Sarshan is a proper villain. He’s got a pointy tower and everything. He doesn’t have any stats, so you know he’s a big time player. He’s even got the monolgues down pat. I like him.
To get to him the party have to bust into his tower, take on the guards and make there way to the upper levels for the final showdown. This is fairly traditional fare, but there’s a few peculiarities in this adventure that stop it becoming entirely predictable. First, there’s a magic elevator running through the centre of the tower. Like a lot of 4e writeups, you have to read it twice to make sense of it, but it’s fairly straightforward. The ground floor is full of shadar kai flunkies, but thankfully they are not just waiting for the PCs to open the door before they come to life. They are all in the middle of something, which is a touch I really appreciate. One lot are in negotiations with a mercenary captain and his mad wraith bodyguard when the party arrives. It’s simple stuff, and it helps alleviate the 1d6+3 orcs in a room syndrome that scenarios often fall into. There’s similar flavour in an encounter with a pack of gnolls who have been given guest quarters by Sarsah, they’ve kicked off all the bed covers and made them into nests on the floor. Brilliant!
The upper level is a kind of garden area, with it’s own predators to deal with. You’ll want to be careful to not skim this encounter though. Part of the room is a teleportation arch which has a vital part to play at the end of the adventure. It doesn’t work for the party at all, like so many others they’ve seen. So it’s likely that your players will shrug and move on, but later they’ll have to get it operational so it’s worth flagging up now.
The adventure has had a good run of decent encounters recently and there’s not many left. Unfortunately things take a downward turn right at the death. Before then the party are confronted by Sarshan’s household guard and they are expected to put up their hands and surrender. That’s a big assumption on the adventures part. It’s backed up with some advice about not being too heavy handed but it’s still a little jarring. All this is designed to allow Sarshan to make his entrance in a suitable villainous fashion. It’s supposed to be a big reveal when the party see he’s the same feller as the veteran in the poorhouse. There’s quite a nice speech organised for you as DM here, have fun. he evens offers the PCs a job within his organisation at the end, which is optimistic. One of the main roles for the DM here is to get across some portents of doom about a great disaster that will befall the mortal world. It’s all a little vague (Wizards have taken some flak for not providing an overview of the adventure path) and Sarshan doesn’t know everything, but this is a good opportunity to tie in other plot strands.
Obviously the time for talking will come to an end at some point and combat will ensue. Sarshan’s champion is a good threat and the fight should be interesting, however there’s a couple of big problems with it. First, it doesn’t have a defined location. The preamble could have taken place upstairs in the barracks (Sarshan has his lair at the very top but there’s nothing there and no reason to visit) but the combat is assumed to be in the garden area. This is because Sarshan has to escape and the party have to flee. To make all this happen there’s a convenient earthquake. You are supposed to have presaged all this with frequent tremors earlier. The whole tower is about to come down and the locked portal is the only means of escape. This is set up as a skill challenge (it’s got the wrong flavour text copied in) and the assumption is that this is undertaken at the same time as the fight. I’ve seen this before in WotC adventures, but I don’t really see it working out that way in play. Every PC is combat capable. It’s not like in the movies where the plucky librarian and the professor have to hit the books in the middle of a firefight. It would be nice if it was like that, but really, why not deal with the threat and then take on the portal at your leisure? The time constraint is artificial anyway so…
Take my advice and call it quits after this point. The adventure does have a little bit more but it’s totally non essential and feels rushed and tacked on. The feeling of sloppiness and bad editting returns, as page 51 is a reprint of an earlier page for no good reason. The last encounter is pointless, and if run, will only dilute the feeling of (temporary) victory over Sarshan.
Overall: Not great. Some good concepts which are let down in the execution. I love the idea of taking your adventure to the shadowfell at such an early stage in the campaign, but the method for getting there is odd in the extreme. Modra is a bungling idiot, although Sarshan shows great potential as a recurring villain. There’s some good opportunities for exploration and information gathering, but the skill challenges don’t quite support that goal well enough. Lastly, there’s Umbraforge itself, a great location that will hopefully be better used in future acts. As always, I’m interested to hear of actual play experiences, are they different to what I’ve described? I hope so, otherwise this adventure only has little to recommend it.