When 3rd edition hit the market back in the 90’s, the “Open Gaming” design made a huge splash. Suddenly third parties could make and sell their own products for the game - hobbyists could become writers, creators, entrepreneurs. It was heady stuff, but it didn’t take long for reality to check in. Many products flopped when authors thought that everyone would love their creations as much as their players did, and others lost their heart for the task after having to do bookkeeping. Still, the hobby moves on, and while it’s not the Wild West that it used to be, every few days it seems another hobbyist tries their hand at going pro. I came across the debut module of the Magnificent Creations team, and I have to say it’s as solid as I’ve ever seen. To understand why, take a trip with me through some of the back halls of the gaming industry….
1) Extras To Make Harold Johnson Proud
Most well known as the inspiration for the kender of the Dragonlance setting, Johnson wasn’t big on the meaty stuff as a writer, but he knew his seasoning. In the space allotted to a single adventure, Johnson would cram in three small outlines, plus an abbreviated rogues gallery from the local village to inspire more. Unfortunately, as with kender, Harold often left his adventures so wide open that it was hard not to get lost; everything was an adventure hook and nothing ever concluded. He would lose the steak in all that seasoning. I believe Magnificent Creations has achieved Harold’s often-sought, rarely-found ambition: a small campaign setting packaged as a single adventure, that manages to do both jobs well. The final pages of this short adventure don’t just have a regional map, but a campaign background page with a hot take on each species that can be cross-referenced with the map for anyone who wants to go exploring. The eight deities are enough to cover any non-evil paladin or cleric concept, with symbols and portfolios ready for expansion. The art, the sidebars, the DM’s summary all lend themselves to expansion without confusing or interfering with the strong narrative of the original adventure.
2) Truly Playable NPC’s
One of the best sources of useful flavor is a strong gallery of NPC’s. Just like the balance between the adventure and the campaign hooks, each NPC has to have a balance of visible traits and subtler motivations. It’s unlikely the barkeep will ever mention his absent father issues by name, for example, but drying the same glass over and over again when eavesdropping isn’t useful when you don’t know what topics interest him. Corwyn Catacombs gives all NPC’s a three-part profile for roleplaying purposes: Appearance, Motivation, and Mannerisms/Personality. The first and last allow for strong and varied first impressions: a tall dark blacksmith who fidgets if he can’t keep his hands busy, a blonde cartwright who taps her foot and scratches the backs of her hands, constantly bickering middle-aged shopkeepers. The motivation is useful when you have to extrapolate how the mayor would react to a PC who was an orphan, or how the innkeeper gets along with other dragonborn.
3) Solid All The Way Through
This compliment may not sound like high praise but is actually among the highest: Corwyn Catacombs has everything you would want, and nothing else. There’s no embarrassing sidebar about an optional mechanic that no one would use in actual play, nor is it missing the motives of the major antagonist. There’s a tiny sidebar about how aurks have green skin because they get nutrition from sunlight, but it doesn’t distract or confuse - it inspires. The module doesn’t have any glaring contradictions in the timeline nor a conclusion that relies on the party figuring out that one bizarre weakness the author was so fond of. This may seem like a low bar, but a staggering amount of the material from “official” publications has tripped over that bar, only to land on “The DM can always ignore that part and fill in what they want.” Of course we can, but we buy modules to reduce our workload. Such advice could also be phrased, “Don’t buy our product, just make your own,” yet apologists are shocked when people do exactly that. I don’t see such a fate for Magnificent Creations. This adventure is solidly written, with a craftsmanship that needs no such excuses.
4) Flexible Spine
While DM’s don’t like being forced to do the author’s job for them, it’s still nice to have an adventure that lends itself to adaptation, and here again Corwyn Catacombs performs nicely. It has a cleverly modular structure that allows the DM to insert appropriate campaign flavor in at any point. The most obvious such point is at the end, when the party encounters the final villain. This section of the catacombs has structure and artwork that suggests an ancient and advanced culture, but apart from that, there’s very little foreshadowing as to who the villain is. This makes it amazingly easy to slot in anything appropriate to the setting. If your players would find a necromancer boring, the hibernating spellcaster can be an invoker from long-dead Netheril, or a long-lost dragon highlord, or anything else that fits the bill.
Is it a perfect adventure? Absolutely not; it starts out in a pretty stereotypical watering hole, and I did say the villain is Yet Another Necromancer. In addition, the narrative stretches belief just a little when it says a confused teenager is only “gaunt and haggard” after three days holed up in catacombs that killed a party of seasoned adventurers; more realistic DM’s might have the boy barely clinging to life, and gritty ones might just say he’s dead. Still, the risk of a who’s-on-first skit featuring half-aurcs (i.e green-skinned half-breeds with tusks) and half-orcs (i.e. green-skinned half-breeds with tusks) is far, far outweighed by the volume of information, the solid quality of the characters, and the strong narrative that manages to avoid boxing players in. New DM’s can find plenty here to get started with, and novices can work this adventure into any setting or adventure path. Experts ought to buy it just to rip off the format, so that published material stops tripping over that bar. As of this writing, Corwyn Catacombs is priced at $2.95, making it a solid bargain for any budget.
Leyshon Campbell has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, from the Kargatane's Book of S series, playtesting D&D 3E in a Ravenloft campaign, to the ill-fated Masque of the Jade Horror. He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement. He is currently running the “Queen of Orphans” Ravenloft campaign.
Picture Reference: https://www.magnificent-creations.com/the-corwyn-catacombs
I want to get this out of the way. I love writing plot hooks and the first thing I ask a person who is writing a plot is, “What is the hook?”
That said, plot hooks can be a huge problem. You just wrote this huge adventure for your players and you desperately want to give it out, but you can’t think of a really natural way to introduce it. Everything you think of feels wrong or fake. You don’t want to railroad, but you’ve got to have something for game, right? You really have 4 options, the last of which is the one I will be talking about the most, but let's get the others out of the way.
In a Magician’s Choice campaign, you write a broad outline of an adventure with the sorts of things you want them to encounter, traps, NPCs, etc and just reskin it for wherever the party goes.
The party knows about these five hooks
You only wrote one adventure. In it there will be 4 battles of increasing difficulty. They are a scouting party, a guard post, a big enemy, a minor foe, and the big boss. You decide that any of them can be rolled up into the next group as needed. You know that there will be a trap near the beginning with a riddle. Finally, you make a list of basic treasure and draw a rough map.
The characters pick the weirdest one, and the hardest to improv your adventure to, the walking tree. Either before, or in the moment, you decide that the tree’s motive is that they are (fill in the blank here) and the party needs to do (fill in the blank) to help/stop them.
You planned a dungeon, but now you aren’t so sure how it will work. After a bit of thought, you decide that the tree went stomping off through the forest tearing a meandering path through the thick underbrush that just happens to match your rough map. Then flipping through the Monster Manual, or equivalent, you quickly pick out a group of related monsters or reskin something you were going to use before. Orks can be plant men and you only have to look up a cool boss. You can do all this in the customary 15 minute break to get snacks and pee before the action begins.
Now, you know you have a trap and a riddle. The swinging blade is now a whipping thorn bush and the riddle is an encounter with a spirit.
The first few times you do this, it will feel a bit awkward, but over time, your improv skills will improve and you can seamlessly reskin a variety of different adventures to make them appropriate for the moment. In particular, if you do this while keeping the player’s backstory in mind, and drop details in related to their past, they will think you are a genius for always having something ready no matter what they do. And on the occasion where you do need to write a whole adventure that they will definitely be going on, your improv and quick thinking, and design skills will serve you well.
Over time, you will learn that this works really well with adventure based games, but it also works with games more about story, intrigue, and politics. Lean into to tropes, tweak them as needed, and lampshade for moments of surprise. Shakespeare wrote dozens of plots and basically none of them were original. Agatha Christie followed a basic formula in her famed murder mysteries. The real art is in the telling of the story and that is a technique you can learn.
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Jason Hughes has been involved in playing and running roleplaying games for the past 20 years and wishes that he had been able to do it for longer. He has been a national level Storyteller for a World of Darkness organization and now is on a podcast about improving gaming.
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