Tag Archives: scales of war

Review: Beyond the Mottled Tower

The Scales of War hits the paragon tier in this adventure published in Dungeon 163 from February 2009. This instalment is written by Creighton Broadhurst, Bruce Cordell and David Noonan. Too many chefs? Or are three heads are better than one?

“All my careful work destroyed by that traitorous bastard Modra and those ‘Heroes of Overlook.’ Now, I must begin again, seeking new allies on different worlds to make good my losses. But first, some vengeance on the Vale, as well as a way to eradicate all hints of my involvement with the githyanki. After all, anonymity is the key to any successful betrayal. . .”

Disclaimer: Given that many people might be jumping onto this series of reviews at this point, I should be clear that there will inevitably be spoilers, it simply can’t be helped. However, I will try my best to keep them to a minimum and call out anything that might seriously impact your play along the way. There you go.

So, Sarshan’s back, and he’s got a new plan. He’s going for damage limitation this time out as the heroes have stymied his plans on a couple of occasions if they’ve played through the path so far. To try to get a fresh start, he’s severing all links with the githyanki, and destroying any evidence of their collaboration. He kicks this plan off by attempting to assassinate Megan Swiftblade, the leader of the Freeriders company who the party will have associated with before. You’d think he’d start with the party first seeing as it’s they that have bloodied his nose more often and more severely, but no, he’s starting with an NPC. This brings the adventure back to near Brindol, where it all started 10 levels ago.

The mission hook is simple enough, the party have to be willing to extract Megan from her hiding place and get her back to Overlook unscathed. As in some previous instalments, the party can cut to the chase or play out negotiations with the council of elders. Either way the adventure proper begins at the Green Dragon tavern as the party wait for their rendezvous. The tavern and it’s patrons are sketched out fairly lightly and the advice is to stay with the roleplay as long as the players seem happy to do so. These fantasy taverns never seem to be very busy do they? There’s not a huge amount of ‘meat’ at this point but it does work as a starting point.

The first big event is ready to go when the talking dies off, in the form of a devastating earthquake. Mechanically, this is supported by a skill challenge. As with a lot of skill challenges, this one doesn’t look wholly convincing. The format is odd, with timed events and a round by round summary that happens regardless of the heroes actions. The ‘victory’ in the challenge is to escape the crumbling tavern taking some cowering villagers with you. I’m not certain that this is obvious enough to the players, certainly in the early stages. I thought conventional wisdom was to stay inside during a ‘quake? Maybe I’m being too critical, because I can see that with enough flair and improvisation a good DM could squeeze plenty of drama out of this scene.

Outside, things escalate rapidly as the party have to face the blob. That’s right, the blob. Well, actually it’s more like that Tommy Lee Jones movie with the volcano in it. Essentially there’s a slow moving flow of Blood Chaos (I think it makes more visual sense if you call it chaos blood) and it ignites everything it touches. It’s heading for a trapped villager and the party must attempt a rescue. At the same time this ooze has spawned some monsters of its own, you know the sort, all tentacles and fire. Break out the silly putty if you want to use minis. Take care with the stat blocks though, the Scion of Chaos is Huge and has an aura 2 effect, that’s a whole lot of area. It also has no range listed on its staggering strike? The skulking terrors similarly have no range for their blast power. Also, they can fly, but the encounter has them hiding under the ooze. Make it up I guess.

The ooze isn’t going to stop of it’s own accord so the party will have to go to the source, an opening in a hill under that previously unmentioned tower just over there. This is very much your traditional wizard’s tower, including the inevitable experimental labs that contain gruesome monsters. These beasts have broken free in the quake. Megan and the sage’s apprentice have gotten to the roof, but the sage remains behind needing rescue. None of these NPCs are particularly grateful for the sight of the party and it’s debatable as to whether or not the PCs would help them out regardless. Assuming they do it’s onto the combat encounter deep within the sinking tower.

Poor old Serten, the sages apprentice. He’s got a typical apprentices life. He shares his bedroom with a couple of demons, some underdark dwellers and a mad far realm mage. The earthquake means they’ve busted out, but luckily for the adventure they’ve decided to lurk within their cells waiting for heroes on which to avenge themselves. Quite why the foulspawn seer (intelligence 22 remember) didn’t blast his captors on day one is left to the imagination. Frankly, there’s little point over-thinking these encounters. I reckon the authors came up with the monsters first, and the rationale second. As it is, it gives the adventurers a nice little tour through the Monster Manual. Also, the DM gets to use the Arcane Towers tiles to good effect, which is nice.

Under the tower are the inevitable hidden caverns. There’s some strong opposition down there too. Finally the party get to lock horns with some githyanki, which might bring them round to realising the identity of this adventures baddie. The accompanying shadar kai witch probably seals the deal. The environment is part of the encounter. Lots of fantasy elements, with teleportation, lava, and rockslides. I like the look of this encounter, and it seems to have a decent conclusion as the blood chaos valves are closed down.

To find the rest of the plot, the party has to have a chat with the two NPCs that they rescued, Falrinth the Sage and Megan. This is handled by skill challenge and I’m not really sure why. The consequences for success and failure are different, one leads to a rather cool encounter with a pair of green dragons. This means that success is somewhat penalised, both from a fun and xp perspective.  Also, these two NPCs are pretty hostile to any attempts to deal with them. We get the usual ‘don’t bother with intimidation’ issue that plague many early skill challenges. This is where the delve format breaks down a little. The NPCs personalities, which are essential for any conversational encounter, are only called out in the skill challenge part of the adventure. I think challenges like this might be better served in the main body of the adventure rather than as a tactical layout. Still, the point here is to overdo the rules element of what could be a simple enough roleplay segment.

The next scene is the Evertree, and it’s a nice location, a giant oak in the midst of a lake of blood chaos. Where this sits in the world isn’t explained. Maybe it doesn’t need to be. There is a optional encounter ere as explained before. It would be a shame to miss it as the location, plus the monsters smacks of an iconic D&D encounter (take care to update the monster stats though). If you miss out the encounter, then you just proceed directly to the next scene, where the last skill challenge is picked up.

This takes the form of an abstract dungeon crawl. It’s a neat idea actually. The DM is given the bare bones of some sample encounters, and some set dressing ideas. You can then freestyle up some combat if you feel like it, or use the skill challenge to speed through it to the denouement. Some of the skill challenge  rules are a little clumsy, as should be expected in this early 4e work, but a flexible and creative DM could make this a flavoursome little excursion.

Should you want to cut to the chase there’s a combat encounter bookending this part before the story moves on. The opponents are the by-now usual mix of bad guys straight out of the Star Wars cantina band. They’re little more than a speed bump in the tale, although the mini boss carries documents about his bony person with vague plot elements outlined therein. There’s another portal to decipher via skill challenge with failure earning the party an extended rest. That’s right. The party do get a glimpse of the villain here though as he runs away to cackle another day. There’s no dialogue, and no chance of capture, so don’t get all excited.

The encounter area has blood chaos in it. Like pretty much every other encounter so far. It’s effects are laid out for the reader here, despite having a call out of it’s own in the main text, and being included, in full, in every other encounter too. It does 2d6+3 fire and acid, plus slowed (save ends). Really, you’ll have remembered this by now.

The portal takes the party to the sea of fire in the elemental chaos, to an island just off the shore of the city of brass. That’s brilliant. An absolute classic stop on the D&D cosmic tour knocked off at 11th level. There’s no stepping into the city itself, but it’s an iconic backdrop to the rest of the adventure.

This encounter look s like a TPK on paper. The big nasty is a duergar with a potential 5 square push into a lake of magma that deals 10d10 and 15 ongoing. At this point the party will have vulnerability to fore too. Yikes. There a redspawn firebelcher and other fire breathing baddies aplenty. To get out of the frying pan the party need good jumping or flying skills and the ability to get past a couple of githyanki pirates, who will e busy immobilising all and sundry with telekinetic grasp. Honestly, this one looks like a beast. . If you’ve played it through, I’d be really interested in hearing how it went.

Once into the tower proper, the party are confronted by yet another menagerie:

The defenders of this chamber stand in wait—two humanoid fiends with leathery wings, another githyanki warrior, a centaur bearing a greatsword, and a demon ensconced in a rune-scribed shell.

And a dire partridge in a pear tree?

What stops this being another random combat is the environment. It’s a simple enough conceit, rising magma, but given that the objective makes the party descend before they can climb back up, it becomes a genuine thriller. The exit is a ‘portal, obviously, but I guess by now no-one will be expecting to have to exercise a meaningful choice. 

Onwards into the complete and utter unknown. This selection of opponents isn’t utterly random, as two of them could actually exist in this chamber. It’s one giant trap with creatures designed to maximise the challenge. We’re not quite in classic Tomb of Horrors territory but it’s not far off. Given that the final encounter is just around the corner, my prediction is a party of barely walking wounded by this point. The final battle is level 16. Hope you brought a spare character.

No really, bring a spare character. This fight is stacked in the defenders favour so much it’s frightening. There’s a force sphere which is a massive middle finger from any ruthless DM. Not that they need it, there’s enough fighting power on this rooftop that you won’t need it. Sarshan himself is no slouch, and his retainers have plenty of oomph too. Unfortunately the battle hasn’t got much in the way of flavour, it’s all wrapped up in the statblocks. Sarshan probably fights in silence, and there’s no links or foreshadowing to any other part of the path.

In fact, that’s the thing that lets down this instalment, It’s clever, it’s even a little bit crazy, but it’s pure and bare mechanical fun. There’s zero choice, one you’re on the encounter conveyer, you’re not getting off. The sights along the way are not too bad, and the addition of skill challenges breaks up the initial combats. Still, the challenges are as kludgey as you’d expect. I do think, to answer my very first question, that this instalment has too many cooks. It’s a selection of fun scenes that are taped together by the flimsiest of linked portals. I do say that like it’s a bad thing, but in play? Good for a laugh, and there’s not so much wrong with that.

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Review: Fist of Mourning

This is a stop gap, an adventure designed to join the heroic and paragion tiers in the Scales of War adventure path. It’s shorter than usual as a result, and it’s got a real side trek feel to it. The tone conveyed is that of ‘use it if you want to, don’t if you’re not bothered’. That doesn’t mean this is just a throwaway adventure, far from it. This is potentially a chance for the DM to tie up some loose plot threads and connections that have sprung up during their home game. The hooks for this adventure are crying out for ‘local’ knowledge rather than something the author has had to second guess for you. With 10 levels of actual play, there’s bound to be some need for personal resolutions.

 The backstory comes over as quite sword and sorcery, though I’m sure purists would disagree. There are cults, and madness, and lost cities, all very redolent of 60s/70’s trashy fantasy novels. The D&D connection is made with the slaad, and the Scales of War connection by using Overlook and its environs. Is this a heady brew? or some kind of deadly cocktail? Just check out the opening illustration which will let you know whether or not this adventure is for you.

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Review finale: The Temple Between

The Taking of Overlook

The adventure (and the heroic tier) ends with the siege of Overlook. The threat comes from the mercenaries camped outside the city walls and the PCs will be at the centre of the defence. I couldn’t have picked a better place myself. I’ve always enjoyed Overlook and it’s acted as the spine to the path so far. If your party has made connections and put down roots here, then even better. The rest of this adventure serves to put all those stories at risk, and that can only mean more engagement at the table.

War and battles have always been a part of roleplaying scenarios, and not just in D&D. It’s not easy to pull off. Traditional parties of 6 PCs are difficult to mix into a warfare scenario and still have them be effective, but not over emphasised. Then there is the combat system. D&D is all about the one on one, or the small unit at most. How does your adventure reflect the bigger picture that war demands? There’s no mass battle system to fall back on, and skill challenges, well, they have their issues. Ari has decided to use a victory point system, a classic method from wargaming. Victory Points (VPs) are gained by the parties actions, and in fact they’ve been winning and losing them all the way through the scenario so far. As DM, you’ll have to make a big decision about how much of the system you want to have on show at the table. It’s a bit like minions. Your opinion on whether or not to announce them for what they are will give you an idea of how to approach this section. There’s help with the descriptions for those who want to use that to drive the results, or you could come out with it and tell the players how to claim the points in game.

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The Temple Between part 3

The Mountainroot Temple 

And we start with a twist. There are two competing factions within the temple and the party will have to deal with both. The General has a full squad of lackeys on hand as you’d expect. The new arrivals are a cadre of fey who are looking for an ancient tome of power. These guys will feature in future instalments, but they’re fully integrated into this adventure, they’re not just an afterthought. The best way of finding out what they’re all about is to interrogate them, and sure enough there’s a big side bar that let’s you do just that. FYI, the gith forces are well worth questioning too. Unfortunately the backstory doesn’t come out in play any other way.

There’s no way out of the temple once entered unless the place is ‘solved’ no there’s no getting round the fact that this temple has to be cleared and cleared properly. Also the party are on a deadline. I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a victory point system used later in the scenario, and time taken is a big factor in that. I’m not sure if the party would be particularly aware of this factor, so it’s worth egging them on once they get into this part of the story.

A quick aside, in the ‘dungeon features’ section, the author makes note that all the doors have the hinges on the inside of the rooms. That made me chuckle. That’s exactly the sort of thing my players ask all the time yet published adventures rarely tell you things like this. It’s a good insight.

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Review: The Temple Between II

As usual we get the standard intro pages, how to run the adventure, how to customise it etc. We also get the treasure parcel chart, and as usual, it’s confusing. The text says 17 parcels, the table shows only 13. (This is because there are 4 parcels to be given out during the skill challenges) However, in a change from the norm, the monetary treasure is listed as specific gems and jewellery, a nice touch.

Then it’s into the adventure proper. There’s a few hooks presented, but essentially all you have to do is get the party back to Overlook, once you’ve done that the adventure gets into gear. The big Maguffin from the last instalment wanders off to look after her own plans. Let’s hope your party let that particular loose end remain so, there’s no further development here. What is developed is the city of Overlook. To be honest, it would be worth going back to Siege where the city got its first outing and reacquainting yourself with the place. There’s going to be a fair amount of time spent here, about two thirds of the whole adventure. Obviously it’s a much more open environment than the standard corridor and room set up you may have been used to in the path so far, and that means you’ll need to prepare to improvise. There’s a very handy overview of the essential locations, and I’d recommend having it to hand when you run the big investigation piece later on.

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Scales of War Review: The Temple Between

Continuing my series of reviews for the Scales of War adventure path

“Our eyes are open, our fists are close. Our walls are stone, our shields are steel. Our faces are many, our soul is dwarf. And thus is there no foe against whom Overlook cannot stand”

It is an ancient Overlook proverb – some would call it a prayer – and it’s about to be put to the ultimate test

Cast your mind back. It’s the holiday season last year and you’re reminiscing about the adventures you’ve been a part of all through the year. You’re thinking about Scales of War, what’s been good, what could have been better. You’re wondering about some of those loose plot threads and what things will look like in the paragon tier. While you’re pondering these weighty issues, Dungeon #161 comes online and you idly hit the download link. It’s big. Its 68 pages. It’s by Ari Marmell. It’s 9th level. And is that a githyanki riding a dragon on the cover? Well that’s different…

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Review: Den of the Destroyer, the finale

Previously…crocotta

Once into the dungeon proper you’ve got a special encounter to overcome. It’s called the Githzerai mind trap and it’s nicely old school in its function. That is, it’s there to be frustrating and random with extreme violence mixed in at the same time. It’s a teleport trap, and it’s got a bunch of gnolls stuck in it. Thorn reset the trap when he came through earlier, showing that there’s no end to his talents when the plot requires it. The nature of the mind trap means you’ll need to be quite organized at the table with multiple rooms laid out and split combats a plenty. It’s not rocket science but it does pay to read the workings of the trap two or three times to make sure you don’t stumble during play.

I like the gnoll variants presented here. Gnolls with whips is never going to get old. The mauler variant is armed with shadar kai weaponry which is a nod to the backstory that I appreciate. This tribe gets a full write up at the back of the adventure so it’s worth skipping ahead to do your DM research first.

There’s more gnolls spread throughout the rest of the fortress. That’s fairly straightforward. Where it gets a bit more interesting is when the legacy of the githzerai becomes apparent. The first signs are in the architecture. Unfortunately that makes some of the rooms an absolute nightmare to map out on your table. If there’s any dungeon tiles in print in the shape of crescents I don’t know about them. One of the less wacky-shaped rooms is the training chamber of the githzerai. Picture the scene; there’s a waterfall and a set of constantly shifting aqueducts. Amongst this you’ve got ruin-touched gnolls mounted on giant hyenas (introducing in Dragon #369). Fun for all the family. It looks interesting enough, not sure how it would work out in play though. Has any reader run through this encounter yet? Did the shifting terrain make a difference?

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Den of the Destroyer part II

Fortress Graystone

This is the dungeon part of the scenario. The dungeon being an ancient githzerai monastery overrun with a pack of gnolls. The chief gnoll is trying to open a rift to a place of power (aren’t they all), and only the heroes stand between him and regional domination. Apparently Sarshan didn’t know what the gnolls would find when they moved in, which surely makes him the least well informed idiot of the master villain world.

The monastery is designed in such a way as to show off the dualisic nature of the githzerai. Some rooms are regular, some are all twisty. That’s the whole law/chaos thing for you in an architectural nutshell. Feel free to dole out some lore to those PCs trained in dungeoneering. To be fair, the map layout is nice enough and the author tells us how the doors work. That is not something you can rely on in many published adventures, yet it’s something I often find myself having to narrate as a DM. There’s 6 location based encounters within the monastery proper, 1 on the approach and one event encounter that can happen when the DM sees fit. I guess that’s two longish sessions of play, maybe three leisurely ones.

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Scales of War: Den of the Destroyer

Den of the Destroyer is the fifth part in the Scales of War adventure path. This path has not been brilliant recently, so I was hoping for an improvement with Rodney Thompson’s adventure. Mr Thompson is best known for his work on Star Wars, wonder if there will be wookiees? After reading through the whole thing a couple of times, I’m still not sure what to make of it.

This is from Dungeon 160, the November release from 2008. It’s pitched at 7th level parties and the intro flavour goes like this:

 

“Some months ago, a mysterious figure calling himself only the Emissary contacted the hobgoblin chieftain Sinruth and spurred him into reviving the marauding horde known as the Red Hand of Doom. Unbeknownst to both Sinruth and the PCs, this Emissary was the shadar-kai arms dealer Sarshan. Simultaneously, Sarshan began sending messages to the leader of a band of gnoll mercenaries, a disciple of Yeenoghu named Fangren, in the hope of inciting the gnolls in a similar fashion.
The gnolls were not so easily commanded, however, forcing Sarshan to take more drastic steps. While the goblins were content to raid Brindol thanks to little more than motivational letters, the gnoll mercenaries required something more. In order to secure their services, Sarshan arranged for the gnolls to receive several shipments of shadar-kai weapons from his storehouses in the Shadowfell. In exchange, Fangren agreed to lead his mercenaries across Elsir Vale, pillaging, plundering, and seizing as many captives as possible.”

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The Lost Mines of Karak IV

Fortress Ironfellironfell

This is the main event in this scenario, a desert fortress built by dwarves and now defended by the forces of evil. This is a chance to show off a room and corridor type environment that isn’t strictly a dungeon. It’s got a certain amount of verisimilitude in that it looks and feels like a castle first, and a keyed combat encounter second. Unfortunately the delve format that WotC uses doesn’t make it easy for the DM to find what they need. This is disappointing because the delve format is supposed to assist in running games, not turn out to be counterproductive, which I think it is here. For example there are two map levels and they are seperated by 2 pages. The keyed locations are described in quite shallow terms at this point, for example:

14. West Guard Post

This former guard chamber is the habitat of a sussur tree growing up from the cracked stone floor. See the tactical encounter for a description.

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