Well, this is a bit more like it. WotC have never really got the hang of adventures have they? For 4e they’ve come under fire for providing scenarios that read poorly, and appear to have little or no depth beyond a string of combats. Now, I should say up front that my group have been playing the Orcus series for a couple of years now and we really enjoy it. There are many good points in the adventures but due to many factors, presentation being only one, WotC have made them look unappealling. I was beginning to wonder if tthey’d left it too late to win back the module fans like myself.
Two years since the 4e debut, it’s 2010 and we’re now starting to see products coming out of Wizards that show how much the developers have learned since release. The Slaying Stone breaks the traditional mould in a couple of ways: it’s just for a single level, and it’s a really good read. Logan Bonner is the author, and he also wrote King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, an award winning adventure. He was let go by WotC a couple of Christmasses ago, and it’s not obvious whether or not this effort is freelance or just something that took it’s time to come through development. Either way, get this guy doing more please. Thank you.
One of the first things that struck me with The Slaying Stone is the production qualities. It’s full colour throughout (unlike Hammerfast which was a similar size) and it contains a fantastic poster map that covers three locations. This is almost worth the entry price on its own, it’s beautiful and very reusable. Then there’s the stat blocks. These use the new format which can also be seen in Monster Manual 3. I like them, especially for these low level critters. My only wish is that the the attack modifier was bettwer placed, but that’s a minor point. The cover is by Ralph Horsley and it depicts a trio of Iron Defenders running toward the viewer. It’s nice, but bears only a tangential relation to the adventure itself. Instead, take a look at the piece by Howard Lyon on page 7. It represents a huge melee between a party and scads of goblins. It’s awesome and it’s underserved by being used as a quarter page piece of filler art. And then there’s the paper quality. Remember how Keep on the Shadowfell was done on cheap newsprint and it smudged as soon as you looked at it? This beauty is made of sturdier stuff, and it’s stapled together so you don’t have bits of loose paper flapping around. One shame though, they’ve not seen fit to use the inside covers for anything. They could so easily have used that space for some of the excellent call outs contained in the main body of text.
Speaking of which. We get a timeline with a rough series of events. There’s a players map for them to guide their explorations (apparently this is available on the WotC site). There’s also some superb tools right at the back of the book. We get some extra encounters (what we used to call wandering monsters) and a handy parcel and quest checklist. There’s even five player backgrounds custom built for the adventure to really hook in your players. I wonder if there was ever a discussion about including a party of pregens?
And then there’s the adventure itself. The set up is simple enough. There’s a town that was overrun by goblins years ago. Somewhere in those ruins is a powerful magic item, the titular slaying stone. The party will try to retrieve it, but there will be others on it’s trail too. What this means is that we get quite a lot of set up and background explained in the first few pages. There’s the various power groups in the town, and the ways in which they are likely to react to player shenanigans. There’s an overarching skill challenge that represents the party sneaking through town. This has some good advice included about how to get the best out of this rules structure. There’s also two new items for your party, including a 17th level nuke that they really won’t be hanging onto for long.
The encounters are presented in likely order of appearance but the author goes to great lengths to remind us that this is a loose structure, one that will accomodate players taking short cuts, or long ways around. It’s not quite a classic sandbox, but it’s a sharp nod in that direction. After 2 years of playing kick in the door style adventures I’m guessing that this approach might leave my players a bit stranded, but there’s prompts and action scenes available to get things moving if they drag.
The foes are the traditional low level ones: goblins, kobolds and orcs, but they are nicely presented and all have their resaons for being involved. Some of the monsters have been custom built, like the kobold guttersnipes who throw bags of junk at their opponents. The monster bosses get similar treatment, being more than just a collection of powers. Actually, as you read through the book you realise that the author has used ome quite recent stuff in the adventure, like some Arcane Towers dungeon tiles and monsters from MM2 like the ankheg.
One of the set pieces is a negotiation with a brass dragon, again a skill challenge, that’s taken on board the lessons of the last couple of years. It’s nicely done, and gives the DM a chance to get all imperious in front of the party knowing that combat is not going to be a sustainable option. Other set piece encounters are all weighted to be a little challenging but very winnable. Only the final battle is third level, which is entirely appropriate.
You know what? This really is a cracking little adventure. This could also pull double duty as a perfect introduction to D&D (of any edition) as it has all the trademarks of a traditional D&D adventure, sneaky goblins, dungeons, and an actual bona fide dragon! Kudos to Wizards for listening to their fans and (finally) releasing a showstopping adventure. My advice would be to run this for your group as soon as possible, either to reinvigorate their game or to get them off to a superb start.