Warning: This column contains spoilers from the current D&D Encounters season: March of the Phantom Brigade. Although these spoilers are minor, you have been forewarned.
The first full D&D Encounters season of 2011, March of the Phantom Brigade, began life as a crazy idea on the way back from one of my favorite gaming stores in Lacey, Washington (about an hour south of the Wizards of the Coast offices). I was riding in the passenger seat next to Chris Tulach, our Organized Play content designer, and we were talking about my assignment for the upcoming season. At this point, I wasn’t even sure what the season was going to be about… but I did have an idea where the heroes would be faced with an enemy that wasn’t the “last boss” of the adventure, per se; an enemy that the heroes never fought directly, but encountered many times throughout the season. Though this idea didn’t end up panning out, it was the genesis of the plot thread that would end up running through the whole season.
As Chris and I talked it out, the adventure began to shape. We started tossing around ideas, even ways to bring back classic D&D elements like the Ghost Tower of Inverness. In that hour drive, the adventure had taken on a life of its own and had a firm grasp on my brain.
Now all I had to do was design it!
Back at the office the following week, I pulled in several members of R&D to help me figure out what was going to go into the adventure. I had a shell of an idea, but needed some meat to fill it out. After soliciting the feedback from the team, I had a list of various items that would be good choices to include in the adventure. This helped me form some pretty simple goals for the D&D Encounters season, which were:
- Create a season with an engaging story.
- Create an adventure with a strongly classic feel.
- Provide an experience both iconic to D&D (in order to help new players understand D&D),while also engaging players who have a lot of D&D experience.
- Highlight the Nentir Vale, and give players a chance to experience adventuring in that setting.
- Touch on a classic adventure in some ways; in this case, Ghost Tower of Inverness.
With these goals established, it was time to start writing the adventure.
More than Just Combat
One of the main pieces of feedback we’ve collected from the first two seasons of D&D Encounters was that players wanted something more like a traditional D&D adventure, with more exploration and roleplaying. As such, I’d planned on trying to make March of the Phantom Brigade one that engaged all kinds of players from the get-go: the explorers, the roleplayers, the combat junkies, and (like me) the ones who like a little bit of everything in their adventures. So putting more exploration and roleplaying into the adventure was an easy piece of feedback for me to respond to.
The first chapter is specifically designed to give players a feeling similar to the classic Oregon Trail computer game; the heroes face attacks by hostile creatures, disease, and encounters with bandits as they travel from Hammerfast to the ruins of Castle Inverness. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a way to include characters dying of dysentery in the adventure, but I did manage to include a sequence where wagons must ford a stream.
Throughout the adventure, I tried to include lots of places for exploration, places where the heroes can poke around and gain a little more information about what’s going on in the adventure. Similarly, I made sure that all of the NPCs not only got some spotlight time with the heroes, but also included extensive character notes, so that DMs who see that their players are interested in roleplaying have something more to go off of when improvising. These and other tweaks to the adventure put a lot of tools in the DM’s hands to react to any interest that the players show in these subjects—which should help each session feel a little bit more like a classic home campaign.
Though I’ve written adventures before, I must say that there were dozens of logistical issues that popped up when designing March of the Phantom Brigade. For example, you can’t assume that players are in the same party from week to week, let alone have the same DM. This means that every session’s worth of adventure has to be almost completely self-contained, and can rarely rely on the experiences of a single group from week to week. For example, I wanted to include more statements like, “If the players befriended the blacksmith in the last session, then…” However, any given group might have two players that befriended the blacksmith, two that didn’t, and one that’s playing for the first time this week, leading to a strange situation for the DM. Nevertheless, I included a couple of those types of situations, to see how they go over with DMs and players.
There were other bumps along the way. For example, this season includes a “random encounter” –one week, it will be random which of three possible encounters you’re going to be playing. However, I also realized that I couldn’t reference specifics from these encounters later in the season, since any given group might have players any of the three encounters.
In the end, I discovered that writing a D&D Encounters season is unlike writing any kind of traditional adventure, because you have to imagine the season as a series of many individual adventures strung together to create a larger one. That, coupled with not being able to make any real assumptions about player actions throughout the season, means that you end up with an adventure that moves quickly from point A to point B; there’s little place to put in side treks and potential variance. As a result, I found myself forced to look within an individual session to find places to include that variance and exploration; this means each session is supposed to have some small element of roleplaying, exploration, or simple discovery in order to feel more like a traditional adventure.
Putting it All Together
At the conclusion of the design process, the adventure had become something I was excited to see play out: a story of bitter revenge that takes the heroes across the Nentir Vale, a battle against a nearly overwhelming force of enemies, and a climax that offers an interesting twist on the final confrontation with the villain. In a lot of ways, this D&D Encounters season is going to be a test of the experiment as to whether or not we can deliver a more traditional RPG experience, with more story, more roleplaying, and more exploration, in addition to the danger of the encounters themselves.
Personally, I think there’s a little something for everyone in the adventure, from classic D&D tropes like random encounters and the Ghost Tower of Inverness, to a focus on the Nentir Vale (including time spent in Hammerfast, one of my personal favorite new additions to the game)—as well as a sneak peak at the Phantom Brigade, a group of antagonists (and possible allies) that will appear in Monster Vault: Threats of the Nentir Vale.
I hope people will enjoy the greater focus on traditional adventuring, and that the feedback from this season will help make each subsequent season even better.
March of the Phantom Brigade launched February 9th, but you can join in any week of the entire D&D Encounters season. Interested in playing? Find out more about D&D Encounters on our events page, including the adventure’s backstory, its downloadable characters—and where to find a game near you!
Rodney Thompson began freelancing in the RPG industry in 2001 before graduating from the University of Tennessee. In 2007 he joined the Wizards of the Coast staff as the lead designer and developer for the new Star Wars RPG product line. Rodney is the co-designer of Lords of Waterdeep and is currently a designer for Dungeons & Dragons.