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Dragons of Stormwreck Isle

I finally got a chance to look at Dragons of Stormwreck Isle. This is a “capsule review” as opposed to a “playtest review” since I haven’t played it, only quickly thumbed through it! That’s right, I didn’t even read every room, just some of the intros.

The original starter set, The Lost Mine of Phandelver, I’ve whole-heartedly recommended to new groups or people who wanna get started with D&D.

Dragons of Stormwreck Isle is a more fine-grained affair. Things are described and explained in more detail. This can be good for curious people who need the extra handholding but can be frustrating for those who want a more overview approach. Some of the detailed advice is good, while some of it can be misunderstood as advocating fudging or DM putting her finger on the scale.

LMoP is a more open point crawl.

LMoP is five levels and it took us twelve sessions to pretty much see everything. DoSI is much shorter and smaller.

LMoP is a blorby sandbox. It’s not a railroad at all (yes, it starts with a very scripted lead up into the first dangerous situation, but that’s just the starting setup).

DoSI has much more of a “chapter 1”, then two chapters in either order, then “chapter 4” type setup.

I am always super opposed to giving new DMs railroads; I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions for what’s going to be successful for a group helmed by a new DM. It takes a lot of experience to be able to run a railroad well, whereas a location-based, big hexmap with lots of small quests, like LMoP, is a lot more robust.

However, DoSI has lots of contingencies when going “off the rails”. This is good. For example, if they explore other shipwrecks than the correct one, it tells you what map you can use to cover those and some hand-wavey ideas for encounters. This is a mixed bag—it’s good that it teaches you how to rescue a railroad that has gone off the rails, but it’s frustrating that the encounter suggestions are so handwavy (“They might also find giant octopuses […], ghouls, or other dangers aboard. These adventures are yours to create”) instead of e.g. a random table. This is me with my anti-improvisation hangup, but I’ve just been frustrated with modules like Scarlet Citadel saying “some undead come, probably shadows” without an amount or limit, and this is giving me some of those vibes.

So that’s good and bad:

It also does two things that I think are very bad.

  1. It uses milestone. LMoP has well-calculated XP throughout, and works well in that regard. DoSI tells you when to level up. Milestone leveling is bad because it makes the DM much more responsible for serving up balanced encounters. With XP, challenge is more exploration-driven, but with milestone the DM decides both how difficult the opposition is and how capable the characters are, meaning it’s the DM’s fault if it’s too easy or hard. Not into it. That tension often drives DMs to fudging.

  2. It uses—OMG, this is such a taboo for me—level scaling! There is a clear chapter one (fair enough, every adventure needs to start somewhere) and a clear last chapter (diegetically gatekept by a couple of macguffins) but the inbetween chapters can be done in either order, and if you do chapter 3 before chapter 2, it tells you how to make chapter 3 easier and chapter 2 harder. Not into it for the exact same “DM becomes responsible for the balance and gets driven towards fudging” problems as before, and for how anti-blorby the entire idea of level scaling is. A party that’s struggling or having an overly easy time, it’s just gonna be constantly unfun for them since the adventure tries to second guess what they “should” face.

What I would’ve wanted is such an easy fix: just make 3 as easy as 2 right from the start. Make both of ‘em the same level. Just like in LMoP where there are lots of level three stuff (that you might push towards earlier if you’re doing well or push beyond even earlier if you’re doing really well).

From a blorb perspective, LMoP is just untouchable, it’s a hundred times better than DoSI with a richer, more interesting campaign that teaches good habits: hexcrawl, pointcrawl, encounter tables, super lethal, wide open, set up for emergence and “play to find out”.

DoSI is not without a reason for being: it’s a very handheld and gentle introduction to D&D’s mechanics set in a unique and moody location. It teaches some bad habits but could’ve been much worse. I can imagine groups for whom it’s an appropriate first experience with D&D.