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.
So if your party enters this area, which you’ll know from checking the map on one page, you’ll then check the key for a description, which is often on another. That description is pretty much useless on it’s own so you need to turn to the tactical encounter which is 15 pages later. The example I’ve just used was at random, so let’s follow it up. Turning to page 83, I see a two page tactical spread that takes place next door to the room described, and is extremely unlikely to ever see action or interest. Maybe I’m being harsh. I know that one of the design goals of D&D 4e was to have wider ranging encounters that span multiple rooms. I don’t think that actually occurs as much in play as they would like it too, and I can’t see it happening here. It just seems wasteful. I do like that the rooms exist for a reason beyond killing things and taking stuff, I don’t like the formatting which doesn’t aid the group in realising that fact.
Regardless of format issues, this is a good location with some interesting features and encounters. Before I get to those I’ve got to mention The Birdman. This NPC merits a sidebar all to himself before the tactical encounter descriptions kick in. He’s a prisoner kept in a cell deep in the dungeons (literal ones). He’s one of those ultra annoying NPCs that won’t communicate with the characters and simply exists to foreshadow something else (I guess, we aren’t really told). We get a very basic description of a white haired aged human male with seven yellow canaries in tow. That’s about it, no personality, goals or dialogue hints. You have to fast forward to the encounter details to get more story. Essentially he leaves a trail of feathers to lead the party into a deeper area of the fortress, an area that they couldn’t have found earlier. It’s vague, it makes no sense and there are no answers here for the DM, so practice your enigmatic face before you run this. I imagine this is not the last we’ll see of the Birdman, and if that’s so then it would have been nice to have been given a bit of an overview. Not too much to ask is it?
There are nine encounters to play out, and with a curious party you’ll probably see action in all of them. Queen Shephatiah uses troglodytes as her gate guards, as well as more exotic fare deeper into the fortress. The encounters are all waiting for PC agency in the main with one exception. When the party stops for an extended rest (forced on them by a sandstorm if they seem like upping and leaving too early) the Queen’s forces launch an ambush. OK, it’s not the most sophisticated of encounters but it is a little bit different from the kick in the door routine that most WotC dungeons provide. Points for that. Points also for attempting to fool the characters with a fake Queen. The real Queen is yet to show but until then there’s a dryad who plays the part as a decoy. Even the forces arrayed in the upper levels of the fortress believe her to be the real deal. The dryad appears as an eladrin female and that’s all you know about portraying her. So, as decoys go, the dryad doesn’t actually put in a massive effort to decieve. This is one of those assumptions that secnario writers rely on too often (see pretty much the entirety of Umbraforge). I don’t know how it would hold up in actual play, but I suspect my group would not be particularly impressed with the set up.
After the fortress proper, and the ambush, and the Birdman, we get to a mini dungeon which takes the party all the way to the real Queen of the Drylands and the finale of the scenario. She and her minions have reopened the mine and are exploiting the seams of raw elemental ore they’ve found there. The party’s job is to bust their way in and confront the Queen in her lair. There’s some more troglodytes to defeat, some undead, even a barlgura, before getting to the final chamber.
Queen Shephatiah is actually a naga. Don’t act all surprised, check out the picture on the front page of the adventure. To be honest I get the impression that this is supposed to be a big reveal moment. If you can pull that off you’re better than I. She guards an elemental rift along with her lieutenants, a pair of mezzodemons and a firelasher in support. They all fight to the death, presumably in silence, the text is certainly so. As is so often the case, there’s the most tenous of plot resolution available and it’s all in the form of papers found after the fighting has finished. The wealth of the mine is being shipped through the rift to places and persons unknown. I’m sure many groups will be champing at the bit for more from this, maybe they want to use the rift in some way, or interrogate survivors. It won’t do any good this adventure is over, thanks very much. There’s nothing left to do but head back to Overlook to report in to Bram Ironfell who pretty much shrugs at the news and says ‘OK, thanks for your help’. What a damp squib of an ending.
Overall, this adventure really does feel like a side trek, padded out to make it fit the demands of the adventure path. It has a couple of very good locations and a few memorable encounters, but it’s let down by the ending. Your party will be left wondering what exactly was going on, and as DM you won’t be able to tell them because you won’t truly know yourself. This scenario doesn’t provide any closure, and I have a nagging feeling it will only make sense further down the line. Of course that only helps in hindsight, not at your table where it matters.