Review: HS2 "Orcs of Stonefang Pass"

What if you slew a level 16 earth Titan and nobody cared?" I was expecting an adventure about slaying orcs, and was initially very excited about this module. The adventure really ran it of steam after the first two sessions and the rest was a bore. This is already starting to be a rant but I feel it's almost a public service at this point.

This letdown was particularly acute because HS1 athe Slaying Stone was so excellent. HS2 was just puzzling. Not only is it completely linear but unnecessarily long. Everything it brought to the table was over with in the first 4 hours, the rest felt like bookkeeping. I had believed that the "HS" were do-overs of H1 and H2 and by the Ed of the adventure I was left pining for Thunderspire Labyrinth.

The first 2 sessions have a rough fight against some hippogriffs and crazy water shooting fish with a bridge and waterfall. There are some great moments exploring the pass and discovering its history. Then earthquakes and jumping spiders. And then a gatehouse with traps and a mechanism. This was the high point of the module and every thing after that was unfortunately down hill.

There are orcs. And then orcs, and then orcs. And not only were these orcs the same stat block and abilities as all other orcs, but the same Orc scenario was run an least 3 times with the same monsters - the players seemed to wonder what was going on.

I would definitely recommend the module's first half, everything else requires a lot of fixing.

Side Quests Are Lazy. There, I said it.

The side quest is a venerable RPG staple. It's an excursion off the main plot that is supposed to provide an opportunity for players to dig deeper into a story, or investigate something interesting. Side quests and side encounters are provided in published modules to give the DM some flexibility in running an adventure where more encounters might be desirable. 20111107-214343.jpg

For a home game, a discerning DM should strive for a little bit more.

D&D is a game about heroic adventure. The players should be in a story where they play the roles of powerful heroes who face great danger and save the day. Every challenge presented by the adventure should reinforce this. "Traditional" side quests don't pass this test, because they often fall into a few different variations of the fetch quest and by their design are intended to be optional. Optional isn't heroic. Fetching isn't fantasy. Running an errand isn't an adventure.

It's a cliche, but "getting more than you bargained for" is pretty much the very definition of adventure. Luring the players in with the promise of dealing with a troublesome enemy, sought-after loot, or quirky character interaction is standard fare. After the appetizer that is the "main" mission of the side-trek, you can spring a surprise or complication that ties into main objectives. Players really like "discovering" secret motivations and hidden enemies. Springing complications on them allows them to make meaningful choices and take ownership of the story.

Here are a couple of side quest complications that pass the heroic storytelling test and keep your game on track

The simple mission that goes wrong: Players are heroes who can vanquish just about any enemy and overcome just about any obstacle. They're used to winning. A fun twist on the standard side mission is when the objective is missing or ends up being more trouble than it's worth. Maybe a setup, maybe a mistake, maybe someone else got there first. Whether the party talks their way out, fights their way out, or sneaks their way around, getting out of trouble can introduce hooks to the next main quest - the players will feel like they had quite an impact on the world wh

A rescue that turns into an escort mission Players who make the "side-trek" to rescue innocents from peril instinctively form a connection to them. Maybe a caravan's armed guard was killed in an attack, or the ranger broke his leg and needs to be taken back to his outpost. If you have the rescued npcs "on their way" to a player objective, you have all the benefits of a palate-cleansing side quest without causing your story to grind to a halt. New companions are always a good investment for a discerning DM - they always pay off later!

The Loot That Should Not Be Players love loot. Hoo-boy do they ever. So what if they find something Terrible in the basement where they're cleaning out the rats? Maybe something that leads them right into your Main Plot? Yes. Yes indeed.

"You break it, you buy it" If you have players who like to kick doors down and roll initiative, adding consequences to these actions and sticking to them will not only bring about interesting roleplaying and plot opportunities, but will also up the stakes for future situations down the road. Players love when their PC's actions change the game world - that's what interactive storytelling is all about. Let those chickens come home to roost! Have the constable come down to the Battered Scabbard after the bar brawl. Better yet, have the Evil Constable come down. You know, the one who is involved in your main plot?

Making the game exciting and fun for your players doesn't have to be this huge mega plot with railroad tracks. You can do side quests to show variety, but at the same time hook them in for more. They'll feel powerful and clever, and come back for more. Isn't that the whole point?

And nobody had to fetch anything.

Choosing Your Paragon Path is an Adventure!

The journey of all epic tales truly begins when the hero is taken out of his comfort zone and must go into the underworld or some place of terrible danger to face his destiny. When he returns, he has been reborn into his new life, with the sword, or the princess, or the secret knowledge. In the case of 4e D&D, characters entering Paragon tier are literally transformed, as they gain new powers and traits which heavily theme their characters. The characters will never be the same.

My home campaign, Days of High Adventure (Obsidian Portal Link), has just hit party level 8, and the players' attention is starting to move towards Paragon Tier. I've decided to do levels 8, 9 and 10 as a series of larger, epic fantasy adventures, each featuring a specific member of the party, that will explore how each character comes to choose their paragon path. My players have obliged me by telling me their chosen path, and we're going to have fun getting there!

I'll be sharing my plot breakdowns, including encounters, sessions and pacing, after the adventures run so as not to spoil it for my players. However, there are a couple of design goals I have for Paragon Path adventures that could be useful for any discerning DM.

A fantastic setting: The Paragon Quest should take place in a fantasy setting which is like a big, glorious, burning neon sign in the sky that says ADVENTURE. There should be setpieces that tell your players that something IMPORTANT is happening.

The characters beliefs are challenged: Why did player choose the Paragon Path they did? What benefits do they gain? What liabilities do they incur? The adventure should explore exactly what the change means to the character and dramatize every element. The decision should feel momentous. The character needs to make a real decision to press forward with their path - once the adventure is over, they own it!

The quester should shine: This adventure ends with one character choosing their path, it should also be a showcase for their abilities. Giants for your defenders to lock down, minions for your controller to blow up, skirmishers and artillery for your strikers to stab, undead and rival leaders for your leaders to deal with. Out of combat, your quester's decisions are front and center.

The other heroes have key roles: Everyone in the party should be invested. By the end of the adventure, there should be a feeling of great purpose, and relief. The quester never would have been able to reach their goal without the help of their friends. This can be a mechanical point or a story point.

The stakes for Paragon tier are laid out: Paragon adventures deal with the work of whole tribes or nations. Paragons are sought out for their strength, wisdom and leadership. What sort of work will the quester be "signed up" for when they accept this path? Layout some hooks for future developments and opportunities to foreshadow conflicts and even possible epic destinies.