The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Winter Fantasy is consistently one of the most enjoyable D&D conventions I attend. Everything is in close proximity, restaurants are affordable and seldom have a wait, the gaming hall is excellent, and Baldman Games delivers great DMs. It’s a great place to see the best and worst changes in adventure format. Finally, it’s a great place to try out different organized play programs (both D&D and other OP programs, such as the 5E sci-fi RPG Esper Genesis).
Technically, all official D&D at the convention was part of the Adventurers League (AL) program. However, AL comes in several flavors or sub-programs. The newest is called The Oracle of War, and it is amazing! Let’s break down the factors that make it exceptional.
AL allows us to play through the hardback adventures, such as Descent into Avernus or Tomb of Annihilation. The same characters can also or instead play a core season that ties into a hardback (Season 9 adventures tie into Descent). And, we can even try out Community Created Content (CCCs) created by conventions. During some years, the best program at Winter Fantasy has been the Moonshae Isles adventures by Baldman Games. Other years, it’s been the AL core seasons.
This year, the honor goes to a different type of program. Oracle of War is a campaign that uses the Eberron campaign setting. The program is a short and focused program, separate from other AL offerings. You create a character using the Eberron: Rising from the Last War hardback setting book or Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. You can’t take your Oracle character to other AL types of play (nor can you bring other AL characters into this Eberron campaign). There will eventually be a total of 20 adventures for this campaign. Eight were featured at Winter Fantasy and four are on the DMs Guild at this time.
At Winter Fantasy, the new Oracle of War campaign excited and pleased DMs, staff, and players more than any other campaign. Here are the reasons, in no particular order.
As we talked about recently, adventure format really matters. Oracle of War adventures use a format that is story-driven, focused on the specific scenario. The adventures don’t force the use of repeated and often artificial sections, such as “Call to Action” or “Area Information” unless the scene calls for that. This frees up writers to write what is most useful to the DM, using subheadings that fit the particular scenario.
Because the form follows the function, the format reflects and emphasizes the story. Elements appear where they are needed, meaning that as a scene develops the information is where you expect it to be. It makes running the adventure much easier.
As we talked about in the previous blog post, using this format has no impact on how open the play is. The format is simply easier to use. Reading through and preparing Oracle of War adventures was much easier for me than preparing Season 8 or Season 9 adventures.
Oracle of War adventures come with a very nice summary of events, including handouts for players catching them up to speed. As a player at the con, I played the first adventure, had to skip the second, and then played the third. The handout filled me in, allowing me to jump into the action along players who had played all the adventures. This is excellent, and should be added to all AL/CCC adventure series.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the DMs Guild versions of the adventures come with beautiful art and layout. The adventures are a pleasure to read and just looking at the cover or layout builds excitement.
The Oracle of War campaign tells a great story. It’s the kind of story that you would tell a friend about, for two reasons. First, because it’s a cool story with the twists and turns of a good novel. Second, because you were able to understand it and interact with it. There are many organized play campaigns where either the tale isn’t worth repeating or it never made sense to the players.
Oracle of War resonates. Despite starting at level one, the characters find themselves interacting with important and wondrous aspects of the Eberron setting, quickly finding they are playing a key role in events that are critical to the setting. Meaningful actions, setting lore, convincing and realistic NPCs, peeling back layers to discover what is happening… it all makes this a vibrant story.
A great story starts with the admins. Will Doyle is the main story architect admin, and he is one of our D&D hobby’s top writers with amazingly creative ideas. He is supported by Shawn Merwin (a veteran storyteller and organized play admin who also playtests the adventures). AL community admins Amy Lynn Dzura, Ma’at Crook, and LaTia Jacquise further support the team.
The story of course also reflects the excellent authors they choose, but I can say from experience that a consistently great story rests in the hands of the admins. Admins make the decision regarding the extent to which they will support and shepherd the adventure writers, clearly communicating the overarching story and enabling the authors to do their best work.
Admins also decide the extent to which they will develop and fine tune what authors turn in. The difference between good and amazing is often countless late nights for the admin team, adjusting the adventures to really work well together.
A great campaign brings to life one or more aspects of the campaign world. Season 1 of AL, for example, brought the town of Phlan to life, teaching us about its inhabitants, its factions, and its lore… all while telling us how it was threatened by the Cult of the Dragon.
It is even more important to strengthen the setting when it is an auxiliary campaign in a different setting than the Forgotten Realms. Players are often completely new. Experienced fans can be demanding – they want to see the world as they understand it represented (and they may have consumed a lot of old novels and adventures or played in the world for years).
Oracle of War delivers. The key aspects of the setting are reinforced for the players. They come across as interesting and fun. The characters start as scavengers who enter the wastes of the Mournland, finding scraps to sell from the remnants of the Last War. From lands where the dead never decay, to massive war machines, to towers built on solid cloud, to battles on skycars and soarsleds, the campaign truly immerses us in the setting. We see what is great about Eberron by actively being a part in it.
Campaigns face a tough dilemma. If you create an amazing story, where every adventure leads to the other, then a player who shows up in the middle feels like they don’t belong. However, if each adventure is unrelated to the others, then the campaign has no flavor or payoff for the invested player.
We’ve seen these extremes. Living Forgotten Realms had regions, but a player could start in one region and play through many adventures before the next regional adventure was released. The result was that players had no tie to their home base and forgot their region’s plot! Recent AL core stories have had strong but unsupported links, to the point where DMs preparing an adventure weren’t sure how to run the adventure because they felt uneducated in what had come before. Your DM might say, “I don’t know why you are here or who this NPC is… do any of you players know? Sorry… this adventure doesn’t tell me.”
Oracle of War does a great job of creating adventures that fit extremely well together, but are also satisfying when run on their own. This makes it easy for either DMs or players to jump in and get a taste and decide whether to keep on going. It also means that you can easily take an adventure with a cool premise and steal parts of it for your campaign. Want a crazy stand-off as the characters try to survive waves of undead? Steal that from the third adventure. Want a super-cool chase scene on soarsleds through the city of Sharn? Steal that from the seventh adventure. If you are an Eberron fan, these adventures can be mined for years.
There are many ways Oracle of War manages to do this. Each adventure provides both DMs and players with summaries of what has come before, while providing lead-ins for brand new players. Recurring NPCs and locations provide information so even a new DM can run the scenes capably.
Organized play campaigns struggle to have players feel like they are important. Players seldom feel the impact of prior decisions, because at the table the adventure is the same no matter what they did last time, and it’s especially jarring if they differed from what the campaign assumes most tables did previously.
Oracle of War revolutionizes this with Legacy Events. Each adventure has several keystone moments where the players can make decisions or earn recognition. They might decide to pardon an enemy, decide to steal a piece of gear, or earn a favor with a particular NPC. When these events happen, the DM makes a note. At the end of the session, the DM tells the players to indicate this on their Adventure Record. The ARs are preprinted, with checkboxes for possible events.
Adventures also have moments where prior Legacy Events shape the story. A gear icon indicates this, so the DM sees it and reacts accordingly. And, the DM gets a list at the beginning of the adventure, so they can ask players for all the important Legacy Events up front.
Legacy Events can have teeth. You might gain an NPC’s favor, but then lose it… even to another player! You might cause an NPC to die, or to become your ally or opponent. The impacts are tangible during play. Most importantly, they are fun for both the DM and the players.
The campaign also utilizes other methods. A character’s choice of an Eberron background, for example, could impact events. All of this is clearly hard work for the admins and authors, but it really pays off at the table.
Enabling all of this is a cast of great adventure authors. Look at the first four adventures: Shawn Merwin, Will Doyle, James Introcaso, and MT Black! Another adventure is written by AL admin Travis Woodall, who has written some top-tier core AL adventures. Bianca Bickford, Anne Gregersen, Stacey Allan, Ian Hawthorne, and Richard Green round out the list of adventure authors. I’ve read something from each of these authors before, and I see why these talented authors were chosen. Several have written at least once for organized play.
An organized play campaign always has to balance using established talent with bringing in authors that are new to organized play. New authors bring in new ideas. This is vital and necessary for not only the creation of increasingly better adventures, but also because writing for organized play is an excellent on-ramp leading authors to new opportunities. We need to keep that on-ramp accessible to as many authors as possible.
At the same time, writing for organized play presents unique challenges that aren’t readily apparent. The constraints of convention time slots, campaign rules, player behavior, DM preparation, and many other factors mean that experience at writing for this format is critical so an adventure runs well across hundreds of tables. The tricks of the trade can take years (and many convention tables) to learn. Authors, even experienced adventure writers, can stumble when they haven’t written for organized play before.
A campaign’s admins can manage this through hard work guiding authors before, during, and after the writing process. The time spent developing and tempering the fresh ideas, though demanding, is invaluable for a campaign. The Oracle of War seems to have spent that time. All of the first seven adventures received rave reviews at the convention.
I’m most familiar with Stacey Allan’s adventure, EB-07 Song of the Sky. I ran it twice. It was a joy to read, full of excellent ideas. These ideas played well at the table, creating open experiences players embraced. The two tables I ran were remarkably different, with player ingenuity and decisions creating different outcomes. Play had an epic feel, from impassioned roleplaying to dynamic mid-air battles!
You can then find a convention or store offering the campaign, or organize a gathering yourself. Sites such as MeetUp can be great for finding a play group.
If you are the DM, pick up one or more of the adventures here. They are fun to read, and super useful as ideas for an Eberron home campaign.
If you play some of Oracle of War and need to catch up, check out this product called Oracle of War: Salvage Bases and Missions. This provides new innovative ways for players to level up if they have fallen behind, and to get salvage, which is useful in later adventures and ties into a salvage base and downtime activities. Rules even allow DMs to create their own salvage missions!