Reflections on my first published adventure
So last summer I started working on what was supposed to be a one-shot for a AD&D5E publications through a writer’s workshop. I was supposed to have it written in 30-days. I didn’t thanks to the demands of my job, the demands of parenthood, and the difficulties with playtesting it during the pandemic. It took nearly nine months to complete playtesting but it is done and I have now published it. It is called A Sonata for the Silver Queen. It was inspired by a local legend from my area where I live. You may have heard of the story called “The Lady in White.” She haunts the shores of Lake Ontario looking for her lost child. There was a movie made from the story back in 1988. It’s been a while since I saw the movie so I can’t say if it is any good or not.
In order to embrace the themes of gothic romance, I focused on music, love, and loss. This module is about a powerful fey creature cursed by the loss of her lover, a Vistani bard of great renown. She was spurned and turned to darkness. Once every new moon she emerges from the Svalich Woods to separate a couple in love so that they feel the anguish she feels. The PCs learn about her curse when a young man goes missing from Valaki and his fiancé begs he PCs to help find him. The module has a crazy Vistani cult that worships the Silver Queen. The PCs can investigate and discover the truth of what happened all those years ago. They can confront the Silver Queen, solve a murder, or both. Should the PCs be resourceful enough and thoroughly investigate the history of this creature, they will find a powerful weapon to put her soul to rest: a sonata written for the Silver Queen by her long dead lover.
A friend of mine was running (and still runs) a Curse of Strahd game to which I am a player. His campaign is fun and, although he is more a “Matt Mercer DM,” the group is onboard for the ride and it has been a blast. My friend graciously accepted the task of playtesting “A Sonata for the Silver Queen” with the group I was in and a second Curse of Strahd group he runs. I played dumb and did not say a thing as we played through the adventure. Needless to say, the playtest was interesting…
From the player’s perspective I learned that 5E players, especially when they get multiattack, think they can kill anything. As soon as they heard that the Silver Queen resides at a particular spot in the Svalich Woods, the Paladin and the Rogue wanted to go fight her. They didn’t even consider doing any investigation. I tried to nudge them a bit as that is what my undead hunting ranger would do anyway. I mean, call me crazy, but if you hear about a powerful undead fey creature, wouldn’t you want to, you know, learn about the thing you are about to face!?
I also discovered that some players really need prompting when it comes to investigation type scenarios. I’ve always known that. However, when you are working from a design perspective, I struggled with making sure this was not a railroad. I felt that if they were prompted to make specific rolls at specific times of the adventure, the module would just be a cleverly disguisd railroad…but maybe all 5E modules are railroads? Maybe investigations have to be railroady?
When I look at the investigation chapter of Waterdeep: Dragonheist, it is nothing but a railroad. In that chapter, you either discover a particular clue by speaking with a particular individual, or you don’t discover the clue. Maybe that is how investigations have to be written? I honestly don’t know. What I chose to have the PCs to travel to other Vistani encampments to learn about what they were facing. They could acquire the information in many different ways. However, at some point, they get the option of investigating the mystery further or marching into the Svalich Woods to take out the Silver Queen. The players also have the option of taking on the Vistani cult or just parlaying with them to learn more. My group went on the offensive. The other group investigated and parlayed with the cult. I think I was successful enough to avoid a railroad…we shall see.
Not only did I get a player’s perspective but I got a DM’s perspective as well. The two of us certainly disagreed with how certain aspects of the story should’ve unfolded but the back and forth between the two of us was illuminating. In certain respects, I assumed too much in my first couple of drafts as my DM was confused about what was intended. Had I been the DM playtesting this, I would have missed some of the assumptions I inadvertently built in. In other respects, my DM struggled with the fact that, in essense, its his game. Do what thou will with it. He knows the players better than I.
Indeed, I recall Matt Colville saying that when we write homebrew content for our players, our players are beta testing it at the next session. I think this is a very insightful comment. For, during those moments you realize the encounter you designed is too tough, too easy, or not happening the way you intended it, you may have to make some on the fly corrections. I think a lot of our assumptions that we build into our notes and scratch pads is where the translation from an idea, to the beta test product, and finally to the published product need to be identified and addressed. Should I ever write another module like this again, I am going to have another DM play test it. I am not sure if other professional types who make a living writing RPGs have GMs play test their work, but I found the experience invaluable. I recommend it…but be prepared. My good friend is as opinionated as I. There were many long nights over discord where we had heated arguments. It didn’t help that the two of us not only enjoy DMing, but also enjoy a good bourbon when we DM! LOL!
One quick and mildly humorous anecdote about the experience. We use Fantasy Grounds for the campaign. During the investigation phase of this adventure two of the players decided to go talk to some Vistani at the Tser Falls encampment. Why is this important? Well, the adventure centers around a few Vistani families I wrote up who were involved with, or at least knew about, the curse of the Silver Queen. While writing this module I never considered what would happen if the PCs decided to talk with other Vistani, let alone Madam Eva! During this particular game session, my DM friend is sending me secret messages to the tune of “Oh SHIT! What do I do?” and my response was “Fuck! I have no idea!” We ended up working things out behind the scenes and no one was the wiser.
I am particularly proud of the Silver Queen. To quote my friend “She’s a beast!” She is designed to be a “glass cannon.” She can be destroyed through violence or can be brought to rest with the Sonata. However, she has abilities to debilitate her opponents, harry them with aura attacks, and isolate them. The playtest group that I was not a part of suffered a TPK. The group I was in came close to a TPK as well. Our monk player was pissed by the end of the session because he carried the Sun Sword and he could not get to her because many of her abilities are designed to keep opponents away from her.
Had I been the one running that encounter, I would have been using a lot of fog cloud, mage hand, minor illusion, and other ghostly stuff to disorient the players and sow confusion. My DM friend went on the offensive hard with her. I was legit frightened by the creature I created!
Some may find her to be unbalanced. Maybe those people are right. I don’t believe in balanced final boss fights. To quote Tom Hanks from “A League of Their Own,” “Of course its hard! It’s the hard that makes it great.” If the PCs did their homework and found the Sonata, the fight should not be too difficult. They should walk away feeling like they accomplished something great.
If you pick up the module, let me know of your experiences with the Silver Queen in the comments below.