I’ve written before about how much I rely on tweaking pre-written adventure modules. It’s a great way to save time on adventure prep – start with the bones, and then add your own flesh. And muscles, and a stomach, and other organs. If you’ve listened to (or read) the Chronicles, you might notice the way adventures get layered into the narrative; most of these, at least for the early parts of the story, are short third edition adventures, usually ones that are available for ninety-nine cents on Dungeon Master’s Guild or Drive-Thru RPG. I’m on a budget – who isn’t?
Episode 3 of the Chronicles, “A Visit to Gatorsburg,” was based on a session when the boys and I ran “Wreck Ashore,” an adventure written by Robert Wiese in 2004, released online through Wizards of the Coast’s Online Adventures series. “Wreck Ashore” is one of the many, many little modules for first-level players; it’s intended to be a quick little introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. It’s…okay? It’s not a great adventure. With some revision, though, you can take these bones and turn them into a fully-articulated Frankenstein’s monster.
Our official synopsis is:
The number of ships docking at the coastal town of Seawell has suddenly dropped, and raids by the local lizardfolk are increasing. The missing ships were all approaching from the reef side of the peninsula, so something must have happened to the lighthouse that normally guides ships safely past the danger. But what? Drop the latest miniadventure for D&D v.3.5 by Robert Wiese into any coastal area that features a peninsula. Suitable for four 1st-level characters.
The big “twist” of the adventure is that the lizardfolk, despite being blamed for Seawell’s troubles, are not in fact responsible for taking out the lighthouse – it’s a group of pirates.
There’s three sections, broadly speaking: arriving in Seawell, the trip to the lighthouse, and confronting the pirates responsible for destroying Seawell’s lighthouse. Let’s tackle them each in turn.
Seawell itself gets almost no background in the adventure text. Well, I shouldn’t say that. The town gets some background – we get suggestions on places to locate Seawell in the Forgotten Realms setting, or Greyhawk; we get a little info on the major problems facing the town (lizardfolk raids and no ships from the east). One section in particular, I think, summarizes the challenges of running “Wreck Ashore:”
If [the PCs] seem uninterested in the missing ships, the mayor approaches them upon finding out that they are adventurers. He offers them 50 gp each, plus all the treasure they find, to find out what happened to the ships and resolve the problem. The characters are not really needed to deal with the lizardfolk raids…
I think this is typical of adventures written around the early 2000s. “The mayor” is never mentioned before (or after). Despite being told that Seawell has a major problem with lizardfolk raids, the adventure text immediately tells the DM to ignore the lizardfolk problem as a hook for the characters. It’s a clumsy hook and setup, and we have nothing else about Seawell to build a story. The enterprising DM who wishes to run “Wreck Ashore” has to be ready to generate the town themselves – and that includes actual characters for the PCs to interact with, not just concepts.
One final flaw in the adventure setup remains. We are told that the characters can take one of two routes to get to the lighthouse. They can go by land, wandering through swamps and jungles, which are infested with snakes and alligators and all sorts of nastiness. Or they can hire a boat. That’s it. There’s no boat-related adventure, no sea encounters. The sea passage is described in the text as “both faster and less dangerous” than the overland trek. Presumably, the barrier is that it will be more expensive. That’s not raised in the text.
There’s very little reason for the PCs to not take a boat. The text does suggest just not making the boat an option, but – then – why bring it up? Any intelligent player will at least investigate the possibility of hiring a boat to get over near the lighthouse. In fact, given that the adventure revolves around a gang of pirates, you might think there could be a cool space for some sort of high-seas battle. Ship battles in D&D are tricky for a lot of reasons, but it could be a fun, exciting set piece.
There are some strong elements here. The text provides six different overland route encounters, most of which are some variation on “an animal from the back of the monster manual in its natural habitat.” They aren’t bad encounters! If you’re ever running encounters with panthers, alligators, snakes – these paragraphs give you a great reference for how to run those.
There’s obviously nothing for the sea journey, other than “if they get off the boat, run one of the overland encounters.” Snooze. Boo.
When the PCs get close to the final area, there’s a little pre-climax encounter to lead into the pirate battle. This is – well, it’s not a great section, but it’s got good bones. There are two guaranteed encounters: a pirate patrol, and a lizardfolk patrol. Again, the “twist” here is that the lizardfolk patrol come in peace, while the pirates are the true enemies. I say “twist” because I think that’s what the adventuere is going for. The earlier material on the potential lizardfolk threat is entirely there just to mislead the PCs when they encounter lizardfolk scouts on the beach. They can negotiate with the scouts and even potentially recruit them to fight the pirates. Meanwhile, the pirate crew encounter can be nice and characterful – the pirates are cowards, and cowards are fun villains.
This is where the adventure takes a turn for the worse, in my opinion. This is a lighthouse adventure. The destination is the lighthouse. You gotta fix the lighthouse. Now, the concept of the adventure is that these rascally pirates have set up a false decoy lighthouse on the beach. They’ve made their headquarters there, and have gathered up all their stolen cargo there. Here, we have a conflict. The lighthouse is entirely empty, save for the bodies of the poor hapless family, who have been slaughtered by the pirates.
It’s a weird setpiece, this lighthouse! It’s the only part of the adventure that has an accompanying map – in fact, the adventure was probably written in part because it uses a free map from the old Map-a-Week feature on WOTC. That map is pictured below:
This is a nice map of a lighthouse! It’s done by Todd Gamble, who has a ton of maps under his belt, and a book of maps, and, look, what I’m getting at is: it’s weird to use this map for this climax. Because the climax is, essentially, a battle on an open beach. It’s also written as a challenging encounter – the captain is a sorcerer, the first mate is a rogue, and there’s a few crew members floating around for good measure. There’s interesting stuff in the adventure text about tactics the party could use to approach the pirates – get help from Seawell, divide and conquer, recruit the lizardfolk scouts. This is a pet peeve of mine in written adventures: when the adventure writer is clearly just fantasizing about playing their own adventure. It leaves the DM a little high and dry, unfortunately.
I’ve identified a few of the problems with each part of the adventure. Here’s the three fixes.
FIX ONE: THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER’S CHILD
We gotta get a good, characterful connection for the party to kick off the adventure. Take a detail from the lighthouse in the text and expand on it. The lighthouse-keeper’s family is given names and little bios, including one older child who left the family to seek their fortune. Here’s your hook! If you’re feeling bold, make one of the PCs this child. Since this is written as a first-level introductory adventure, you can easily bake this into a PC background. If it really won’t work for the PCs, there’s another easy fix in the text –
If desired, the characters can hire a guide (expert 1 with maximum ranks in Survival) to take them through the swamp for 1 sp per day. They can also find a 1st-level druid or ranger who consents to guide them for an equal share of any treasure found.
You know who that first-level ranger or guide could be? The lighthouse keeper’s child! Classic solution. Thread a little characterization straight through the adventure. Even if they don’t hire a guide, maybe the lighthouse keeper’s child has some other reason to hire the players.
As a corollary to this fix, by the way: change the lizardfolk raids from an active problem to a passive part of the atmosphere. The adventure text suggests that the pirates are driving the lizards to attack Seawell. I dunno, man. Given that the adventure explicitly says that dealing with the lizardfolk raids are beyond the scope of the short adventure…why lead your players down that path? Unless you’re ready for it, of course – there’s a story there too. But I would just add in the background flavor that lizardfolk raids are a hazard, and leave it at that. Some prejudice from the inhabitants of Seawell will preserve the later twist that the lizardfolk scouts are potential allies.
FIX TWO: A THREATENING VILLAIN
Right now, the Big Boss is Erqua Ashilim, a ranger/sorcerer crossclass. Her first mate, Svingal Stonefist, is a dwarf rogue. We’ve got a pair of interesting foes here. To spice up the journey, stick Erqua or Svingal in the way of the PCs. If they’re traveling overland, I’d use Svingal – he can do some sneaking, jump out of a tree, yell boogity, whatever. If they’re traveling by sea, it might be interesting to have Erqua show up on, say, a dolphin or shark familiar/pet. You’d be stretching the rules a little, but who cares? Rules are there to be broken so you can have a villain ride in on a shark.
FIX THREE: HIDE IN THE LIGHTHOUSE
As mentioned above, the final climactic battle is a little lacking as written. Now, that’s not really a problem by itself. It’s fine to leave it up to the DM to fill in the gaps. That alone is not a flaw. The flaw comes from having this cool-ass lighthouse map and not using it. So use it! Now, you can’t force the climactic battle to happen in a really cool way. You can’t even force there to be a climactic battle. All you can do is set up a good scenario for the players to poke at. So all I’ll throw out here is: use the lighthouse. Maybe the pirates keep their best booty there. Maybe Erqua uses it as a lookout. Or maybe the pirates just retreat there when they’re attacked, and the PCs are forced to find a way in! Ooh, and maybe the lighthouse keeper’s child from Fix One knows a secret back door!
No matter what: use the lighthouse. You’ve got the map, you’ve got room keys in the adventure, you’ve got the pirates – throw it all together.
Oh! Hey! What’s that you’re saying? You plan on running this in 5e? Well! Good on you! Most of the animal encounters are easily replaced. The only major changes you’ll have to make are for Erqua and her crew. If you’re running this on a tight schedule and don’t feel like whipping up all new NPC stat blocks, flip to the back of the 5e Monster Manual and use a couple templates. Cult Fanatic may be a good pick for Erqua, or, of course, Bandit Captain if you feel like removing her spellcasting capabilities. Svingal would work as a Spy. The crew, obviously, can just be straight Bandit templates.
If you like Erqua and want to stat her out, I’d recommend picking either ranger or sorcerer, not doing the cross-class bit. Really, though, she’s a blank slate – in 5e, she might make a good warlock, perhaps even doing this lighthouse thing on behalf of a patron. It’s all up to you.
Like what you read? I bet you did! I’ve reviewed another adventure, The Burning Plague. And if you like that, well, be sure to check out the Chronicles if you haven’t already – Episode One is a good place to start! You can support this website and my writing by buying the ebook of season one here!