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.
Everyone’s Been Naughty by Christopher Waples
An adventure for D&D5e, part of the RPG Writer Workshop Fall 2020 bundle volume 3.
Everyone’s Been Naughty is quite a dark take on the “Christmas one-shot” genre, where the party must save the local winter festival which is about more than just presents. This compact combat focused adventure has the players trying to put an end to chaos spread by a mysterious figure in red, which will lead them to travelling all the way to Krampus and Santa themselves to find out what has happened. It also comes with three festive themed subclasses for the artificer, ranger, and bard, providing fun alternatives for players during the one-shot. A well crafted adventure that suits players who prefer grittier scenarios and that are looking for a challenge. There are however several content warnings missing in the product, mainly: child abuse, war trauma, suicide / assisted suicide, kidnapping, slavery, and guilt.
The adventure is based around the incredibly cool (pun intended) idea that there is a midwinter cycle, where Santa and Krampus switch roles to keep them balanced, so that they don’t go too far to the extremes of evilness or goodness. This equilibrium is fragile however, with one side or the other having to force it during the most recent cycles, as one of the parties is unwilling to give up their role, precipitating the events in this adventure. Of course all of this isn’t made clear to the adventurers right from the start. They are however aware of rumours and signs of a strange being in red causing trouble during the midwinter festival such as burning down the town’s tree and attacks in the streets.
Within this context, they are given a relatively simple task: find a missing waitress that is late returning from the town centre. This leads to them seeing first hand the damages wrought by the mysterious figure in red, and having to fight against some of their minions. This propels them into the main plot as they must discover what is going wrong in the midwinter cycle. They will have to travel to ancient battlegrounds, rebuild and negotiate with portal opening snowmen (or run the risk of trying to open it themselves), and finally confront Krampus and Santa in the flesh! The plot is quite compact, with little derivation, which should help in making it fit into a one-shot time frame. Most of your running time will be taken up by the various combat encounters, which include at least two (and likely more) against custom monsters which have some really fiendish abilities up their sleeves to keep your players on their toes.
Aesthetically, Everyone’s Been Naughty explores the darker side of winter festivals, often present in older folklore and tales but often less pronounced in more modern works. The Little Match Girl, Dark Christmas, or even simply Krampus, the long cold winter nights have always been a source for some dark and twisted tales, thought not one that often inspires special holiday one-shot adventures. This scenario leans heavily into the grimmer aspects of the winter season, as you can probably guess from the earlier content warnings. It is quite possible that your party ends up killing Santa, and that’s probably one of the less traumatising elements of the story. Of the four possible conclusions, only one is slightly positive, and corresponds pretty much to maintaining the normal situation that we’ve expect during the season. This adventure will require you being upfront with your players about the themes, and making sure that everyone is comfortable with moving through it.
In addition to the adventure scenario, the author has designed three whole new subclasses with an appropriately festive theme, suitable for this scenario or any other winter one-shots you might like to run. The Toymaker is an artificer subclass, based on creating random toys to aid them in their fights. There are a lot of fun little gizmos in its sack, though the player will have to be fine with having quite a lot of randomness in their play. The College of Merrymaking Bard can create motes that aid allies and debuff enemies in a radius around them, and are excellent at charming people with their performances. Finally, the Ranger can take the Bond of the Reindeer, allowing them to summon reindeer spirits to provide a wide array of benefits, as well as some Rudolph puns. These subclasses are well themed and are perfect for a one-shot. They could even be played in a much longer scenario, though the theming might seem strange in a more traditional adventure.
This is a well crafted and written adventure, complete with custom monsters, subclasses and maps. Its mature themes require knowing your group well and being open with them, and I highly suggest putting safety tools in place before starting the scenario. However, with the right players, its a memorable and highly enjoyable adventure that plays into it’s dark themes and finds the humour hidden within. It makes great use of its quirkiness and one-shot nature to explore what can be done in D&D, not hesitating to break the fourth wall and throw in plenty of randomness to keep both the players and the DM on their toes. The lack of content warnings on the product page, or even a mention of the darker themes, is regrettable but, if you know what you’re getting into before hand, this is an excellent adventure that’s well worth exploring.
Behind the Screens
Hello Christopher, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. In this adventure you lean into the grimmer side of the winter period, those long dark nights that gave us Krampus and The Little Match Girl. What made you want to take this angle rather than the more “merry” one-shots we usually see?
Thank you Sam for having me on and letting me talk about my adventure. So, the initial idea came from an art piece that was done by a good friend of mine Adam Shumpert. He is an amazing artist that has been feature in many of the Fantasy Flight Star Wars and Android: Netrunner games. Almost a decade ago, he created a D&D style Christmas art piece, part of which is the cover to the adventure. On it a group of adventurers are attacking (or being attacked) by Santa Claus. This was the inspiration for the entire piece. I created this work initially back in 2018 as a one-shot for a forever DM friend of mine so he could have a break during Christmas.
The backstory of your adventure is that there is a midwinter cycle, where Santa and Krampus swap roles in order to keep them from moving too far to their extreme versions, which is just such an amazing principal. Where did this idea come from?
Due to the art piece showing Santa as the villain, I wanted to come up with a reason for Santa to be evil that would feel too crazy or unbelievable, and also be something that the players could still connect and sympathize with. So, there being a swapping of roles between Santa and Krampus felt like the right fit. Both do the same job, just different sides of it and they swap so that one doesn’t go too good or evil. Santa in this case was the previous Krampus during the Snowman Wars and that changed him so much that it carried over when he became Santa.
During the adventure, there is a point where one of the players may be transformed into an enemy and find themselves having to fight the rest of the party. Do you have any advice for how to approach player versus player (even if one isn’t using their own stat block) combat from the perspective of the DM?
In the adventure, the player that becomes the monster and fights the party doesn’t die if defeated. I think this is essential to keeping it fair to the player. PvP is generally something I don’t suggest to have at the table ever. Now my current player group is an amazing combination of people and PvP has happened, but it doesn’t happen if the player won’t have fun with it. That is the key to Player vs Player conflict. It needs to be fun for BOTH parties.
The rogue that is just being a jerk to the cleric by stealing his Holy Symbol over and over, is not fun for the cleric. Now if you have a fighter and a barbarian and they keep butting heads over who is stronger and they settle this by punching each other over and over, and the players laugh about it, then that is okay.
If you as the DM think there will be hurt feelings between two players if PvP happened, then you need to stop it before it happens and then talk with the players afterwards. Communication is key.
On the subject of stat blocks, there are two pretty major characters that you’ve made custom stat blocks for: Santa and Krampus. These are really thematic, with lots of abilities tied into the character’s lore. How do you go about designing major NPCs like this?
My goal was to have a very thematic fight, so I am glad this came across as I had hoped. To build Santa and Krampus, I looked up all the lore and abilities they had, wrote them all down, then started whittling it down to find at the core what would be their best abilities.
Krampus was first and pretty much the easiest. He traditionally has a Birch Stick that he spanks kids with, the basket to store naughty kids, and chains to wrap kids up in. So, once I had the core abilities, I played the monster out in my head versus the D&D power group (Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, and Cleric). I identified the weaknesses, then redesigned around those problems.
Now when I mention weaknesses and redesigning around them, I don’t mean giving the monster a solution to every weakness. But more to understand that this is a Big Bad End Boss so he is going to have a better kit than a standard monster, but shouldn’t have a solution to everything that the player will throw at them.
For both Krampus and Santa, I had to give them some way to not be locked down too easily, which happens a lot with solo bosses. Legendary actions are great, but also didn’t want them to have too many options.
Santa was a joy to work with because there is just so much that Santa can do that translates to a weird combat encounter. I don’t want to spoil what he can do too much, but I did try to give his abilities a bit of a twist.
You’ve also decided to set your adventure in the Forgotten Realms, in the little explored region of Hartsvale, which you’ve fleshed out a bit. Why did you decide to base your scenario in an established setting, when it would also fit well as a more setting neutral adventure?
To publish on DMs Guild you need to have it within the current D&D core campaigns. Forgotten Realms is the easiest setting to write for because it is so big and full of many places that can be expanded upon.Editor note: It is actually possible to publish setting neutral adventures on the DMsGuild, however Christopher is right in the rest of his argument here.
When I started writing this adventure I knew it would have a winter theme and I faced the challenge of the most wintery place in Forgotten Realms just had a campaign source book released. I looked for another place to base this adventure on that would provide me the freedom to add and expand the area without stepping foot on any new material. Scrawling through the Forgotten Realms wiki, I found Hartsvale and it had not had any decent updates since some novels released during 3e, so I went with that place.
There also seemed to be a few people using that area and there was not a good map for it, so I had one commissioned.
Finally, I’d like to touch on the addition of subclasses in the adventure, which is a lot of extra effort to go to. These are really thematic, and I think play well into the one-shot idea where players can try out new things and have a change from their usual characters, without worrying about balance. Why did you decide on these three subclasses?
Since the module was already essentially written back in 2018, all I had to do was format it and cut some things out that had not worked well in the previous playthroughs. I wanted to add in some additional content to help sell the adventure, eventually ending up with doing some subclasses.
The Artificer Toymaker and Ranger Bond of the Reindeer were the first two I had made. I wanted to create some type of Wild Magic type character and thought the idea of pulling toys from Santa’s Magical Sack would be neat. Eventually, with some playing around, I came up with the Artificer Toymaker for that. After trying to start it out as a Warlock Pact type of thing.
For the Ranger, I wanted to try something different and ended up just giving the Ranger Fighter manoeuvres. After a bit of thematic tweaking I ended up changing a lot and doubling down on the Reindeer flair. This subclass was based on my Wife’s Swarmkeeper Ranger that she made when she played the one shot. She asked that the bugs and creatures of the Swarmkeeper be little reindeer to better align to the Christmas theme I asked them to come up with for their PCs. I liked it so much I made a subclass from it.
For the Bard Merrymaker, a player of mine came up with that idea and I did a balance pass on it. Overall whenever I work a subclass, I try not to reinvent the wheel. Take some ideas that are already out there and figure out how I can spin them into something new without just Copy/Pasting the abilities. That way you don’t have to worry about balance too much, as the abilities are already balanced. Changing them around to match a theme works pretty well. If you are making something brand new, then follow the appropriate advice online about creating new spells. But more than anything, try to find something that fills a gap that you think exists in the game. But, be careful of power creep.
Is this something you want to keep doing in the future, or is it a one off special?
Well, this adventure is the second that I have published. I plan to make them as long as I have ideas and I have a lot of ideas. It is a dream to have something work on an official D&D work. That’s the ultimate goal!
I am excited that Everyone’s Been Naughty did as well as it did so close to Christmas time. It got Copper Metal status in less than a week. My first adventure is Electrum Metal status and is closing in on Gold.
Is there anything else you would like to add before we finish?
Yes, I do have a few things to add before we go. First, I started a D&D Podcast this past year called Grumpy Dungeon Masters. A long time DM friend and myself talk about D&D topics. We focus on how to be a better DM and talk about ways world build better. We also sometimes get some great guests from the D&D world to join us. Our Website and links to our Podcast can be found on our website: https://grumpydungeonmasters.com/.
We have also started streaming on Twitch. During the weekdays its just normal games and general D&D chat, but on Saturday I host a live play D&D session with my D&D Group. So, you don’t want to miss that. We are working through Rime of the Frostmaiden at the moment.
Be sure to follow us on your favorite social media!
Twitter – https://twitter.com/Grumpy_DMs
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/grumpydungeonmasters/
Lastly, if you the dear reader have gotten this far, here is a special offer for you. The next 25 people who use the following link can get the Everyone’s Been Naught module for $4.99! That is 60% off its listed price.
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,