5e Solo Gamebooks has now released Tyrant of Zhentil Keep, its second solo adventure for Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition. Written by Paul Bimler, this 160+ page adventure is designed for one 3rd-level Player Character of any race or class, without a DM. Tyrant of Zhentil Keep continues the narrative of The Death Knight’s Squire (the first solo adventure in this series) but can be played as a stand-alone also. It follows the story of your PC as they continue their journey across Faerun, a lone adventurer wandering wherever the wind takes them. Eventually, it takes them to Zhentil Keep in the Moonsea Region, a strange city, full of secrets. There they begin a quest which takes place over two books, this being the first one – part 2 being Citadel of the Raven (scheduled for release in February 2018).
It takes you three more days to reach Zhentil Keep, and as you approach you see ruins dotting the landscape, dimly lit in the evening light. It appears this was once the scene of a major conflict; you even notice what appears to be the scorching of dragonfire: long, dark grey streaks running the length of ruined buildings and roadways.
Then, suddenly, the granite walls of Zhentil Keep rise before you, banners flying and guards manning her battlements. Right from your first sight of Zhentil Keep, you see that it is not really a beautiful city, but rather built to withstand battle. It has a grim, imposing look to it.
Tyrant of Zhentil Keep is a mini-sandbox in gamebook form, with multiple sidequests and locations to explore. Everything leads towards a central story arc that becomes clearer as the book progresses. Where The Death Knight’s Squire had a clear-cut mission at its core, this adventure is pure exploration at first, similar to how a game with a Dungeon Master might commence. The nature of your quest becomes clearer as you advance, collecting snippets of information and encountering various NPCs and locations. The adventure builds upon The Death Knight’s Squire in several ways, introducing new combat sheets, sidequests and even audio files embedded in the pdf which provide sound fx and ambient backgrounds relevant to the area you are adventuring through!
Although Tyrant of Zhentil Keep is part one of a two-part series, it is fully playable as a stand-alone adventure. It can be played as DM +1, DM +2, dual PC scenario without a DM, and there are rules included for running it as such, and ideas for converting it into a full campaign.
At just under 500 entries, the adventure has numerous possible routes (there are multiple sidequests and encounters throughout the adventure), ensuring high replayability – a feature that has been positively noted on repeated occasions during playtesting.
GameBookNews asked Paul Bimler, the creator of Tyrant of Zhentil Keep, to further explain some of the unique features of his series, starting with a question regarding the Dungeons & Dragons influence within his system:
For those who aren’t D&D players, what are the key differences in your series compared to other gamebooks?
Well, I think the main difference from other gamebooks is that maps are used a lot more. Combat in D&D relies a lot on determining distance for melee and ranged attacks, as well as spellcasting, and so having that visual reference is really handy. Combat is also managed via combat sheets, so when you get into a scuffle, there’s a separate page you go to that notes possible tactics your enemy might use, as well as rolling for random occurences that could happen during combat.
Also, you get to create your own character and class, which I know that other gamebooks do, but not at the scope possible in D&D, which is huge. There are different types of mages and warriors and I’ve tried to include options throughout the book that use their abilities – even providing a jam session that a bard can join in with, to gain inspiration points!
Another point where it differs from other gamebooks is that it’s a digital product, a pdf, and hence the ability to insert active links. So when it says “go to entry 452,” you just click on those words and it takes you straight there without the need for scrolling. I hope that adds to the adventure’s immersion.
Your series is presented as a roleplay experience as much as a solo adventure, with some flexibility to modify rules and determine fairness as per a Dungeon Master. Was this always a part of the desired system?
Definitely. I didn’t want people to feel restricted, and I wanted to set up a system that allowed for maximum flexibility so that people felt they were getting an experience that was close to gaming with a Dungeon Master. So there’s guidelines for how to run the adventure with two characters, and some other little tweaks from the standard D&D ruleset that just make sense in the context of a gamebook.
What have you changed or improved on from The Death Knights Squire?
I think the combat system is a definite improvement, and that’s been reiterated to me by my playtesters. Previously combat was just a stand adjacent and bash each other process, and now there’s more impetus for tactics and movement. The other thing I’ve introduced is a stat called progress points, which you accumulate when visiting locations. It only allows you to do a set number of things during the adventure, because that’s how time works in real life… so there’s more scope for replayability as you literally can’t do everything in one playthrough. And also, there’s embedded audio sound fx which I think is a useful addition as well.
The embedded audio files really are a great addition. Where did this idea come from?
Thanks! Yes, well I’ve been an audio engineer and producer for over 20 years (my day job is teaching audio production), so it was just something that occurred to me. One day I just thought, “I wonder if it’s possible to embed audio into a pdf?” A couple of google searches later, and I started to get very excited about the possibilities. I think it adds to the experience nicely, keeping the gaming style quite stripped down still, without edging it towards a video-game type thing. Theatre of the mind is very important to me and I think engaging the player’s hearing sense adds to that.
You’ve built this series as a continuing, sequential adventure, featuring an ongoing narrative as per a D&D campaign. What type of experience have you created so far with these two initial adventures, and how far ahead is your planning for the full story you wish to tell?
Wow, great question. Currently I’m planning about two books ahead, so I know the story for the next one and I’ve got a pretty good idea about the one after that. The Forgotten Realms, the D&D world where the books are set, is a big place with multiple settings, so there’s an infinite variety of locations and scope for creating storylines… but I don’t want to plan too far ahead as a big part of it is my own journey of discovery in creating these books! I want the narrative to be a surprise for me too, to an extent.
You’ve noted that some encounters are very tough and will likely end in the player’s death if foolishness or poor judgement is used. Do you enjoy creating these difficult encounters and then providing clever escape opportunities?
Ha ha! Yes and no… I kinda feel bad setting up such overpowered encounters! They are necessary though, as sometimes a player does something stupid and must be punished! But I want to give them opportunities to avoid them, so its not a certain-death type thing, where players can feel a bit ripped off that they didn’t get the option to back out. It also keeps players on their toes, I think. They never know how powerful their next opponent is going to be!
The Death Knights Squire seems to have been favourably received. How would you summarise the response and any player feedback?
The response has been great, and people have given it some great reviews on the product page. It’s also good when you get a bit of constructive criticism too. The D&D community is quite vocal and love analysing the mechanics of things, so I’ve had some great input from the community about what they would like to see in the adventures. I also have a great little playtest army who let me know whether things are working or not. And I’ve actually started a facebook group (called D&D Solo Adventures) around it, just a place to showcase my own work and highlight other D&D solos, so anyone who’s into gamebooks should come and join!