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Talon of Umberlee
Design & Development
By Logan Bonner

 Here There Be Spoilers  

This column discusses the settings and challenges found in D&D Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee in great detail. If you haven't played the adventure but plan to, stop reading now—we'd hate to spoil the fun you'll have trying to get your characters through this adventure alive.

I n Dungeons & Dragons Lair Assault: Talon of Umberlee, a group of adventurers from Neverwinter braves the dangers of Port Llast. There, they search for an artifact called the Talon of Umberlee. This was the basic plot and concept of the second D&D Lair Assault challenge when it started out. I wrote the first draft, and Chris Perkins did a major rewriting and development pass. The adventure itself has changed greatly, but the daring assault on Port Llast to get the Talon and the harrowing attack on the escaping ship remain.

Originally, Talon of Umberlee was based on the format for Forge of the Dawn Titan, the first D&D Lair Assault challenge. That meant the tech was based on a loose structure where the DM built the encounters from a set of components—monsters, hazards, and other elements—rather than using a single setup. Consequently, it included several options for different types of monsters in order to allow for plenty of variety over the course of multiple play-throughs. The first draft had a mix of enemies at Port Llast. Some were pirates who took refuge from the law in the abandoned port, others were undead that haunted rotting old ships and wrecks.

The challenge was also set up as a single continuous encounter with a massive game-changing event in the middle. Breaking them into two separate encounters feels more natural and still keeps the action tense, since the adventurers don't get a short rest in between. Originally conceived as a race against time, both encounters had a limited number of rounds in the first draft. That ended up being too much of a burden, especially given the brutal combat, so the encounters changed so the main challenge is now combat and tactical thinking instead of a race against time.

The doppelganger pirate, Darla Deadeye, started out as a member of the crew on the Neverwinter's Pride, and she wasn't always a doppelganger, which is to say that it was up to the DM to decide during each play-through whether she was a doppelganger or just an innocent crewmember. The DM decided whether she had a secret agenda or not. In fact, there was a secret achievement for killing her when she wasn't a doppelganger.

For the final version, Chris modified Darla to be more straightforward and consistent. Doing so removed the ability of the DM to customize the challenge, but it also created room to add more story elements and a more iconic experience to the adventure as a whole. This crops up in several places. Chris gave unique names and stories to the bog hag and doppelganger, turning them into Captain Evelda Bloodbath and First Mate Darla Deadeye. He also replaced the original draft's wharf of moored, sinking boats with Murdershoal, a coastal den full of sleeping pirates (though I personally miss the names of the ships: The Late Bloomer, The Daggerford Doxy, the Rotting Runner, and the Festhall Fever).

When a product is formatted similar to a classic D&D adventure, the author can add a lot of story depth. The previous D&D Lair Assault challenge was more like a toolbox or LEGO set: As the DM, you had to build it yourself. This type of structure can be more fun if it has room to include a wide variety of those little quirks that make games really memorable, but a relatively tight page count makes that tough to do, leaving the designer only room enough to detail the bits for one or two central events. Even a D&D product made for tactically minded players needs engaging hooks and sprinklings of character details.

As originally written, the first encounter of Talon of Umberlee focused on speed and tactical movement, whereas the revision focuses on stealth and caution. The second encounter didn't change dramatically—it's a big, rough-and-tumble fight against sahuagin and kraken tentacles. Originally, there was another element to the challenge: a race against the clock to keep the ship from sinking as the kraken's attacks break it apart. On top of that, the Pride of Neverwinter had to tow the Talon of Umberlee in a small ship behind it! These layers of complexity combined to make the encounter too difficult, even for a D&D Lair Assault. My first playtest at PAX East ended in a crushing (but still fun) defeat for the PCs!

Instead of more monsters and a subsystem to stop the ship from sinking, the final version makes better use of the ship as an environment. Ballistas and rigging give some fun stuff to play with—and falling overboard into the briny deep becomes an even greater danger!

Designing a D&D Lair Assault challenge proved to be an interesting experience, and a fun chance to really bring the heat. I hope those of you who've played Talon of Umberlee had a great time dying!

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