Sunday, May 5, 2019

In Media Res

I've been playing in a West Marches game (5E D&D) on for several years now. It was the inspiration to run my own West Marches game, which I started also in 5E but recently switched to Classic D&D.

In September 2017, a player in that online West Marches game decided to start a game, also 5E, of the new Ravenloft adventure. I signed up. We created characters and started playing.

Now, if you've ever played by email or play by post (PbP), you know how slow it can go. And this Ravenloft 5E game was no exception. I'm OK with the slow pace. I can take my time, consider options, ask questions, before posting my moves.

This game, however, started up and then fizzled out. The DM dropped it for a bit, then decided to start it up again. I was willing to keep going, but the DM wanted to start at the beginning again. So we did. A few new players replaced some that disappeared.

And then it started to fizzle again. A few players dropped. A few new players joined. Luckily, this time the DM didn't make us start over from the very beginning again. Still, it's slow going and the new and old players in the game haven't really gelled as a team yet.

I think...and yes, I could be wrong about this...the problem is not with the players or the DM, it's with the way the module is structured. It's trying too hard to avoid railroading us into the Mists of Barovia.

We started out in whatever forgettable Forgotten Realms town. Survivors of a caravan attacked supposedly by werewolves are brought to town. We question them, and find discrepancies in their testimony and they claim to come from Barovia, a land no one's heard of before. They have coins no one's seen before. We investigate the site and find the remains of the caravan and potential signs of werewolves. We follow the trail into the woods. We end up at the Gates of Barovia.

And then the game resets. We're back at the podunk town. We have to roleplay the mystery again. And it pretty much goes the same way as before. And it breaks down as we're investigating the site of the attack.

As I mentioned above, this time we get some new players and new characters and just ret-con them in and now we're at the Gates of Barovia again.

Now, PbP is a slow format, but it took us a year and a half to do all that. I'm not surprised that many players keep losing interest. The module is trying really hard to give us the illusion of free will, but here's the thing. The module isn't being plunked down in an existing campaign. It's a game specifically for running this adventure. And when we either defeat Strahd or die trying, the game will conclude. I can see why all that intro mystery stuff would be important for running the module in an ongoing campaign, but in this case, it would have been a lot better if the DM had just started us in Barovia, giving us a summary of how we'd gotten there. We could have rolled with it and gotten to the meat of the module already.

And thinking back, way back, in the 3.5 days there was a Ravenloft module put out. And someone was running a game of it on RPOL that I joined. And after we made our characters, we did start in Barovia. The problem with that game was that it was just a constant series of battles with zombies as we tried to get to the village and once we got to the village, it was overrun with more zombies. I wanted Gothic horror, not zombie apocalypse, so I lost interest and quit the game before it got too far.  But at least I wasn't put through a bunch of useless RP scenes that were virtually predetermined before we got to the zombie fights.

When I ran the original I6 Ravenloft module (12 years ago now? Wow!) for some friends, it was just that. So I stared them with the letter and after reading it had them arriving in the village. It went well.

I think there's something to be said for cutting to the chase and just starting the adventure where the action is. The Basic Set has adventures starting just at the door (or cave mouth) of the dungeon because that's where the fun is. I think it's a good way to start IF you already have buy-in from the players. Yes, there are some adventures where the wilderness travel and whatnot to get to the dungeon is the point. But many times, it's just a waste of session time and isn't engaging for the players. Much better in cases like that to just cut to the chase and start them where the action is.


  1. I agree. Unless the people one plays with have unlimited spare time, having a slow build-up to get to the adventure is bullshit. If there has to be a slow part, I think it's much better pacing to put the action first.

  2. The thing about Curse of Strahd is that it offers multiple entires into Barovia. The Werewolf story is just one. And all of them are perfuntory as is in the module. Sure you can expand on them as it sounds like your DM did, but given the nature of PbP, yeah, he should have just hand waved it away with an "opening crawl" and Boom You're in Barovia.

  3. In the past, I've always confined the "slow parts" of a campaign to days/sessions where I didn't have a prepared dungeon or module to play. When I was using a module (like S4 or S2) I always found it easiest to start players at "the Dungeon's Front Door."