The Worst Adventure Ever: Tantras, chapter one

Elminster has been murdered.

And to make matters worse, the player characters who helped save Shadowdale from the armies of Zhentil Keep in Shadowdale (FRE1) have been sentenced to death for killing the old sage. They’re innocent, of course, but in this time of troubles in the Realms, truth and justice are not always served. Imprisoned in the Tower of Ashaba, the heroes must escape if they are to survive!

Later, when the heroes start their quest for the first of the mysterious Tablets of Fate – mighty artifacts stolen from the overlord of the gods himself – they come up against an even greater peril: Bane, the God of Strife, and his ally, the God of Death, have set in motion a plot to capture the heroes and their companions. You must face deadly assassins, nightmarish monsters, and violent storms on your way across the Dalelands. And the worst threat of all is an unexpected one – the man who helped you earlier has now joined the side of Bane and the forces of Zhentil Keep.

Perhaps it’s the rushed ending of Shadowdale, but the blurb for Tantras doesn’t nearly seem as appealing as the one from the previous module did. Maybe it’s because of the whole “sentenced to death” line – the last module ended with the PCs being accused of killing Elminster, but not sentenced. One would assume that Lord Mourngrym, a fair man who the heroes had a chance to speak with in the last adventure, would give them a just trial. But if we’re really starting off with being sentenced to death, it looks like the opportunity for the PCs to defend themselves will never really get realized. A shame, as trials in RPGs can be amazingly satisfying when done well.

This adventure is designed for 4-6 PCs of levels 6-9. That’s one higher than the last module, so we can assume the PCs leveled up during their adventures in Shadowdale. That means that Wembley the Wizard is now 6th level, with a whopping 15 hit points and the ability to cast a second fireball…that still might bounce back and kill him, because the magical chaos rules are still in effect.

One more minor note that is neither here nor there: the image above is from the cover of the module (and the novel, for that matter). Since the heroes are in chains, I’m assuming this is supposed to be the beginning of the module, which would place the dude on the throne as Mourngrym, lord of Shadowdale. Last adventure, Mourngrym seemed like a decent guy, and a warrior to boot. So why is he now looking like an evil cultist-mage with pleasure slaves at his feet? I think this is a case of TSR recycling artwork. This is a pretty common practice in the industry even today – it saves money on soliciting art and keeps the cost of books down. Take a look at the 4th edition Monster Manual – the drow, medusa, and several other pictures are ripped from 3rd edition supplements. Similarly, the Pathfinder Bestiary uses images from a variety of Paizo supplements. The difference in those modern examples and this one is a matter of quality control. The designers probably sent a request to the art department asking for an image of heroes in chains about to stand trial for murder. Rather than commission a new piece, the art department probably sent this picture back, which looks roughly like something in the module but doesn’t come close in more of the details. A good example of recycled art would be in the 4th edition Monster Manual, where the medusa entry shows a medusa who has just turned an adventurer to stone. A bad example is the above, which only loosely fits the situation. TSR did this quite often, and it wouldn’t be as frustrating if they didn’t waste so much money elsewhere, such as on boxed sets that cost more to produce than the price on the product.

The prologue of the adventure gives some groan-inducing notes, such as the fact that, “The NPC Midnight must accompany the party in order for the adventure to be completed.” It also notes that the adventure is very deadly, and that a part of lesser power cannot survive. So let’s boost Wembley and his companions all the way up to 9th level. That means he’s got 23 hit points. Of course, his fireballs now do an average of 30 hit points of damage, so he’s still a danger to kill himself 19% of the time.

“The chapters describe the intended flow of the story. PCs have plenty of freedom as to what they actually do in the chaos surrounding the Godswar. Feel free to improvise to make the adventure exciting and enjoyable. If you read the entire module before play to see what will occur, it will be easy to see where there is ample room for your own side adventures, and where and how the adventure herein can be tailored into an existing campaign set in the Forgotten Realms.”

So there is lip service paid to the notion of player freedom. I think the problem in these modules is twofold, though. First, while the DM is supposed to improvise and tailor the adventure to the PCs, there isn’t a lot of material provided to allow that to happen. Second, while the DM can throw in a ton of random encounters and side plots, the main story of the adventure stays rigid and can often only be advanced by the NPCs. As a result, the players might be able to do anything they want, but when it comes to actually affecting the shape of the Realms, they don’t get much of a role at all. As I mentioned before, this is partly because the modules are based around novels that became canon for the setting, and thus any radical departures would result in a divergence from the Realms as portrayed by TSR. It’s also partly because we’re in the end of 1st edition/start of 2nd edition era where modules are supposed to be stories, not adventures.

But I’ve rambled enough. Let’s get to the adventure.

Event 1: The Trial
“After the villagers entered the temple at the end of the battle, Adon, Midnight, and any PCs found there were promptly relieved of their weapons and equipment. They were taken to the Tower of Ashaba and thrown into the main guardchamber on the ground floor. They are being watched at all times by at least five grim folk who are obviously high-level adventurers. (Midnight’s pendant was destroyed when Mystra fell in the battle. The object plays no further part in this adventure.)”

The high-level adventurers have no stats; they’re playing the role of several NPCs from the previous adventure who killed the PCs if they deviated from the plot. And speaking of NPCs, you might be wondering who Adon is. He’s a character from the novels who was optional in the first module but is now going to be tagging along with Midnight and the rest of the group. Adon was a priest of Sune, goddess of love and beauty. But after the fall of the gods, someone slashed his pretty face with a knife. Without healing magic to cure the wound, the cut became a disfiguring scar. Now he’s in a near-comatose state: “Adon experiences a sort of breakdown, and will often numbly sit and do nothing unless goaded into action by his companions.” So, yay…there’s a new required NPC who will undoubtedly get lots of face time in the adventure, and he’s totally useless.

Oh yeah…Midnight’s pendant, which contained a portion of the goddess of magic’s essence, is shattered as well and gone from the adventure. It was just as well, considering that the PCs weren’t even allowed to touch it in the last adventure.

“The DM should make it clear that escape is impossible; locks can’t be picked, the guards can’t be overcome physically, and any spells the PCs might try to use will fail because of Magical Chaos. In any event, Adon and Midnight will not try to escape with the PCs, feeling that their chances of coming out of this alive are better if they go along with what their captors want, at least for the time being.”

So many adventures have begun with the PCs imprisoned or enslaved, and the goal of all of them is to allow for a chance of a heroic escape. But here the DM is once more encouraged to throw the rules out the window and force the PCs to march in tune to the plot. There isn’t even a 1% chance of escape. I’ll explain why this is even more irksome than usual soon.

Eventually the PCs are led to trial…

The chamber is crowded with people, who look upon you with hard eyes and angry faces. Weapons are visible everywhere. You are led before an elevated throne. On it sits a tired, grim-looking middle-aged man still clad in battered and bloody plate armor. It is Mourngrym, lord of Shadowdale. He is drinking wine from a goblet; at your approach he waves it away, wipes his moustache wearily, and looks upon you all with cold eyes.

“You live, outlanders, because I hold justice above all else in this dale – and only because of that. Elminster the sage was a friend good and true to all of us here, and his Art was a strong defense against our enemies, always.

“Now he is dead – and you were found in the temple where he met his end. You stand accused of the murder of this good man. What say you, that you may keep your own lives? Speak, and speak well – or there will be more fallen in Shadowdale before this day is out!”

I happen to like trial scenes a lot, and this has the potential to be a pretty cool one. On the one hand, Mourngrym wants to see justice done, which means giving the PCs every chance to defend themselves. On the other hand, the locals all want to see blood. So even though there’s only circumstantial evidence linking the PCs to Elminster’s disappearance and even though there’s no body to prove that the old sage was murdered, the mob poses a threat that overrides common sense. Of course, none of it matters – the PCs are eventually found guilty regardless of how well they defend themselves. At this point a new NPC, Cyric, pops in to tell Mourngrym how unfair the trial is. But it doesn’t matter, and the PCs are sentenced to death by impalement the next day.

Event 2: Imprisonment
“The DM should refer to the underground level of the Tower of Ashaba map. The PCs will be marched down the stairs to the large cavern (area #2), where a smith, two dozen soldiers, and two men in robes (a priest of Tempus, and a mage of minor power who holds a wand ready in his hand) stand waiting. There, under the blaze of torches, the PCs will be manacled in steel collars, wristlets, and ankle bands that lock together; each requires two keys to open.

“Midnight will be gagged, her hands wrapped tightly in cloth to keep her fingers immobile, and her wrists lashed to her waist behind her back, to prevent her from calling forth any spells. Any PCs who have demonstrated spellcasting ability, or whose gear, symbols, or speech has led anyone of Shadowdale to think them a spellcaster of any sort, will be treated similarly. An unguent of herbs on the gags will cause all gagged prisoners to feel drowsy and weak (make a Constitution Check or fall unconscious until the gag is removed).”

Well, at least they provide an interesting way of keeping mages imprisoned, which is one of the age-old problems in D&D.

And that’s it for this event – it’s just the PCs getting tossed in jail.

Event 3: Rescue by Night
“Cyric leaves the audience chamber along with the other villagers. They spill out onto the meadow, many of them heading for the Old Skull Inn and a much-desired drink or two, but Cyric quietly slips away and begins formulating a plan to rescue the prisoners. If Adon is not in the dungeon with the PCs, Cyric will seek him out, and the two of them (with help from some anonymous and temporary hirelings) will carry off the rescue.”

And here’s what ticks me off so much about the earlier scenes: the plot requires the PCs to escape. But the adventure doesn’t allow them to do it on their own. This event should be the last-ditch contingency if all else failed. The PCs should have been given a chance to escape on their own, and they should have been given a chance to be found innocent at the trial. Either way, the plot could have advanced in the same manner. If they escape, they need to get out of Shadowdale and can meet Cyric along the way. If they are found innocent, Mourngrym can warn them to get out of town before an angry mob decides to override his decision, and he can assign Cyric as a guide. But no…the PCs don’t have a chance to control their own fate. They are humbled and tossed in jail, only be receive a rescue from the heavens from Cyric, the newest plot-required NPC. Cyric brings them to a boat, and the party (consisting of three NPCs who can’t be shaken due to plot circumstances) have to sail down the Ashaba River and out of Shadowdale.

Event 4: Well met by Moonlight
The boat rushes down the Ashaba, rocking and pitching in the strangely wild waves. The roiling waters carry you swiftly into the broad expanse of the millpond, and then something appears from the dark trees on your left.

It is a man in a dark robe, standing in the empty night air as though he is on something solid but invisible. He floats quickly toward you, raising a hand. “Well met,” he says softly. It is Lhaeo, Elminster’s scribe. “I have some things of interest to you, and bring you the blessings of Mystra in addition.”

Lhaeo is essentially Elminster-lite. He’s on an invisible disc of force and is protected by a wall of force, should any of the PCs try to attack him. He’s also obviously got Elminster’s annoying habit of popping up where he shouldn’t be, displaying an air of omniscience that leaves common adventurers wondering why they should even bother with this quest when so many wizards are apparently capable of doing it in their stead. (Also note how much magic the NPCs have thrown around in these adventures in a time when magic is supposed to be dangerous and unreliable.) But at least Lhaeo is good for something here – he hands the PCs a bag of holding with any missing spellbooks and a bunch of magical equipment that includes a rod of resurrection and a crystal that will shatter when it comes near an artifact of great power – essentially, a detector for the Tablets of Fate, which the PCs are still supposed to be looking for.

Remember how Shadowdale had random encounters at the end of each chapter that gave the PCs a chance to actually do some stuff? That’s gone. Tantras has no such encounters – everything is a plot-related event. Which brings up my old complaint that the module writer (Ed Greenwood again, although I get the feeling that a lot of this series was written by random staff writers and patched together) doesn’t seem to know what a module is supposed to be. The idea of buying a published adventure is to give the DM a bit of a break. Putting together a railroad of a plot and then saying, “Improvise all the cool stuff” is not cool. I actually ran this adventure (I know, shame on me), and the work I had to put in to make it serviceable was the same amount or possible more than I would have done for a house module done from scratch. Modules are supposed to be less work for the DM, not more.

Anyway, that’s it for Chapter 1. The PCs don’t get to do anything. If they try to do anything, it fails. Oh, and look at all these new NPCs!

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