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We played the 'Uncaged' anthology of classic female D&D monster stories
The massive success of Dungeons and Dragons’ Fifth Edition, combined with the popularity of shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, have ushered in an era in which tabletop roleplaying games feel more accessible than ever before. As D&D releases a set of entry-level guides to demystify the early stages of learning the game for new players and partnered with Stranger Things on a licensed starter set, more and more folks are being drawn to the game, or returning to it after a long hiatus. Flush with new voices and perspectives, the world of tabletop gaming is seeing a storytelling renaissance.
That’s where Uncaged comes in. Under the direction of project manager Ashley Warren, the Uncaged anthology is a massive undertaking in content created out of the Dungeon Master’s Guild, a third-party website that has partnered with D&D publisher Wizards of the Coast to be an official source for freelance, user-generated content for the popular gaming system. The anthology, currently in two volumes, is available either as PDF-downloads or print-on-demand books. It features original, playable adventures that pride themselves on subverting tropes surrounded female monsters from classic folklore and mythology, such as hags, sirens, or harpies. The collection’s first volume also highlighted work from female and non-binary creators.
SYFY WIRE has previously covered the development and release of Uncaged Vol. 1, but we here at FANGRRLS decided to follow up on how it plays. It’s easy to fill one’s bookshelf or cloud with pre-generated adventure modules and campaign setting, but we’re looking for the ones that will draw us in, either as players or as dungeon masters. What are the stories that will make us excited to get to the table, or look forward to unleashing them on future unsuspecting adventuring parties?
From the perspective of a player, I was able to participate in two different adventures from the first volume, “Cry of the Sea,” featuring sirens, and “The Banshee’s Tail,” featuring, well, a banshee, amongst others. Both adventures made great use out of their respective monsters, well-selected ones that tug at the memories of stories heard and read while being a broad enough “type” to not feel like we were just retreading a story we already knew. I was impressed by how different both adventures were from each other. Far from simply tying oneself to the mast in troubled waters, “Cry” is a high seas adventure to find the disappeared fisherman of an idyllic coastal town. A more traditional dungeon crawler, “Tail,” feels more like a gothic horror story, saving an ill-stricken aristocrat from the dark secrets of her family’s crypt.
As a Dungeon Master, I was able to prep “Maid in Waterdeep,” the first module of the book to run for my players. This module followed the fairly well-known story of the classic Little Mermaid story with some new elements, including transforming the titular mermaid into a hero of the story who works with the player characters. Rather than write her as the victim of the sea witch, it’s the mermaid’s human love interest whose voice the player characters must help her to save. (Oh, and she’s totes queer on top of it. Your move, Disney.) These changes aside, the familiarness of the story makes it extremely fun to run, because that feeling of connection goes a long way towards the immersion of your players. It gives the story a lived-in feel, with the alterations as the game unfolds still allowing it to breathe and feel fresh. And like good RPG games, the ending isn’t set in stone so there’s not a risk of feeling like “Well we already know how this ends.”
Something I really appreciated about the book as a whole was its approach to social issues that might pop up. There are two major ways that storytelling can approach these, and with a game as interactive as D&D, those are only heightened. Some prefer to set their games in a world free of the struggles of the real world, seeking escapism to a place where battles are more often fought against beholders and trolls. Others go the opposite direction, wanting their fiction to reflect things they relate to, often feeling catharsis at being able to handle the things they face but with a battle-ax or fireball. While I tend to fall more into the catharsis camp, I don’t think either approach is wrong and simply require a DM to listen to her players and construct the type of game they’ll most enjoy. Uncaged has examples of both and makes it easy on DMs to know what they’re getting into by providing content warnings at the tops of the chapters that deal with issues from sexism to abuse to PTSD in a way that might spoil some players’ ability to have fun with it.
Most important to a book of adventure modules though is how fun and easy to run the quests themselves are. The formatting is super simple for a DM, breaking down the segments into prep text and what should be given to the players, with easy to follow instructions for the various map positions. Some of the writers have even provided some contact info for DMs with any questions. These are designed to be one-offs, though some may spill over into two sessions if you have a large or chatty group, many of the modules have chapter markers to give easy stopping points.
Though designed as individual stories and not a single campaign, the book features adventures designed for character levels from 1-20 so a DM who is fond of the book could easily string a few of them together or pepper them in as sidequests to a larger campaign. While some of the modules do provide stats for monsters or characters featured in them, Uncaged is intended as a supplement to the D&D system and not a stand-alone sourcebook, so there are occasional notes for referencing the official system books like the Dungeon Master’s Guide or Monster Manual. Still, if you’re a newbie DM looking for some simple to run quests to follow up the D&D Starter Set, or an experienced gamer just hoping for a fun collection of interesting stories to run, this book has something for you.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.