So, Tides of Dread is a sandbox but a pretty linear sandbox that relies on the party carrying the bat idol around on them. The adventure does its best to have the party encounter the episodes in the order they are printed in the book.
The party needs tar to fix the Sea Wyvern and bolster defenses in Farshore. The Olmans know where the tar pit is, but need the bat idol to solve the bat god problem before they will reveal the information. Once they go to the tar pit they fight the giant T-Rex, meet up with the Phanatons, probably follow them to their village, get told about the Rakasta temple, go there, then head back to fix the Sea Wyvern. Especially if the party has teleport, the listed encounters only take about 2 weeks to 100% complete, which leaves a lot of time for the sandbox type stuff. Be prepared to fill in a lot of time.
The flow of the story just gets a bit messed up if the party doesn't happen to have easy access to the bat idol. In my campaign, the party buried all the treasure at the beginning of HTBM near their wrecked ship (Tavey got really excited about drawing a treasure map). So they didn't have the bat idol on them when they first encountered the bat god problem. This required an awkward teleport to the wrecked ship, fight with the kopru, and teleport back.
Finally, make sure you have figured out pronunciations for all the Olman words ahead of time. They can be difficult to do on the fly.
Agreed the Bat Idol can be a problem. It's assumed some form of greed will keep players from parting with it early (combined with no available buyers), so I had it radiate minor artifact magic with unknown properties, which isn't far fetched.
- In 5E, teleport has no range limitations, so a party with a wizard could teleport back and forth to Sasserine. If under that edition, be very aware they could teleport back, sell the Idol or even hire mercenaries, teleporting a small group back each day. In two months, you've got a large group, so I'd treat it like advanced militia reinforcements, maybe 50VP a group, max 4.
Teleport can potentially cause a whole bunch of problems. In 3.5 the range limitation is such that the wizard has to devote her entire day's slate of 5th level spells to teleporting back to Sasserine, but it's still doable with stopovers in Renkrue and Tamoachan.
My party, for whatever reason, was not interested in teleporting back and using portable holes to transport trade goods or to hire mercenaries. So that was nice. They basically made a trip back at the end of Tides of Dread to go shopping and that was about it.
The adventures are pretty good at giving out useful magical items as treasure and not too much cash that needs a store in order to use. I would highly recommend tailoring the magical items carried by the bad guys to be useful to the party.
The timing is the real issue. If you have Lefty the Pirate give the impression (as he is supposed to) that "The Crimson Fleet will be here in 2 months or exactly 60 days," the party can get into "spreadsheet mode" where they plan out precisely what they will do every day for those 60 days and what to do with the work crews. Depending on your idea of fun, this might not be the best. OTOH, if you get more vague about the arrival time of the fleet, the party may be less inclined to explore the island for exploration's sake because they may be away when the fleet shows up.
Also, read up on grappling rules. This adventure has a bunch of monsters with improved grab and swallow whole.
Our Session #15, Farshore and The Isle
- Tides of Dread is immensely sandbox. There's a TON to do, and not a lot of time to do it.
- Maybe I missed it, but did the attackers on Farshore leave their ship or scuttle it? Borrowing from other campaigns, I had Lefty describe the demon man (who is Vanthus) coming on their ship at Scuttlecove, saying he knew what they'd done (they mutinied and keelhauled their captain to get more loot), and mind controlled several to nail 3 of their fellows to each of the masts. He then told them redemption awaited if they could leave now (with inadequate supplies) and scout Farshore. Slipknot Pete speaks to the air and Lefty laments he is the only one who wasn't crazy, and he did what he needed to survive.
- When the party took prisoners, I had the other pirates nod into the air and launch suicide attacks against their captors. I had Vanthus (or his agent) scrying on Lavinia or Slipknot, etc., and sending a compulsion because, well, it amused him.
- You'll want the charts to back Lefty up, assume some pirate carried them if the ship was scuttled. If the ship isn't scuttled, be prepared to answer how it fits into the defense of the town.
- I revealed the Victory Points scheme early on after the party visited a few areas. Morale is just as important as walls, and the VP is a relative way of explaining what will help. I am not telling them how many VPs matter but rather say if Farshore gets attacked, the more VPs the more suited it is to defend itself.
- I didn't at first (but still may) make a visual for the major players in Farshore, but recommend. Like SWW, use a word table with thumbnail pic (using either art from the online supplements or something off the net). There's too many NPCs to otherwise deal with and remember.
- I used 4 minis to reflect the work crew. My players protested the notion they'd need to be around to supervise digging a moat, etc., but I explained the 2 hours per day reflected the inevitable gripes, concerns, screw ups, and so on. Without a trusted military mind, everyone would be reduced to squabbling.
- If you followed my SWW (detailed crew), then some of the NPCs on the SWW might have survived other than the ones per the AP. If so, they might automatically assist in an area (e.g. a dwarf expected to maximize the mines or an herbalist). In retrospect, I would have made about 1/4 of the SWW crew useful to an area that can improve Farshore. If that person makes it, they can assign him/her to the task. If they didn't, it makes their death that much more meaningful.
Do the above and you've beautifully linked together 3 adventures and made the NPCs survival (both shipwreck and isle) substantially meaningful.
- I'd consider buffing up the legendary creatures of this isle. They're legends for a reason and a fight with them should be epic. For example, I made the T-Rex a two-headed mutant and gave it (in 5th) legendary abilities (2 auto saves per day, but really anything you like) as well as a ton of hit points. I also had the phanatons contribute to the battle at the rate of 1hp damage per survivor (I assumed 7 would fight, so 7 hp per round). If the party doesn't immediately help, the phanatons get wiped fairly quickly.
- Our party doesn't speak Olman, so they couldn't communicate with the Phanaton. Doh. Guess Tongues and other things are useful. They've contemplated hiring an Olman native.
- Distances on the Isle aren't really that well detailed. I'd make sure in advance you set the # of days between areas by foot, etc. (e.g. village of Tanaroa to the Fangs). In this module, time is of the essence.
- Don't forget to hype up the Jade Ravens and be ready to address what happens if they get sent to handle something beyond their abilities. I'm thinking the Sea Wyvern wreck. I'm not sure they could handle it. There is no assigned formula, so you might want to mark (on any side adventure) with a symbol of whether the Ravens can handle it, whether they handle it but suffer a casualty, or whether they are wiped. Remember, every Jade Raven lost is a loss of VPs in the end. Don't tip the party off, but let them know the price can be high sometimes.
- In conclusion, this part of the path is amazing. Open ended, a ticking clock, lots to do to improve the town and so little time...
Had some real life breaks, which afforded me the chance to read ahead into the "Lightless Depths." I like the city, like the backstory, like the horrific thought of the ocean racing through tunnels, and like the alien nature created by the writers, but execution stinks. It's just a straight line, face five encounters, visit the village to rest, and face the finale.
Anyone with thoughts about improvement, substitutions? Can I merge this with something else?
Yeah, the execution of this module is pretty bad but there are some great ideas that can be brought out if you polish the encounters a little.
First of all, the travelling encounters are uniformly awful. The Elder Black Pudding encounter is a potential TPK if the party doesn’t have knowledge of that particular ooze’s strengths and weaknesses. The roper is basically a pinata. The rhagodessas are fun to see again, especially if the one in TINH kicked the crap out of one of the party members. But none of those encounters are particularly good. On the other hand, having the party just wander through the underdark for several days and encountering nothing is pretty boring. So you’ve got to do some work here. The random encounter table is good, so you can roll on that before the game and create your own underdark encounters.
There’s a lot of potential for roleplaying in the module that you can bring out. The encounter with the dragon turtle is great as written and helps to get the party used to the idea that sometimes they will need to negotiate with and placate evil creatures that are stronger than them. This dynamic forms the crux of the Abyssal part of the campaign.
The troglodytes are CR4. They are not meant to be a credible threat to the party. In my campaign, I really emphasized their pathetic-ness. I tried to make the party feel bad for killing them. They are unmistakably evil, having converted to Demogorgon worship, but it should be a sad kind of evil. They basically can’t move and so can’t prevent the party from slaughtering them. But you should describe their raspy breaths turning into screams as the players murder them. So, like a turtle on its back, but a turtle that’s cursing them the entire time, promising that Demogorgon is going to feast on their entrails. If you make it clear the party is murdering the troglodytes and not just defeating enemies in combat, you can get some interesting ethical dilemmas. For example, one of the troglodytes in the initial fight with the dimetrodon is overcome with hacking coughs during its move action, lowering its guard and provoking attacks of opportunity. Do the players take it?
Likewise Irgzid is really fun to play. He can come off a little Gollum-y so be warned not to go in that direction. I made him pretty intelligent. While he’s obviously repulsed by the Demogorgon worship and the disease fetish, he’s not Good in the D&D sense. However, I had him be able to bat back criticisms from the PCs - “Of course we deal in slaves - You pink-skins take all the best land for yourself, declare us monsters and send people into the swamps to kill us.” He wants to turn his community from the demon worshipping that they are doing now to being regular troglodyte evil. And he wants to make the PCs okay with this.
While the module is linear, the tunnels are not. The PCs should need some kind of guide, which Irgzid provides. They can technically find a way to Golismorga using divination spells, but they lose NPC information. One of the big issues with this module is that there’s a lot of information about the setting and the conflict presented to you the DM but no real good mechanism for relaying that information to the party. The plot relies on the kopru discussing their plans openly in front of N’glothnoru, who then relates part of it to Irgzid and the PCs. It’s… not great.
Anyway, that takes you through to Barbas.
Our Session #16 - Farshore battle prep
- The players wondered why they're having to supervise defense projects and so on. Well, they can build watchtowers, but they weren't expecting siege or major battle. And, they need someone those 2 hrs/day to handle complaints, disputes, and coordinate labor.
- My players got the tasks done much quicker than I thought
- In retrospect, I'd measure out distance and days (e.g. travel time between the Fangs and Tar pits, etc.)
- I also backtracked from my earlier rec of showing the VPs in advance. I'll show them after the adventure is over if they ask. I think it detracts from the roleplay too much to quantify battle prep.
- For the coautl, it insisted on Detect Thoughts (ESP, etc.) up front (because it fears the party are skinwalkers). A great chance at roleplay here if you want to flesh out his role. My players tried to talk him into fighting with them, but his need for atonement outweighed their words. Still, because they asked and with good cause, he gave up the feathers, useful later when the party gets high enough to cast Planar Ally.
- As posted by many others, the Crimson Fleet could, in theory, be blasted from a distance by player spell casters. Here's a few reasons why that won't work well: (1) ships aren't made of tinderwood, they don't light up from an instantaneous fireball, (2) as such, they'll run out of fireballs, absent a wand, before any ship takes serious damage; or (3) you've got the ships coming in a magical mist/storm, which I did. Once they were in position, the mist rolled ahead and dissipated. The reason they're prepared is because I've had Vanthus Scrying on Lavinia, so he has a pretty good idea of their plans; or (4) you can have a spellcaster on the enemy fleet whose sole job is counterspelling.
- Troubleshooting during the final attack: my players split up. I've explained in mass battle, there will be "hot spots" where they could make a difference. Depending on their preparations, the town will resist or fall, even if the party puts up an amazing fight. (in 5th, large groups of low level pirates can be fatal even to high level parties since armor class is capped).
- So, we have one player swimming near the enemy ships, one on each new watch tower, and one at the docks.
- My solution: just let it be. When one player tries to take on 4 golems, s/he will probably have to flee.
- I converted Vanthus into a hybrid fiend/death knight (with reduced powers). It's bound to be a fun reunion....they HATE him. I've borrowed from V's campaign website the Vanthus journal he and his sister kept and chopped it down a few pages. For those who haven't seen it, it details a variant background in which Vanthus came to the isle with his parents, got left (to broaden his horizons), and made plans to kill his uncle to take his book of magic. It also hints he's got an obsession with Lavinia, a really weird one. Good stuff.
We stopped just before the action, so we'll see how things play out.
Travel distances are an awkward thing that you'd think they would print somewhere in the module. But yeah, the plot encounters go really, really quickly.
I imagine that warships in the D&D world are pretty well equipped for spell combat. Sure you can fireball a merchant vessel into oblivion, but the Crimson Fleet have spellcasters on their payroll. They know how that trick works and presumably have something prepared against it. When a PC wizard gets fireballed, somehow he doesn't emerge naked and hairless even though the fireball should burn off a good deal of his hair and clothes. I think it works the same way with people who are prepared for ship combat. One third level spell should not sink a ship or melt its rigging.
Splitting up is an issue, since D&D envisions the party working as a 4 man band. There may be enough NPCs to help out the split party members but... that will be pretty rough. The Yuan-Ti sorcerer has 5 Eneveration spells with a +11 Ranged Touch. He can really easily take out a single party member (my party's wizard flew out to fight him and got a face full of Enervation, rendering her essentially useless for the rest of the fight). Similarly I don't know how the party could stop the Vrocks unless they are grouped. Good luck to them though.
Also Vanthus as written has a +3 Will save, which is laughable.
Our Session #17, Farshore battle
We had a short session due to real life, which allowed us to finish up the Farshore battles.
- this plays a lot like the intro adventure. There's hot spots all over town. I recommend a very specific timeline (like the intro). For example, at round 2 a band of pirates attacks the infirmary, at round 4 another hits the chapel where the children are, at round 6 another group scales the walls and goes after the archers, and at round 8 another catches a Jade Raven or other important NPC. Depending on any pre-battle prep, you can work out a system (e.g. every round a 20% chance the pirates make it into the infirmary, at which point they kill 1d4 people, and play up the screams and horror). You get the point, and I'd have at least 1 of the pirate attacks, if not more, have the potential to reduce VPs (e.g. killing a Jade Raven).
- At round 10, you might have the flesh golems emerge from the water and begin tearing down a fortification (e.g. watchtower). Assume in 5 rounds they've rendered it useless and reduce the overall VPs. You know your group best, so adjust accordingly.
- In 5E, casters can get a "counterspell," which is nastiness for players. I had the yuan-ti caster use 4 fireball scrolls and save his true casting till those ran out (fireball wands hold far less charges and are very powerful to have in 5th). He used counterspell to stymie our swimmer's hit and run tactics (she could have thrown 1st level spells at him to make him waste his spells, but her allies needed help). She had the last laugh as (with water breathing), she ducked below the waves and cast dimension door, leaving them searching for her. It's a "who knows what will happen" scenario.
- I saved the vrocks until the golems were destroyed. (In 5E they don't get teleport, so I gave it to them as a once per day boon from a demon lord for a job well done some time in the past...I also gave them the dance of ruin because that's classic). They sat atop the chapel and began their dance, then flew to another building to start anew, caring little whether they hit friend or foe. Since all 3 failed to summon another - bad dice - that battle didn't last long.
- Vanthus as a budding hybrid death knight wasn't bad. I played him as foolishly arrogant, confident in his new form's power, showing up 1d4 rounds after the vrocks were dead. By the time he shows up, your players are likely low on spells and daily powers. Despite flight, he isn't a ranged attacker, and a few taunts later he was on the ground mouthing off about his sister being a whore and his "scrying" on her. (In the module, he's pretty weak, and that's purposeful as the party has exhausted a lot of resources likely to this point). He revealed her feelings for a PC "mongrel dog half orc." Your bad guys should always do some dialog in battle. And your PCs should mouth back. If you're not good on the fly, I'd have some dialog made up, maybe 4-5 sayings. After all, he's the end guy here, make it memorable even if the party stomps all over him. Finally, I had him use his mass suggestion to go fight elsewhere (but in 5th, it's a concentration spell, and you can only have one of those at once. He dropped it later for a different concentration spell since only 1 PC failed the save). In retrospect, I would have suggested a "fight me like a man, fists up" so at least no one was "out of the fight" and bored.
- Finally, he did try dropping the Shadow Pearl on my players. We had one player mounted on his Goat of Terror and another on the ground who both made a flying leap for it. Both had to make a (5th edition Acrobatics, aka Dex) check. I liked this. Sometimes a D&D game comes down to the results of a single roll. We've had it before. We've had those memorable epic moments where it's the last PC versus the last bad guy, and both are on fumes. Whoever hits next wins, and the DM is rolling in full view... As a "whew" moment, one of them caught it. If they'd failed, we joked visualizing one PC leaping from the giant goat and another at the pearl and both bonking heads together.
- Finally, I'd also script some background descriptions based on the party's preparations. If they greased the walls, describe a surprise band of overland pirates who try to scale them. And so on. Just a short line will do as filler between battles.
- This was a really climactic moment in the path. I'm worried the next adventures will be a letdown in drama, but we'll see. They might just want a good old fashioned dungeon crawl for a change of pace.
Our Session #18, Emraag +
- In retrospect, I would have subtly worked in more tactical discussion about handling Emraag, played up his legendary status. That way, the party would be less likely to botch things by suggesting Emraag needed "charity" or a "bribe."
- Also chop Lavinia's speech up. It's got all the info you need, but don't read it in one big glob. Work it into supper, a discussion over the party's adventures, the funeral of Vanthus, whatever you can naturally work in.
- I glossed over the sea travel. At 3rd level, sea terrors can be an issue. But at 10 or 11th? I threw in some exotic text (e.g. a roc flyover), but I glossed over any hardship and said the party has come a long way. Plus, sea travel is really boring. An event a day is unrealistic.
- My players, not intentionally, pissed off Emraag immediately by saying all the wrong stuff for his ego. I ruled his demeanor (e.g. hostile) would determine how long the party had to say something to sooth his rage. In this instance, they could tell he was going to submerge and had 6 seconds to blurt something out. Had they been more tactful, maybe they'd have longer, he'd be more inclined to listen. Hence the above planning.
- For 5E, our battle came down to one magic item, obtained very early on around 1st or 2nd level, a ring of swimming. After the battle, it become VERY clear absent this item, it would have been a party wipe. In 5E, it allowed uninhibited battle movement in the water, a crucial requirement for our party which has 3 melee based characters. Anyways, very classic D&D for a battle to turn on something that many would have tried to trade as trinket trash.
- So they killed Emraag and I had to make up a hoard. In 5E, there's random tables, and of course you can't have a legendary battle with a centuries old creature result in random crap loot like a few potions of healing. Totally randomly rolled, my players ended up with a Wish scroll. Yeah, I may lose control of things as a DM, but it was worth it seeing their faces light up after winning a really stacked battle. Very old school, AD&D, where a lucky roll could drop something really nice in your lap.
- It took my players aback to see how pathetically weak the troglodyte guards were. That's good. Not everything should be an epic battle, evenly matched in levels. So they just charmed them. This has led me to an interesting dilemma, how far a charm will take you when religious belief comes into play. Good thing is a charmed being will probably tell you what's bothering them and maybe a way to work around it.
Our Sessions #19-20, to Golismorga
- The trip to Golismorga is not the most impressive piece of literature, but the encounters were fairly unique. Be ready if the party doesn't gain any troglodyte help, including Irgzid.
- Spells aside (e.g. speak with dead), if they don't use Irgzid, maybe the troglodtyes mark their path with special symbols, and the party can notice those to find the path.
- Golismorga is pretty awesome. One of the more impressive places I've run, with alien buildings (having a building throw itself atop a purple worm to trap it and slowly digest it is just crazy). There isn't really a safe spot to rest, but I let them make some checks to find a wheezing building with a bad lung. Using blankets on the floor to avoid mild digestion, they rested safely.
- Read ahead to consider what the city does if it finds the bodies of slain patrol, or if a fireball/flamestrike might stand out in a city only 1/2 mile around.
- Our party wiped but in epic fashion and saving the day (in the obituary section). You might consider an option where destroying the Tear is just as good an alternative as combat.
- The Bilewretch can be a terror with hit and run tactics and reach. If played right, this thing is a pain. But it's not too bright, so don't overdo it.
- No need to change much. There's plenty of interesting pre-fabricated side encounters, and not all need to be combat. This city is a wild trip, make the most of it. Oh, and as for the ziggurat
- As for encounters with the kopru patrol, I played the trogs as complete servants. They wouldn't fight if it meant abandoning their litter-bearer posts. Even upon death, one tried to gently lower its end of the litter so it wouldn't disturb its master.