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Interview with Maxwell Zener, the mastermind behind The Skull of Drag’Nalar

A few months back, I saw a post on the DM’s Guild Facebook group asking for a cartographer to work on an upcoming campaign. I reached out, and after a fun conversation, I teamed up with him to draw some spooky dungeons for his vision. Today, I’m not only going to give you a preview into the thrill that is The Skull of Drag’Nalar, but I’m also excited to share a special interview with Maxwell Zener, the mastermind behind the campaign!

Max had a clear vision of what he wanted to see, but he was also very open to suggestions regarding art and scene layouts. I quickly got started on the hunting lodge that would be the main focus of the campaign. The initial draft Max sent as reference was mostly complete by the time I saw it, so most of my work was taking what he had on the page and translating it to a visual space. Much of the early back-and-forth centered on doing minor size edits, like making rooms more realistically spaced, and aesthetic details such as corpse placement and blood trails (which is the best thing to discuss over emails). In the end I learned quite a bit about collaborating with another brilliant mind on dungeon developing. I’m proud to work with Max and be a part of his project! 

The Skull of Drag'Nalar

Cover art by ThatArtJack

The Skull of Drag'Nalar

Artwork by by ThatArtJack

A powerful magic item has been stolen, and is rending the fabric of the Material Plane. You must find the thieves’ hideout in the swamp, make your way past undead and demonic creatures, and retrieve the Skull of Drag’Nalar before the portal it opens to The Abyss becomes permanent and demonic hordes come pouring through.”

 

The adventure starts with a summons from the head of the Wizards of the Evening Sky, requesting that they seek out a stolen artifact with dangerous powers.

From there, they must survive a trek through a deadlier-than-usual swamp, find the old hunting lodge used by the thieves, and discover what happened to the thieves and the skull! Mostly it involves lots of dead bodies.

My favorite part of our exchanges were the multiple discussions about body placements and whether there were enough blood stains. While I’m not sharing the entirety of any of the maps here on the blog, I can tell you that yes. There are a lot more bodies in the full version. The Skull of Drag’Nalar is a gruesome, horror-filled story for 3rd – 5th level players, and it includes three full maps by yours truly, three new monsters, and three homebrew magic items. It’s a fun campaign and will delight those in your party who enjoy horror-filled thrills. We highly suggest playing it on a dark and stormy night. 

Now then…let’s get onto our Creator Interview with Maxwell Zener!

An Interview with Maxwell Zener

Tell us your story! How did you get into D&D?

I was nine years old when my best friend showed up at our door, excited to show off his new find – the Basic Set of D&D. That was it; we were off and running. I’d stay up late at night reading over modules and dreaming of adventure. I drifted away from the game in college, but my daughter got me back into it four years ago. Now I’m DMing a home game for her, her friends, and their dads.

What’s your favorite race and class?

I don’t really have one, to be honest. They each have their charms. As long as I find a way inside their head, I have fun living there. I enjoy the strategy of playing a cleric, thinking about how I can support the team. I love the martial classes, just running in there and swinging steel and dropping monsters – very therapeutic. I’ve always liked playing rogues, enjoying the hit-and-run tactics and being strong with traps and locks and all that. In fact, I think the next character I want to play is a multi-classed cleric-rogue. Or maybe a good-aligned elf necromancer who got into that field by trying to figure out why he should live so long while all of his friends rarely make it past 80..

How did you get into writing your own campaigns, and what inspired you to create your own publication?

The thing I find most rewarding about DMing is helping everyone to have fun – it’s like building a big playground and then watching your friends run around on it. And if you designed the playground yourself, it’s even more rewarding.

As for publishing my adventures – I just love the idea that people can take what I wrote, run with it, and have fun. One of the most rewarding moments in the publication process was lurking in an online playtest. Watching complete strangers enjoy this playground I made, and get joy from my imagination? Nothing compares.

Tell us about The Skull of Drag’Nalar. What can players expect from the adventure?

It’s a race-against-the-clock-to-close-a-magic-portal story, with a rescue mission thrown in on the side. The adventure really rewards player creativity, too … players who run in head-first are going to find it tough going, but those who enjoy creative problem-solving and figuring out how to use difficult terrain to their advantage are going to have a lot of fun.

Also, no joke, there’s a lot of horror imagery. This adventure won’t be for everybody, but people who like a bit of gore and dark things that crawl in the night should have a blast.

Artwork by by ThatArtJack

What inspired you to write this story?

It came out of my home game, actually. The party was about to ascend to level 5, and I wanted to give them a challenging “graduation” adventure. They escaped by the skin of their teeth, all spell slots gone and down to their very last handful of hit points – they really felt they had earned entry into the next tier of play afterward.

What was your process--from deciding you wanted to publish a campaign, all the way to this finish line?

I gave myself lots of time, and I’m glad I did because there was a lot to learn. I hunted for an artist and cartographer who could transform the ideas in my head into images that will get them into other people’s heads. I found a great layout tool on DMsGuild (Laura Hirsbrunner’s Word Template), I had a lot of other DMs run playtests, which was invaluable – I discovered that “it’s clear to me what this means” is not that same as “it’s clear what this means.” And I shamelessly stole a lot of their good ideas.

What was the most challenging part of tackling this project? What about most rewarding?

For me, coordinating everything was the most challenging. Getting artwork, layout, editing, cartography, sensitivity reading, playtesting … I definitely didn’t have the most efficient work flow with it all. I’m hopeful my next publications will go much more smoothly.

As for the most rewarding? Watching other people have fun with what I made is by far the best part. A strong second place, though, is seeing the art and cartography I’d commissioned come together. I’m not a very good visual artist, so seeing someone take an idea I have and then transform it into something stunning – that’s often far better than my original idea – is incredible.

Now that you’ve released your first work, what words of advice would you offer someone else who was thinking of publishing their first D&D campaign?

Give yourself a lot of time, because you’re going to need longer to figure stuff out than you think you will. And even though you think what you have is flawless, get a lot of feedback – it’s invaluable to see your work through someone else’s eyes, and they’ll point out problems you never thought of. Ultimately that makes your work better.

Do you plan to keep writing and publishing? If so, is there anything else on the horizon you want to give a teaser about?

Absolutely! I’ve got a bunch of other things in progress – a magic item collection, another horror-themed adventure (a pure dungeon-crawl this time), and a short adventure that’s almost pure social encounters.

We'll definitely keep an eye out for those! Where can people find you?

I’m on twitter as @MaxwellZener

Thank-you, Max for taking the time to share your story with us, and I hope you all enjoyed getting to know him a little more. Be sure to check out The Skull of Drag’Nalar  over on DM’s Guild, and give him a hearty welcome to the community!

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