Wilderland Adventures: A Darkness in the Marshes

I’m running all seven Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth with my group of 7 players and writing about the experience. You can also read reviews of other AiME products on this blog (and other D&D stuff). These adventure blog-posts are part review and part suggestions for Loremasters on how to run or adjust the adventure, based on my experience of running it. And to provide context for those two things, I will also describe what happened during our play-through of the adventure. Art is copyright Cubicle 7 and pulled from their material.

A Darkness in the Marshes is the first of the adventures in the series that is tightly connected with the storyline of the main bad guy of the seven adventures – the Gibbet King.

Radagast
I really like how Radagast is used in this adventure. I think the blessings he provides should have been used more in the Mirkwood campaign.

In the adventure, the characters are tasked by Radagast to find out what it is that stirs in the west. It is an information gathering mission – not search and destroy (to my player’s later frustration). He sends them to Mountain Hall, a woodmen settlement in the mountains, where the chief knows a lot. From Mountain Hall they can find their way to the old evil fortress Dwimmerhorn and learn something about the evil that threatens the area.

The adventure has a lot of atmosphere, and – as always – the style and mood of the adventure is closely aligned with original Tolkien canon. However, my run of it was not as successful as I had hoped and anticipated. The reasons lie partly with the adventure, partly with my players and partly with me.

On the one hand the adventures is good because the characters can fail to get to the key scene and the information at the end. The problem is, if they fail, the finale of the adventure will be unsatisfying, and you will miss the foreshadowing before the final adventure.

A second problem is mechanical, primarily with the chase system used if the characters are discovered. It didn’t seem to work – at least the way I understood it.

Thirdly, the fortress they have to investigate, appeals differently to more traditional D&D players. There are monsters to kill and human slaves they ought to rescue. Being unable to do those things doesn’t sit well with players who like being heroes, kicking down doors and slaying orcs.

To review the adventures, I intentionally keep fairly close to the adventure as written. For a better play experience, I could have customized it more to accommodate my player’s style.

How it played out:

The adventure took two sessions and a bit. For the first part I had six players and for the last part I only had four. All of them were 5th level.

The adventured started of really well. They meet Radagast and ask most of the questions anticipated in the adventure. They get their answers and are offered the blessing. My players declined a blessing, because they didn’t fear the more mundane dangers much, so they wanted to avoid being noticed by a greater danger.

In the adventure, the group is supposed to be guided by a local scout named Banna. I declined to use her, as my group already has a Wanderer, who has special knowledge of the area they travel in. I wanted him to shine, and the journeys are – so far – more than easy enough. And as far as I can tell, she has no real function in the adventure.

Mountain Hall
The Mountain Hall village has some threads to other plots and adventures you can use in a wider scoped campaign.

They arrive at mountain hall after a couple of unsuccessful journey events with an exhaustion level. As they have a woodman with them, it is fairly easy to gain access and they are led to Hartfast, the chief of the settlement.

The audience with him goes well. The dwarves offer assistance with his goblin problems and with the mining operation – as is noted in the adventure is an option, which is a nice touch – and the adventurers get descent lodgings.

The Dunedaín of the group discovers the goblin saboteurs and with a pretty astonishing amount of natural 20’s all the goblins are quickly killed, the missing guard is found, and the group are accepted as heroes.

The Dunedaín also use his foresight virtue to get a premonition that Magric the Trapper, who was offered as guide to Dwimmerhorn, is going to betray them.

They see the Horn of Warning, meet Magric and move into the marsh. The escaped slave Walar comes running, and they have the encounter with orcs and wolves. I added a couple of wolves to the encounter to make it a bit more challenging.

As they are forewarned of Magric, they are ready for his treachery and quickly slays him. It is weird that there are no stats for him. He isn’t even given – as far as I can see – one of the standard profiles from the LM Guide.

After the encounter we finish the first sessions.

A dungeon! But not quite…

Dwimmerhorn
Dwimmerhorn is an adventuring location with a lot of atmosphere, but you might need a more fleshed out dungeon below.

The characters speak with the escaped slave, Walar, and learns a few things about Dwimmerhorn and they get a rough map of the place.

They decide to all sneak up via the hidden path. After a few failures, and some falling damage, they get to the top. From there they can see the temple and that orcs feed a prisoner to the wargs.

The group is kind of split between those who want to burn down a building and/or help the slaves escape and kill the leader of the orcs, and those who want to simply investigate.

They sneak forward to one of the storage rooms and wait to see what happens. I let Ghor the Despoiler walk from the ruined keep to the temple with a couple of hooded cultists (hoping they will follow). Instead they debate and decide to sneak into the ruined keep to look for information (which isn’t an unreasonable expectation), despite knowing there are human servants in there, but overlooks the risk of a fight that warns all the orcs.

In any case, they fail at sneaking undetected into the keep. When discovered, they again debate what to do: Continue to the keep and defend it and hope the tunnel to the dungeons is there, go to the temple instead and hope for a tunnel down to the dungeons below the fortress or simply escaping over the wall?

They decide to go into the keep. I place a handful of servants in there and they dispatch them and bar the door, while orcs surround the building. This gives them a couple of rounds to search, and as they find nothing, they decide to climb to the top of the ruined keep, jump down to the encircling wall and escape down the cliff, with a few extra arrows being short at them due to the route they took.

Fleeing from Dwimmerhorn we use the chase system in the book, which I can’t see works as intended. My group decides to use the forced march option back to Mountain Hall and they only get one journey event. As far as I can tell, that effectively means they can’t be caught by the orcs (more on this below), and they arrive at Mountain Hall.

As Magric was killed, there is no confrontation at the gate, as scripted in the adventure, and they are let into the settlement, where they can rest.

The adventure concludes with Ghor and some orcs sneaking into the settlement to assassinate them. I added two additional Snaga Trackers (against four characters), but they killed them all fairly easily. Partly, the reason for them handling this encounter easily is that their main melee character is dwarf slayer, which means he fights without armor and has advantage against poison, and both features are big advantages in this fight.

How was the adventure?

The adventure is pretty good overall, but our playthrough was far from optimal, for various reasons.

  • When you put a dungeon in front of my players they want to investigate it. As a game catering to D&D players looking for something different, I think there is a bit of misalignment of expectations between regular D&D players and the location as presented.
  • The chase system doesn’t work, in my view, and fails to bring a sense of danger and pursuit to the adventure. I wanted there to be a real chance that a character had to sacrifice himself to hold off the pursuers, as that would have been epic, but there was zero chance of that.
  • The missing dungeon I had recognized as a problem, but due to time constraints I didn’t add that to the adventure. I should have found a map online and had it with me (more on that below).
  • It is in the spirit of Middle-Earth, but the adventure sets the characters up to eventually be discovered, so they have to flee. The reason is that they want the evil mastermind to vacate the fortress, so the plot can go on. Not every player will enjoy that. It is a bit railroady.
  • We failed to get to the big pay off at the end. We will see how that affects the rest of the campaign.

The betrayer, Magric, seems kind of obvious, but it is in line with the world. He seems fair but feels foul. The adventure has him almost automatically escape. I let them kill him, particularly since the Dunedaín had used an inspiration on his Foresight of the Kindred virtue to foretell his betrayal.

If you’ve had a different experience, I would love to hear about it in the comments!

What would I change/do differently

Make a dungeon

I would definitely have a large dungeon map ready with some detailed locations and monsters for a regular dungeon crawl with pursuers behind them. Or I could have made a couple of events including some dark slimy monsters to meet below the fortress for a more cinematic approach.

dysons
For some cool maps, you could for example go to Dyson’s Dodecahedron.

When my players fled into the keep, I should have let the entrance to the dungeon be there and winged a couple of encounters and let them struggle all the way to a secret underground exit, after which they would have to sneak past sentries posted around the fortress to keep them from escaping.

The chase system needs to be reworked to a greater or lesser extent, unless you wish to avoid a greater risk of character sacrificing herself to slow the pursuers. At the minimum, the characters have to be caught unless they take some action to avoid it.

The chase system

wolves
I think it is quite important you add some actions the pursuing orcs take to catch up to the PC’s. It will make it more dramatic and prompt the players to take counter measures.

As written, the characters get a Lead of 2, if discovered inside the fortress. Each failed roll made to resolve the journey decreases the lead by 1. But, they only get 1D2 journey events. Already, the risk of capture is low. Unless, if I understand it correctly, they get a journey event that requires each character to roll, then the risk increases substantially.

However, if the characters attempt the force march option the lead increases by 2 for each of the two attempts – they don’t all have to make the constitution save.

On top of that, they can attempt to throw off pursuers by eg. Covering their trail. If they succeed they increase the lead, or decrease it, if they fail. If you forced march, the negative consequences outweigh the positives.

To correct it, you can increase the journey events to 1d2+1.

I would also add some proactive actions the orcs take to catch them, which I think would also spur the characters to take countermeasures. If you do that, you might keep the journey events at 1d2-

For example:

  • Wolf scouts are sent to harry them, and they are ambushed, with the wolves targeting any mounts or wounded they might have. It also decreases their lead by 1.
  • The orcs march through the night (effectively also use the forced march option to decrease lead by 2). The characters can hear the howls of the wolves growing closer.
  • The orcs blow horns which summons a patrol from another direction or a flock of crows to watch them.

I should have narrated the chase more, but I didn’t have much to attach it to. They had such a big mechanical lead that it was hard to make it sound dramatic.

Additionally…

I should have had Walar, the escaped slave, hint at that they are keeping something of great importance in the temple. Perhaps the coffin with it arrived and he saw it being brought into the temple? Had they known that they would have investigated it.

great orc
Ghor is CR 5, but a Great Orc is CR4. The main difference is that Ghor has about 20 more hit points and does a little more damage, but great orcs have a massive AC of 20. 5 more than Ghor with AC 15. I think Ghor needs more AC to last through a fight, and perhaps a second special ability to make things interesting.

The final encounter with Ghor was not as close nor as interesting as it could have been. It also has some mechanical silliness. The DC to hear the orcs, while sleeping, with passive perception, is 12. 12! Perception is probably the most common skill in any party. I had them roll with disadvantage instead against DC 15, but most still made it.

As mentioned, I added a couple of Snaga’s, and I boosted Ghor’s AC to 17. But the characters defended a house, and could keep the dwarf slayer in front as the main target, and he is very hard to kill.

Also, would they try to assassinate the characters, when they didn’t see the Chain of Thangorodrim or the Gibbet King?

All in all

I think this can be an epic adventure. It just wasn’t when we played it. The first part ran well with roleplaying that oozed atmosphere and Tolkien-vibes.

But half of my players for the second session wanted action and they wanted to be heroes by killing Ghor, rescuing slaves and perhaps setting the orc barracks on fire. It is a very typical D&D approach, and I’m often like that myself. They were fundamentally not in the mood for ‘information gathering’ and that happens. Sometimes you just want to kick in the door and roll initiative.

If I had added a chase through the dungeon, and spotted the flaws in the chase system, and corrected them, I think the session would have been more memorable (and it would expand the adventure to three sessions).

In a couple of days we move on to the Crossing of Celduin, which I hope will run more to my (and my player’s) expectations.

 

 

One thought on “Wilderland Adventures: A Darkness in the Marshes

  1. I loved the review and will definitely take note of what you’ve covered here. I have all the published material so far, but haven’t DM’d before so these pointers will be invaluable to making it memorable. Thank you for taking the time to post this.

    Liked by 2 people

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