About two years ago, my 10-year old son discovered Dungeons & Dragons. I started him and his friends in the old red box version (still the easiest to get into), then briefly into Castles & Crusades, and then into 5th edition where they completed Hoard of the Dragon Queen (an adventure I’d give a C+, but Sly Flourish does a much better job of explaining the good and the bad).
Or so I thought. What I had originally thought to be a 30-minute revision turned in several hours of heavy, plot-changing rebooting. The theme of my update was better adventures get smaller:
- A Smaller-scale, More Focused Opening. The original adventure had the PCs start the session in the mountains, just hours after a large clash between two armies. Lost and freezing, their first task was to find shelter fast. I decided this was too much of a cold, open-ended start for newer players (although ironically, I used the same opening in the Black Mine of Teihiihan – I swear not all of my adventures will start with the players lost and temperature-challenged!). I feared that newer players, with unfamiliar characters and an unknown world, might just end up staying lost in the wilderness. To fix this gap, I did two things. First, I started the PCs with a stronger objective. Before they got ambushed, they were out hunting a nefarious, murderous outlaw, Fat Farlsbag! Second, I shrunk the prior battle down. Rather than an epic clash of thousands, it was a now small skirmish between the bounty hunters and mountain orcs. I hoped the smaller scale meant that the players wouldn’t tarry long looking for survivors, looting bodies (a favorite of 10-year olds), or building defenses vs. another attack.
- A New (Far Less Ambitious) Villain. In the original adventure, the PCs stumble into the path of an evil mind flayer, who had an ambitious, barely-competent plan to destroy civilization with a giant golem. Reading this part ten years later made me wince a bit, for all the obvious reasons. So first, I decided to change the villain into something more unknowable, so I removed the face tentacles and made him I’Zor’zah the Azure, a blue, maybe-undead, maybe-unaging sorcerer who had a personal vendetta against the wizard cult he founded. This change meant that the PCs could more easily discover the villain’s history and motivations. A successful skill roll like History or Thaumatology roll enabled the PCs to recall this northern cult of fascist wizards, and their legendary infighting – which is far more interesting than stumbling across a brand new Big Bad, fresh from his lair, no history behind him. Also, this change made I’Zor’zah’s giant golem plot more believable. If you want to knock down the tower of your old buddies, a giant metal golem is conceivably, just the thing. Scoping this villain to have a smaller, more achievable goal gave the PCs more opportunity to have a debate on how to handle him.
- Escaping is a Physical Thing. As I reworked the adventure, I realized that I had unlocked additional emotionally-satisfying win conditions. Fat Farlsbag could be captured or killed! I’Zor’zah could be stopped… or ignored entirely because the PCs had just discovered a legendary dwarven mine. And with more loot to be found along the way, I knew newer players (especially 10-year old boys) might just claim all-out victory after having found a couple of magical axes. The original adventure funneled the players towards I’Zor’zah’s golem, but I wanted to give the players more strategic agency, and feel like surviving was just as satisfying as any of those other wins. I metaphorically shrunk the wilderness and added a familiar landmark, St. Bernard’s Peak, at the halfway point of the adventure. Now, when the players see this peak, they’ll know they can escape to civilization… whenever they choose. This single landmark becomes the physical representation of escape, and hands the players additional agency and interaction during the game. Once the peak is found, they can debate the value of escaping vs. tying up other loose ends.
Satisfied with my changes, I renamed the adventure to The Cold Bounty, and ran it for my son and his friends. They had a great time in the freezing mountains, and it was clear that the smaller scope helped. I embellished the dark crimes of Fat Farlsbag, so by the time they found him, they were pumped and ready for vengeance. Also, the kids appreciated the extra deadliness of GURPS (vs. D&D) after one of the cave yetis body-slammed and nearly killed one of their warriors — they immediately stopped the screaming full-frontal charges and became a highly-coordinated team. Suddenly, after seeing St. Bernard’s Peak, escape became a very good option.
You can download and give The Cold Bounty a try here:
If I were to run The Cold Bounty again, I’d make a few more tweaks. The most obvious is that I’d flesh out the lost mine at the end of the adventure. Fortunately, our group ran out of time, otherwise I would have been improvising a full-on dungeon.
I’d also plant some more clues about I’Zor’zah up front. Maybe an escaped slave, or a dead sorcerer, signals to the PCs that there’s an evil wizard on the loose in the area. While none of these suggestions are in the adventure above, I did prove that I can learn, and fixed one of the problems I saw with The Black Mine of Teihiihan– all the pregenerated characters in the adventure have intertwining backstories. Since my group created their own characters, if someone plays this version with these characters, let me know how it goes! Tweet me @SageThalcos
Related: Borrowing from the Past