The Worst Adventure Ever: Shadowdale, chapter one

Not exactly an epic start to an epic adventure.The year was 1989, and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was hitting its second edition. The game was being sanitized – no more demons or devils, no more half-orcs and assassins. And the focus of the game was shifting from exploration-based adventures to epic stories about heroic adventure. To make these changes work in the popular Forgotten Realms setting, TSR launched the Avatar Trilogy. The series of novels would cause the gods to fall and forever change the face of the Realms. But why stop there? As a tie-in, TSR decided to create a parallel set of adventures that allowed the PCs to play a role in the cataclysmic Time of Troubles. What could be more fun?

Considering the final product, anything.

For reasons I will harp upon over and over again, the Avatar Trilogy was a huge bust as an adventure. It took everything away from the PCs, reducing them to tourists on a grand tour of the Realms. It also highlighted everything that sucked about the setting and went out of its way to screw certain player types. And, because I have too much free time, I’m going to go over all three modules, chapter by chapter. So let’s jump right into the first module, Shadowdale, and witness the trainwreck!

The Gods walk the Realms.

Cast out from their heavenly domain, the gods of the Forgotten Realms wander the land as mortals – extremely powerful mortals, to be certain, but mortals nonetheless. They seek the lost Tablets of Fate, key to their return. But as the good and evil gods of the Realms bring their fight down to earth, the people and lands are caught in between. Nature itself revolts: Strange creatures stalk the countryside, and even magic becomes unpredictable.

When a band of adventurers are hired by a young apprentice to rescue her sorceress-mentor, little do they realize the size of the stakes they will soon be playing for. Caught up in a power struggle that will determine the fate of the Realms themselves, the first step is to find the only mortal who may know what’s going on – the legendary sage Elminster. And that means going to Shadowdale.

Now, when I first found this trilogy at a yard sale, this blurb sounded awesome to me. Gods walking the land, heroes trying to restore order – it was one of the first adventures I saw that looked to be a real fantasy epic rather than a matter of, “go into the dungeon and kill/find something.”

The module’s introduction sounds pretty strong – it gives a breakdown of what’s going on in the Forgotten Realms that has caused the gods to fall (in short, there’s a god of the gods who threw them down because Bane, Bhaal, and Myrkul, the three gods of death and destruction, stole the Tablets of Fate, a powerful artifact). The introduction even instructs DMs not to make the module a “lead them by the nose” adventure – just before it goes through a list of major events that will happen over the course of the module no matter what.

Event 1: A Storm to Shake the Gods:
One morn, no sunrise comes. There is only darkness, and an icy chill. Dust blows on the wind, which grows quickly to a gale. It is no normal storm, but a howling, lashing battle of winds that come from every quarter, and crash together, wrestling over the land. Branches, birds, plants, and all are whirled helplessly through the air.

This is gamemastering code for, “better find an inn so the adventure can start.” The event passes without the PCs really able to do anything – they just need to get inside. But that’s a conceit of many modules – you need to have a reason for the heroes to be where they are. I’m sure something will happen once we turn the page…

Event 2a: A Mysterious Meeting
There is sudden silence in the darkness all around Midnight. Darker shadows – tree trunks – seem to sway and shift gently, but there is no sound.

Midnight is not referring to a time of day. It is instead referring to the NPC mage who has yet to be introduced to the party. The above text is not marked as to be read to the players – this section is essentially a page of prose for the DM to read to himself, in which Midnight gets a message from Mystra, the goddess of magic. The PCs are not around. They never find out what happens during this event. They’re chilling at the tavern while the plot is happening. Get used to that.

Event 2b: A Dramatic Entrance
The person making the dramatic entrance here is Midnight, fresh from her off-screen encounter with the goddess of magic. She staggers into whatever inn the PCs are in during the storm and promptly passes out. Presumedly, this will get the PCs rushing to her aid. Except that, “Midnight will be unconscious for 2-12 turns, and then awaken with no ill effects.” That’s the sum of the event; the PCs still haven’t done anything. If they do try anything to revive Midnight, it doesn’t work.

This section also contains a note to the DM that the gods have now fallen, and that magic is unreliable. Anyone casting a spell must roll randomly to see if it is subjected to magical chaos, which can do anything from rebound on the caster (19% chance) to dealing maximum damage (2% chance). Incidentally, any spell cast has less than a 30% chance of actually working as intended. And clerics can no longer cast spells of 3rd level or higher because the gods that grant them their spells have fallen.

The magical chaos idea is definitely one of those things that works better in a book than in a game. In a book, you can focus on other elements of the story. In game, any magic-user or cleric in the group is about to discover that their main contribution to the group has just become completely useless and, in many cases, has a good chance of doing more harm than good. We are now six pages into this adventure, and the heroes have not done anything yet. Worse, about half the party will learn soon that they are now completely useless.

Event 3: Stunning News
A scarlet-robed priest runs past you, stumbling in haste. His face is white, his mouth open in shock. “Father, Counselor!,” he cries. “Reverend One!” The rose-hued disc of Lathander, God of the Morning, bounces at his breast.

Well, I don’t know about anyone else’s player groups, but that last line guarantees that I can’t use that flavor text without getting the players snickering.

The PCs actually get to do something now! Well, sort of. They get to talk to a couple of concerned priests who have just discovered that their spells aren’t working anymore. This is a bit of kindness from the adventure designer (listed as Ed Greenwood, creator of the Forgotten Realms, but Elminster doesn’t bang any teenagers, so I’m skeptical). The spellcasting PCs in the group are now being informed that they have become useless. Me, I would have sprung it on them at the worst possible moment. Oh, instead of getting off a fireball spell, you’ve just created a 20-foot chasm beneath your feet. Weird, huh? But I guess the module is already off to a boring start – no need to get the players pissed off at the DM, too.

Event 4: Dark Dismay
You come upon a woman sobbing on the ground, sitting with her head buried in her knees and her arms clasped around them. She wears dark robes, open down the back to reveal old, white whip-scars on her skin, and on her forearms are armored wrist-guards inlaid with bone, polished white. She looks up as you approach, revealing a desolate, tear-stained face, and then sinks down to weep again, rocking gently as her shoulders shake.

Welcome to the Forgotten Realms, where everyone has a kinky fetish. The crying woman is a priestess of Loviatar, the goddess of pain – hence the whip scars. She’s just there as a role-playing encounter, in case the PCs are feeling sad that a worshipper of the goddess of torture can’t use her spells to inflict pain on others anymore.

Seriously, that’s the entire encounter. She won’t fight, and she won’t initiate conversation, although she will respond to attempts to comfort her. Even if you set aside the railroad of a plot that these modules have, the bulk of the remaining encounters amount to boring window-dressing with NPCs that get a sentence or two for their personality. That’s one of the reasons I think these modules are so bad – with a farcical adventure such as Castle Greyhawk, you at least have some action and cheap laughs. One of the worst sins an adventure module can commit is being boring.

Event 5: Anarchy of Art
You hear a terrific, glassy crash, and then shouts nearby. Angry shouts. “Good gold I gave you, wizard! Call yourself ‘Wonderworker,’ indeed! Look at this – ruined! Can’t you manage a simple levitation?”

A local 12th-level wizard (small potatoes for the Forgotten Realms) screwed up an attempt to levitate a crate of pottery for a local merchant. This is yet another event designed to remind the players that magic isn’t working right. You know, in case they haven’t gotten the message yet.

Just a note about the rules here: we’re in 1st edition AD&D, before the invention of feats or skills and before a 12 Constitution gave a bonus to hit points. This module is written for characters of levels 5-8. So if you’re playing a 5th level human mage, you maximum number of hit points is 20. If you’ve got a Constitution of 15 or 16, it can be higher, but assuming your best scores are in Intelligence, which all mages need, and assuming that you have average hit point rolls, you’re looking at having about 12-13 hit points. Two sword strokes and you’re dead. Despite your magic being screwed up, you still can’t wear armor or use decent weapons. And now the last three events have been a constant reminder of how useless you’ve become. At this point, if I’m a PC wizard, I’m not adventuring. I’m hiring out as many bodyguards as I can find to keep my scrawny butt alive.

One more note about the hypothetical 5th-level mage here: as I mentioned before, the chance for a spell rebounding on the caster is 19%. A 5th-level mage’s best spell is likely fireball, which does 5d6 damage at that level, or an average of 17-18 hit points to everyone in the effected area. So even if Wembley the Wizard here summons up the courage to try and save the day with a spell, there is about a 1 in 5 chance that the spell hits him and kills him instantly.

Event 6: Clerical Strife
You are suddenly confronted by a tall, thin man in a dark weather-cloak. His manner is imperious and fearless as he gestures you to halt. You notice that his other hand, hitherto hidden, grasps a wand. It is leveled at you.

This is the first real potential fight for the group. The PCs are accosted by a worshipper of Bane, the god of strife, who tries to hire them to serve the “One True God.” Despite aiming a wand of magic missiles at them, he is trying to avoid a fight. If the PCs accept, he hires them to kill an enemy of his. If they refuse, he tries to find out where they are staying and then sends 17 thugs to rob them in their sleep, taking their mounts, clothes and weapons. The indication in the text is that a fight won’t happen. But I have yet to meet a group where an evil priest can even pretend to threaten the PCs without getting killed on the spot.

This is also the second time in six events that we’ve seen an evil cleric just bumming around town. That’s one really weird thing about the Forgotten Realms – there are evil churches all over the place, but no one seems to mind. In the real world, Satan worshippers tend not to advertise their services, and they don’t get dark magic and the ability to control the walking dead like evil priests in the Realms do. But run into a crying priestess of Talos – the goddess of pain and tortue – and you’re supposed to feel sorry for her.

That’s all the events in Chapter 1. There are a variety of random encounters for the DM to sprinkle in, which are notable because the PCs actually get to do something during them. They can meet a Harper (secret agents in the Forgotten Realms), beat up some priests of Bane who attack them, stop a doppelganger plot, and other items. None of these effect the plot of the module, but they are possibly the only things that keep the product from needing a full cleansing by fire, because they provide at least the seeds from which a good adventure might spring (although it’s up to the DM to put the work in to make them worthwhile).

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