Novel Adventures: Games with Predefined Endings

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on March 12, 2010

In February’s issue of Dungeon (#173), Craig A. Campbell has created a three-encounter delve called Haruuc’s Tomb: A Novel Adventure based on events from Don Bassingthwaite’s fantastic Eberron novel, Word of Traitors. As a big fan of Eberron and a huge fan of this book I was very concerned about how this adventure would turn out. But before I get into the good and bad of Campbell’s undertaking I have a questions for all the players. Have you ever played an adventure that was inspired from a D&D novel?

The last time I had this unfortunate experience was way back when AD&D 2nd edition was released. In order to explain the rule changes between AD&D and AD&D 2nd edition in the Forgotten Realms, the world experienced the Time of Troubles. The Avatar trilogy gave us three decent novels (Shadowdale, Tantris and Waterdeep) that saw the gods fall from the heavens and walk the realms as mortals. When the gods returned to the heavens things changes (and we got AD&D 2nd edition). The novels were pretty good, but the adventures based on these books were horrible. If you want to see examples of how not to structure a D&D adventure, these are prime candidates.

The problem wasn’t with the encounters themselves; some were a lot of fun to play. The problem was the railroading. In order for the story to unfold as required the PCs had to do certain things a certain way at a certain time. Whenever the PCs decided to do something differently or accidentally screwed something up (like killing an important NPC or villain) the DM needed to do some pretty quick improvising. The way most DMs avoid this scenario from happening is to railroad the PCs. As soon as they start to act off-script the DM quickly blocks their path and forces their hand.

But after reading Campbell’s article on the Wizards website I realize that they found a great way to solve this problem. They didn’t try to recreate the novel as a full adventure. In stead they took one very specific encounter and treated it as a side quest. It represents only a few chapters from the book and not the entire book itself.

“Haruuc’s Tomb” is a D&D encounter for five 7th-8th level characters. It is an adaptation of events from the Eberron novel Word of Traitors. You can run this as a one-shot encounter or weave it into your campaign as part of a longer adventure.

In the accompanying article Haruuc’s Tomb: From Book to Game, Campbell walks us through his creative process. He explains how and why he set the encounters up the way he did. He gives us details about the monsters and villains and shares his process for creating their powers. He has kept very true to the encounter as it appears in the novel, but he’s altered it enough that it doesn’t seem out of place on its own. And this is why it works.

Regardless of what the PCs do or how they choose to handle each encounter, their campaign is not the story told in the Legacy of Dhakaan trilogy. So the DM doesn’t need to worry about forcing the PCs to take certain actions. The PCs are free to do whatever they feel is appropriate. If they want to kill an opponent or just capture them, it won’t make any difference. Even though each of these outcomes would have a very different impact on the rest of the story from the novel. In this case it simply doesn’t matter.

As an avid fan of the D&D novels I applaud Wizards for creating this kind of delve adventure. I hope this is the first of what will become a regular series. It also serves as an advertisement for the books themselves. Players and DMs who may not have read Word of Traitors may enjoy the delve enough to pick up the novel. My only real criticism about this article is that I don’t see any mention of including Don Bassingthwaite in the creative process. He did write the book and probably has some strong ideas about how his NPC would look as actual D&D characters. If he was consulted it would have been nice to give him a shout out. If he wasn’t consulted then I think Wizards missed an opportunity to use the author as a resource.

To get a better idea of the story that inspired this delve, be sure to check out our Word of Traitors Review and our three-part interview with the author, Don Bassingthwaite (Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3).

Have you played adventures based on novels or other stories that had a predefined ending? Did you find yourself being railroaded often? If you were the DM how did you keep the party on track? What do you think of this new three-encounter delve approach to tapping the novels? Are you any more or less likely to use this in your campaign because it was inspired from a D&D novel? Are you excited about the possibility of more Novel Adventures?

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jenny Snyder March 12, 2010 at 9:30 am

Actually, the very first adventure I ever ran was based on a short story I had written. And it was terrible. Awful. A total disaster. A train wreck, if we want to continue the railroading theme, because that’s exactly what I did to keep the players within the confines of the story.

Fortunately my players forgave me, and we’ve been running an awesome sandbox campaign ever since.

I haven’t read the DnD books, so I imagine my approach to this sidequest would probably be less related to what the story actually is (since I don’t know it). It sounds like they did a good job of separating the adventure from the actual books, which is definitely encouraging.

2 Toldain March 12, 2010 at 12:15 pm

I’d like to share a contrary experience with you all. I’ve played a lot of Legend of the Five Rings in my time. First the CCG, then the RPG. If you know much about the CCG, you will recall that it had a plot line, a cast of characters, and a quite specific denoument.

So when we played in an RPG campaign, it was set in a time just before the Big Troubles. There were secret villains and NPC’s with serious mistakes and bad decisions. There were undercurrents and tensions. And yet we as a party travelled through this world and did our thing. At first our thing was fairly small and insignificant, but we did our part to keep even worse things from happening in Rokugan.

So why didn’t that feel ultra-railroaded? First, the GM showed some willingness to depart from canon (what was known to have happened) in the details if necessary. (Character X died in our story even though he survived in canon.) Second, we as players wanted to have an impact, but we had no expectation of being THE movers and shakers in the world. Third, in doing a very good thing: organizing a campaign that really put the Shadowlands forces back on their heels, we enabled a very bad thing (in the future after the close of the campaign, in canon): Namely, the Shadowlands forces cut a deal with the Crab Clan, who opened the Wall for them to invade Rokugan proper. I personally saved the Emperor’s son, the Son of the Son of Heaven from becoming infected with the Shadowlands taint. Even though I knew that later on, he would become a overwhelmingly corrosive force later on, finally possessed by an evil god.

At the close of the campaign we narrated some events from canon and how our characters would be involved with them. Which we found to be fun and provide a good sense of closure.

So to summarize, we loved our characters, they did things that were heroic and interesting and cool, and got to watch events that we all knew about. But we didn’t get railroaded as to where we would go, or what we would do. At least, not much. =)
.-= Toldain´s last blog ..Innovation in EQ2 =-.

3 Duncan March 12, 2010 at 1:38 pm

I remember playing a Dragonlance AD&D story and it followed the book to such an extent and whoever was playing a particular character had to die in it. Terrible for the gameplay, I tell thee.

4 Ameron March 17, 2010 at 12:38 pm

@everyone
Sorry for the delayed responses, I’ve been sick for the past few days.

Update
I used the skill challenge from this adventure during my D&D campaign this past weekend. The PCs really struggled with it. They overcomplicated the challenge and missed the obvious clues. In retrospect an illustration of the doors would have made things immensely easier. For DMs planning to run this adventure, take 5 minutes and draw a sketch before the PC try to open the tomb. It’ll be worth your time, I guarantee it.

@Jenny Snyder
I think most of us who have tried to run scripted game with a pre-defined ending have run into the same problem. At least the players forgave you (and you didn’t subject them to scripted adventures anymore).

If you’ve read the book you might have a very small edge, simply because you know the villains, but otherwise it really won’t matter to the DM or the PCs.

@Toldain
Your experience reminds me of my limited exposure to the Star Wars RPG. We wanted to participate in the events from the movies but we understood that we shouldn’t interfere with the heart of the story. On those rare occasions when we did, the GM improvised (much like your GM did). We all had a great time, but realized that it wasn’t the kind of game we wanted to play long-term.

@Duncan
I almost added a section in this article about Dragonlance, but I wasn’t sure how defined those adventures were. I always heard they were practically page-for-page scripts from the novels, just as you’ve described. I think that’s a big part of why I never got into Dragonlance

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