The Worst Adventure Ever: Shadowdale, chapter three

How you guys doing? This is gonna suck!Chapter 2 allowed some actual adventuring, but even still almost everything that has happened so far has come through random encounters. When it comes to the plot, the PCs have had no power whatsoever. They couldn’t help Midnight, they had to take Caitlin’s quest, and they had to allow Midnight to travel with them. Chapter 3 brings the PCs to Castle Kilgrave, which is such a hilarious name that I don’t think I could read the flavor text straight. But it’s a dungeon, which is a great thing to break up a plot railroad. Once you get in the dungeon, you’re in control to at least some extent. You choose which rooms to go into, when to look for traps, and what route to take.

Well, you normally do that. But not in this adventure, as we’ll soon see.

We get no events in this chapter; it’s just the dungeon. Strangely, there’s no map to this dungeon, either. Usually, a DM needs a map in order to tell the PCs the results of their actions…

The inner courtyard is paved with the same black-and-red surface as the walls. Mist, thick and white and carrying the smell of fresh blood, covers the courtyard, occasionally revealing buildings in the distance before veiling them once more. You can hear scuffles from beyond sight, and your own sounds seem spans distant.

In Time of Troubles, encounters pick you! Wandering through the mist-filled courtyard, the PCs are attacked by “a long, bristle-haired worm, with bright yellow faceted eyes and huge mandibles.” The creature is an illusion, and I can’t really get much of an idea as to what it’s supposed to look like. But that doesn’t matter; it’s the least ill-defined thing in this encounter. Next thing we know, “The semi-illusory effects of Castle Kilgrave have acted to separate the party, and the DM must now follow suit by isolating the players.”

Great…the players aren’t even allowed to be in the same room, and there is no description as to how the party got separated. I’ve learned to hate bringing players away from the table – I once ran a session that took place almost entirely in my friend’s bathroom because I kept pulling people away from the table for these “personalized” encounters. The problem with them is that while one player is away from the table, everyone else is sitting around bored. I think a much better way of doing things is to trust the players not to abuse the distinction between player and character knowledge and just run everything at the table. That way, even if an individual PC isn’t in a scene, the player can still follow along with the story.

Anyway…”Each character is to be tested by semi-real illusions, personalized to the individual. Some role-players might have the skills to separate what they know from their characters’ observations, but many players cannot. The DM is advised to separate the players until they overcome this test.”

That’s a trend in a lot of old D&D products: assume the players are ignorant cheating bastards always out to ruin the DM’s lovely story. God forbid you trust them to actually role-play their characters. The DM, meanwhile, has to come up with an “individualized test” that plays to each PCs’ fondest desires. That can be a potentially long scene for each PC, meaning a lot of time with everyone else sitting around and doing nothing. Moreover, any instructions or hints as to the nature of these tests are either vague or nonexistent, except that they 1) offer the PC his heart’s desire, and 2) put the PC in peril. This is a pretty hard scene to run, especially given the sparse details, and it requires a good deal work and forethought by the DM to pull off well. What is the point of buying an adventure module again?

Once the tests are over and everyone is at the table again, A doorway swings open several dozen yards away, and an explosion of mocking laughter fills the room. Caitlan tumbles through the opening, landing badly on her shoulder. The door closes again.

And Caitlan is back with the group. She is really real, but try to convince the players that she’s not a doppelganger or illusion after the mess their characters have just been through. Even if they buy that it’s really her, she leads them to a door that is trapped with a symbol of death, forcing anyone standing next to it to make a saving throw or die instantly. But while the PCs might wind up as corpses here, “The DM should take any steps necessary to insure Caitlan’s survival during this break-in, as she is vital to the continuance of the adventure.”

Okay…seriously, adventure designers, that’s lame. I know it’s done in video games, and other modules have committed this sin before as well, but the plot-protected NPC bugs the hell out of me. The PCs are vital to the continuance of an adventure, but no module ever goes out of its way to keep them alive. And now the text is flat out telling the DM to cheat to keep this NPC alive when it should be providing contingency plans in case she doesn’t. Here we have another cardinal sin of AD&D modules: the DM is encouraged to cheat to keep his precious plot intact, while the PCs are constrained by the game rules. In this instance, every PC in the party is at risk to die because of a bad roll, while Caitlan has plot immunity. And, while Midnight isn’t mentioned, the module also assumes that she has plot immunity, because she is required to stay in the group all the way to the end.

Anyway, after going through the Door of Death, the PCs get to finally find Caitlan’s “mistress” – Mystra herself, who is being held captive by Bane. Bane has some minions attack the PCs. What, the heroes want to go after Bane himself? Well, they can’t:

“IMPORTANT: Under no circumstances should the party be allowed to fight Bane, even though he is present in another part of the castle.”

If role-playing is supposed to be about boundless possibilities, imagination, and group storytelling, this module does a bad job of illustrating that. Instead the players are given hard limits on what they are allowed to do, even if common sense dictates against it. The PCs are treated unfairly compared to pet NPCs, and the module’s story is to be rigidly followed at all times, or so it seems.

After dispatching Bane’s minions, the PCs can free Mystra. Bane skedaddles out of there, even though he could easily intervene and defeat the heroes. Mystra possesses Caitlan, revealing her role as an avatar of the goddess of magic.

“Because [Bane] respects Mystra’s power, he departs, taking with him the changes to Castle Kilgrave. In the span of a minute, the black marbled walls, the mist, and the fell creatures all vanish, and the PCs are left in the old ruins of a long abandoned fort.”

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