This is a big section, clocking in at 18 pages. It’s essentially a stand alone episode, as most of them are. The ‘in’ is that this is where the baddies are putting all the loot they’ve gathered (for now), so finally the party can take some kind of proactive action to take the fight to the Cult. The ‘out’ I’ll come to later.
This castle is sat in the middle of the Mere of Dead Men, and it’s seen better days. There’s some history behind the crumbling pile, and it’s all evocative enough, and explains why there’s an old observatory on the top of it. Running around in this episode are at least three factions of bad guys; the Cult of the Dragon, some indentured Bullywugs, and a meek tribe of Lizardfolk. There’s also a big old black dragon lurking around, though mainly in the background. These factions all have bonds, but they’re straining. Now, reviewers tend to love stuff like this. It stops the episode being static, and drives events on spurring parties to action. While that’s all true, it also serves to make the sessions that bit trickier for the DM to handle. Rather than taking things one discreet location at a time, you have to allow for movement, timing and agendas. It’s good to see it allowed for, expected even, but don’t be surprised if a lot of that good reading never really gets the spotlight time it deserves.
Here’s an issue. Unless I’ve missed it, and I’ve gone back through the text a few times, they don’t tell you where to find the chief NPC in the castle. The other sub-chief is listed. And then there are two big-chiefs that don’t have a home but we are told will run for safety during a confrontation. All that prep text, and all that conditional advice, and it’s let down by the basics of placing the obstacles in the right places in the text. Where are they?!
Also, and this is just odd, rather than a difficulty, only some of the locations get boxed text, seemingly at random. The boxes simply stop half way through the ground floor locations. Again I have to ask, was the editor asleep on the job? Some of these parts would really benefit from a box out, yet they’re strangely abandoned. Odd.
I say all this because the Castle’s three levels and one dungeon are laid out in the standard keyed manner, and in my experience, that can mean parties adopting a room by room clearance approach. The Castle gives them lots to explore, and some interesting scenes to chew on. Interestingly, not everything is immediately hostile, and it’s largely a judgement call as to when the bad guys wake up to the presence of the good guys and do something about it. There will come a time when there’s a running battle through the castle (again, easy to say, trickier in practice) and as soon as that happens the rest of the castle will be left behind. That’s the ‘out’ I mentioned up-post, the party will head through a portal at the finale which draws a line under their previous movements.
Good stuff? There’s actually loads. The castle is nicely put together and feels like a living. breathing environment that has been affected by the inhabitants presence. Some of the foes are classic D&D fare, and that’s what you want from an adventure. There’s allowance made for various ways to approach this situation, even if the finale is inevitable in a sense. And the maps actually line up with the text for once (the first one is misaligned though, it needs rotating 90 degrees).
Bad stuff? The lack of definition of major NPCs is becoming an ongoing annoyance now. Despite all the good work on factions and background, it’s wasted if you never encounter it. Also, I think this is going to be a serious challenge for any party, purely from an attrition point of view. This is a big location, and it needs solving in one go. The party are likely to take a battering and there are not many places of safety to hole up. With the magic item famine (I mean really? there’s been a handful of potions and we are five levels in at this point) the odds are stacked against the party.
Overall: my interest has been grabbed back to this adventure after a couple of dodgy opening episodes. This seems to be the meat of the adventure, and there’s loads to do here. Without an actual run through I’m just estimating the episode’s quality if I’m honest. Would I run it? Yes. I’d like to see how it goes. That’s a positive.
Next: Episode 7, Hunting Lodge