Tuesday, February 28, 2017

"Way of the Wicked: Knot of Thorns" in D&D 5E

In this month's post, I'd like to try something a little bit different. Usually I talk about D&D Fifth Edition material, but this time I'm going to discuss a set of adventures for the Pathfinder roleplaying game - the Way of the Wicked adventure path. In this article, I'll explain why you might want to consider running those adventures in Fifth Edition. I'll include a full set of conversion notes for the first adventure in the path, Knot of Thorns, as well as my thoughts on how to best present that adventure to your players.

A quick note before we begin: I have no connection with the creators of this adventure path. It's just that Way of the Wicked is really awesome, and I want to let you all know about it. I just finished running the first adventure in the path, Knot of Thorns, and it was the most fun I've ever had with a prewritten adventure - and I've run a lot of them.

So what is Way of the Wicked?
In Knot of Thorns, the PCs are lawfully convicted criminals
sentenced to death. In three days' time, they must escape from
the maximum-security Branderscar Prison with nothing but
their wits and a few items from a mysterious benefactor.
All Artwork: Michael Clark
Way of the Wicked is a series of adventures for evil player characters. That doesn't just mean morally ambiguous characters - if you run this adventure, your PCs will, necessarily, be evil. In fact, they will be the villains. They will have opportunities aplenty for betrayal, vengeance, conspiracies, ritual sacrifices, warmongering, backstabbing allies, conquering a kingdom, and ruling it with an iron fist.

So is it good? Absolutely!

A look at reviews of the first book should be fairly convincing. Nineteen reviews total, seventeen of which have five stars. Later chapters have fewer reviews, but none of them dip below four and a half stars out of five on average. I can say from reading all six adventures, and from playing the first one, that they are well written and give the DM a lot of guidance where it is most important. The content is very original and exciting, with well-written NPCs and a detailed setting. If you're still not convinced, you can take a look at this free preview, which includes the first section of the adventure as well as a character building guide. (The statistics are all in Pathfinder terms, of course, but the story still translates well.)

Finding the Adventure
Way of the Wicked can be purchased in PDF form from Paizo.com and DriveThruRPG (which also has a print-on-demand option). Both include a printer-friendly PDF. To get started, you only really need the first book. However, if you're committed to the adventure path, Book 7 ("Tales of Talingarde") has more information, artwork, and content to use in all six books. In addition, Book 2 has a few suggestions for player-facing options (an all-Duregar or all-Cleric party?) that you might find useful when assembling your group for Book One.

Running it in 5E
Here's the meat of this article - my conversion notes for Knot of Thorns. I have shared these through Homebrewery, which is a site that formats 5E-style mechanics for easy reading and allows me to edit in real time. That said, I understand the site displays best on Google Chrome, so if you are having troubles try switching your browser. Printing the notes or transferring them to a PDF should be easy - just click the "Get PDF" button and select either your printer of choice or your browser's "Print to PDF" option.

The notes should cover all the mechanical translation to run Knot of Thorns in D&D 5E, including a translation of the character building guidelines from the adventure. You will need the fifth edition Monster Manual to use them, as I reference a number of monsters from it, but that's all that should be necessary. I have playtested the notes in one run-through of the adventure, but it's possible there are still errors in them or areas that are mechanically suspect - if you find any, don't hesitate to let me know!

If you're a player and you'd like your DM to run this adventure, this would be an excellent point to stop reading and link your DM to this blog post. However, I have something for you as well. Here's a conversion of the Player's Guide to Way of the Wicked, which includes character building material as well as basic setting information. (You might also want to reference the "official" version of this guide, which includes a map and artwork.)

A Thinking Person's Adventure
The border castle Balentyne poses a significant infiltration
challenge for your level 4 PCs. In just one month, they must
find a way inside, disable the castle's defenses, and kill
enough of its 100+ defenders to make the subsequent
bugbear invasion successful, without getting caught.
The challenges that Knot of Thorns presents are not easy. In particular, the first bit of the adventure involves escaping from a heavily guarded prison and deprives the PCs of access to equipment at the beginning. The second act involves a trap and puzzle-riddled dungeon, which tests the PCs' ability to interpret clues and play cautiously. Finally, the fourth act requires the PCs to infiltrate a heavily guarded border castle and weaken its defenses to the point where a bugbear horde can successfully invade. All of these situations require smart play and careful planning, and all of them mean that one misstep can cause a character death or mission failure.

If your group likes "kick down the door" D&D, this might not be the adventure for you. Personally, when I decided to run Way of the Wicked, I picked out players that I knew would enjoy extensive planning and slow-paced play. There is a lot of enjoyment to be derived from this style of D&D, but it's not for everyone, so choose your players carefully.

Reasonable Railroading
Cardinal Adrastus Thorn, the last high priest of
Asmodeus in Talingarde, would normally be an
archnemesis for your players. In this adventure,
he's their patron.
As an adventure path, Way of the Wicked almost by definition must "railroad" its players into certain choices. Short of detailing the entire kingdom of Talingarde and the many (evil?) adventures to be had therein, an adventure must at least guide the PCs into pursuing certain goals in certain locations. Even by those standards, though, Way of the Wicked (and particularly Knot of Thorns) exerts a lot of control over player choices. From the beginning, PCs are forced to escape from prison, and from there must go to their only safe haven - the home of their benefactor Cardinal Thorn. Soon after they are essentially forced to sign an infernal contract that binds them to do whatever Thorn orders them to do. Sound controlling?

In fact, this can work quite well if it is set up from the beginning. Encourage your players to make Lawful Evil characters, and emphasize that they must be willing to work with other party members and an Asmodean cult to destroy (and conquer) Talingarde. It is also important that you consider their motivations for the crime that put them in Branderscar and for their subsequent villainy. Revenge, greed, ambition - whatever the motivation, a defined villain is more interesting and more playable than an undefined one.

The good news is that once the PCs have their mission (escape from prison, infiltrate Castle Balentyne, etc.) they are given a lot of freedom on how to complete it. As long as your players don't mind their hand being forced on what task they will accomplish, they'll find they have plenty of opportunities to be creative and come up with their own solutions. Later on in the adventure path, they'll have the opportunity to betray Cardinal Thorn and take control of his scheme, as befits true villains.

Milestones and Pacing
Although I'm an advocate of using XP, this adventure makes an excellent case for milestones. Since the players are advancing along a largely predetermined path, it's easiest just to award a level after each act of the adventure. This is especially appropriate after Act 2 and Thorn's three months of training, as many PCs will be choosing their class archetype at this point.

In general, I found that this adventure is well paced, with few segments that left the players bored (assuming that they have a taste for planning and improvisation). However, I ended up cutting a few of the encounters from Act Three, particularly the Yutak traders and the ice mephits. These sea battles didn't add much to the adventure and felt like a stereotypical "random encounter."

Running Acts One and Four
If the PCs play their cards right, they may have
a chance to acquire this map in-game. Mine did!
There are two sections of Knot of Thorns that require particular skill to run. Act One, where the PCs escape the heavily guarded Branderscar Prison, and Act Four, where they infiltrate the watchtower Balentyne, are complicated because they involve the confluence of a large number of NPCs, all with varying degrees of awareness of the PCs. In order to run these sections effectively, you will need to spend some time in preparation learning how these structures are defended and what their inhabitants will do if put on alert or if they discover an intruder.

When I prepared to run Branderscar, I made a roster listing the location of each guard on the map, as well as certain times that guard would change location (for example, if Blackerly was running his gambling game that night). That way, once the PCs broke out of their cell and were discovered, it was easy to see which guards would respond and how quickly they could get there. Making the roster by hand also helped me internalize the structure of the prison.

For Balentyne, a roster might have been useful, but I actually got the most utility out of having a calendar. Since the PCs have up to one month to infiltrate the castle, they will be establishing certain information such as the timing of guard patrols and events (like the Bard of Barrington's visit). Having that information in mind helps you model the actions of the castle guard and leadership realistically. Once the PCs start taking actions that could get them discovered (poisoning the strew, ambushing patrols) it's useful to be able to decide, for example, that in three day's time, the guards will realize that the patrol has failed to return and begin to investigate.

Unspoken Cultural Assumptions
Despite its lack of egalitarian sensibilities,
Talingarde is a pretty neat setting. There are
certainly plenty of reasons for your evil PCs
to want revenge on the Talerians!
It's worth noting that the setting of Way of the Wicked has some differences from the typical D&D setting. The overarching setting is one of a Lawful Good monarchy, but there are some culturally conservative elements to Talingarde that make it feel a bit more medieval than, say, the Forgotten Realms or Eberron. Most notably, NPCs are heavily stereotyped into gender roles; in the first book all the Talerian soldiers that the PCs fight are men, and most women (when they do appear) are portrayed in heavily stereotypical roles. There is also a character in a later book who is mentioned to have been persecuted because of his sexual orientation. This might feel a little jarring compared to many of the published D&D 5E adventures, which make an effort to feature a diverse and egalitarian cast of NPCs.

Is this a problem? Well, not exactly - in some senses, Way of the Wicked tries to portray a society similar to that of Game of Thrones, where things feel much grittier because they're not egalitarian. Certainly your players should feel free to play whatever characters they want, gender roles and the like be damned. But you might want to consider this aspect of the adventure before play. And if you plan to feature the kind of discrimination the setting depicts in game, talk it over with your players first - some folks play D&D as a way to escape from that sort of thing.

A Chance to be Evil
If all goes as planned, this is how Knot of Thorns will end for
your PCs. The Watch Wall is broken, and a savage horde of
bugbears streams into Talingarde, ready to burn and pillage.
What really separates Way of the Wicked from the crowd is its commitment to the "evil campaign" concept. Lots of adventures promise the PCs the chance to save the world. This one gives them the chance to burn it to the ground, then build an empire out of the remains.

There are certainly some pitfalls in playing a party of evil characters. Among them are inter-party backstabbing, lack of direction, and the possibility of "going too far" with roleplaying certain actions. The adventure itself gives a lot of great guidance on pages 86-87, but it is worth talking about these things with your group directly as well. Particularly when it comes to disturbing content like torture, you don't want people to bring up uncomfortable content without warning. It's also vitally important that your party understands their goal is to work together - without that understanding, your game could fall apart before you get to the cool bits.

What's Next?
Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to convert further adventures in the path to Fifth Edition yet. I have read them, though, and I can tell you - they're awesome! In particular, Call Forth Darkness gives the PCs a chance to build their own dungeon and defend it for six months while performing an evil ritual.  The Devil My Only Master lets them pull off that most villainous of deeds - backstabbing their benefactor Cardinal Thorn and taking power. Lastly, The Wages of Sin gives the PCs a chance to rule Talingarde, shaping it into their personal evil empire.

I plan to play through Call Through Darkness with my group in a couple of months, and I will be working on a conversion of that material up until that point. I hope this article has given you some insight into the first of the Way of the Wicked adventures, and perhaps inspired you to bring it to your own table. Until next time - I'll see you on Pact of the Tome!


  1. Hey!
    Want to thank you since I've been using your conversion for my own 5E WotW game ever since I saw your post on rpg.net. It's been REALLY helpful since I didn't really wanna have to convert everything, but now we're most likely ending book 1 on Saturday so I'm gonna just have to convert the 2nd book myself!

    Have you done any work on Call Forth Darkness yet? I could (eventually) share with you what I end up developing.


    1. I'm really glad that you have found the conversion useful!

      I have done only the tiniest bit of work on converting Call Forth Darkness, though it's on my to-do list. What I do have is here: http://homebrewery.naturalcrit.com/share/BkZmXzHLKe. I will need to have it converted by roughly mid-April, so hopefully I will have something to share by then.

      I'd love to see anything you develop for Call Forth Darkness! In particular the adventuring parties seem like a ton of work so anything that could be shared there would be great.

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  3. Will you be returning with more of your great WotW material?