Lessons Learned: The Design of “The Meeting at Deepnight”
Last week, in my blog post called “Lessons Learned: Four Years Designing 5e,” I talked about writing Defiance in Phlan, one of the first 5e adventures available to the public, and the first for the D&D Adventurers League. The design restrictions and mandates for that adventure made it one of the most challenging I have every written. It had to introduce a new edition of D&D, a new organized play campaign, be comprised on five 1-hour adventures, and be accessible to new DMs and players, among many other factors.
With that in mind, I want to spend the next several blog posts in this series looking at each of the mini-adventures, focusing specifically on design lessons: what was good, what was a necessary evil, what could have been better, and what other lessons can we take away from the design?
The Meeting at Deepnight
The first mini-adventure of Defiance in Phlan, and therefore the one that would get the most play, is “Mission 1: The Meeting at Deepnight.” In this adventure, the PCs are asked to play the roles of a shady merchant and that merchant’s posse. But before I get too deep into the evaluation of the adventure, I need to talk for a moment about using self-inflicted restrictions to focus writing and design.
One of the most difficult aspects of creative pursuits, and writing in particular, is the absolutely terrifying expansiveness of what could be written. With about 200,000 words in the English language, and with so many potential stories roaming around in a brain, the act of creating an RPG adventure can be overwhelming. One way to overcome the terrible whiteness of the blank page is to limit the potential output by providing yourself with different focii to write toward or scaffolding to write within.
Focus on Focus
For Defiance in Phlan, I used several of these focii to guide my writing. For example, I need to write five mini-adventures. As a part of the Tyranny of Dragons storyline, the adventures needed to be focused on dragons or draconic themes. There are five types of chromatic dragons: black, blue, green, red, and white. Right off the bat I had my first focus: each adventure would use one of those colors as a theme.
Also, Adventurers League characters could belong to one of five factions: the Harpers, the Zhentarim, the Emerald Enclave, the Lords’ Alliance, and the Order of the Gauntlet. I had my second focus: each adventure would tie to a faction in some way. Since another mandate of the adventure was to introduce the factions, this worked out perfectly.
Another design factor with encounters or short adventures is the three pillars of play: (social) interaction, exploration, and combat. Depending on how you turn the dials up or down on each of those aspects of the game, you can create very different experiences. So I would turn those knobs and try to highlight different pillars with each adventure.
As you can see, by piling on these focii–whether they are themes or motifs or more tangible elements of an adventure–I was limiting my range of design and providing aids to spark imagination. This not only provides the larger ideas and plots, but it can even provide a bellwether for the small details that go into adventure design.
In “The Meeting at Deepnight,” my focii were red dragons, the Harpers, social interaction, and the time of day was deepnight, or midnight in Forgotten Realms lingo. As I discuss the design of the adventure further, you will see these come up time and time again.
A Simple, Tricky Plot
For the overall plot of the adventure, I wanted something associated with the Harpers, who are the trickiest and most subtle faction of the bunch. So I wanted a plot that dealt with sneakiness and subterfuge. Combine sneakiness with social interaction, and you get deception. With that, I decided to make the plot call for the PCs to take on the roles of someone else, to fool some NPCs into giving them something. Bringing in the draconic angle, the item the PCs needed to retrieve was a red dragon egg.
At this point, I stopped to make sure, as the first adventure many new players to 5e or to D&D would be playing, I was making it a memorable experience. Since 5e was attempting to promote story and action over rules, I thought this would be a fine way to ease players into the experience of an RPG: rather than going heavy on combat or a deluge of rules, let’s give them the chance to roleplay. Roleplaying is something anyone with an imagination has done since they were infants.
Even roleplaying like this, however, can be intimidating. Asking someone to create a character and play it, as I have learned from 30+ years of teaching the game, isn’t always comfortable for them. So I tried to make it a little easier for new players. Yes, they are supposed to take on the persona of this new character they made, but in this adventure, they were going to pretend to be something a little more easy to imagine.
To Catch a Thief
The hook of the adventure presents a Harper agent with a problem. A shady merchant is supposed to meet some group with a red dragon egg: a potentially dangerous item. The Harper’s captured the merchant, who looks very similar to one of the PCs. So now everyone gets to take a role. One PCs plays the part of the shady merchant, while the rest of the PCs can play folks in the merchant’s circle: bodyguards, dragon egg experts, accountants, advisors, etc. The hope was that all players, regardless of experience with D&D or RPGs, could get into the action. And this is definitely a mission that captures the theme of the Harpers: intrigue rather than force.
The next design element I had to contend with was time. The problem with situations like the one I was creating is that players can take a long, long time trying to agree on a plan. I’m talking hours of real time just sitting around the table throwing out ideas, shooting each other down, failing to agree on a perfect plan. So with only an hour of real time to work with, the situation had to be dire and fast. So, in game, the meeting was scheduled to take place in just a few minutes. They adventurers needed to leave right then and there, and the Harper agent created the plan for them. They now only needed to execute it.
The plan was to pay for the egg with fake diamonds provided by the Harper agent. During the transaction, one of the PCs needed to attach a magical pin to one of the egg sellers–the leader if possible. Under no circumstances were the PCs supposed to attack the sellers; this needed to look like a real deal. The Harpers could then scry on the magical pin and learn everything about the seller’s operation. This focused the PCs’ goal and scope of possibilities. Go to the meet. Pretend to be the merchant. Plant the pin. Get away with the egg. No fighting.
The meeting was takes place in an abandoned barn on the outskirts of Phlan. The barn had a normal entrance, as well as a hidden one that the PCs could find to give them options if necessary. This was meant to reward players for looking around and asking questions, while showing new players the role of investigation in D&D: take the time to think about the situation and your surroundings, and you might get rewarded.
At the meeting, the egg seller is ready to make the deal, but then notices something strange about the PC impersonating the merchant. Although the seller and merchant never meant, she heard that the merchant had a strange birthmark, or a nervous tic, or something else of the DM’s choosing. This could create some memorable roleplaying, quick thinking, and in the long run a Deception check. And it could give the adventurers some chaos in order to plant the pin.
If all goes well, the sellers take the diamonds and leave the egg. If not, they try to flee, using the egg as a distraction. (It can be used as a flash grenade to blind people nearby momentarily.) Either way, the sellers leave as a separate group of thieves arrive to attempt to steal the egg. The egg is a fake, which very observant and knowledgeable adventurers could deduce. In that case, the PCs could avoid the fight by simply handing over the egg to the thieves and letting them leave. Or, if a fight was what they wanted, a fight is what they got.
Then it is back to the Harper agent, who rewards the adventurers and takes possession of the egg. Hopefully, a quick and easy encounter, playable in one hour, with all the aspects of D&D accounted for. In debriefing the PCs, the Harper also gives them a warning about dragons and dragon-related activity in the area. This sets the players up to look for more draconic imagery in further mini-adventures, hopefully boosting their enjoyment.
The monsters I used were all humans, particularly the bandit and the thug. These might now be considered boring foes, but back then they were still fresh, and the thug’s ability to attack twice (often with advantage) seemed terrifying to level-1 characters. He could generally take down a PC in a round but fell quickly after that, ramping up tension without being overly powerful.
One More Thing
One thing I wish I had done was to put a place in the adventure where the players could create part of the setting. Maybe ask one of the players to describe what’s on the walls of the abandoned barn, and then let the players use that to their advantage during the encounters.
This happened regardless at many tables I ran, where the PCs would use fire-based spells, and another would ask, “Is there anything flammable in the barn?” The answer is always yes. Always. Because the only thing better than a fight in an abandoned barn is a fight in an abandoned barn on fire.
In all, “The Meeting at Deepnight” holds up as a brief, and hopefully solid, introduction to the three pillars of D&D, with some fun elements while being playable in an hour. Next time I’ll take a look at the second mission, “The Screams at Dawn.”