The Worst Adventure Ever: Shadowdale, chapter six
And now we’re at Chapter 6, the last section of this adventure. There are no random encounters in this chapter – everything that happens from here on out is plot-related.
To summarize the story so far:
- In Chapter 1, there was a really bad storm. A bunch of important stuff happened, but the PCs didn’t get to see any of it.
- In Chapter 2, a mysterious woman named Caitlan begged the PCs to help find her mysterious mistress who was being held captive at Castle Kilgrave. Whether it was the chance for adventure, the inviting sound of the castle’s name, or the fact that Caitlan cried and groveled if they refused, the PCs took the job. They were also joined by a magic-user named Midnight, whether they wanted her or not.
- In Chapter 3, a bunch of ill-defined stuff happed at Castle Kilgrave. The text is vague, leaving it up to the DM to come up with personalized material for each of the players. I thought that modules were supposed to make less work for the DM, but whatever. What is defined is that Caitlan was actually an avatar of Mystra, the goddess of magic, who had been captured by Bane, the god of strife. Mystra merged with Caitlan and took a plot MacGuffin from Midnight.
- In Chapter 4, a ton of cool stuff happened, including the death of Mystra and the PCs finally being informed that the gods have all been cast down from the heavens. Unfortunately, the PCs didn’t get to take part in any of these events – it was all just read aloud by the DM.
- In Chapter 5, the PCs and Midnight had to set out for Shadowdale to meet Elminster the Sage. If they didn’t, a 14th-level paladin showed up to kill them.
Let’s see if this chapter goes any better…
Event 1: Shadowdale Guards
The spiral outline of the Twisted Tower is visible on the surcoats of the guards; depicted in silver, superimposed on a silver crescent moon floating horns up, on a field of royal blue. The arms of Shadowdale; you have reached it at last. There are 14 guards, bearing spears and clad in gleaming silver-blue chainmail. One, who bears an iron rod, steps forward to confront you, his manner not unfriendly.
“Well met, travelers,” he says. “What brings you to Shadowdale?”
Shadowdale is pretty much where the Forgotten Realms began, with Ed Greenwood running several house campaigns there before the setting got bought by TSR. This section is the first time in the module that it feels like Ed Greenwood is writing. There are little details all over the place, and the next few pages are basically a survey of the important people and places in Shadowdale. The only thing that still makes me wonder if Greenwood really wrote this module is the fact that there are women in it and they haven’t stripped naked. (Read some of Greenwood’s fiction, especially, the Elminster novels. Take a shot every time a woman is introduced who doesn’t take her clothes off within 5 pages. You’ll be stone sober by the end of the night.)
So now the PCs get a chance to look around Shadowdale, which is probably more detailed than anything else in the entire Forgotten Realms. But eventually, they’ll want to see Elminster, since he’s the next plot point and all.
Event 2: An Audience with Elminster
As you approach Elminster’s Tower, you see an old, bearded man in robes sitting on a rock near the flagstone – Elminster himself. He raises his eyebrows, takes a pipe from his mouth, and says, “Ah, there ye are. I expected all of ye to be along some time ago. What took ye?”
Um, old man, you met us in the last chapter. You’re the one who decided to teleport away without saying a damned word.
Elminster is the guy in the Forgotten Realms that people love to hate. As written in the original boxed set, Elminster is about 500 years old or so, having drank several magical potions and used wish spells to prolong his life. He is very reclusive, and is almost never at home or willing to entertain guests. Among other things, the path to his tower has signs that say, “Trespassers will be toad.” And he’s both senile and a little crazy, what with being centuries old and possessing godlike power.
All that was before he got written into novels. The Elminster of novels is several thousand years old and given amazing magical power by Mystra herself. He is also an amazing lech who sleeps with many young women quite often, including some that he raised from children to adulthood. He slept around with the goddess of magic, too. And, as you can see, the more modern Elminster is hardly a recluse, as the PCs can walk right up to him and find him acting all smug and superior.
Elminster’s smugness is, I think, the worst part of the character. He is constantly acting like he’s smarter than the rest of the group and rubbing his magical might in the PCs’ faces. He knows all the answers before the PCs find them out, which makes any adventure he’s involved in seem like a waste of time. And, as presented above, he seems to be omniscient, “expecting” the PCs and being slightly mocking that they took so long to get here – even though he already had the opportunity to speak to them.
The rest of this event is broken into two parts. First, Elminster goes on a long bit of exposition telling the PCs what exactly is going on in the Time of Troubles (in case they’ve forgotten or still haven’t figured it out). Second, there is a long section of notes to the DM telling us how awesome Elminster is supposed to be:
“Elminster may appear to be just a mild-mannered old man, but the DM should bear in mind that he is far more powerful than he seems. He is a CG 26th level mage, with 96 hp, AC7, has 18 IN, WI, and DEX, and 17 Charisma.
“His staff and pipe are non-magical at the time the PCs encounter him, but he does wear a +3 ring of protection and a (non-vampiric) ring of regeneration. He cannot be charmed or otherwise mentally influenced by any being, due to multifold enchantments. An Elminster’s Evasion spell will whisk away his body upon “death” to a hidden, other-planar Safehold, where The Simbul (a 27th level wizard, who is Elminster’s lover and the Mage-Queen of Aglarond) will be alerted to come to his aid. Elminster carries a full complement of spells (two meteor swarms, for instance, and four magic missile spells – each such spell creating 13 separate missiles).
“Elminster is over 500 years old. This longevity is due in part to the fact that he – as well as The Simbul and Khelben ‘Blackstaff’ Arunsun of Waterdeep, and perhaps a few others – holds a part of the divine power of Mystra.
“This is why Mystra was not destroyed outright when she fought Helm. This sharing of power was a deliberate act of Ao’s, to prevent any one being holding too much of the greatest power of all: The nature, workings, and power of all magical processes in the multiverse. Do not reveal this to the players! Much of the fun of this trilogy of adventures lies in their learning bits and pieces of this and other ‘Cosmic Secrets’ as events unfold, not beforehand.”
And here’s the other big problem with Elminster and many of the other high-level NPCs of the Forgotten Realms: they cheat. Elminster’s Evasion is a 9th-level spell that only Elminster knows that teleports him away instantly whenever he is close to death, then gives him the means to heal up, then alerts his uber-level allies that someone has wounded him. The normal limit on the magic missile spell is five magical arrows, but each one of Elminster’s spells can create 13. And he’s walking around with the power of a dead goddess in him. This gets even worse as the Realms ages. By the end of 3rd edition D&D, Elminster was a 40th-level fighter/cleric/rogue/wizard/archmage with a +5 longsword and the ability to use “silver fire” – pure magical energy given to him by Mystra that could be used to heal, send forth a blast of magical fire, and could even be used in areas of antimagic. These are abilities that the PCs can never, ever hope to get anything close to, so it basically means that Elminster is running around with a sign on his back saying, “I’m more awesome than you.” He’s got more power, more knowledge, he sleeps with the hottest babes, he lives forever, and so on.
Moreover, all the crap about Elminster there is not necessary for this adventure. The PCs are at best 8th or 9th level right now. Just tell us he’s a 26th-level magic-user and move on to his personality. Does there really need to be a detailed breakdown of how badly he can slaughter the PCs in a fight, considering that they couldn’t possibly beat a normal 26th-level magic-user who played by the rules?
Event 3: The Old Skull Inn
Within the wide, plain, and heavy front door is a dark, cozy taproom. Massive beams low overhead bear the upper floors of the inn. Below them are many polished wooden tables, stretching back to a bar.
A middle-aged, gray-haired, plump but still regally beautiful woman stands behind it, rubbing pewter tankards to a high shrine with a blackened cotton rag. She wears a leather low-bodice vest over a plain cotton gown, and below that warriors’ boots. She looks up at you and smiles.
“Well met, travelers,” she says in a lilting, husky voice. “Welcome to my house. You have found The Old Skull Inn, and I am Jhaele Silverman, at your service.”
For all the complaints I have about Elminster, Shadowdale itself is a pretty nicely done area in some ways. There is a ton of detail in the village and its NPCs, and scenes like these get to show them off. This event is just there for whenever the PCs stop by the inn, designed only to show off some local color.
Unfortunately, even the minor NPCs cheat. Jhaele is a 4th-level fighter and a dagger specialist. She can hurl three daggers a round, which is beyond the rate of fire allowed by the AD&D rules for everyone else. I do not, do not, DO NOT understand why the designers had to pull this crap with every named NPC. The game has rules for badass dagger specialists. Why do the named NPCs get to break them? If there is a fighter who wants to specialize in throwing knives, he’ll never be quite as good as Jhaele at it, even if he’s higher in level. What is so bad about building an NPC within the rules and letting their personality and character make them special?
Anyway, “Jhaele will be as helpful as Elminster in listening to PC problems and imparting desired information about life, the dale, and everything; but her knowledge is far less than the Old Mage’s.” Great.
Event 4: The Twisted Tower
This is another event that is designed to show off Shadowdale’s local color.
You see a tall, slim, young-looking man lounging on his throne. He is sporting a thin moustache, and is handsome and dark-haired. He is richly but informally dressed, and wears a slim long sword and dagger at his belt. He looks at you with interest, and says politely, “Welcome to Shadowdale. I am Mourngrym, Lord of this place. I would know what brings you here, and share feast with you, if you will. What say you?”
I like Mourngrym…he’s the first major Shadowdale NPC so far who doesn’t have notes about how he can break the rules. He’s just a 4th-level fighter.
At the same time, this third major NPC continues another trend that bugs me about the Forgotten Realms supporting cast: they’re all perfect. Elminster is old but strong and agile, cunning and witty, and a total stud with the ladies. Jhaele is plump and middle-aged, but still “regally beautiful” and is super-skilled in everything she does, from running the inn to knife-fighting. Mourngrym is lounging around in adventuring gear, is handsome and charismatic, and is effectively the perfect leader for Shadowdale. This is what happens when a house campaign becomes a published setting. Elminster, Jhaele, and Mourngrym were likely, at one point or another, someone’s PCs. As PCs, they have to look like badasses, because most people want their characters to be awesome. In a house game, this is really no problem – the players automatically like their old PCs when they show up again as rulers and sages. That’s their contribution to the setting. In a published setting, though, it comes off as the designers cramming their favorite Mary Sues down everyone else’s throats. And if you happen to like designing flawed PCs, you’re immediately putting yourself at a disadvantage, since every major NPC in the setting is seemingly perfect.
There are ways around the NPC blockade, though. The Forgotten Realms is really big, and it’s pretty easy to set a campaign in an area where the published NPCs won’t go. Both the Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights computer game series did this to perfection. Neverwinter Nights did make use of a big gun NPC in Nasher Alagondar, but did it remarkably well. In those games, he’s a former big damned hero adventurer, but now he’s old. Moreover, he’s embedded in the political system of Neverwinter, and tends to make unheroic decisions due to political pressure or necessity. He’s an example of a flawed character, which the Forgotten Realms could desperately use more of.
Event 5: War Comes to the Dale
Bane’s armies are marching on Shadowdale for some reason. And while the battle is going on, Elminster needs some help from Midnight and the PCs. Our heroes have been upgraded from bodyguards to errand boys for the uber-mage!
”Great glory awaits, for those mortals who do what must be done. Fate, if ye like, has set ye the task. The Tablets of Fate are important, aye, but there.ll be time enough tomorrow to worry about that. To Tantras, its trail leads…aye, Tantras. But, mark ye, the Tablets will mean nothing if we fail here, now. Ye would be heroes? Then come! Come, and earn thy glory!”
The Old Mage springs to his feet, fixing you with a gimlet-eyed glance, and strides off down the path toward the road, barehanded. “Come!,” he calls back to you, as he turns toward the Temple. “Time enough for seeing the sights later – ’tis time to save the Realms again!”
So what happens if the PCs don’t want to play around with Elminster?
“If any PCs refuse, Elminster will shrug, say, ‘Be nothing, then,’ in tones of cold scorn, and turn them invisible by means of a spell of his own – invisibility that does not wear off for 3-12 days, and cannot be removed by other magic short of a limited wish, except by Elminster himself.
“If PCs press Elminster for informal tion [sic] as to what they should do, and why, he will hurry on toward the temple, smiling, and say, ‘All in good time, all in good time…save the world first; ask questions later!’
“If any PC should attack Elminster, or try to sneak away, they will find themselves levitated sixty feet straight up in the air, helpless to move or undo this magic (despite any spells they might try).”
Never has a heroic quest been quite so frustrating.
Elminster brings the PCs to Shadowdale’s temple of Lathander, at which point it’s Midnight who has finally had enough and starts bitching Elminster out for being so vague and arrogant. I wish the PCs could do it, but at least someone gets to call the old man on his shenanigans.
Elminster sighs, and stops just outside the Temple doors. “Ye won’t mind,” he asks in ironic tones, “if an old man sits down while ye harangue him, do ye?”
Without waiting for a reply, the Old Mage turns, tucks his robes under him with one hand, and sits down – on empty air.
Midnight sneers at the sage. “A cute work of Art, indeed, Old Mage, but—”
And then her eyes widen, and she gasps, “A Stairway!”
Elminster grins, and slaps the air beside his behind. “Aye,” he says, expression grim again. “A Celestial Stair. Invisible, permanent, and usable by all of great will and Power. A way out of Faerun for gods too cruel to care what destruction they cause in doing so. One known to and available to Mystra, Lathander, Mielikki and others, these past days – but one they would never defy Ao to use, for love of Faerun below. Others are not so kind. Wherefore the Realms need heroes…such as thee.”
So again, there’s more of the back-and-forth between NPCs that makes my acting-impaired self cringe. And Elminster tells everyone exactly why Bane is attacking Shadowdale – he wants to walk the stairway to heaven. (Shame on the writers for not putting a song reference anywhere here, by the way.) It’s up to the PCs to stop Bane from tearing apart Shadowdale in his attempt to return to the Outer Planes.
Well, actually, it’s up to the PCs to watch Elminster do it for them.
Meanwhile, the battle outside can either be glossed over or can be used as a product crossover with the Battlesystem supplement – rules for miniatures warfare that are meant to resolve mass combats in AD&D. Stats are given that allow a slight diversion from the plot so the players can run through the battle to save Shadowdale. Except, of course, for the fact that the battle doesn’t matter – only the final event does.
Event 7: To Battle Gods
That’s not a typo by me – there is not Event 6 here, for some reason. My guess is that the module was rushed to release alongside the novel it was based on, hence the many editing mistakes and instances of bad grammar we’ve seen so far.
Here’s the type of encounter that seemed so promising when the module was in the concept phase: a battle with an evil god. While the war rages outside, Bane teleports himself into the temple where Elminster, Midnight, and the PCs are making preparations to stop him.
A tall, menacing figure stands facing you, where there had been only empty air a moment before. It is jet black from head to foot, with eyes and mouth of deep red, coiling flames.
“So – you defy me still, mortal worms? Then perish! Perish utterly – you are not worthy even to kneel before the might of Bane!”
Long-fingered black hands move intricately; Elminster, too, is working magic. From the Black Lord’s mouth streak nine spheres of flame, expanding quickly into gigantic fireballs as they come. Elminster throws up his hand; from it spring a handful of silvery spheres of radiance, over two dozen in all. Nine flash up to strike the balls of fire, which halt in mid-air, acquire a silver halo, and then begin to dwindle away. The Old Mage grins at The Dark God.
“It’s been awhile, Vile One,” he says pleasantly. “Shall we dance?”
Ugh. Next time Elminster is involved in an adventure, please tell the writers to hold the large order of ham.
This battle sums up the whole module, really. Awesome potential, with the PCs having a chance to do some really epic stuff. Lame execution, with the NPCs stepping up to do everything that the heroes should have to do.
“While both Bane and Elminster are subject to the forces of Magical Chaos just like all other spellcasters in the Realms, the DM is encouraged to ‘fudge’ a few die rolls so that the battle between Bane and Elminster can unfold essentially as described below.”
I haven’t been keeping track of how often this module has asked the DM to cheat, but there it is again. Elminster and Bane have to look badass. Wembley the Wizard still sucks, though, because the DM isn’t fudging die rolls for him.
Somewhere along the way, the designers at TSR forgot the “game” part of “role-playing game.” The DM’s role is not to write a story and then force the players to go through it. His role is to put together the setting and adjust the adventure based on what the PCs do. A couple rules exceptions is one thing, and I think almost everyone fudges die rolls here and there to either keep the situation tense or keep the PCs alive when bad luck would normally kill them off. But when you’re basically throwing the rules out the window to show off how awesome this non-awesome story is, it’s not a game anymore. It’s like playing pretend as a kid with that one drama queen who always has to be the main focus of everything that is going on.
So…this is a pretty tough fight to run. I mean, a 26th-level magic-user versus a god. That’s a lot of craziness. The module certainly has some advice for DMs who might be intimidated by such an encounter, right?
“The DM should run this climactic magical battle carefully, but keep up a fast pace, both for excitement and to prevent players having overmuch time to plot and plan intricate attacks beyond the speed with which their characters might reasonably be expected to react.”
And that’s it for DM advice here. Like other points in the module, there’s just a vague, “Do something awesome,” as advice. Again, this is par for the course of many modules, and especially of this one – assume that the players suck but that the DM is awesome at everything.
“Regardless of what the PCs do, the battle should follow this general outline. Bear in mind that PCs have no idea of the precise powers and abilities of the avatars, or of Elminster; the DM can easily explain away failures or unusual results of PC attacks.”
So again, the PCs have to follow the rules, and the DM can cheat. Why are they bothering to call this a “game” again?
“Elminster surprises Bane with the strength and variety of his magic. Eventually The Lord of Tyranny will physically attack Elminster, in frustration. Elminster resists, with the strength and agility of a much younger man – and in the struggle, the conjuration circle Elminster had been preparing is scattered about.”
And once again, a reminder that Elminster is more badass than any PC can ever be. As an old man, his one weakness should theoretically be that he’s not a capable physical combatant. Really, the whole Time of Troubles should be frightening to Elminster, as the old sage who was once the most powerful being in the Realms is now suddenly vulnerable. But no, he’s got an 18 Dexterity and is strong enough to go punch for punch against a god.
“The characters will notice a white glow, growing brighter, at one side of the chamber. It is the Celestial Stairway, its image shining through the wall as if the stones were air.
“Suddenly, Mystra stands revealed. No longer the proud regal woman the PCs met earlier, she is now a wild-haired misty being of shifting blue-white starmotes, raw anger, and terrible power.
“The room is quiet for a heart-beat, and the sounds of war outside can be heard for a moment. Then, Bane recovers and strikes down Elminster. The Old Mage reels, smoke rising from him, at the onslaught of Art.”
Yes! Thank you Bane! Go team evil!
Oh yeah…minor note: all these references to “Art” is Realms-slang for magic. Everything in the Realms is magical, and those who can cast magic are referred to as wielding Art. Can anyone guess what Ed Greenwood’s favorite adventuring class was?
“Mystra screams in anger, and hurls herself upon Elminster, her body glowing as she heals or at least shifts energy to him in some manner. Bane attacks them both, and Mystra, with a snarl of triumph, works some magic that binds him to them, as a fish is hooked by an angler. She pulls The Black Lord, raging and struggling helplessly, toward her. He unleashes his greatest Art yet, in an awesome blast that envelops Mystra and Elminster – but he cannot break free, and Mystra smiles as all of Bane’s power is by her Art flung back at him. Her smile is the last thing the PCs see before a great explosion occurs.
“The PCs should be stunned or knocked senseless by the blast. When the smoke clears, the Celestial Stairway is gone, the wall of the Temple closest to it and much of the roof have been blasted to nothingness – and Bane, Elminster, and Mystra are nowhere to be seen. Blood spatters much of the fallen stones, now exposed to the sky above the shattered temple.”
Bam. End of module. Well, not quite…
Suddenly there are grim-faced warriors all around you, clambering through the dust and smoke with drawn swords. You see the silver moon-and- harp badge of the Harpers gleaming on more than one breast, as swords point your way.
A grim woman in tattered leather armor, tears gleaming on her cheeks and a bloody blade in her hand, strides toward you. “I am Sharantyr,” she says in a raw, tired voice. “Lay down your weapons – now – or perish. You will stand trial on the morrow for the murder of Elminster, Sage of Shadowdale.”
And now we’re at the To Be Continued stage – the adventure is over and will be continued in the next module, Tantras.
So, to sum up, after being dragged by the nose to get to Shadowdale, to the point where powerful NPCs would actually attack and kill the PCs if they didn’t follow the plot, the heroes arrive in Shadowdale to get talked down to by a bunch of NPCs. They get a chance to make a token effort in battle against Bane, except that the DM is encouraged to cheat in order to make their actions meaningless. And the reward for going through the slog of this adventure is to be wrongfully accused of the murder of Elminster, with no evidence and no effing body to even prove that the old man is dead.
I would quit here and say that Shadowdale is the worst module ever, but we’re only at the tip of the iceberg. The next two modules, Tantras and Waterdeep, have all the flaws of this adventure and then some.