adventure review

Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

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Expedition to Castle Ravenloft

Author: Bruce R. Cordell & James Wyatt
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publish Date: 10/2006
ISBN: 0-7869-3946-X
Pages: 221
Rating: 6 out of 10
Retail Price: $34.95

In a recent thread regarding the uncertain future of WotC, Fixxxer commented on the drought of new adventures from the publishers of D&D. As it turns out, last summer WotC unveiled their plans for multiple series of adventures, all of which would feature a new more modular format (meaning, among other things, that individual encounters could more easily be taken from the adventure and transplanted into others). Their answer to the doldrums of creativity debuted in Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, and over the next few pages I'll try to address what Wizards did right and what they royally screwed up.

Before we begin, not enough can be said about Bruce Cordell. His masterful touch when it comes to anything Undead was first recognized, if memory serves, in his work on Return to the Tomb of Horrors nearly ten years ago in 1998. More recently, another critical hit was scored with Libris Mortis: The Book of Undead. Make no mistake: Cordell knows horror.

Expedition to Castle Ravenloft is the first in what is presumably a long line of adventures called the Expedition Series, which promises to revisit classic modules remembered both for their ingenuity and replay value. It's unlikely you'll see an Expedition to the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth (no offense, Mr. Gygax) but Ravenloft, considered by many old-school gamers to be the finest module ever published for Dungeons & Dragons, deserves special attention and, yes, a return to the spotlight for a new generation of players. There were a few things Cordell and Wyatt had to address if they wanted to properly pay tribute to such a masterpiece.

First, the fortune telling system turned the idea of what a module was on its head. In the original module, the heroes consulted an old gypsy woman about not only their chances of victory against Count Strahd but also what his intentions and motivations might be. The catch is that every time you played through I6: Ravenloft, the entire outcome of the adventure changed because the answers to the questions the PCs asked were not static. In this new adaptation of the old story, this fortune telling encounter is one of the core attributes of the entire module and, speaking from personal experience, is great fun to roleplay with real Tarot or Three Dragon Ante cards.

Second, the original module's maps for the DM's benefit were not two-dimensional, top-down affairs like in every other adventure. The maps in the original were isometric projections, meaning they were tilted on an axis to give the impression of three dimensions. This, too, made the cut in Expedition to Castle Ravenloft although I have to say some of them are a little difficult to interpret because the hallways and stairwells of the castle, historically accurate though they may be, are very densely arranged. Before you sit down for the first game session, though the PCs' trip to the castle may be weeks away I strongly advise you become intimately familiar with the key and map and make alterations where needed.

What is the most important part of the Ravenloft setting? Fans of the campaign setting, the original modules or even inexperienced gamers who have barely heard of the place will readily answer, "Count Strahd von Zarovich." As the writers insist, "Strahd is the driving force behind everything that goes on in this adventure . . . The PCs come to Barovia because Strahd wants them to. They stay because he will not permit them to leave."1 Strahd is a tragic, all-too-human figure who eerily blurred the line between monster and person in Hickman's original module and in Cordell and Wyatt's retelling of the story, it is clear there is a soft spot in each of their yet-to-be-staked hearts for the guy. If you are concerned the writers would come up short when it came to the primary antagonist, your worries are unfounded.

There are a handful of relics the heroes might find useful in ending Strahd's reign of tyranny, and where to find these items (as well as how to activate their powers) are just some of the hints the fortune telling sequence will reveal to your players. But one pivotal detail that can change each time you run this adventure should be decided on beforehand, and that is what the old bastard really wants. There are half a dozen schemes to choose from that not only influence Strahd's behavior and how other NPCs react to the heroes upon their arrival, but also determine how they are invited to the valley of Barovia in the first place. Of course, I chose zombies because that's just the kind of guy I am. That it was even an option won Expedition to Castle Ravenloft a billion cool points.

Thus far this has been a pretty glowing endorsement but I would be remiss if I didn't touch on some of the areas where the writers struck out. We can start with perhaps the most important part of all, Count Strahd himself: his stat block uses material from Libris Mortis which if you know anything about my tastes really doesn't sit well with me. Not because it is a crummy product; indeed, as I said above, Libris Mortis is awesome and everyone should have it. But because everyone does NOT have it, I would have very much liked to see a Core-only stat block with recommendations for material from other sources, if those are available. Heroes of Horror and the Spell Compendium are also mentioned but only as suggestions; this is what Cordell and Wyatt should have done with all non-Core supplements.

I have conflicting feelings over the new, modular format for encounters introduced in this book. Essentially, for each encounter everything you need to run it can be found on one or two pages. Also, future encounters in the book might reference this one if they are similar enough that you need only make minor alterations to use the same enemies over and over again. For example, early in the adventure there is a ransacked building full of zombie villagers and rats. A few sentences at the end explain that if you want to use this same encounter in a different building somewhere else in the village, just swap out the rats and change a few things about the furniture in the rooms.

This is good and bad. First of all, as Fixxxer pointed out in his review for Scourge of the Howling Horde, some aspects of a monster's stats are summarized or omitted altogether presumably to save space. This is as much the fault of the new encounter format as it is the new stat block format introduced in the DMG II. On the other hand (and this is particularly true for outdoor encounters) rules for unusual terrain like how many squares of movement it takes to wade through a shallow bog or the Balance DC for perching on top of a tombstone during a fight are also provided, and this is due in no small part to the space-saving new stat block format. I am all too familiar with modules where the maps are in a different part of the book from the key or in a separate book altogether, so conveniently having everything in one place is a welcome departure from that tradition.

As you might expect in a product over 200 pages long, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft has its share (some might argue more than its share) of typographical errors as well as the unfortunate occasional mechanical error. For example, I am in fact running this adventure as part of a horror campaign using the Heroes of Horror supplement. That book uses something called Taint, which basically equates evil with a blight on the world that manifests physically when people do bad things. Well, one NPC with a substantial Taint score did not have his physical symptoms listed; I understand that Heroes of Horror is optional here but if you're going to bother to list his score, why not go all the way? These errors are mostly annoying and anyway, I'm a fascist who feels like he has to edit everything to suit his needs so I rewrote a lot of the problem areas of the module even if they were fine. But if you're looking for an adventure you can pick up on Monday, read through during the week and start running on Friday without any additional work, expect some inconsistencies.

Perhaps one of the module's greatest strengths is its adaptability. Not only can you decide how many times you want to use individual encounters or even if you want to lift them, as is, from Expedition to Castle Ravenloft for use in other adventures, how much or little of the entire book you want to use is entirely up to you. I chose to run this as a minicampaign stretching from 6th to 9th level, which means my group will be dealing with Strahd's machinations for at least the next few months of real time.

But there are shorter options: anything from a Halloween one-shot to two months of weekly gaming is acceptable and the writers graciously provide tips on what to put in, what to leave out, and where to begin the adventure depending on how long you want it to be. Of course, Cordell and Wyatt also gave tips on how to kick the adventure off in various campaign settings and even some helpful advice on alterations you should make if running the adventure for a d20 Modern game! If one part of this entire product makes the cut for future releases I hope it is this adaptability.

A product from Wizards of the Coast would not be complete without new, "crunchy" material. Surprisingly enough, for such a magic-oriented plotline only one spell was introduced (and even it appeared first in other supplements) but twenty new magic items and three new artifacts play both minor and major roles in the adventure. I should say a word here about two specific items, the Sunsword and Holy Symbol of Ravenkind. Rules introduced in the Weapons of Legacy supplement are adapted for use here for both items but, in their wisdom, the writers also included non-Legacy versions of the items for use during the adventure.

Finally, a new prestige class (the Knight of the Raven) is introduced; which in my opinion is far too powerful as-is, considering how easy it is to qualify for, but almost all of its special abilities are undead-centric and if this is the only part of your campaign where that creature type plays a role, I guess the impact won't be too severe. There are also a few alternative class features for PCs in a new organization called the Lightbringers that, similarly, are quite powerful against the undead but practically useless in other situations. Caveat emptor.

In closing, this is an absolute beast of an adventure and "minicampaign," for the full 20-session version, is an understatement. As I said before, do not expect to run this without doing your homework; I suggest reading the module from cover to cover at least twice then working extensively to ensure the parts you want to use for your campaign are in working order. Despite the omnipresent specter of "BUY OTHER BOOKS WE HAVE PUBLISHED," I believe as much was done as possible to make the module adaptable and, most importantly, enjoyable. My group is having loads of fun with it so far and I think yours will too, but I only recommend Expedition to Castle Ravenloft to very experienced DMs with mature players.

1 Bruce Cordell and James Wyatt, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft (Renton: Wizards of the Coast, 2006), 13

The Burning Plague

The Burning Plague

Author: Miguel Duran
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Level: 4-6/ 1st level PCs
ISBN: N/A
Pages: 11
Rating: 9 out of 10
Retail Price: Free

The Burning Plague is a free adventure available from the Wizards of the Coast website. It is suitable for a party of 1st level PCs and seems to be written with a new DM in mind. The basic premise of the adventure is that a small town has begun feeling the effects of a strange disease, which is killing off some of the weak and young. All signs point to a nearby mine, from which the miners haven’t returned. Obviously, the miners are all dead, killed at the hands of a band of kobold raiders, who have also begun dying from this strange sickness. The sickness is being spread by an orc cleric with a beef against the town. In a perfect world, the PCs show up, eliminate the kobold threat and kill the orc cleric, thus dispelling the effects of the magical disease he was spreading.

I have run The Burning Plague twice, for two separate groups of players. Both times, the group really seemed to enjoy the adventure. One of the two times, I used the adventure as a backdrop for bringing the party together, which was done by having two of the PCs hired to help, one of the PCs as a friend to a lost miner and one of the PCs as a town local. This helped the story along in quite a few ways.

The adventure was written for version 3.0, though requires little to no addition to make it playable under 3.5. In fact, the few tiny errors in the writing lead me to believe that the adventure may have been at least partially written before the release of 3.0 entirely. For example, the open lock skill is referred to as “Open Locks” and the mayor of the town is listed as being a “Nob5” instead of “Ari5.” It seems a safe bet to assume that these are no errors so much as things that were changed prior to the system release.

On the whole, the adventure is pretty good. There are few plot holes that a good DM couldn’t cover up and the story is fairly believable. The only real issue I take with the adventure is that the disease is extremely easy for a PC with a low Fortitude save to contract, and difficult for them to throw off. At 1d4 Con damage per day, it can be a potential killer for 1st level PCs that are forced to rest between encounters.

Still, I’d wholeheartedly recommend The Burning Plague for any DM. The obvious benefit is that it’s a free download, so the group has more money to spend on snacks. A secondary benefit is that it is short enough that the group is not likely to gain a level during the adventure, so it makes for a good means for the party to gain a little bit of XP before they move on to a bigger, tougher adventure. Another benefit is that it’s written with a new DM in mind, as it constantly points things out and gives the DM reminders that generally aren’t present in higher-level adventures. Lastly, it’s just a well-written story that has the potential to spawn several dozen plot hooks.

The Sunless Citadel

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The Sunless Citadel

Author: Bruce R. Cordell
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Level: 4 1st level PCs
ISBN: 0-7869-1640-0
Pages: 32
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $14.95

The Sunless Citadel is the first in a series of adventures designed to take an average party from 1st level to 20th level. It was released almost simultaneously with the release of 3.0 D&D. As such, it’s written for version 3.0, and requires a few minor changes to make it compatible with version 3.5. The adventure is suitable for four characters of 1st level, and should advance such a party to 2nd or even 3rd level before the adventure’s end.

The rundown is that the town of Oakhurst lies within a short distance of an old castle. This castle used to be home to an ancient dragon cult, but sank into a ravine that opened in the earth beneath it. Goblin banditry in the area has grown so bad that the old road that used to pass by the castle has fallen into disuse. A number of plot hooks are offered, but the one most likely to used for parties not native to Oakhurst is that two teenage children from an important merchant family decided to try their hand at adventuring and took off for the citadel. They have not returned, and their mother offers the PCs a reward for finding them (or bringing back their rings so she has the peace of mind to know they’re dead). The search is complicated due to the fact that a tribe of kobolds has made the citadel their residence, resulting in a guerrilla war between the kobold tribe and a tribe of goblins. To make matters worse, an evil druid inhabits a cavern beneath the citadel, breeding strange plant creatures. If things go smoothly, the PCs ally with the kobold tribe and receive information and a measure of assistance to help them defeat or bypass the goblin tribe. After this, they confront the druid and destroy his local power source.

I have participated in The Sunless Citadel both as a player and as a DM. It’s an extremely easy adventure to run as a DM because it was designed to aid a new DM and help teach him the rules of the game. As a player, it can be somewhat of a challenge, if not handled with the utmost care, but there is plenty of reward to justify the challenge.

I’d definitely recommend The Sunless Citadel to any DM, especially one new to the game. It requires a little bit of updating to make it compatible with version 3.5, but such work is worth it for the adventure that would result. Players new to the game should also get a real benefit from the adventure, since it provides a good mix of challenges that compliment the abilities of just about every character class. Additionally, if they look closely, the PCs might find a built-in lead to the next adventure in the series, The Forge of Fury.

The Ruins of Rackfall

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The Ruins of Rackfall

Author: Jarad Fennell
Publisher: Monkeygod Enterprises
Level: 4 7th level PCs
ISBN: 0-9708094-8-4
Pages: 36
Rating: 3 out of 10
Retail Price: $9.95

The Ruins of Rackfall is an adventure written for D&D version 3.0 by Monkeygod Enterprises. It is suitable for a party of 7th level characters. The basic premise of the adventure is that a woman named Alistene Krineweld has disappeared under obviously bad circumstances. The city she lived in is extremely xenophobic to anyone except humans, so her husband, being an elf, has been tried and convicted of her murder. Unfortunately for him, he’s innocent, though no one except his personal assistant believes him. The truth of the matter is that Alistene has been kidnapped by a barghest with a small army of goblins under his control. Upset over her husband’s constant infidelity, she has allowed herself to be seduced by the creature and has no desire to return home.

Should things go their way, the PCs should become involved and after a bit of investigation, be put on the trail of the real kidnapper, who currently resides in an ancient dwarven stronghold a week away from town in the mountains. After making it through the trials posed by their journey, they will have to sneak into the fortress without giving their presence away, locate Alistene and somehow convince her to sneak away with them to liberate her husband from the hangman’s noose.

This adventure was written for version 3.0, so will require some degree of work to update it to version 3.5. Unfortunately, an interested DM will also have his work cut out for him figuring out fixes for some of the bad mechanics the adventure includes. For example, at one point, the adventure calls for a “speak goblin language skill check, DC 12.” Additionally, there are areas of the adventure that show an ineptitude on the author’s part. There are places in the flavor text that tell the players how their PCs are supposed to feel and in one place, the PCs’ guide tells them he’s “never been this far upriver,” yet a few days further up the river, he’s able to lead them to their destination flawlessly.

I think the adventure might be worth the work for a DM that is confident enough with his knowledge of the rules to both update the adventure and correct the errors. For anyone that is looking for an easy, “plug and play” adventure, though, I’d suggest skipping The Ruins of Rackfall.

A Lion In The Ropes

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A Lion In The Ropes

Author: Stephen Chenault
Publisher: Troll Lord Games
Level: 4-8/ 2-4 level PCs
ISBN: 0-9702397-5-0
Pages: 22
Rating: 8 out of 10
Retail Price: $6.00

A Lion In The Ropes is an adventure written shortly after the release of D&D version 3.0 and published by Troll Lord Games. It is set in a specific campaign world, called Erde, though there was little campaign-specific material, and nothing that couldn’t be easily changed. The adventure is suitable for 4-8 characters of 2nd to 4th level.

The adventure takes place within an area roughly five miles square that contains three neighboring villages. Within recent months, people have come up missing, only to have their mutilated bodies found later, washed up on the bank of a local river. The villagers have found large feline footprints in the area and have reason to believe that a cat-like demon is stalking the area. At the same time, unquiet spirits begin manifesting themselves at a local cathedral, unbeknownst to the villagers. Finally, a bandit lord and his followers have recently moved into the area and are terrorizing the local roads. The only source of security the three village have is their protector lord, who is protector in name only, since he is now at the venerable age of 101. Clearly, brave heroes are needed in the area.

This adventure was interesting to me because unlike the average adventure, there is more than one issue happening simultaneously. These issues confuse and blend with each other, making the situation seem a bit more real and less scripted. I had few negative issues with the adventure, with the only one of note being the inclusion of a non-core race called ungern, which I imagine must be specific to the setting this adventure was written for. If it bothers the DM as it bothers me, it would be a simple matter to replace the ungern bandits with orcs.

All in all, I’d say that A Lion In The Ropes is a pretty complete adventure. It might be a little bit tough for the minimum given party structure (four 2nd level PCs), but such a party is almost guaranteed to advance in level by the end of the adventure. With a minimal amount of work, A Lion In The Ropes could be suited to just about any gaming group, and I would definitely consider running it in my own game.

Scourge of the Howling Horde

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Scourge of the Howling Horde

Author: Gwendolyn F. M. Kestrel
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Level: 1st level PCs
ISBN: 0-7869-3935-4
Pages: 32
Rating: 6 out of 10
Retail Price: $14.95

The Scourge of the Howling Horde is a fairly new adventure from Wizards of the Coast, built specifically for introducing new DMs and new players to the game. Unless I miss my guess, this is the second non-campaign-specific adventure that Wizards of the Coast has released since the 3.5 update, with the first being Expedition to Castle Ravenloft. The adventure is designed for a 1st level party, though I can’t see the need for much change if a 2nd level party were to run through it.

Being an introductory adventure, the premise is extremely basic. Goblins are terrorizing a local village and a call for brave heroes has been put out. I would like to have seen other plot hooks, especially considering that the target audience is new DMs, but if the DM is as green as the adventure seems to indicate, then plot hooks are the last thing they need to worry about. The basic plot continues with the goblins being under the control of a dragon that is making them terrorize the village to increase her holdings. Add to that the fact that the meat of the adventure takes place in a cave and you’ve got an extremely basic, if somewhat generic plot.

While the adventure’s simplicity is really good for new players and DMs, I do have two complaints. The first is that there are several minor errors in many of the stat blocks, stemming mostly from the fact that the opponents are pulled from the Monster Manual, but then advanced or changed without the blocks being properly updated (this is most evident in the skill selections). This probably wouldn’t be noticed by a new DM, and probably wouldn’t be much of a problem during the course of the adventure (except perhaps for the dragon’s stats, which give her an attack bonus 2 points higher than it should be), but this is exactly the sort of thing I would have hoped the designers would have been careful to avoid, given that new DMs trying desperately to understand the rules are going to be running this adventure. My second complaint is that the designers took great pains to make each section fit on a single page. While this sounds like a good idea, the problem stems from the fact that the stat blocks -already the “new” format that I hate- have been condensed further, which includes the removal of hit dice and some skill information. This could be a problem for a new DM, since some spells that the party might have access to (namely sleep) require the DM to know how many HD are present in the area.

This adventure is not without its problems (mostly present in stat blocks), but its simple design is probably more of a boon than a hindrance, given the target audience. A new DM that wanted to learn more about monster stats could easily make his bones correcting the minor errors in the stat blocks. The adventure constantly points out page listings for related topics (such as locations in the Monster Manual or where to find information about damage reduction), which would be very useful to a new DM. At the end of the day, I think the good outweighs the bad, and so long as the reader is willing to take a bit of initiative to correct the stat blocks, this adventure could be a great starting point for a group of new players.

Galal's Grave

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Galal's Grave

Author: Jaimie Lloyd
Publisher: Troll Lord Games
Level: 4 1st level PCs
ISBN: 1-931275-00-9
Pages: 22
Rating: 2 out of 10
Retail Price: $6.00

Galal’s Grave is a short adventure written for version 3.0, the first such adventure published by Fiend Games. It is suitable for a 1st level party of adventurers. The adventure has a very “1st edition” feel, in that there is less logical lead-up to the how and why of things and more of an assumption that the PCs will go here and do this just because that’s how the adventure plays out. To be honest, this did not endear the adventure to me at all.

The basic idea of the adventure is that the tomb of a hero lies nearby and is apparently just begging to be plundered. A handful of hooks are given to introduce the PCs to the fact that the tomb is nearby, but there is only one such hook that actually gives them reason to go check it out. Unfortunately, this hook is the oft-overused “bigger, stronger, more powerful NPC that could take the entire party without breaking a sweat needs the party to do this thing for him.” Along the way, several potential reasons for the party to get involved are suggested at, but the only one that the adventure actually uses is that an evil being placed a curse upon the tomb and only by venturing inside and removing the physical object of this curse can it be lifted.

In truth, there is very little to this adventure. It’s so short it could easily be run start to finish in a single three-hour session. The history of the adventure location makes heavy use of world-known events that a DM might not want involved with his own game world. Last, the adventure is extremely wishy-washy about just about everything, from why the PCs are involved to who or what the opposing protagonist is. There is one small redeeming quality, however. The adventure includes a number of new monsters which, while needing updating to be brought up to 3.5 standards, don’t seem to be very poorly designed at all.

If you run a game where the PCs go places and do things because that’s how the adventure is written, or if you just want a very basic one-shot adventure to run for a new group, Galal’s Grave could be an interesting choice. Personally, though, I don’t think I’ll ever be running this adventure for a group myself.

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