Today in our review series we have an extra special bonus review from the Fall 2020 RPG Writer’s Workshop. This adventure isn’t included in the bundles, but it was still written as part of the workshop, so here’s the review and interview, as per usual for this series by now!
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 End of the Line by Bring Your Own Dragons
An adventure for D&D5e, written as part of the RPG Writer Workshop.
CW: Descriptions of gore at one point in the adventure.
The End of the Line is a Wild West themed adventure, complete with an attempted train robbery, which forms the focal point of the scenario. It’s very self contained in its design, so it could feasibly be fitted into any setting with a railway, whether a traditional coal powered locomotive as described in the adventure, or as something more magical, such as Eberron’s monorail. Easily playable as a one shot, it can also make an excellent “filler adventure”, to turn what would be a rather banal travel sequence between two towns into something more exciting. While it might require a bit of reworking if your players go off script, it’s overall a very solid adventure that shakes things up with its setting while keeping its structure easily accessible.
The bulk of the adventure is based around the party travelling on a train, with the intent of protecting or stealing some cargo that’s being moved in it, depending on who they decide to help at the start of the adventure. The fact that most of the adventure takes place on a moving train makes for a really interesting dynamic, as the closed quarters and constant obstacles shake up combat nicely. This is especially important as the adventure is quite combat focused, and will definitely appeal to players who are more combat orientated compared to the other two pillars of D&D. They will be facing off against a mix of humanoid bandits and undead forces, which is a solid baseline for low leveled adventurers. The author has reskinned a variety of monsters to be more thematic. While this doesn’t change combat significantly, it does however make it so that more experienced players will at least be intrigued about the new names that they’re facing.
In addition to the combat, there are also a few skill checks throughout, and the climax involves a boss fight followed by a skill challenge. The skill challenges mechanics are briefly explained, and while I would have preferred a more general description of the mechanic before moving into this specific example, it should be clear enough even for those that haven’t encountered the mechanic before. Apart from that, however, the skill challenge is really well designed, and provides narrative outcomes for the main skills that might be involved, whether the characters succeed or fail them. The outcome of this skill challenge has a major effect on the conclusion of the campaign, making it feel impactful, though it might be slightly too impactful and runs the risk of making the rest of the adventure seem secondary.
While we’re talking about additional mechanics, the adventure also makes use of specific train mechanics that come into play whenever the party moves from one carriage to the next, sort of like a random event might when travelling in a more typical adventure. These events simulate the risk of being hit by a branch, falling down as the train jolts along the track, or even siding of the train to a rapid and sudden end. Slightly disappointingly, these mechanics pretty much only affect characters going across the roof of the train, which makes sense but it would be nice to have a few more options that make things interesting for those that are using a more conventional route, though this is a rather minor complaint.
More problematic are a couple of sections where the adventure expects certain events to happen in certain ways, and may require you to railroad (pun intended) the characters in order to keep the narrative coherent. While it is most of the time possible to modify the adventure on the fly to keep things going along, it is something that the DM should be aware of, so as not to be caught off guard by more active or creative players. As mentioned earlier, there are also a few points where the syntax doesn’t match the usual D&D style guide. There is nothing here that will stop you playing the adventure and enjoying it, but it can occasionally be slightly confusing.
On a more agreeable note, aesthetically the adventure is gorgeous. It goes all in on the “Wild West” theme, using appropriate images, and an “old paper” style background. It works well to set the scene, though at certain points I admit that it isn’t always the easiest text to read, especially when the author employs the handwriting font. The art work complements the text where needed, and uses a more modern, photographic style compared to most D&D works, entirely fitting with the theme. All together, this makes for a very well formatted adventure that helps the DM get into the feel of things.
In conclusion, The End of the Line is a refreshing take on the usual D&D adventure thanks to its Wild West theme, and locating it on a train which really shakes up the options available to the players in combat. It might not seem like it at first, as you may think that it doesn’t change much from fighting in the cramped confines of a dungeon, but here it feels much more like fighting in corridors full of junk rather than rooms, which can be surprisingly refreshing, and that’s without counting the new mechanics. While it does weave skill checks throughout, it will appeal to players that enjoy tactical gameplay above the other D&D pillars. At some points it could do with a bit more polish, and it might occasionally require a little extra work on the side of the DM, but it remains a solid adventure, that can be ran as its own one-shot, or as a filler adventure for when the party wants to move from one town to the next. More experienced players D&D players should find the theme and reskinning of enemies intriguing, while the confined narrative structure of the adventure should allow new players to find their footing without feeling too lost.
Behind the Screens
Hello Bring Your Own Dragons! Thanks for agreeing to the interview. Before we dig into its specific elements, I wanted to talk to you first about the choice of the theme itself: the american Wild West. Why did you want to specifically use this sort of theme for D&D, rather than using a system like Deadlands, which is already based in a Wild West setting?
Hello, and for extending the invitation!
Well, first and foremost I love D&D. It’s the game system that introduced me to TTRPGs and it’s the system I play with most. I wanted to see how much I’d have to twist the ruleset to get it to fit around my genre-bending take on the Weird West, and it turns out the system is pretty flexible. That said, there are a bunch of great systems for gamers that are interested in that type of setting (Deadlands, Savage Worlds, Aces & Eights, etc.)
If we go into the elements of the setting itself. Most of the adventure happens on a train, which has some really neat consequences of combat due to the enclosed spaces and obstacles. Was this something you were looking for when you designed the adventure, or did the train come first and the tactical impacts are a happy coincidence?
To be honest, I first got the idea for a train robbery as a result of being continually warned against ‘railroading’ in adventure design. I started thinking about how I’d structure an adventure that was literally ‘on rails’, and gave myself the challenge of designing something that took place almost entirely on a train. It was fun to work out how to introduce branching paths, missable carriages, and things like that into a map which is (from a bird’s eye view) a straight line.
Often when we see adventures exploring the Wild West setting, a lot of designers go all in on the theme, adding explosives and firearms or things like gambling or card based magic. Is there a specific reason you stopped at the steam locomotive?
Good question, and you’re right – there are lots of examples where game designers have introduced fun, quirky mechanisms that gel with the West setting. I didn’t want to cover old ground – if you go looking for a 5e ruleset for heritage firearms, you’re going to be able to take your pick. I wanted to concentrate on the things that I thought I could do differently, on the understanding that ultimately the DM is going to have access to a whole bunch of resources to facilitate an adventure for their players.
That said, it’s not something I’ve definitively ruled out for future adventures in the same setting. I’ve got a few ideas ticking away as to how I would handle firearms with the 5e ruleset.
I’m also intrigued by your decision to reskin various monster stat blocks, rather than just running with thugs and wights? And more specifically, your boss monster, the Teihiihan, that comes from Native American folklore. Did you do any specific research into how to integrate a monster from a particular culture into your adventure?
Most of the reskinning is purely to keep things balanced. I wanted to write something for third level players so that I could include a few more interesting encounters, and some of the existing monster statblocks needed tickling a bit to keep encounters challenging and fair.
For the Teihiihan, I wanted something otherworldly and unknowable. I wanted the players to dread the creature, and to feel reluctant to track it down once they’d had a glimpse of its power. The fable of the Teihiihan really resonated with me, and I’ve found writing to be a good vehicle for learning about other cultures.
You’ve included several blocks of read-aloud text that have a very thematic feel to them, describing scene changes and moving the adventure along a lot like a cutscene in a video game. There is some debate in the TTRPG community about the role of read-aloud text. Could you go into a bit more detail about your decision to include them, and their role in the adventure?
I think the DM’s job is to describe a scene, resolve actions, and transition to the next scene. I think read-aloud text can be useful here – you help the DM to establish the scenario that the players are in, draw attention to the key features of that scene (obstacles, NPCs, objects, etc.) and give players an understanding of how they can transition in/out of this particular scene.
For new DMs, I think it’s helpful to ram this practice home, but more experienced DMs are always free to drop the script and give their own description of the setting.
For the Weird West, I think painting these little tableaus works quite well actually – like describing each cell of a pulp comic.
Thank you again for agreeing to the interview, is there anything you’d like to add before we finish?
No, other than that if you’re interested in keeping tabs on future adventures in the same setting, keep an eye on our blog www.bringyourowndragons.com.
Thanks again for agreeing to talk with me, and I hope we can hear more from you soon.
Until next time, be more kind,