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?
The meditation chamber is where the dualistic nature of the architects comes into play again with a split encounter area, one side all straight lines, the other all curvy and full of pits and weird edges. Even the monsters are split. We get two new creatures here. There’s the githzerai psionic echoes, kinda like ghosts really, except with psionic powers. Then there’s the mindscramblers, who are all chaotic and random in their attacks. Flip to the back of the adventure where we find out that these bad boys are ‘coalesced psionic residue of githzerai untamed emotions’. There you go then. It’s all cute enough, but perhaps a little too out there in concept.
The main event of the fortress is the showdown with the gnoll leader. To get to that we first have the classic set up of a sub boss to deal with on the way. In this case it’s the shadar kai weapons master who’s been training up the gnolls with their new.armaments. He’s taken the great hall as his lair and is surrounded by gnoll recruits when the party arrives. It reminds me of the classic kung fu movies. I can imagine the PCs and the weaponmaster locking eyes for a moment of silence, then, with some choppy hand signals, the gnolls leap to the attack. Maybe it’s just me. The shadar kai has a couple of cool powers under his level 8 skirmisher chassis. He can hit with a disarming strike and follow it up with ‘my weapon now’ which allows him to attack with his captured weapon. Awesome. He’s prepared to parley given the chance, and there’s even a skill challenge provided to assist with the interrogation. I’d handle it with a single roll to be fair, assuming I even asked for that. If he dies then fear not, he’s got some incriminating notes kept nearby which give another clue to the backstory. Well he would wouldn’t he.
I should mention that the gnolls here are not the usual run of the mill hyena guys either. This batch includes the warmaster complete with the magic sword, ‘wicked fang’. This level 11 magic weapon can do 3d8+26 damage on a crit. Nasty, especially when it’s daily property gives 10 ongoing to boot. Again, flip to the appendix of the adventure for more.
The final showdown is in the ritual chamber. You’ll either see this as a hackneyed old dungeon trope or proof of the power of classic ideas. There’s an evil shaman in the final throes of an evil ritual that only the party can stop. There’s plenty of opposition in the chamber, including twisted former captives as controller fodder. The shaman is level 11 and all about the vicious ranged powers. Try ‘vortex of chaos’ for size, area burst 1 within 10, +13 v reflex, 3d10+6 fire, ongoing 10 psychic and target dazed (save ends). Ouch. Then there’s ‘shun the unbeliever’, an immediate reaction that slides the target 3 squares when they move next to the shaman. It’s a good mix of creatures in this encounter with lots of forced movement for added interest. Again, the Dragon archives are looted, this time for the crocotta from #364. I looked it up as this adventure gives you no more than a statblock, I liked what I saw
This predator blends the features of a wild boar and a hyena. Black-spotted brown fur covers its head. Large brown, pitted tusks emerge from its canine jaw. The rest of its body is hairless and covered with hideous, crusty sores. It has a long ratlike tail
For once, the ritual element actually shows up in play too. There’s Yeenoghu’s own claw that reaches through the portal and can make brutal grabs. The shaman gets to direct it too. Plus there’s a skill challenge to overcome the ritual, though I imagine the party will concentrate on the creatures first then take this at their leisure. That’s a result of the games rules and it’s a shame in some ways. I’d love to be able to guarantee the two elements of the encounter, the combat and the challenge, were undertaken at the same time, but it’s simply too ineffective a tactic.
Having mopped up the fortress denizens, here’s where the players have to sit still and listen as you deliver a scene where they can only be spectators. Remember the sword with the spirit in it? It’s been silent this whole time and now it’s time for it to get involved. I won’t spoil the moment, suffice to say that I’ve never been a fan of the enigmatic NPC, I just find them frustrating to narrate or play with. This is no exception, but I sense that everyone is supposed to just go with it and suspend disbelief while they’re packing up their dice and counting their treasure.
Overall: I’m still doubtful, but I’ll give this adventure the benefit. There are parts which I really enjoyed, and then there are the jaw droppingly dumb parts that have been spot welded into the adventure seemingly just to make it part of the Scales of War path. I wouldn’t be surprised if this started life as a Star Wars scenario, and I don’t mean that as a criticism. If you and your group can get past the clunky exposition, then there are some memorable encounters to be had within. Certainly it’s brought the average up after recent installments. Worth a punt.