An Unacquired Taste
Some foods, drinks or games are described as an “acquired taste” as a sort of backhanded compliment for something that can only be enjoyed, or even be enjoyable, after repeated exposure. Well, let me introduce its inverse: a new backhanded insult, the “unacquired taste.” An unacquired taste is something that you used to be able to enjoy uncritically but, after repeated exposure to a superior version of that thing, you can no longer enjoy it at all. You’ve certainly encountered this phenomenon before: think of the coffee snob in your life (who well may be you) who is no longer capable of enjoying that swill by the same name that comes from the pot in the office break-room (by which I mean a Keurig, this isn’t 1997). Sophistication in taste can heighten your senses when appraising the tastes, smells and textures of the finer things, but you lose the ability to enjoy the swill. All this is to say, I am reviewing a D&D Expeditions adventure for D&D Fifth Edition, an adventure I ran and enjoyed nearly a decade ago, before becoming a game sommelier.
Outlaws of the Iron Route (“Outlaws”) is a 38-page adventure for three to seven 1st-4th level D&D 5e characters, written by Will Doyle in 2014, the first year of a new edition. Outlaws was the ninth D&D Expeditions tournament module for the Adventurers League. D&D Expeditions adventures were sort of the junior varsity adventures compared to the published behemoths Wizards of the Coast was putting out at the same time. Each season of Adventurers League was designed to fit thematically with whatever big adventure book was out at the time, which for Outlaws was the widely panned Tyranny of Dragons adventures: Hoard of the Dragon Queen and Rise of Tiamat. The author, Mr. Doyle, would go on to the big leagues himself with Tomb of Annihilation in 2017, which he co-wrote with more established names like Chris Perkins and Steve Winter. That adventure earned praise from our resident grumpy grognard Gus L., who called it “solid, interesting and usable in a way that prior 5th edition products haven't been.” Outlaws similarly has a certain charm lacking in other short, simple D&D Expeditions adventures, which were all too often a chain of combat encounters, sometimes interrupted by the veneer of a prescribed, preset story. I ran Outlaws (with modifications) for a handful of appropriately leveled 5th edition characters when the edition was still shiny and new circa 2015.
Why can I no longer appreciate the taste of a perfectly cromulent modern D&D adventure? It is largely a matter of playstyle. The read-aloud text boxes and railroady scene structure (the adventure tells you where the characters go next, instead of that being something the players playing those characters decide) simply does not cohere with my own playstyle focusing on emergent narrative and player agency. Nonetheless, there are bits in this particular adventure that are worthy of praise, even if it is constrained by being written for the modern, neo-trad/OC playstyle that dominates D&D 5e and tabletop gaming at large.
There are two sets of outlaws in Outlaws, a band of renegade ex-knights whose leader was falsely accused of attempted assassination and a force of fanatic kobolds who exercise brigandage in the name of Tiamat. After a months’ long bloody war, the gangs are set to meet at the King’s Pyre (more on this later) and negotiate a peace where they will divide the trade route between them. This is a strong premise already, with its hint at factions and intrigue, a recipe for more than just slogging through too-long combat encounters.
Outlaws is structured as a set of scenes, which by themselves are fine. My issue (again, a matter of playstyle) is that Outlaws just assumes the player-characters are along for the ride. Outlaws begins as a riot breaks out in the city (another fun premise), but for the adventure to continue, the characters must (a) save the quest giver (a retainer of a local noble house), (b) accept the quest giver’s quest (to hunt down the outlaw chiefs and restore peace to the city) and (c) go to the predesignated first lead, a remote prison tower. Outlaws does make good use of player handouts throughout, and starts with a wanted poster for one of the main outlaws. It is my general experience that, if you want to railroad players to a particular quest, give them a wanted poster handout for it. Something about having the physical handout makes players want to pursue that lead above all else.
Let’s Start (with) a Riot
A riot is a good way to start an adventure, but the way Outlaws handles it is mixed from a player agency perspective. It is good that Outlaws calls out that the characters can avoid simply massacring all of the rioting commoners by persuading or intimidating them not to fight (and it is a fault of the system, not the adventure, that this is handled by a “a DC 15 Charisma check (Persuasion or Intimidation)” with a note that “[o]utstanding roleplaying should grant advantage on the roll”). However, it immediately says that “between the adventurers and [the city watch], the riot is eventually quelled.” So another solution is implied. If the players neither fight the rioters nor lecture them not to riot, they can just stand aside and wait for the problem to solve itself. After all, they can’t afford to let the riot kill the quest giver, whose wagon is in the center of the ordeal. The adventure must slouch forward, even if it means relegating the player-characters to passive observers. Even if they fight, no real consequences of their actions are permitted: it says that the city watch will arrest characters if they killed any commoners during the fight, but that the quest giver will convince the cops to move along. No player action necessary. The guest giver tells them about the quest, and, among other information, that a member of one of the outlaw gangs was captured and is being held at the Grimshackle Jail. With no other leads, Outlaws decides it is time for the next scene in this story.
If I had to fix this opening act of Outlaws, it would be to open it up to branching paths. Provide for what happens if the player-characters fail to quell the riot, the quest giver dies, but that doesn’t have to end the adventure. Instead, the players could recognize the quest giver as the person they were sent to see, or find the documents talking about the mission and Grimshackle Jail on his corpse. Even if they don’t investigate, the rioters are rioting because of the havoc being wreaked by the outlaws, so the real quest giver is the angry mob. And if the player-characters do kill a commoner or two in plain view of the city watch, there is no need to threaten players with a logical consequence of their actions but chicken out about making that consequence stick. If that happens, the players could just be taken to Grimshackle Jail themselves, where they will still meet the imprisoned outlaw, but in an entirely new context. These fixes offer a bit of branching, yet still follow the basic structure of the adventure without being wholly forced. And what if the characters receive the quest from the quest giver, but just don’t follow through because they have other, more interesting things to do. That should be fine too: provide a timeline of events! If the players do nothing, let them experience the consequences of the choices they’ve made.
It is a three hour trek to the jail upriver. Outlaws points out that the characters can hike along the river, charter a river barge or ride horses. I don’t know why it points this out because there is no consequence to the choice and no incentive (like random encounters) to travel quickly or stealthily. No matter how they travel, the characters simply arrive “cold and soaked to the bone.” (As an aside, you can see from the map that this is D&D’s junior varsity squad, but I quite like this compared to the overdone, overwhelming maps Wizards usually produces. This map has a lot of charm with the ribbons for the coastal locations and, more importantly, I could print this without draining all of the ink in my printer.)
This mission is a welcome respite from the initial railroad riot. The prison tower, the imprisoned outlaw, the jailers and their motives are outlined, after which the characters are exhorted to “approach the jail however they please,” with two potential options discussed specifically: sneaking inside and going through the front door. But then an element is introduced that has the potential to turn the scenario into a truly fun powder keg; one of the jail guards has been bribed by the outlaws to break out the very same imprisoned outlaw the players have come to interrogate. That is a great set up for some spy vs. spy antics, a welcome addition to any adventure. So this scene has a great premise, but how is the execution?
To help the referee run a covert entry by the player-characters, a map of the 4-story prison is provided, along with details of which doors are locked, where guards are stationed and how guards react to intrusions (i.e., violently). It is bare bones, but functional. I think I would prefer more detail about the patrols and how they change over time (e.g., when do the guards change shifts) so players that bide their time and observe are rewarded by learning when the ideal time to enter certain areas of the prison might be. Instead, the obstacles are fairly static from a timing perspective. The other option presented is to negotiate with the Grimshackle brothers for entry. This is mostly haggling over prices while the brothers’ thugs aim crossbows at the player-characters. Something I like, which Outlaws does throughout, is the inclusion of small bubbles about roleplaying certain NPCs, each of which has a single, evocative quote that the NPC might say. I differentiate this, as a tool, from read-aloud boxed text because the referee is not actually directed to read these quotes verbatim. Instead, they give a sense for how the characters talk. I often choose what kind of voice I will use for a particular NPC based on their first line, so it is helpful for getting me “into character”, so to speak. For instance, the quote for the greedy Grimshackle brothers is “This is definitely gonna cost you” versus the line for the aforementioned noble quest giver of “Get to the point!” Maybe it is just me, but these single lines are enough to quickly communicate a bit of personality for the NPCs, and a little bit goes a long way.
Even when Outlaws explicitly allows for branching paths and multiple solutions, box text (unlike a referee) cannot handle that. For some reason, everything about the interrogation section assumes the players negotiated their way in, from the read-aloud text describing the Grimshackle brothers unlocking the cell to the fact that the main way to get the prisoner to open up is bribing the jailers to improve her conditions (such as a blanket or better meals). It is pre-written based on an assumption of which solution the players would use. I assume that this situation would go differently if the player-characters were able to sneak their way to the cell, but that merits nary a mention despite the strong start for this section from a player agency perspective. The important quest information the prisoner provides is that the ex-knight outlaws and the dragon cultist outlaws are meeting at King’s Pyre to negotiate a truce.
The first encounter is combat with the hardened criminal, who turns out to be Captain Walharrow, a minotaur pirate captain with a peg leg. (My players fucking loved Walharrow for whatever reason and ended up helping him escape; he became a campaign fixture for the next several years, to the extent that on low-attendance weeks, the players would play as Walharrow and his pirate crew in events happening concurrently with the main campaign.) This is an excellent example of a combat encounter for a couple reasons. First, Walharrow’s stated objective isn’t just to smash the players to a pulp, as is so often the case, it is to tear through everything in his path to escape the prison. Second, the environment has fires (the referee is directed to pick one or two squares on the map to start on fire and spread it as the combat progresses) and there are weak spots on the floor to fall through. Clever players can make use of either Walharrow’s motivation or the environmental hazards to their advantage. However, this solid setup is undercut by a warning that “[i]f characters are defeated here, Walharrow robs them of any gold and leaves them for dead. One of the surviving jailers revives the characters as soon as the minotaur departs.” Let the players fail, you cowards! The impossibility of failure throughout this module robs victory of its luster. The second encounter is a hostage negotiation, but the hostage is one of the Grimshackle brothers, who the player-characters have been given no reason to care about. I think this encounter only exists to introduce the bribed jailer and give him a chance to tell the players that this was all part of his plan to free the imprisoned outlaw.
The player-characters final mission from the quest giver is to sabotage the truce negotiations between the two outlaw groups. The meeting occurs in a neat seaside location called King’s Pyre, an abandoned monument to an old king flanked by waterfalls, and the map thereof is a highlight of the adventure. This is basically an open air dungeon and a solid one by 5e standards.
The primary feature of this dungeon is the massive statue, which also serves to divide the two outlaw groups that have camped on either side. Tunnels in the cliff face provide a level of Jaquaysian nonlinearity to the location. It would, however, be nice if Outlaws included a map of these caves (a lá the Caves of Chaos) where the referee can visualize how they interconnect instead of just being told by the location keys. The zip line is also a fun addition that I don’t see enough in adventures. There are so many solutions players can bring to this scenario: they could silence the horn blowers and lookouts and take a more violent approach, they can dress as bandits and stage “false flag” attacks to turn the factions against each other, or they can sneak their way deep into the camp to try to take out or capture the leaders. This is the benefit of a location-based scenario over the scene-based scenarios used elsewhere in Outlaws and frequently in other 5e adventures, it leads itself more easily to the “tactical infinity” that is so often the goal of OSR and related play cultures.
Each area of the location has something of interest and includes plenty of non-combat encounters. Some highlights are the ogre effigy that is puppeted by a single kobold to scare off trespassers, a bard trapped in a grimoire who communicates to player-characters by rapidly flipping its pages and folding its page corners to point to individual words, the one bandit who “believes that a hag has cursed him, and he is convinced that the cry of a screech owl heralds the moment of his death” and will be basically incapacitated if he hears such a sound.
Exeunt, Pursued by Orcs
All of a sudden, orcs attack. If that was an off-putting transition for this review, it is no less off-putting in the adventure, coming from left field. The referee is directed to “spring the orc assault” as the events at King’s Pyre “come to a climax.” I hate to sound like a Gygaxian broken record, but this too would seriously benefit from tracking time so that this event happens not merely at the whim of the referee.
Apparently the outlaw band dedicated to Tiamat are actually heretical, so saith the dragon cult, which has paid an orc war band to wipe them out. For the players, this happens basically as a cut scene, with chaos all around them, and then two back-to-back combat encounters, first with a handful of orcs and then with their orog chief and his worg steed, with a few orc grunts as auxiliary forces. No matter what, the dragon cultist outlaws are decimated and the ex-knights either flee or suffer the same fate. Perhaps this stems from a worry that the players will make the “wrong” decision by allying or, heaven forbid, joining one of the factions. If so, it reminds me of a moment from the original Pokémon games in which the player is asked if they would like to join the villainous Team Rocket but is given no opportunity to say yes. That agency-defying move makes more sense in the medium of video games than it does in a TTRPG, regardless of play culture, because TTRPGs have the tactical infinity built in to handle the player characters joining the “wrong” faction.
After the adventure, the quest giver pays the characters their reward. After all, the truce meeting was disrupted! But, again, it doesn’t really matter what the characters do; orcs would have rushed in and disrupted the proceedings no matter how they interact at King’s Pyre, or indeed if they are there at all.
While Outlaws has some interesting ideas and set pieces, it is marred by its fear of letting the players fail or, for that matter, succeed. The result is an adventure that moves on its own, bringing the players along for the ride, no matter what they do. The impact of the adventure is fully alienated from the choices the players make. They don’t have to lift a finger to stop the riot, the prison break only occurs after the characters get a chance to talk to the imprisoned outlaw, the characters cannot truly die at the hands of Captain Walharrow, and it doesn’t even matter whether the player-characters go to King’s Pyre or not; either way, the mission of disrupting negotiations is a success either way thanks to a band of orcs that happens with no foreshadowing whatsoever. What is the point of playing a roleplaying game if there are no consequences to your character’s actions? Just watch a movie with cool set pieces like prison breaks, burning buildings or gang wars instead. I remember liking Outlaws in 2015, and it is better than the other 5th edition adventurers of that time. But now I’ve written and read so many adventures that seriously consider information, choice and impact, that I have unacquired the taste for a scene-based railroad of an adventure, no matter how many neat ideas those scenes contain.
The Salvation of 5e
There are enough nuggets of good ideas in Outlaws that I want to “fix” it, but I can’t fix a problem that is inherent to the play culture of 5e. For those that are unacquainted with the Six Cultures of Play set forth at The Retired Adventurer blog, the typical mode of 5th Edition adventures is described as “OC” or “Neo-Trad.” To understand this play culture in the broader context of TTRPGs, I hope you will indulge me in a brief history lesson: Dragonlance (and its authors) brought about a play culture, Trad, which was the dominant play culture of the hobby for roughly two decades. The goal of Trad games was to create an elaborate referee-lead narrative. OSR and Story Games both have their roots in rebelling against this dominant play culture, but Trad itself did not stagnate, it evolved. The OC/Neo-Trad play culture agrees with its forebear that creating a narrative should be the focus of the game, but shifts the focus from the referee telling their story to the players telling the story of their characters. If you have ever watched an episode of Critical Role, that is an example of this play culture, but it is also the most popular set of assumptions and beliefs in the 5e scene at large. With that background, I want to look at my primary gripes with Outlaws and determine whether they are purely a matter of the OC play culture not aligning with my own OSR-inflected play style, or something that can be “fixed” without disrupting the play culture.
My first consistent critique was that the lack of timekeeping made results feel arbitrary and zapped tension from the scenarios. There are a variety of ways to gamify timekeeping across play cultures (e.g., the hazard die in the OSR or “clocks” in Story Games), but perhaps Outlaws does provide a timekeeping method that just didn’t read as such because of the mismatch in play cultures. At several moments (e.g., the prison break or the orc invasion), the referee is directed to launch the event “whenever seems appropriate.” But if the goal is for things to happen in a narratively satisfying way, perhaps this is better-suited to OC play than time advancing at regular intervals (the OSR) or as a consequence of player action (Story Games). However, I think adventures that take this approach should give guidance on determining when launching the event does “seem appropriate.” This could be as simple as listing a few likely types of moments that would be narratively satisfying to spring the event. For the Prison Break, it is obviously intended to happen after they’ve begun talking with the imprisoned outlaw. So Outlaws could say “launch the prison break event either after the player-characters have asked a dramatic question but before the prisoner gets a chance to answer, or when it seems like the conversation with the imprisoned outlaw is winding up.” For the orc invasion, maybe appropriate means whenever the outlaw gangs seem to have struck their truce, when the player-characters are in the process of aligning with one of the gangs or whenever there is a lull in the action. Even this modicum of guidance is better than “whenever seems appropriate” and does not clash with the OC style of play.
My other, primary issue with Outlaws is more significant, but also more fixable. For every instance of possible failure (e.g., the riot or the fight with Walharrow), Outlaws gives a lazy cop-out that the referee can deploy to undo the failure. But the issue here is because Outlaws assumes that failure means either player-character death or the end of the adventure, both of which are at odds with the centrality of the characters and their narratives to the OC play culture. But this is too narrow a view of failure. I already offered some ideas for how “failure” during the riot scenario doesn’t have to end the adventure. Instead, these failures, the death of the quest giver or the arrest of the player-characters, simply change the path of the adventure, but not the direction. This is the ideal OC/Neo-Trad approach to failure. But what about that failstate loved best by the OSR: player-character death? Outlaws provides an opportunity for death (at the hands of the minotaur pirate) but also provides a cheap safety net. 5e, as a system, already provides such a safety net in the form of the death saves, but death is still possible. I agree with Outlaws that, due to the OC play culture, the mechanical safety net is not enough. An OC player should basically never have their character die unless they choose to die. But being reduced to the near-death state should still have interesting consequences, and being revived by a random, surprisingly altruistic jailer is not very interesting. Instead, I would say that, if Walharrow defeats the party, he does not choose to inflict death. Instead, he heats up his stylized nose ring in the fires all around them and “brands” the players with it. Perhaps this is Walharrow’s modus operandi, and it opens up the possibility of people recognizing the brand and knowing that the characters got on the wrong side of the dread pirate captain. This may also make the characters want to track down the minotaur pirate and get revenge. Whatever happens, this consequence of failure enhances OC/Neo-Trad’s emphasis on creating narrative more than a lazy backstop.
The flaws of Outlaws are not simply a mismatch between an OSR reader and an OC adventure. There are ways to write interesting adventures in the OC/Neo-Trad style without obviating player agency. It just requires some creativity, but solutions are possible.