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.
There are a couple of points the DM must hit early on, the first being an appearance by an NPC with a big part to play later on. Captain Aerun is leading work teams to fortify the city, and it’s vital he chats to the party as they approach. If you’ve got this far through my review you’ll know there are plenty of spoilers, prepare yourselves for more. The good captain is one of the possessed, so now you know. The author adopts a conversational tone in this section, and it’s one I appreciate. It’s like a chat between one DM and another, with gentle advice and reminders about time keeping. It makes it an easier read, less textbook like and more like an unfolding tale. As the adventure begins the party will be hooked into investigating the disappearance of a priest, Haelyn. There’s lots of flavour describing the parties wandering through town, most of which flag up later events. This is good to see. Too often the plot and the bad guys are only known to the DM and arrive as a total surprise to the players. These little signs and portents give the adventure just that little more depth and richness. For example, in a conversation with a priest she mentions four other priests and their gods by name. This fills in a little bit of the world’s background, and in fact becomes part of the adventure’s foreground later on. Very subtle, and very clever. Finally in this intro Ari (can I call you Ari?) advises that the party don’t adopt violence as their first and only solution to any obstacles they encounter in the city. This is backed up by a priest of Erathis. I sense this advice might need underlining, we’ve just had 8 levels of (largely) hack and slash encounters where extreme violence is not only necessary but encouraged. Still, maybe your players are more diplomatic than mine!
Actually this is a genuine concern. The investigation is reliant on groups that are proactive, observant and perceptive, and that’s just the players. Even the DM gets a cheat sheet to stay on top of the clues, and that means the players will need to be the sort that takes notes. For example, the scene in the Stone Anvil needs characters who will question NPCs about the untidiness of the place. That’s pretty subtle, especially for the type of D&D experience exemplified by the rest of the path so far. Your players will also need good memories. They meet Megan Swiftblade at the temple of Moradin. She is the leader of the Freeriders, and it’s been a while since they’ve encountered them. It’s good to see these ties to previous instalments though, so it’s not a criticism. Similarly there’s a run in with one of the Ironfell clan (last seen in Lost Mines of Karak). This is another chance for interaction with the world and the city, good to see.
Another neat story trick is at the Shrine of Erathis. There’s plenty of adventure to be had with a visit. There’s NPCs to talk to, body language to decipher and, if you can do it, good reason to return at night looking for mischief. Should that happen you’ll be reaching for the battlemat for the first time in the adventure. In this way the location gets a double dip, and the tactical map reflects that with forces and dispositions marked according to the way the characters approach the scene. Already I’m getting a sense that this isn’t a run of the mill adventure, and all the better for that.
There’s also a second bite of the cherry with Captain Aerun if the characters decide to go to the authorities. He tries to give them the brush off, but it allows the PCs a first real chance to sense that something is afoot. In fact, it’s essential that they follow up on these suspicions in order to get a full idea of what’s actually happening. As DM you’ll need to keep an eye of the mood at the table and keep the party interested without them getting too interested, not at all easy! There is another way to proceed through the plot, and that comes from a successful fight off with some would be ambushers. So there’s actually two ways to proceed, one with combat, one without, and that’s good design.
All this preamble leads to the heart of the conspiracy, the pursuit of the false High Priest. This is handled by means of a juicy skill challenge. It’s only a mid complexity challenge but there’s plenty of meat on the bones. There’s results for partial victory available, so it’s as much about quality as quantity. Defeat has real consequences, with a harder encounter (significantly so) but with added time to the investigation which will really matter in the latter stages of the adventure.
One way or another the story will end up in a warehouse, as these things often do in urban investigations. It’s bound to come to blows and the PCs previous actions will determine exactly how hard this fight will be. The tactical map takes in the whole warehouse and it gets a full page in the PDF too. Again the author uses multiple colours to show possible enemy placements, and there’s plenty of fun to be had with the terrain too. I really like this encounter. It reminds me of Warhammer scenarios in that it’s not too out there with bizarre monsters and such, it’s a bit more down to earth but definitely fantasy. Grim and gritty? Yeah, that’s it. Should the party prevail there’s a chance to get a fuller picture of what’s going on by interrogating the survivors. In fact, that’s called out as a valid tactic earlier in the adventure too and it’s good to see provision for multiple play approaches.
There’s a rescue to perform, as the real High Priest is under the warehouse. To reach him, the PCs must get past a nasty trap. The stats for this are in the main body of the adventure, not in the tactical section which is a formatting decision I like. It’s rare to see standalone traps in 4e, and frankly I miss them. Played right they can be a good change of pace and fully engaging at the same time. This is a neat one, it’s obviously to see, in fact you can’t miss it, but it needs creativity and some good rolls to defeat. This could have been a skill challenge I guess, but it works really well as it is. Once freed, the High Priest (or his spirit if things went awry) will fill in all the knowledge gaps and provide the impetus for the party to get to the Mountainroot temple and take on the usurpers. To get there the party will have to return to the Stone Anvil and figure out the portal contained in the sepulcher.
The advice given is to draw out the map at this point as it’s difficult to envision. He’s not kidding. I’ve criticised the previous adventures for including maps that are difficult to recreate on your table. I could do the same here, but I think it would be churlish to do so. The maps are lovely and, crucially, they really help get across the flavour. This particular map has a look reminiscent of the teeth in cogs, it’s all very in keeping. I wonder what the system is at WotC with writers and cartographers? The portal is dealt with by way of skill challenge, with failure meaning brute force is the only option, and the adventure provides interesting opponents in the shape of animated chains. The skill challenge and the potential combat are heavily linked which makes this so much more than just a sequence of discreet encounters.
Next: Hotel California