Lessons Learned: The Design of “The Dead at Highsun”
In this series of blog articles, I have so far looked at the design of the Adventurers League Season 1 introductory adventure Defiance in Phlan, including the first two mini-adventures: “The Meeting at Deepnight” and “The Screams at Dawn.” Today I want to take a closer look at the third mini-adventure, “The Dead at Highsun.”
In the overall structure of the adventure, I wish I had placed this one second instead of third. In hindsight, this one better captures the overall essence of fifth edition D&D than the second: it includes a secret crypt, undead creatures, a trapped room, alchemical experimentation, and a more complicated combat.
I’ve talked in previous articles about the importance of patterns in the creative process. By the time they reach the third mission, players and DMs should start recognizing and anticipating the patterns based on the first two. These patterns are useful not only for flavor, but they can also play an important role in the game as well. For example, in the opening boxed text of the first two missions, the players might have noted the first two of Madame Freona’s daughters had different colored hair: red and black. When they meet the third daughter, Grelinda, they learn she has greenish hair. Observant players are now clued in to the fact that a green dragon, and things associated with green dragons, might be important in this adventure.
The plot of the mission sees a priest of Kelemvor, the god of the dead, asking the adventurers for assistance in checking a crypt. He is following up on rumors that one of the people interred in the Valhingen Graveyard of Phlan might have really been a green dragon in disguise. None of the other priests are willing to help him in his investigation, so he seeks help from adventurers “just in case.” The quick introduction is meant to perform the dual duty of setting up the plot of the mission and giving important information about Phlan (specifically, the prominence of the graveyard).
The opening of the coffin in the crypt reveals an assortment of dragon bones and five tiny gems, one for each type of chromatic dragon. The gems are needed to solve the puzzle and escape the trap, once it is sprung.
Puzzles, riddles, and similar elements are controversial in D&D. Some people love them, others hate them, and often there is not a lot of room in between, even if the puzzle is brilliant. And when they are less than brilliant, they can really bring a good game to a grinding halt. In this mission, I wanted to introduce the concept of puzzles in D&D without risking too much open revolt from players.
The first consideration was speed of play. One flaw in some puzzle encounters is the lack of a time limit. Players mull everything over, often coming up with a correct answer as a group but then talking themselves out of it because there is no urgency. I tried to avoid that by tying the puzzle to a trap. The crypt locks, and the players have only moments to figure a way out as poisonous gas floods the room (like green dragon breath, right!?).
The second rule of puzzles that don’t anger players is this: don’t hide the puzzle pieces. For die-hard puzzle solvers, part of the fun is figuring out how the puzzle works before solving it. But D&D players are not necessarily die-hard puzzle solvers.
Not being able to solve a puzzle is frustrating. Not even understanding the components of the puzzle can be doubly so. In this case, the rules of the puzzle are made clear. You have five tiny gems, and five slots on the wall where they can be place, corresponding with five paintings. This is really a very simple puzzle, but if you want players to enjoy harder ones, first give them some easy ones to get in the groove.
Another rule of puzzles is to find a way to give clues if players are stumped. Tie the clues to Intelligence checks, or some other information that the characters would or might know. This helps walk the line between player knowledge and character knowledge.
A final rule of puzzles to keep in mind is that there should be graduated consequences for failures. In other words, puzzles should not have a simple pass/fail condition. Groups that get the puzzle quickly should be rewarded for their success, groups that stumble only slightly might move on with only mild consequences, and groups to completely bork up the puzzle should still be able to continue with the story, even if the consequences are severe for their characters.
A Bone to Pick
The first combat of the mission comes when the adventurers find the secret panel in the bottom of the coffin, leading down into an underground complex. They first come upon three skeletons guarding the passage. Skeletons are a great low-level monster for new players: they have enough hit points to stay in the fight for a couple of rounds, they hit hard enough to be a threat, and they introduce the concept of damage vulnerability: when a character does bludgeoning damage, I play up the smashed bones. I sometimes even give them resistance to piercing weapons (if I know the party can handle them easily) to get the players thinking more in terms of what their characters are experiencing).
A secret panel in a throne near the skeleton fight introduces characters to another staple of D&D: trapped treasure containers. Simple and straightforward is the best place to start. Notice the trap, disarm the trap, and get the treasure. Failure means taking some damage before getting the treasure.
Paying the Stupid Tax
The next encounter is pure exploration. In a laboratory, the characters find alchemical equipment, lots of strange reagents, and a note instructing some unknown person how to mix them together but NOT TO DRINK THE RESULTING POTION. Checks tell the players that the ingredients are necromantic in nature, and that mixing them together would like created a strong and dangerous compound.
If they mix it, the resulting vapor reanimates the skeletons they just defeated. If they drink it and fail a Constitution saving throw, they take enough damage that 1st level characters likely die outright. Some people think this is harsh. They are right!
Instigators vs. Consequences
There is a type of players commonly referred to an “the instigator.” (As a player, I am a total instigator. My characters die all the time, and I am OK with that.) If there is a button, the instigator pushes it. If the sign above the button says “Do Not Push,” they push it twice. With the instigator, no lever goes unpulled, no potion undrunk, no strange phenomenon uninvestigated.
Instigators can be the greatest blessing to a game, because cool things that would be otherwise missed can be found. Instigators can be a terrible curse to a game, because actions must have consequences to make the game and the story it is telling mean something.
It is important for instigators to understand that instigating can be great, but look for clues first. Looking before you leap doesn’t mean you can’t leap, but maybe you can stop from leaping that one time when it is clear leaping is a bad idea.
A Combat (But MORE!)
The final encounter is a combat. While there is nothing wrong with a simple combat, I prefer to try to give every combat at least one cool thing. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but it should be something that possibly makes the characters (and players) come at the encounter from a different perspective. In this case, zombies rise up to attack the characters, but simply beating on them is a less sound tactic than understanding the runes on the walls that are powering them. Simply deactivating the runes, through magic, ability checks, or physical harm, depowers the zombies.
While 1st level characters can be squishy and not have all the power they do at higher levels, it is still possible to give the players a full experience in a short amount of time. Next time I will look at the most controversial of all the missions in this adventure: “A Shock at Evenfeast.”