Wilderland Adventures – a new campaign and a review (sort of)

My current D&D homebrew campaign has been put on hold, because I just got a new job, and to eliminate a stress factor, I decided to run a published campaign, to cut prep time. Instead we will pay Wilderland Adventures for Adventures in Middle-Earth by Cubicle 7.

I’ve written about Adventures in Middle-Earth on this blog previously (Player’s Guide and Loremaster’s Guide), and been quite excited on their use of the D&D 5th edition rules and their very thematic take on Middle-Earth.

But you can’t really know how well the rules work unless you’ve tried them in your game. As the youtuber Matt Coleville, so rightly puts it: the map is not the territory, the recipe is not the meal.

Adventures-in-Middle-earth-Wilderland-Adventures-cover-900
The cover of the adventure. A classic desperate stand in Middle-Earth, and the characters will have plenty of opportunity to try it. 

This new – and relatively short campaign – will therefore be an ongoing review of the seven adventures that makes up the Wilderland Adventures. They read well, but do they play well? And where do they need adjustments? Playing the campaign should also provide other GM’s, who might be interested, some insight into how the rules actually play out? In effect a review/playtest of the entire game.

When we’ve played through the seven adventures, we will return to my home brew campaign. I hope I can publish my backlog of session recaps over Christmas, so we have the game recorded while we are on a break.

As I’ve also bought the Rhovanion Region Guide and the Mirkwood Campaign, two new products for Adventures in Middle-Earth, I may drop in elements of those source books as well.

We make characters December 6th, and I hope we also get to play the first part of the first adventure.

Initial Review of Wilderland Adventures

This is not an in-depth review of the 156-page campaign. It is hard to really recommend a published campaign you haven’t run. This is more my first impressions from reading it, and getting ready to run it.

I won’t describe all the adventures. But it will have mild spoilers. So, if you are a player (especially one of my players), and you want to know absolutely nothing about the story or adventures, you should read no further.

Wilderland Adventures is seven linked adventures, where the first four can be dropped into most Middle-Earth campaigns set in this area. The final three are more closely linked, and are hard to run independently. The adventures take place in various locations in Wilderland and will take the adventurers to around 7th level.

My first impression of the seven adventures is very positive overall.

All of the adventures feel like they are set in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. The mood is spot on and follows the themes outlined in the Loremaster’s guide (such as The Long Defeat in a Fallen World and Deliverance Arrives as All Seems Lost).

Particularly the second, fourth and fifth adventures looks like they are excellent. The second one features a captured hobbit and fun goblin feast song, the fourth evolves around a Noldor elf the players have to escort towards the sea, but her powerful song and presence attracts a lot of attention and the fifth is an infiltration mission.

Actually, I think the first adventure is the weakest of the seven. It takes the group through Mirkwood, and has quite a dark tone. It is not a bad adventure at all, but I would have liked a much stronger hook.

As it is for 1st level characters, it would have been nice, if the adventure also accommodated getting the group together, with a strong motivation, as Mirkwood is a dangerous place for first level characters. Instead it assumes they already know each other and are wandering along the Long Lake, when something happens. The designers opt for having an action hook that can result in combat. I think it will work as intended, but I would have appreciated getting help with getting the group together.

But let’s see how it plays out!

TFW05loading

The book is very well organized with summaries of the campaign and each adventure. It is also fully colour illustrated like the rest of the Middle-Earth products. As an added bonus, it contains colour battle maps for most of the encounters. But

On the design side, I really appreciate that all the adventures don’t assume the heroes succeed. There are usually options for various alternate solutions or paths that the adventure might take and failure is frequently an option – the one they are supposed to protect dies or they are discovered and need to flee before they learn key information. This is a refreshing change from the published adventures I’ve typically seen. But to be fair, I’ve not run a published adventure since 2007 or something like that.

That said, it is not a sand box-style series of adventures, like e.g. Curse of Strahd. Each adventure has a clear plot line, with a hook, a journey and a couple of adventuring locations, and a climax.

The transitions from one adventure to the next may need a bit of work, and I expect I might add some minor additional adventures or events to create a smooth flow.

An excellent additional value for money is the customized journey events that are included. A journey has 12 possible events, and there are 12 unique events for all 7 adventures. That will add some interesting spice to each adventure, and will ensure that two groups running the same adventure will have somewhat different experiences, as typically only two or three events will come into play.

npc mannerism
An example of help for the Loremaster.

On the role-playing side, there are plenty of opportunities and interesting NPCs. I particularly like that there is a box on how to role-play the major NPCs. They describe speech patterns, mannerisms and movement – elements that I’m generally not great at coming up with for my own NPCs. I hope the assistance will add a lot of extra fun to my game.

All of the adventures also use the Audience mechanic, and sometimes the outcome of an audience can be critical for the outcome of the adventure.

 

 

The Deserted Wizard – Part 3

I was almost caught up – and then life hits. Well, here is the final recap of this adventure. The next session had some downtime, and the sessions after that is the first chapter in a grand expedition to explore the lands around them after the winter. As always, I prioritize actually preparing D&D over writing about what happened. At least until I have significantly more time in the evenings… I do want to add a couple of reviews of RPG-material that I’ve been reading. And I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of Trudvang Chronicles

If the players thought they were done with mindflayers, they were wrong. The group was back to only four players, due to the Easter holiday, and the decided to make a short rest, before exploring the rest of the guild hall. They find their ancient archive, in a magical storage room, and recognize it as a valuable trove of lore, if you spend sufficient time on piecing things together. The also enter the guild masters office, where they locate the secret door to the strong room, but when they tamper with it, two stone guardians attack. In the strong room they find gold and silver, and more importantly a few bars of mithral and adamantine and a scroll that can be used to enchant a weapon permanently.

purple worm
Unfortunately, the purple worm mini I had ordered didn’t arrive in time. There will be more opportunities though… 

I kept track of time, because – unbeknownst to the players and their characters – the mindflayers continued to be aware of them and their actions. So they gathered another force and attacked again. They led that attack with a hill giant and a purple worm. The players were pretty freaked. But still, the four 8th level players, decided to fight the purple worm (which is CR 15 and has 250 hit points). Fortunately for them, they had luck on their side, as the purple worm is so strong that it can basically remove a character from the fight every round. The purple worm used its bite attack on the paladin/ranger in the first round, but the dwarf bard/fighter used his protective ability to give it disadvantage, so it missed. And the dwarf could tank the tail attack. Next round the purple worm missed with its bite again, but hit the druid with its poisonous tail, who went down. And then a mind flayer emerged from the hole the purple worm left. This was double trouble, but they kept piling on damage, and then the paladin/ranger was swallowed by the worm. The purple worm was heavily damaged, so with a final eldritch blast the warlock killed the purple worm (which 3 characters gave 250 in damage in 3 rounds…)

I had narrated that the three characters, with players who weren’t present, take on the hill giant and the goblins that followed it, and that the half-orc bellowed that they had to flee (that we my DM-que that it was wise).

The purple worm spits out the paladin in its death throes, and with a feather fall they escape the guild hall, but in the ruins beyond the run into another mindflayer ambush, with a single mindflayer, two intellect devourers and some goblins. That was fun!

id
They aren’t hard to kill, but surprisingly nasty, as the Int reduction needs a Greater Restoration to counter. 

The players know they are just a couple of bad saving throws away from defeat, but a couple of summoned bears and a charging paladin kills the mindflayer, which cause the rest to flee. The warlock had his intelligence reduced by the intellect devourer though, and is comatose, so now they are down to three characters.

The finally reach the exit point at the tower, where an elf is waiting for them. He introduces himself as Kelgon, but the paladin sense that he is a fiend in disguise. He does not reveal his true form, when they confront him with that knowledge, but he admits that the Mezzoloths that attacked them works for him, and that he has a proposal for them: if they are willing to help him kill undead in the ruins, he will give them knowledge and magic items in return. Their response is that they want to consider it, and that they will return with an answer, if he is willing to let them exit the ruin. He allows that, and finally the group emerges from the ruins into a forest that now seems much more benign and safe.

 

 

If you want to read my notes of this entire D&D adventure, they can be found here: DnD Adventure – The Deserted Wizard.

The Deserted Wizard – a D&D adventure – part 2

The group is searching for a wizard in a ruined city. He deserted from their settlement several months ago, and has already learned that there are both fiends and mind flayers inside the ruins. You can read the beginning here.

In the third installment I will also make the adventure itself available.

The body of Corbian

The group enters the big ancient guildhall of elven craftsmen and find a huge lump of blue resin-like substance with a robe clad elf inside on the second floor. Next to it lies the body of the wizard Corbian, who they were sent to find, along with his spell book, which contains a ritual – which Corbian created – that can release the elf.  There are no signs of his men. Abbott – the warlock – finds the mind of the imprisoned wizard (he thinks), and communicates with him.

They decide to release the wizard, with the ritual that takes an hour. While the wizard casts the ritual the rest of the team watch the surroundings. They are of course aware that something will happen. Unfortunately, as the ritual finishes, the gnome rogue watching the entrance has become lost in thoughts and fail to notice the attackers arriving, and an epic fight begins.

Gauth-5e
A gauth. Its rays are less dangerous than a beholder’s, and its central eye is paralyzing instead of anti magic (which works really well combined with mindflayers…)

A mind flayer and a gauth (beholder-kin from the new Volo’s Guide to monsters) burst through a large window at the end of a hallway, and via the staircase goblins attack from below with another mind flayer and another gauth. With liberal use of fireballs, wall of thorns and other spells, the group manages to defeat the attackers. Jarn, the paladin/ranger is stunned by a mind blast, and has difficulty making his save.

The Ilithor
At the end of the third round the resin bursts and reveals another 10 foot tall armored mindflayer – an Ilithor – an illithid war leader – of my own creation (you can find the stats here). It attempts to eat the dwarf in front of it, but he makes his saving throw, and the round after use a prismatic spray – and then the paladin, who was stunned for half the fight, has done an enormous amount of damage with Smites, and it falls. And after looting, we end the session.

Gm thoughts

It was a very intense and fun encounter.Partly because of the many different attacks and enemies the characters had to fight – magical effects from the eye rays, gauths that explode on death and the danger of the mind flayer’s mind blasts and subsequent brain extraction. And partly because of the large battlefield, with several different features, which were used for cover and tactical maneuvers. The party used spells creatively and spent a ton of resources – which will become important.

I would have liked the Ilithor to last one more round to really highlight how dangerous it was, but it was still very epic, and Korrick the dwarf was just one save away from having his brain eaten.

71002b
I bought two packs of these minis. I had the wrong glue though, so had to wait until part III of the adventure to use them. 

Ilithor

Illithor (large)

Description: a three meters tall armor clad ilithid with only four tentacles. It is more bulky and squat compared with the regular mind flayers and wields a mind-blade great sword. The Ilithor is created by the Elder Brain to function as commanders of the ilithid armies.

Armor Class: 18, Hit Points: 168 (16d10+80) , Speed: 40 ft.

STR DEX CON INT WIS CHA
20 13 20 17 19 17
+5 +1 +5 +3 +4 +3

Saving Throws: Int +6, Wis +7, Cha +7 (advantage from psi carapace)

Skills: Insight +7, Perception +7, Deception +6
Damage Immunities: Psychic
Condition Immunities: Frightened, Charmed
Senses: darkvision 120 ft., passive perception 17
Languages: undercommon, telepathy 120 ft.
Challenge: 10
Special:
Magic Resistance. The ilithor has advance on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.
Innate spellcasting (psionics): The ilithor’s innate spellcasting ability is intelligence (spell save DC 15). At will: detect thoughts, levitate, 1/day dominate monster, prismatic spray
Actions:
Multi-attack. The ilithor can make two attacks with its great sword.

Mind blast. The ilithor emits psychic energy in a 60 ft. cone. Each creature in that area must make succeed in a DC 15 Int Save or take 4d8+3 pyschic damage, and be stunned for 1 minute.
Great sword.  Melee weapon attack, 10 ft. reach, +9, 2d8 slashing +2d6 psychic damage.
Tentacles. Melee weapon attack: +9, 5 ft. reach, 2d10+4 psychic damage + grappled (escape DC 17), Int save 15,or be stunned until grapple ends.
Extract brain. Attack+9 One incapacitated humanoid grappled by the ilithor. Hit, the target takes 10d10 piercing damage. If this damage reduces the target to 0 hit points, the ilithor kills the target by extracting and devouring its brain.
Equipment/Treasure: psi carapace, mind blade greatsword

The Deserted Wizard – a D&D adventure

This is the first part of a three part recap of a D&D adventure. I also include some thoughts on design. 

The group decided – in the previous session – they wanted to explore the large ruined city that lies half a day’s march from their settlement. It is the first time they enter the ruins, and I wanted it to be memorable and give the players and characters a good sense of the danger and conflicts going on inside the ruins. The ruined city is also a centerpiece for the campaign – an almost irresistible adventuring fun-land – but it is de facto optional for the characters.

Design choices

The ruins is my own combination version of Myth Drannor and Parlainth, two city-ruin box sets that I have always enjoyed, and that I know tickles the imagination of players.

parlainth myth drannor
Two ruined city mega dungeons, but designed very differently. I don’t think I’ve used any RPG box set more than Parlainth. 

Like in the Parlainth box set (from Earthdawn) I’ve divided the ruins into a number of districts, and added a few key locations and a faction or two to each. By making a ‘purpose’ and framework for each district, it become easier to improvise, created random encounters and to describe each district in a distinctive way.

The characters already knew from a celestial they met in the Warrens, that he was unable to enter the ruins, and they know of a fey queen trapped inside, and the power of the ranger has told them that there are plenty of demons inside too.  So clearly, not everyone can move freely in and out, for some reason.

From a design perspective, the feature that some things can’t get out, means that there is a contained, mid to high level adventuring zone, close to their home base. The fact that it is contained means that the characters don’t feel forced to remove this danger close to their settlement immediately. On the other hand, it adds tension that they have to fear messing with whatever contains the monsters inside the ruins, as that would be a potential disaster for the entire region.

Inside the leaders of the various factions can be powerful allies and sources of information, particularly of the ancient history of the land. They can also be major plot movers, but they don’t have to be. Which is why it is optional. If the players chose to engage with one or more of them, the appropriate plots they are involved in can be affected.

Session 27 – setting the stage

I introduced an actual quest set out by the governor, which gave them an objective. The first wizard that came with the settlement, a diviner named Corbian de Juxa, had deserted from the settlement and went into the ruins with a group of soldiers, whom he had convinced to follow him. He believed someone important was trapped inside.

The group – which for this session only had four characters present – went to the ruins, and outside the walls encountered the elves, who guard against creatures coming out. They were warned by them, not to let anything dangerous out, but were also shown to the point where Corbian and his men entered the ruin – one of the broken towers in the wall surrounding the city.

Mezzoloth-5e
Mezzoloths are the regular soldiers of the Yugloth armies.

From the inside of the tower they can see a building that matches the description Corbian gave to the governor before he deserted, and they head for it.

In a ruined road, in what was a residential area with many 3 and 4 storied buildings, they are attacked, and the attackers open with a Cloud Kill. The attackers turn out to be three Mezoloths supported by a pack of armored hounds led by two hell hounds. They fight fiercely, but the fiends don’t fight to the death. All three Mezoloths teleport away when they go low on hit points, and the group manages to defeat the hounds.

However, they spent quite a lot of resources to do it. They therefore decided to have a short rest. At that point they get a second random encounter, which are two mind flayers with a pack of goblin slaves. They don’t see the hidden players, but the player on guard sees them searching the place where they fought the yugloths.

The mezzoloths were a fixed encounter, as I need them to set up a meeting in before they exit the ruins. The mind flayers were a random encounter, but worked well as foreshadowing. 

At the end of the session they reach the building they were heading for and try to enter through a balcony door, but the fighter, Arak, is hit with a disintegrate when he tampers with the door and barely survives.

Fiends, cloud kill spells and disintegrate traps and the rightly feared mind flayers sets the stage for the ruins, shows them that they’ve move up into a ‘new league’ and it foreshadows future encounters.

More on that in the next installment…

A Walk in the Woods (session 24-26)

After this update I will be only 2 sessions behind in having a synopsis of our game on this blog! I’ve been struggling simply to get prepared for each session, which means there has been no time for the blog. Unfortunately. So this is a bit of a long read.

The walk in the woods begins after the party defeated the second hag of a coven in her massive crystal tower.

When I began planning this part, I had to consider strongly how many game sessions I wanted this journey of hundreds of miles to last. There were many points of interest on the map, and the potential for a lot of encounters, but I didn’t want them to spend too much time on this part of the campaign, as it wouldn’t result in much resolution of any of the main plots. That said, the trip underscores my exploration theme, and it was their first big introduction to the wider world around the local area of their settlement. So I used the trip to expand upon the knowledge of the world and planted a few potential plot hooks and adventuring sites.

Session 24

The characters start their journey through the crystal forest south to the more regular vast woodlands where the settlement lies.

eva-widermann-tob-alseid-final-v2
The Alseid from Tome of Beasts, which I wrote about in my last post.

Inside the crystal forest, they find a Alseid (a sort of deer centaur from Tome of Beasts) infected by the crystal and ripped by a large creature. Some hours later they are attacked by four land sharks infected with the crystal. The characters defeat them with some luck.

A couple of days later they reach the regular forest, and they notice that the elf Sekhlas is a bit nervous by the whole thing.

At one point they rest in a small cave, and it turns out it has a sprite guardian, who gifts them with some sleeping poison, after a bit of mischief.

After a few more days of travelling they reach the area of the elven tribe, and they arrive at their camp one evening. They parlay and agree to let them visit the tribe. Here they are hospitably met and they establish good relations with their leader. He agrees to supply them with information and assistance in their journey in return for help with destroying a band of hobgoblin slavers that have entered the forest.

The group has already learned from the centaur they met that the hobgoblins live on the plains and are building a great city, so this is extra information for them.

Session 25

The group finds a good place to ambush the hobgoblins, which has a captain, more than 30 warriors, a few armored ogres, two low level clerics, and a warlock among them. But the advantageous location (based on great survival roll), and a couple of fireballs, ensures that the group has the encounter well under control.

The information they get is important. First of all they learn of a black dragon living in the ruins of a keep by a ruined bridge, and where its territory lies. They learn of the Land of Decay, which is full of fungi, and a goblin tribe in the area they have to pass through. They also learn of the elven tribe Two Tears, across the river, and how to contact them.

4e_black_dragon
They didn’t want the treasure of an adult black dragon. Perhaps wise, as it is CR 15, with some additions of my own…

The group deliberates and decide to sneak across the river as quickly as possible and move south. They avoid an encounter with the dragon, and obtain elven guides through the forest until they reach another big river, where they can see ruins on the other side and pillars of an ancient bridge.

The ruins on the other side are on a hill and desolate. It also looked like someone made a fortification inside the town by digging a deep trench and throwing up ramparts in a large circle. They enter this area and discover it is another fort, called Fort 27 (they already heard of Fort 25). They find two magical flags and a tunnel has been dug in the middle of the fort.

Down in the tunnel they discover rooms that were the site of intense combat with lots of bones, broken weapons and sign of spell damage. When they enter the central chamber, they are attacked by a Neothelid.

Session 26:
The full group of 7 level 7 characters deal swift death to the CR 13 Neothelid with 325 hitpoints. It doesn’t get a third round. It is a demonstration of the difficulty of balance with more than 4 players. A single monster needs multiple actions and the ability to counter player moves, if it is to survive. OR perhaps I should add 75% hitpoints for more balanced encounters? It was fun though, and had one player missed a save, they might have been in much greater trouble.

Beyond the Neothelid they locate an ancient war council chamber, with the bodies of two ancient commanders, their magic items, and three message stones with the following ‘voice recordings’.

Ascendant_runestone
The message stones look something like this, and can easily fit in a palm.
  • Commander, proceed north and delay hostile forces approaching Ivanith’Laril. Archmages are working to protect the Towers of the Stars, but they need time. Make sure they have it.
  • Commander, you will receive reinforcements. The 8th Legion is retreating towards your position. Secure the bridge at Serahin. The tirelessness of our allies should enable you to fortify the position against the horde and buy us more time. That, and King Wailmorr’s mercenaries, may be enough.
  • These are the last words of Commander Thelketh. Our position is almost overrun. Our allies’ efforts have ensured we have lasted this long. I never would have thought to end up owing them a debt. We saw the flash from Fort 25. Gods have mercy on them. The other forts must be overrun. Whoever finds this, please pray for my soul.

They conclude that the elves actually were allies with the undead Bones of Sarakhon. And that the Towers of the Stars are inside the ruined city close to the settlement (more on that next time…)

And all this ties in to the backstory of the world they are in. And a small pieces of the greater jigsaw puzzle. 

Ash_Spawn
The idea for Ash zombies were lifted from the Ash Spawn of the Skyrim expansion. 

On the final leg of the journey the enter an ashen plain, where nothing grows, and it turns out, the barrier to the elemental plane of fire has been worn thin. They cross it, and meet some Ash Zombies, and at the center find a very large crater, with a big fire elemental in the middle, surrounded by Ash Zombies and mephits, and in the heat haze they can glimpse into the elemental plane of fire. They decide not to approach the elemental and move on.

Beyond the ashen plains they travel through the woods and finally get back to their settlement. The final surprise is that the barmaid Lara is pregnant, and the young paladin Jarn has had a very close relationship with her.

A Monster Review: Volo’s Guide and Tome of Beasts

kobtob1001_500
You can find Tome of Beasts here: Kobold Press store

I recently acquired two monster books: Volo’s Guide to Monsters from Wizards of the Coast and Tome of Beasts from Kobold Press. The Tome of Beasts turned out to be the most expensive monster book I ever bought. It was sold out in my local game store, and they didn’t have any copies on Amazon, so I decided to buy it from Kobold Press in the U.S. When you included shipping, it was already pricey. Then they picked it up in customs, and added a fee. Then the tax man came and added his value-added tax of 25% to the customs fee (yes, crazy, I know). Ultimately, I paid more than 150 USD for Tome of Beasts and another 50, plus shipping, for Volo’s Guide. Was it worth it? So far, yes.

 

I – obviously! – haven’t read them cover to cover. Who does that with monster manuals? I’ve flipped through them several times and I’ve used monsters from both – and will use the fearsome Neothelid in my next session, and can see many more that I’m likely to use.

500 monsters

The two books are quite different. Volo’s Guide is not just a collection of monsters, but contains lore to a lot of the classical monsters (goblinoids, beholders, gnolls, giants, beholders etc.), several new playable races, 7 cool lair maps and a collection of around 100 monsters. Tome of Beasts has more than 400 monsters and some lore for each, with special Midgard lore in boxes for many of them. All of it in full color.

flind
The most dangerous gnoll – who are now all demon spawn. Get the book at Wizards: Wizard’s products

Both books have a lot of cool and useful monsters. My favorites include the gnoll variants and all the illithid creatures in Volo’s Guide, but there are many classics, like the Cave fisher or Tanarukks. In Tome of Beasts some of my favourites are the Clockwork creatures, Rotting Wind and Mordant Snare.

Tome of Beasts significantly expands the fey portfolio, which is useful for my campaign, and also has plenty of undead, which are almost always useful.

Ultimately, the monsters in Tome of Beasts are better suited for my home brew campaign, but I will be using the various beholders and illithids from Volo’s as well. Most of the lore in Volo’s isn’t useful in my current campaign, which also reduces its usefulness.

The negative – too low CR

One of the reasons I will by using more from the Tome of Beasts is the – to me – relatively low CR of most of the creatures. This touches the core issue for me with both books. Too many of the monsters that are likely to be the focus of a story or session, and mostly meant to be met as single creatures, are too low Challenge Rating. And there are not enough creatures which characters of mid to high level might meet in groups. One example is the Clockwork creatures. They range from CR ½ to 6. If am to use them with my group, which is already level 7-8, and has seven characters, I will need to buff them significantly.

ulitharid-5e
The not quite mighty enough Ulitharid… 

For the original Monster Manual it makes sense that the selection of creatures is skewed towards the lower CRs, but why make the Cave Fisher CR 3 with 58 hit points, or the very rare master mind Ulitharid CR 9?

But all in all, they are two great products with great value for years and years of D&D campaigns, which is good, given how much I ended up paying 🙂

Why should I especially buy Tome of Beasts?

  • If you just love having a ton of monsters
  • If you need a lot of Fey creatures
  • If you run a desert campaign
  • If you use a lot of undead
  • If you run the Midgard campaign setting from Kobold Press.

Why should I especially buy Volo’s Guide?

  • If you want more character races
  • If you use a lot of humanoids in your campaigns
  • If you like to have quick drop in content
  • If you want more lore for many of the classic D&D monsters
  • If you like beholders and mindflayers