This massive tome of a module is 494 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page designer signatures, 1 blank page inside front cover, 1 page editorial, 5 pages ToC,2 pages of SRD, 2 pages of backer-lists, 12 pages of advertisements (all in the back), 1 page back cover, leaving us with 469 pages of content…that’s A LOT, so I’ll better get going!
First, let me preface this review with a disclaimer: I reviewed the original Rise of the Drow-trilogy back in the day, and it already was a very good array of modules then. When this kickstarter happened, I was asked to be a stretch-goal and I agreed. I did receive compensation for my contribution to this book, small as said contribution may have been – an ecology (I’ll point out in the review) was penned by me, but I had no influence over any other part of this book. I do not consider my judgment in any way compromised and if you’ve been following me, you’ll have noticed that I’m just as adept at criticizing my own work, so yeah – this book, if anything does not get an easier standing with me. Still, full disclosure in regards like this is a necessity to maintain my integrity. If you are still in doubt, feel free to check my original reviews for the trilogy, posted quite some time before even the announcement of the kickstarter that made this book to verify this.
Next up, since this is an adventure-review, here’s the warning – the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should definitely jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right!
If you’re familiar with “Descent into the Underworld”, Part I of the original Rise of the Drow trilogy, then you’ll realize one thing from the get go – you get your money’s worth in this tome. The AAW crew has NOT skimped on the art budget, quite the contrary – from a one-page panorama of the starting village of Rybalka to the copious amounts of artworks in lavish detail (and color!), this is more than the sum of its constituent parts – take the keep the PCs are to investigate in the beginning – its whole surrounding area has now been properly mapped and expanded to include some gruesome remnants of the ancient fields of battle – including a couple of rather deadly creatures stalking the place…Have I mentioned that chaotic remnants of magic infusing the area (in case screaming skulls and diseased, mad treants did not drive home the point that this is unpleasantville…) or the rather problematic new residents of the keep?
From a panicked “prisoner” (you’ll see…) to the exploration of the creepy place, the PCs have a neat array of threats ahead of them – and intelligence to gather. Rather nice here would be the module actually taking into account that the PCs probably will (and should!) regroup at the village sooner or later – if only to do some legwork. The exploration of the dungeon beneath the keep has also been upgraded with a much needed (and useful!) place – a kind of teleport nexus (hard to use, but players probably will find a way…) of a cabal of drow/undead, the so-called ossuary collaborative. Here, people knowing the original trilogy will look a bit puzzled: Yes, Yul, the nasty drow mhorg can still the “boss” of this dungeon – but the AAW-crew took one of my gripes with the original trilogy, the relative weak tie-in of the first module with the rest, and slew two brutes with one stone – the PCs receive powerful gifts from a mysterious drow female as they explore the complex – the lady Makinnga seems to be looking for an alliance and her extremely powerful items indeed are nothing to scoff at…plus, this alliance may be a shadow of the things to come for your players.
Exploring successfully the dungeon beneath the keep, the PCs are next off to a trip into the bowels of the earth, the wondrous realm called underdark. Or rather, in AAW Games’ setting Aventyr (Norwegian for adventure, btw.), the world called underworld – and no, you won’t (yet!) find Lethe or the like, but seriously – this is a world in itself. One of my grand disappointments with most 2nd and 3rd edition underdark/world-supplements of our game and, to a lesser extent, Pathfinder, is the lack of claustrophobia, of wonder, of strange horizons unconquered. The good ole’ Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, one of the best resources I’ve ever read, is a rare exception to this – and the second module of the series garnered high praise from me initially, trumping the whole Second Darkness AP in one fell swoop. So AAW could have just left that alone. They didn’t – they vastly expanded the whole section. Not only do we get tables of underworld hazards the players will have to adapt to, random and special encounters to face while the explore the vast network of tunnels – this time, they get to save a dwarven caravan from drow raiders and then, explore the vastly expanded dwarven city of Embla. Studded with crystalline Gonjolas, fully mapped and vastly expanded to provide a vast political panoply for exploration, interaction etc. – all while maintaining believability. What do I mean by that? Fungus farms, trade routes – the city feels alive, realistic and still thoroughly fantastic. Embla was great before, but ultimately only a grandiose backdrop – now, it’s a vast sandbox to expand, develop and play in – complete with a creation myth, prices for beard-jewelry and trimming (YES!!! Now if that ain’t dwarven, what is?), notable NPCs, different stores, taverns, banks and even a recipe for dwarven bread. Now, if your players don’t bite, you can guide them through the story-threads rather easily here, but I literally, for my life can’t imagine a group of players who wouldn’t at least be intrigued by this strange place.
Beyond Embla, a short primer of some interest for the city of Stoneholm (tangential to the module – just there if your players want to check it out – now that’s detail!) also can be found herein. While in Embla, the PCs will have to thwart an assassination attempt on the ruling council of the mercantile dwarves (after they’ve been thoroughly introduces into the intricacies of dwarven hospitality) and then, follow one of three paths to pursue in the aftermath of the drow’s cowardly attempt at destroying the back-bone of the dwarves. Or at least, 3 paths are assumed and depicted – overall, the whole chapter is mostly written as a sandbox and thus offers quite an array of tough choices – two of which, though, have dire consequences: Returning to Rybalka to warn the village will see Embla fall to the drow and the PCs consequently will have to navigate either the ruins of the gorgeous city or avoid it altogether – sample encounters and the like are provided. A direct assault on the city is also possible, especially if your players are all about kicking the door in, murder-hobo style – and the battle indeed will be epic. The most detailed of the 3 paths, though, and the one the players should imho choose for maximum enjoyment, would be the one to Holoth’s back entrance.
This choice will also change the final adventure in the trilogy, mind you. But back to the exploration trip through the wilderness. This trip, in the original, constituted the very best in underworld wilderness I’ve seen in ANY Pathfinder module. That was before the addition of the dreadful underworld dragon Nidh-Cthon and his demesne Jorumgard. And before the addition of Venthin’s Hold, a truly despicable, extremely dangerous city hidden in the bowels of the earth, where no appetite, no matter how depraved, may be satisfied or the caves of the bat-like humanoids, the ahool. This would also be a good time to mention that the settlements get full settlement statblocks. And then, a gorgeous one-page illustration of a fungus jungle starts with what can be considered a herbarium of giant fungi of the underdark – what for example about a giant fungus that makes perception checks easier when adjacent due to its funnel-like shape? What about moonlight-like-radiance emitting mushrooms that imbue powers to e.g. reverse gravity to those drinking parts of the shrooms in alcohol. Especially impressive here – all fungi and molds herein get their very own full-color artworks (most including a humanoid figure as a frame of reference) and beyond these plants and wondrous hazards, mycelosuits are also introduced. These suits can essentially give you a mushroom suit that coats most of your body, rendering you weird, but also providing some very cool bonuses.
Plus: Seriously, how awesome is walking around covered in a weird suit of fungal fibre? Especially if the fungal suit constantly ejects tendrils and he like to propel you forward in e.g. forested environments? Oh, and then there would be the mushroom domain – one of my favorite domains currently available for Pathfinder. Why? Because you learn to generate explosive caps and kill your foes with force damage dealing mushroom caps. Not cool enough yet? What about entering shrooms and exiting through the same species? Or about the array of exclusive spells introduced? What spells? Well, what about fusing your legs with a mushroom and ride it? No, really. There’s a spell here that fusing a hopping shroom to your feet, making you ignore difficult terrain and nigh invincible against most combat maneuvers, but also providing a severe hindrance to your spellcasting? Yes, picture it. Glorious. Especially if you evoke carnivorous shrooms erupting from the floor to eat foes?
What about special weather conditions like fungi sweat and spore storms? Yeah – and then there would be the new, superb map of the fungal jungle and the already by now (at least in my game) cult mushroom harvesting mini-game, with a cool makeover. Oh, and the jungle itself has MUCH more going on inside as well… This section of the module was great before – it’s stellar now. Here is also a good place to note one of the smartest layout decisions I’ve seen in a while: Each of the 3 parts has its own, distinct, unique and gorgeous layout in full color. And I’m not saying the following due to Joshua Gullion (also known as fellow reviewer KTFish7 and a true friend) being responsible: The layout in this book is friggin’ Paizo-level, depending on personal preferences even beyond that. Each of the various styles used just is stunning, complements well the full color illustrations and is just downright gorgeous. My girl-friend is professionally involved in layout and LOVES what he’s done here – even though she usually has only complaints regarding my RPG-books. Better yet – the herbarium gets its own distinct layout – and in the context of this vast tome, that means if you just want to use the fungal jungle rules, you can immediately see where the section starts – flip it open, done. The same holds true for the 3 modules etc. – rendering this tome rather user-friendly. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say that the layouts used here are among the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.
That out of the way – I know what you want to hear about – the vast drow city of Holoth and what is going on there. Well, let’s start with a cohesive and concise gazetteer to the city – including detailed houses, power-structure, produce etc., allowing a DM to portray a very vivid depiction of the place. Each noble house (including two shadow houses)gets a full write up to inspire DMs further/expand the place, while each member of the main antagonist-house of Gullion actually gets a massive, full background story – making them come alive and potentially offering smart PCs way to use/trick/defeat the opposition. Speaking of which – roleplaying opportunities to strike deals with demons or devils, staging a slave revolt against dinosaur-riding drow taskmasters.
Chaos reigns in the city of Holoth, as the drow and the vidre wage war around the central fortress containing the dread artifact Vidrefacte – and to stop the threat once and for all, they will have to navigate the spider-shaped temple of the drow and enter via the temple Tolgrith tower. Here, the level of detail has once again been upped significantly – what about a 1-page table of quasi-magical herbs, all with different effects for one or 3 doses? Favorites like the mosaic tile golem or the book golem also make a triumphant return to form here. And the PCs better hurry, for each effect of the vidrefacte demands the power of souls to fuel it – and life is cheap in the underdark. Literally every day the PCs dawdle costs between 200 and 500 HD of creatures their lives…Yes, these drow are capital “N” Nasty genocidal megalomaniacs… If the PCs are smart, though, they’ll return to an alliance with the undead-affine Makinnga that, via her magic and items might have helped them time and again (and is a great way to keep players on track): She proposes an alliance to destroy the vidrefacte: If the PCs can get 3 personal items from each family member, Makinnga can use her talents to distract that family member…and delay the collapse of the tower upon destruction of the artifact. The PCs have to essentially create their own ticking clock in the end and are responsible for what happens – greed for magical items versus survival instinct – brilliant. And the PCs better damn well heed this advice and alliance, unless they’re buffed up and maxed out to the brim. Why? Because the tower and its foes are BRUTAL. We’re talking Frog God Games level, mixed with TPK Games-style boss battles. What do I mean by that? Navigating the tower is brutal in itself – but in order to stop Matron Mother Maelora, the PCs will also have to escape the friggin’ demplane of venom (now fully depicted and containing one of the most iconic boss battles I’ve seen in ages!) and final defeat the mastermind of the genocidal drow in a massive, chaotic free-for-all that lets them reap the benefits of their deeds and puts them in direct confrontation not only with the matron mother, but also her strongest allies and the dread vidre in a deadly free-for-all of epic proportions. A round-to-round breakdown helps the DM track all the complex interactions here and then, the collapse of the tower makes for a truly deadly escape – and, as for magic and the like – unlike most high-level modules, this one actually takes teleportations, flying and similar escape tricks into account and provides sensible explanations why the PCs should better damn well run on their own two legs…
Escaping from a city in chaos, the PCs will probably never, ever forget how deadly those damn drow are…and if even my players did so with PCs either fallen or severely battered and bruised, they still talk about the original module in reverent tones. This one is even better. So go figure! Different results, different end-game scenarios…all provided here…though, if you’re like me, you want to go for the high-level epilogue module next!
Beyond the epic modules (at this point, we’re on page 394 of the book!), we get the ecology of the enigmatic vidre, written by yours truly. I’m, of course, biased as to how this turned out, so feel free to tell me whether you liked it and why/why not! (And yes, I managed to point towards Rogue Genius Games great research rules in this one as an optional rule…) and also have a strange affliction and power components (inspired by Rite Publishing’s 101 Special Material and Power Components) in here, though you need neither book to (hopefully!) enjoy the article.
Now not all is great in here – I’m e.g. no fan of the new drow domain – I consider its crunch somewhat flawed – gaining sight-based powers for negative energy damage falls apart with undead casters immediately and the other spells provided here didn’t blow me away either – so this one is a definite “pass” for me. Then again, there is the gloriously whacky (or disturbing, depends on how you play it!) mushroom domain, so one flop, one top evens out for me. We also get a handy page of general drow traits for both 3.5 and PFRPG for the DM and then are off to the crunchy bits, i.e. the statblocks of the creatures and NPCs herein, provided for both Pathfinder and 3.5, each with its own index for convenience’s sake and easy navigation – nice!
Here, let me go on a slight tangent: AAW’s modules provide statblocks for two systems that are related, but distinct and different – and both have in common, that their details eat up space. 60 pages of 3.5 stats, 64 PFRPG-stats. This means that you probably won’t use the stats of the other system, right? Well…it actually depends. Personally, for example, I HATE how PFRPG weakened the Demilich. I’m taking the 3.5 statblock of that one over the PFRPG-equivalent and make a conversion of it – and having the statblock already done helps here. Perhaps that’s just me, but I actually like how this results in alternative builds available for a minimum of work. Plus: Take a look at the page-count. Even sans using the statblocks of one system, this tome still clocks in at a massive 400+ pages. That’s a lot of material.
Editing and formatting are top-notch – while any book of this size will sport a lonely glitch here and there, the overall book is surprisingly error-free. Now I’ve already gushed about the drop-dead gorgeous, superb layout. I’ll do so again – It adheres to beautiful, stunning two-column standards and each of the different styles used is beautiful in its own right. Then there would be the artwork. I’m not engaging in hyperbole when I’m saying that this is one of the most art-intense 3pp-books I#ve seen so far, with quite an impressive array of “show, don’t tell” full-color pieces that are simply stunning and, at one glance, help immerse the players in the epic. The pdf comes with a vast array of bookmarks, indexes for statblocks and the different layout styles further help with navigation. Kudos! Now, as you know if you’ve ever purchased an AAW-module, the cartography by Todd Gamble and Jonathan Nelson, quite extensive and improved from the already great original pieces, is simply stunning. As per the writing of this review, I don’t yet have the hardcover in my hands, so commenting on the quality of the binding, paper etc. is not yet possible. HOWEVER, I do own quite a bunch of AAW-print modules and they have in common that they use high-quality paper, glossy covers etc. – production values of a top-notch level beyond what I usually get when purchasing print.
When I reviewed the original trilogy and when the kickstarter was announced, Jonathan Nelson and the whole AAW-crew told me, they’d make this book a full-blown 5-star + seal of approval beast. Big promises indeed and, to be honest, I was somewhat skeptical – the original trilogy worked well and had its glorious moments, but it also had some severe weaknesses regarding tying the modules together and some minor logic bugs. These are gone. Now you may not realize this in the beginning, with the start being rather slow and relatively linear, but this is not only a huge, sandboxy module, this is the most expansive underworld/underdark-sourcebook I’ve read in ages.
The second half of the “Second Darkness” AP, back in the day, felt somewhat soulless to me – yes, the underdark depicted there was strange, had deadly creatures and cool hazards and the finale rocked. But it, at least to me, felt like a big kind-of-dungeon. It didn’t feel like a cohesive, huge world, with its own rules, culture, flora, politics. Yes, it was a HUGE step up from 3.5’s exceedingly boring slugfest “City of the Spider-Queen”, but still – to me, it fell short: Of the level of detail I expected, of actual believability. Perhaps that’s just the scholar in me, but there are many components to making fantastical settings work and the underworld should elicit wonder, this slack-jawed awe, this feeling you’re not in Kansas anymore and have entered a world governed by strange rules and convention different from the surface world.
Rise of the Drow manages to pull this off. The AAW-crew has an uncanny knack for crafting believable, unique cultures, social norms and the like and the places and their inhabitants depicted herein adhere triumphantly to this tradition, with the guest-authors Brian Berg, Christina Stiles, Jason Stoffa, Joshua Gullion, Kevin Mickelson, Mike Myler, Owen K.C. Stephens, Will Myers, Chris Bayes, Curtis Baum, Justin Andrew Mason, Michale Allen, Rory Thomas, Todd Gamble and Steven Helt (and yours truly, at least I hope so!) bringing their A-game to the table and add their talents to the basic frame crafted by Stephen Yeardley and Jonathan Nelson. Most surpisingly here – the narrative cohesiveness of the voices of the narrative and the book – too many authors ften result in disjointed prose, something thankfully absent here. Oh, and take a look at this list – notice something? Yeah, that’s pretty close to a veritable who’s who of great game-designers, with several publishers among them.
As a vast module, Rise of the Drow manages to weave a vision of drow as efficient, deadly adversaries to be feared indeed, with so much going on, so much additional material and level of detail, that I can almost guarantee that no two groups will play this vast module in the same way. Want to go linear, run this like an AP? No problem. Want your players to explore and truly get into the meat (or rather: rhizome!) of the underworld and go full-blown sandbox? No problem either. Your players start experimenting with magical spices? There you go, full blown table of unique effects. In fact, the only module that came close to this in structure (but not in detail) would be the legendary, unavailable closed patron project “Empire of Ghouls” by Kobold Press, then Open Design, which reigned supreme since I managed to get my hands on it as my all-time favorite underworld module. Where I’m getting at is: I can’t, with all the modules I’ve read, for the life of me, mention a single underworld-module in any iteration of a d20-based system that would be on par with this beauty. Mind you, that from someone who is actually rather sick of the drow as adversaries.
Now don’t get me wrong, this book surely isn’t perfect. here and there, certain magic items or effects could have used a slight streamlining and not all supernatural effects the PCs will encounter have the crunch detail to e.g. dispel them…but personally, as much as you’ll be stunned to hear his…I like this decision. Why? Because thinking of 2nd ad 1st edition, there were so many cool terrains, weird magical effects, strange phenomena – all not codified with caster levels and the like. And honestly, in some cases I think the game is better off that way. Magic, when pressed in too tight a corset, ceases to be magic and becomes a science, something you can study and predict. Now, before prospective adventure authors start grinning: No, I have not lowered my standards, for where it is necessary, where it is feasible (i.e. in the vast majority of cases), the module actually uses spells, effects etc. and provides all of this information. And personally, I don’t think I need harvesting DCs or a check to but mushroom fragments into a bottle of alcohol and dissolve it. This beast of a sourcebook/module is exceedingly detailed, but in a matter that makes sense. It leaves room for the strange to be strange. And overall, the crunch felt more refined than e.g. the at times problematic supplemental crunch used in e.g. Razor Coast.
It also offers a cornucopia of uncommon ideas, one of the best final fights (and penultimate bosses), a glorious mini-game, takes the capabilities of the high-level PCs into account, offers freedom sans losing its track. And while I probably won’t run the saga again now, I will do one thing – scavenge the hell out of this book. The impressive amount of improved and new content makes this a great purchase even for those that own the original trilogy. I’m going so far as to suggest this being a truly worthwhile purchase even as a kind of regional sourcebook to plug and play in your game- you won’t find an underworld-sourcebook of this quality anywhere else.
I already went into the pricing (this book is not cheap), but honestly, one look at the page-count (even minus the statblocks of the system you won’t use) shows you why I still consider this great: To give you a relation – Razor Coast, another massive premium content sandbox, has a rather ill-fated, ineffective “build-your-own-AP”-chapter that confused me and almost ruined the whole experience for me. Said chapter of Razor Coast took up 100 of the 500+ pages and some less-than-perfect crunch ate more pages from the otherwise superb tale of colonialism and dark fantasy pirate-mega-module. What I actually used in both Rise of the Drow and Razor Coast is approximately on par, with Rise of the Drow even winning by a margin. So yeah, in relation to one another, I think the price for this massive, full-color premium book is damn justified.
So let’s sum up my ramblings: This is the best currently available underdark sourcebook to scavenge ideas from, a glorious sandbox, an epic module with a furious climax and extremely high production values in the layout, art and cartography-departments to boot that fuses the sense of old-school underworld-exploration wonder and level of detail with a pressing, action-paced new-school approach and manages to please both my old-school sensibilities and my craving for cinematic, epic new-school scenery. This is a massive accomplishment and the measure by which all future underdark/underworld modules will be judged. It also is a no-brainer 5-star+seal of approval-book and a candidate for my Top Ten of 2014 – no matter whether you run this or just scavenge its pieces: This verdict holds true even if you never want to run this and just take components for your own game. Once the print copy arrives, it will get an honored place next to my copies of Slumbering Tsar, Rappan Athuk, my Midgard Campaign Setting and Coliseum Morpheuon as one of the books that defined Pathfinder modules for me. Have I mentioned I really, really don’t like drow anymore?
P.s.: AAW Games is currently running a kickstarter for the superb Snow White modules to upgrade them similarly . check it out here!