Thoughts after running In Volo’s Wake

This post contains spoilers, mostly from In Volo’s Wake.

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The last couple of months I’ve been running a regular Wednesday night D&D table at Games Laboratory in Melbourne CBD. I’ve been using In Volo’s Wake, a series of six adventures that showcase some of the monsters from Volo’s Guide to Monsters. As these adventures were released through Adventurers League, they are pretty straightforward and don’t have a lot of options for taking the story in different directions. (Adventurers League needs to release adventures like that so they can offer a consistent and balanced D&D experience, where people can take their characters between different tables.)

Outside the Adventurers League environment, I don’t think it’s appropriate to run these as they are written. I think the dungeon master needs to prepare some other possibilities and also be open to new directions that the players might come up with.

I don’t want it to sound like I haven’t enjoyed running these adventures. I think they provide some great seeds to branching off into other possible stories. I also really enjoyed playing and running the second and third adventure in the series. The quest to save the dwarf children from gnolls involves a lot of suspense. Delsy and her magic house also provide a lot of opportunity for humour and player frustration.

Follow the Twig Blights to Sunless Citadel

One possible path I’ve had prepared the whole time has been Sunless Citadel. In the first adventure in the collection, the party meets a treant called Tinus Redbud who needs assistance in fighting off twig blights. If the players want to pursue this story, they could find out that the blights are coming from the ruined village of Thundertree. If you have a look at Lost Mine of Phandelver, from the 5th edition D&D starter set, you’ll find that the ruins are plagued by twig blights. If you also have a look at the Sunless Citadel adventure in Tales from the Yawning Portal, you’ll find that the Sunless Citadel is where twig blights originate, and that it’s quite close to Thundertree. Maybe Reidoth, the druid of Thundertree, would point the adventuring party toward Sunless Citadel? (Tales from the Yawning Portal also places White Plume Mountain nearby, so you could have that as another direction your party could explore.)

Consequences of killing a hag

The third adventure in the series involves Delsy the green hag luring innocent people into the forest for use in dark rituals. My party ended up killing her, with some assistance from the rest of her coven. (The other two hags were concerned that the disappearances would attract attention to the coven’s presence in the forest.)

In Volo’s Guide to Monsters it says that when a hag coven loses a member, the two remaining hags will organise a contest of cruelty for other hags who want to join them. I kept this in mind as an unintended consequence of the adventurers killing the hag, but didn’t end up using it.

Where did Delsy’s kobolds come from?

In the adventure involving the hags, Delsy constantly summons kobolds to hold the adventurers back while she escapes into a different room of her magical house. I found myself wondering where the kobolds come from? I wondered whether Delsy might have captured members of a nearby kobold tribe and imprisoned them in the Feywild, ready to be summoned. I decided to have the kobold tribe turn up camping outside the village of Hallfway, and ask the party if they could help rescue any kobolds who might still be imprisoned in the Feywild – but we didn’t end up pursuing this quest.

Signs of madness

What’s going on behind a lot of the adventures in the series is the story of Gavmogon’s vengeance against the mind flayer colony who enslaved him. Gavmogon was a beholder who was captured by mind flayers, who transformed him into a subservient mindwitness. While Gavmogon was scouting on behalf of the mind flayers, he discovered the Hollow of Dominion (carelessly uncovered by Volo?) which allowed him to break free of enslavement and exert dominance over the mind flayer colony and surrounding area. Using the Hollow of Dominion, Gavmogon was able to inflict madness on the creature of the surrounding area, leaving the mind flayers with few healthy minds to feed on.

I think this series of adventures is improved if there are more signs of Gavmogon’s madness. The main sign of Gavmogon’s madness in the surrounding area (if you just look at the adventures as published) is the angry eye goblins, who worship Gavmogon. The cave where they live is painted inside with burning eyes. I decided to make characters who went inside and saw the eyes do a Wisdom saving throw in order to see if they were also inflicted with madness, which caused them to see eyes everywhere.

I also added a mad bugbear bard to my story. One time when the party was travelling through the Sword Mountains, they met some bugbears, who they ended up awkwardly befriending. The second time they met the bugbear tribe their bard had gone mad, and this was what prompted them to go and investigate the mind flayer colony.

Connect Old Owl Well with the yuan-ti

Since Old Owl Well is close to the quarry where the yuan-ti are performing their evil rituals, I think it makes sense to incorporate the red wizard from Lost Mine of Phandelver. I’ve already written a bit about that here.

Make the mind flayer colony more dangerous

I think the fifth adventure adventure in the series does a bit of a disservice to mind flayers and particularly the elder brain. Even though the adventurers are accompanied by Cerali, the sane mind flayer, I think there should be some risk that the the insane mind flayers in the colony will try to enslave the adventurers, devour their minds or transform them into mind flayers themselves. I think it’s always a bit odd when the collection of stat blocks at the end of one of these adventures doesn’t include stats for the monster supposedly being showcased.

There isn’t a stat block for the elder brain either, because the elder brain just summons minions to defend it in the final scene and makes a psychic attack each turn. I think this could give the impression that an elder brain isn’t really a big deal. (I missed the detail about the psychic attack when I was running this scenario, which was my fault, but I think this made the elder brain seem particularly disappointing.)

Take advantage of Gavmogon’s psychic attacks

In the final adventure, where the party confronts Gavmogon the mindwitness there are opportunities as the adventurers approach the Hollow of Dominion for Gavmogon to make attacks on the adventurers’ minds, which may cause them to accrue levels of exhaustion. When running this part of the adventure, I think it’s really important to make sure you take the opportunities to inflict exhaustion on the adventurers, so that they’re vulnerable by the time they reach the Hollow of Dominion. I let my players take time to recover from their exhaustion, so when they reached Gavmogon I think they were able to fight him too effectively – although Gavmogon was able to take one of them down to zero hit points.

Blending three (or more) D&D adventures

Warning: this post might contain spoilers from Lost Mine of Phandelver, In Volo’s Wake and Out of the Abyss.

I’ve recently been running a regular 5th edition D&D group at Games Laboratory on Wednesday nights. We started out with In Volo’s Wake, a six-part adventure that was released digitally at the same time as Volo’s Guide to Monsters. However, the adventure paths offered in In Volo’s Wake are pretty linear, so I worked out some ways to incorporate some of the side plots from Lost Mine of Phandelver (which is set in the same area, around the town of Phandalin) and a couple of the dungeons from Tales from the Yawning Portal (which I haven’t used yet, so won’t talk about here). I also did a survey of my players to find out what kind of locations, villains and monsters they were interested in, which gave me the sense that we could start Out of the Abyss once we’d finished all of the In Volo’s Wake quests.

Two weeks ago, the party travelled to Old Owl Well, looking for Master Aumaro, who was investigating the yuan-ti cult at a quarry nearby. I decided to include the red wizard who is at Old Owl Well in Lost Mine of Phandelver with his zombie minions. The party destroyed most of his zombies (besides two that they pushed into the well) but the wizard ended up casting misty step to escape.

At our most recent session I had the orchardist Daran Edermath approach the party in Phandalin and ask them if they could find out what the Red Wizard is looking for at Old Owl Well. They found out that he was looking for ancient magical knowledge from the fallen Netheril Empire. He asked the party to accompany him down the well, but they killed him instead, and then descended into the well.

They wound a steep stairway going deep into the earth. On the walls of the stairway were bas reliefs of elves and giant snakes descending into the earth, possibly connecting the Netheril Empire to the secret, hidden knowledge of the yuan-ti that the party had encountered in the previous session. Eventually they came to a place where the stairs dropped off in to a great fissure with a building in the middle – the Lost Tomb of Khaem from Out of the Abyss. So we now have one location where the party could begin to explore the Underdark if they wish to go in that direction.

Repeating D&D Adventures

Before you read any further, I just want to warn that this post contains spoilers about the Dungeons & Dragons adventure In Volo’s Wake.

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Recently I’ve run the same Dungeons & Dragons adventure three times. At the Indigenous Hospitality House’s trivia night we auctioned a D&D game, so I prepared the first few adventures from In Volo’s Wake. Before I ran it with the group who won the auction, I ended up having a night free unexpectedly, so I ran it for one friend on his own. (I wrote about that here.) Then I ran it for the group who won the auction (and we’ll probably continue with more sessions). Now I’ve also started running In Volo’s Wake with a weekly group, and we’ll probably continue with more adventures when we’ve finished the series of six.

The first time I was really just running the first two adventures as written, and it was evident that they needed some work to make them more flexible. In these kind of adventures there is often really only one thing going on that the party is supposed to go and investigate which doesn’t make it feel like they’re exploring a real and living world.

However, I think that it’s pretty simple to add more possibilities using some of the techniques in Sly Flourish’s The Lazy Dungeon Master. When I started running In Volo’s Wake for the group who won the silent auction I prepared three directions I thought the players might go in, three major non-player characters they might encounter and three villains who they might come up against. We ended up sticking pretty closely to what was pre-written in the adventure that session, but it was good to know that I was prepared to go off on tangents. As I haven’t yet explored a lot of these tangents with the groups I’m running In Volo’s Wake for, I’ll probably come back to them in another post… I’ll just say that I think there’s plenty of seeds for further adventuring in In Volo’s Wake, and that if the group hasn’t played Lost Mine of Phandelver (which is set around the same frontier mining town) there are plenty of side plots in that adventure that could be transplanted into In Volo’s Wake. There’s also some stuff in Tales from the Yawning Portal that could be easily connected to what’s happening in In Volo’s Wake.

One thing I found interesting was that each time I ran the first adventure, ‘The Green Skin of Treachery’, the same non-player character came to the fore. Eric Merryweather is a spoiled and incompetent lordling who’s read Volo’s Guide to Monsters and set out to find all the monsters described in the book. (Each group made a connection between Eric Merryweather and Pokémon.) I think Eric has a lot of potential for comic relief, and he’ll probably become a recurring character. But I do think there is a risk of overusing him.

Some of the really basic advantages to running the same adventure with different groups is that it means I don’t need to prepare so much each time because the details are familiar. There are also opportunities to improve my running of the game. If I make a mistake it’s easy to remember the mistake and not repeat it the second time.

Coming up at the end of October I’ll be running some games each day at PAX Australia, which will probably mean running some repeat adventures in short succession. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes and how each session goes.