D&D General Orcs on Stairs (When Adventures Are Incomplete)

Retreater

Legend
This is springing from a lively disagreement I'm having in the Rime of the Frostmaiden Post-Mortem regarding a "really big deal" (no spoilers) that the module doesn't elaborate upon in any way that can seriously change the focus of the campaign.
It brings to mind a recent conversation I was having with a friend while driving 6 hours to GaryCon. He was telling me about a bad adventure with a poorly constructed encounter, which I'll refer to as "Orcs on Stairs." This encounter had an element that could end the campaign (or at the very least, many characters' lives) with next to no detail. So an "Orcs on Stairs" will be a stand-in for "incomplete details."
In his case, he was a new DM who was starting in the era of 4E. He didn't remember the name of the adventure, and some details may be wrong, but you'll get the idea.
The characters are climbing stairs on the side of an impossibly tall tower (or mountain pass, whatever). The orcs have crossbows that are built with enough force to push characters off the ledge.
The adventure clearly states that the stairs are "probably tall enough that falling would likely be fatal." But it doesn't give the distance. It doesn't give what the falling damage would be. What do you do? I guess a new DM like my friend is to shrug their shoulders and say "I guess you fall off and die?"
There are gaps in published adventures that any halfway decent writer should pick up. Like obviously when you are dealing with an encounter where falling is important and you have creatures designed to push characters off a narrow walkway, you need to give information about height. If you refer to rules about catching yourself, falling damage, etc., that's bonus. But you at least have to provide the height.
So in the case of "Rime" we see that the writers completely negate an important component of the plot, something that no good aligned party will be able to pass up. Something that is set up like a mystery with no follow-up information.
What are some other examples of Orcs on Stairs you've seen?
 

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Urriak Uruk

Gaming is fun, and fun is for everyone
This is springing from a lively disagreement I'm having in the Rime of the Frostmaiden Post-Mortem regarding a "really big deal" (no spoilers) that the module doesn't elaborate upon in any way that can seriously change the focus of the campaign.
It brings to mind a recent conversation I was having with a friend while driving 6 hours to GaryCon. He was telling me about a bad adventure with a poorly constructed encounter, which I'll refer to as "Orcs on Stairs." This encounter had an element that could end the campaign (or at the very least, many characters' lives) with next to no detail. So an "Orcs on Stairs" will be a stand-in for "incomplete details."
In his case, he was a new DM who was starting in the era of 4E. He didn't remember the name of the adventure, and some details may be wrong, but you'll get the idea.
The characters are climbing stairs on the side of an impossibly tall tower (or mountain pass, whatever). The orcs have crossbows that are built with enough force to push characters off the ledge.
The adventure clearly states that the stairs are "probably tall enough that falling would likely be fatal." But it doesn't give the distance. It doesn't give what the falling damage would be. What do you do? I guess a new DM like my friend is to shrug their shoulders and say "I guess you fall off and die?"
There are gaps in published adventures that any halfway decent writer should pick up. Like obviously when you are dealing with an encounter where falling is important and you have creatures designed to push characters off a narrow walkway, you need to give information about height. If you refer to rules about catching yourself, falling damage, etc., that's bonus. But you at least have to provide the height.
So in the case of "Rime" we see that the writers completely negate an important component of the plot, something that no good aligned party will be able to pass up. Something that is set up like a mystery with no follow-up information.
What are some other examples of Orcs on Stairs you've seen?

Sometimes an adventure being incomplete is helpful. In the Orcs on Stairs example, it gives you the freedom to set whatever height you want. So if you think this fight is unfair, you can set the height to be lower so that players can survive the fall. If you want PC death a possibility, set it so falling will kill.

In Rime I don't know what you're referring to so won't comment.

I guess a good example of "incomplete" for me is Dragon Heist, which doesn't give a lot of info on what to do if the PCs get the macguffin early, which is a real possibility.
 

pukunui

Legend
I guess a good example of "incomplete" for me is Dragon Heist, which doesn't give a lot of info on what to do if the PCs get the macguffin early, which is a real possibility.
Dragon Heist has a whole sidebar explaining what to do if the PCs get the macguffin early: The macguffin refuses to let the PCs attune to it because they haven't "earned" the right to do so yet. Instead, the macguffin keeps trying to take over the PCs' minds. Once it succeeds, it forces them to get rid of it, then makes them forget that they ever had it, so that they have no choice but to stay on the plot train and do the Benny Hill chase sequence in order to "earn" the right to attune to the macguffin. The DM is also supposed to tell the players to roleplay their PCs' memory loss.
 

Medic

Lawful Neutral
I'm not going to smugly recline in my chair and pretend that most published adventures are winners. In fact, I would go as far as to say that there is a figurative ocean of milquetoast junk that has gradually gotten deeper over the decades. This "Orcs on Stairs" phenomenon happens for a multitude of reasons, but if I had to pinpoint the primary cause, I would assert that it happens because many modules are designed to be read and enjoyed, not actually run by a DM. I could elaborate and excavate some evidence eventually, though I'm a bit predisposed at the moment.

Sometimes an adventure being incomplete is helpful. In the Orcs on Stairs example, it gives you the freedom to set whatever height you want. So if you think this fight is unfair, you can set the height to be lower so that players can survive the fall. If you want PC death a possibility, set it so falling will kill.

In Rime I don't know what you're referring to so won't comment.

I guess a good example of "incomplete" for me is Dragon Heist, which doesn't give a lot of info on what to do if the PCs get the macguffin early, which is a real possibility.
Well, that's the thing. If I paid money for a module, I'd like those details laid out for me beforehand, or at least provide flavor text that conveys key information without the need to use precise measurements. "The Lich's Doom Spire extends into the thin air of the chilly stratosphere" informs me that anyone who falls off is going splat unless they have Feather Fall prepared. Otherwise, why shouldn't I just make my own adventure for free when I'd have to spend the time to fill in the gaps either way?
 

Unwise

Adventurer
At this point sinking the boot into Horde of the Dragon Queen is probably passe'. What I did notice from an earlier reading of that was a complete lack of "why?". We are told what the villians are doing, but we have no idea why they are running around in circles. There seemed to be a lot of off-ramps in the adventure where PCs might decide they are done with it, it did not supply many "whys" as to their motivations.

The worst example I can think of for an adventure was in the Tomb of Annihilation where it just assumes that the PCs start the adventure by purposely getting captured to infiltrate a base. The adventure makes not allowance for any other way in, or give any indications that getting captured would be anything but suicide. (Or was the a ToA themed adventurer's league module?)
 

jgsugden

Legend
Every adventure path, module, one shot, etc... is incredibly incomplete. Players and their characters have agency and and can decide to do anything - and I have yet to see any product that covers all possible things PCs might do.

Even when the materials do a better than average job, DMs will modify the bones, or fail to catch every little detail, and the good tools written into the materials may go unused.

I've run LMoP a few times. I've played it a few times. Those first caves - I've seen them play out a bunch of different ways. Some of them were pretty 'out of the box', but I've also seen the PCs chased down the road, the PCs led into an ambush, PCs kidnapped and dragged 'elsewhere' ...
 

JThursby

Adventurer
Hoard of the Dragon Queen comes to mind, specifically the part with riding wyverns. You pass an animal handling check and get to participate in the next part of the adventure or you fail and don't.
 

Retreater

Legend
The worst example I can think of for an adventure was in the Tomb of Annihilation where it just assumes that the PCs start the adventure by purposely getting captured to infiltrate a base. The adventure makes not allowance for any other way in, or give any indications that getting captured would be anything but suicide. (Or was the a ToA themed adventurer's league module?)
Regarding ToA...
If you're thinking about ToA proper ... you might be remembering the Yuan-Ti's Fane of the Night Serpent section. I think it suggests getting taken in as prisoners as the Yuan-Ti are looking for sacrifices for their ritual. My group handled that by sneaking in and playing the factions against each other.
 

In his case, he was a new DM who was starting in the era of 4E. He didn't remember the name of the adventure, and some details may be wrong, but you'll get the idea.
The characters are climbing stairs on the side of an impossibly tall tower (or mountain pass, whatever). The orcs have crossbows that are built with enough force to push characters off the ledge.
The adventure clearly states that the stairs are "probably tall enough that falling would likely be fatal." But it doesn't give the distance. It doesn't give what the falling damage would be. What do you do? I guess a new DM like my friend is to shrug their shoulders and say "I guess you fall off and die?"
There are gaps in published adventures that any halfway decent writer should pick up. Like obviously when you are dealing with an encounter where falling is important and you have creatures designed to push characters off a narrow walkway, you need to give information about height. If you refer to rules about catching yourself, falling damage, etc., that's bonus. But you at least have to provide the height.
Honestly I don't understand the problem. The tower's/mountain's exact height is not relevant for any plot points other than whether falling off it can kill the PCs. The PCs will know before they even attempt the climb whether a fall is likely to be fatal (it doesn't take a rocket scientist to estimate that sort of thing), and the exact numbers will be irrelevant for most characters--it doesn't matter whether it's 500 feet or 5000 feet, that's death for essentially all characters (even a level 30, Con 30 Warden--the beefiest "baseline" character in 4e, before feats and such--has only an 11.4% chance of surviving a 500-foot fall. Any character less hardy than that and it's essentially guaranteed death...so why does it matter what the precise number is?

This sounds, to me, like one of the fundamental ideas behind what Dungeon World calls "Draw Maps, Leave Blanks." That is, you know enough about the mountain(/tower) to know what it can do, in this context. You leave blank things that don't need to be specified until such time that they do need to be specified. For example, if the player characters tried to climb the outside of the tower, rather than the stairs--maybe hoping to go unseen by the orc crossbowmen--then the actual height of the tower would matter because that's how far you have to climb up. Knowing the exact elevations in the given example, however.....doesn't seem to add anything useful in context. Unless I'm hugely missing something? I just don't get why these numbers matter so much to you. "This fall is almost certainly deadly" is sufficient.

So in the case of "Rime" we see that the writers completely negate an important component of the plot, something that no good aligned party will be able to pass up. Something that is set up like a mystery with no follow-up information.
What are some other examples of Orcs on Stairs you've seen?
Not knowing what the plot point is, and finding the "Orcs on Stairs" example to be a request for detail that sounds unnecessary to my ear, I cannot actually give any real response here.
 

Urriak Uruk

Gaming is fun, and fun is for everyone
Dragon Heist has a whole sidebar explaining what to do if the PCs get the macguffin early: The macguffin refuses to let the PCs attune to it because they haven't "earned" the right to do so yet. Instead, the macguffin keeps trying to take over the PCs' minds. Once it succeeds, it forces them to get rid of it, then makes them forget that they ever had it, so that they have no choice but to stay on the plot train and do the Benny Hill chase sequence in order to "earn" the right to attune to the macguffin. The DM is also supposed to tell the players to roleplay their PCs' memory loss.

Yep, this comment does sum up the worst parts of Dragon Heist. And I actually like that module!
 

In both Baldur's Gate 3 and Crown of Solasta one of the most effective tactics is pushing enemies into "bottomless" pits, which results in automatic death for both PCs and monsters. This is clearly the author's intent here. You might feel that it is unfair or unduly harsh, but it isn't incomplete.

Everyone has their own style of DMing. Whenever you run an adventure written by someone else you are going to come across places where they do things differently to you. In a simple situation such as the one described by the OP, most DMs can rule on the fly. In my game I tend to ask for a dexterity saving throw in that kind of situation. Or I might allow another character to use a reaction to grab the falling character. Which is definitely not in the rules, but suits the action movie tone I aim for. Someone who is more old school might well prefer "time to roll up a new character".
 

Li Shenron

Legend
I understand that you don't want to tell what the problem with Rime of the Frostmaiden is, otherwise it would be a spoiler. But frankly the "orc on stairs" is a poor example on what you want to discuss, because knowing the height of the fall is completely irrelevant to the outcome, once the text says it likely means death. Maybe it should say that it certainly means death, that would be clearer for sure. But it is definitely not a case of missing plot information.

Otherwise, the problem you bring up is very real... adventure designers understandably have only limited room to make explicit indications on how the plot can evolve or branch off in every possible way, but it is definitely possible that some adventures have glaring omissions of ramifications that are very possible.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
I had a moment like this when I was running Forge of Fury (the Tales from the Yawning Portal version). The players had decided, against my warnings, to take the fight to the dragon.

In an attempt to replicate the dragon's tactics from the 3e module, the black dragon's lair is an underwater lake, with only two routes to the island it's put it's treasure on. You can swim (with a fully aquatic dragon running amok) or take a path of rocks sticking out of the water, forcing the party to basically move single file (with a dragon with a line of acid running amok). The dragon is stated to be able to lift only it's head out of the water to breath, giving it partial cover.

I carefully looked at the 5e rules and asked the other DM's if this was right, that mere water could provide cover. Everyone said "do what the module says".

What was left silent was how to treat the dragon when it was completely submerged. Left with no guidance, I decided that would give it total cover.

Needless to say, the encounter was an actual 5e TPK and everyone had to use their "free AL resurrection". When I posted about this on this very forum (since I was still curious about the fight's mechanics), I got lambasted for my ruling, since I had "added mechanics to the fight that weren't present or intended".

Which, I'll grant, but I mean, if the module says "3/4th of a dragon in water grants partial cover", is it really so strange to think "4/4th of a dragon in water is total cover"? Why not just say "if the dragon is in water, it gets partial cover" to avoid any rookie mistakes?
 

5e does not handle water well! I had similar trouble running the fight with the nereid in Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. This is one where the original author expected a non-combat solution, but "we steel her clothes" doesn't wash well in the 21st century.
 
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Lyxen

Great Old One
Honestly, I know that some people feel that when buying a module, it should take every little contingency into account, but that is a really unreasonable attitude to have in an open ended game. One needs a minimum of preparation and unless an adventure is really simple and marketed as for beginners, DMs should be expected to have enough experience to make simple calls. And players should have enough empathy and understanding for their beginner DMs.

That being said, we've have a very bad experience a long time ago, in S4 the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, mostly because of a translation problem. The DM could not translate "a faint splintering noise" into French, so quite a few players were crushed to death by the following "encounter": "Avalanche: The party will hear a faint splintering sound followed by a rocky clattering and rumbling. They must immediately (before the DM counts to 10) move or else be crushed by the avalanche. The falling rocks will kill each party member who fails a saving throw versus Spells (although the avalanche is not magic, of course; the save simply indicates the relative danger)."

But then we discussed about it, did the necessary backtracks and all was well again. It's only a game, to be enjoyed, and it was the case for us even in old school gaming.
 


Lyxen

Great Old One
Sorry, shouldn't laugh.

We did laugh, especially after seeing the DM's confused look trying to decide what "faint splintering noise" could be, then asking for saves because everyone was confused and did not react... It was a long while ago, but I seem to recall ONE guy surviving because, for some reason, he panicked and kicked his horse in a galop. ;)

So it's perfectly OK to laugh. :D
 

Yora

Legend
The real issue is that adventure writers want to write scenes, and even sequences with scenes. But in RPGs, the characters have agency and can do what the players want and what makes sense to them. As the writer of an adventure, you can't just assume that the players will be doing something in an encounter because it seems like the obvious thing to do. If there's one obvious thing to do, then there's no actual meaningful decision for the players to make.
Making good adventures is not writing stories. Writing stories is writing stories. Making good adventures is designing interesting environments and conflicts that players can freely interact with and that will respond to the players' decisions.

This is why 99% of adventures are junk. Good adventures can be made, but D&D has had no interest in making these for the last 38 years. Novels with irrelevant dice rolls seems to be selling well enough. And why wouldn't they of people have no examples of what proper adventures look like?
 

MarkB

Legend
One I remember from Red Hand of Doom, which wasn't really the module's fault. I guess you could call it the Party of Theseus.

You start off in Town #1, do some heroic stuff to help people flee the invading horde, then go off and do half a dozen other things before eventually reaching Town #2, where you become embroiled in events based upon your reputation as established by the refugees who've fled there from Town #1.

The trouble was, it had been a rather deadly adventure up to that point, plus we'd had a couple of players leave and a couple of others come in, and the upshot was that, when we did the math, we realised that none of the characters who had saved the good folks in Town #1 had actually survived to reach Town #2.
 

pukunui

Legend
Honestly, I know that some people feel that when buying a module, it should take every little contingency into account, but that is a really unreasonable attitude to have in an open ended game.
I don't think that's the issue here. @Retreater isn't complaining about not having every contingency covered. He's not complaining about having to spend time preparing an adventure and adjusting it for his players. He's complaining about having to spend too much of that prep time fixing all the glaringly obvious plot holes and flaws just to be able to make the adventure playable, never mind adjusting it to suit the tastes of his own players. Those are different issues.

One I remember from Red Hand of Doom, which wasn't really the module's fault. I guess you could call it the Party of Theseus.

You start off in Town #1, do some heroic stuff to help people flee the invading horde, then go off and do half a dozen other things before eventually reaching Town #2, where you become embroiled in events based upon your reputation as established by the refugees who've fled there from Town #1.

The trouble was, it had been a rather deadly adventure up to that point, plus we'd had a couple of players leave and a couple of others come in, and the upshot was that, when we did the math, we realised that none of the characters who had saved the good folks in Town #1 had actually survived to reach Town #2.
Sounds like my Red Hand of Doom campaign! The parties of adventurers who defended the towns of Drellin's Ferry and Brindol were entirely different.
 

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