Lessons Learned: The Design of “The Screams at Dawn”
The previous two blog articles in this series at the overall structure, and then the first mini-adventure, in the Adventurers League introductory adventure Defiance in Phlan for the Tyranny of Dragons storyline season. This week I am looking at the second mini-adventure entitled “The Screams at Dawn.” For those of you who do not want to witness self-flagellation, turn away now. This is my least favorite of all the missions in this adventure, and I feel like this is the one that really got away from me the most.
The plot of the mini-adventure has the adventurers traveling to a farmstead on the outskirts of Phlan to find farmers captured by goblins: a standard D&D trope for sure. After the heavy social interaction of the first mission, I wanted to highlight combat and exploration. In trying to capture that iconic and essential part of D&D, I tried to do a little too much.
Slow Right Hook
When you only have an hour for an adventure, you want the hook to be concise but evocative. My decision to start every mission in Madame Freona’s Tea Kettle meant having to get the characters quickly invested in and informed about the mission. In this case, the hook involved them hearing a woman outside the Tea Kettle sobbing and screaming for help. That’s powerful, and most players are quick to bite.
The problem is that once they get there, the meat of the adventure is still multiple steps away. They must calm the woman, hear her story, travel with her to her farm, take in the situation there, track the goblins back to their lair, and take in the situation there before the combat or exploration really starts. For DMs that aren’t hustling the players along, that by itself could require 30 minutes of a 60-minute slot, and we haven’t even got to the combat yet.
Sometimes Cool Things…
The steps between the opening and the entry into the cave contain some important play and information. We learn about the lack of integrity of the Black Fist guards by how they treat the distraught woman. This is done in character and is evocative, as well as introducing the corruption of the guards, which is an important part of the full season storyline. Players can get a good hate going by seeing this.
By tracking the goblins from the farm to their lair, new players learn about the importance of tracking in D&D, and about how there should be consequences to ever skill check. (Enemy goblins are removed or added based on how well the adventurers track them.) Outside the goblin lair, the adventurers get to eavesdrop on a conversation between a human and a goblin that tells them important information.
…Can Wait for Later
While all of this is good and important and vital to the adventure, it could have been handled differently, more quickly and efficiently, to leave more time for the infiltration of the goblin lair. “Show don’t tell” is an old canard of writing instructors. Better advice is “don’t both show and tell” or even better “show when it is better to show, and tell when it is better to tell.” In this particular case, with an hour-long adventure that tries to do a lot, I would have been better off telling more and trying to show less.
The goblin lair itself is another problematic element. For a very short adventure, a one-area lair would have been best. If done carefully, a two-area lair could work. Three areas would be too many. I put in four! Again, I was trying to show too much about the games awesomeness. Goblins are sneaky, so I needed guards. Put they are also lazy, so the guards are not particularly diligent. Goblins use traps, so I needed a trap. Goblins use pets to fight for them, so I needed a wolf. But I wanted to show that smart play can bypass certain threats, so I needed the wolf in a cage. Goblins often work for others, so I need a bugbear.
I think there was something in my head that told me if I was going to take the time to draw a map, I might as well draw a big, complex map. For a 2-hour experience, it would have been fine. I was able to run several playtests of the mission in 60 minutes or less, but the players were experienced, I was moving them along quickly, and the players did everything right. I should have seen that other DMs and other players would not be finishing in 60 minutes.
The one other thing I would change is this mission’s order in the adventure. Each mission gives 100xp, so after 3 mission the adventurers could become level 2. With the number of fights in this adventure, it would have been more appropriate for level 2 characters. Sure, a wizard with a couple of sleep spells could breeze through this adventure, but that is true of many low-level 5e adventures.
So there you go. What seemed like a really solid 60-minute adventure at the time, in retrospect, could have been handled much better. I tried to learn that lesson as I wrote intro adventures for subsequent seasons. Sometimes skipping the hook is preferable to trying to explain too much. Count on the DMs to know how to get their groups into a game.