What I Did on My Summer Con Season Vacation

DnD_ADVLNothing causes a young (or in my case, not-so-young) RPG gamer’s soul to sing more than the summer con season. Origins, GenCon, PAX, Dragon*Con, Fan Expo Canada: these are just a few of the great summer cons, and that doesn’t include countless local cons.

This summer was extra-special. Although I have been exercising my RPG muscles, both personally and professionally, in different directions, there is no ignoring the launch of the new edition. And for someone so steeped in Organized Play, the launch of a new D&D campaign at the start of a new edition of the game is a critical hit.

Expedition to New Peaks

Gen Con 2014 saw the launch of an integral part of the Wizard of the Coast’s Organized Play program: D&D Expeditions. For those hip to the lingo of Organized Play, D&D Expeditions is analogous to the many Living campaigns of D&D’s past. While there are other parts of the D&D Adventurer’s League, D&D Expeditions highlights and carries forward the public-play campaign. These Expedition adventures form the crux of a thread of the campaign that takes place in the Moonsea area of the Forgotten Realms, letting players have more agency in what happens in the story of the area as a whole. Will Phlan survive the Tyranny of Dragons, or will the oft-doomed city again become a burning heap of rubble? That will be decided by the players in this world-wide campaign. Individual heroes will be called out, making a name for themselves in the storied history of the Realms.

I was fortunate enough to write one of the first Expedition adventures, Defiance in Phlan. As anyone who has ever DMed a new campaign knows, those first few sessions of a campaign, whether it is a home campaign or an Organized Play campaign, are important in setting the tone and offering a glimpse of what will happen in the later parts of the story. That means my fellow adventure designers—Teos Abadia, Greg Marks, and Pieter Sleijpen—and I needed to work closely with the Adventurer’s League admins in hitting the mark. Not just THE MARK, but many marks: understand the setting, craft important NPCs, be aware of special rules, conform to campaign-specific mechanics, etc. In addition, we had to work from a rules set that was still under development.

In addition to the challenges of writing an adventure that helps launch a new campaign, Defiance in Phlan also has to take on another role: it is a delve event. A delve in this case has a particular meaning. It is a session meant to be played in a very short amount of time to give people a taste of the game. Delves usually see players given pre-generated characters and dropped into a couple of combats. If there is a story to a delve, it is usually rudimentary and not connected to any Living campaign. If people who play a delve enjoy the experience, they are usually pointed to a regular 4-hour session of a game that introduce them to the concept of a Living campaign, where their characters could become part of the overall campaign.

Delving in Phlan-is

When I received my instructions for designing Defiance in Phlan, I was surprised to see that it was meant to be both a delve and part of the D&D Expeditions campaign. I’d written delves before, and I’d written adventures to launch campaigns before, but never before had I done both simultaneously. I love a challenge. Then I realized the outline called for the adventure to be a delve made up of five different 1-hour mini-missions. And the missions needed to be playable in any order. And each mission should make sense outside of the context of any other mission, because some people would only play one or two of them at random. And each mission should touch upon one of the five factions that adventurers can join. And many of the players would be brand-new to D&D. And all of the pillars of play (interaction, exploration, combat) need to be represented by the missions. And that the parts needed to fit together in case a DM later wanted to run the adventure one complete adventure. And did I mention each mission had to be playable in less than an hour?

I love a challenge, but that is a lot of “ands.” To put my trepidation into perspective, I normally write an adventure, playtest it once, make revisions, and then turn it over to the developers for editing and further playtesting. In this case I ran three different playtests, with significant revisions taking place after each. If I was happy with the story, the mission ran too long. If the mission ran too short, something seemed lacking in one of the pillars. I hammered away, with some excellent feedback and suggestions from my playtesters. I cannot say I am satisfied with what I turned in, but I would worry if I was satisfied with anything I write.

Defiance in Phlan ran at Gen Con and many of the other conventions I mentioned, and now Adventurer’s League players can partake in all of the released Expeditions adventures. If you get a chance to play, or have already played, drop me a line and let me know how it went for you. Let me know your tales of woe, or your heroics that saved the day at the last second. Let me know how your DM took a few words on a page and brought it to life for you. Most importantly, let me know what you thought of Madame Freona and her five daughters. And how was the tea?


  1. I played in Mission 2 at GenCon and I’ll be running all 5 Missions this Sunday for my FLGS as we embark on D&D Expeditions!

    Mission 2 is a lot more robust and deep, story wise, than I understood after only playing through it.

    I love love love Madame Freona and her 5 daughters! Inspired idea to have each Daughter lead the party into each separate mission. I also was tickled to see that the color of their hair / clothing items was very ‘on message’ for Tyranny of Dragons.

    I can’t decide if I like Mission 3, 4, or 5 the best.

    Great job!

  2. Tom Henderson says:

    I ran one of the All-Access tables at Gencon. Table 90 in the afternoon slot. I had harpers, emerald and guauntlet factions at my table so i ran those defiance modules. I knew that I had the players for a total of 15 hours of playtime so I focused on ensuring that the players got to know their characters, became comfortable with 5e (only 1/6 had played 5e before gencon) and establishing a smooth party relationship.

    The party greatly enjoyed the modules and they provided both a firm storyline foundation for the remainder of the con’s games, allowed each player an opportunity to learn the game and shine, and helped greatly to build a strong party of cooperative and collaborative players.

    The defiance modules were truly excellent. I look forward to running more of your AL work.

  3. Shawn Merwin says:

    @Ken: Thanks, I am pleased and relieved that you enjoy it. I hope it runs well at your FLGS.

    @Tom: Thanks so much. It was great to sit with DMs at GenCon, including the All-Access DMs, and hear how they tweaked it and how the players tackled the different scenarios.

  4. I ran a few of the Missions this weekend at my local game store. I started to notice that each of the five daughters seemed to have something in their descriptions that made me think there is more to Madame Freon and her girls than meets the eye.