Tabletop Review: Dreams of the Red Wizards: Dead in Thay (Dungeons & Dragons Next)

Dreams of the Red Wizards: Dead in Thay (Dungeons & Dragons Next)
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast:
Cost: $17.99 (PDF Only)
Page Count: Special (see text)
Release Date: 04/29/2014
Get it Here; DriveThruRPG.com

Dead in Thay is the four adventure and ninth overall release (out of ten) for Dungeons & Dragons, “The Sundering,” which transitions the Forgotten Realms from Fourth Edition to Fifth Edition mechanics. Dead in Thay is only available as a PDF, which is similar in style to the last Sundering release, Scourge of the Sword Coast but the opposite of the first two adventures Murder in Baldur’s Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard. Unfortunately for the adventure side of the Sundering event, each adventure has been a step down (or more) from the previous one. Murder in Baldur’s Gate was one of the best adventures WOtC has put out in many a year, which offered multiple branching paths, different outcomes based on PC choices and it was useable with 3.5, 4th and 5th edition rules. Legacy of the Crystal Shard wasn’t as dynamic an experience, but it was still a solid adventure and provided gamers with a memorable experienced regardless of which rules set was used. However, the switch to PDF only also has signaled a massive decrease in quality. Scourge of the Sword Coast as a decent adventure but it eliminated the amazing campaign guides and DM screens, while also removing the compatibility for other rules sets. It was D&D Next or nothing. Unfortunately, Dead in Thay not only continues this downward spiral. But the end result is a chaotic mess that is little more than a pure hack and slash experience that focuses on roll-playing with little to no role-playing or character development opportunities. In short, it is the exact opposite in many ways of Murder in Baldur’s Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard in this respect and because the adventure is designed for multiple parties and DMs, Dead In Thay becomes a very hard piece to even be able to play in the first place much less pull it off in a way that it will be enjoyable to all who participate.

Dead In Thay actually consists of more than forty PDFs. Now don’t worry, a lot of those PDFs are art pieces and maps. You won’t be overwhelmed here. Besides the 107 page adventure, you are also getting twelve PDFs full of rules and mechanics. These are the same D&D Next rules that came with Scourge of the Sword Coast, which are from 12/1/2013. Now, the rules have slightly been modified since then, but as these rules haven’t been seen outside of the Alpha playtest group (Full candor: I am one of those and am currently working with Tyranny of Dragons Book 2 and the monster stats that go with it.), this won’t affect anyone outside that small group in the know. It’s great that Wizards included all of these rules with the purchase of Dead in Thay, as enterprising DMs can create their own homebrew adventures for friends with them. These rules PDFs are as follows: Read This First, Character Creation, Classes, DM Guidelines, Equipment, Feats, How To Play, Magic Items, Multi-Classing, Races, Skills & Backgrounds and Spells. These are all you need to play D&D Next and should keep you busy until the final core rulebooks are released. The other PDFs include ten pre-generated characters and one that holds all the character sheets on a single PDF. You have six maps and a whopping thirteen character portrait handouts so players know what major NPCs look like. This is a lot of great stuff, ESPECIALLY for the price point. As much as I didn’t care for the actual Dead in Thay adventure, this is worth picking up for the rules and character PDFs alone – if you haven’t already purchased Scourge of the Sword Coast that is.

Dead In Thay is a direct sequel/continuation of Scourge of the Sword Coast, which was design for characters between Levels 2 and 4. Dead in Thay is designed for characters between Levels 6 and 8, so if you played the previous adventure you characters will get a bit of a power spike. This is fine, but it also prevents players from seeing their characters grow organically if they are only playing published releases. At the same time some players will be saying, “Whoo! Two free levels!” so it all depends on the group. As a direct sequel to Scourge in the Sword Coast, you will see several familiar NPCs pop up to play minor roles. Unfortunately as Dead in Thay is little more than a dungeon crawl where you go from room to room killing things mindlessly, you won’t be able to interact with them on the same level as you did in the previous adventure. They are mostly window dressing and nothing more. As well, Dead in Thay also features some events and antagonists from Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle, which is an amazing release that you should pick up as they adventures within that campaign are top notch and you can also see how D&D Next has evolved from that release. Unfortunately, even though Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle connects with Scourge of the Sword Coast and Dead In Thay, you can’t use the same characters. You end the Dragonspear Castle campaign at Level 10 and thus are overpowered for the two follow ups. I’m not sure why things were designed this way, but it’s a pity. I should also take the time to point out that unlike Dead in Thay Ghosts of Dragonspear Castle manages to balance its dungeon crawl aspects with actual role-playing and story-telling events. It was a fully fleshed out set of four adventures while Dead in Thay is well…not.

Dead in Thay is heavily influenced by 2013’s Game Day Adventure: Vault of the Dracolich. VotD was a potentially really fun affair IF you had enough people to coordinate it and make it flow properly. You see, Vault of the Dracolich was designed as a one day adventure where multiple parties went through a very large dungeon working together as small teams to achieve one very big goal. The adventure required multiple DMs (one for each party) and an event coordinator to oversee all the DMs. The end result was a massive but memorable affair. Unfortunately (we’re saying that a lot in this review) the sheer enormity of the piece made it very hard to pull off correctly. If you had an event coordinator that wasn’t up to snuff or DMs with wildly different styles, things fell apart fast. Every person involved on the running side of things had to be exceptionally organized or it could be a disaster. Still, with a good amount of planning and the right mix of people, Vault of the Dracolich was an adventure where literally two or three dozen gamers could get together for one big dungeon crawl experience that also made sure people were role-playing in addition to dice-rolling. Alas, while Dead In Thay attempts to replicate this experience, it falls short in every way possible.

First, Vault of the Dracolich was meant to be played in a single day. A very long day of gaming mind you, but it was a one and done affair. Dead In Thay is part of the D&D Encounters program, meaning it’s trying to replicate this experience for multiple play sessions – same bat time, same bat channel each week until the series is done. Do you know how hard it is to get a single group of gamers to meet regularly (especially as they get older!)? So getting the same DMs and players and Event Coordinator together each week is either extremely ludicrous or so optimistic I can’t believe that the inherent flaw in this adventure wasn’t brought up by anyone on the writing, editing or planning side of the adventure (I know this certainly was in Alpha playtesting– by quite a few of us). Now the core concept of the adventure is that each party tackles a different party of the dungeon until they have enough Black Glyphs (the MacGuffins of Dead in Thay) tampered with to move on to the climax. Keeping track of each group’s adventures each week is extremely hard and challenging (some might say unrewarding, but if done right it simply isn’t true) for the DMs and Event coordinators, but Cthulhu forbid one or more players can’t make it to the week’s session as things get thrown out of whack big time. Even worse is if the DM or Event Coordinator can’t make it. Dead in Thay isn’t the type of piece where the people running the adventure/encounter series are easily replaceable – if at all! This means you (and a ton of other people) pretty much have to have your life free of everything and anything but DUNGEONS & DRAGONS for roughly two months to properly make Dead in Thay work and that simply is so far removed from reality, it isn’t even funny. Things happen. Things come up. I honestly can’t think of a published adventure in the decades I’ve been gaming that commits this level of hubris by assuming gaming is all the people playing Dead in Thay have in their lives. It’s not intentional on the designers’ part, but there is an obvious massive disconnect between how the adventure was envisioned by the design team and the many different ways people will try to run this thing.

Now there are ways around this. Only the first and last sessions truly need everyone there all at the same time and on the same page. Still, that requires a lot of forethought and planning to get two sessions running with everyone on the DM side of things together. The other sessions can be run weekly but at different times to best accommodate players. All that needs to be done in this scenario is make sure all the DMs and the Event Coordinator are aware of every little detail that goes on in each play sessions, which means copious amounts of note writing and then either in person meetings or emails so everyone is up to date and each DM is aware of the current state of the mega dungeon everyone is traveling through. This means a more work for the people running things, but there is less pressure to have dozens of people meet up at the same time in the same place every week. As well, players don’t have to meet each session. New ones can step in either playing the character for the missing gamer or by being a new recruit/reinforcement while the missing character has the kayfabe reason of “getting his or her injuries treated.” This will let new gamers try out Dead in Thay and give others with commitments a breather, but those new gamers may find themselves lost or overwhelmed. Still, it is an option worth considering. Finally, you can always trying running Dead in Thay as an adventure for a single party. The text even pays some minor lip service to this idea, but it is harder than you might think. Dead in Thay doesn’t even dole out experience points normally. Creatures in the back are missing XP totals and the text says that you will gain a level for every five Encounter sessions you attend instead of how one normally levels up in D&D. So obviously this piece was far from designed with the usual play format in mind. The DM that goes this route will have to retool things. Whether it is a minor or significant amount depends on the DM, their party and what the troupe as a whole are looking to get out of this experience. Even with all these attempts at work-around Dead In Thay ends up being an adventure that seems good on the drawing board but simply over-reaches itself constantly, and falls short of its core goal simply because the reality of actually PLAYING the adventure wasn’t factored into the design process at all.

Plot-wise, there isn’t much of a story to Dead in Thay. This is a straight-up dungeon crawl where the PCs move from room to room either killing whatever they encounter or possibly befriending via show of force. This is literally the entire experience of Dead in Thay. The text of the adventure states that the experience is meant to be a tribute to great classic adventures like Tomb of Horrors and The Ruins of Undermountain. It also has a not so subtle homage to The Temple of Elemental Evil. Unfortunately (there’s that word again), Dead in Thay missing out on why those adventures are considered classics. Tomb of Horrors was just an experience where you mindlessly rolled dice and killed creatures in each room as your made your way towards some nebulous goal. Tomb of Horrors also had puzzles to be solved, role-playing opportunities (as opposed to roll-playing) and was wonderfully difficult. Dead in Thay lets your characters come back to life regularly without any real punishment and is a pretty easy experience combat-wise. Tomb of Horrors is SUCH a different beast from Dead in Thay it’s hard to see how this is a tribute to it. Look at those S-Series adventures. Tomb of Horrors. White Plume Mountain. Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. The only thing Dead in Thay has in common with them is you are going through a dungeon killing things. Dead in Thay lacks the interesting locations, puzzles to solve, and has none of the strange atmosphere those locations offered. With Dead in Thay you are repeating the same experience over and over. If you’re not killing monsters or Thayans, you’re making allies out of the potential antagonists. While I absolutely love the idea of getting Red Wizards to betray their lich lord, Szass Tam, all of the encounters with NPCs that will potentially ally with the PCs run exactly the same. The Wizard or monster sees how strong the PCs are and offers to help them out in exchange for not dying. Players see this coming after the third or fourth similar encounter, no matter how different the DM plays the personality of the NPC and it just becomes another repetitive experience, which pretty much defines Dead in Thay. Had the encounters with potential allies all been different instead of the same cookie cutter formula, this could have breathed a bit of life into the piece. Alas, the only way that will happen is if the DM running this changes things to make it so. It also hurts disbelief a bit that a group of Level 6-8 characters are running around in one of the most important places in Thay and the antagonists aren’t a lot more powerful. I mean, if you were Szass Tam, who could wipe out all the parties taking part in this adventure BY HIMSELF, would you have some stronger security in your precious Doomvault? I had more than one person who experienced this adventure bring this up and DMs were at a loss other than, “It’s how the adventure is written.”

So yes, Dead in Thay starts off with multiple parties attacking a series of elemental nodes that power the Bloodgate Nexus, a mass teleportation device powered by human sacrifice. Then they are all teleported to the Doomvault where the various parties search out the aforementioned MacGuffins in the nine very different piecemeal regions of the mega dungeon. You have the Abyssal Prisons, Blood Pens, Masters’ Domain, Far Realm Cysts, Forests of Slaughter, Ooze Grottos, Predator Pools, Golem Laboratories, and Temples of Extraction. The sections are indeed diverse in terms of what you encounter, but everything still bleeds together. Each section has a theme running through it, but you’re still traversing the theme room by room killing things, collecting white glyphs, disrupting black ones and repeating until you have enough black glyphs distorted to move on to the final scene where all the parties reunite for one big chaotic battles. There’s only diversification on paper, but not in the actual follow through or experience of Dead in Thay. While there is nothing wrong with an adventure that is a purely a dungeon crawl, it can’t be essentially the same experience from room to room for the entire piece. Those classic S-Series dungeons worked because there wasn’t constantly something new being thrown at you rather than constant straight up combat or the same few bits repeated constantly. Those S-series adventures were also a lot smaller in scope and design, so the experience was shorter. This meant that even they did make the mistake of throwing the same thing at players over and over again for the entire adventure, they were short enough that you weren’t doing it BY DESIGN for two months straight. Case in point, Tomb of Horrors consists of only thirty-three possible locations and a party will be lucky to encounter HALF of those. Dead in Thay has over ONE HUNDRED LOCATIONS and each section of the dungeon is a mostly linear experience where you will hit each room one after another in order. There are some rooms that will be missed, sure, but if you look at the dungeon layout section by section, you’ll see there is very little exploring as much as it is design to herd PCs into room by room with only the occasional side room off the beaten path…which ends up being a dead end anyway.

So as we can see, there is not a lot about Dead in Thay to be positive about. It’s primarily a dull mindless affair that requires an incredible amount of planning to make it work and even then, it’s not going to be fun for a lot of people involved, be they DMs or PCs simply because the entire experience is uninspired and repetitive. Now in the right hands, Dead in Thay can be a pretty entertaining experience, but to make that happen you need a set of top notch DMs that can infuse the piece with life and personality while still being very detail oriented. You’ll also need four parties of PCs that can meet regularly and work well together. Then and ONLY then can Dead in Thay begin to be fun. The odds of all of these things coming together are astronomically small. I really did want to like Dead in Thay, especially since I’ve loved most of D&D Next so far, but this really is a shining example of how to do everything wrong with both a large scale adventure and a dungeon crawl. It’s such a shame that the other Sundering adventures were so well balanced and thought out, giving players equal amounts of role-playing their characters and dice based hack and slash combat. Those adventures had entertaining stories, interesting and full-fleshed out NPCs and were incredibly solid and memorable experiences. How Wizards of the Coast could do a complete 180 with Dead in Thay being a dull, generic, badly thought out dungeon crawl that is extremely hard for people to run properly is beyond me. It’s a shame to see how Dead in Thay turned out as I’ve always loved Thay and The Haunted Lands by Richard Lee Byers is probably my favorite D&D novel trilogy, but this is pretty much every mistake under the sun wrapped into one adventure. Remember though, I’m just one person and if you end up loving Dead in Thay where I loathed it, more power to you! It’s all opinion after all.

I feel really bad at how scathing and critical this review was of this adventure, but it really is both the weakest part of The Sundering and D&D Next so far. It makes a lot of mistakes and assumptions and is pretty much the antithesis of the adventures I enjoy. It’s definitely as polar opposite to Murder in Baldur’s Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard (which are the best adventures WotC has put out in YEARS) as it gets. So if you enjoyed those, stay far away from this one. Again, there’s nothing wrong with a good dungeon crawl. After all, not every adventure has to be nothing but talking heads or V:TM style intrigue. There’s a reason nearly every RPG out there has dice based combat resolution and adventures where PCs are in some old forgotten place after a MacGuffin or just sated their greed. Unfortunately, Dead in Thay is anything BUT a good dungeon crawl. In the right hands, Dead in Thay is salvageable and can probably be a lot of fun. I also can’t deny that you are getting a lot of content for your eighteen dollars and the D&D Next Rules alone are worth the purchase price even if you disliked the Dead in Thay experience as much as I did. Hell, you also get thirty pages of monster stats in the back of the core adventure booklet, which D&D Next DM’s will want to get ahold of. Unfortunately, you can do better in terms of D&D Next, Sundering and dungeon crawl experiences. My advice is to either avoid Dead In Thay outright or at least first pickup Vault of the Dracolich, which is a lot cheaper. Try running that as intended and if you hate it, you should stay far away from Dead in Thay. If however, you did like it (as I did), realize Dead in Thay is a much longer and far duller experience and requires substantially more work to run. It’s not that Dead is Thay is the worst adventure ever or anything like that, but it IS the worst D&D Next release so far.

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