Welcome back to our series of reviews of some of the works from the Fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop, for what is the final instalment in this series. Each review is 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.
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.
J.W. Talcum and the Blight Factory by Mike Beach
An adventure for D&D5e, part of the RPG Writer Workshop Fall 2020 bundle volume 3.
CW: Addiction, famine, loss of family.
A well rounded adventure that mixes classic fantasy with almost wild western style story beats, J.W. Talcum and the Blight Factory is a solid adventure for new and older players alike. The adventure makes good use of all three pillars, and should be pretty easy to include in pretty much any campaign, as long as a large factory like building is possible within your world. While it works best in a more Eberron style setting, where magic is more mundane and a factory is more plausible, plenty of advice is provided by the author to help you adapt the adventure as needed should another style of location be required.
The once fertile land has recently become barren, provoking a famine throughout the region. Never fear however, for J.W. Talcum is here, with his magical potion to starve off hunger! All for the low, low price of 15 gold pieces! A snake oil seller, and general swindler in his spare time, Talcum has recently built a factory to produce his potion, about the same time that the lands fertility seemed to wane. The heroes goal in this adventure is to explore this factory, find out what is going on there, and put an end to any wrongdoing. They might do this because of their own altruistic motivations, or possibly because they’ve been hired to do it, but no matter what alignment the characters might be there is probably a hook to get them involved.
The party will make its way through the factory, either as guests or infiltrators, as they discover just what Talcum has been up to. On their way they will have to fend off custom monsters and find allies and clues to help decipher the truth, without doing something foolish enough to be overwhelmed by the forces arrayed against them. They will also have a couple of roleplaying opportunities, including one with the final boss that might change the outcome of the adventure considerably. These opportunities are quite varied, with each interlocutor having a different personality and goals that might work with, or against, the party’s interests. Players who enjoy using a wide variety of skills might find the scenario slightly lacking during most of it, though they might get an appropriate pay off at the end when they must escape the factory in a suitably action film style via a series of skill checks.
The combats themselves are engaging, shaking up the usual standard formula by introducing different mechanics and goals throughout the fight. The first major battle has the players having to resist for a certain amount of rounds, rather than simply defeat their opponents, all why trying to keep nearby innocents from danger. In the final battle, the author has cleverly introduced lair actions, but reduced their presence so as to adapt the encounter to the low average level of the party. This makes a low level boss battle interesting, notably by adding quite a lot of environmental effects to frustrate the players plans, without overwhelming them with concepts that newer players might not be prepared for.
The adventure works well to incorporate all the traditional pillars of D&D, whilst still trying to shake things up a bit with its mechanics, as in the case of the combat, or its narrative, as it mixes in different genres, from Western to action film. It’s well crafted, providing a good introduction to the hobby for new players, and plenty of guidance for DMs whether new or experienced, to adapt the scenario to their needs. A very solid adventure for any campaign that wants to mix up their world with some more modern themes, and challenge their players with some moral dilemmas.
Behind the Screens
Hello Mike, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. Your adventure is a surprising mix of ideas. There’s a touch of Eberron in there with the abundant magic items and factory, there is some Western with the snake oil salesman, a bit of zombie horror, and even a soupçon of action film in the conclusion. Where did this joyous mix come from?
Oh man! I could discuss in lengthy detail what brought about each of those individual pieces. I definitely pulled inspiration from a disparate set of places. The thing I love about these imagined worlds we build is that we can incorporate whatever influences excite and interest us. It’s how we make these worlds our own. There are pieces in there inspired by: The Legend of Korra, King Kong, Star Trek, and The Prestige — just to name a few.
I want to take a moment to drill down a bit more on that final scene, with the party escaping the party. Mechanically you have created a more prescribed version of a skill challenge (which don’t have official rules in 5e, but that we often see brought over from 4e). What was your thought process behind this scene when creating it?
That scene is actually where the whole idea for this adventure started. I imagined this climactic point where trees violently sprout from cobblestone streets and topple civilization. I also almost cut the scene entirely. I was worried that I was drawing out the story when it had already reached its natural conclusion. I ended up liking that idea though. I liked the idea of players pausing to take in their victory, and then there’s this “oh no, this isn’t over yet” feeling. However, I didn’t want it to be another drawn-out encounter. I didn’t want to fatigue the players. I just wanted that closing spike of adrenaline. A short skill challenge was perfect for that.
Overall, it feels like there was an effort made to use all three pillars in the scenario, balancing out between combat, exploration, and social interactions. How do you advise that designers approach the three pillars when planning out their adventure?
In my experience, D&D naturally favors combat more than the other pillars. It’s like that familiar pair of sweatpants you slide into when roleplaying starts to feel too awkward. But too much combat can fatigue the players and DM. I often start by looking at an adventure as a whole, and ask if there’s the possibility of play fatigue.
For exploration, the biggest thing is to provide PCs space away from enemies. Fill those spaces with interesting elements that foreshadow elements later on in the story. Make some of those elements easy to discover (maybe with no DC at all). Players can be discouraged from continuing to explore if they fail to find anything. The other important thing is to supply the players with some level of mystery. If the players don’t have the full story (and know it), they’ll be encouraged to explore more. In my adventure, I provide through lines connecting elements the PCs can uncover. If they dig enough they find pieces that tell more story, hinting at Talcum’s guilt, greed, and paranoia.
For social interactions, I believe it’s all about designing compelling NPCs. All the standard advice applies here — giving them clear-cut motivations, quirks, etc. (especially quirks). If your NPC is memorable and fun then DMs will want to play them, and players will want to interact with them. Similar to exploration, you have to provide space for social interactions. Don’t expect the players to engage just because you dangle a quirky carrot in front of them. Allow for your NPCs to approach first.
This balanced approach can be a good way for newer players to discover the different aspects of the hobby, but you’ve also provided plenty of details for the DM too. Suggestions on how to tie the characters in with the hooks, or modify the hooks to switch from one to the other if needed for example. Were you consciously designing with new players in mind? And what sort of tools do you feel like designers should provide for DMs in an adventure?
I love introducing new people to D&D. It’s probably my favorite part of the hobby. A lot of the suggestions I have in there came out of working with editors and proofreaders who never DM’d before. I know a lot of players who want to make that leap, but they’re intimidated by it. I wanted my adventure to be accessible to them.
Even for DMs with some experience, we can sometimes feel beholden to an adventure ‘as written’. It’s why in multiple places in this adventure I explicitly say “use your discretion”. Sometimes that’s all it takes, permission from the adventure to take it and make it your own. It’s my way of saying “you got this”.
I want to turn now to your antagonists. The first thing I really like is that on a more narrative level, both of your main antagonists start by talking rather than launching right into combat. Why did you decide to go down this route rather than just saying “roll for initiative” as soon as the players arrive?
I find that the best villains are those with rooted motivations. It would take a deeply antagonistic history with the PCs — or maniacal tendencies — for an NPC to attack on sight.
Talcum in particular is a schemer, not a fighter. It doesn’t make sense for his character to be the aggressor. I also needed a way to reveal the true villain of the adventure, and talking with Talcum is one way to that.
For the final fight, that came out of working with my editors. I didn’t have a talking piece in there originally. There, the characters are coming face-to-face with the villain for the first time. Opening with combat would rob the players of agency. Dialogue instead puts more control in their hands. Plus, there’s a really interesting thread there for evil characters to follow if they want (I’d love to see how that plays out).
Finally, your final boss. You’ve given it lair actions, but in a concession to the low average party level you only have them work half the time. What was your goal with this inclusion?
There were two motivations behind this. The first was about climactic tension. You want your boss fight to feel epic and exciting. When the boss is a singular villain, you’re limited in how you can raise the stakes. Making its attacks super deadly felt risky. Instead, I wanted to better balance the action economy.
With a few ways to do that, I followed my second motivation: narrative. Lair actions tell story through combat, and that’s super cool! I don’t think they should be reserved for high-level play. The conflict at the center of this story is that the big-bad is detrimentally controlling the land. It made sense that its control would extend into combat. Plus, it keeps the players’ focus on the boss, and makes the boss feel more powerful and threatening.
Is there anything else you would like to add before we finish?
First off, thank you for having me. I’ve found your interviews really fun to read. Our community is lucky to have you doing this.
I’d also like to mention that I just updated this adventure. I’ve added a screen reader friendly version, along with a set of maps for printing, handouts, and virtual table tops.
Lastly, to your readers: my adventure is free! If you pick it up, please consider using the money you would have spent on my adventure to support another creator. If you do enjoy my adventure, please reach out and let me know! You can connect with me on twitter: @whatsnawfix.
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,