|Piled Higher & Deeper by Jorge Cham||
Last week, two of the players in our group couldn’t make it, so the regular game was cancelled. I seized upon the opportunity to try out something different, namely Shadow of the Demon Lord. It wasn’t enough to write a First Impressions post, however the experience of rewriting the adventure was perhaps noteworthy enough. Because the starting adventure I picked, A Year Without Rain, was just a tad disappointing.
Note, this isn’t really a review of the adventure, nor is it a rewrite you can easily use to run it yourself. Instead, I hope you’ll find the process itself useful. And if it wasn’t apparent, there will be detailed spoilers of the adventure.
The premise held promise: a village affected by a lenghty drought, then stricken by people suddenly drying up, their corpses all but turning to dust. Investigation leads the party into the well, where a demon to blame for it all resides. Cool. The lone review on DTRPG warns of the adventure’s deadliness, and it isn’t exagerrating.
However, the main issue I immediately had with it is it’s just a dungeoncrawl. And not a very engaging one, either. Once the PCs dive into the well, it’s just a series of rooms with monsters popping up to attack them. The demon herself simply wanders the halls, appearing at any moment. Kill it and you win, the end. This isn’t to say there aren’t any interesting elements scattered there. The Goblet of Tears, a magic item that produces 10 gallons of salt water each day, and has a 1-in-20 chance of not stopping for a year is quite cool. As a side note, the party immediately triggered this hidden drawback, and the survivors intend to build themselves a salt-selling business.
The initial investigative stage is straightforward but serviceable. One moment that’s not very well thought-out: the Laughter in the Well, the demon to blame for all the deaths and the drought, has apparently been killing people for a year now. It’s also seemingly been dragging their dessicated corpses into its lair as it’s strewn with dust left from their bodies. How come it’s only been noticed a week ago for the first time? There is even a dedicated well-watcher in the village! The demon can scry on the surrounding area and teleport there, picking off lone travellers, and I guess teleporting back with their bodies. A week ago its modus operandi changes. Now it floats out of the well, asks lone passers-by for a kiss, and just lets them walk off and die.
Perhaps it has gradually recovered its strengths, growing bolder. The Shadow of the Demon Lord looming ever closer probably had an effect, too. This isn’t something PCs are likely to discover, but it helps to give the adventure urgency. As written, if the PCs do nothing the demon eats a villager each night until eventually the inquisition is called in and presumably deals with the threat. Not all that exciting. Instead, let’s say the demon goes out of its way to kill any messengers sent to alert the authorities, after which the villagers figure they should start sacrificing people to it, doing it with proper respect. Malery, one of the few NPCs players are likely to have a positive interaction with, makes for a good first victim. Outsider PCs work, too.
Overall plot sorted, lets move on to mechanics. Now, I’m new to SotDL. However, it seems like actual fighting is not it’s goal or source of fun. It’s exciting, but it’s not something you’re meant to be doing for the majority of the session, unlike, say, in D&D 4e. The rulebook even warns new players to avoid conflict, calling it “last resort.” At the same time, the strength of the system seems to lie in the flexibility of its boons and banes, allowing for quick adjucation of novel approaches. A somewhat OSR attitude.
With that in mind, what opportunities for avoiding combat and novel approaches does the adventure offer? There’s a whole bunch of monsters in that dungeon. The tiny demon hiding in the sand pool and the golem masquarading as a magic circle are seemingly there to punish PCs for poking around too much – a strange lesson to teach as there aren’t any warning signs of their presence. In contrast to that, the large spider in a coffin, while seemingly doing the same, actually rewards confronting it – if not dealt with, it’ll pop up later when PCs are most vulnerable.
Inconsistent lessons aside, many of these monsters also don’t make sense. What is the spider eating in this dry-as-a-bone dungeon, how did it get there, why hasn’t it been destroyed by the traps or demons? Whose coffins are those? Why are animated corpses in the other room animated and not drained until they’re sand like everything else here? What’s with the magic circle/golem room: why are doors blown off its hinges, why is the golem even there? “Some great explosion had
occurred here long ago.” Great. Very interesting.
Too much of the adventure feels like it’s just filling up rooms with monsters, filling up the session with combat. Time to cut. I’ve kept the sand pool demon, to act as an intro to combat rules, and it dropped one of the PCs in two rounds. Deadly, indeed. The PCs had brought multiple waterskins into the dungeon, reasoning it’d come in handy against something that drains people dry, and I let them splash it on the demon (Agility vs Agility, 1d6 damage).
While I didn’t quite mean to, I literally forgot the spider room even being there. No big loss. The magic circle is just a magic circle. The ghoul musician is amusing enough, though this gag encounter being as tough as the actual demon is a bit ridiculous. Still, if the PCs fail to appease it, they can run back through the trap tunnel, softening it up. Which means the trap tunnel needs some more definition. Let’s go with standard raised bricks that trigger the blades popping up.
Secret doors to the “treasure room” also need an actual description. An idential carving of the demon in its beautiful guise will do, offering an obvious hint that something’s there. And seeing how it’s so focused on kissing people to death, lets say the doors are opened by touching the carving’s lips.
What to do with the demon itself? Beating it to death is hardly satisfying. Not to mention it’s very likely to one-shot a PC each round, and I only have 3. No, we need a “puzzle” element, a way to weaken it to a more manageable state. The scrying orb is a natural fit to give a hint. As it’s written, it gives non-essential and fairly bland backstory. Instead, lets say it shows how the demon was first defeated. It’s “portfolio” is lust and drought, a strange combination. Perhaps even its “priests” had a love/hate relationship with it. Kiss, draining all liquid, death, betrayal, sacrifice. Salt. Got it.
The vision shows five priests do a simple ritual over the Goblet of Tears, drinking the cursed salt water from it, then kissing the demon one after another. As they die, so does the demon. Oh, and look at that, there are five animated corpses for some reason entombed with the demon, how convenient. So there we have it. Get the vision, the goblet, the unholy symbol from the priests, do the ritual, fool the demon into drinking one of you. Don’t want to sacrifice yourself? Perhaps there’s another way. The first victim of the demon was a real jerk named Braidon. Let’s not kill him, skipping straight to the second victim and making up more if we have to. Want to save yourself? Sacrifice Braidon instead. Get a point of corruption, welcome to dark fantasy.
Once the demon drinks the cursed salt water from someone, it starts falling apart, clump by clump turning to dust itself. Here’s where boons and banes come in handy: for each “sip” it takes, it gains one bane to everything, and those attacking it gain one boon. You still have to fight it, but at least now the PCs stand a chance.
And finally, how do they meet it? Lets say it reconstitutes itself out of dust in the dungeon each night, assembling its body on the burial slab. As PCs spend time in the tomb, they notice dust streaming towards that room of its own accord. Functionally like a vampire waking up at night, but with a different flavor of growing tension.
With all these changes, why even use a pre-written adventure? It offered a starting point. Especially for a system you’re not familiar with, seeing how you’re “meant” to run it is useful. And it wasn’t all bad: the antagonist, the goblet of tears, the human dust-strewn dungeon, those are all evocative elements. It offered a foundation, upon which I could build a satisfying game. It would have been nice not to have to do that, to just run it as is, but hopefully with this post as an example, you’ll be able to do something similar yourself.