Dangers of the Drowned Garden


Round 5: Submit an adventure proposal

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 4, RPG Superstar 2015 Top 32 , Star Voter Season 6

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Dangers of the Drowned Garden

When the constant rain within the Sodden Lands mixes with burning acid, the villagers of Jula face death from above. A search for answers leads to the ruins known as the Drowned Garden of Yamasa. Can the adventurers learn the secrets within and end the acid storms, or will they fall to the dangers of the Drowned Garden?

Dangers of the Drowned Garden is an adventure for 5th-level characters. PCs who successfully complete the adventure will reach 8th level by its conclusion.

Background

When the gnomes Sarkun and Trela came to the land of Yamasa, they fell in love with what they saw as an idyllic agrarian culture. They spent decades building the Sanctified Garden of Yamasa, a structure intended to celebrate the land’s history and culture with a display of crops, vegetation, and wildlife native to the region. Unfortunately, the Eye of Abendego struck the area not long after the structure’s completion. The Sanctified Garden sunk into the newly formed swampland, becoming the Drowned Garden. The gnomes perished in the halls of their great work and were quickly forgotten.

The Drowned Garden eventually drew the attention of a shoggti qlippoth named Xzeraren. Accidentally summoned to Golarion by a foolish mage who soon learned the error of his ways, Xzeraren saw the Eye of Abendego as but a start – while it killed thousands, the land remained habitable to the hardy and stubborn. Through careful planning and the manipulation of dozens of spellcasters over the years, the qlippoth began experimenting with a ritual that could alter the region around the Drowned Garden, creating a deadly acid rain. This would leave the land barren and all but uninhabitable – a small victory, given the size of Golarion, but a victory nonetheless.

Xzeraren has gained powerful allies over the years, most significantly a tribe of marsh giants led by the cleric Graldar. Claiming an eons-old connection to Dagon, Xzeraren gained Graldar’s favor and manipulated the clan into procuring the final piece needed to complete the ritual – a living black dragon. Now captured and bound, this dragon’s constantly flowing blood has infused the soil and the very clouds with an acidic essence. Caught in the midst of these storms, the village of Jula is but one settlement that now risks total devastation.

Part I: The Burning Storm

The adventure begins in the mountaintop village of Jula. The PCs may be locals, bodyguards hired to aid a traveler through the Sodden Lands, or treasure seekers exploring the area’s ruins. As they go about their business, driving rain approaches Jula from the northeast. Villagers shout a warning about “another burning storm” and run for shelter. Smoke rises from the mountainside wherever the rain falls.

Anybody out in the open during the storm takes acid damage in addition to the effects of severe weather. However, the PCs’ access to healing magic and energy resistance makes them uniquely equipped to help others find shelter if they so wish.

Following the storm, the village leader Father Heveril (LN male human fallen paladin 4) asks the PCs for aid, offering a reward if they can discover the source of the storms and end them.

The storms seem to come from the hunting grounds of the dragon Kaladryx. If he wants tribute, we’ll give him that – we don’t have a choice. But we need somebody who can make him the offer and live long enough to run away if they need to.

The journey to the dragon’s lair includes many perils, including extreme weather, natural hazards, and more.

Disciples of the Sar-Gorog: A group of cannibals called the Disciples of the Sar-Gorog see the storms as an omen and have ritually scarred themselves with the acid, giving their skin the appearance of rotting flesh. As the PCs explore the swamp, the cannibals target them as their next meal, utilizing snares and poisoned weapons. Their leader, Kellyl Lathyr (CE female dhampir oracle 7), possesses a potentially useful item known as the shield of storm changing.

Shield of Storm Changing

Spoiler:
This +1 heavy wooden shield is emblazoned with a storm cloud motif. Three times per day, it can become surrounded by an aura of crackling lightning that grants the wielder electricity resistance 10 for one minute. While this resistance is active, the shield converts any form of energy damage done to the wielder to electricity damage.

The Raging Render: Not far from the dragon’s lair, the PCs come across a heartbroken gray render. The render survived the most recent burning storm, but its giant frog “pets” weren’t so lucky. It now rages through the swamp, smashing everything in its way. PCs can fight the render or calm it down and help put its pets to rest. If one of the PCs speaks Giant and speaks with the gray render, they learn that a battle recently occurred at Kaladryx’s lair.

The Empty Lair: Kaladryx’s lair shows signs of battle everywhere. The dragon and the majority of his hoard are gone, as Graldar’s tribe carried away the fallen dragon, their own dead (to serve as meals at a feast), and as much treasure as possible. Even an unskilled tracker can pick up the trail, and it leads to the Drowned Garden.

Part II: Into the Drowned Garden

Despite their small size, the creators of the Drowned Garden dreamed big, creating spacious displays and wide halls that unfortunately made it easy for the giants to claim it. The three-story building has an open air top level and a pair of observation towers. Due to its damaged and sunken foundation, the entire building is on a slant and the walls and floor are unstable.

The ground floor entrances are collapsed and submerged, leaving the open top level as the best means of entrance. The giants have created a makeshift ramp to allow them access, but that entrance is carefully guarded. PCs can fight their way across this bridge or seek to avoid sentries through climbing, flight, and stealth.

The Mossrock Gang: Once on the thick, acid-scarred floors of the top level, the PCs must contend with carnivorous plants, mud elementals, and a trio of merrow siblings known collectively as the Mossrock Gang. Having migrated to the Sodden Lands only to find themselves pressed into Graldar’s service, they are eager to distinguish themselves. The gang consists of Kurgott (NE freshwater merrow barbarian 2), Yerra (NE freshwater merrow ranger 2), and Tregat (NE freshwater merrow druid 4). More cunning that average merrows, the gang attempts to hunt the PCs, using their knowledge of the level’s hazards to their advantage. When they are ready for battle, Kurgott charges in while Yerra tries to maintain a ranged advantage and Tregat summons monsters as assistance.

The Separated Spirits: The middle level of the garden houses the marsh giants and their slaves. A history of Yamasa is carved into friezes, though knowledgeable PCs can recognize it as extremely idealized. The ghost of Trela (CG gnome ghost druid 5) lingers here and offers the PCs assistance and healing in exchange for a favor: save her husband, who is trapped in a decades-long delusion created by a klefnim.

Klefnim (CR 7)

Spoiler:
These small fey have thin limbs and tiny heads that swell dramatically as they feed. Klefnims exist to share in happy thoughts and memories, gaining symbiotic sustenance from simply being around them. Possessing a captivating aura that calms those nearby into a state of inaction as well as spell-like abilities that include detect thoughts, invisibility, major image, and hallucinatory terrain, they seek out happy thoughts in humanoids and use their illusions to bring them to life so they can feed.

Sarkun (CG gnome ghost abjurer 5) is hidden in a secret chamber, where he spends his days staring out illusory windows at a land that is no more while the klefnim feeds on the ghost’s happiness. While now immune to the klefnim’s captivating aura, the fey’s ability to create convincing illusions of the Yamasa that was has led him to become locked in a delusion even in death.

Breaking Sarkun out of his delusion requires delicate negotiation. Those who show knowledge of Yamasa’s history, either independently or gleaned from the walls of the garden, have the best chance of getting him to accept reality. The klefnim does his best to counter the PCs, creating increasingly pleasant illusions to lure Sarkun back into his fantasy.

If the PCs get Sarkun to accept that Yamasa is gone but not forgotten, he passes on to the Great Beyond. Trela remains behind to aid the PCs as she can, but will not venture beyond this level for fear of falling under Graldar’s control. Once the threat is dealt with, she passes on to the Great Beyond to be with her husband at last.

Part III: On the Shores of the Acid Pool

Defeating the bulk of Graldar’s forces gives the PCs access to what was once the garden’s ground floor. Now well under the earth, this level holds several flooded chambers. Acid pools and nauseating fumes abound here, as do the PCs’ final challenges.

The Qlippoth’s Pet: Xzeraren doesn’t wait idly for the PCs to find him. Instead, he lays an ambush for them with his “pet,” a brineborn marsh giant named Greygill. Greygill has been subjected to repeated charm monster spells and soothing lies from the qlippoth, as Xzeraren planned on using him as a defender should the rest of the marsh giants ever turn against him.

Xzeraren plans his attack where he cut the PCs off from reaching the ritual chamber. He sends Greygill in first and attacks spellcasters with his braincloud ability and spells. If Greygill looks likely to fall, the qlippoth opens flooded chambers, relying on his acid resistance and hoping that the rush of water will drown or dissolve the PCs.

Beneath the Vivisected Dragon: The central chamber of the sunken level once displayed everything from farm equipment to rare seeds to crop patterns used by the Yamasans. Now it serves as a ritual chamber, where Graldar uses his magic to put Xzeraren’s plot in motion.

Six run-colored obselisks circle a bubbling black pool. Chains run from the top of each pillar, holding up a huge black dragon that hangs a dozen feet above the pool. The dragon has been cut open from the base of his throat to his belly, and each drop of blood that drips into the pool causes the obelisks to shiver and the runes to glow red. Impossibly, the creature still breathes.

Kaladryx (CE old black dragon) still lives, kept from death through healing magic but constantly cut and bled by the giants to feed the ritual pool. Graldar (CE marsh giant cleric 6) has no plans to let the PCs change that. Having already cast protection from energy as a failsafe, he repeatedly dives into acidic sinkholes within the room, coming up through the weakened floor to try to grapple and submerge unsuspecting victims.

Killing Kaladryx:

Spoiler:
Kaladryx is already near death, and PCs who finish the job stop the acid storm from becoming permanent. However, doing so invokes the wrath of Graldar, and the giant focuses all his fury on the adventurer who strikes the killing blow.

Freeing Kaladryx:

Spoiler:
PCs who heal the dragon to at least 40 hp and release him from his chains earn a powerful ally as Kaladryx enters the fight with a fury. However, if the dragon still lives after Graldar falls, PCs may have to negotiate themselves out of a tight spot. Playing on Kaladryx’s pride will help and might even get some gratitude from the dragon.

Conclusion

Defeating Xzeraren and Graldar or releasing Kaladryx (via freedom or death) prevents the ritual from becoming permanent. The acid storms end within a matter of days and the adventurers are hailed as heroes upon their return upon their return to Jula. Whether the PCs choose to remain in the area or move on, word spreads about the adventurers who overcame the dangers of the Drowned Garden.

Paizo Employee Developer , Dedicated Voter Season 7, Dedicated Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9

Well done, Charlie! You fought through the competition like a champ, and now you’re at the final round. This is the time to reach for the prize and get to see your adventure in print. Seeing your name on the cover of something sitting on a shelf in your local game store or retailer is a pretty amazing experience.

I judged this round focusing on the fact that this round decides which of these four pitches becomes a product on our schedule here at Paizo. I went with my gut and knowledge of the region in which the adventure takes place. (I wrote the Abendego Gulf chapter of Lost Kingdoms, and built upon one of those elements in Undead Unleashed). I also went into judging this round thinking about how this round not only impacts a new writer’s career, but also our business here at Paizo. Voters are going to determine a product that will instantly go on our schedule and will begin using company resources, so I’m thinking about things from a development standpoint but also keeping a keen eye on the question: Will it sell?

So on we go...

Title: The words sound good together, and it’s a pretty evocative title.

Breakdown: Here I go through the pitch and give my thoughts as I come to them. This is how I would markup a document for any pitch that one of my freelancers would give me.

• Acid storms sound dangerous. Depending on how powerful they are, they could seriously whittle down the PCs just as an environmental thing.

• Why are gnomes the ones founding the Sanctified Garden? Where did they come from? How did the existing Yamasan people, who were already super-agrarian react to a couple of gnomes popping in to build something that would seem to be competition? This doesn’t seem to fit the setting that well.

• A shoggti only has acid resistance. Why would it want to create an effect that it would suffer as well? Also, what does a qlippoth have to do with a marsh giant cleric of Dagon? (Also, marsh giants are already CR 8, giving this guy enough cleric levels to seem worthwhile is going to be tough.)

• And a dragon!? (This is kinda all over the place. Hopefully things will focus in further down.) Also, always google names that you give things. KaladrAx is the name for the undead dragon from the successful Bones line of minis from Reaper.

• The Temple of Xanthuun and the Golden Phoenix Aviary is to the northeast of Jula, so your location is right on the doorstep of another important location in the area. This is something to keep in mind.

• You're assuming that the PCs have access to healing magic and energy resistance. Don't assume too many specifics.

• Why was a dhampir a good choice? So far the only human in this pitch is one that we've already established in canon. The Sodden Lands is primarily human, with boggards and lizardfolk as the next highest population.

• Italicize your magic item!

• A gray render has an intelligence of 3. I can see it being upset that its "pets" are dead since they are all about forming bonds, but reasoning with it is going to be really hard.

• You mention that the Drowned Garden is three stories tall with the top level being open. This seems like a weird set up for a garden, but then again, the description makes it sound more like a museum than a true garden that would produce any useful amount of food. My other concern with this set up is that if you have a big three-story structure it's going to take up a lot of map space. At a minimum, this building alone would take up three half-page maps—and we're only two-thirds of the way through the adventure. (Though, you do mention that the bottom two floors are ruined and underwater, so maybe this isn't a big deal.)

• I like your monster, and the ghost encounter is interesting.

• Graldar, being a 6th-level cleric, is a CR 11 threat. That’s pretty tough for the PCs at this point.

• The dragon is a CR 14 dragon. How did they get him? Also, at the end where you can free the dragon by healing it, you now have a big threat. Even if it is weakened and only has 40 hit points, the thing can still cast spells as a 7th-level sorcerer and hit pretty hard as well. After a fight with Graldar and the qlippoth, that might be a bit too much. I do however like that you provided the options for different outcomes.

• There doesn't seem to be any other marsh giants here other than Graldar.

• The hook is weak for this adventure, but I understand that making up good hooks for remote regions is tough.

• I could totally be wrong, but this one feels like you already had the idea for the adventure and then smooshed it into the Sodden Lands when you found out that was going to be the location. Other than a few swamp-based monsters (black dragon, marsh giants, sort of merrows) and briefly mentioning Jula and Father Heveril, there's really nothing rooting this to the Sodden Lands. When I saw that Jula was mentioned, I was expecting a clash with the Knights of Abendego or unraveling what it was that made Father Heveril fall, but the only problem that Jula has in this adventure is acid rain and Father Heveril has been reduced to a quest giver. The Sodden Lands is rife with small gangs trying to eke out a living... especially in and around the few suriving settlements, but we don't see any of that here. Heck, Ajbal Kimon, the leader of the Knights of Abendego, is CR 9—completely within the range for this adventure.

Conclusion: I’ve enjoyed a lot of your work in this competition. I just feel like you missed your mark. This might be a fine adventure, but you didn't play with the setting in a way that appeals to me, and it feels mixed up. A strong point is that this adventure uses a diverse range of creatures, which is going to keep players interested and on their toes, but that also contributes to its lack of a strong theme. If it were my call, I would not green light this adventure.

Scarab Sages Developer

Comments from our other two judges are coming soon!

Liberty's Edge Assistant Developer

Congratulations Charlie! Just getting to the final round of RPG Superstar is a huge accomplishment! Being able to please professional judges and the general public says a lot about your talents, and at this point all of you should consider yourselves primed and able to work in the industry, regardless of who wins the final accolades.

My judging philosophy

Spoiler:

I’ll be looking over these pitches based on a few things, including originality, how well if fits the setting provided, ease of development, and clarity.

Originality
What the “wow” in this pitch? This may be how interesting and new the overall concept is, or how you’ve used the rules to present new challenges.

Setting
How well do you know the Sodden Lands, and how well will the players know them after playing your adventure?

Development
How much work will this be to spin into a final, published adventure? Are your maps from previous rounds clear? Do you have a good grasp of the existing rules? Are you introducing new rules elements for your adventure and will they be fun or an added layer of complexity for its own sake? Are you accounting for the new capabilities of 5th-level PCs (like flight).

Clarity
How well do you present and organize your ideas? Half of writing an RPG adventure is being able to provide the GM all the tools and information she needs clearly and concisely, so she can present them to the PCs as needed. You can be a great fiction writer, or a great rules monkey, and still have problems tell people what they need to know to run an adventure.

New Location
What stands out about your new adventure location?

New Monster
Is your monster fun, original, and relevant to the plot?[/b]

Originality
A magic garden built by gnomes is never a great way to lead of a pitch. “Gnomes built it,” is rapidly becoming the Golarion equivalent of “a wizard did it.” And we already tackled “explore a magical location to stop the evil rain” in Curse of the Riven Sky. I do give you a credit for using a black dragon as the damsel in distress.

Setting
This only sort of says “Sodden Lands,” and could easily be transplanted anywhere. There are flooded ruins, and that’s about where the Sodden Lands flavor ends. Jula seems to be just a random fantasy town. Even the garden wasn’t built by locals, but Avistani transplants who came in out of nowhere and built a giant museum/garden.

Development
There are too many coincidences in the setup for this adventure. Gnomes just happened to build a magic garden, and a qlippoth who just happened to be summoned to Golarion by an unrelated wizard just happened to learn about it. They she happens to recruit a team of unrelated marsh giants to bring her an completely unrelated monster. Nothing feels coherant

Clarity
This pitch is oddly specific in some things and lacking important details and motivations about others. I don’t need to know an individual monster’s tactics in an adventure pitch, but I do need to know what beyond that specific monster might be in the area besides listing a general type like “carnivorous plants”.

Part One
Jula isn’t a mountaintop village; it’s a coastal town. And a rain of acid would probably wipe out most of the town’s structures.

Sending the PCs after the black dragon seems random; Black dragons can’t make acid storms, after all, or even any weather-related powers. The fact that a front of bad weather came from the general vicinity of a creature’s lair seems like a very tenuous lead, given how many monsters infest the Sodden Lands.

A roleplay encounter with an Int 3 monster, especially when it starts out rampaging, is... not ideal.

I do like the fakeout element of “Oh, we’re going to go slay the dragon, ut there’s not dragon.”

Part Two
Fairly standard dungeon crawl, though the ghost asking for help feels a bit tacked on and random.

Part Three
The ground floor is flooded... but has acid pools and fumes? When I hear “flooded,” I assume underwater.

This dragon description is unnecessarily gory; we try to keep our world PG-13. And why does he specifically need 40 points of healing, since even a single point will stabilize a dying creature? And black dragons are chaotic evil; there’s absolutely no reason an old black dragon would feel like he owes anything to his rescuers.

A 6th level marsh giant cleric is a boss monster all on his own, and is powerful enough that I can’t see why he’s the sidekick of a CR 7 qlippoth; even if you argue the shoggti is using mind-control, a cleric has good Will saves and giants in general have strong saves.

Unique Treasure
It’s a magic shield that converts all energy damage to electricity, and then grants electricity resistance 10. Which is to say, it grants energy resistance 10 to everything. Useful, but not really flavorful or superstar.

New Location
You didn’t offer a specific new location for the gazeteer section of the module. Is it supposed to be the garden itself? Jula?

New Monster
What the klefnim does is awesome and I like it a lot, but everything descriptive about it, from the name to how their heads swell as they eat, just feels silly rather than threatening. Silly is okay if that’s the intention, but I get the impression these are supposed to be unnerving.

Final Verdict
Very little about this adventure feels coherent, and it would require a heavy rewrite to develop. Given that Jula is a town of refugees in the first place, I’m not sure why the focus is on stopping the dangerous weather (which Jula is constantly faced with anyway) rather than evacuating the town and setting up elsewhere. Nothing really forshadows the danger or hints that the acid storms could become permanent or spread any further than their current reach. Overall, I would no advance this adventure, or want to develop it.

RPG Superstar 2009, RPG Superstar Judgernaut, Contributor

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Charlie! Welcome to the Final Round! This is it! An opportunity for you to pitch a (mostly) independent idea for an adventure, win over the voting public, and get a signed contract with Paizo to bring it to life. As someone who's lived that dream, I can tell you that it's a very, very cool experience. And, provided you apply all the lessons you've learned throughout the competition, you can use this contest as a platform for really getting your name--and your work--out there. So, relish the opportunity, soak in the feedback, and, whether or not you win it all outright, take the broader experience of RPG Superstar with you as you pursue whatever freelance opportunities come your way.

Based on prior years, you may know that I like to break my final round judging commentary into two halves. The first assesses your pitch...meaning, how well you sold your ideas within the proposal itself. I think it's important to take a look at that because it gives us a more complete sense of your vision and how well you're able to convey that to your developer (and the broader RPG community) to win them over and green light your work. It also offers a glimpse into how you'd structure your actual adventure, giving us a sense of your capabilities as a storyteller and how well you can tap into elements that will get people excited.

The second part of my assessment will dive into the proposed adventure and whether what you've presented here includes all the relevant pieces to hopefully make a great Pathfinder module. More than anything, that's really the goal here. While your pitch may demonstrate you've got the professional polish, insights, creative writing ability, and organizational skills to entrust you with this type of assignment, it's the core ideas of your adventure which will convince voters to select your proposal as the one they most want to purchase and play at their gaming tables.

So, with all that in mind, let's get down to business and see what you've proposed...

Feedback for: Dangers of the Drowned Garden

The Pitch
Okay. This is the part where you need to sell your proposal to us...which means, you need to write well enough to convince us you know what you're doing with strong, purposeful design choices--a skill you should realize by now plays an important role in pretty much everything you bring to the table if you want to stand out as a Superstar designer. This can include the underlying storytelling, pacing, and plot of your adventure; the choices you make with regards to the level requirement/CRs for various encounters and how they'll likely play out at the table; the number of maps you'll require for your chosen location(s); your sense of Golarion canon vs. how best to support the intellectual property of your publisher; your sense of scope and scale so you can fit everything into the required page-count/word-count; and so on. Basically, your adventure pitch should convince us you've got a good head on your shoulders when it comes to adventure design, and that you're the man Paizo (and the Paizo community) should trust with this opportunity.

Hopefully, the prior rounds of this year's competition (as well as what you've learned by following along in prior years) helped develop an understanding of these things for you. Personally, I think the best approach is to study what Paizo already does with their Pathfinder modules...i.e., how things are structured, how each adventure premise innovates around some new idea or theme, what kinds of limitations they put on you, and what kinds of opportunities they grant you as a writer/storyteller. Likewise, I believe it's important to study the winning adventure proposals from prior years of RPG Superstar to get a sense of how they "sold" the readers, judges, and voters. If you can pick up on all those elements and adapt your proposal accordingly, you'll be light-years ahead of most would-be designers in convincing folks to give you a chance.

So, the first thing I notice when I read your submission is the adventure's intended name. Dangers of the Drowned Garden. It aims for the traditional X of the Y title. And, it gives us an idea of the presumed iconic location where it takes place...i.e., a "drowned garden." So, we should have an idea that we're looking an adventure with some potential water-based elements to it. I'm not as sold on the generic "Dangers" part of the title, as it's kind of nebulous and not quite as inspiring, but I assume you're reaching for that to set up a slight degree of alliteration. It's not a plus or a minus, necessarily. I'm just left thinking it could be punched up a bit further, but it'll do.

Regardless, naming is actually one of the most important elements in adventure design. That's because it's the first thing people are going to see when they come across your module on the shelves. Thus, your adventure's name needs to evoke a powerful image in the reader's mind so it makes them want to pick it up and read what lies behind the cover. One of the most useful tricks for selecting an evocative or even iconic name is to include either the name of your primary adventure location (e.g., The Temple of Elemental Evil, White Plume Mountain, Tomb of Horrors), or the name of your super-memorable, awe-inspiring villain (e.g., Queen of Spiders, Scourge of the Slave Lords, Crown of the Kobold King). The names of these adventures resonate because they draw upon the things your players will almost certainly remember and reminisce about after playing through them...i.e., the cool location where it took place, or the awesome villain they faced. If your adventure pitch can tap into a name that contains one or both of those things, you're on the right track.

So what about the rest of the pitch? I think you presented it cleanly enough. I like your lead-in summary. In some ways, I like "The Drowned Garden of Yamasa" as a potential adventure name more than Dangers of the Drowned Garden, since it includes the name of the adventuring location by expanding it to touch on the geographical area of Golarion that's at play. But burning acid rain is a unique threat to bring bear as an unnatural catastrophe for the PCs to investigate. So, I'm interested to read on.

You've used an appropriate storytelling structure. There's an adventure background section. The adventure is separated out into appropriate chapters that help move the story along. You've got your new magic item and monster. You've included a couple of different ways the adventure could go with the epic finale. And, you've provided a decent conclusion/wrap-up to close things out. Structurally, you've put together a decent adventure pitch. From a content perspective, the details are a little more concerning. For the proposed APL (5th level characters reaching 8th by the end), some of the monster and NPC adversaries might overreach a bit...especially the old black dragon. So, logistically, I've got a raised eyebrow, and I'm left wondering if you've thought everything through on how to deliver a playable adventure for the gaming table.

The Adventure
I've written many times before in my advice for RPG Superstar about five key elements which I believe are vital to good adventure design. In fact, I like to use them as a good barometer for assessing how well a proposed adventure will hold up in terms of providing a memorable, entertaining experience. Those five things boil down to: 1) a memorable villain whose goals are a legitimate threat which credibly prompts the PCs to act; 2) a unique and interesting set of locales which provide cool maps, memorable encounters, and innovative tactical/terrain situations; 3) a compelling and interesting plot wherein the villain's goals encroach on the PCs' world in a sustained, threatening manner where they get to become heroes at the center of attention throughout the adventure; 4) some interesting and entertaining minions and NPCs who have a credible reason for working with the villain, existing within the chosen locale(s), and create recurring problems for the PCs; and 5) an interesting, worthwhile reward which the PCs (and their players) will cherish for the rest of their adventuring careers. If you can achieve high marks in as many of those areas as possible in your design, you could have a winning idea on your hands. So, let's see how you measured up:

The Villain: We're looking at a shoggti qlippoth as the true power behind the region's troubles, but I didn't really get a sense of the villain "pervading" the overall plot or adventuring location. Instead, this qlippoth is just an agent of chaos, putting in motion a ritual to bring acid rain down on a region that's already pretty miserable. Perhaps worse, there's not a lot that comes across as all that memorable or unique about him and the threat he poses. At least in how you've described him in pitching your adventure, I don't have a takeaway in reading it that tells me, "Now there's a competent, compelling villain that the players will remember long after this adventure is run." And that's unfortunate. There's also a pseudo-secondary villain with Graldar as the marsh giant cleric (of Dagon?), and he's featured in the final battle, but so is the qlippoth...so, it's kind of confusing and the PCs may never get a true sense of the main villain to focus on.

The Locale(s): Most of this adventure seems focused on the titular "Drowned Garden" by taking the PCs through three distinct levels of the structure the gnomes built. I don't know about you, but when I think "gnomes" I don't tend to imagine large, expansive structures wherein marsh giants and an old black dragon and a shoggti qlippoth are going to have lots of room to co-exist. It just seems mismatched and less "thought through" as a result. Or, put another way, it starts to break down my "willing suspension of disbelief" so I can simply sit back and enjoy the story as it plays out in a credible location/situation.

The Plot: I wanted to like the proposed storyline, but there seemed like a lot of lost opportunities and elements which didn't seem to synergize as well as they could. From a storytelling perspective, the best adventure plots start with a compelling opening "scene" and then follow on with further scenes that grow organically along the way. They might seem coincidental at times (which can strain credibility). But, as long as you connect them up with one another in ways where they contribute to the final outcome and the myriad twists and turns the PCs could experience along the way, you'll have layered it in such a fashion that the sum of the parts become greater than the whole, because they're all playing off one another. There's not as much of that happening here as I'd like to see. The opening hook feels contrived...i.e., acid storm blows through, PCs experience the terror of the villagers, and Father Heveril becomes their quest-giver. I've known lots of home campaigns that got started on a similar premise, but it's admittedly weaker than you'd want in a published product. It needs a stronger experience to really hook the PCs into what's happening. Make it personal for them. Give a variety of equally compelling reasons for the various PCs to want to get involved. This needs something stronger.

As the plot continues, the acid-scarred cannibal cult is an intriguing element. It seems odd that they've already developed a cult to use the acid in a ritual, as I got the sense that the acid storms were more of a recent thing, and it seemed like the cannibals have been doing the scarification for awhile if they've got an entire cult that's developed around it. This adversary would be stronger if you wove them into the adventure as more than just a one-time encounter situation. If they were directly tied to the qlippoth, for instance, in a manner where they were worshiping it as a form of appeasement and then carrying out its will in a more extended way than just the acid storms, I think it would sell the threat in a much bigger way...even moreso if the acid rain served as a harbinger of their raids on local villages. Have them also posing a threat to trade and other interests in the Sodden Lands, and you've suddenly got a more compelling reason for the PCs to start looking into this problem...and at the urging of more sponsors than just Father Heveril.

We go further along and the gray render seemed uninspired to me. It's just an encounter involving a gray render with the added "I lost my pet frogs" to make it stand out. It's great that it's a potential "information giver" but I suspect every part that encountered a raging render would either stay out of its way or put it down. Taking the time to calm it, put its pets to rest, and then converse with it, seems unlikely. So, it's kind of a misplaced encounter. A fight with a gray render could work just fine. Or, an encounter with someone who can help the PCs learn about the missing black dragon could work fine. Mixing them together doesn't harmonize in a way that's compelling and memorable, because it's more likely it'll be an "either/or" situation in terms of combat and roleplay rather than an "and" situation.

I do like the plot involving the ghosts, even if the use of the gnomes feels a bit weird (as Daigle pointed out), and I like the klefnim, too. The Mossrock Gang of merrows is also interesting, and seem like they could be memorable. Just having them pressed into Graldar's service feels less inspired, though. I wish there were another story element (or thread) at play here that the PCs could leverage to create further impacts on the adventure's outcome. I came away feeling that way about a lot of the creatures the PCs are set to encounter, including Greygill. They aren't arranged in the adventure proposal in a way that does them justice in terms of supporting the adventure plot.

The Minions: Ideally, I think the acid-scarred cannibals would make for the most interesting minions. Place Graldar as the qlippoth's lieutenant exerting some degree of enforcement over them, and keep elements like the Mossrock Gang as a competing player in the region rather than another ally. The bottom line here for me is that there's no clear, identifiable group of minions that's going to feature over and over again. Technically, the marsh giants could fill that role, but they're not played up a way that helps demonstrate their use throughout the plot to move the storytelling in a meaningful way that supports the primary villain. So, the adventure proposal hasn't focused the lens well enough on this component to fully sell it for me. That said, I do like many of the individual component monsters you've identified as possible encounters. I just think they need to be layered into the proposal in a different way to really sell their inclusion.

The Reward: I didn't really come away with a sense of an iconic reward that felt unique to this adventure. The shield of storm changing may have been meant to fill that role, but it's not tied into the adventure in a way that highlights the plot or makes the villain even more compelling. So, I'd have liked to see something more here.

Conclusion
There are glimmers of potentially cool elements woven into this adventure proposal, but it think they don't go quite far enough. Though technically proficient and structurally sound, I'm also unsure the pitch is enough to sell it. The villain and plot aren't quite compelling enough to have me on the edge of my seat in anticipation of how the final product would present them. The locale is a bit too self-contained and didn't give a credible sense of including so many elements in the single Drowned Garden, desipte the three layers of the "dungeon" involved. Though there are plenty of different adversaries, there didn't really seem to be a recurring group of minions connected heavily enough to the villain and carrying out the plot. And the reward for the PCs getting involved probably isn't anything that's going to resonate with the players after the adventure is over.

So, all in all, I'm going to have to say that I DO NOT RECOMMEND this adventure as the winning proposal for this round. That's not to say that your freelancer skillset is lacking. You've already demonstrated your capabilities in that regard over the entire competition. Instead, this particular proposal just doesn't quite bring it altogether in a way that wins me over. Regardless, more opportunities should come your way if you seek them out. It's more important what you do after RPG Superstar than during it. And, no matter how the voting comes out, you'll be entering that phase just like anyone else. So, make the most of it.

My sincere two cents and best wishes on your future freelancing career,
--Neil

Shadow Lodge RPG Superstar 2015 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka mamaursula

Congratulations Charlie, good luck in the voting!

Liberty's Edge Star Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9

Pathfinder Companion, Pathfinder Accessories Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Too much going on in every direction for my taste. A bit more focussing and streamlining would have likely helped.

The magic item is not convincing though I appreciate the link through the storm theme to your round 1 item.

The klefnim is very interesting though it felt a bit similar to the Tranquility Ooze in its theme.

You had a strong winning streak in recent rounds based on disturbing/gross elements that did tend to freak me out but were clearly appreciated by the voters. I have the nagging feeling that you should have pursued it and up the volume even more to make a far more memorable adventure pitch.

Liberty's Edge Star Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9

Pathfinder Companion, Pathfinder Accessories Subscriber; Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Superscriber

Just wished to add that you made your mark as a designer thanks to what you delivered in this RPGSS season.

From now on, when talking about Charlie Brooks, I will be thinking of a designer with a solid style for the disturbing, or even the grotesque.

You draw from a similar fount to that which inspires Nicholas Logue or the Four Horsemen. Though that may not be Paizo's mainstream production, it is nonetheless a strong identity that you are bringing to this industry.

Well done and good luck in your future endeavors.


My comment keeps deleting itself, but basically I agree that there is too much going on here. It is too much to keep track of and it is not cohesive.


My ears pricked up when I read qlippoth, but then this basically turned into Ferngully, as retold by Mel Gibson. I don't get a strong connection to the geography or culture of the location.

I actually would like see most of these NPCs in print, but they need more to do, and the threat needs to be more personal to the PCs.

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 8 , Dedicated Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8, Star Voter Season 9 aka Mark D Griffin

I’m going to assume that you are, like I was, impatiently waiting on the other side of this screen for anyone to write something about your creative endeavor. That way you know someone read it and really thought about it before casting their votes. So, now that I no longer have a horse in this race, I wanted to provide some feedback for the final four. I’ve already skimmed all the entries, and now I’m going to take notes while doing a more thorough reading. This is the kind of feedback I’d give if I were sent this for comments, so I’ll probably be nitpicky. Keep in mind you did a great job getting here, and your proposal is also great. With some time and elbow grease, every one of these proposals could make an excellent adventure. So on to the notes!

Acid rain, cool! I did a quick search for what acid rain does in pathfinder, but the only credible result was a 9th level druid spell that does 1d6 damage per round with no save. That seems a bit much, but I’m sure this rain acts differently.

This garden doesn’t seem very gnome-like to me, usually gnomes for me about about a sense of wonder and weird. Maybe it’ll get more gnomey later when you describe it in detail.

A Qlippoth? That’s different, and goes along with your general theme of sort of icky stuff. It’s a weird choice, and I like it. I hope it’s going somewhere interesting.

Manipulation and murder sure seems to be in line with what this qlippoth does, although I feel like qlippoth in general would be more inclined to attack more civilized areas with greater populations of the young and innocent. They especially like murdering children and pregnant women, which I imagine are in relatively short supply in the Sodden Lands vs any neighboring region.

A bound dragon is a neat way to power a ritual, but I’m skeptical of a cleric of a demon lord working with a Qlippoth. Yes Dagon may have once been a qlippoth, but if he was, he has since been driven out of their deep realms and into the abyss because he is now an enemy of the qlippoth. I don’t think this really works, and since the Sodden Lands is already full of cultists of Rovagug (who is a god who was perhaps once a qlippoth, and definitely not a demon), it seems like you should have gone there instead.

Hooks are about as good as you can expect for this area.

How much acid damage I wonder? Also what if the PCs don’t have healing magic and acid resistance? Does no one in the Knight of Abendego have either of those?

I like the scarred cannibals, but why a dhampir I wonder?

The item is fine, but won’t be winning any superstar competitions.

It’s cool that you used the render’s affinity for other animals, but it’s Int is a little low for social interaction.

I’m a fan of the bait and switch here with the dragon.

I’m glad that you pointed out that the gnomes made the space large so now giants can fit inside, but I’m unsure as to why they did in the first place? I guess wide open spaces are agrarian, I’m only bothered a little bit by it.

The mossrock gang is good, but I’m sad that they live on the top non-submerged level. Those poor Merrow :(

The monster is okay, but I don’t think the Sodden Lands, apocalyptic as it is, is a great place for a creature that feeds on happiness of any kind. Still the idea is probably my second favorite overall.

Ghost story is pretty cool though, even if the monster feels forced.

Wait, your module’s big bad isn’t the climactic fight? That seems off. If Graldar was your end villain, you probably should have spent more time talking about him in your background and not Xzeraren. I was hoping there was going to be a payoff at some point for your unique choice of big bad, but he falls kind of flat.

This is a pretty awesome final fight though, it sounds like it would be dynamic and memorable.

In conclusion:

You sort of tied a lot of things together with the acid theme. Everyone was either super into acid, or negatively affected by it. Beyond that I’m left with a lot of questions that don’t have answers, like you’re stuffing your story with lots of elements because they’re all fun elements, but they don’t necessarily make sense. Why gnomes? Why a qlippoth? Why a dhampir? Why is the final fight not with Xzezaren? I’m sure that you know the answers to these questions, but it’s not clear to me. You did put the most effort into making your final encounter memorable, not simply glossing over your capstone fight, which I appreciate. I’d like to run or play that encounter for sure. Still, I don’t think I will vote for this module because it seems to lack focus. You have a flair for the gross, and that unique voice could serve you well. I wish you the best of luck in the polls and in your future endeavors.


I really like all of your ideas, but they just dont seem to fit together well. Like, the gnomes are really sudden. Then there is a dragon. And also, it is raining acid. That is a lot all in one go.

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 16, RPG Superstar 2012 Top 16 , Marathon Voter Season 6, Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Dedicated Voter Season 9 aka motteditor

Hey Charlie, congrats one more time on getting to the Final 4. Let's look at your module pitch:

Name: Don't love the "of the" construction and "dangers" is awfully generic, but I'm intrigued by the "drowned garden." That seems like a place I'd enjoy adventuring (or siccing on PCs).

Background seems solid enough -- I'm intrigued by the mix of creature types though a little wary of the elements' being *too* disparate. We've got gnomes, a qlippoth, marsh giants, connection to a demon lord and a black dragon. Will it all come together coherently?

Part 1: Right off the bat, I think there might be a missed opportunity, with the villagers' being aware of the acid rain storms already. I think I'd rather have had this be the first storm, with the PCs' needing to save everyone. Put 'em in peril right away. The rainfall reminded me a bit of Threadfall from Anne McCaffrey's Pern series, and I kind of wanted to see the reaction to the first fall (as in "Dragondawn").

The raging gray render seems fine as a sort of random encounter, and I didn't mind the cannibals initially. Seeing they're dhampir, though, just felt like an odd choice. Fleshwarped in some way, maybe (to go with the acid scarification), but dhampir doesn't quite fit in here for me.

The shield doesn't particularly impress me. I think it could be a useful item that players might like, but I'm not excited as a GM about it (I think that's often true of the items that are pitched in the adventure round; I think it tends to feel a bit like an afterthought with more of the focus on the overall adventure and not usually something that can live up to the Round 1 items, which are 1-in-600 quality).

I'm not sure it makes much sense that even an unskilled tracker can follow from the dragon's lair. The giants may not be covering their tracks, but with flooding and rain, I'm not sure there would be that much to follow. It also feels not like railroading, but more hand-holding: "Here you go, continue the adventure this way. Just follow the yellow brick road."

Part II starts off feeling like fun; I like the tilted dungeon and merrow feel like a good choice to start off with. I'm not sure the second level will work as well, though. I think most players would respond simply by trying to kill the klefnim -- "There we go; problem solved!"

Part III feels a little odd. Having the Big Bad of the plot attack and then another fight afterward is going to feel anti-climactic, I think. I love the moral quandary the dragon may cause, though and the idea that the PCs could end up with an evil dragon as an ally (assuming the GM was nice and didn't have it just fly away or turn on them).

Dark Archive

I think this round will be the hardest to comment on, as the competition was really stiff! Also, this round has the most to take into account, which means my feedback may ramble a bit as I go.

The Name: For me, this is missing that extra something that would grab my attention, and make me take it down off the shelf to look at. It's not a bad name, but it's not great. It also makes me think of an actual garden, instead of an agro museum, which means that once I realize it's not, I'm disappointed.

The Background: I love gnomes! BUT, I don't understand how they tie in to the Sodden Lands, especially once I read that these two aren't even native to the region originally. The rest of the premise seems a little weak, but I'm will to go with suspension of disbelief to see where it's going.

Part I: As others have pointed out, there needs to be a stronger reason for the PCs to take on this task, as there's no real reason to believe it needs further exploration yet. If the rain had been going on for any length of time, then the houses would be disintegrated, and the village would have already moved on. If these are recent storms, there's no reason to believe they're currently anything more than a string of bad storms. Also, never assume the PCs will have what they need for a particular challenge! If there's somewhere for them to do some shopping (to purchase a scroll, a potion, etc), then that's fine. In a remote setting like this, there's no guarantee that they can get what they need from their own resources (i.e. a party of all martials).
The cannibals being scarred only makes sense if these storms have been going on for some time, in which case there would be no village for the PCs to have started from. Also, why a damphir? (Not that I have anything against them) The shield is underwhelming, and at this level PCs will most likely already have a good grasp on their gear, and not want to change it out for something that's not overall better. The render is fun, but unlikely to be reasoned with, which means they're just fighting it. I do like the resolution of the dragon's lair.

Part II: I have no problem with the museum being on the bigger side, as I'm sure the gnomes wanted everyone to enjoy it, and would have built accordingly. Most of the "first" floor encountered is vague, which I'm assuming had to do with word count, and more detail would be given in the finalized version. I like the Mossrock Gang, but them being on the top floor makes no sense (I would have rather seen them in the swamp in Part I), as there's no reason for them to be up there.
The gnome ghosts give the PCs an opportunity to learn the backstory, which is always nice, but it seems like that's their only reason for being there. The Klefnim is interesting, but not memorable, and seems out of place in the Sodden Lands.

Part III: This part seems like it has two bosses, and at this point I question why Graldar is still taking orders from Xzeraren. From a PC POV, I could see there being some confusion as to who is actually in charge (and why). I like that the PCs have the option of getting Kaladryx on their side, but it seems like it's more trouble than it's worth.

Conclusion: I do like where this was trying to go, but ultimately it's a little too disjointed and cobbled together for me to vote for. I think had you had a tighter proposal, this could easily have been a top contender for my vote. As it is, there are other entries that are more cohesive than yours, which (to me) means that they would spend less of the module's word count setting up the scene, and more towards the part the PCs can actually participate in (which is really what players are looking for).

As I said in the beginning, all the entries were amazing this year, so even if you don't advance, be VERY happy with your work this competition, and I look forward to seeing what you produce in the future! Good luck!

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 16 , Dedicated Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9 aka Petty Alchemy

Apologies for the short comment.

Name: I like "Drowned Garden", not so much "Dangers of the". The framing could've been more exciting.

Item: Hmm. I like that it has a Sodden Lands feel, but isn't this basically just Energy Resist 10 to all? Unless you already have electric resist that's stronger/immunity, in which case it allows you to use that against other elements. That's a little strange. Ultimately, I think it's an interesting idea, but a roundabout way of just giving you resist to everything.

RPG Superstar Season 9 Top 16 , Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8 aka Cyrad

I really liked that the adventure starts off as a mission to slay a dragon only to turn into a rescue mission to save the dragon instead. That's an awesome turn of events, and I wish the adventure played that up a little more (preferably with a dragon that isn't CE).

However, the villain is a major issue with the adventure. He's so uninteresting and impersonal. He almost never interacts with the party at all, even through his minions. There's plenty of modules with villains trapped in ancient prisons that had more personal interactions with the party!

Also, his plan feels really odd. I'm digging how he views the Eye of Abendego as a small start. But this guy is a CR 7 creature! Destroying the world is a lofty ambition even for a creature double this guy's challenge rating.

RPG Superstar 2014 Top 32 , Marathon Voter Season 7, Marathon Voter Season 8, Marathon Voter Season 9

Theres a lot of great nuggets in this proposal , but just not quite cohesive enough to get my vote.
Whether it be this module or a future PFS scenario, I am excited to see more of your work!

good luck

RPG Superstar 2015 Top 8 , Star Voter Season 6, Star Voter Season 7, Star Voter Season 8 aka DeathQuaker

Wanted to comment on these before the contest ended, but time was not on my side. Congrats, Charlie, for getting to the top 4!

Many moments in your proposal shine--I love the twist that the dragon is not the true threat, and I like some of the variance of your challenges--they're not all fights but also include other solutions like convincing the ghosts to find their peace. The "drowned garden" sounds like a cool location.

It feels a bit like you tried to cram a bit too much in, however, and the adventure feels like a bunch of episode adventures loosely woven together by the environmental threat. It's a little hard to follow the flow of events, too. The influence of the qlippoth doesn't seem obvious or noticed till the very end, which seems odd given how corruptive and nasty these creatures are. I liked the idea of the garden, even as amazing as gnome structures can be, I find it odd that giants would find it "easy" to move in to a place built for Small creatures--even if ceilings were high, remains of furniture, width of passageways etc, might all be challenging. I loved the idea of your monster but it felt out of place in the rest of the adventure. I'd worry with a lot of myriad environmental hazards (acid rain, acid soil, and the many challenges that can come with a flooded ruin), it would be hard for a GM to keep track of them all.

Still, there's a lot of fantastic elements of adventure here and some cool enemies--a good crown to your solid performance throughout the competition. I look forward to hearing about your eventual PFS Scenario when the time comes.


I liked a lot of things about this entry, especially the variety of encounters, and the way you chained one encounter to the next. However, there were some loose story elements that didn't tie in quite as neatly as I would like, and it just didn't hang together thematically as well as it could. So, you didn't get my vote. But you put forward a good effort against some tough competition, and you can be proud of that.

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