Review: Watchers in the Dark (5e)

Adventure: Watchers in the Dark
Author: Kelsey Dionne
Publisher: The Arcane Library
System: Dungeons & Dragons (5e)
Summary: A meteorite has crashed into the countryside, and now vicious enemies prowl the night. Can the characters put a stop to the sinister force that is causing savage animal attacks and a growing list of missing people?
Snap Judgement for Busy Wyverns: High-Quality one-shot perfect for a side quest. Who can resist the adventure of investigating a fallen star? For the DM, a cosmic invader that is fun to play and different enough from your standard monster boss to cause everyone some fear and surprise. A great adventure to have in your back pocket to pull out when needed most.

What is it?
This is a well-laid out 18 page adventure that should fill up about 4 hours of play time (pretty much right on the number for my group). As-written it’s aimed at 4th level adventurers, but I ran it for a mixed group of 5th and 6th level characters with only minimal changes. There’s not enough complexity here that can get out of control if you tweak on the fly – it’s a straightforward “Investigate the weirdness, fight the boss” adventure. Your digital purchase (currently at $3, which is a massive value) gets you the PDF in full color, a print friendly PDF, a cover JPG, an assortment of maps (labeled, unlabeled, VTT-friendly), and handy-dandy combat cards in color and print-friendly versions. The level of effort and thought Kelsey/Arcane Library puts into the organization, layout and utility of their produces is largely un-paralleled in the indie space, in my experience. In addition to this, Kelsey puts up – for free – adventure walkthroughs on YouTube. Why more designers don’t do this, I have no idea – but watching these as I perform my first read-throughs is SO helpful – it tends to clarify any questions I have up front, and gives me a window into what the design is meant to achieve. Knowing what the designer is going for helps me a ton as I improvise during the game. That mental framework is invaluable.

What Makes it Good?
In short – a lot. It is designed to be a one-shot (though it does have suggestions for open-ended hooks at the end) that you can drop into your world anytime, anywhere – literally. If you need a short adventure with a wholly independent beginning, middle and end – this is it. It has excitement and surprise baked in. It has some NPCs that could be resources for the characters in the future. It can easily be tied into nearly any surrounding areas. And it can be run pretty much off a single read-through. Arcane Library adventures have fantastic layouts, designed to make running the adventure as easy as possible. You get encounter beats, clear sections for “What the NPC knows”, and – my favorite part – the Dramatic Question/Transition section. It’s really easy to know when an Arcane Library encounter is “done” – the dramatic question has been answered. Time to transition. This is very helpful to new DMs, to be sure – but even for experienced DMs this can really help move the action along. If the dramatic question has been answered – time to get the players moving to the next scene. There’s no ambiguity about it. It helped me a few times – the question was answered, but the players themselves weren’t really sure what to do next…that was my cue to prompt them with some in-game hints to move them along. Seeing how this sausage is made will make YOU a better encounter builder and storyteller.

I want to call out the monster design on the boss here – the Mind-Shard – this thing is COOL. A living, alien space crystal that infects animals to control, using them as its minions. In combat it doesn’t attack, it only uses Legendary Actions while “dodging” on its turn. Very strange and out of the ordinary for a D&D monster – and my players were absolutely surprised during combat. They were never sure if they should be attacking it, or not. The Mind-Shard has enough cool abilities to give the DM flexibility during combat, but not so many as to overwhelm with choice-paralysis. After running it, I honestly think it’s begging to be designed and run as an MCDM-style Action-Oriented Monster. Really codifying it’s activities up-front would make it even easier to run, and probably make it feel more alien as well. Even so – it was great fun throwing out Gusts of Wind, Reverse Gravity, Darkness and Silence on my players. The fighter kept shaking off the Ray of Enfeeblement, sadly, since that would have been a real “OH NO” moment for them. Awesome, awesome end battle on this one – full of big bug chaos, acid spit splashing around, and general D&D weirdness.

How do I use it?
It’s a stand-alone adventure. Read it. Watch the adventure walk-through. If you need to scale the adventure, think about that during prep. I had to scale up. I wanted to do two things beyond just making monsters beefier – and I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Kelsey on the Arcane Library discord for her recommendations. That was a fun discussion that really helped me narrow down how best to scale up, straight from the designer. Don’t add *too* many more bugs, and she suggested a fun “magic drain” ability to the spitters. I went with a power that caused the magic user’s DCs to degrade by 1 every time they were hit, until that spitter died. I also beefed up the crystal by a LOT – some might say too much, but then I also forgot to take the Dodge action every round, so I think it evened out! The battle was pretty chaotic and split over two real-life sessions, so my DM brain got a little overloaded! My players didn’t seem to have any complaints though, and none said it felt too easy or too hard, so I think the tweaking worked out pretty well, in my case.

The Mind-Shard is so weird that it was very easy to forget when to do a Legendary Action and to take the Dodge action – because it just doesn’t operate the same as any other monster I’ve run. I also had a bit of a hard time keeping all my Ankheg variants straight, but that is more of a disorganized DM problem than a problem with the adventure. Take a few seconds to organize your monsters and you’ll be fine – I tend to do a bad job if there’s more than a couple types of monsters out there. The solution is, of course, to use the Combat Cards provided in the adventure! I’ll have to print them out next time instead of being lazy!

The only real issue I had with the otherwise super-helpful adventure layout is that the Mind-Shard telepathic control rules were way up front on page 4, before it’s ever really an issue for the PCs, and never appear anywhere else. I would have liked to have seen those rules repeated on the Mind-Shard’s monster page in the Appendix. I had to do a lot of flipping around near the end of the adventure to refresh my memory of how the telepathy worked, what the save was, how long it took before the save roll, and I kept going to the Mind-Shard page, and then remembering it was up at the front of the adventure. Maybe it was just me, but my brain could not remember where it was detailed.

Final Thoughts
Really fun adventure. I think my players enjoyed it immensely as well – there were a lot of cultural references to Alien, Starship Troopers and the like, and yet the adventure wasn’t enough of a clone of those stories to make anything feel cliché or rote. I own additional Arcane Library adventures beyond this one, and I am looking forward to using them someday.

Recommend or not?
Recommend. Every campaign needs a weird side-quest that may or may not lead to more, and this one is great for that. It’s so versatile that you could change the biome (Arctic? Get ready for The Thing references…Jungle? Yep, works there too) and not have to change much at all. Meteors can land anywhere, anytime – and this adventure should land in your campaign too.

You can find Kelsey Dionne and her work at The Arcane Library on Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook. I’m certain you can find an adventure that fits what you need for your next session. And if you’re a designer out there – check out what The Arcane Library is doing with layout, presentation and marketing – it’s really good. I’ll say it again, the YouTube walkthroughs are game-changers and a huge selling point for me – I really believe every indie designer should be doing something similar, its by far the best advertisement for an adventure I can think of. I’m 10x more likely to buy an adventure that the designer themselves have walked me through.

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