Some time ago, I wrote a long-winded essay about how I wasn't terribly impressed with the first season of the ELTU story area (community.wizards.com/lfr/go/thread/view...
). Since the ELTU story area is now wrapping up, I thought it would be good to go back and recap some observations I have of the story area, in the hopes that future living campaigns might benefit.
First off, let me say that, though our group hasn't played the newest BI yet, I can say that the ELTU 4 modules definitely upped their game compared to the ELTU 3 mods -- thanks to the authors and editors for their hard work tuning the story area.
I basically have four observations:
1) 'Shades of grey' storytelling is more attractive to module writers than players.
One of the cool things about the triad of meta-orgs in the ELTU story area, and something that got even more interesting in the ELTU 4 series, was that none of the meta-orgs, even the one entirely composed of Lawful Good worshippers of Torm, was wholly 'good'; each had failings, and each was in the wrong at times. Each also had moments where their worldview was justified, which made for good moments for players who'd aligned themselves with those meta-orgs.
Still, there were times that I could tell that I as a DM, who could read through the entire module and see the interrelations between the meta-orgs, thought these things were cooler than my players did, largely because the paths that players tend to take through a mod don't allow for every bit of info in that mod to be played out. Despite that, since the meta-orgs failings tended to be key factors in the plots of each module, those aspects of the meta-orgs were always easily perceived, and tended to color the PCs views of the meta-orgs. In other words, it always seemed as though the PCs were seeing the meta-orgs at their worst.
From my players' perspective, the coolest group in Elturel was actually the Shields of Kilgrave, simply because they were always portrayed as being on the 'right' side of every conflict, especially in those mods where their motives/loyalties were in question. More than once I had a player ask if there was some way he could join the Shields, as they seemed to be the only 'good guys' in Elturel.
There are probably some players out there who appreciated the ELTU meta-orgs focus on not always being the 'good guy', but my group's experience was that we'd have liked to have at least one group that the PCs could join that was unabashedly out for good, even if they got gut-punched for it on a regular basis.
2) Recurring characters are cool, but shouldn't be overused.
A good part of the discussion following my previous essay focused on Cadwy, who was portrayed in the ELTU 3 mods as both a loyal member of the Order and the only wholly 'good guy' that PCs ever interacted with from that meta-org. Cadwy then got roped into the trip to Tentacle Island, was captured by the aboleths, and was never the same afterward.
In some ways, Cadwy's 'conversion' was a microcosm of the entire Order of Torm, but most PCs never really got to see that, again because most players don't get the encyclopedic knowledge of the modules that running them grants. All most PCs understood was that, once Cadwy was tossed aside by the Order, much of the perceived 'heart' of the Order went with it, and PCs who were members of the Order (at least in our area) became almost embarassed to be part of it.
Had there been a few recurring Order members who were known to consort with adventurers to help solve the Order's problems, the loss of Cadwy wouldn't have been quite as devastating (but still serious). Plus, with more characters, Cadwy himself would have been able to be better focused as the sort of character his creator envisioned, rather than being salted with every other author in the region's ideas of how a paladin of the Order would behave. ELTU would have been a better story area had there been one paladin who was a 'good guy', one who was naive, and one who was a hard-ass follower of the Order's rules rather than have Cadwy flip from personality to personality depending on the needs of the module at hand.
3) Mechanics should support the story being told, not sabotage it.
In my original essay, I argued that the Companion made it very difficult to tell a consistent story in ELTU, as the desire not to step too heavily on the toes of PCs who happen to be undead completely overwhelmed any sense of danger such characters might have otherwise felt adventuring in Elturel. Then the Companion got switched to focus on the Spellplague, then went dark, and was finally destroyed outright, and I figured the problem would start to go away.
Unfortunately, it didn't. If anything, the problem was revealed to go much deeper than the Companion. For instance, one of my local PCs, a Lawful Good paladin-vampire, was a very early member of the Order of Torm, and though the adventures, especially the early ones, contained many warnings about how the undead were perceived in Eltugard, none ever had any constructive advice on how to deal with an undead PC that was otherwise fully legally a member of the paladin order bent on the destruction of undead in Eltugard. The problem only got worse when two spell-scarred PCs eventually also joined the Order of Torm, even after it became clear that the Spellplague was a bigger threat to Elturel than the undead, and the presence of the Shields of Kilgrave made it clear that the Order had transferred its prejudice accordingly.
A more frequently updated Meta-Org guide might have been useful here, not only to give guidance on how to (or how not to) join the Order as one of their sworn enemies, but to reflect the change in the story area from fear of the undead to fear of the Spellplague. Even in the absence of such updates, though, the modules themselves were in a far better position to pass along changes to the meta-orgs in Elturel, and to give undead and Spellplagued characters options to support the Order without mocking the Order by being unironically allowed to be full members.
4) *SPOILER* Don't deprive the players of the few victories they get, or conversely, undermine their defeats.
When I ran the first ELTU Battle Interactive, our group failed to save the High Observer's life. When I read out the flavor text that accompanied his passing, the table was very disappointed, to the point where one player actually said "**** you," to my face, once I was done. It was actually pretty cool that they were so involved in the story that they felt that their failure was significant.
Until of course the second BI rolls around and reveals that the entire region would have been better off had the first BI failed to save the High Observer's life, as his survival also allowed for his corruption, and a different leader likely would not have been so easily swayed.
This is always weak sauce -- while there are certainly situations in real life where there is no really good solution to a problem, and there are great examples of successes which ended up being failures in disguise, it sets a bad precedent to have your PCs constantly wondering if they should follow the obvious course of action in fear that they're doing the bad guys' work for them. At best it leads to a lot of wasted effort as the PCs use every method at their disposal to try and make certain their actions won't bite them in the butt, and at worst it takes the motivation away for the PCs to care about the region at all. (And why should they, if it's obvious that even their greatest successes not only can't stop the ruin of the region, but are ultimately the cause of it?)
It's OK to allow the PCs clear, unambiguous victories, which I'm guessing is one reason why the NETH region (which frankly I'm also not that excited about, but for different reasons) is getting so much love lately -- fighting against the Princes of Shade is definitely a task for heroes, and successes are treated as successes against Netheril.
Again, thanks to the authors and campaign staff that made the ELTU region a reality, and here's hoping that future Living Campaigns are stronger for the lessons learned in it.