The Worst Adventure Ever: Tantras, chapter six
And now we’re on the final chapter of Tantras. In a good module, this would be a massive and memorable set-piece that would have the players talking about it years later. Bane is about to invade Tantras, meaning that he’s going to be doing battle with Torm. While chaos rages in the city, the PCs have to find their way to the Tablet of Fate, all the while dodging the two brawling gods in the streets.
But this is the Avatar Trilogy, meaning that interesting choices and perilous scenarios aren’t really allowed. The PCs are accompanied by Midnight, Adon, and Kelemvor, who will do everything for them if necessary. Additionally, Elminster is around this time, grabbing the heroes by the wrist and leading them along the way.
Event 1: Into the Temple
Elminster looks up from his harp, an instant before any of you can interrupt to tell him you’re ready to leave. “All prepared to be off bloodletting, then? Swords sharp? Let’s be on our way!”
The number one complaint of most detractors of the Forgotten Realms is that it’s full of high-level adventurers who can do everything of consequence. While the setting books go out of their way to illustrate otherwise and any DM worth is screen will not allow that sort of thing to happen, adventures like these really do their best to promote that terrible idea. I honestly think this whole module series could be avoided by either leaving Elminster “dead” or having him as in the dark as the rest of the PCs. After all, his divination magic is unreliable and his magical defenses should be down for the most part here. But instead he knows exactly where the plot coupons are, and is even accompanying the PCs on the journey, leaving one to wonder why a 26th-level magic-user needs a group of mid-level heroes to do anything. Elminster even has better attack values and hit points than the group’s fighter, most likely.
The first Tablet of Fate is somewhere in Torm’s temple, and it’s up to the PCs and their companions to find it. The priests of the temple are performing some ritual of power, and are on high alert for those who might interrupt the ritual. Previously the temple was inaccessible except to the faithful of Torm, but now Elminster uses his magic to waltz them right in there. He then takes his leave of the group, sending them on their course:
“Beyond those doors to the east lies the great chamber – if ye go there, ye will surely get caught up in the ritual. So we stop here; explore beyond this hidden door, and let thy good sense be thy guide. Now all stand still, for just a moment…”
The old sage moves among you, touching each of you briefly, and one by one you wink out of sight. “Invisibility will let ye go where ye will,” he says, “but be sure to stay together – and move as quietly as ye can; guards can hear even if they can’t see. When ye wish to be seen again, say my name and the spell will be broken.”
He reaches out and hands Midnight a scrap of paper, adding these instructions: “Open this, and read the word thereon only when you are ready to leave, and be sure all of ye are touching each other, linked flesh to flesh. It will bring ye back to the inn. There is more to do, for both ye and I, so rest assured I shall be waiting for ye, when ye come back. Mind ye, curb thy greed when rifling the temple riches: this spell will allow ye to carry only one thing of magic, each, above what ye already hold, or ye will be lost amid the Ethereal Plane forever.”
And with that, Elminster is gone, vanished in an instant. You are alone in the depths of the Temple of Torm.
So Elminster hands Midnight the next plot coupon and disappears. One of the problems with the high-level NPCs in the Realms is that while we’re always told they have super-important things to attend to, we never actually see them. These modules give a ton of off-screen information to the DM, but we never get a word as to what Elminster is doing. Just a hint at what these super-important plans of his are would do wonders in explaining why he doesn’t just do this mission himself.
Event 2: Torm, Tantras, and the Tablet
“This event directly follows Event 1, after Elminster has left the adventurers in the Temple of Torm. The DM should be thoroughly familiar with this entire event before running it: there are many things to remember. Note that the magical defenses of the Temple of Torm are not subject to magical chaos at this time, with Torm in residence.”
This section is basically a dungeon crawl/stealth mission, with the temple of Torm as the dungeon. I do like that there’s a reason why the magic here isn’t affected by magical chaos, which is a nice contrast to Elminster knowing exactly what all his spells are going to do and casting them flawlessly. It’s also worth noting that if a PC cleric is a worshipper of Torm, he can finally cast his upper-level spells here, which must be nice considering that he’s been gimped the whole adventure. Of course, if a PC is a faithful of Torm he should be able to bluff the group into the temple without Elminster’s help, but providing such an option would be too much to ask.
(Incidentally, while this module does a ham-handed job of running the infiltration, a nice example of how to run this style of adventure well can be found in Paizo’s Pathfinder adventure Masks of the Living God, which involves the PCs infiltrating an evil cult and does a bang-up job of giving multiple options for completing their goals.)
The PCs have little in the way of combat opposition, although the clerics they do encounter can fry them with lightning thanks to Torm’s proximity if a combat breaks out. There’s a fairly large map with over 40 areas laying out the temple, but only one room really matters – the one with the Tablet of Fate in it.
“From the moment the first PC sees this room, the DM should secretly keep track of real time, using a watch. After twenty-five minutes have elapsed, the chanting will rise to a definite climax, then suddenly end. One round later, a great crashing noise will be heard from above, and the sound of ominous rumbling from outside this chamber will begin. Two rounds thereafter, the ceiling of this chamber will collapse.”
Having the DM keep track of real time in secret is a terrible idea. It means that any time the players go on a tangent, get up to get a soda, or do anything else out of game, they’re wasting their time. It’s not so bad if the players know they’re being timed, but it sucks to have to take a bathroom break and then come back to find that a roof has fallen on your PC.
“The Ceremony of Power was more than a ritual. The avatar of Torm that was present in the temple (in the image of a handsome man) drew upon the support of his worshipers, whose chants and supplications gave the avatar the power to “possess” a great, lion-headed statue that stood within the High Holy Hall. As soon as the avatar took this new form, it rose up and burst through the ceiling of the temple (heading off to join battle with the avatar of Bane). Shock waves from this damage are quickly spreading throughout the eastern part of the temple, causing many walls and ceilings to crack and collapse.”
There are some nasty traps guarding the Tablet of Fate, and they can only be stopped through the use of magic, which means the PCs are almost as likely to fry themselves as they are avoid death at the hands of Torm’s traps.
Event 3: Ringing the Bell
“This event begins as the adventurers return from the temple. Elminster’s magic will take them straight into the taproom of the Lazy Moon, empty except for Elminster (sitting patiently at a table, with a tankard beside him) and the astonished innkeeper.
“If Midnight is injured and the party has no means to deal with the problem, Elminster will speedily produce potions to see to her healing.”
Um…hey Elminster, can we get some of that healing, too?
Anyway, the Tablet of Fate has been recovered, but there’s still a pair of gods fighting in the streets of Tantras. This fact hasn’t been made all that clear to the PCs as of yet, which makes Elminster’s subsequent dialogue a little confusing, as he’s talking about needing to save the whole city. In order to save Tantras from destruction, Midnight needs to go to the church of Mystra and ring the bell. And while I’m not keen on Midnight having to save the day while the PCs watch yet again, I do like that she finally calls Elminster to task for being a gigantic dick:
Midnight nods, frowning. “Right, then, old sage. Your precious bell shall be rung. Why me, though? You are more the master of Art than me, by far! Why entrust this to me, if it is so important? Why can’t you simply do it, and save us a little excitement, this once?”
Elminster grins. “And let thee go to thy graves never knowing the feel of saving the Realms? Nay; I be not that cruel…’Tis the greatest feeling in the world, lady! I cannot bring myself to rob thee of it! As to why ye must, and not I…all will be made clear in Waterdeep.” He smiles and waves. “Don.t be long in getting there, or ye’ll miss all the fun!” he says – and then he vanishes in a sudden flare of blue light.
Honestly, I like Elminster in concept. The near-senile old man who has immense magical power is a fun character. But he sucks when he insists on meddling in every affair, never makes his plans clear, and puts his magical power on display constantly. A character like Elminster would be better served in a Yoda style role (from the original Star Wars movies, not the crappy prequels) – he should be using magic rarely if at all. Then when he does bust out some magic, people should be in awe of his power. That is the difference between an NPC being awesome and him just being obnoxious.
The PCs emerge into the streets of Tantras to find it in chaos as Torm and Bane begin to do battle. They have to dodge obstacles and fight through panicked civilians to get to the temple.
Suddenly, just ahead, you see Tantran guards with drawn weapons. “Go no farther,” one says grimly as they approach you, swords held menacingly. “This area is restricted to Tantran soldiers only.”
In the next instant Elminster appears in a shimmer of light and waves his hand. The guards fall senseless to the ground
“Why don’t you just ring the bell?” Midnight screams at him, exasperated.
“I cannot,” he answers, in a voice that is starting to fade away at the same time that his form becomes blurred and insubstantial. “My power is akin to it; if I touched it, the bell and I would destroy each other. Something some folk would welcome, I admit; but all of this city would be riven with us…” At that, his body and voice both disappear.
So there’s an explanation of why Elminster can’t do this important task. Of course, there’s no explanation of why he just doesn’t bust out a teleport without error spell to get Midnight to the magic bell without any problems. Dick.
Near the end of the encounter, we finally get a description of the battling gods. Buildings fall, people scream, gods duel. Pretty awesome, except that it has no bearing on the scene. If the PCs take a leisurely stroll to the church, they still make it there – the DM is instructed again to threaten but not harm the PCs. And if they decide to stay in the tavern and drink a beer, Midnight will still get the job done.
Midnight gets to the church and rings the bell. Again, this is a task for her and her alone, with the PCs getting no choice but to sit and watch as she saves the day:
There is a great flash of white light, and an earth-shaking rumbling. Everyone is thrown off their feet as the very earth cracks open. Something silver and sparkling is rising into the air all around as buildings leap into the air and begin to fall, the world rocks, all people within sight are thrown down, and birds tumble helplessly past you, hurled out of the air.
Through the rising, silvery radiance (which begins to shimmer with rainbow colors), you see the two juggernauts slowly topple.
Slowly, ever so slowly, they fall from view behind the glowing radiance. An instant later, there is a shattering explosion.
Midnight has just indirectly killed two gods, all by her lonesome. Meanwhile, the sphere of force emitted by the bell knocks the PCs unconscious. This is the same way Shadowdale ended – I’m betting any players who went through the module were hoping not to be arrested for murder again when they woke up.
Incidentally, these modules miss a key piece of basic storytelling, regardless of the medium: don’t repeat yourself. Even if a big magical blast that knocks everyone out seemed cool the first time around, using it for the second module in a row makes it comically redundant.
Event 4: Aftermath
“When the PCs regain their senses, they will be lying on the hilltop. Above them, the bell’s supports stand empty. The bell has vanished.
“Below the PCs lies a partially shattered city. Some buildings have fallen. Many streets are blocked with rubble. Dazed citizens are picking their way through the wreckage trying to salvage what they can. All is hushed. The air and ground are still.
“Midnight will be dazed for a round or two. Kelemvor and Adon will see to her, decide that she will be all right, examine the PCs to make sure they did not sustain mortal injuries (rendering what aid is necessary), and then crisply direct the PCs to see to Midnight’s safety, while they go to help tend the wounded.”
Good to know that the PCs are still lackeys to be bossed around by the much more important NPCs.
Tantras is in ruins, the temple of Torm has been destroyed, and both Torm and Bane are dead. The PCs had a hand in none of these things. But they’re still being forced along the plot railroad, as Elminster shows up to demonstrate:
Elminster is standing atop the tumbled blocks of a collapsed section of the city wall, looking grimly out over the devastation. He smiles at you and says, “Ah, well done indeed. A little cataclysmic, perhaps, but it could not be helped. Other matters press now, so I must be off. See ye all in Waterdeep! Mind ye aren’t late!” With a last smile and a wave, he vanishes into thin air.
Midnight looks wearily around at you. “Well,” she says in wry disgust, .you heard the Great One. Let’s get our gear and get going.”
Kelemvor and Adon arrive at that moment. “Did he say what I thought he did?” Adon asks wearily. His hands and robes are stained with blood that is not his own. Kelemvor just shakes his head.
“Perhaps we could save time by sailing to Suzail, or Westgate,” says Midnight grimly, “but I’ve no wish to ride the waves an instant longer than I must, when Umberlee and who knows what other fallen gods or leviathans are lurking just below. It seems that the old sage wants us to see every hill and dale between here and the Sword Coast, so we may as well get started.”
Kelemvor agrees. “I always wanted to see Waterdeep,” he says sardonically. “How about you?”
The ending here outlines one of my other problems with the Forgotten Realms, and Ed Greenwood’s writing in general: a light-hearted ending is always enforced, no matter the circumstances. Think about what just happened to Tantras. People’s homes and lives have been destroyed. Some PCs, especially lawful good types, will probably want to do what they can to help these people rebuild. But rather than highlight the destruction caused by the gods, the module ends with the NPCs joking around about always having wanted to see Waterdeep. The setup above reminds me of the end of the film version of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where Voldemort has returned and nearly killed Harry, one of the instructors at Hogwart’s Academy has spent most of a year imprisoned while an evil wizard took his place, and one of the well-loved students on campus has been murdered. Despite these dark events, the film ends with Ron, Harry, and Hermione joking around and asking, “Do you think we’ll ever get a normal year?” It’s stupid and incongruous with the serious events that have just occurred.
To be fair, the DM doesn’t have to run Waterdeep next, so the PCs can remain in Tantras and help rebuild rather than look for the second Tablet of Fate. If they do, Midnight, Kelemvor, and Adon all head off on their own to finish the quest. I think rebuilding Tantras would be a better follow-up adventure, but TSR obviously disagreed with me, because the third and final module of the series is Waterdeep, which continues the heavy-handed techniques established through the first two modules and ends with the ultimate slap in the face for the PCs. I’ll get to that shortly, after I’ve had a chance to cool off from having re-read this module.