The Worst Adventure Ever: Tantras, chapter three

Damn it, Elminster! Stay dead!Chapter 3 starts off with a big block of off-stage events for the DM that is not meant to be shared with the PCs. The NPC Kelemvor continues to hunt the PCs, but has doubts about doing so because he feels they were wrongly imprisoned. In an editorial oversight, the text also refers to the PCs as “his former companions,” when he hasn’t been introduced directly in the adventure. Like Adon, Kelemvor is being shoved into the plot because he was in the novels. It seems like Shadowdale was set up to at least try to allow the PCs some wiggle-room away from the events of the book, but that Tantras is running lock-step with the novel. I’m thinking some tight deadlines were involved, resulting in this module (and probably the whole series) getting rushed out before it was even proofread or playtested. The latter might be a moot point, because I’m not entirely sure that TSR under Lorraine Williams ever actually playtested their products.

In other off-stage events, Myrkul has restored Bane after his battle against Elminster at the end of Shadowdale. Bane’s new goal is to capture Midnight, who he correctly believes to be linked to the now-dead Mystra.

Event 1: An Unexpected Visitor
Suddenly, a robed, bearded figure appears in midair, seemingly from nowhere. He smiles at you, and nods. You recognize…Elminster!

You didn’t really think he was dead, did you?

Actually, this isn’t really Elminster at all. It’s a doppelganger out to capture Midnight. He shows up, tells Midnight he needs to talk to her in private (to which Midnight readily agrees, waving the PCs away if they try to follow), and then attacks her. The text isn’t clear, but I would assume that the doppelganger is an agent of Bane. The funny thing is that the PC don’t have to do anything in this encounter. They can sit in a clearing and play solitaire. Midnight will scream for help, but the doppelganger just runs away if the party rushes to her aid. If they ignore her cries for help and continue playing solitaire, she starts launching spells at the doppelganger and chases it away regardless. I bring this up because at this point, if not before, I as a player would probably be playing solitaire through every encounter from here on out.

Event 2: Theln Roaringhorn
A man steps out of the trees and hails you. “Travelers!” he calls in a deep voice of grace and dignity. “Well met! I am Theln Roaringhorn, Servant of Lathander. I come in peace, but being alone in these dangerous times, I fear for my hide every night. Might I share your fire? I will work healing on any one amongst you who most needs it, if you will let me share your company until the morrow.”

Theln is a patented helpful NPC. You can tell because he has “a deep voice of grace and dignity.” The Forgotten Realms are incredibly unsubtle when it comes to their NPCs. If they look good and act friendly, they’re probably good guys. If they cackle maniacally or, like Cyric, talk about stealing ancient artifacts to gain immense power, they’re bad guys. Theln will do nothing but heal the PCs and provide advice and lore about the surrounding area. If the PCs try to hurt or rob him, a fighter and two dozen soldiers arrive later to smack them down for hurting the guy. It’s funny that the plot forces the PCs to ally with Cyric, who is actively and openly plotting to screw the entire Realms in his bid for power, but when they actually act the part the adventure smacks them down for it.

Event 3: Bloodshed at Blackfeather Bridge
In the distance you see the low grey lines of a massive stone bridge spanning the river: Blackfeather Bridge. As the rushing Ashaba sweeps you closer, you also see men standing on the bridge-men in armor. They have bows drawn and aimed at you, arrows ready to fire!

Kelemvor has arrived to recapture the PCs. As Cyric tries to steer the boat away from the bowmen, Adon makes his first meaningful contribution to the plot: he accidentally tips the boat over. “Valuable gear may well be lost, and all of the PCs face the possibility of drowning (all of the NPCs will survive, although the DM should not make this apparent immediately).” If I was a player in a game where the DM ran this module by the book, I would feel incredibly cheated if I ever found these details out. It’s like playing a game of Monopoly where the guy who plays the banker gets to decide that his favorite players don’t have to pay rent.

The archers fire at the PCs for two rounds while Kelmvor stands behind them doing nothing. Then he transforms into a panther and starts attacking an archer. Yeah…apparently Kelemvor is “cursed” and turns into a ferocious panther when he’s agitated. Except it’s not really a curse, because it only comes out at plot-convenient moments. Kelmvor helps the PCs through the battle, then becomes human again and faints. Meanwhile, Cyric has disappeared in the battle.

“The other NPCs, when they notice Cyric’s absence after the end of the hostilities, will assume that he has drowned and been swept downstream (and the PCs, having no reason to think otherwise, should agree with this conclusion).”

Cool…so now the plot is not only taking control of the PCs’ actions, but also their thoughts. I guess it would arguably break character to show some plot awareness and realize that no one really drowns in these kind of stories, but it’s still pretty lame to state what the PCs should be thinking.

All the NPCs give Cyric a bit of mourning, which is weird considering that he was nothing but a flaming asshole to the lot of them. Then Kelemvor takes Adon out to find some food, while Mystra tells the PCs to fix up the boat. Then she “will crisply direct the PCs in standing watch…” So I guess she’s the party leader, if that hasn’t been obvious enough, and the PCs are the henchmen who get to fix things up after a battle.

“The DM should force the PCs to camp, due to damage of the boat, approaching dark, and universal agreement against pressing on among the NPCs…”

I think I’ll just let that quote speak for itself.

Event 4: Darkness Pounces
“A sudden snorting and flapping sound comes from the gathering darkness overhead. Something small and gleaming hurtles down from the sky and shatters on the ground beside the fire. It was a small glass sphere; now broken, it gives off a greenish, coiling smoke.

Welcome to the “you’re going to get captured no matter what” fight. The glass spheres contain powerful gas that automatically knocks out Kelmvor and requires a save versus poison from everyone else to avoid falling unconscious. If the PCs remain conscious, three riders on pegasi drop out of the sky and attack with bolas that have a 60% chance of entangling a medium-sized creature, several other pegasi that disrupt Midnight’s spellcasting, and special spiked armor that no one else can wear.

The encounter is an oddity not because of the unfair tactics used, but because the folks attacking the PCs are all assassins. The note at the beginning of the module stated that the adventure used the 2nd edition rules, but assassins were written out of those rules. As a result, anyone who doesn’t have a 1st edition rulebook is probably in the dark as to what the assassin class actually allows a character to do. I guess the DM should feel free to make those details up, because no matter what, “The assailants will swiftly overcome the party.” The adventure does not have an option for the PCs to escape, but here’s a little secret: it doesn’t really matter. The only reason they’re being captured is so they can get another daring rescue from the NPCs in a little bit. Personally, I think it would have been easier for the module writer to build around the concept that the PCs were going to escape and then provide a contingency plan to rescue them if they were captured. I’ve run a lot of games, and no player I have ever seen enjoys having their PCs being captured. Some players would almost rather have their characters killed outright, and the mood of the table can get downright nasty when capture is forced on the heroes. Unless it’s done in media res at the start of an adventure, I think it’s one of those conventions that work fine in fiction but not in an RPG. But that’s okay, because this whole module is practically really bad fan fiction anyway.

Event 5: The Flight
“The assassins are skilled at kidnapping. When PCs revive, they will find themselves too tightly bound and strapped to do more than breathe. Spellcasters will be gagged and stripped as well (to remove material components).

“Whether they were rendered unconscious by the sleep poison or by a knockout blow, each adventurer will awaken 3d4 rounds after the pegasi head into the sky. Midnight and Adon (grateful to still be alive) will not struggle or protest. Kelemvor will remain unconscious throughout the journey that has just gotten under way. If any PCs insist on trying to get away, the DM should make it obvious that escape is, for all practical purposes, impossible. The pegasi are at least half a mile up in the air by the time anyone awakens. The assassins will warn any PC who might attempt an escape to cease such foolishness or be killed.

“To reinforce this advice, Durrock has a wand of viscid globs (a new magical item; see page 45) in a sheath within easy reach of his saddle. He will use it to refasten any PC whom he notices struggling or moving about suspiciously. (Normally, targets are allowed a saving throw to dodge the globs, but the trussed adventurers will not have this option.)

“If any PCs express an intention to struggle against the bond of the globs, the DM should forewarn them that their efforts will be useless. If they persist in trying, assessing 1 or 2 hp of damage per round (from muscle tears, strains, and so forth) should get the point across shortly.”

That’s the event in its entirety. We’ve got the PCs captured against their will. In case that’s not enough humiliation, spellcasters have been stripped naked. Goodbye dignity! And there’s a brand new magical item designed specifically to make this encounter a no-escape situation. And despite being designed just for this scenario, the magical item’s rules aren’t ironclad enough, so the DM is instructed to break the rules yet again to ensure the sanctity of the plot. Why not just state that the wand of viscous globs doesn’t allow a save? It’s not overpowering because the magical item will never make another appearance anywhere except for this specific encounter.

Finally, if the PCs insist on struggling too much, they take hit point damage. That means that if they were already beat up during the encounter or if they’re too stubbornly persistent, they can die from a torn muscle. I once had a 1st-level wizard who died from a 10-foot fall. But dying from a torn muscle? That might be the most unheroic death I’ve ever seen. At least with a 10-foot fall, you can say the character hit his head and broke his neck. (And, due to bad hit point rolls and no house rules, said wizard only had 1 hit point anyway and thus could have been killed by a common house cat.)

And, once again, in case I haven’t made my point crystal clear yet, all this forcing the PCs to the will of the DM is a waste of time in the first place. The PCs are being brought exactly to where they would be going anyway, and once there they’ll escape almost immediately. So what would be so wrong about letting the PCs get to the next plot point on their own terms?

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2 Responses to “The Worst Adventure Ever: Tantras, chapter three”

  1. Referring to my old campaign notes about the Blackfeather Bridge encounter:

    ” Before we got to Blackfeather Bridge, we put ashore and Quintus scouted ahead, noting the extra soldiers waiting there to arrest us (Kelemvor and crew). We crossed over to the north shore well upstream of the bridge, abandoned the boats, and struck out cross-country, arriving at Hap a day later, where we picked up some supplies.”

    As for the assassins on pegasi that *tried* to capture us:

    “Two days out of Hap, Zhent assasins attacked in the middle of the night. They tossed sleep gas on us from atop flying pegasi, and landed to attack, nearly knocking Septimus down with one of their mounts. We killed them all in spite of the fact that most of us were eventually overcome by the sleep gas–but not fast enough to save the would-be assassins. One of them died rather gruesomely after Duo cast a Heat Metal, cooked by his own armor. “

  2. I remember running this adventure, and my DM intervention at event 4. Even I was getting tired of characters being captured AGAIN and dropped all the b******t shenanigans, letting them fight the assassins on even terms. They won in the end, looted the corpses, and merrily continued their journey downrivers, eventually arriving to Tantras on their own terms. I was happy with that, and no doubt the players would have been too, had they ever known what I did.

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