The Alphastream Game Design Blog
What goes into creating a convention adventure for Wizards of the Coast? Why do Vault of the Dracolich and Candlekeep have different styles? How did a battle interactive come to replace a delve? How well does RPG historian Shannon Appelcline capture Candlekeep’s process and history? I aim to answer this and more in three articles this week. I also draw parallels to 1980s, showing the history of organized play experimentation.
Here are a few basics related to the history of convention adventures:
“We hadn’t realized until then how much the tournament could be, should be, a showcase event. The players who came to Wisconsin deserved a deliberately crafted experience, something that could show TSR and AD&D in the best possible way.” – David “Zeb” Cook, in the 2013 forward to Against the Slave Lords, looking back on the 1980 adventure series.
Vault of the Dracolich was the progenitor to Candlekeep. Scott F. Gray, Mike Shea, and I wrote Vault for a June 2013 gameday, though our writing took place in Oct-Nov 2012. WotC wanted to see whether a gameday could be transformed from the typical adventure format into a very exciting event: a hybrid between a battle interactive and Lair Assault. It was the first public in-store 5E event and a huge success. The adventure is currently a Gold Best-Seller on DnDClassics.
I was likely brought onto the project because I had been involved with many organized play battle interactives. Having tables come together and collaborate was a design motivation from the beginning. I added a few angles based on my experiences, including the idea the addition of an event coordinator. This was typical for large battle interactives, to ensure the different DMs and their tables have similar pacing, to answer questions, and to help stimulate and direct interactivity. It was a bit risky, because stores could be short on volunteers… but overall it worked well.
Vault resembled a tournament or Lair Assault in that it had some very difficult parts (including monsters immune to the PCs’ weapons). We did tone down the challenge from the original vision of dying often, because players like success. I thought it would promote D&D better that way, and I added elements such as the ability for a dead PC to jump back into play through a modified form of undeath (and the other writers perfected my rough ideas). I’ve seen too many battle interactives where a few players sit out the majority of the event because they died early.
Candlekeep’s product history notes that Vault is a “dungeon crawl in the classic style”, and this was largely driven by the need to provide a big map that would encourage parties (all playing simultaneously on the same map) to explore separately. (This is also why you have the sense of a limited time to find scattered artifacts). I think we made it a fairly ideal dungeon crawl: full of interesting bits, including story elements that could connect together, and with all of it making sense – the different monsters are actually near the breaking point due to being forced to be near one another. One table might find out that there is a rift between factions and tell another table so the second table can set the factions against each other. Players could get the feeling that this was a real place, with realistic politics and ongoing events. Mike and Scott were amazing here, breathing so much life into this part of the adventure.
One big change the product history doesn’t note: The project’s approach was a new one for Wizards. We were all freelancers acting as a team, instead of writing and submitting our work separately to WotC for them to put together. Mike was the author, I was the developer, and Scott the editor (and first draft cartographer). As a result, we all collaborated heavily and all took turns scheming, writing, developing, and editing. Vault remains one of my favorite projects. We really worked well together and the project felt fantastic from the initial vision to the final touches. Wizards ran it internally as part of the playtest process far in advance of the gameday, and it was a lot of fun for them.
This was a great team. Mike had worked previously on a Lair Assault adventure, as well as many 4E projects. He routinely explores D&D in his blog. Scott has had an incredible breadth of projects, including the 4E version of Tomb of Horrors. He has at least 20 levels in adventure writing and multiclasses in all design aspects! And, as a further influence, Scott Fitzgerald Gray went on to write the Sundering adventure Dreams of the Red Wizards: Dead in Thay, which takes Vault’s ideas on a medium sized dungeon capable of handling multiple groups and makes it much larger. Dead in Thay brings in even more classic dungeon concepts to bear, and was used for D&D Encounters store play. It is one of my favorite Encounters seasons. Scott helped edit the 5E core books, further showcasing his contributions to our hobby.
Want more? Here is what Mike Shea wrote on different ways to use Vault of the Dracolich.