The Worst Adventure Ever: Tantras, chapter two

A map of the area that gives us the illusion of free will.Chapter 2 is about as close as this module will get to resembling an actual adventure. It details the trip down the Ashaba River, which is a tumultuous one thanks to the magical chaos effecting the land. It really boils down to a series of random encounters that don’t have a huge effect on the plot, but those encounters are particularly precious in these adventures. After all, they’re the only times when the PCs get to actually go something for themselves.

Event 1: Fast Current to Freedom
Cyric mutters, “Always placid, they said, all of them, and not everyone had reason to lie…This must be more of the doings of the gods!”

As the PCs rush down the river, guards from Shadowdale will attack them. They’re alerted by “a magical message,” which is yet another example of magic working fine and dandy when it’s supposed to be all messed up. Must be nice to be a plot-related character.

“There are 10 male guards at the bridge, all lawful neutral 1st level human fighters of AC 5 (chain mail), armed with crossbows (6 bolts each), spears, daggers, maces, and short swords. They all wear royal blue surcoats adorned with the badge of Shadowdale: a silver crescent moon, floating points uppermost, upon which is superimposed the silver, spiral outline of the lower of Ashaba, which divides the crescent equally.

“Their captain is a similarly equipped lawful neutral half-elven female. She is a 3rd level female fighter named Sieran, and is armed with a mace of spellwarding…She will use it to dispel or reflect any magic cast at the guards.

“If the PCs land to engage in combat, the guards will fight to the death to hold the bridge, and will try to slay the attackers, taking no prisoners. The fury of their attack should drive the NPCs (Cyric, Midnight, and Adon) back to the boat; the PCs would be wise to follow.”

See, that last part makes no sense to me. The PCs are presumably about 8th or 9th level right now – ten 1st-level goons and a 3rd-level named goon aren’t much of a challenge for them, magical chaos or not. But the PCs are supposed to run away from these guys, despite the fact that they wrongfully accused them of murder, gave them a mob justice trial, and are now trying to kill them. As a player, I’d gut these guards like a fish, misunderstanding or no. But the NPCs try not to attack, and anyone playing the modules to this point should probably realize that when the NPCs start to do something, they are supposed to follow.

We’re also treated to another off-stage event, which the DM gets to read but the players don’t see. The NPC fighter Kelemvor is dispatched to hunt down the PCs. This would be something that will just pop up later in the adventure, but Kelemvor is another plot NPC (the fourth main character from the novels, along with Midnight, Adon, and Cyric). As a result, he’s going to forced down the players’ throats, so this passage is basically warning the DM of what’s going to happen.

Event 2: Wreck and Runes
The moon sails through scudding clouds as you race down the Ashaba. You need your paddles to slow and steer the boat, not to propel it. The water is rushing seaward with frightening speed, rocking the flat-bottomed boat from side to side as though it were a cork floating in a rain barrel during a storm. Several times rocks grate and grind beneath you, making the boat shudder for a moment before the current whirls you forward.

The text instructs the DM on how to check for wandering monsters here. So there are random encounters, but not of the semi-interesting variety from Shadowdale – instead we get a bunch of randomly determined fights to intersperse the plot with.

“As the boat rushes on through the night, PCs should be kept busy defending the boat from rocks and overhanging banks with paddles, polearms, or weapons. During this perilous voyage, the DM should initiate a frequently interrupted discussion of the party’s future and goals, by playing the parts of the three NPCs (Midnight, Cyric, and Adon).”

This is hitting on three pet peeves at once. First, there’s the whole “DM talking to himself” syndrome that I prefer to avoid if possible. Second, there’s little definition to this “frequently interrupted discussion,” meaning that there’s more work for the DM here, especially if he’s not adept at improvisation. Third, the NPCs are discussing the party’s future, which basically means that they’re determining the adventure path for the PCs.

All the NPCs agree that the Tablets of Fate must be recovered, but Cyric wants to use them for personal gain. This is basically tattooing a big “I’m evil!” stamp on Cyric’s forehead, which the PCs unfortunately can’t do anything about. To be fair to the event, the notes do allow the PCs to take part in the discussion, but, “Cyric and Midnight should be used to prevent any conclusion to abandon the search for the tablets or even to leave the river.” At the very least, I’d like to toss Cyric overboard once he goes on his whole, “We should use these ancient artifacts to become gods ourselves rather than to save the world” rant, but that’s not an option here or anywhere.

As the conversation lags, the adventurers are attacked by a quelzarn. What’s a quelzarn? It’s basically a sea serpent, but in the Forgotten Realms they’re called quelzarns. This triggers another rant against fantasy naming conventions, in that authors sometimes choose to rename things that the audience would know easily under its normal moniker. The most extreme example I can think of is in Ed Greenwood’s Castlemourn setting, where he renames the compass points instead of just using north, south, east, and west. It’s supposed to be immersive in the setting, but I think a better way to immerse the players in the setting would be to use words they know and save the weird words for unknown stuff. But it’s really a minor complaint – the sea serpent quelzarn is a fun fight. It capsizes the boat and leaves the PCs fighting both frigid, rushing water, the darkness of night, and a giant aquatic creature. That’s actually a good encounter, since it forces the use of tactics beyond just swinging with a sword.

For those keeping score, that’s 2½ events in this series I now like – this one only gets a half-mark because of the stupid NPC conversation at the beginning of the event.

Event 3: Attack at Ashabenford
Cyric is being a jerk toward Adon. In Cyric’s defense, Adon has been a whiny wussy since he joined the group, all because someone cut his pretty face. But eventually Midnight tells him to knock it off, which leads to more NPC-on-NPC interaction.

Cyric eyes Midnight thoughtfully, his face expressionless. When he does speak, his voice is low and soft, almost a gentle whisper. “And what of your Art, lady? What are you becoming, and what will you do with the power you’ve gained?”

“The DM should allow frank PC discussion of Mystra’s fate and the possible uses of Midnight’s power if players desire.”

The NPCs in this adventure remind me of the old Simpsons episode where Homer voices Poochy for The Itchy and Scratchy Show. Specifically, I’m reminded of his advice of, “Whenever Poochy isn’t around, all the other characters should be asking, ‘Where’s Poochy?’”

Fortunately, the whole awkward conversation is interrupted by a group of angry Dalesmen who attack the PCs. The gods are running amok in the Realms, Shadowdale has just been through a major battle, but everyone is obsessed with bringing the supposed murderers of Elminster to justice.

“The PCs should be allowed to leave the boat at the ford to engage in combat, but if they show intentions of stealing horses or otherwise trying to end the river voyage here, the DM should do whatever is necessary to get them back in the boat. (For instance: physical chaos causes the ground to heave up and crack open, making overland travel hazardous if not impossible; horses panic and run uncontrollably back toward the river, calming down only after the PCs have dismounted. The NPCs will use verbal threats or magical – but not physical – force to get the PCs to see the error of their ways.)”

One of the frustrating things about a railroady plot is that it makes no sense for the plot to force these events along like this. The next stop for the PCs is Tantras – does it really matter how they get there? Why not detail a couple of optional routes and just let things go instead of shackling them to this damned boat? The only answer that I can think of is that the novels had the main characters get there by boat, but that’s not even much of an excuse. The novels should be providing the broad outline of this adventure, not forcing the PCs to go through every step of those mediocre books.

Event 4: Magic in the Mists
The current is strong, tugging the boat this way and that, as you come out of the trees into open country. A bit later in the day you round a bend in the river and come upon a large area of water, perhaps a small lake, entirely shrouded in mist.

The funny thing about calling this adventure a plot railroad is that right now it almost literally is one – just with a boat instead of a train. The PCs are repeatedly kept from leaving the boat, instead drifting from one encounter to another. Fortunately, this one is fairly neat if you’re interested in Forgotten Realms lore. The PCs eventually meet the spirit of Yeven the mage, a powerful individual who died some time ago. Now Myrkul, the god of the dead, is trying to resurrect individuals in the area, including Yeven. In a nice little speech, Yeven’s ghost rises, but he manages to resist Myrkul, returning to death. Other corpses aren’t so lucky, and the PCs have to fight a bunch of skeletons and zombies.

After the battle, the most remarkable thing happens:

“Cyric, Midnight, and Adon will be too wounded, preoccupied, or dazed to argue or suggest anything; leave the decisions at this point to the PCs…”

Awesome! The PCs get to make a choice! Not that it really matters. The choice is merely whether or not to dock the boat. If they do, a bunch of stirges attack the group. Whether they do or not, Yeven’s staff rises from the pool, marking a statue of Mystra that has been submerged in the water. Then the following happens:

Midnight stretches out a hand to the statue. Tentatively, almost reverently, she reaches out her fingers to touch its star “face.”

There is a sudden blaze of blue-white fire about Midnight.s fingers. Her hair stirs about her shoulders, and she laughs with delight. “A kind gift indeed, Yeven!” she says to the empty air about. “My thanks!”

“Midnight seems invigorated and possessed of new power. She has actually been healed of all current physical damage, and has had spells magically restored to her mind, ready to cast anew. She has also instantly and permanently gained an experience level, earning new spell ability and 4 additional hit points. She will not speak of this to any of her companions.”

So, bam. Midnight is now plot-advanced in level, probably above the PCs now. Oh well…the faint glimmer or free will was nice while it lasted.

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

  1. I don’t disagree with this blog post!!!

  2. My god this is awful. Thanks for shouldering the burden of reading and reporting on it. That last event there, with the leveling-up NPC, particularly stings. God knows at least one of my players would want to touch it, too! And by the logic of these module designers, they’d probably say the level-up function of the statue magically “doesn’t work” for the PCs … ugh.

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