On the Crimson Trail (2021)
Andy Marielis (Adventure Bundles)
Lvl 9 (HA!)
Disclaimer: Sponsored Content.
I am harsh on 5e. It is true. I have a preferred play-style and 5e has many violation of its central tenets built-in. But no grognard I know HATES 5e. For of all the manifold editions that emerged in the wake of the hallowed 2nd edition, 5e probably comes closest to a grand uniter, taking parts from both old and new into something that, while not sublime, is at least palatable to the bulk of DnD players.
But much damage has been done in the interval, and the children of the fifth edition carry the mark of those evil times wherever they roam.
Melodrama aside, Andy Marielis reached out to me about his new patreon project, where he endaevours to publish serialized adventures for all backers, complete with battlemaps, handouts, and materials to limit prep-time. A noble endaevour! This entry represents his first attempt, and while I will not be recommending it, the author hopes his remarks will be taken to heart and serve to better them as time goes on. One of the surest ways to improve is frequent practice!
Strathenberg stronghold is one of the most isolated structures in the known world. Situated in the very north, where in the winter the snow covers the land. There are rarely any problems here, and these are mostly wildlife or weather related. The local guards who serve baron Strathenberg have usually no problem dealing with such issues. In the past month or so, though, locals have been disappearing. Either during a hunting trip, on a firewood haul, or even while taking a walk in the forest. There has been talk about strange lights in the forest behind the stronghold. Eerie, flickering lights that peer through the fog. No local guards are willing to investigate. They are simply not trained to deal with the supernatural, and the baron knows this.
The adventure is a series of linear encounters culminating in a big boss fight. Oh dear. Linear adventure are used very often in modern editions because they are the most straightforward way to make an adventure but making good ones is actually very difficult because all the weight of the adventure comes to rest on the individual encounters, a lot of strategic trade-offs or resource management that is inherent in dungeoncrawling is suddenly missing and you have to basically figure out way to keep players from sequence breaking.
There’s a twist of sorts. The perpetrator is not the Will ‘o the Wisps that everyone was thinking about the second they heard this description, but is actually a charmed wizard and his vampire wife. The Vampire is still very cautious and the wizard uses his illusion powers to lure the locals, kidnap them (with his bare hands), feed them to his wife, and then petrify their bodies with an overpowered wand and dump them in the lake.
Let us begin. The adventure opens with this introduction, but then spends the first 4 pages outlining the adventure, giving GM Advice, providing us with 3 hooks (of the do-gooder variety), and then the NPCs, which is by far the longest. This section is very padded. The NPCs get backstories, roleplaying hints, Roles in the adventure, motivation etc. Cut this down. If the adventure is a complicated mystery plot, or a game of intrigue with heavy faction play, then put this in. In an adventure that is mostly combat and some wilderness travelling, a few sentences and hints suffice, in particular because much of the information is re-iterated in the actual encounter.
A second point of improvement is absolutely the language. Good descriptions evoke an image, they excite the imagination, while also being short so they can be parsed easily. These descriptions are very often mundane and dull. R.e. the Baron. “He is always dressed in nobility clothes that he puts above a nicely made chain mail.” Thwack with the ruler on the fingers! Evocative; “Well-made chainmail,” is acceptable, it evokes practicality, offset by the trappings of nobility, “nicely-made” less so, implying that its merely pretty or foppish. “Nobility clothes” I don’t want to see ever again. Figure out a few specific details that evoke a scene. Deerskin gloves, silk doublet, seal-fur jacket, gold-brocaded gamebeson, tricorn cap dotted with peacock feathers etc. etc. ‘Enchanted lights’ gives the game up to soon, and how would the locals even recognize what is or is not enchanted? And don’t even get me started on the description of the baron as the questgiver. Questgiver implies artificial MMO style NPCs that dole out quests, but you have just written all those words about the NPCs and their backstories. Do it quick and without immersion if you absolutely must, but don’t do it slow AND ruin your own attempts to set a scene.
There is one detail that I recall of the description of the forest that did stuck out. Sounds. The woods are eerily still. The fresh snow muffles most of the noises. Sometimes the sound of a branch cracking underneath the weight of the snow can be heard.
That sets a mood. But its one of the few descriptions like this.
The Fortress of Strathenberg has 3 features. An inn with a bouncer that is friendly but will throw you out if you make trouble, an elven blacksmith that sells +1 armor and weapons for thousands of gold pieces in this isolated wilderness  and a shrine to a harvest god, but we are not told what god. There is some gameability but here it would be good to find one or two details that stick out and are memorable. Strathenburg, who built it, why is it here, so far in the frozen north? Was it perhaps constructed by some people older than man, and the Baron has merely taken possession of it? Is there something noteworthy about the Strathenburg family line? What harvest god are they worshipping? You don’t want to bore everyone with endless backstory but a single detail or so is usually enough to set a scene. Something! The shrine of the harvest god is built around the site of the world’s oldest oak! That’s not stellar but it is something memorable. Here its just blank space and that’s a shame. Same for the forest.
Although Rikvidr is home for many dangerous creatures, these hibernate throughout the winter months. So the chances of encountering them are slim. The primary danger in winter is the climate itself. Every year, news will come to the stronghold of a local who died of hypothermia or even hunger after getting lost in the forest.
So its actually not that bad then. Okay. But I am a hero. I want to go to bad locations. How about something like this.
Rikvidr stood here long before man and it will stand here long after he has gone. Grim pines armored in nigh impenetrable black bark stretch out far beyond the borders of the known world. Grudgingly it allows men take the lives of its sons for firewood, and not a few lives it takes in return by cold, hunger and the savage beasts that hide under its oppressive canopy. Things are buried here that have no name in the tongues of men, and some of them not dead, but merely sleeping.
Now that’s a forest fit for a level 9 party.Which brings me to my next point. This entire adventure seems like it is suitable for characters of levels 1-3 in terms of scope. Missing villagers? Check! Reward of a few hundred gold pieces? Check! Will o the Wisps are pretty tough, so maybe it could just be one at the end, but the other obstacles in this adventure, a river that must be forded, a cliff that you can climb down and possibly risk falling, this is all very street level stuff. The few combat encounters highten the disparity even more by seeming out of place.
The first area the PCs go to they immediately encounter 4 Will o the Wisps and an infant Remorhaz that was sleeping nearby and then wakes up and joins the attack. So the first thing we ask immediately is WHY IS THE REMORHAZ SIGHTED IN A REGION THAT IS ONLY COVERED IN SNOW BY WINTER WHEN IT IS AN ARCTIC PREDATOR WHOSE SELF GENERATED BODY HEAT IS SO GREAT IT WILL LITERALLY MELT ITSELF IN TEMPERATE CLIMATES. But other then that, the will’o the wisps are there to create a sort of red herring, only to have the PCs then return to the fortress and find another person has gone missing. So that sort of makes sense. There’s a troupe of yeti’s later on. Then five winter wolves. These types of monsters are good challenges for the party, yes, but the villagers that go about trying to collect firewood or take walks in this forest would be utterly destroyed by them. So the description of the forest and the surrounding environs doesn’t integrate with the challenges the PCs face.
Why don’t you encounter a Remorhaz 2 hours from the village? Because the two don’t go hand in hand. You either have frequent Remorhaz encounters (11 HD), or you have a village. If the situation changes, either the village A) entreats with some hero to get rid of the remorhaz or B) the Remorhaz gradually kills all of them until they move. The end. All of these wilderness encounters should have been with wild animals. Bears. Wolves. Mountain lions. Plenty of challenge for a forest in winter. Make it level 1 – 3. There you go.
Incidentally if someone were to do the OSR a favor, publish a dictionary with nothing but words and descriptions for medieval garments, medieval meals, medieval features of architecture, then names for landmarks and landscapes like hill, bog, fen, hillock, caldera, peninsula, archipelago etc. etc. etc. and medieval titles and occupations. Now THAT I would buy.
So the main body of the adventure is about 8-10 encounters that one comes upon sequentially as one is pursuing the kidnapper, a lvl 8 wizard. There is one interesting feature; the Wizard has several hour head start, and the way the PCs handle the encounters will decrease or increase this lead. That’s good. I am a bit surprised there is no mention of using horses to follow the trail but I am told 5e players don’t buy that many horses. This idea is at least good. You see a troupe of Yeti’s eating a carcass, do you sneak around them and risk detection, do you wait, do you attack them and continue your chase? The ability to at least catch up to the Wizard before he reaches his cabin is good and there is, at the very least, a penalty for failure; he does kill his prisoner after 2 hours. I am a bit surprised he doesn’t think to use the Phantom Steed he has memorized to reach the cabin faster but I don’t know if it can be used like that in 5e.
One encounter had the right idea but illustrates another problem of this adventure. It is too easy! An 80 foot river, partially frozen (so presumably rapid current), with, somewhat incredibly, an 80 foot drawbridge  suspended across it that the wizard…using what is either some elaborate system of pulleys that is left out of the description or FUCKING MAGIC has single-handedly pulled up. The PCs
can be smart succeed in a DC 16 Perception check and detect the lever that lets down the bridge…but if they don’t they can either find a place where the river is fordable, which sets them back an hour (?) or they can try to swim across. Quote: If the party decides to swim across, it will be easy and possible with no skill checks. However, they will need to succeed on a DC 20 Constitution saving throw or suffer hypothermia
Hypothermia gives you disadvantage until you are warmed up. This is wrong. It should be…the PCs have 5 minutes to make a fire or they die of exposure, and the river ABSOLUTELY requires a Swimming check to get across or you just drown. I can nitpick this thing to death, but the IDEA is good. The execution is lacking, but the IDEA of having to face natural hazards and circumvent them via cleverness, that is part of DnD, low level DnD. The Characters are level 9, at this point they have access to all sorts of overpowered abilities. The Druid can turn into a hawk and fly across, the Wizard can Dimension Door, some guy might have boots of levitation etc. etc. etc.
The final confrontation with the Wizard and his vampire wife is a little better because it does at least involve basic deception in an effort to ambush the characters. Detect Evil. The description of the Wizard, who is a level below the average party level, kind of makes it obvious that he knows he has no chance. Damn. Harsh. His Wife, who is a vampire, has her coffin, completely undefended, in some cave near Einar’s Cabin, with no further precautions or traps…
And then it’s done. A few new magic items, like the overpowered rod that allows you to cast either Flesh to Stone or Greater Restoration 1/day, I think but I am not sure that the wizard has some sort of tricked out dancing light custom familiar construct with powers (this might be a character option in 5e) and that’s all she wrote.
There’s several dozen things I can point to that I find lacking in this adventure but I think it behooves me to focus on the basics and leave the author to grapple with those in his next effort;
* The writing is underwhelming and there is a lack of verisimilitude. The place doesn’t feel real but more importantly, it doesn’t feel memorable. This is something that is the most difficult to fix and something you will grapple with as time goes on. If you include a place, try to include at least one memorable detail about the place.
* The adventure is simplistic. I am reminded of some White Dwarf adventures (Search for the Temple of the Golden Spire, The Curse of the Wildland etc. etc.) or even Mertylmane’s Road (which was linear but had a dungeon at the end and had good atmosphere). Part of the fun of a game is making decisions, and feeling like you are exploring something. What if instead of a straight line, this had been several trails or a hexmap?, and the PCs have to interrogate locals/that weird Nixie to find out where the wizard might be taking her? Create something that is open-ended and leave it up to the PCs how they go about it.
* The adventure is too easy for a party of 9th level characters. Maybe a Vampire at the end is real tough, I don’t play a lot of 5e, but it doesn’t feel like a party of 9th level characters would be seriously challenged. A high cliff or a broad river are good challenges for a low level party, but high level characters should have ample resources to deal with such a threat.
* The roll Perception DC 14 to notice something something something is a little irksome. I would instead say “if the players think to look for it, they notice a lever on the far side etc. etc” and if the players think to look for something, perhaps give them the advantage.
In summary, this adventure is not good. Formatting is decent, and useability is more then acceptable. Long is the road the author must walk, but there is time, and what a journey it will be. I don’t think this adventure is worthless but for a paid product the current quality is not on par, with few compensating factors. This is on the lower end of **. On the plus side, Andy is going to be releasing frequently over the next few months so there will be plenty of opportunities for practice and improvement.
Andy’s Patreon can be found here. Maybe in a few months we will swing by again and see how he is doing!
 Prince will now ritually denounce the existence of widely available magical item shoppes in fifth edition dungeons and dragons
 Presumably made of mithril or orichalcum and created as a sort of shrine to a God of Architectural Marvels