Review – Dream Walkers

Welcome back to my Wednesday review! This week I’m going to delve into Dream Walkers by Guild Adept Alan Patrick, produced by the Mount Ogden Gaming CompanyDream Walkers is part 3 of the Dreamers storyline for Adventurer’s League (CCC-MIND01-03) and is currently (September 2018) a silver best-seller. The adventure only has 2 ratings at the moment, giving it 3 stars. The adventure is available for $4.99 on DMsGuild.

For those of you who’ve not read my reviews before, I use a trinity of qualities to review products, which are DesignWriting Production. Design here will focus on the narrative of the adventure, as well as any mechanics presented. Writing is more about the style of writing than it’s content, namely how interesting, well-edited and comprehensive it is. Production focuses on layout and artwork primarily, but also the flow of the document.

Disclaimer: I was given a complimentary copy of this product and am currently working with the Mount Ogden Gaming Company, but that doesn’t mean I won’t be honest with my opinions.

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Dream Walkers is an adventure for Tier 3 (11th – 16th) level characters. It is the 3rd instalment in the Dreamers storyline, though knowledge of the previous two adventures are not necessary to start this one. The adventure follows the party as they uncover an illithid threat in a fugue plane above Phlan and must face off against an elder brain to neutralise the alien attack.

The adventure begins with the typical introduction found atop all D&DAL products. It contains useful information for playing D&D more generally, but is only worth skimming through if you are an experienced DM. Following this is a Primer, which gets more into the meat of the adventure. The section details the major Locations and NPCs, as well as breaking down the three act structure of the adventure in a short from which is very useful. Finally, it provides a handful of hooks, many of which are linked to the Forgotten Realms factions.

Part 1 – Phlan Meeting

In part one of the adventure, we are introduced to the quest-giver NPC; Calypso. This tiefling woman is the Chancellor of Phlan, and despite only having a few pieces of descriptive text and roleplaying information, is relatively well fleshed out. The author has done a good job here of conveying enough important information to flavour the character, without overwhelming us with paragraphs of description and backstory. The characters are asked to investigate a Zhentarim agent named Regis who is in the basement of the starting tavern. He has clearly been afflicted by something after heading out on an investigation on Calypso’s behalf. Calypso fears mind flayers are to blame.

Next, the characters get to have some roleplay opportunity with Regis and hopefully decipher the maddening raves and rants that he goes on. This is quite difficult because Regis keeps swapping between Common and Dwarven, a nice touch to help diversify an already interesting roleplay encounter. Unfortunately, there’s a slight problem with the design in that a character must be able to understand both languages to get any useful information from Regis, and then succeed on a DC 18 Wisdom (Insight) check. For characters at this level it shouldn’t be a problem, but often gating plot behind mechanics can end badly. Thankfully, the author has included a second option – those who know thieves’ cant can decipher some different information from the mad dwarf. The result of this encounter should be that the characters discover some ‘mind flayer “seeds”‘. These are their entrance to the fugue plane where the elder brain resides, and handling them makes a character compelled to eat them. Being dragged into the next part of the adventure, possibly before the characters can prepare, is a nice way to keep the story flowing, and keep characters on their toes.

Design: 3/5 My biggest worry with this section of the adventure is that some plot progress is hidden behind mechanics. In order to understand Regis, characters need to know Dwarven and Common or theives’ cant. They must also succeed on Wisdom (Insight) checks. If they don’t meet the requirement or fail the check, the DM is given no advice on how to proceed. Despite this, I like the compulsion to eat gross mind flayer seeds, and the way it keeps the plot moving.

Writing: 5/5 The writing here is concise, packed with important info and yet flavourful at the same time. It’s not easy to deliver info so clearly but retain the fluff that goes with it, and the author and editing team have done a great job of that here.

Production: 2/5 I don’t think D&DAL adventures are allowed to include much in the way of production. Unfortunately, that means this adventure, in comparison to other DMsGuild adventures, is kinda boring to look at. Red headings, grey sidebars and white backgrounds throughout. Thankfully the layout is clear and helps the reader compartmentalise information, which is the only thing saving it from a 1. (Note, I’m not including previews of the adventure for this reason. There’s not much to see).

Overall: 3.5/5

Part 2 – Behold Briny Brains

In part two, after consuming the ‘mind flayer seeds’, the characters are transported to a fugue plane, in which the Phlan they know is hideously transformed into some Lovecraftian horrorscape which only vaguely resembles their home. The characters also discover that eating the seeds has set into motion the process of ceremorphosis. This means that party needs to race against the clock to seek out the elder brain and destroy it, lest they themselves turn into mind flayers.

The characters are immediately attacked by patrolling mind flayers and a mind witness – a beholder-like creature warped by psionic power. During this combat, the characters discover that in order to kill the elder brain, they must first seek out and destroy the mind witnesses. The initiation of this discovery is rather crude, as the characters are simply told it by a mind flayer during the fight. Personally, I would have had each character have a vision after kill the mind witness showing the elder brain, and giving hints to its location, rather than have the mind flayers give out such info.

Now the characters know to look for mind witnesses, they get the chance to explore the fugue plane, bearing in mind that the ceremorphosis is slowly occurring inside them. The encounters in these locations cover a variety of play styles which is great to see.

After the characters have found and killed a second mind witness, their next encounter within the plane is replaced with Part 3.

Design: 4/5 I think that once we’re on the fugue plane, the idea of racing against time is a great tool to keep characters motivated, especially with the threat of losing their high level AL character. I’m not sure this would appeal to all groups, but it’s certainly a great way to drive the story forward. I also like the variety of encounters within the fugue plane. The only reason I hold off on a 5 is that it doesn’t feel particularly ‘illithidy’ – rather more like mind flayers imitating a human town. We do however get a list of powers that the characters can now manifest in the plane, which is awesome.

Writing: 4/5 Again the writing here is excellent, but there are a few editing errors, and it would have been nice to see some division of encounters into subheadings to make information easier to find and read. The biggest problem is that the neothelid monster is misnamed a neolithid several times. It would also be nice to have read aloud text for each explorable location.

Production: 2/5 Again, the document design here is good, and makes the adventure easy to read. Inclusion of a general features sidebar is always great. Unfortunately, with no interior art and only a single unlabelled colour map, the production of this adventure is significantly lower than others you can find on the Guild.

Overall: 3.5

Part 3 – Pool of the Elder Brain & Conclusion

The final encounter should be an epic showdown between the characters and the elder brain Xalcazat and his guards. In order to physically interact with Xalcazat, the characters must first destroy the final remaining mind witness. Until that time, nothing physical can be exchanged between Xalcazat and the party, though it can still use psionic and psychic effects to attack them. The encounter has a sidebar full of adjustments based on party strength as well as a list of abilities that the mind flayers and elder brain can manifest during the fight. We also get some roleplaying information for Xalcazat, as the elder brain is unlikely to sit there and die if the odds are against it.

Should the characters chase off the elder brain or destroy it, the fugue plane unravels, transporting the characters back to Phlan. Killing the elder brain stops the ceremorphosis that is ongoing in the characters, though it is unclear whether chasing off Xalcazat has the same effect – something that definitely needs clarifying!

The final pages of the adventure round out the events, including any rewards the players may be given. We then get the stats for the monsters and magic items within the adventure and a bunch of other D&DAL stuff you wouldn’t normally find in a DMsGuild adventure. This takes up the final 10 pages of the adventure.

Design: 4/5 Though there are good guidelines given about the combat and roleplay opportunities in the final encounter, as well as the tactics of those involved. The only thing holding me back from a 5 is that there is little description of the fight location, as it is one of the locations from part 2. Often, boss fights in more mundane locations such as that can devolve into brawls, unless the foes involved can impact terrain and have good manoeuvrability.

Writing: 4/5 The writing has been of consistently good quality throughout, though it would be nice to see more read aloud text, especially for a boss fight!

Production: 2/5 Same notes as the last two parts. We don’t even have a map for the boss fight.

Overall: 3.5/5

Conclusion – 3.5/5 (Reviewed 4/5 See below)

Dream Walkers certainly has the potential to be an epic high-level romp through an alternative reality populated by mind flayers and their kind. All three pillars of the game are well represented with the adventure, and there are mechanical interactions which continue to drive the story forward almost irrespective of the characters choices. If you have a party that likes high risk scenarios, this is likely to be a huge hit with them. Unfortunately, the great writing and design is let down  by production. I think this is a D&DAL restriction, but given that I review all work on the DMsGuild, see a blank white page with no artwork or usable maps and a lacklustre cover means the adventure is unlikely to make it into my top picks. Overall, I think if you’re playing casually, this adventure could probably wait. The price doesn’t justify the production, and the adventure is quite linear, with little emphasis on player agency. If you play D&DAL however, this product is worth a buy. The time and production restraints of that style of play would suit this adventure nicely, and it will certainly provide a challenge for Tier 3 characters.

PS.

Since writing this review, I have managed to get my hands upon a digital copy of the adventure, which makes the whole thing more aesthetically pleasing. It includes several pieces of stock colour illustration, and uses a layout similar to those in the WotC books; parchment page with coloured read aloud boxes and sidebars. Due to this, I am willing to elevate my review score from 3.5 to 4. Although the improvement may seem minor, I think it is enough to boost the product to the Guild standard and thus warrants acknowledgement.

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