EZG reviews Rise of the Drow (Pre-kickstarter edition, A13-15)
With the Rise of the Drow-kickstarter being such a huge success, I figured I’d share reviews of the basic adventures that will be collected and expanded in its massive new iteration!
How better than to delve into a series of reviews than with an epic trilogy? The Adventureaweek.com-crew has recently launched their first multiple module spanning epic, the Rise of the Drow and today, I’m going to take a look at Part 1!
Rise of the Drow I: Descent into the Underworld
This pdf is 121 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving a whopping 116 pages of content, so let’s check this out!
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players might wish to jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here? The underdark is boiling from the flames of war – Maelora of House Gullion (nice tribute to fellow reviewer KTFish7, I assume?) has taken control over the drow trade-hub of Holoth via an interesting coup d’état – allying herself with the alien Vidre and siphoning power from an artifact granted by these enigmatic, crystalline schemers, she indeed triumphed and funneled the souls of her captives through the artifact to gain immense power. Unbeknown to her, half of the souls have been funneled to the greedy clutches of the alien Vidre and sacrifices have started to become harder and harder to come by. Not one to be dictated what to do, the matron managed to sever the binding ties and arcane entwinements of the pact between her and the Vidre via the Spider-Goddess’ help (we’re looking at old-school drow here, obviously) for the promise of a conquest of the worlds above – the goddess has spoken and so it shall be done. The Vidre, meanwhile, prepare for war – their thirst for souls must be slaked.
Enter the PCs via a relative of Rybalka’s blacksmith Quorron, a female named Miah, ambassador of Embla, a dwarven city that seeks to unite the denizens of the underdark to address the drow-problem. Time is of the essence, though, and the PCs will have to take a dangerous road into the underdark via the ruins of Krelgar keep (5 level-mini-dungeon, lavishly cartographed in a stunning full-color map) – and something is definitely amiss, indicated by the dimensionally shackled bralani the PCs encounter there. After encountering the first troupes of drow (thankfully only zombies), the PCs may be in for a surprise – if they can decipher a missive, they’ll realize that the dark elves have planned a raid on the surface world. Even cooler: Drow Paper, Quills and Ink are described and they are anything but common – what about e.g. quills made from giant spider fangs? Neat! Nevertheless, the PCs should think about warning Rybalka – whether they do or not, the repercussions will be felt. However, the immediate threat, the boss of this dungeon, will prove to be a challenge – the disturbing drow mhorg Yul will prove to be a worthy challenge, no small thanks to his items and the new “Third eyes of fear” that lets the users blink.
The journey through the underdark, accompanied by a cool map as well as information on various types of gases and multiple encounters will also see the PCs encounter their first driders, a wizard of house Gullion and then culminate in a chance for them to disrupt a drow raid on a dwarven caravan and then finally arrive at the gates of Embla, where the second module of the trilogy will start.
The pdf also includes the Titanic Beastmaster PrC. The class gets d8, 2+Int skills per level, full BAB, good fort- and ref-saves and focuses on taming and training the larger monsters – no spell progression or the like and the requirements for the PrC are rather steep, making it an accomplishment to actually qualify for it while granting massive enhancements to the special companion granted by it.
On page 41, the statblock-index starts with an encounter table and takes up all space till page 117 to deliver all the stats for both D&D 3.5 and PFRPG. Unfortunately, the index is not bookmarked, which makes this vast section of the pdf harder to navigate than it should by any means.
The pdf closes with two player-friendly versions of the stellar maps.
Editing and formatting are very good, though not perfect – I encountered some minor glitches, but none that severely impeded my enjoyment of the module. Layout adheres to AaW’s full-color two-column standard and the cartography is simply awesome. I was also blown away by some of the artworks – the drow depicted mostly can stand up to the Paizo-level regarding the quality of the art. However, there are also some jarring full-color illustrations that feel somewhat shoehorned into the adventure, are of a lesser quality and detract from a unified look. I frankly would have preferred them to be left out. The pdf comes with a printer-friendly version and nested bookmarks. At the time of the writing of this review, Herolab-files have not yet been provided, but are planned.
“Rise of the Drow I” is an interesting module in that it builds up a sense of threat and consequences for the region of Rybalka and its surroundings and works well to set up not only the drow as a credible threat, but also to evoke a sense of grand changes afoot. The environmental effects and cultural details like the paper/ink etc. they use lends an added sense of credibility to the dark elves. It should be noted, though, that the drow of AaW seem to worship a certain spider-goddess and thus are different from the demon-worshipping drow of Golarion – I’m already curious how this worship interacts with a fabled origin that hearkens back to Norse mythology. All in all, this is a good module with already rather significant decisions to make, but judging the repercussions and consequences etc., for now, remains hard – I look forward to seeing how the sequels can implement these diverging paths. Content-wise, thus, there’s not much to complain about. Add to that the jarring difference in quality between beautiful and rather hideous artworks and we have some factors that conspire to keep this module from the full 5 stars. Thus, my final verdict will be a solid 4 stars with your humble reviewer looking forward to seeing how the saga continues.
Rise of the Drow II: Scourge of Embla
This module is 84 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 1 page SRD, leaving a total of 80 pages of content, so let’s check this out!
The trade city of Embla is perhaps the most ingenious dwarven city I’ve ever seen – built into vast so-called Gonjolas, crystals suspended from vast chains and connected by suspension bridges – I expected much, but not something so iconic – awesome! The pdf kicks off with a rather detailed description of the city and its locations and even organizations. A drow spy is also mentioned and described in detail.
This being an adventure review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players may want to skip to the conclusion.
Still here? All right!
After having been contacted by dwarves, the PCs have ventured into the mysterious underdark, unearthing a potentially vast threat to the surface of which the folk of Rybalka may or may not be aware at this point. Thus, their journey to thwart the gambit of house Gullion has led them to the wondrous dwarven city of Embla and speak with Maylorin and the merchant circle, hopefully managing to save at least some of their allies from a deadly cadre of drow assassins. Once the assassins have been defeated, your dwarven ally may lead the adventurers towards the city of Holoth – perhaps the PCs have even gotten a glance of the scrying attempt of the soul-consuming Vidrefacte. Here, the adventure splits into 3 paths – either the PCs try to warn Rybalka and return to the surface, sneak to the backdoor of Holoth or gather the remaining warriors of the dwarven city and opt for a frontal assault. And the consequences of each action may be dire:
If they return to the surface, Embla will be squashed with all the consequences that entails in Part III adventure. If the PCs opt for a frontal assault, they will have to deal with a rather deadly slugfest to break through the drow’s lines of defense and finally, if the PCs opt for the back door, they will have to traverse the domain of an albino dragon, deal with underdark dangers and survive extensive climbing sections (including a table of DCs and modifications) and survive falling stalactites. Potentially, they can find the resting place of a famous explorer and glean a hint from his journal (with a rather lavish entry) that may lead them to a gem of legend. Beyond that, a cave with a purple worm and her young awaits as well as fiendish advanced chokers, mold, fungi and slime. Speaking of Fungi: The Fungus Forest they encounter makes for a truly unique climax for this adventure, one I haven’t seen before in any way:
Carefully tended by the impressive fungiant Huolethia Sieni, this garden comes to fruition only once each season and for 15 minutes – unfortunately, a tribe of particularly vicious fiendish chokers, the Ottaakiinni, has been harassing both him and his mushroom golems. The fungiant wants the PCs to help him harvest as many caps and edible spores from his cultivated farm as possible – and thus, the game is on: The fungus forest has 4 different levels, all detailed via schematic drawings of colored circles and each less dense in undergrowth than the one before. Different mushrooms have different sizes and point values assigned. Better yet, after the PCs have harvested, he’ll turn the mushrooms to usable equipment/boons for the PCs, depending on which caps/spores they collected. DCs for diplomacy with the fungiant and golems as well as the sizes and point values of all the mushrooms are included in their own easy to navigate tables. Better yet, there actually is a separate version of the mushroom mini-game, making it also a rather neat idea to run at a con. Have I mentioned the three new spells, player-friendly maps of Embla, Underdark and the Back Road?
Editing and formatting are top-notch this time around, I didn’t notice any glitches. Layout adheres to an elegant 2-column standard with the boxes we know from the revised AaW.com-layout, but with a spidery border. Neat! The pdf is lavishly bookmarked and the illustration of the Fungiant is awesome – as is the cartography: Todd Gamble has created some of his neatest pieces here and especially the map of Embla is a joy to behold. The pdf comes with an extra version of the mini-game as a pdf and a printer-friendly version. Herolab-files for the module will probably created soon as well, but have not yet been published as I write these lines.
It is rare for me to show any sense of wonder anymore, any sense of excitement and many designers forget that the underdark is more than a bunch of caverns filled with nasties – it’s supposed to be an alien world of wonder, that is claustrophobic and disturbing. The pdf recommends the old Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide and indeed, this module breathes the spirit of this stellar classic, delivering an old-schoolish sense of wonder and danger that goes beyond what one finds in almost all Underdark adventures nowadays without being repetitive of the classic concepts. The city of Embla is fascinating and I honestly wouldn’t have minded a whole sourcebook à la Paizo’s city-gazetteers devoted to it. And then there’s the climax that is not a classic boss-fight or a been-there, done-that encounter, but rather an imaginative, innovative, cool mini-game that will test the PC’s abilities to their limit should you chose so. This module has it all: Atmosphere. Imaginative, unique and iconic locations. Plot hooks. The option to jump off the rails and do something dramatically different, diverging from the presumed path. And the stellar, cool, innovative conclusion. This is how underdark-adventures should look nowadays. An awesome module, worth every cent of the price of admission and mops the floor with its direct predecessor. My final verdict? 5 stars + Endzeitgeist seal of approval. Nothing to complain -at all! Apart from one thing: Why is the Fungiant not on the cover? The artwork is SO AWESOME and much more compelling that the module’s cover!
Rise of the Drow III: Usurper of Souls
The final installment of the “Rise of the Drow”-trilogy clocks in at a whopping 252 pages, 1 front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages ToC, 8 pages of very readable and informative bios of the AaW-team, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a whopping 239 pages of content. Not bad!
This being the review to the conclusion of the final installment of AaW’s Rise of the Drow-Saga and sequel to one of the best underdark adventures I’ve read in quite a while, the following contains SPOILERS and for your own sake, you should skip to the conclusion if you want to participate in the module as a player.
Still here? All right! Depending on the choices they PCs made in the predecessor modules, they are off to rather different start and later in the adventure, the paths may diverge even further. Anyways, in last adventure, the PCs have entered the drow city of Holoth via either frontal assault or the back door and this is where the module kicks off – with the details on the compound of house Gullion and the attack/infiltration in full swing. Thus, at the beginning, the module is a rather free-form style exploration/infiltration and provides us with information on e.g. the slave dens, in which dinosaur-riding drow as well as an advanced tyrannosaurus are guarding the slaves. Worse, indoctrination and clever favoritism has bred a significant amount of slaves that might turn on the PCs when freed! The mushroom gardens also have their shepherds – corrupted mushroom golems, abducted from last module’s excellent and innovative finale.
True to the sandboxy style of the presentation, we also get the fully-detailed, many-layered spider-shaped temple of Naraneus, the Queen of Spiders for the PCs to attack and explore and pilfer: Among the loot some rather cool unique drwarven weapons the PCs can find (e.g. an urgosh and a trident) as well as a rather neatly detailed library in which not only several books are detailed, but which also houses a nice secret that can potentially help the PCs deal with a color-coded puzzle. The PCs can also encounter a neat unique mosaic golem and even a book golem. Whether the PCs ignore the temple or clear it out before they enter the steps to the adjacent Tologorith tower remains up to them – also rather nice: Depending on the path they’ve chosen, the PCs may actually stumble upon a battle between the drow and the crystalline vidre, who are anything but pushovers and not too pleased by the dark elves’ (perceived) failures. Tolgorith tower, base of house Gullion and location of the artifact Vidrefacte, will be not a pushover for the PCs to explore: First of all, the massive amount of ritual sacrifices enables to drow to have forbiddances, guards and wards and unhallow in effect – ouch. Better yet, the defenses and tactics of the drow soldiers actually make sense in the defense of the tower – but fret not, this module does not devolve into a drow slugfest, for the dungeon of the tower contains an unlikely ally for the PCs, provided they survive the beastmasters of house Gullion – in the crypt, the PCs can find a plethora of undead – that don’t want to kill the PCs and instead come with an offer under the guidance of Makinnga Gullion:
The mistress of undead on her artifact-level powerful blood throne wants to shatter the Vidrefacte and put an end to the deal with the crystalline, soul-consuming Vidre – and she knows how: By sending her undead allies into the artifact, she plans to subvert its powers, tearing it asunder and breaking the tower in the process. Unfortunately, any contact with the artifact could cancel the trial and thus, PCs will have to keep their foe’s hands off the artifact. Worse yet, they probably wouldn’t survive the tower’s collapse – unless they agree to a nice ploy – Makinnga suggests they bring her personal belongings of members of house Gullion will be needed in order to create an effect that will postpone the collapse of the tower for the PCs to escape as well as providing them with a camouflage cover that could enable them to flee. Better yet, we get a sheet naming the respective characters on which the items secured can be tracked easily – nice help for GMs and players alike! Well, and if the players seek combat, they’ll have their hands full here as well – Makinnga’s allies include a nice gnomish demi-lich that will come to her aid… Said demi-lich is actually rather reasonable btw., and in no way required to be defeated – a nice classic “what you sow is what you reap”-situation.
Now, even with this potential ally, the rest of the tower will not be a cakewalk – take for example a haunt that has the players swarmed by phantasmal waves of poisonous spiders or the penultimate major hindrance between the PCs and the showdown with the mother matron: Maltorya, mad cleric and next in line for the matron’s title, seeks to not only defeat the PCs (they happen upon her as she conducts a grueling sacrifice), but pull them to the private demi-plane bestowed upon the house by the dread spider goddess – a place of viscous, extremely lethal poison, airborne spider swarms and a deadly and disturbing confrontation to say the least and the one place I would have LOVED to see further detailed – with a map and scenarios à la “fighting on swinging rope bridges over the sea of poison. Here, the module has essentially missed a chance. That being said, it’s not the final confrontation and essentially we get two boss battles at once. Climbing the mandible-like stairs (including painful biting) to the final level of the tower and the battle royale.
I don’t use that particular compound often. It is wholly appropriate here – what at first kicks off as the epic showdown with the insanely powerful mother matron for the crystalline artifact quickly becomes an all-out brawl: While it takes some round for the matron to realize that the undead (if applicable and a deal has been struck) seek to destroy the Vidrefacte instead of attacking the PCs. Of course, the PCs may also have problems with the undead and the Vidre that bursts in on the fourth round, making this showdown rather complex. Great help for the DM to run this encounter is provided in the form of a round-by-round table that lists tactics/things happening by group and thus makes handling the groups rather easy as well as providing a nice guideline to making this conflict as cinematic as it should be. If the PCs have scored ALL items, they have 14 rounds to escape the tower – and here, we get another piece of coolness: Instead of just having the collapse be hand-waved (seen that done rather often), we get 11 different things that can happen – write them upon sheets and the roll these bones for chances of collapse, people tumbling out of the tower, exterior walls breaking etc. – climactic, tight in its allotted time and hardcore, the escape will have your players on the edge of their seats. Oh, and if they want to featherfall/fly out of the tower, falling chunks/quakes/errant sonic blasts etc. can hit them there as well, if you as a DM so chose – I can see at least some of the collapsing parts working well in this instance as well. Hopefully, they manage to evade capture and slip out of the ruined section of Holoth.
Depending on their choices, though, the beautiful city of Embla might be no longer existent, people may have died or survived and it is time to reap the fruits of the labor of their help – Mikannga, if they chose to deal with her, actually honors her deal…for now and the PCs may find themselves even be revered as some kind of demi-gods by the dwarves. As often, though, the best ending, the one of the smartest path with the least casualties is the one that has the heroes remain mostly unsung – a nice parallel with real life, though easily remedied, should you chose to do so.
The pdf also contains lists of XP by used path of all the Rise of the Drow modules and a write-up of Naraneus, the Spider Goddess (including the penumbra and shadow domains – the latter coming with 9 all new spells, one of which is essentially a shadow-themed fireball-clone – that deals untyped damage. That’s a no-go. Against a fireball, you can protect yourself. Against a shadow blast? No protection from shadowy untyped energy exists, making this lvl 3-spell vastly superior and unbalanced even when compared to an already very strong core-spell like fireball. The Vidrefacte is also fully detailed and after that, we’re off to the encounter indexes, which contain full stats both for 3.5 and PFRPG – and also some elaborate backgrounds for several of the characters herein. 8 full color maps are interspersed throughout the pdf and the final pages are taken up by a list of “what has gone before”-style events as well as a chart that provides the most likely outcome of all three main paths the trilogy can have taken.
Editing and formatting are very good, though not perfect: I encounter e.g. a homonymy-error and some other minor hick-ups. Layout adheres to AaW’s two-column full color standard and Todd Gamble’s cartography is, as usual, excellent. Special mentioning deserves the STELLAR cover artwork by James J. Krause, the man behind the awesome fungal golem artwork in part 2 – the BBEG depicted oozes “dangerous, beautiful, fully armed drow lady”-flair. Awesome! The pdf comes with extensive, nested bookmarks and a background-less printer-friendly version. As per the writing of this review herolab-files have not yet been added, but will be.
Here we are, at the conclusion of the Rise of the Drow-Trilogy and oh boy, it ends with a bang! This module is best summed up as “War in a drow city” or “Infiltration of a drow compound”. Have we seen similar things before? Yes, in Endless Night, for example. Where this module truly excels is the focus on the grounds of house Gullion and the fact that this place is DEADLY. Dumb PCs WILL die. This module should be considered a free-form, sandboxy, extremely detailed infiltration/escalation that, when handled, should feel reminiscent of e.g. the final section a Bond movie – foes left and right, climactic battles, sneaking, death traps and a furious “blow all up” finale. The individual characters are great, the locations iconic and the finale (and pre-finale including a demi-plane)ROCKS.
That being said, the adventure has one narrative peculiarity a DM should be aware of: In order to grasp what happens in the finale, the PCs are presumed to find and talk to a NPC they could easily miss – while orchestrating a meet-up should prove no problem to any DM, it’s the one weak link of a finale that otherwise is just simply epic. Best of all, the whole product oozes a constant sense of a lion’s den, looming death and potential for conflict and style. The locations the PCs visit feel vastly more unique than my frame of reference “City of the Spider Queen”. In contrast to “Endless Night”, the PCs are not glued to infiltration-rails and could just as well try to take the drow spells and blades blazing, though actions like this will have consequences. Their actions obviously do matter – and a couple of useful foreshadowing lets one anticipate what will come of the aftermath of the Rise of Drow Trilogy. I also like how the actions in part GREATLY influence everything that goes on in this module, making a good example that player-driven narratives and sandboxy environments work perfectly in tandem when handled with care.
Regarding the links with adventure I and II, the ties to 2 are rather dominant, while Part 1 remains essentially a glorified introduction to the whole module – foreshadowing the potential ally by making her an ally of adventure I’s BBEG – which would further make the byzantine politics of the drow city obvious. If you’re planning on running the Rise of the Drow-trilogy, I wholeheartedly encourage you to read ALL 3 modules and prepare them as one mega-module. Unlike the Monstrous-Arcana 2nd edition trilogies, these modules are strongly linked together in a compelling narrative. Enemies fight smart, the module is full of details (somewhat alike e.g. RSP’s Shadowed Keep of the Borderlands”) and the challenges are real and evocative. Think of it as one mega-module in 3 parts.
I really like the ambition of the product, AaW’s bristling creativity and the finale as well as the option for the PCs to do vastly diverging things throughout the module. Not all is excellent, though: The new shadow domain unfortunately feels slightly repetitive and features a spell that is terribly unbalanced and needs revision. The module also has slightly more minor glitches than what I’ve come to expect from AaW. Then again, the module is, even SANS stats over 90 pages long – add the stats of your choice (e.g. 68 pages for PFRPG!) and we get a bang-for-buck ratio one truly can’t complain about.
That being said, in spite of the options of different paths and the strange allies the PCs can make herein (and probably should, regarding the power-level of the foes in these pages), this module feels a slight bit less polished than Part I and II – there are some ideas like a demi-plane that could have easily be enhanced to be even more memorable. That being said, I’m nagging on a VERY HIGH level here – the finale of the Rise of the Drow-trilogy is a great module, full of tension and flavor. It’s just that with some minor tweaks, it could have easily been a legendary module – good news being that DMs should not be too challenged by making the very minor modifications to enhance the module even further. The DM/player-aids to handle a complex fight, a sub-quest and the final escape also rock hard and make running this module also a feasible endeavor for DMs with less experience. How to rate this, then? After some rather extensive deliberation, I’m going to settle for a final verdict of 4.5 stars, since the minor weak point coalesce with some missed chances from me considering this excellent. This module offers a lot of band for buck. It is also a better read than “City of the Spider-Queen” and completely different from “Endless Night” in scope and tone – thus, I’ll round up to 5 stars.
And If you’re interested: If I had to rate the whole trilogy, I’d give it 5 stars, but for now remain just short of the seal of approval.
Missed the kickstarter or don’t want to wait for the hardcover?
A discounted bundle of these excellent modules can be found here – check it out!