adness at Gardmore Abbey releases this month, where chaos runs wild, and the legendary Deck of Many Things looks reassemble itself. Designer Steven Townshend spoke with us about the creation of the super-adventure.
Wizards of the Coast: As mentioned in your recent Design & Development , it was yourself, Creighton Broadhurst and James Wyatt designing the adventure, with your work going into the exterior encounters. You also write about how these encounters formed the backstory of Gardmore (and thus the plot to the Siege of Gardmore Abbey PAX adventure).
For those who missed the PAX adventure, can you tell us something of this backstory? What might players learn of the abbey during their time there (and what should they know of the place)?
Steven Townshend: All three of us—James, Creighton, and myself—had a hand in shaping the particulars of Gardmore Abbey, though I think each of us went about it a little differently, respective to our design roles in the super-adventure's creation and our personal preferences. We all began with the Gardbury Downs entry on page 206 of the DMG, which is probably the same information the players should know:
The Gardbury Downs take their name from this striking ruin, a large monastery that has lain in ruins for almost one hundred fifty years. The abbey was dedicated to Bahamut and served as the base of a militant order of paladins who won great fame fighting in Nerath's distant crusades. As the story goes, the paladins brought a dark artifact back from a far crusade for safekeeping, and evil forces gathered to assault the abbey and take it back. Extensive dungeons lie beneath the ruins, which might still conceal the hoarded wealth of the old crusading paladins.
As the super-adventure's lead designer, James Wyatt developed this story in more detail. He defined the "dark artifact" as the Deck of Many Things. He further specified that it was the Skull card that the knight-captain of the abbey had drawn, releasing demons and undead within its walls in the midst of the siege. James covered the central story and set Creighton and I loose to create the encounters.
As the head of Raging Swan, his RPG company based in the U.K., Creighton is an old hand at adventure design. To sum up Creighton's encounters for Gardmore Abbey in a nutshell, they make me feel like Indiana Jones. Like the classic adventures of old, Creighton's inner Gardmore encounters contain a smattering of mundane objects, snatches of history, and evidence of events long passed—they're ripe for exploration and make you feel like an adventurous archaeologist piecing together an ancient past as you learn what went down at the abbey. Also in the vein of Indiana Jones, Creighton's combat encounters are highly tactical, with dynamic, interactive environments.
My approach to revealing backstory was similar, though colored by my own dramatic preferences. I essentially created an interrelated ecosystem in the ruins of outer Gardmore. That ecosystem was built upon the bones of a drama that took place long ago. As it turned out, I'd later flesh out the bones of that drama as The Siege of Gardmore Abbey for PAX Prime.
The PAX adventure focused on the NPCs that played out that drama, and began with the heroes meeting Knight-Captain Havarr of Nenlast. In the Gardmore backstory, Havarr is the one that makes the decision to use the Deck. In Siege, I wanted to portray him as a friendly, reasonable man in full possession of his faculties so that we understand that his use of the Deck isn't due to foolishness or madness. It's done by someone completely sane who has a brief crisis of faith and takes a tragic risk in order to save Gardmore. Since Havarr is at the root of Gardmore's fall, he needed to be introduced first. After Havarr, the characters can meet Sir Elaida, a female cavalier in love with Gardmore's chief wizard, Vandomar. They can meet Sir Zandrian Valfarran, an eladrin knight and emissary to Gardmore from Mithrendain. And they can meet Sir Hrom, one of an order of knights dedicated to the keeping of an artifact known as the Brazier of Silver Fire.
In Madness, the adventurers learn what became of these characters following Siege. For players that entered the abbey as it stood during Nerath's reign in Siege, the abbey's encounters will resonate with additional context that may feel a little like deja vu, or flashbacks from another past.
Wizards: With the Siege of Gardmore Abbey, we talked about how the adventure was heavily story-driven. Madness at Gardmore Abbey has its own unique structure, that of a more open-ended type of experience compared to a more linear dungeon. What challenges are there in both creating and (for the DMs looking to pick up Madness at Gardmore Abbey) running an open-ended adventure?
Steven: DESIGN CHALLENGE: VARIETY
An adventure needs to hold the interest of its audience.
For an adventure to remain interesting, there needs to be variety. There needs to be variety because doing the same thing repeatedly gets boring fast.
In a good story-driven game, variety is inherent in the adventure's dramatic structure. The trick is to make that story's structure work organically without feeling formulaic.
An open-ended adventure that's not tied to a story-driven narrative needs to include variety in a different way. That's the design challenge. Nevertheless, I'd argue that even an open-ended adventure remains interesting primarily due to its story. In this sense, story isn't necessarily a chain of narrative events; it's more like a unifying element, or theme, that links the adventure's characters, events, and encounters together.
Story, as it applies to a more open-ended adventure, reveals new information with each encounter. Regardless of which order the characters progress through the encounters, they learn something new about the overall adventure as they interact with each one. By "information," I don't mean that each encounter contains hard facts or exposition the characters need to remember, but that each encounter exposes a significant, interesting aspect of the adventure as a whole. Imagine a painting covered up by a number of blank tiles. The painting is the adventure, the tiles are the encounters. As each encounter is experienced, another tile is lifted, revealing another aspect of the whole. The design challenge lies in diversifying each encounter, and deciding how they connect with one another and how each encounter contributes to the overall experience. That's your story.
For example, in the outer Gardmore encounters I created for this adventure, each one shows the adventurers something about how Gardmore used to be, or reveals something about its fall. You can experience those encounters however you like—you're not riding a plot train—but each one you experience reveals a little more. There's a sense of story progression and forward movement, even though the narrative direction is in the hands of the players and their characters.
Madness at Gardmore Abbey is all about variety. Due to the flexibility of the Deck of Many Things in combination with some other core elements I probably shouldn't spoil, Madness has significant replay potential.
DM CHALLENGE: PREPARATION
As for DMs running Madness at Gardmore Abbey, I'd like to think there are very few challenges to running it. James Wyatt has filled two books with background, tools, NPCs, maps, Deck of Many Things mechanics, special encounters, and story. In addition, there are the two books Creighton and I worked on—the adventure's encounters. So long as the DM reads the adventure beforehand, despite its potential for various paths and outcomes, I feel as though Madness should practically run itself.
My advice: I feel that NPCs are the heart and soul of any given adventure. If I were running Madness at Gardmore Abbey, after I had read through the adventure I'd go back to James's books and review the NPCs in detail, taking a hard look at their specific agendas (very important), and making decisions about how best to bring them to life for the players. I'd also look at the named monsters and allies that appear in the encounter books, like the ettin called "Spike/Bruse," for instance.
We included roleplay and character notes for all the important NPCs. Be they enemies or allies, NPCs are the other characters in the story—the game elements that can engage the players on an emotional level, the people their characters either love, despise, or love to despise. NPCs move the characters to action, and they have the greatest potential to directly affect the characters and an adventure as a whole. I'd take extra time to familiarize myself with the cast of characters significant to Gardmore and its environs, not only if I were running this adventure, but any adventure.
Wizards: Are these open types of adventures preferable to you in terms of design and play experience? Are there past modules that you looked to as a design guide (as you mentioned I6 Ravenloft influenced your sense of instilling a strong dose of story)?
Steven: Most of my experience as a DM has been through homebrew adventures of my own creation. I became a DM because I felt limited by the campaign I was playing at the time—I didn't feel my choices or actions mattered. It's no surprise, then, that I prefer adventures where I feel like everything I do matters, where anything I do can have an effect on the future, even alter the course of the campaign completely. I like a strong story that constantly morphs and shifts depending on character choices.
I once thought that that style of play was strictly the province of a good DM. However I've recently begun to see how it works within the looser structure of published RPGs like Dread, Fiasco, and Kagematsu—games that allow for virtually unlimited choice and character development, yet are mechanically focused in such a way as to pack a complete story into one or two sessions. I've tried to replicate that experience in published D&D adventures by offering choices that lead down multiple paths to affect an adventure's outcome—adventures like Madness at Gardmore Abbey. So long as the choices are many, varied, and attractive, the players feel like the adventure covers a broad scope, like they're the protagonists in a living story that responds to their actions.
My personal design model for the world of outer Gardmore Abbey was the old Sierra game Quest for Glory I: So You Want to Be a Hero. In QFG1, you encounter a variety of interrelated characters, creatures, and puzzles that are generally tied to one location, but you can freely move from one to the next, accomplishing your objectives as you please. There are a few events in the game that trigger when you've hit a certain point, but otherwise it's an open, site-based kind of adventure. Released in 1989 and developed during the latter days of AD&D's classic site-based adventures, Quest for Glory was obviously Sierra's take on Dungeons & Dragons. So you might say the world of outer Gardmore was inspired secondhand from AD&D through a Quest for Glory filter.
Wizards: When creating the exterior encounters, what general guidelines were you given? How did you approach their creation, and were there any influences or inspirations you pulled from for these encounters?
Steven: "I'm really hoping for a bunch of really exciting encounters—not just one combat slog after another, but a mix of combat, roleplaying, and skill challenges, with story elements incorporated into every encounter. In other words, I want your best encounter design for each of those encounters." —James Wyatt—
James's mandate was a very good thing for me, because that kind of design appeals to my strengths and interests. But more than anything I've said thus far about my design work on "Madness," my biggest influence was a guy named Lowell Kempf.
Lowell Kempf is a board game enthusiast, the longest-running player in my D&D campaign, an exceptional fiction writer, and an ingenious storyteller. As a player, he's seldom satisfied with the most direct way to tackle a problem, but instead looks for the most interesting way to approach it. This challenges me to improvise alternate solutions to many of the challenges I come up with, and those solutions are usually more interesting than the ones I'd initially planned. By plotting an alternate route around a major plot element, he's indirectly responsible for the presence of yeti in D&D 4th Edition.
For every encounter I created in Madness at Gardmore Abbey, I set down how the tactical combat would work for those that wanted to bash their way through. Then I asked myself, "What would Lowell Kempf do? How would he try to 'solve' the encounter or resolve it in an interesting way?" Thus, for most of the encounters I designed, there's a noncombat or puzzle alternative. That doesn't stop you from simply smashing through it, although the puzzles and alternative solutions usually come with interesting rewards.
The other thing I gleaned from gaming with Lowell Kempf was an eye for various board game mechanics. I envisioned each of my encounters as a self contained game. I wanted each game to have its own objective or special mechanic unique to the encounter or situation. These are pretty light add-ons, since D&D already comes with plenty of mechanics. Regardless, these diverse game elements amped up the variety I was talking about earlier, so that you not only have cool story scenes happening in each encounter, but combat options, noncombat options, and puzzles as well. Thank you, Lowell Kempf.
Wizards: Perhaps most importantly, how do these encounters play into the overall adventure and the search for the Deck of Many Things?
Steven: Each of the encounters reveals a little more about Gardmore Abbey. A select few encounters deal specifically with the cards and use the cards as mechanical elements in play. James Wyatt designed all of these deck-specific encounters. Since those tied into the overarching theme of the super-adventure and use special rules, they were his baby, and I believe James wrote those after Creighton and I had already turned in our assignments.
Yet I did one section in outer Gardmore that's very closely tied to the Deck and the "madness" the Deck loosed upon the abbey. And whenever I think of this super-adventure, this particular challenge comes to mind because I think it's insane. I don't want to spoil that one, but the inspiration came from here: In 2010 I ran an epic tier one-shot where the primary skill challenge was a literal "hell ride," a Spelljammer voyage through the Nine Hells to visit Asmodeus. Designing that challenge paved the way for one of the crazier sections I wrote for Gardmore.
Wizards: Finally, for an adventure that features the Deck of Many Things, the gratuitous question has to be: was there ever a time the Deck found its way into your game, and if so what were the results?
Steven: I remember one of my characters drawing from the Deck in high school shortly after Dragon Magazine #148 was printed, since that issue included the first version of the Deck. I remember drawing a card and getting a minor magic item, then considering whether I wanted to go for more. I chickened out after someone drew the Donjon and things started to go badly. Most of our experience with the Deck involved "pretend" draws fantasizing about what would happen if we'd really drawn the card.
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.