Marketer and game designer Jay Holden (@_jayholden, http://jayholden.com/) was kind enough to provide me a copy of his Vampire Lord Abner (Challenge 11 Boss) encounter, which is available in the DMs Guild, for review purposes.
I say encounter because that’s what it is: an encounter, not an adventure. Specifically, it’s a “climactic encounter for character levels 8 to 11”. In other words, it’s a higher level boss fight.
There’s brief amount of regional information included that hints at the author’s larger world building, but in reality this a villainous NPC fight that can be dropped into any campaign and then the respective DM can flesh out the hows and whys. It could be as simple as “you see a crumbling palace on the horizon, would you like to investigate?” to a full on campaign with Abner as an ultimate or penultimate challenge. Given the fact that he is in fact a vampire lord it lends itself to a Gothic horror setting, but of course does not need to be restricted to that.
The encounter itself is well laid out and no pushover in that it’s presented in three phases as Abner changes style and tactics during the fight. He’s nasty to begin with (you know, being a vampire lord and all) and having him change up twice as the fight progresses should keep the players challenged and a bit off balance. One of the phases involves assistance from a magically animated flying greatsword that he seems to have a reluctant history with.
There are some notes on Abner’s personal code of ethics and how to run him in the fight, but oddly no guidance on when to shift from one phase to the next. It seems to be left to the DM to determine. Since the effort was given to layout out the phases, I would have preferred some guidelines on how / when to use them.
What’s included in the product itself is one page of notes on Abner and a bit of backstory and three pages of stats on Abner (one per phase).
The notes on Abner also include, strangely enough, a paragraph or two on what should happen once Abner is defeated. This references places we don’t know about as well as a final confrontation with someone (or something) named Uri that probably should have been removed from the DMs Guild version of this encounter because everything else is designed to just drop this encounter into an adventure of your own. [Update: Jay Holden contacted me with this note on Twitter: “I wanted to mention that I did take out the vague references to the rest of Shah’or Shemesh/Uri.”]
The document is well laid out and edited well and the overall presentation is professional. There is no artwork.
Interestingly enough there is an Extended Reading: Vampire Lord Abner page on the author’s website that I found equally as interesting as the encounter itself and in some ways even more so.
It’s a nice behind the scenes look at how Holden designed the encounter and also gives more dimension to Abner and the world he inhabits. It’s a great tour through the design process and personally I would have included this in the actual encounter product on the DMs Guild to add value to the overall product.
Which brings me to my final thoughts. At $2 is it worth the price?
The answer to this question applies not just to this product, but to the DMs Guild overall. When you allow people to sell their products for whatever price they desire, including for free or to let consumers name their own price, how do you say if any one product at a set price is a good value?
Searching the DMs Guild for products priced $0-$2, and even refining the search by the word “encounter” there are pages and pages of adventures and reference materials available. If I can get a full adventure for pay what you want, or a single encounter for pay what you want or $1 or what have you, then is this particular encounter (no matter how well designed) for $2 worth it… how do I make a value decision?
So I will push that question aside and approach it from the perspective that I am perusing the shelves at my friendly local game store and I come across Vampire Lord Abner (Challenge 11 Boss) amid all my other choices. I pick it up and flip through it and ponder the quality and whether I can use it in my games.
To be honest, at $2 it’s probably not a sell. It’s a good encounter, but at the same time it’s basically an NPC with expanded notes on how he fights.
Again, what has made it more compelling to me is the designer’s notes on developing Vampire Lord Abner and the encounter. If there was a section included in the DMs Guild version along those lines I think it would add more value. My review copy is a few months old so it’s possible that has been added, yet the copy I have doesn’t even include a link to the design notes on his site.
Again, that’s not to say this is a bad encounter to use in your games. It’s pretty cool actually, it doesn’t suck… if you’ll pardon the pun. I’m attempting to be balanced on the price point compared to other products that are available to me.
I think that Jay Holden has some RPG game design chops and I hope to see more from him in the future. I would love a series of products like this that include design notes. He’s quite good at explaining his thought process.