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.”

So essentially it’s the same plot as we got earlier in the path, but this time it’s with gnolls. Given that the bad guys were so spectacularly inept in previous installments, I’m not hopeful about their chances this time, seeing as they have exactly the same plan. Before we get stuck into the story proper there’s the usual rigmarole about explaining how the adventure format works. It’s a complete cut and paste job. It continues to helpfully recommend that “reading through the Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition rules is your first best step to understanding and preparing to run the adventure”. Your second step might be to grab a notebook, you’re going to want to write down questions as they occur to you, and believe me they will. Straight away you’ll need to pay full attention to the treasure parcel information. It’s not quite right. The text says there’s 15 parcels, the table provides 16, but 3 are set in stone, and that leaves…. oh forget it.

In this adventure some of the plot threads from earlier installments start to come together. Not before time. I’m sure WotC’s intention was to ramp up the tension and anticipation by not providing an overview, but I get a sense of frustration instead. So now some actual revelations, well, one anyway. Here be spoilers. There’s a platinum sword in this, except really its an alternate form of a divine being. How cool is that? Pretty cool except “(it’s) full identity and purpose are yet to be revealed”. Sigh.

To begin, the party are in Overlook following the events of Lost Mines of Karak. There’s a messenger coming their way, but the villains of the piece have abducted said messenger before she gets to the party. Luckily a handy NPC lets the characteers know she’s looking for them and this is deemed a sufficient plot hook to hang the whole adventure from. This is the first (and not the last) sign of the enormous amount of rail roading going on here. I don’t object to railroading per se, it can be a memorable trip if handled with a light touch, but here there’s not even a pretence at choice. The heroes either get with the plot, or they don’t. Not so much a rail road as a monorail really.

Finding the messenger is handled via skill challenge. I like the formatting here, its been tweaked since the early publications. There’s 8 available skills, and you could take as much time as you like while the PCs explore the city looking for clues. Given that Overlook is such a well written location I’d be happy to let my group take their time with this.

The challenge is broken up by an appearance from an NPC who will reappear later on. This is Gilgathorn, an elf mercenary. He gives the DM a chance to come over all Batman-like for a few minutes as he addresses the party with dire warnings about a bounty on their heads and how they’d better watch out. I suggest you prepare this one carefully. It’s too early to make this a fight and you know what players are like. Flip forward to page 36 to find a picture of this guy. He’ll be back, so lay it on thick with the characterisation.

The messenger is being held in a ruined temple of Pelor and the party have to bust her free. If they failed the earlier challenge the opposition increases (and there’s more experience accordingly, so hardly a disaster). The encounter is standard fare, nothing ambitious or particularly creative. There’s not much in the way of hazards or interesting terrain, and there’s no surprises or waves of combatants, it’s just a scrap with some thugs. There’s nothing really wrong with that but it’s a shame it takes four pages to tell the story of the encounter. The tactics section is wrong too. It talks about an at will power recharging, which is unfortunate.

The rescue successful, the message is delivered. There’s trouble afoot back at Brindol and could the PCs please come and sort it out? It’s been 6 levels since they were last there so lets hope your PCs fancy the trip back. Assuming they do there’s a quick journey there, with a couple of interludes to hand out some more exposition along the way. This could all be handled by talking it out with the messenger on the road if you prefer, it would certainly get to the point a little quicker.

The destination is the Hall of Great Valour, a museum dedicated to the tale of the Red Hand of Doom, an invasion from a whole edition ago. The curator, Sertanian has discovered something interesting about a platinum sword the adventurers recovered from their last time here. It’s started talking and asking for them by name. Help me heroes, you’re my only hope. There’s a Q&A section provided that is absolutely farcical. I simply cannot believe that the author has really considered the sort of questions a real gaming group might come up with. It assumes total compliance, if not utter gullibility. The sword is enigmatic in a way that only NPCs can be and doesn’t even have powers as a bargaining chip. Over in the deadtree world you can play Pyramid of Shadows that uses a similar conceit, but in the form of an artifact that actually helps the party, unlike this piece of dead weight. The good news is that just as the conversation starts to dry up, ninjas attack. This is the saving grace of this early part of the adventure, a decent combat and the place catches fire at the same time. This nested skill challenge has a really cool idea in it, if you don’t get a success, you get an automatic failure each round. Get enough failures and the place burns to the ground. There’s no real mechanical consequences (you could lose a healing surge, and there’s no more encounters that day) but it does provide an action movie scene, even if that action movie is the fantasy version of The Da Vinci Code.

The aftermath sees the reappearance of the elf mercenary. That’s a coincidence. Again, he’s not here to fight (yet), but your party ranger will be muttering something about a quarry under his breath by now. Actually, he doesn’t get a cover story for this encounter, so let’s hope your players don’t actually ask him anything.

The next stop is a secret githzerai monastery in the mountains. A skill challenge gets you there, and you’ll have to ignore the sword all the way as she goes all shy during the trip. Don’t worry, things liven up soon enough.

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