Sep 032015
 

Shadows of Eldolan (13th Age)

142231

This adventure clocks in at 72 pages – since I only have the softcover, I can make no qualified statements on the pdf’s electronic features.

 

This book was moved up my reviewing queue due to me receiving the softcover of the book for the purposes of a fair, critical review.

 

First of all, this begins as a kind of gazetteer – the city of Eldolan, depicted with a nice b/w-map, comes fully detailed herein – and it is a n interesting backdrop: Situated near the Archmage’s metropolis of Horizon, but far enough away to be a sovereign entity, we still have, obviously, a magocarcy on our hands – with 3 different wizard schools, there is quite a bit of inner- and inter-school rivalry suffusing the town’s social structure. It should also come as no surprise that the members of the school obviously sport several privileges, with anyone nonmagical being relegated to the status of a second-class citizen-. On the plus-side, the overabundance of magic also means that there are quite a few unconventional amenities – from anti-vermin bombs to the lamplighter’s guild that illuminates the districts at night with magical light. It is against this backdrop and the status quo of an overexerted city watch that also has its issues with the feuding wizards that this adventure is set.

 

So, our fresh heroes begin play in this settlement at the request of, obviously, their iconics, with several potential tie-ins as hooks being provided.

 

This being an adventure-review, the following obviously contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.

..

.

All right, still here? Great!

We begin this module pretty much in media res as the PCs are at a small market square, only to have a cart erupt in zombies to spread the Lich King’s panic in the streets – a task somewhat undermined by the pumpkin-headed, pumpkin-throwing zombie provided. From here on out, it becomes obvious pretty fast that the authorities are terribly overexerted and require assistance and so the modular investigation begins – depending on the clues gathered after the assault, the PCs have a lot of leads to follow, which a GM can easily interconnect – essentially, the structure of the module is generated in a way that allows for the respective sub-chapters to lead into another and avoid dead-ends – so structurally, we have a sound set-up at our hands.

 

Coincidentally, each of the clues leads to another district of Eldolan. In the commons, further investigation and asking around sooner or later points towards a rather nasty gang of thugs, who can be beaten or persuaded into divulging the information regarding the target of the enigmatic Dreammaster, a dealer of drugs that has been undermining the pricing of the dreamleaf drug. His hide-out, as it turns out, is solidly fortified in a smartly constructed hide-out within an abandoned theater – beyond his smart-fighting flunkies and actually sound security protocols, the dreammaster provides for a great show-down on the dilapidated stage, making perfect use of 13th Age’s great terrain-based attack-tricks – including a nice get-away route for the second half of the fight, phase two of the boss, if you will – alas, an undead will eliminate the dealer before he can divulge too much -only that he has been acquiring junkies…alive and dead, for some unknown buyer.

 

A particular peddler of the bodies of the dead would be potential competition and so, an organic lead – asking around the more dangerous taverns at the docks (hopefully avoiding too bad a tavern brawl) may actually yield non-violent results when interacting with the pragmatic criminal – the lead thereafter pointing the PCs towards a small, yet nevertheless deadly cult of minions of the Diabolist – hopefully managing to interrupt a human sacrifice – otherwise, the PCs will have to not only defeat the cultists, but also the deadly demon summoned.

 

In the temple district, a man can identify one of the initial zombies as a recently deceased friend – though, oddly, he should not be among the walking dead: After all, his body was supposed to be properly consecrated and buried. Confronting the local adherents of the priestess with these facts will require a lot of finesse and tact, but should the PCs succeed, their descent into the catacombs will sooner or later not only unearth a sabotage of the magical funeral rites – and find themselves besieged by undead in a harrowing fight in the middle of the tight subterranean confines, while also unearthing the presence of a hostile agent within the ranks of the Priestess’ followers.

 

In the higher-class district of the saddle, a haunted and since then abandoned brewery has obviously also played its part in the operations of the Lich King’s servant’s conspiracy – here, we imho have some of the most exciting combats in the module – with very interesting terrain hazards and solid tactics, the challenge posed here is cool – even before the inclusion of a drunken ghost to lighten the mood.

 

Now finally, the PCs may have also found hints that led them to a nice shop of magic curios and encountered the eccentric owners here – but ultimately, sooner or later, their opposition will realize that they have a group of deadly foes in the PCs – and thus, the cabal called seekers will sooner or later try to assassinate them as they collect their evidence, piece by piece. Alas, much to the PC’s chagrin, the evidence collected points towards the operations of the Lamplighter’s Guild – and obviously, the PCs can’t simply waltz into the prestigious place. Thus, some subtlety is required – and, within the compound, hopefully some discernment between loyal lamplighters trying to weed our foreigners and members of the cabal seeking to eliminate the meddling PCs…

 

Still, this final trek should prove enough information to convince one of the owners of the emporium to divulge the necessary information – and realize that the other owner is the head of the conspiracy. Thus, the PCs enter the final, short mini-dungeon to confront the mastermind in his own abode, duking it out not only with his incomplete flesh golem, but also with his superb defensive strategies – the PCs will have to be at the top of their game to prevent the escape of the mastermind – and may not even notice his escape until it’s too late! A furious finale indeed!

 

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no glitches. Layout adheres to an easy-to-read, aesthetically-pleasing two-column b/w-standard and the pdf sports several solid b/w.-artworks as well as a significant array of gorgeous b/w-cartography for just about every combat in the adventure. The paper of my print edition is a nice, high-quality glossy type.

 

Cal Moore delivers perhaps the one genre 13th Age is imho worst at here – an investigation. While the system’s notion of failing forward is a required design-choice for a good investigation, the system is somewhat hamstrung by the sheer matter of the fact that it does not cover non-combat challenges that well. Now the task, in the absence of a codified skill-system, would be to properly depict the logical progression of the legwork – and surprisingly, the module did excel beyond my expectations in this arena and manages to offset the fatigue that sometimes settles in such an arena of too few dice rolls via clever use of relationship dice, which coincidentally also help prevent stagnation of the investigation.

 

On the plus-side, this module manages to not only mitigate the brunt of the system’s less refined components, but also capitalizes on its strengths – there is not a single boring combat herein. Not a single one. With terrain-specific attacks, unique tactics and challenging boss-fights, the combat-component is simply fun and highlights well a massive strength of the system. This module is fun and more grounded than what I expected to get here. My players most certainly had an interesting time playing this module and enjoyed it – though it should be noted, that for a GM, the lecture is somewhat less captivating than one would expect, mainly due to the actual plot behind the whole conspiracy being none too exciting with the villain’s motivation being opaque and pretty bland. Now my players didn’t mind, but personally, I was pretty glad they did not pause to question the motives of their foes or their modus operandi, something I, as a GM, did not particularly care for.

 

This may sound negative, but it should be testament to this module’s quality that its accumulated set-pieces and fast pace can transcend these notches to the point where they do not show. In the end, this module was a surprise for me, mainly because it is pretty hard to portray the genre within 13th Age’s rules-framework, much less in a way that proved to be this fun, this well-structured. My final verdict will hence clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down only due to the lack of meat behind the motivations of the primary antagonists – while it did not show in my playtest, I can see particularly inquisitive groups interested in complex motivations, especially those with a ToC or CoC (or other investigation-heavy RPG)-background potentially being frustrated with this component.

 

You can get this fast-paced, nice investigation here on OBS!

 

Endzeitgeist out.

 

Comments

  4 Responses to “Shadows of Eldolan (13th Age)”

  1. Another nice 13th Age review! I finally read my copy of this myself and have to agree that aside from the mastermind’s dull motivation (far too common in low level modules regardless of system, but easy enough to fix), it’s a really nice module. It looks like it really highlights the system’s fun combat system. Between it and Eyes of the Stone Thief, I need to run an actual 13th Age campaign rather than the sporadic one and two shots I have thus far.

    I recall you disliking 13th Age’s background system from the review of the core book, and here you mention the system’s lack of tools for non-combat challenge resolution. In your opinion is there a D&D style fantasy RPG system that handles non-combat challenges well? I ask because, in my opinion, 13th Age’s non-combat resolution system is no better or worse than Pathfinder’s (even with the few but excellent 3rd party supplements I use) or any edition of D&D and its derivatives. I actually take the opposite view than you of 13th Age’s backgrounds; I enjoy the creativity the system promotes, though it definitely requires a higher level of trust in the GM’s rulings.

    • Hej Ken!

      First of all: Thanks for commenting!
      Let me structure my answer thus:

      Villain motivation: It gets worse once you start analyzing. It makes no sense the villain’s project in the final fight is NOT completed – why initiate the chain of events that start the module without preparation? The assassination attempt is pretty much the only reaction; there is no consequence for eliminating parts of the network and the over all set-up of the conspiracy is much too intricate for what it actually does. No one taught the Lich King’s servants Occam’s Razor, it seems. Once you start to analyze the module, which my players did after playing it, these weaknesses become apparent and somewhat dragged down what was pretty much nice while playing it. If a group tackles things as fire-and-forget, then…well, then it works perfectly.

      Backgrounds: I *HATE* the skill system of 13th Age. It’s the one thing I absolutely and positively loathe about it. Dislike is too small a word. It boils down to: “I have background xyz and try to BS the DM in letting me roll vs. skill zyx.” It’s FATE. I really, really, really, really hate this design-philosophy. DMs have to remember which backgrounds they let their players BS them into working for which tasks, which turns into a clusterf*** sooner or later. It’s a matter of likes and groups, though. My players are very good at system-mastery and with our preferred level of lethality, sooner or later they *will* be tempted to try this route. It’s why FATE doesn’t work for us. If it works for you, awesome! That’s why I try to not penalize systems for personal dislikes.

      Skills and Investigations: D20 does not handle investigations particularly well (See GUMSHOE for my favorite system for that…), but I do believe that PFRPG handles it better than 13th Age…with some modification. If you utilize scaling successes (more or less information gained on failed or particularly successful skill-checks), then 3.X and PFRPG work pretty much perfectly – at least in my last 10+ years of playing such scenarios. My issue regarding investigations and skills/backgrounds in 13th Age is that characters are reduced to either background-related BS-ing or relationship dice – there is no scaling here, a component more pronounced in other iterations of d20. And deliberately chosen character capabilities feel more rewarding for the players than the background/luck-component – at least that’s the consensus at my table.

      EDIT: I also recommend utilizing the skill-challenge-y traps Raging Swan Press sometimes features as a template to create cool non-combat challenges!

      That being said, the module still does a good job within its limitations, with some minor issues, yes, but still.

      For now, this btw. does conclude my 13th Age-reviews since I do not have “Eyes of the Stone-Thief” or the small pdfs (yet) – but I do hope I’ll be able to get my hands on that one – it looks like it may be exactly what the system does best!

      Cheers!

      • Thank you for such a quick response!

        It doesn’t surprise me that the narrative doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, I can’t count the number of books/tv shows/movies I’ve loved in the moment only to go, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t make sense…” moment later while thinking about it.
        I have to admit, I’m not overly analytical, particularly when it comes to modules; I tend to read them for plot and encounter ideas to fold into my campaigns and anything that doesn’t fit into the overall narrative gets jettisoned completely or repurposed for a different campaign down the line. Not something you can account for as a reviewer!

        I actually like FATE as well…! I don’t begrudge you your opinion of the 13th Age skill system; it certainly won’t work for every player or GM. My personal liking for it aside, I won’t even consider running 13th Age for one of my two groups as they require a more structured, codified rule set. I also use scaling successes in PFRPG, but the skill system as written still feels like a sadly neglected afterthought, which was also the case in 3.0/3.5.

        I love GUMSHOE! I’d love to see Robin Laws or Ken Hite create a fantasy or fantastical alternate history game with the GUMSHOE engine! I’ve been trying to convince either of my groups to let me run ToC so I can unleash Eternal Lies upon them… alas, I am not being very persuasive.

        Thank you again for your reviews! I’ve only been commenting on the 13th Age ones lately, but I read them all; they’ve guided many a purchase.

        Take Care.

        • Hej Ken!

          Once again: Thanks for your response! Just to clarify: I *get* why FATE and the design-philosophy behind it is poipular and why it works for many groups. For me, alas, it doesn’t, but that should not mean that I condemn you or anyone else for liking it. 🙂

          Re PFRPG: Yes, the skill-system could use more material…*sigh*

          Re GUMSHOE: You and me…my players have a case of over-Cthulhu-saturation right now, so currently, I can’t get them to play it. *sigh*

          Cheers and thanks for the comments!!

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

Connect with Facebook

(required)

(required)