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Siege of Gardmore Abbey
Design & Development
Steve Townshend

Siege of Gardmore Abbey is an adventure designed for the 2011 PAX Prime convention, which takes place in Seattle, Washington, on August 26 through August 28. In this week's Design and Development column, the adventure's author, Steve Townshend, offers some of his thoughts.

What connections are there between the PAX adventure, The Siege of Gardmore Abbey, and Madness at Gardmore Abbey, which is available in September 2011?

Everything in the PAX adventure is drawn from the Madness at Gardmore Abbey super-adventure or informs Madness in some way. When James Wyatt, Creighton Broadhurst, and I began working on Madness at Gardmore Abbey, James tasked us with writing the adventure's encounters while he created the bones of the adventure, including its setting, basic story, major nonplayer characters, Deck of Many Things mechanics, and so on. Creighton and I divided the adventure's encounters in half, with Creighton taking the abbey's inner encounters (Gardmore, book 4) while I claimed the exterior ones (Gardmore, book 3). Though I couldn't have known it at the time, these encounters would form the basis for everything that happens in the PAX adventure, an assignment I received six months later.

In the Madness at Gardmore Abbey super-adventure, I determined that I wanted to build an interconnected world where each encounter fit snugly with the others in its ecosystem. In other words, the encounters outside the abbey are like the dramatis personae in a play, movie, or television show in that they're all aware of one another on some level, and they interact with each other to some extent. Together these encounters form a small world in the ruins of outer Gardmore. I wanted each encounter to reveal tiny glimpses of the past -- little stories of the abbey's former glory and its fall. At the time, I was doing this to create a more immersive play experience; I couldn't have known then that these little stories would become the threads from which the PAX adventure, The Siege of Gardmore Abbey, would later be spun.

How did you go about formulating the pitch for the adventure? Had you always envisioned it being this story-driven? Did Organized Play/R&D already have a framework in place?

When I was given the assignment to write an adventure for PAX, this was my only specification from Wizards of the Coast: "We have an upcoming design opportunity on the Organized Play adventure for PAX this year. The adventure needs to tie in to Gardmore Abbey, and being that you're one of the authors on that adventure, we wanted you to write it."

In Madness at Gardmore Abbey, I had worked to evoke a sense of awe and of loss throughout the setting, and I'd wanted DMs and players to feel that in every encounter; once this decrepit ruin was something glorious and pure before it fell to evil. Like the feeling you get in Fellowship of the Ring as the fellowship explores Moria. Or, from personal experience, the way I felt walking the streets of Pompeii. In that state of mind, I contemplated what the golden days of Gardmore must have been like, back before the world was "points of light in a sea of darkness," when Nerath was a unified empire protected by a legion of paladins in shining armor. I could set the adventure in the distant past, at the last gleaming of Nerath's glory before the fall. If I cast the players in the roles of adventurers present at the siege of Gardmore -- and if those adventurers were privy to and involved with the events of the abbey's fall -- the experience would ground the players in Gardmore's story and give them solid context and investment in the world that exists in the super-adventure. Whether their adventurers lived or died in the PAX adventure, the players would have walked those crumbling walls when they still stood tall and proud; interacted with its people; and fought, bled, and/or died with them (depending on the adventure's outcome). Then, when the players tried their hand at Madness at Gardmore Abbey (presumably with new characters), every detail would resonate with significance: here is the place where this event happened, there is the aftermath of that event, and so on. My goal was to create a reference point -- a mental or emotional context for investment that would pay off in every encounter of outer Gardmore from the Madness at Gardmore Abbey super-adventure.

I pitched that idea, and there was some back and forth with James Wyatt and Rich Baker. They brainstormed and made some suggestions, including setting the adventure in the regular present timeline ruins of Gardmore (a modular library section you could add on) or using said library to transport present characters back in time into the setting I'd proposed. However, at the end of that brainstorming session, they agreed to let me try it the way I wanted, and for that trust I'm grateful.

Once I had the green light, the next thing I had to do was create some compelling characters worth playing.

There is a lot of story and roleplaying potential in The Siege of Gardmore Abbey -- even the knights have different interactions with different characters. What can you tell us about the pregenerated characters for the adventure, including the element of their individual goals?

In many ways the characters are what this adventure's all about. In an RPG campaign, you're typically playing a character of your own creation that you invest in over the course of several sessions. But that's not the case with a convention game, where you've got about four hours from the beginning to the end of your story. The trick is to give each player a unique vessel through the adventure: a character whose conflicts are tied to the adventure's environment, who has something personal to gain or everything to lose in the drama that's about to unfold. Those things the adventurer has to gain or lose make compelling story elements when they're deeply personal to the adventurer and tied to his or her emotions. They define the adventurer's yearning -- the inner wants and needs that drive him or her. When you're doing any kind of acting work, identifying and pursuing these character wants, or goals, in a scene is very important. You have to know what your character wants, and you have to go after that want with all the emotional resources available to your character. Watching characters pursue their goals and meet adversity in this way is a good part of what makes a dramatic story interesting.

To this end I did my best to hardwire roleplaying opportunities into the game by giving each pregenerated character a want or goal to accomplish within the adventure. Some of these goals are more external and easier to accomplish. Some are internal or require something from another adventurer, and these can be more difficult to fulfill depending on the other players in the group and how cooperatively the participants play with one another. The wants and goals give each player a game of his or her own to play, layered on top of the D&D adventure they're experiencing. In addition, each character in the adventure has his or her own agenda and an attitude toward individual adventurers. As the adventurer, you have to choose which characters to deal with and how you want to interact with them. If you read your character sheet carefully, you'll pick up on clues as to which other characters might be most helpful to you and which ones fear, dislike, or disdain you. Each adventurer has an emotional vulnerability of some kind that drives the adventurer toward his or her goal. Even the stoniest-seeming characters in this adventure are motivated toward their goal by emotional vulnerability.

Do you have a preference for more story-driven adventures? Any favorites from past or present editions that you've enjoyed?

Absolutely. Story and character depth are most of what matters to me in an RPG. In terms of story-driven D&D adventures, I admire the original I6 Ravenloft. It was a cool story with fantastic, moody writing:

"I am The Ancient, I am The Land. My beginnings are lost in the darkness of the past. I was the warrior, I was good and just. I thundered across the land like the wrath of a just god, but the war years and the killing years wore down my soul as the wind wears stone into sand."

I love that. In Ravenloft, Strahd was a tragic character with an unattainable longing that drove him on, though his immediate goals were randomly determined at the beginning of the game. Though I've never played the module, I very much admire what it does, and I think it's hard to design a story-driven module for publication. Most of the time they rely on characters and events that the adventurers should ultimately affect. The story-driven module either has to cover dozens of different outcomes or find the means to give at least the illusion of choice to the adventurers.

Unlike a standard dungeon crawl, The Siege of Gardmore Abbey makes full use of the term "siege." What can you tell us about the structure of the adventure and the sorts of challenges players will face?

The Siege of Gardmore Abbey is not so much about Gardmore Abbey as it is about the people that inhabited it and the choices those people made, and each adventurer has choices to make that will affect the outcome of the adventure, not only for that adventurer, but for the entire group. That's where the true drama of the story happens.

My intent was to convey a sense of the golden age of Nerath before its fall and to encapsulate the underlying reasons for Nerath's fall within the adventure. That's a tall order, especially since my design specifications required me to create two encounters and an optional third. I planned the encounters by browsing James Wyatt's summary of Gardmore's story and choosing creatures that fit the story, level requirements, and theme; observant players will notice that every creature in The Siege of Gardmore Abbey comments upon themes within the adventure. Those monster choices are all subtext to what's going on with Gardmore Abbey, the knights, and the Empire of Nerath. I'm not certain how explicit it is in the final version, but it's there for those who look.

Nevertheless, combat encounters don't make a story, and I needed to find a way to make the adventure meaningful. Therefore, I put a significant roleplaying bias on the beginning of the adventure, and placed additional roleplaying checkpoints throughout it. But those aren't moments for idle chitchat. The adventurers are always striving to accomplish complex tasks throughout the adventure, and they usually complete those with skill checks. You might think of the whole siege as a prolonged skill challenge mingled with combat, but that doesn't quite do it justice. I've brought my own notion of skill challenges into this adventure: Instead of going around and around the table with the most skilled adventurer making checks, each adventurer in the party commits to an action. A scene forms around that action, and the adventurers performing that action interact with one another and with characters. At some point during each scene, a skill check is rolled, its success or failure influenced by the scene happening around it. The outcome affects the adventure. Later on, other scenes work similarly. I suppose I'd call these "dramatic skill challenges," since they involve each of the adventurers, engage the adventurers' goals and wants, and work to move the story forward. Structurally the siege is made up of these and interspersed with combat. To be fair, I think that's somewhat how skill challenges were meant to be executed from the start.

Without spoiling anything, do you have any tips or advice for players planning to run through the adventure?

Like life, The Siege of Gardmore Abbey isn't always fair. Not every element is built upon an ideal of perfect balance. Some adventurer goals are harder to achieve than others. Skill checks/challenges aren't always customized to suit the adventurer who's good at that skill, so listen to the clues in the read-aloud text and the hints from the DM. The adventure will challenge the adventurers, depending on the choices they make, and it has the potential to get downright wicked -- wicked like it's February 1836 and you're on the wrong side of the Alamo walls.

Most of all, I'd encourage the DM and the players to bring their best roleplaying skills to the table. I know it will likely be a table of strangers in a noisy convention hall; I also know how weird it is to try committing to a character when nobody else at the table seems to be making an effort. It's hard because we're afraid of looking stupid. Most of the time, however, I find that everyone's equally as anxious, and it only takes someone to take a bold step forward for everyone else to relax, get invested in the world, and start having fun. Be that person. Breaking the ice is always tough but it's necessary, and oftentimes it's best initiated among the players, since they're all on the same side of the screen. This has been my experience at organized play events.

Those who complete the adventure and succeed at achieving their character goals might receive a special reward that (with your DM's permission) can be transferred to a character of your own creation and carried over into the Madness at Gardmore Abbey super-adventure.

And because I'm a fool for connecting each of my projects, a certain character that fails at his quest in this adventure might just find his final fate written on page 114 of Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale. But try not to fail. Nobody wants you to be eaten by mimics. Probably.

About the Author

Steve Townshend’s recent design credits include Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale, Madness at Gardmore Abbey, and Heroes of the Feywild. Oublivae and the banderhobbs also number among his wicked children. Steve completed the heroic tier as an actor and improviser, but took the fiction writer paragon path. He lives with an elf princess and their familiar in Chicago, a Big City on a Lake.

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