Pyramid of Shadows is another in the WotC published adventure series that comes in for plenty of criticism. As with my other reviews, I want to redress that balance, by focussing on the positive elements of the module, and there really are plenty of those.
The similarities with the old school module S2: White Plume Mountain are striking. It’s by no means a blow by blow remake, but it does share some of the same design approaches. It’s essentially a big multilevel dungeon made up of discreet encounters that throw logic and realism out of the (non existent) window. It’s all held together by an artifact and the designs of a crazy wizard, much like S2. I’d certainly call it a homage, in the same way as H1 nodded towards B2, and H2 with D1-3. That’s a lot of numbers, but I think you know what I mean! The module is authoured by Mike Mearls and James Wyatt (not Chris Sims as in the picture to the left), two guys unafraid to get old school mentalities with their new school mechanics. Frankly, it’s an approach I admire. Having said that, I think it was never going to be a crowd pleaser. The old schoolers were never going to pick up 4e mods by this point, and the 4e fans would perhaps have preferred something a little more, well, modern.
The titular pyramid is an extradimensional prison for a mad wizard by the name of Karavakos. Once you’re in, you’re staying in. For the party that means you’ll be living in rooms and corridors for 4 levels of play. Knowing that in advance would help take away the sting. The encounters are good, sometimes very good, but 4 levels of similar play is perhaps pushing peoples tolerance too far? A popular conversion of this module is to break it up into 3 mini dungeons and set them in the main world. That works pretty well actually, and allows for travel and rest without having to write up swathes of new material.
The back story is not terribly important, but it does all come out in play. That’s not always the case in adventures. The way this is achieved is by having Karavokos himself make 4 seperate appearances in the dungeon. Again, too often adventures have the big bad show up in the last 30 minutes of the adventure, get 6 rounds of combat and that’s all she wrote. So in this one, you get a chance to monologue as the DM, and to build up your vengeance meter as a pc. The catalyst is presented in the form of an artifact (the first seen in the series). The artifact contains the essence of the wizards old partner, Vyrellis. She doesn’t have scads of cool powers, that’s not really her function. Instead she gets to be a maddening, or ingratiating, presence in the party. My party all had different reactions to her. She eventually ended up swapping possession 3 times, but then found a kindred soul in Raeltos, our tiefling starlock. I really enjoyed playing her, and the party definitely got more out of the adventure for her inclusion. Possibly her finest moment comes when the party encounter her headless body, which lurches to the attack. It’s a tough fight, made memorable by a screaming artifact who needs to be killed to be saved. It makes sense when you see it.
You really can take the pyramid a single encounter at a time. Once the players let you know what direction they’re heading in, your prep work becomes trivially easy. Which means you can then concentrate of getting all the flavour into the game that you can. There’s a menagerie feel, you’ll encounter loads of different monsters and traps along the way. It continues the ‘D&D guided tour’ feel of the series so far.
An ettin with a head in a bag.
A pit full of carrion crawlers
Underwater chambers, with water pipes full of lizards
A revolving corridor with a nasty surprise at the bottom.
An entirely new race, the Arboreans, that you can make extinct if you so wish
An angry boar in a hedge maze
Teleport and flame jet rooms, overseen by bandits
A werewolf in a cell, but not for long.
A succubus just sitting and waiting to see a pc walk in.
Vecna’s minions, who turn out to be like ninja librarians
A mezzodemon popsicle
Flameskulls and mirrors
A medusa with her blind bodyguard.
An encounter inside the exploded body of a mind flayer. That’s right.
A white dragon, guarded by icy eladrin cultists
A cemetary full of undead, within the dungeon itself
Mirror image minions, all scattered over the nicest poster map yet.
Many, if not all of these encounters are very nicely put together indeed. The monsters synergise with the locations and each other, with plenty of traps to keep the combats fresh. The story, such as it is, works on whatever level your group is happy with. There’s room to play the factions off against each other, or to ignore that and just kick in some doors. At the end of it, there will be an audible sigh of relief from your group. It’s a slog, but it’s worth it in the end. My players certainly got a sense of achievement out of it, and plenty of good gaming memories too.