The Worst Adventure Ever: Shadowdale, chapter five

Ride, ride, ride along the railroad tracks...Chapter 5 is essentially the insurance chapter to make sure the PCs are following the plot. It’s even got events planned specifically to keep them on the intended course. As always, in order to actually create a story of their own, the DM and players have to rely on random encounters.

I’ve suggested that these modules are the worst ever, but I guess in a way they could be seen as the perfect modules – not in terms of fun, but in terms of defining the difference between AD&D 1st and 2nd editions. 1st edition was all about exploration and dungeon crawling. There was very little in terms of an overarching plot and the world was built slowly. A lot of times, folks would play without a setting at all – just a dungeon and a loosely-defined home town. 2nd edition is the edition for those who love campaign settings. The Forgotten Realms hit the height of its popularity then, and innovative settings such as Dark Sun and Planescape came about. The adventures became more about heroism on an epic scale. But, at the same time, the settings got routinely demolished by novels, which TSR ranked as their big money-makers. Dark Sun was totally redesigned in the span of five books that came out immediately after its release. The Realms got wrecked numerous times, so much so that it became a tradition that remains even today. Even when the PCs pursued these epic adventures, TSR’s official canon was constantly determined by novels. Case in point: Dead Gods, a Planescape adventure. The PCs, if they win, prevent the resurrection of the demon lord Orcus. Except that later publications established Orcus’s resurrection as canon. So even if the PCs saved the day, the official material for D&D undoes their achievement.

These modules are a bridge between AD&D editions in more ways than one. They’re meant to provide a transition rules-wise, but they also highlight the shift in publication style for TSR in this era. The random encounters have a number of different solutions to them and can be a lot of fun, a la the old dungeons of 1st edition. But they don’t have any effect on the plot. The actual plot events are rigid – the PCs can’t change them, largely because they’re based on novels that became a part of the official Forgotten Realms canon. They’re effectively the more story-based adventures of 2nd edition, taken to such an extreme that the PCs have no leeway at all.

That synopsis is probably not fair to 2nd edition AD&D, which I do think was a legitimate improvement over 1st edition system-wise and flavor-wise. But the edition happened to occur in the era of Lorraine Williams’ run as CEO of TSR, during which time she regularly produced products that took a big ol’ dump on long-time gamers and ran the company into bankruptcy as a result. 2nd edition had great ideas, but often poor follow-up…a lot like these modules.

Personal rant aside, let’s get back to Shadowdale…if you dare.

Event 1: Darviathar the Just
You hear a thunder of hooves in the distance, fast approaching. A moment later, a large white charger canters into view, ridden by a tall man in full plate armor. He carries a long lance, and the shield strapped to his saddle displays a silver gauntlet holding golden scales, with a sword in one balance and a white-and-silver star in the other, all on a dark gray field.

The horse comes to a sudden, powerful halt without command. The man leans forward, raising his visor, and says in a deep, rolling voice, “Are you the heroes to whom the Great Guardian spoke? Seek you the twin Tablets of Fate?”

This is Darviathar the Just. He’s here to make sure the PCs follow the plot or else. He’s a 14th-level paladin – remember that the module is for PCs of 5th to 8th level, so he’s at minimum six levels higher than the heroes. Turns out that Helm has sent angels to his paladin to tell them of his orders to the PCs to seek out the Tablets of Fate. This event is only supposed to be played if the PCs choose not to follow Midnight to Shadowdale. Darviathar shows up and tries to convince them otherwise. If they still ignore the quest he attacks them. And that just makes no sense.

Darviathar is a paladin. Paladins are supposed to be the ultimate good guys – the guys who will do right and set an example for others. Nowhere in a paladin’s ethos is it okay to slaughter a party of adventurers just because they don’t follow through with a holy quest that was forced on them. And again, it’s not like denying this quest is necessarily an evil act. Going back to Wembley the Wizard, we’re talking about a guy with 13 hit points who has legitimate reason to fear house cats and whose magic is about 70% likely to misfire in some way, shape, or form. Is he really going to want to throw his life away battling gods, especially now that the goddess who controls all magic in the Forgotten Realms has been killed by the same douche who handed down this quest?

Darviathar is also 14th level. That’s dragon-slaying level, easily. If this quest is so holy, why doesn’t he undertake it? It’s his own freakin’ god that has personally handed down this quest. As a high-level paladin, he should be chomping at the bit to solve the problem.

So that’s it…the PCs have to join or get attacked by Darviathar, the worst paladin ever. And he’s just the first paladin of Helm who found the PCs; the assumption, I believe, is that even if the heroes manage to somehow defeat Darviathar, there are more troops on the way.

Event 2: Warning from on High
A lone flying creature can be seen behind you, high up and approaching swiftly. It soon grows large enough for you to see that it is a woman in dark leather armor riding a Pegasus. The woman needs no reins, and has a sword but no helm or other gear. Her long hair streams behind her in the wind of her passage; upon seeing you she leans forward to urge her mount down.

The Pegasus swoops, and the woman calls, “Ride hard! On, east! The wraiths of the Dark Gods follow behind you!”

This event is a reminder that in the Forgotten Realms, your heroes are nothing special. The rider, Laerlee, has nothing to do with the plot. She is a 7th-level fighter, easily a match for anyone in the party, but she also rides a pegasus. She’s just there to swoop in and warn the PCs about a group of wraiths approaching, and then she flies off. And the PCs had better run – if they don’t, they are attacked by 32 wraiths each carrying a sword with continual darkness cast on it. Wraiths can drain levels permanently – that party of 5th to 8th level characters can quickly become a party of 1st to 2nd level characters with a few lucky hits.

This seems to be the extent of the events in this chapter so far: either the PCs do what the NPCs tell them, or they get killed.

Event 3: Journey Overland
“The PCs can choose any route they wish from Castle Kilgrave to Shadowdale. The Great Desert, Anauroch, and the Stonelands that lie between it and Cormyr, are extremely inhospitable places. The Stonelands harbor strong goblin tribes, troll bands, brigans, and any solitary monsters a DM desires; the desert has lamia (with leucrotta infesting the Desertsedge) and sandstorms.”

This is actually a pretty decent, if vague, section that runs very counter to the rest of the module’s thinking. The PCs finally get to make a meaningful choice – which of the multitude of ways to get from Castle Kilgrave to Shadowdale will they take? The back of the module provides a map of the area and a brief description of the lands the PCs will be traveling through, so even those unfamiliar with the Forgotten Realms will have some idea of what’s what. This is the type of thing I like in modules: set up the possibilities and then let the players choose the course. This marks the second event in the module that I’ve liked.

Event 4: Darkness Reaches for Midnight
Off to the left you hear a sudden howl, followed by an angry barking. The howl is answered from nearby on your right, and from farther off dead ahead. The barking grows louder, and then dogs burst into view: large, snarling, wearing spiked collars, charging you, teeth bared.

And we’re back on the rails again. The dogs are specially trained war dogs who can’t be charmed or persuaded not to attack, so if you’re playing a druid or ranger or someone whose schtick is working with animals, you’ve just had a special ability yanked from you. They’re led by a group of fighters who have swords coated with paralyzing poison. The fighters are commanded by clerics of Bane who are out to capture Midnight. But once again, the actual actions of the PCs don’t matter: “This ought to be a serious fight for the PC’s [sic], but Bane should not be able to steal Midnight away at this point.” Even if the attackers capture Midnight, she winds up escaping after the fight and returning to the party. So really, this whole encounter is designed just to beat on the PCs, again. The plot will remain unaffected regardless.

Event 5: Sage Advice
A stooped, middles aged [sic] man wearing tattered russet robes and large, clumsy-looking leather boots is sitting on a rock, peering at the woods around him in a relaxed sort of way, and whistling as he puffs on a pipe – the source of the curious sound you hear.

This fellow is Mathal Durshavin, a 0-level human sage who is here as an information dump to fill the PCs in about the Time of Troubles. He ran into a Harper not long ago who relayed to him a description of her meeting with the Mielikki, the goddess of unicorns and the wild. If the PCs choose to attack Mathal, he flings a necklace of fireballs at them for 9d6 damage (an average of 31-32 hit points, half if a PC makes his save – even on a successful save, Wembley the Wizard is a dead man). Friendly PCs, on the other hand, can get some aid from Mathal as he tells them the location of some nearby edible healing plants.

Event 6: The Blackhand
You are crossing an empty clearing when you notice something small and black hanging motionless in mid-air ahead, invisible amid the trees from afar. It looks like a black, long-fingered human right hand. A needle-fanged mouth suddenly appears in its palm as it floats fingers uppermost, palm open toward you. It speaks, in a hissing whisper.

This is an illusory hand of Bane that tells the PCs to turn back, except for Midnight, who should ride on. When the PCs refuse (they pretty much have to, since the adventure doesn’t describe what happens if Midnight rides on without them), they have to fight some skeletons. Pretty simple encounter, but it serves as a reminder that this Bane guy is really annoying.

That’s it for events in this chapter. Of the encounters, the most notable one is a magical rift that forms out of nowhere, causing whatever enemies are fighting the PCs to flee – one of the few reprieves the module gives them. What’s really notable about the encounter, though, is that Elminster, the 26th-level magic-user the PCs are looking for, pops out of nowhere, closes the rift, and then disappears again. “Elminster will ignore any PC attempts to talk to him, and will not tarry. PC spells intended to trace, stop, or attack him will have no effect, or will go awry.”

Frankly, Elminster popping up in an adventure is usually a bad idea. The Forgotten Realms boxed set expounds on how reclusive the old mage is and how difficult he is to contact. And it’s annoying as a player to see the wizard show up out of nowhere, save the day, and then disappear – it’s one of those reminders that the game designers like to put in that the Forgotten Realms has NPC heroes who are way cooler and more capable than your PC ever will be. What’s doubly annoying about this encounter is that if Elminster would stop to listen for five seconds, the adventure could move on – the whole travel to Shadowdale is specifically to seek him out.

This encounter is actually plucked right from the Shadowdale novel, where Midnight and her friends accidentally create a rift that Elminster shows up to close. (Midnight is the main character of the novels, by the way…apparently, she’s the main character of these modules, too.) That doesn’t absolve this scene, though. Good fiction (not that Shadowdale is generally considered good fiction, anyway) does not always make a good RPG.

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