The Worst Adventure Ever: Tantras, chapter four

Oh good...more powerful NPCs to guide the way.Chapter 4 picks up after the PCs have been captured and brought to Scardale. They had to go to Scardale to get to Tantras anyway, so I’m not totally sure why there was such a need to have them captured. Maybe the capture was actually meant to enforce the plot in case the players have any resistance left. I haven’t read the novels in a long while (and don’t care to again), so maybe this was a scene from the novel. Or maybe the capture was put in after the fact because the module was a bit short page-count wise and they needed to beef it up. Either way, the PCs are bound for Scardale no matter what.

Event 1: Arrival
“Armored warriors on griffons patrol the skies. They give the group of pegasi a wide berth, and the assassins take the PCs down to the Harborwatch Keep. There, the adventurers are separated, chained, bound (Midnight and all spellcasters treated as described in Chapter 11, and imprisoned.”

As before, I’m transcribing the text exactly as it appears in the modules, typos and all. I assume “Chapter 11” means “Chapter 1,” which means the PCs are stripped of their gear, tied up, and maybe knocked unconscious. Spellcasters get it the worst, since they have now been stripped naked and will be drugged into unconsciousness to ensure they can’t get off any of that unreliable magic of theirs. The whole trilogy here is a bit of a screwjob to casters. In theory, turnabout is fair play because spellcasters in AD&D often rendered fighting types useless, but I don’t think the proper balancing mechanic is to take away anything a spellcaster can do that is special and humiliate them to boot.

I guess it’s also an oddity that pegasi and griffons, two normally good- or neutral-aligned creatures, are helping the assassins. Alignment rules have never been absolute, but usually if there’s something like an evil pegasus, it’s noted as unusual – you don’t find a flock of them around any more than you find a whole party of good-aligned drow.

Some more notes on the PCs’ capture before we move on…

“One assassin will be near most of the PCs at all times, and will always be awake and alert, possessed of cell door keys, and inclined to use a ruthless method of dealing with noisy, disobedient, or menacing prisoners: knocking them cold. Chained prisoners are automatically hit for full weapon damage each round (count as subdual; if a victim is reduced to 0 hp, he falls unconscious for 1d4 turns). The assassins are well practiced in knocking humans senseless without permanently damaging them, but do not particularly care if they do harm the PCs. (However, they have instructions that the NPCs must be kept safe, especially Midnight.)”

Event 2: Yet Another Wild Escape
“If the PCs devise plans of escape from their imprisonment, let them try to enact these (but make sure they don’t succeed before nightfall). If one or more of them manage to get free of their cells and confront the assassin guarding them (at night this will be Mornil), no alarm will be raised-thanks to Adon. The gentle, fumbling cleric knocked his guard (Sejanus) cold with his chamber pot a bit earlier and escaped from his cell. He will show up at the alarm gong just before Mornil gets there to ring it, and will knock the assassin cold with the hilt of the dagger he stole from Sejanus.”

The first sentence, minus the parenthetical note, is a remarkably fresh idea for these modules. Let the PCs enact a plan of their own? Unthinkable! I even like the way Adon is used here, because he’s not the guy saving the day – it’s okay to have an NPC be competent and helpful, so long as the PCs are allowed to shine. In this case, Adon is there to help a well-planned course of action go smoothly, rewarding the players rather than stealing their heroes’ thunder.

Of course, if the PCs fail in their plane, Adon shows up and saves the day anyway. It’s a pretty remarkable show of competence from a character that has been useless at best and a hindrance at worst up until now. In the novels, this is all part of Adon’s character development – he goes from being incredibly vain at the beginning of Shadowdale to getting physically and mentally scarred to thinking he’s responsible for Elminster’s death. Then he rebuilds himself in Tantras. But since Adon is tacked-on late in these modules, his character development comes out of nowhere here. But it could be worse – there could be pages of dull flavor text describing his internal struggle like we get with Kelemvor and Midnight.

No matter how it’s done, the PCs get away from their prison and then have to lay low in Scardale for a while. This brings me back to my point about the capture being unnecessary. The PCs could have arrived in Scardale on their own and would have needed to lay low anyway, since they are both wanted for murder and being hunted by Bane at this point. The capture was a totally unnecessary development, apparently targeted at humbling PCs who have been thoroughly talked down to and embarrassed by this point anyway. They didn’t even learn anything new in their capture – the scene literally progresses from capture to imprisonment to escape, making the whole sequence nothing but a waste of time.

The one thing of importance that the PCs do learn here is that Bane and his Zhentarim minions have come to Scardale and taken over – again, facts that could have been learned without the capture sequence. Also another reason for the PCs to have to hide out, since Bane wants them dead and Midnight captured.

Event 3: At the Sign of the Spouting Fish
Not surprisingly, there is only one place for the PCs to go – in this case, an inn called the Spouting Fish

It is a dim, dingy place. The taproom is of dark, oiled wood, lit only by the hearthfire and by small candle-lamps. It is crowded, too, but everyone hunched in the dark room seems to be muttering to his neighbor. It is the quietest taproom you’ve ever been in. Eyes look up as you enter, and then flick away again, quickly.

A den filled with the worst scum and villainy of the Forgotten Realms. Now we just need to find Han Solo and…oh, wait.

While the PCs get a room and hunker down to hide, a dwarf named Sunrun will approach them and ask if they’re friend or foe of Bane. If the PCs say foe, he offers his help. If they say friend, he doesn’t believe them and offers his help to get them safely out of Scardale. If they refuse his help…

“If the PCs refuse to have anything to do with Sunrun, he’ll melt away into the darkness. Later that night, the raid will begin, with over a hundred armed Zhentilar storming the inn. In the midst of all the shouting and torch-waving, Sunrun will pop up through a trap-door, and hiss to the adventurers, ‘This way! Come, now! The time for foolishness is past!’ He’ll then lead them through a short, twisting crawl-tunnel, out through many back streets, and on to Event 4.”

I guess there was one other reason to have the PCs get captured: to give them as much of a reason as possible to leave Scardale as quickly as they arrived. After all, the actual plot is in Tantras, with this town only being a short stop along the way. And I guess the writer didn’t think having a community under the rule of the evil god of strife who has been trying to kill the PCs from the get-go was enough reason for the players to think that maybe they should hurry their way on through.

Event 4: A Revelation of Two
Sunrun leads the adventurers to safety. Then…

Before your eyes, the dwarf’s squat, hairy form twists and flows, colors scattering across its moving surface like a brief rainbow, and becomes taller and slimmer, until a young, dark-eyed woman in robes stands before you. She smiles. “I am Sharoon, of the Harpers. Some time ago Elminster asked me to look out for you, if ever you came this way.”

Harpers, for those who missed it earlier, are a secret organization in the Forgotten Realms that try to keep the peace by meddling in everyone’s affairs. Elminster is one of them. More recent supplements refer to them as semi-secret, since everyone seems to know all about them.

Anyway, Sharoon is an illusionist who doesn’t believe Elminster is dead. That makes her one of the only people in this adventure with an ounce of common sense. No body for a high-level wizard equals no death. That’s not genre awareness or breaking the fourth wall – that’s common sense. Elminster can teleport across the universe in the blink of an eye, summon angels and demons to fight at his side, and incinerate a continent with his magic. Not to mention that he’s got dozens of super high-level amigos who could restore him to life even if there was a body.

Sunrun gives the PCs illusory disguises and directs them to where they might find some tutors in town, in case the DM uses the optional training rules when enforcing each level up. Good to see an NPC who is useful in a support capacity and not as a protagonist.

Event 5: Sojourn in Scardale
“After Event 4, the DM may allow the party some time in Scardale, perhaps to allow them training for level advancement, to better face the perils ahead, or else can rush them on to Event 6. If the first option is taken, some additional work will be necessary before play resumes, to flesh out the suggestions given here. If the second option is taken, the DM should use only the last of the adventures suggested below (the attempt to rescue Kelemvor).”

Oh…it seems that Kelemvor didn’t escape the prison with the rest of the party. We’ll get to him soon.

This is a nice little section that provides some NPCs for the heroes to meet and train with as well as a small list of optional side-quests to bring out the flavor of Scardale (beyond the current flavor of, “under the thumb of an oppressive evil god”). I’ll chalk this up as an encounter I like, bringing the total up to 3½ over the course of the two modules we’ve been through so far.

Of course, the attempt to rescue Kelemvor brings it down a bit…

“The attempt to rescue Kelemvor will fail, and the PCs will find themselves surrounded as the guards summon aid from the other Zhentilar and Zhentarim forces in the town. While the adventurers are fighting their way out, Sharoon and Gratus will appear and show them a handy route through the sewers. In the running fight, Sharoon and Gratus are badly wounded.

“‘First Cyric, now you,’ Midnight tells Sharoon grimly, as the adventurers drag their wounded rescuers away. ‘I’m not losing anyone else I care for in all this, if I can help it!’”

So there’s the real purpose to the capture that I’ve been ranting about – Kelemvor has to get caught. Of course, there are a dozen different ways to have accomplished that without having the PCs humiliated, but that would require a bit of actual effort on the part of the writer. The capture doesn’t last long anyway, because Kelemvor is freed by Bane in an off-stage event immediately afterwards. Bane also cures Kelemvor’s panther curse for him under the condition that Kelemvor track down and capture Midnight. Kelemvor agrees, but totally plans on not doing it. Bane lets him go, because Bane is stupid evil.

Meanwhile, Cyric has turned to the Zhentarim and is now on Bane’s side. I’d qualify this as a face-heel turn (a wrestling term when a good guy suddenly becomes a bad guy), but Cyric never had the admirable qualities of a “face” character. So instead it’s a heel-heel turn.

Event 6: To Leave at Last
“Sharoon is too badly wounded to keep the Zhentilar attackers at bay any longer…She recommends that the PCs try to escape from Scardale now, by ship…”

This bit is, to be fair, not a problem with the adventure so much as a break between storytelling standards and the AD&D mechanics. The hit point system means that even if you’re down to 1 hit point left, you can do things just as easily as though you were perfectly healthy. Essentially, the only divide is between living and dead. Plus, even in the Time of Troubles, healing magic should be able to whip Sharoon back into shape quickly. Were this 4th edition, I believe that Sharoon would be “bloodied” and taking penalties, but she’s also be able to get healing without the use of magic. Either way, hit points are generally there to keep away from the bookkeeping and die rolls that replacement damage systems do, and it’s usually best just to encourage a player to role-play damage – if you’re at 1 hit point, you might not be suffering penalties to die rolls, but you should probably do your best to stay out of a fight, if only because you know the next hit you take will be your last. In game terms, Sharoon is low on hit points and not willing to take the risk of another fight.

The PCs meet a captain who needs his ship taken back from Bane’s men by force. “Midnight will accept the mission of reclaiming Mnester’s ship and drag the PCs along. All of the NPCs will stress that to split up now is to court certain death. The Cormyreans come along (‘We’re coming too,’ Sharoon says grimly)…”

Huh…I guess Sharoon is too injured enough to keep the PCs hidden, but healthy enough to get into a fight against a number of Bane’s minions. That makes no sense to me, personally.

“Although the DM should make the gauntlet of Zhentilar patrols a tense passage, the adventurers should, in the end, reach an old warehouse on the docks, and wait inside for nightfall.”

Once again, the module writer gets lazy here, telling the DM to make something cool up. Additionally, I’m not keen on these situations where the module says, “it should be tense, but the PCs should succeed.” I’m admittedly a bit of a candy-ass DM who skews things toward PC success and survival, but I don’t think there should be a place outside maybe the first couple encounters of the adventure where the DM is making things seem dangerous while still rigging the game to ensure PC success. I do think the DM should give the PCs a break every now and then, but just as I’m not a big fan of the DM cheating in favor of the NPCs, I’m not keen on him cheating to favor the PCs, either. That just seems to kill the game part of a role-playing game.

“On the way, they will see Kelemvor (who’s been searching the streets for them), and Midnight will hesitate. He will promptly see her and saunter over to join the group.”

And Kelemvor is back in the party, which leaves one to wonder why he needed to be separated from them in the first place. True, Bane did end the whole panther curse, but that was more plot convenience than actual power, anyway. The PCs might be suspicious of Kelemvor’s sudden release, but Sharoon steps in and forces them to accept his presence in the group once again.

The PCs then retake the ship, and the DM is given a laundry list of instructions about the NPCs. Sharoon and her allies have to die or disappear. Midnight, Kelemvor, and Adon are all required to go on. And the PCs get aboard the ship and sail off into the night, bound for Tantras.

Event 7: Battle Afloat
“As dawn comes, the breeze coming down from the northwest dies. The Queen of the Night becomes a rather large target wallowing in the light swell in the center of the Reach, all too exposed to the eyes of Zhentarim on griffonback. Sure enough, a Zhentilar patrol galley bristling with archers soon appears, rowing steadily toward the drifting slave galley. Battle erupts.”

This is a very short encounter that pits the PCs against a bunch of Zhents. No big deal, and very little description is given to what could actually be a nice set piece for the adventure. The PCs will continue on their way no matter what, for the plot continues to beckon…

“If defeated, they will be held captive on the galley, and it will turn back toward Scardale, towing the Queen. Halfway back, a seabird will fly past the ship, circle, and then land in the rigging. The bird will turn into its true form – Sharoon. She will cast spells on the crew to aid the PCs in escaping, and then fly raggedly off again, westward back to land.”

And I’m left wondering aloud again what the point of encounters like these is if there is no negative consequence for failure. Maybe the module writers at TSR had a chart telling that they had to put in a chance for the players to roll dice every X number of encounters or something. You know…to keep them from getting bored while the DM continues his elaborate form of gaming masturbation.

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