The Worst Adventure Ever: Making it Work
It’s been a while since I dubbed the Avatar Trilogy the worst adventure ever, but there is one question remaining: why do I even have the modules if they suck so badly?
Years ago, I picked up Waterdeep at a yard sale. I tried to run it, but never got it off the ground – very few of my campaigns lasted beyond the first few levels, and I usually shied away from doing mid-level one-shots. Years later, in a 3rd edition game, I decided that I wanted to shake things up in my campaign setting with a Time of Troubles-style event, so I hunted down Shadowdale and Tantras on eBay.
Yeah…I actually bought these monstrosities of my own volition.
And you know what? The game I ran with them turned out to be a lot of fun.
Any adventure module can be fun if the DM puts work into it. In the case of the Avatar Trilogy, it was still a waste of money on my part because the amount of work I put into the adventures to make them playable exceeded the work I would have needed to write my own adventure from scratch. Adventure modules are supposed to make things easier for a DM, not harder.
That said, let’s say you somehow wound up with these modules and you want to put them to use. How can you make this mess of an adventure into something enjoyable? Well, here are my suggestions:
1) Don’t worry about canon.
A lot of the problems of the Avatar Triology spring from the fact that the modules are based on a set of novels. Aside from meaning tighter deadlines and worse quality control, this fact also meant that the modules had to adhere to the continuity of the Forgotten Realms. In the Realms, the novels are canon and part of the setting’s timeline, while adventure modules are usually optional additions. For some reason, a lot of people who run games in the Realms feel the need to hold continuity as sacred. Don’t. As soon as you start running an RPG based in the Realms, what unfolds should be your story. Don’t worry about maybe violating some novel line down the road.
I had the benefit of adapting the modules to my own setting, where I didn’t have to worry about canon. I have run games in the Realms before, though, and my big rule was that the canon Realms only existed up until the point that the campaign started. In other words, if this game starts at 1459 DR, then ther Realms timeline up to that point remains intact, but there’s no saying that the Horde will invade after the Time of Troubles, that the Spellplague will happen years down the line, or any of that. Maybe some of that will occur, but only if it doesn’t contradict the adventures that have already happened. For example, my Realms game intersected with the Planescape adventure Dead Gods, which ended with Orcus’ bid for resurrection being denied. 3rd edition established that Orcus had returned to life, but that bit of canon never made it into my game. In my Realms, Orcus remained dead, because I didn’t want to violate the PCs’ accomplishments.
Ignoring the canon that is to come allows for a more open-ended adventure – even more so now that the players can read the novels that came later and actually see how their players affected the setting. Maybe the PCs manage to kill Cyric. That gives you a chance to have a recurring villain take his place and maybe ascend to godhood. Or maybe you can just leave the portfolios of Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul unclaimed, possibly using that bit as fuel for later epic adventures. You can even play the cause and effect game if you’d like: if Cyric doesn’t ascend, then he never goes mad, Kelemvor never becomes the god of the dead down the line, Midnight/Mystra never gets killed, and the Spellplague doesn’t happen. Letting loose the burden of canon allows the PCs to dramatically effect the Realms, whereas clinging to it like these modules did renders their actions meaningless, since certain events will always unfold the same way.
Imagine the Forgotten Realms not as one setting but as a multitude of parallel worlds. When you start a campaign, you are creating your own world similar to but separate from all the other versions of the Realms out there, including the published ones. Embrace that idea and run with it. It will allow both your players and your campaign to surprise you, and it will also free you from a lot of the plot railroad that these modules force you to ride.
2) Make the PCs the main characters.
Perhaps the biggest flaw in these adventures is the fact that the PCs are irrelevant. Moreover, the adventure is really Midnight’s story, not the PCs’.
My solution when running the adventure was to throw out the NPCs entirely. The PCs became the ones who had to save the day, and they were the ones who eventually ascended to godhood at the end of the adventure. Following that, I jumped the tiemline ahead 100 years, and now the new PCs are worshippers of the old characters, and the effect the PCs had on the setting is clear for everybody to see.
The adventure has four plot-important NPCs that the party gets stuck with (five if you count Elminster, but I’ll be dealing with him in a bit): Midnight, Cyric, Adon, and Kelemvor. Out of those four, Adon and Kelemvor can be tossed aside without disrupting the plot. In the novels, they have their own character arcs, but those arcs get glossed over in the module. Both of their roles can easily be cut without harming the plot. Cyric is necessary as a villain, but his villainous intents are obvious from the get-go, making his betrayal of the PCs a complete non-surprise. If he’s relegated to a villain’s role and not forced to join the PCs, then he can provide some decent boss fights and not be nearly as annoying.
As for Midnight, she’s basically the Chosen One who the PCs have to spend the adventure protecting. But do these adventures really need a Chosen One? For the most part, there’s no reason why the party needs a rule-breaking wizard running around – just rework some of the encounters that require Midnight to break the rules into something that allows for an alternative route for the PCs to solve the problem. Or, if you really like the idea of a Chosen One and the rest of the group doesn’t mind one PC getting main character status of sorts for an adventure, let Wembley the Wizard take Midnight’s role as Mystra’s successor. At least then he gets something nice to offset the fact that his magic is totally borked for most of the adventure.
If you’d prefer an adventure that somewhat resembles the novels, the modules do include stats for the main NPCs in their appendices. Instead of having an original adventuring group slog through this thing, you could go with pregens and allow each player to take the role of one of the central novel characters. That could even be made interesting if you allow someone to control Cyric and give him the option of being a bad guy among good guys without being a total ass to the other PCs. Again, though, just make sure that everyone is okay with the fact that Midnight is the main character – or do what I did, and allow the entire group the option to become deities at the end of the adventure.
3) Trust your players not to be dickbags.
A lot of these modules waste time on assuming that the players are trying to sabotage the adventure and walk away from the plot. Be it townsfolk mocking them for refusing a quest or a paladin popping up out of nowhere to kill the group for telling Helm to go stick it, the adventure reinforces the idea that the DM and the players have an adversarial relationship. Next to 40-room dungeons only having 5 encounters, this is one of my biggest pet peeves about old D&D modules. A typical role-playing game involves a handful of friends getting together and playing pretend. Why is there such a focus on the idea that the players are asshats?
Here’s a novel idea: assume that your players want to go through the adventure as much as you want to run it. Granted, with a crappy adventure like this, that might be a stretch, but go with it anyway. Throw out the encounters that force the PCs along the plot path and assume that the players will have the decency to meet you halfway. The players don’t have to go along with everything, but the game is supposed to be fun for the DM, too, and it stops being fun if the players are deliberately trying to sabotage the game. If you’ve got a group that is that willfully uncooperative, why are you even going through the frustration of playing?
Naturally, trusting your players also means that the players need to trust you. Allow them a chance to solve their own problems. When they’re prisoners in Shadowdale, give them a chance to escape without an NPC coming to rescue them. When they’re headed to Scardale, allow them to approach the city their own way without forcing a capture and escape that does nothing to really advance the plot. Instead of taking orders from Kelemvor, allow them to give him the orders. Basically, take a look at what encounters exist only to have the PCs sit and watch as the NPCs save the day and eliminate those. You can still have the NPCs come to the rescue of the PCs if their plan fails, but use that as a last resort.
You might not be able to completely shake off the plot railroad in an adventure like this, but you can at least cover up the rails and make it less obvious.
4) Don’t let Elminster be your mouthpiece.
Take a look at the role Elminster has in these modules. Notice how almost all of them involve him talking down to the players and telling them where to go next? Don’t do that. It might be difficult, depending on your players’ attitudes to the old mage, but try to make Elminster a likable character.
My own game had an advantage in that I did not use Elminster but rather my own setting’s uber-mage, Garyl Shadowslayer, who the players seem to like or at least give the time of day. In Garyl’s case, I actually wrote him out of the adventure entirely after the battle with my Bane stand-in where he got sucked into another plane. Basically, the purpose of that encounter was to remove him as a possible ally, making the path a bit more difficult for the PCs. You can do that with Elminster, too, but this could also be a good chance to place the old man on the same level as the PCs.
Consider this: Elminster is old and wise. He’s also a bit senile, more than a touch crazy, and his magic has gone haywire. Despite that, a 26th-level mage has a lot of tricks up his sleeves and can still be a good help in a fight. What if Elminster tags along with the group but avoids using his magic due to the chaos in effect? After all, a single rebounded spell from him could wipe out half of Faerûn, and he’s got no clue if the various contingencies designed to keep him alive will actually work the way they’re intended to. In that situation, you’ve got one of the Realms’ iconic NPCs around to interact with the party, but the restrictions of the adventure keep him from using his full potential. How does Elminster react when he doesn’t have his magic? Does he still throw himself into danger recklessly? Is he a bit of a coward when faced with the possibility of dying? Or, if you want to give him a darker bent, maybe he sees immortality as a burden and throws himself into perilous situations in hopes that he can finally die and no longer be forced to be Mystra’s pawn.
The big way to make Elminster normal is to stop allowing him to break the rules. When he casts a spell, make him roll on the magical chaos table. Give the PCs a chance to see through his disguise before Mystra reveals it. (If you’re converting the modules to 3rd edition or Pathfinder, Elminster has no Disguise skill and a 17 Charisma. Even if he gets off a disguises self spell without magical chaos, a DC 23 Spot/Perception check can see through the disguise…and the PCs should get a +4 bonus for being able to recognize the old man on sight.)
The things that make Elminster useful in this adventure is his ability to give PCs information about almost anything and the fact that, even without his magic, he can still be somewhat useful in a fight. The things in the modules that make him unlikeable are that he constantly talks down to the PCs, frequently ignores everybody but Midnight, uses magic constantly when it should be blowing up in his face, and generally refuses to do anything useful that would resolve the problem sooner, even though the ability to do so is obviously within his grasp. Removing Elminster’s plot armor brings him down to the PCs’ level for a bit and makes him a potentially sympathetic and interesting character – something that can be used in future campaigns. Once you get your players to like Elminster, they’ll stay that way even when he’s back to his old godlike power. Then you’ve taken a guy many players absolutely despise and made him likeable, interesting, and a very useful ally for the PCs in adventures to come.
So that’s my advice for trying to run the Avatar Trilogy. If you have these modules lying around and are brave enough to give them a shot, go ahead and see what comes of it. If you don’t have the modules, though, just give the whole thing a pass. The 2,000 words of advice I have here are designed just to help make the adventure tolerable, not good. Considering how much work is needed to fix this trilogy, it really is the worst adventure ever.