Thursday, May 13, 2021

Dealing With Despair

Dragons of Despair, that is. 
; )

Just a quick update or two before getting back to my crickets-inducing posts on retooling languages (only two more to go!). The after school "D&D Club" has been moved from Tuesday/Thursday to Monday/Friday, due to scheduling issues. How it expanded to twice weekly so fast is a bit of a mystery (I'm not sure I ever actually agreed to that...). Meanwhile, my son's schoolyard Star Wars game continues. Maybe I should show him White Star...

That means that my home game is back on Thursdays (it was on temporary hiatus). Which means I've got some prep work to do. The Forest Oracle, fortunately, doesn't really need "prep;" unfortunately, that's because it needs a real overhaul. I've set it up so that most of the strange and awful things the party has come across can be traced back to the desperate "gypsy clan" (re-skinned as a matriarchal clan of migrant farmers, led by a powerful bruja) but the basic resolution idea is so dumb (I see no way for "benevolent druids" - *gag* - to manufacture a "potion" that will lift the curse...certainly not in the time frame allowed) there's a strong temptation to simply turn this into a seek-and-destroy exercise. That would certainly fly with the party's mercenaries, but doesn't make much sense when you consider that the party could probably buy-off the bruja with just the treasure in the yeti's den. And I really don't want to take the time to stat up the whole clan (being a "party immune plot point" in the original adventure, there are no demographics given for the gypsies...possibly to hide the fact that they're packing enough firepower to take down their single ogre issue without breaking a sweat, and have no real need of the party's help).


No, what I think I'll do instead is start my mini-Dragon War campaign, i.e. I'm going to have Verminaard swoop in with a couple dragons and burn the whole Druid Grove to the ground. This will prove so immensely satisfying on so many levels, as well as opening up a whole new arena of adventure for the party. Besides, I want to get these guys pointed at an actual dungeon, not this lackadaisical railroad.

Enter DL1: Dragons of Despair. I've been working on this the last couple days, and I'm kind of in love with it. Well, obsessed anyway. Not the adventure, mind you...that's still mostly shit (if imaginative shit). But the dungeon of Xak's kind of fantastic.

The map is amazing...I mean, it's really, really good. Non-linear design. Lots of verticality. Multiple entrances and exits. Neat stuff going on here. And legibility/usability is pretty high considering the isomorphic map (I'm not usually a fan). David LaForce ("Diesel") really hit it out of the park with this one. I am suddenly interested in reviewing all his cartography work.

Not that the adventure itself does the map justice. Here's my best Bryce impression:
This 32 page "classic" adventure uses nine pages to present an 84 encounter dungeon in the form of a sunken, ruined city. Excessive box text abounds; some encounter areas consist of nothing but box text, while others bury important room information within the "read aloud" portion, cutting down on usability. Also not terribly helpful is the numbering sequence, which matches letters as well as numbers, although the map is generally clear and legible.
[okay, I don't do a very good Bryce impression. That's why he's who he is and I'm not]

Treasure is generally poor/minimal for a 1E adventure of this scale: only nine areas have treasure of any type (under 11%), with the bulk of it being impossibly heavy doors of gold or "precious steel" weighing thousands of pounds each. However, the overall challenge of the adventure is equally low: while only 25 of the 84 encounters include monsters (31%, which is almost the B/X recommended level of 33%), most of these are harmless, comical, or non-combative encounters:
  • nine encounters consist entirely of "gully dwarves" (the comic relief, possible allies, and general incompetents).
  • five encounters consist of spectral minions (non-aggressive ghosts)
  • two "monsters" are NPC prisoners who will join the party (there is a 3rd such NPC in the dungeon but he is held by actual monster antagonists)
  • at least five encounters with hostile draconians find the creatures drunk, sleeping, or distracted by their own arguments, allowing easy surprise situations.
  • one encounter with poison snakes that is more of a "trap" and fairly navigable
  • one encounter (the black dragon) is if the monster is defeated, there is one less creature encounter
SO, if you do the math, that really only combat encounters? Out of 84? Is that right? I might have done some weird math there; hold on.

[skims text]

Okay, I missed something there because it looks like there are FIVE combat encounters (not counting the second appearance by the dragon...which is actually the THIRD appearance of the monster in the module). Five out of 84 is pretty paltry: that's about 6%. Which, of course, really ups the survival rate of Plot Immune Heroic PCs (hmm...was that on purpose?). Even the black dragon, a natural born PC killer, can be one-shot-slain with a magic artifact already in the PCs possession. Considering there are only seven "traps" (some fairly beefy, but most telegraphed and easily avoidable), there's little danger in exploring this otherwise titanic adventure site. Five levels! Waterfalls and flooded sections! Sideways buildings! Ancient treasures and dragons! Come on, let's go D&D!

These guys are soooo dead.
I'm sure I've mentioned it in the past but...just in case I haven't...please let me say again: I absolutely LOVE black dragons. Oh, I like the others well enough (except, maybe for the blues), but the blacks are my favorite. There's something so wonderfully scary about there space-black scales, their swampy abodes, their ability to dissolve player characters in a gob of acid spit. And because of their (relatively) low hit dice, they can still half-cook high level PCs, yet leave them alive with terrible, disfiguring injuries and horrific scars. And have you seen the item saving throws for acid in the DMG? I once ran I2: Tomb of the Lizard King as a one-off and I'm pretty sure it ended in a TPK with the first "road encounter," an ambush by black dragon. I'm pretty sure that was both the first and last time I've had a chance to use this magnificent monster, and I want to see another in action!

Interesting that DL1 includes the following random encounter in the swamp: 1-10 hatchling black dragons. While they're not much of a threat (6 hit points each) there's an interesting implication here that Khisanth (the black dragon of Xak Tsaroth and the module's major antagonist) is a breeding mother. Even if these aren't her hatchlings (she is, after all, an ancient dragon) they might be the offspring of her own offspring. How long has she resided in these ancient ruins? How many other dragons may be in the vicinity? 

Some decent questions, unanswered by module...because, of course, that's not the objective of DL1. The objective was to start players down an epic story arc published by The Company (thus filling the company coffers) rather than creating a truly modular adventure that could be inserted into one's home campaign. Which is a darn shame, because these maps are some of the best I've come across, and the Hickmans weren't slouches in the adventure-writing department (I rather like most of the Desert of Desolation series). 

Here's my grand plan for today: first I need to tidy the kitchen, clean the floor, and figure out dinner. THEN I'm going to restock the dungeon of Xak Tsaroth to fit a more classical (B/X) delving style:
  • Monster encounters should be around 28-30
  • Traps/hazards should be at least a dozen (easy enough to add cave-ins, floodings, and unstable buildings), not seven.
  • Rewrite about half the "special" encounters; I count 15 which is about right for an adventure this size
  • Increase interactivity...about one note for every two "empty" rooms (that would be 14 total as B/X calls for one-third of all encounter areas to be empty)
  • Up the treasure amount. I'd say about 200,000 - 300,000 x.p. worth of treasure should be about right. The value as it stands (including x.p. for magic items) is 38,370 [EDIT: actually under 30K] later changed to 60,170 with the 2E conversion (more gems were added to the dragon's hoard and the value of the thousands pound doors increased). That's ridiculous for a death trap this size, especially as I'm removing the Disks of Mishakal...although I'll probably replace them with some other holy relics.
  • Except for the black dragon (natch) almost all the other monsters need to be replaced/reskinned. Gully dwarves become kobolds of the "wizened goblin" variety...possibly enslaved "swamp gnomes" (why not?). Draconians will be replaced with hobgoblins and goblins, based on intelligence level (all these monsters are pretty dumb), with the bigger dracos being chief-type gobbos, Maybe an ogre mage can replace a spell-using "boss" draco. The vermin here are okay, but the adventure needs a lot more (it's a swamp...let's fire up the lizards and snakes, maybe throw in a giant slug). No spectral minions but a wraith or three (maybe some shadows, too) sound like good ideas. Black dragon hatchlings, duh. Also, probably some sort of ancient guardian golem, damaged by the city's fallen into its subterranean cavern...still functionally dangerous, but slow and limping.
Aaaand, I think that should just about do it. Coming soon, to a swamp near you: The Sunken City of Doom!


  1. Good title, sir :D

    If you are going to use Pax Tharkas later on, maybe save the giant slug for that site. I love the slug, but it's a special one.

    Just a thought. You do your thing, man. It's kick ass.

    1. Hey, man: my campaign setting is in the Pacific Northwest; We are all about the slugs! I’m sure there’s room for more than one...but maybe the slug at Pax Tharkas will be REALLY big!
      ; )

      Thanks for the kind words. Just “doing my thang.”

  2. I've not been reading the blogs much the past week or two, but I did read the first of your language posts. I've got some thoughts but should read them all first. :D

    I plopped Xak Tsarkas in my West Marches campaign. The first time anyone went there, there were two PC deaths before they even got in the dungeon. After a couple more delves, they heard that there are lots of magic weapons but also a black dragon there. They have plenty of magic weapons already from other places, and the dragon really scares them, so they haven't been back. I should probably do a bit of restocking also, and add some more treasure to tempt the now 4th to 7th level PCs there.

    1. You need that treasure! I have found that the most motivating (perhaps the ONLY motivating) rumors are those regarding treasure. My kids lost multiple pastries assaulting the southern Caves of B2 looking for “stacks of magic armor,” and the giant black pearl of X2 is the only thing I’ve seen inspire PCs to an ocean voyage. Once you start down the classic D&D road, players will always start looking for the best angles: where can we score loot that won’t get us killed?

      I told my kids I was working on a new adventure...a “really big one.” Their first question: “Does it have lots of treasure?” Give your players something juicy to shoot for and they’ll give it a try. Surely.

  3. This is an interesting take. I've seen lots of people talk about just using the dungeons from the DL modules and dumping all the surrounding story and Dragonlance setting stuff. You're the first person I've seen decide that one of the dungeons had to be modified this extensively.

    It's interesting that there's so little treasure, given that these are still 1e modules. Then again, I suppose the point was to impress on the players that these modules were about the story and the lore of the setting and not about searching for treasure.

    1. It is my understanding that the "point" of the DL modules was to give players the opportunity in playing out an epic, heroic story, unlike the passe D&D objectives of murder and robbery. The DL novels actually have some interesting bits in them (I was just reading the Xak Tsaroth passages from my old Dragons of Autumn Twilight yesterday)...better, really than the story told in the modules!

      RE My Interesting Take

      That's...odd. I mean, that's odd that DMs would take the approach of using the dungeons as is while "dumping all the surrounding story and Dragonlance setting stuff." The adventure is so setting-specific, not just on the adventures' objectives (why the PCs are there, what the PCs are after) but the meat of the adventure itself (the draconians and their origins, the Disks of Mishakal and its purpose, etc.).

      And the dungeons really aren't stocked correctly for 1E adventures of their scale. I'd imagine most 1E players would be extremely frustrated if playing the dungeons "straight." I know *I* would be. Xak Tsaroth as presented in the original (1E) module only provides 38K in x.p. TOTAL...that's if you were to find/acquire every last bit of treasure before bringing the roof down. For a party of seven (my sweet spot) that's 5,400 x.p. each. The adventure has a suggested level range of 4-6. A 5th level fighter needs THREE TIMES that amount to many sessions would it take to clean out a five level, 84 room dungeon? Six weeks of weekly sessions? For peanuts? Come on! I could not, in good conscience, do that to my players!

      And the challenge level itself is so LOW. Draconians are, I suppose, an interesting challenge the first couple times you encounter them (because of their post-death explosions and what not), but once the novelty's worn off, they're just another hobgoblin to kill. Since I'm not using the whole DL story (with good dragon eggs being corrupted, etc.) I decided to just go with hobgoblins...easy enough, and now the elevator in Xak Tsaroth makes sense (dragon men can fly, so why do they need an elevator?!).

      [by the way, people will say "Hey! What about the tactical challenge of dealing with a creature that turns to stone when you kill it!" PCs never encounter more than 5 dracos at a time (and usually not more than 3) so even if a character is dumb enough to only carry a single weapon, the net result is to put a PC out of action for D4 rounds while his compatriots fight. The "exploding bones" dracos? Those are never encountered in groups more than 3 (and usually only 1 or 2), and since the explosions only do 1d6 damage each, the party should have no trouble absorbing it...especially if the party is carrying the Blue Crystal Staff]

      Do the DMs who use the dungeon "as is" provide the party with the Goldmoon NPC and her Blue Crystal Staff? It becomes even LESS of a challenge when you have a magic item that can heal, restore energy drain, resurrect, and deflect dragon breath (also teleport at the staff's - i.e. DM's - discretion).

      No the dungeon needs a complete overhaul. I don't think my approach is really very "interesting" at's the only sensible thing to do!
      ; )

  4. I like seeing your thoughts on how you are going to rework the dungeon. Concrete examples are both instructive and inspiring.

    1. Thanks, Patrick. I'll try to be concrete in my examples.