Greetings! If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you’re interested in playing Dark Legacy of Evard, our second D&D Encounters season of 2011. And if you’re playing in the season, you might be interested in some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the creative process that brings an adventure from the ivory tower of Wizards of the Coast to a table at your local hobby store. So, let me see what I can say about writing Dark Legacy of Evard without giving away the plot.
Our initial concept for Dark Legacy of Evard began to take shape in the early summer of 2010, when we laid out our plans for the 2011 Encounters seasons. At that point all we really knew is that we’d wanted to link the year’s second season to our upcoming Heroes of Shadow sourcebook, scheduled to release around the same time. Mike Mearls brought the basic idea to the table: Since the material in Heroes of Shadow described Evard as the principal discoverer or practitioner of shadow magic in the D&D world, it would be great to feature him in some way.
I had a chance to throw in my two cents, and since no one had written word one about the adventure, I was careful to push for an evocative but neutral theme and name that wouldn’t tie my hands too much when the time came to actually start writing. (For various reasons, we often have to settle on titles long before we begin working on a project.) After all, if the title were something like Evard’s Traveling Carnival of Bugbear Fire-eaters, well, I’d have some very specific constraints on my design work down the road. So we settled on Dark Legacy of Evard, knowing that I could take that in a number of different directions when the time came to put it together.
Building an Encounter Season
My serious work on Dark Legacy of Evard started in October of 2010. You might be surprised to learn that game designers usually embark on new projects with a lot of the ground rules firmly in place. The Encounters format presents a number of constraints right up front: First, this adventure would be thirteen parts, and you have to keep them more or less in order. Second, since the program is designed to be friendly for new players, the heroes need to start at 1st level. Next, it would be good if the adventure featured a different mix of monsters than the critters we’d used in preceding seasons. This was actually a tricky combination of requirements, since there are a limited number of low-level monsters in the materials we expected DMs to have available, and the source material on the Shadowfell didn’t include many low-level monsters at all. Finally, I discovered that the map order had to be prepared before I did anything else with the adventure. I always hate that last one when it comes up—it feels like I have to design the adventure before I design the adventure, if you follow me.
As much as I might have griped about the list of things to remember to do with the design, I learned long ago that working within restrictions can be a powerful boost to creativity. The hardest thing to do is to write anything you want—on the rare occasions I’ve started a project with no direction at all, the first thing I do is give myself some boundaries by picking a theme and executing on it. Dark Legacy offered some unusual challenges: A low-level, shadow-themed adventure that didn’t make very heavy use of undead.
With those basic considerations in mind, it was time to develop a story that would work within the given constraints. I assembled a concept meeting with a few folks, including Mike Mearls and Greg Bilsland, to kick around what this adventure would be about. We already knew we wanted an adventure that featured the Shadowfell in some way, of course. Mike had a broad idea about a villain who pulls a town into the Shadowfell, and the idea that “the town itself could be the dungeon.” That gave me the idea of having the town slip into the Shadowfell, at which point all sorts of monsters might be turned loose on the unsuspecting townspeople. I used that as the springboard for my story.
Finding the Story
I usually like to design very “sandbox-like” adventures that are essentially settings and situations, as opposed to tightly plotted stories. (Reavers of Harkenwold in the Essentials Dungeon Master’s Kit is an example of this sort of approach.) Unfortunately, I soon learned that this wasn’t necessarily the best fit for Encounters.
I had big ideas of “traffic circle” flow charts for the adventure where you’d hit a spot and move freely between any of four or five possible sessions, but I soon realized that I couldn’t get away with some groups playing Session 4 in the same week that other groups were playing Session 7. Cross-chatter in the community would spoil too many encounters… plus, players who got mixed up with different groups between weeks might come in with an entirely different narrative. Whether I liked it or not, I had to create a plot that flowed much more sequentially, with only a minimal amount of branching.
I was stymied by this for a bit, afraid that I would have to railroad the players ruthlessly. But finally I saw what a strongly serial plot in this format let me do: It let me spin a darned good story.
Once I realized that the physical constraint of the Encounters adventures dictated a rigorous adherence to plot, I decided to make it work for me by creating the best story I could build from the ingredients. I set aside my game designer hat for a bit and put on my author hat: Who was the villain? What was he up to? I needed compelling reasons for why the town was translating into the Shadowfell, who wanted that to happen, and how they’d accomplished it. If I could answer those questions, I’d have my adventure.
The Ghosts of Wizards Walk Abroad on Nights Such as This
Given the fact that the adventure is set in a town falling under the influence of the plane of shadow, it was clear that I needed this tale to simply ooze atmosphere. Dark Legacy of Evard isn’t just a site-based dungeon delve; it’s a ghost story, and to solve the adventure, the heroes must slowly piece together the story of the haunting while doing their best to survive its effects. The final piece of the puzzle that brought the adventure’s plot into focus for me was one simple question: Who’s buried in Evard’s tomb?
That led me to the “hook” of the opening scene: A cold, windy autumn night where the locals huddle close to their hearths and tell tales of vengeful ghosts roaming abroad. Any good ghost story needs a beginning, of course—an original injury or wrong that leads to a restless spirit. Most, of course, don’t reveal the original injury in the first paragraph. The storyteller slowly peels back the layers of myth and misunderstanding until the original crime is revealed in all its shocking horror. And of course a good ghost story needs a twist—a development that takes everything the reader thinks he’s learned up to that point and turns it on its ear....
So, there you have it: Dark Legacy of Evard, a ghost story told in thirteen parts, beginning May 11th at a game store near you.
See you on the other side!
Join the Live Chat with Richard Baker on Thursday, May 5, from 1 to 2 p.m. Pacific time. You can ask about Dark Legacy of Evard, writing novels, designing wargames, or whatever else you're curious about. See this thread in the D&D General forum for more details and to get your questions into the queue.
Rich joined TSR, Inc. in 1991 and began his career as a game designer working on 2nd Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons products. He moved to Seattle to continue with Wizards of the Coast when Wizards acquired TSR in 1997. He played a key part in the 3rd Edition D&D design team, then took over as the creative director for the Alternity science fiction roleplaying game and its settings. After that, he served as the creative director for the D&D Worlds group, and oversaw most of the 3rd Edition Forgotten Realms line. Since 2003, Rich has worked as a designer, developer, and senior designer on a number of 3rd Edition and 4th Edition D&D products, plus the Axis & Allies Miniatures games. He is also a best-selling writer, and author of ten Forgotten Realms novels.