The Meetup I run (Cork D&D Meetup) traditionally has a Halloween special every year. Well when I say every year, we’ve done it twice now and we’re not yet two years old, so that’s every year and therefore it’s now a tradition! The idea is that we mix up all the regular tables and once a year you play with people from the other tables and get to make new friends while being killed by a different DM. It’s a “one shot” with disposable characters and most tables play the same scenario. This year we had seven tables and I believe six of them played the same one; “The Rise of the Pumpkin King” by Daniel Vilar Seoane which we purchased on the DMs Guild.
This is a review of this scenario from my point of view along with the feedback I have received from the various DMs and players at different tables.
My first impressions on reading it were that the scenario was good. It has a good solid plot line which is easy enough for players to follow to the conclusion. Plus, there are plenty of opportunities to direct them back in the right direction should they stray.
The adventure starts with the group traveling along the road to a town called Goldgrain. I’m not sure but I don’t believe that that name has much significance outside Ireland (and possibly the UK), but here there is a popular biscuit (cookie) named Goldgrain. I don’t know where Daniel Vilar is from but I don’t think this was on purpose. Anyway the group come across a wagon crashed off the road. Large animated pumpkins are dragging a body into the woods. This encounter introduces the main minions of the scenario and should the group successful stop them (and of course they do), then the body turns out not to be dead and up jumps an informative NPC trader named Wilburg who then acts as a reference or announcer for the group when they reach the town.
This is a classic story element, rescuing a vulnerable NPC who then introduces their new found heroes to the town/village/settlement. It’s a classic because it works. I use a similar one all the time, mine involves the village children “ambushing” the group with wooden swords and soft topped arrows en route to their village, only to have one of the children really be attacked by whatever bad guy cannon fodder the story needs. This introduces the bad guys and the children then parade their saviours to the rest of the village; the good guys. After a while one of the villagers will present the main quest. Poor little Sarles Letjar (7) has had to be rescued at least three times by different groups now; you’d think he’d learn, or at least get older.
The Rise of the Pumpkin King, follows this trope and the group soon find themselves in the inn of a retired adventurer named Joyce. Joyce is basically the village elder and the only one not quaking in fear behind nailed shut doors. This is how we learn about the history of these pumpkins and a possible cause. The village burnt a witch at the stake a year ago. Joyce also tells them about the local alchemist, Dryleaf, who is looking for a cure for the problem.
This scenario is well written. All the major NPCs are well described and come with roleplaying directions. These describe how they will react to certain probable approaches that the group might take and even if they don’t take that exact route the guides act as an excellent framework to adjust the NPC’s behaviour. Furthermore the whole backstory to the adventure is nicely thought out and fits together well. The group is thrown into the middle of the story and must uncover the past to save the future.
And so the group investigates in town. For my group this took a fair amount of time. Time well spent since they uncovered half the plot at this point. Then they set out for the abandoned witch’s hut in the woods. The hut and the encounters associated with it were good fun. My players exercised a lot of freedom and ended up missing the clue which leads to the main dungeon. The author was aware that clues could be missed and he included ideas on how to get the group back on track. This is great for beginner DMs. Experienced DMs would have no trouble with this. In my case, while battling an abomination outside the hut, they left Dryleaf (whose nefarious deeds they had uncovered) unguarded. He duly escaped, leaving a faint trail through the woods that the ranger managed to follow all the way to the main lair.
And so we come to the main dungeon. It has some great touches, but unfortunately the author did not include a map. I pondered through the description several times and then just had to draw it out to get a better sense of it.
I won’t go into the contents of the lair. It was fairly straight forward. My group, which was composed of six level threes were getting fairly battered and looking for an excuse to leave and come back later, or to rest up. The scenario as written does not put them under time pressure, so I introduced some. My players were experienced, you might not want to do this to new players. The dungeon includes animated vines which act as a trap at one point. It also describes the lair as being lined with vines. So I took this one step further and had the entrance seal behind them after they had delved in a little bit. Then the vines continued to knit closed behind them; ever advancing, forcing the characters onward. In my devious DM mind, this was the Pumpkin King drawing these invaders on so that he could destroy them himself.
And onward they indeed went but they destroyed him; twice. Although the outcome was in doubt and could easily have led to a TPK. That would have been fine in my case, this was a one shot with disposable characters. If you are including this in a larger campaign, be aware that the Pumpkin King is a tough encounter after a series of hard ones. You might want to let them have that rest after all.
This adventure took us just under 4 hours to run. Which was just a little too long for our needs. Some of the other tables at the Meetup failed to complete it. The scenario has about 8 potential combat encounters, so if you are running under time constraints you should consider dropping some of them or at least making some of the earlier ones easy enough to be over in just one round. This keeps the story moving as intended but also speeds things up. Apart from that everyone enjoyed it, DMs and Players alike.