It has been a couple of wild and crazy months since our informal debut at GenCon 2019. Since then we’ve traveled abroad, collaborated with other creators on new D&D content, and have had plenty of time to digest some great feedback from our two playtests at Gen Con.
We are so excited to see out content in action. A lot of it worked, and we are equally excited to fix what didn’t. We’ve been working on those fixes, along with some new, smaller content, in the months since Gen Con. More on that new content later, but for now we’d like to share a couple of the lessons we learned at Gen Con and how we plan to implement them.
No One Hates Combat
One of the goals we set out to accomplish with Day 20 was offering players and DMs lots of good non-combat options for their games. The Four Seasons adventure, one of the two we playtested at Gen Con, was designed to emphasize the exploration and role playing pillars of play. And it certainly did that… but maybe too well.
The party embraced the combat-lite premise of the adventure by coming to the table with bards, sorcerers, warlocks, and other role-playing centric characters. But 3 hours in and we had only had a tiny, 2 round combat. The table was clearly itching to roll initiative and deal with a more significant threat, so much so that it negatively impacted other encounters. One mistake we discovered was using initiative to track time during a non-combat encounter. This ended up sending mixed signals to the players: we wanted them to play a mini-game and think creatively, but instead it felt like a hamstrung combat that rapidly turned into a slog.
The good news is that a lot of our non-combat challenges played how we planned and were fun. But no matter how fun a role-playing or exploration encounter is, it is hard to fight the inherent “war game”-ness of D&D. Even the most role-play heavy characters still have features and abilities focused on combat.
The Take-Away: A player might not prefer combat, but no one that is playing D&D hates combat.
The other adventure we playtested was The Fortress, and it was… amazing! The players came in with great expectations that we matched: they were expecting a funhouse dungeon, and boy did they get one. It was a wild and wacky time filled with combat, traps, and crazy moments. As a side note, if you are a DM and you haven’t used the Duergar Despot in your games… well you are missing out. That monster is a blast!
However, there was a serious issue we encountered where the group eventually ran into a brick wall, mechanically and narratively. The Fortress utilizes an alertness mechanic, and the PCs had kicked the proverbial ant-hill to the point that the group of paladins, fighters, and barbarians just couldn’t beat the stealth check DC to get past the wall. Now, since we were getting into the last hour of the session and we wanted to try and end things in a satisfying way, we did a bit of DM-hand-waving to get them inside the walls and on to the action.
But is it a good adventure if it requires the DM to ignore rules in order to facilitate fun gameplay? Time was certainly an issue, and at a home game you could have said “Well the fortress is on to you and it looks like you’ll have to wait it out a bit and let them calm down. We’ll pick this up next week.” And for some tables that would probably work. But the real issue here is that no where in the adventure does it provide advice or solutions for “the players can not get inside the fortress”. That’s a problem.
We haven’t figured out what the solution should be yet. Maybe we tweak the DCs to be more forgiving, or maybe we provide some sort of combat-focused mini-game that allows a group to fight their way in. The former seems problematic in that dice are dice and there’s still no guarantee, and the latter conflicts with the tone of the adventure: covertly enter and destroy. But no matter what solution we come up with...
The Take-Away: Failure should be allowed, but that means it also needs to be planned.
Where to Go From Here
Gen Con 2019 was a fantastic showing for the Day 20 product. The players liked it, the premise appealed to them, and some of our secret-sauce mechanics greatly enhanced the experience and achieved our objectives: deliver an unbeatable out-of-the-box campaign for both players and DMs with insane replay value.
So, how do we take our success (and our failures) and get from where we are, a couple of Google Docs, to where we want to be, a properly published, beautiful book that will delight D&Ders for years to come?
First step: write write write write infinitum write.
Our goal is to have a full rough-draft, play-testable version of the product complete by next Gen Con. We’ve scaled back some of our assumptions, like the number of adventures needed for a single campaign, in order to accommodate that goal. It’s still lofty, but we believe it’s achievable.
However, that is still close to a full year without any real content, and no content means no feedback. So, until we have Day 20 in a place where we can start getting direct playtesting and feedback, we need some other way of making sure that our D&D 5e methodology has appeal, i.e. is worth your money.
In that effort, we are going to start publishing smaller bits of micro content that can show off our modular-D&D writing style. The first sample will be a Halloween style one-shot that can also be run as a multi-table event. We’re hoping that this adventure will be both enjoyable as a stand-alone product AND as a peek into our design philosophy.
The future is looking fun, and we hope you will roll the dice with us!