by Mike Shea on 20 August 2012
The thrice-Ennie-nominated super-adventure Madness of Gardmore Abbey contains a wonderful sandbox adventure four 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons characters. Running an adventure of this scale, however, can prove quite challenging. Today we'll look at tips and tricks for getting the most out of this adventure. While focused on Gardmore Abbey, many of these tips can work well for many published adventures.
Note: This article contains spoilers for Madness at Gardmore Abbey. If you plan on playing in it, best skip this article.
Sometimes the primary villain of a campaign doesn't fit our normal model for a villain. Consider Dark Sun. In Dark Sun, the primary villain is the planet Athas itself, constantly seeking to suck the life out of everything that dares to live on the sands. In Gardmore Abbey, consider the Deck of Many Things an antagonist all to itself. What is its motivation? How does it change as it grows in power? What does the party feel or dream as they travel with it in its possession? Consider giving the deck the motivation that it wants to be pieced back together, that it fights to do so, and those who possess the cards find themselves equally possessed.
Dream sequences are a good way to give the PCs the hint that the deck is doing things. Giving rewards and punishments in the form of penalties or bonuses for those that behave as the deck would have them behave also reinforce its power.
You might even consider including an encounter when the PCs finally reform the entire deck in which it manifests into a deathbringer dracolich (Monster Vault page 72) for one last attack against the party who dares not draw from it and restore its chaotic order in the universe. Mini tip: When running the dracolich, replace the dominate with the following power:
Mesmerizing Glance; At will (1/round)
Attack: Ranged 10 (one creature)
Hit: As a free action, the target moves its speed and makes an at-will attack against an ally of the dracolich's choice.
Miss: The target takes 10 psychic damage.
This makes a much better replacement for at-will dominates. Consider using this any place a monster can dominate a PC with an at-will power.
As your campaign in Gardmore progresses, so to should the actions of the villains. In Gardmore, the primary villains include Kashatri the oni, Bakrosh the orc lord, Vadin Cartright the evil priest, and the rival adventuring party. Each of these villains seeks their own goals — often the very thing the PCs seek: the reformation of the deck. As the players choose their courses and direction, so to do the villains. Keep in mind how the villains' own stories progress. They needn't wait around in their final chamber waiting for the PCs to come and kill them. They should be moving around, bringing their minions along with them, as they seek out their own goals. They have a past, a present, and a future; just as the PCs do.
While Gardmore Abbey spells out every potential encounter your party might face, nothing forces you to stay with them. Instead of building out the Gardmore vaults using dungeon tiles, use the poster map from the D&D Starter Set if it makes things easier for you. Build improvised encounters using monsters from the Monster Vault and traps and hazards from the Dungeon Master's Kit. Instead of building encounters, consider the groups of monsters within Gardmore and keep those monsters mobile. Perhaps, instead of facing the gargoyles and flesh golem in the wizard's tower, the rival adventurers beat down these constructs and learn to control the golem themselves, sending it after the party who explores the vaults at the same time.
Keep a good set of tools to help you improvise as your players choose their own direction within the abbey.
It's quite possible a single player will attempt to horde the cards in the deck. Ensure every player gets a chance to collect a card or two and give them a chance to use those cards in combat. Remind them through background, flash backs, skill checks, or dream sequences that the true power of the deck doesn't manifest until the entire deck is returned to power. At that moment, give them a chance to draw a card and give them the results.
Gardmore Abbey is all about choices. It's a large sandbox of adventure locations, villains, and a single powerful thread that binds them all together. Ensure you give your players plenty of choices to make throughout the adventure, from negotiating with foes once beaten to deciding the true fate of the deck at the end of the adventure. A sandbox game like this shines through the choices it gives your players.
With these ideas and concepts in mind, you can turn Gardmore Abbey into a swirling thriving location of grand adventure.