In this month's exclusive interview, Rich Redman and James Jacobs, designers of the new Red Hand of Doomadventure, discuss the workings of this super-adventure -- including connections to that 5-headed fury, Tiamat!
In the interests of better involving the player community with the D&D website, questions for this interview were solicited in part via the message boards. Our thanks to the following players:
Chrys, Lord Thavian, Kadasbrass, Zuxius, Dordledum, Ackrus, ThatGuyDann, jdarksong, Monsoon28, Carolan, pileobone, Meds, wolvensense, Corin Danex, Cindermane, ZeornWarlock, Legendarius, Misere, Sephiroth Do'Urden, ReivaxZerai, and Treymordin for their participation.
Wizards of the Coast: What classifies Red Hand of Doom as a super-adventure?
James Jacobs: The size, I suppose; it's huge! Not only that, but its plot is equally epic; the PCs aren't simply trying to slay a single dragon or recover an artifact--they're taking on an entire army.
Rich Baker: It makes a pretty good campaign all by itself. Depending on how often you play, you should be able to get 6 months of regular adventuring out of Red Hand of Doom. We designed it to play out in about 20 to 25 sessions, although it might easily run a few more if you use all of the floating encounters in addition to the site-based encounters.
Wizards: What party level is the adventure designed for--and are PCs expected to rise throughout/by the end?
James: The PCs start at 5th level, and by the time they get to the end they'll be 10th or 11th. In addition, we took into account that certain things happen at specific levels and tried to incorporate those into the adventure; for example, at about the point the PCs reach 6th level (and can for the first time take the Leadership feat) we built in some encounters wherein the PCs can meet prospective cohorts.
Sample Designers' Notes
The treasure in the Vraath Vault is a significant one for PCs of this level, even without the staff of life. This is intentional; there's not a lot of treasure to be found elsewhere in this part of the adventure aside from the gear owned by Wyrmlord Koth and his minions. Thus, the Vraath Vault stash is a way of making up for light treasure elsewhere in this part. If it seems like the players are going to overlook the treasure, you might want to subtly encourage them to take a good look around the place before they leave.
The staff of life is here to serve as adventure insurance. The PCs won't have much time to seek out high-level clerics during this adventure, and there aren't many in the western end of the vale anyway. Giving out a staff of life near the start of the adventure is a way to help the PCs survive the tough challenges that lie ahead. If you feel that your PC party doesn't need this much help, replace the staff with a wand of cure moderate wounds that has 44 charges.
Wizards: Red Hand of Doom includes a number of Designer Notes, speaking directly to the DM about how a given encounter may be played out. What was the rationale for their inclusion? And are such notes things we can expect in future adventures?
James: This is the first time, that I know of, that WotC's done anything like this; I'm eager to see how the fans react to it. These notes are intended not only to provide advice on how to run a particularly tough encounter, but to explain why we made some of the decisions we made. In addition, they provide an insight into how adventures are designed, and should hopefully help DMs to design their own adventures. Think of them as analogous to a DVD's director commentary.
Rich: Our adventure formats have been pretty rigorous in 3rd Edition. We decided we wanted to open up the design a bit and make an adventure that was friendlier and less work for the DM to run. We think the Designer Notes are one small step we can take in that direction. Let us know what you think about them!
Wizards: Red Hand of Doom is hailed as the first core D&D adventure in recent years (as opposed to within a Forgotten Realms or Eberron setting); does this mean that it may be set within any group's campaign, or is there specific geography that it depicts?
James: The events in the adventure occur in a fairly large geographic region called the Elsir Vale. This region should fit quite well into any D&D campaign; we provide some tips in the adventure itself on how best to adjust things for Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, and Eberron in particular. The adventure itself is pretty much self-contained in this region, which makes it really easy to insert into a larger campaign world without worrying about ties to other nations or regions.
Wizards: Aside from larger issues of geography, what terrain types will PCs adventure through? How are the miniatures-ready maps coordinated with the adventure (and are there any miniatures tie-ins with the forthcoming War Drums expansion)?
James: The Elsir Vale is temperate, although the adventure takes place during a hot, muggy summer. The PCs will find themselves in small towns and sprawling cities at either end of the adventure, and in between they'll visit pastoral valleys, tangled forests, rugged mountains, and monster-infested swamps. My favorite terrain, though, has to be the tangled badlands the PCs have to navigate in order to reach one of the campaign's primary dungeons.
There are three locations mapped out in miniatures scale, each from encounters that are particularly combat-intensive. When you get to one of these encounters, you just throw down the map and have at it. As for War Drums; several of the minis in this set were selected specifically from monsters we used in the adventure but didn't yet have corresponding miniatures; in a way, Rich and I got to influence the direction of the monster choices for this set. I can't wait to see how some of them turn out...
Rich: Forest, swamp, and thorny scrubland spring to mind. Plus, you may spend a fair amount of time fighting in towns and villages that are currently being overrun or attacked by the Red Hand horde. Some of the adversaries you may see as miniatures include the Doom Fist monk, the Blood Ghost berserker, the Kulkor Zhul sorcerer, and the hobgoblin warpriest.
Wizards: Getting down to the adversaries: Who exactly is the namesake Red Hand?
Rich: OK, here's a little spoiler: The Red Hand is a symbol for the cult of Tiamat. Five taloned digits represent five dragon heads. The army of Azarr Kull carries the emblem of the Red Hand as their battle-standard... hence the name Red Hand of Doom. (My colleague David Noonan directed my attention to a Solomon Kane story by Robert E. Howard named Right Hand of Doom after we'd settled on the adventure name. I went off and read the story, and found to my relief that there is no resemblance between the story and the plot of our adventure. Whew!)
Wizards: Throughout the adventure, what sorts of challenges will PCs face while squaring off against the horde? Were there any particularly favorite enemies you devised that you wouldn't mind seeing get off a good shot or two before falling to worthy heroes?
Wyrmlord Ulwai Stormcaller CR 9
Female hobgoblin bard 5/stormsinger 4
Gust of Wind (Sp) Ulwai can create a gust of wind (caster level 10th, or 12th if she is in a storm) by expending one use of bardic music.
Thunderstrike (Su) Ulwai can use bardic music to unleash a deadly thunderbolt on any one creature within 60 feet. She must make a +10 ranged touch attack to hit her target. If she hits, she makes a Perform (sing) check, and the result indicates how much electricity damage the thunderbolt deals (d20+15, or d20+17 if she is in a storm). A DC 17 Reflex save halves this damage. If the creature fails the save, it must make a DC 17 Fortitude save or be deafened
for a number of rounds equal to the damage dealt.
James: The primary monster you'll face in the adventure are goblinoids; hobgoblins mostly. Most of them have quite a few class levels too, including some prestige classes from sources like Frostburn and Complete Arcane. But there's a lot more in the adventure than just hobgoblins. One of our goals in the design was to replace army commanders (roles that might otherwise have been filled by just more powerful hobgoblins) with more specialized monsters like minotaurs or giants. Whenever we had a chance, we mixed things up by adding non-humanoid foes. We've also introduced a new type of monster: the spawn of Tiamat.
As for a personal favorite enemy, I think I'd have to nominate Ulwai Stormcaller. She's not the toughest villain in the adventure, but she's got some really cool tricks and tactics that might just make some jaded players sit up and say, "A bard did WHAT?"
Wizards: By the climax of the adventure, PCs will be going up against Azarr Kul, the High Wyrmlord; what connections does the Wrymlord have with, say, the Mother of all Dragons, Tiamat?
Rich: Azarr Kull is a powerful champion of Tiamat--he's the leader of the Red Hand cult, and Tiamat's chosen emissary in this corner of the world. One of the little twists we threw into the adventure was the idea that a large and powerful hobgoblin realm might choose to worship Tiamat rather than Maglubiyet or the rest of the goblin pantheon. Tiamat is lawful evil, just like hobgoblins, and she certainly passes the test as a deity of war, destruction, and tyranny--all things that hobgoblins aspire to as well.
Wizards: Do you play in each other's campaigns? Were there any notable encounters from your own running of the module? Is there any advice you'd give to players preparing to attempt the adventure (and/or for DMs preparing to run it)?
Rich: I haven't had the pleasure of playing much D&D with James, but we both play regularly in our own games. I ran the first part of the adventure over the summer in my home game, and I also had another group of Wizards of the Coast R&D types run the adventure in their own game. We discovered the hard way that the first dragon the players meet during the adventure was, well, too big. It ate a couple of parties in the early playtests. We also discovered that a surprisingly small number of otherwise educated and capable players know how hydras work in 3.5, which made an encounter I considered routine into a real party-mauler.
One other bit of advice: We frankly assume that your party includes a spellcaster with good area-of-effect spells. If you're going to play this adventure without a lightning bolt or fireball available (maybe your arcane spellcaster is a warlock, or an enchanter, or a necromancer), you may want to invest in the appropriate wands or scrolls.
Wizards: Are there plans to continue Red Hand of Doom's story in future adventures? It's been a long time since Wizards published a big adventure; what lessons did you take away (either positive or negative) from City of the Spider Queen and Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil?
James: The story told in Red Hand of Doom is pretty self-contained. That said, it does give the PCs the dubious honor of attracting the attention of Tiamat herself, and the chromatic dragon certainly won't forget them. It'd be cool to see a big follow-up adventure wherein the survivors of Red Hand of Doom get to invade Hell and take on Tiamat, wouldn't it?
I didn't have much to do with City of the Spider Queen or Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, but working on Dungeon (and in particular, the Shackled City and Age of Worms Adventure Paths) taught me a lot about designing huge adventures. One of the most important lessons I've learned there: don't succumb to the lure of the enormous dungeon. They may be fun to design, but dungeons with 100 rooms are a bear to adventure through. I tried to keep the dungeons in Red Hand of Doom fairly small (no more than 25 rooms, and in some cases much less) and took pains to give each of them a unique theme, feel, and flavor. I didn't want PCs exploring the sunken city of Rhest to mistake the dungeon for the Ghostlord's Lion or the Fane of Tiamat.
Rich: James already mentioned one of the lessons we learned: Too many NPCs in the same encounter isn't always great. We tried to find places to eliminate "middle-tier" guys like sergeants, lesser priests, or specialists with monsters. Critters like hell hounds, giants, or worgs are simpler to run than your third or fourth different type of leveled-up goblinoid in the same fight. We think that this makes for some more interesting and varied fights, because not every bad guy is a goblinoid with a sword or a spell.
Wizards: Were there any influences you had in creating the adventure? Looking back, any favorite adventures from previous editions, either running as a DM or playing through?
James: Of course, the Lord of the Rings movies (in particular, Return of the King) were fresh in my mind while working on Red Hand of Doom, so I'd be lying if I said these movies had no impact on my design choices. Chris Thomasson's adventure "Foundations of Flame" (in Dungeon #113 and the Shackled City hardcover campaign) was also quite inspiring in its methods of presenting encounters in a city in the throes of a calamity. I suppose there's a bit of World of Warcraft in there too, especially in Part Two... I've been playing that game too much for it not to get its talons into everything else I do.
As for favorite adventures from previous editions, I'd have to say my all time favorite is one of the first super adventures: Queen of the Spiders. I've run that thing at least three times, and had more fun running it each time I reran it.
Rich: My initial vision for the adventure was to take my best swing at a challenge that comes up in countless fantasy novels: the Army of Evil is trying to conquer everything. A lot of adventures use an orc horde as backdrop and motivation, but then make the heroes go off and do "standard" dungeon-delving to find the McGuffin that will then defeat the horde. I wanted to create an adventure that cast the heroes in the role of "captains of good," doing things that directly affected the course of the war. So, the heroes face crucial tests in rallying allies, helping the local rulers to determine strategy, spying on the Red Hand horde and scouting its movements, and directly confronting the bad guys on the battlefield. Some of that involves old-fashioned dungeon-delving, but a lot of the adventure takes the heroes back and forth across the landscape, doing a hundred different things to stop the Red Hand march. I think you have to go back to Bloodstone Pass to find a D&D adventure that provides the PCs with this kind of challenge.
About the Designers
James Jacobs is the Managing Editor for Dungeon, where he spends his days wrangling adventures that other people wrote. Working on Red Hand of Doom reminded him of how fun (and tough!) it can be to write adventures in the first place. His previous Wizards of the Coast credits include Lords of Madness and the Dungeon Master's Guide II.
Richard Baker works for Wizards of the Coast as a game designer in RPG R&D. He's also a best-selling author of Forgotten Realms novels. Some of his recent credits include Axis & Allies Miniatures, Stormwrack, Lords of Madness, and the Last Mythal trilogy.