Deconstructing Dungeons – Hall of the Cursed God

Welcome! For those of you who are new to this article series, this is a blog where I look back at one of my old DMsGuild adventures, look at my inspiration and the adventure’s conception, talk through what the product entails, then analyse the best and worst bits of the thing. I’ll also talk a little about the resources I used to make it! This week, we’re going to delve into the Hall of the Cursed God! The adventure is 3-5 hours long, and for characters between 5th and 10th level. It was first published in September 2017.

Hall of the Cursed God is, as far as memory serves, my only adventure set in Ravenloft. I’d been listening a lot to the How We Roll Podcast and Dice, Camera, Action! when I wrote it, and they were both playing through Curse of Strahd. Given that I’d not written anything in that gothic style, I thought I’d give it a shot! Other than Curse of Strahd, the only Ravenloftian literature I’d consumed was a set of short stories called Tales of Ravenloft, which I’d highly recommend as a quick read.

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In addition to all this Barovian literature, I’d taken on a new freelance writing job from the Mount Ogden Gaming Company. We were (and still are) working on Volo’s Guide to Monsters style book about undead, called Van Richten’s Guide to the Undead. The book is still in writing, but is due for release later this year. In order to promote that work somewhat, we agreed to work on a short adventure that would showcase some of the undead, including the bridge haunt, crypt thing and crimson death.

In Hall of the Cursed God, the characters will discover a cursed empyrean that was once a symbol of hope for the local village on Angstadt. This village is currently being assaulted each night by a hoard of skeletons and wights, whose origin is unknown. Through research with the help of Father Martyn, the characters uncover the knowledge of a hidden relic in the dilapidated church where the empyrean now slumbers. In their attempt to recover the relic and save the town, the characters may encounter some of the undead denizens of Ravenloft, and come face to face with the sinister Ashen Skull Cult.

Although the adventure is relatively short, it contains information about the village of Angstadt (including some choice NPCs), provides some possible themed random encounters (including those featuring creatures from Van Richten’s Guide), and details the Empyrean Halls; the setting for the adventure’s climax. These three sections of the adventure clearly follow the three pillars of the game; Social Interaction, Exploration and Combat, although I think there is room in all three sections for a mixture of the pillars.

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Unlike generic fantasy settings or the Forgotten Realms, writing for Ravenloft requires a different approach. More-so than perhaps any other setting, you need to emphasise the impending doom and dread of the place and, I think, try to weave in secrets and hidden horrors wherever possible. A lot of this can be achieved through your descriptions of the characters and locations, but some of it will need to be placed into the plot of the story too. I tried to achieve this through the main theme of the adventure; the cursed empyrean, and through the read-aloud text provided within. The wearing nightly attacks on Angstadt also helped to give the grim, hopeless feel that I was going for. The beauty of such a dark setting like Ravenloft is that despite the darkness, heroes can still emerge, and are perhaps all the more incredible for doing so. Though the constant dirge of black imagery might wear on characters, their eventual triumph will be all the more poignant because of it.

In terms of the resources I used to create the adventure, many are the same as usual. I hand-drew all of the maps, then scanned them and altered them in photoshop. This normally involves improving the contrast between the white page and black lines, and adding labels to the locations. The layout was done using homebrewery, which is probably the easiest layout tool for newcomers, and can elevate an otherwise bland pdf made using word. The cover art for this creation came from an Arcana Games art pack, though I have since learned that it was released after a project called Godbound was created. Part of that project funding was that all the artwork would become free to use on its release. The interior art came from the DMsGuild art packs, and from wikicommons (see my Guild Guidance article for more info).

Overall, I’m quite happy with this adventure. I think it fits well within the setting, uses interesting monsters and provides a neat new magic item. I probably could have done more to expand the adventure beyond the linear story-line, but as a quick one-shot, I think it’s rather good.

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What I did well: I think my biggest success in this product was simply writing something that fit the setting. I believe I did a good job drawing from my sources of inspiration and creating something that could fit seamlessly into any Ravenloft game, or even directly into Curse of Strahd. I’m also proud of the monster stat blocks for the new undead, which will be properly showcased in Van Richten’s Guide to the Undead later this year!

What I did poorly: I think this adventure is too short. I could have done a lot more to really develop Angstadt, including creating some tensions between townsfolk, and make the place seem more alive. If I were to rewrite this adventure, I’d try to create some side-quests within the village to help tell more of a story of its history, or work in some foreshadowing of the Ashen Skull Cult. I might also be tempted to make the Ashen Skull Cult a group of Shadar-kai or some similar foe, rather than just more humans. I also think the layout of this adventure could do with a touch up, as some of the art isn’t well placed.

Giveaway! As always, sharing this post will give you a chance to win a copy of Hall of the Cursed God. One little retweet on twitter or share on facebook means you’ll be entered into the prize draw. The winner will be announced this Sunday (August 5th 2018).

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