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Beyond the Crystal Cave
Design & Development
By Chris Sims

D ave J. Browne, Tom Kirby, and Graeme Morris designed Beyond the Crystal Cave, Dungeon Module UK1, in 1983. This original adventure, set in the WORLD OF GREYHAWK® campaign setting, presented an enchanted realm full of unusual encounters that encouraged roleplaying and nonviolent solutions. Wizards of the Coast set the talented Steven Townsend to reimagine this unique adventure as a DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Encounters™ season. Out of important components in the original adventure, Steven wove a true homage to UK1 with wonderful Feywild elements and hints of A Midsummer Night's Dream. He also had to come up with a story that, unlike the original, involved tangible villains and other interesting actors.

Marching orders for this adventure also required the encounters to reward use of the Heroes of the Feywild™ rulebook material. Further, any DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Encounters season has to include week-to-week scenes that offer opportunities for a variety of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS experiences—roleplaying, character interaction, exploration, and combat. An added challenge to Encounters design is crafting combats that are dynamic and fun, but not too difficult or overwhelming with conditions. A lot of players new to the game come to Encounters sessions, and we want them to be able to take actions on every turn while they play. That goal requires the adventure to contain fewer game effects that can deny a player his or her actions. All these parameters combine to make Encounters design tricky, especially for veterans used to crafting typical adventures or adventures for our home groups of battle-hardened veteran players.

That's where development can be key. In the chronicle of the upcoming Beyond the Crystal Cave DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Encounters season, development is when I came in.

Playtesting Matters

Along with the manuscript and my mandate for working on the adventure, I received playtest reports. Let me tell you, the value of these cannot be underestimated. You can eyeball an encounter and evaluate it well, but having that opinion corroborated in the play experience or the judgment of other experienced DMs is extremely helpful. I say "judgment" because some playtesters don't have time to run all the encounters. Despite this fact, they read the whole adventure and point out items they think might be difficult or lackluster. In other words, these fellow DMs provide other sets of eyes to confirm suspicions the developer might have.

The feedback is more than mechanical. Playtesters point out what they found fun in noncombat situations, as well as anything wanting. If the plot has a hole, an incongruous element, or a problem in continuity, fresh eyes are the best way to find them. Any writer can tell you that, after weeks of working on a project, it becomes hard to see minor slips in these areas. A good editor helps, but a larger number of critical minds on the job is golden.

I also ran some playtests with my revised encounters, later in the process. Even if the playtest confirmed the encounter worked out mostly as I thought it might, contact with the players' tactics never failed to point out a few tweaks that could make an encounter that much better.

Modifying Encounters

Steven's work was thematic, for sure, but playtests suggested the encounters tended toward too difficult, with too many restrictive conditions. So, then, the meat of my labor was to rework the encounters while keeping the Steven's intent alive alongside the spirit of the story. Another primary consideration was amplifying the connection to the original UK1 adventure.

A number of monsters in the initial manuscript were too high level for the adventurers to face them effectively. Without resorting to spoilers, one method I use in cases like this is what I call my "down-level, up-role" technique. In several cases, wearing my developer hat, I took Steven's monster and subtracted levels to put it in a better range for the characters' capabilities. Then, where appropriate, I promoted the monster to elite or solo. My basic process is to subtract five levels for one upward bump in role, but that's just a starting point. The requirements of each encounter dictate the results as much as my initial scheme.

That's a luxury of adventure design—you can customize opponents to meet the needs of a specific battle. In developing this adventure, I had to stick to preexisting maps, which could be disadvantageous for the monsters in a way that threatened make the encounter too static. (Think stationary fight in a doorway.) One way to alleviate this risk, especially with a solo monster, is to give the foe more mobility. It doesn't make the creature more effective in combat, but it forces the players to think more tactically and the characters to move around the environment.

Environment is very important to encounters. It can be tempting to add terrain that mostly benefits the monsters. Steven included terrain effects that could benefit the party or favored neither side in a battle. Let's face it, sometimes its fun to push monsters into a bonfire. They deserve it.

Story Changes

UK1's story involves two young lovers who, to flee their feuding families, run away to an enchanted fey garden hidden within its own dimension. Adventurers pursue the couple at the behest of their parents. The original garden has a godlike protector who can force the characters to refrain from violence or punish them for their aggression.

Weaving adventure narrative for the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game isn't easy. Doing so requires storytelling skills, but you, as the writer, also have to impart technical details to the DM, maintaining believability (within the game's milieu) and your intended plot. You must make sure the DM can impart information to the players so the tale is properly told. But you also have to predict, with some accuracy, how players are likely to interact with the scenes you create.

Steven's story maintained some of the original adventure's elements and focused on the really cool parts of that module. He added villains and other NPCs to the mix, as well as an adventure background that has a lot more detail. Still, it needed some revision for various reasons.

While developing the story, I had a few primary aims. (These are my usual goals.) First, to eliminate elements that threaten suspension of disbelief, such as patrons that have enough power and freedom to do the adventurers' job for them. Then to enhance internal narrative references, creating more "Aha!" moments for players as the adventure progresses. I also make sure to focus and enhance the reasons the players (and PCs) have to care about non-enemy characters and to take personal interest in the adventure's progress and outcome. In this case, Steven had already made sure the conclusion stemmed from the adventurers' actions, but I would have revised it if that had been less clear.

Happily Ever After

In the end, it was a real pleasure to develop Steven's work and enhance the experience for the players and DMs who'll interact with it for weeks and weeks. The final product is something I wanted to use right away in my home gaming. (I was able to playtest a few pieces, but that's hardly enough.) I hope you feel the same when you play DUNGEONS & DRAGONS Encounters Beyond the Crystal Cave for yourself.

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