative. The adventure hooks you’ve used are interesting, in that depending on the original patron chosen, the party won’t have exactly the same final objective, or the same rewards. Why did you want to go down this route?
I wanted to give the DM hooks that appealed to different kinds of parties. There is a hook that appeals to the good heroic types, the neutral/natural order types, and the out for profit types. I adjusted the objectives and rewards so that it made sense for the quest givers without having to write 3 different adventures in one.
Also at the start of the adventure, you teleport the party directly to the village, rather than having them travel there. Did you want to gain time to make sure the adventure can be run as a one-shot, or do you feel like travelling from one place to another is no longer an interesting aspect in the game by level 14?
I certainly feel that travelling can still be interesting at level 14, but you need to be very intentional about the design of exploration encounters in the adventure. However, exploration was not a pillar that I wanted to delve into heavily with this adventure. On top of that, there are two combat encounters in this adventure, so any time saved at the beginning really helps the adventure run on time.
Finally, while it can be easily adapted to any setting, you’ve used your own mythology during the adventure, which I personally found well thought out, even if we don’t get much of it. Is there more of this world lurking in your mind that we might at some point see in a future adventure ?
Actually, the gods I mentioned in this adventure were intentionally archetypal to conform to the setting neutrality while being able to fit into pantheons DMs might have in their own settings. For those without their own settings, I provide alternatives for common pantheons, such as Faerun and Ancient Greek.
The gods of my own setting have their own flavour and may or may not be the source of some commentary on our own world and my own beliefs, but you’ll have to wait until I publish adventures under the OGL to see it. Unless…
Is there anything else you would like to add before we finish?
If anyone out there wants to ask me questions about my adventures, my setting, adventure design, human connections or anything at all, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter, Twitch or join my Discord. There are channels specifically devoted to my adventures, and I am always happy to talk D&D! I wish you all the best in your adventuring!
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,