During the unpacking from my recent move, one my older modules floated to the surface. Thematically it seemed somewhat linked to the upcoming Tomb of Annihilation adventure. Therefore I thought now was good time revisit it. Published in 1998 it represents the beginning of the end for 2nd edition D&D. Drawing the iconic legends of Greyhawk into the realm of Ravenloft its themes should entice both both old and middle aged grognards. Written by the legendary Monte Cook it is chock full of brilliant concepts. I remembered it fondly as a good read, although I never ran or played it. However, my closer re-read has revealed several areas of concern.
****** Warning Here be Spoilers*******
This module is filled with grand concepts necromantic war machines, a grim city focused solely on war, a city in a giant's skull filled with undead, Vecna and course his arch nemesis Kas the vampire. As a source to steal ideas from it is fertile ground. Nice maps of Tor Gorak, Citadel Cavitius, and the dread realms of Tovag and Cavitius as well. Unfortunately the module itself is as scripted as a Disney rollercoaster ride. Please keep the hands within the vehicle at all times for your protection. The fact that the sections are labeled scenes instead of encounters should tell you something.
Scene One: You wander through the mists to discover a lake where no lake has been. You stumble across a pregnant woman looking for her missing soldier husband. You encounter a pack of wolves eating an elk. You encounter a band of dying soldiers whose wounds cannot be healed (her husband is not amongst them). You are jumped by cultists who cut the pregnant woman and run away.You escort the woman back to the city of Tor Garak. Pathos 100% Player agency 35% percent (You could fight the wolves if you wanted to 20%; You can save a couple soldiers if you are willing to cast cure disease 10%; You may fight cultists for a round 5%).
Scene Two: You return the pregnant woman to her uncle. You are arrested by the local constabulary called the Daggers for being foreigners. You are tortured for a round before being rescued by some stranger who orders the Daggers to stand down. He helps you find shelter in the house of someone else. 100% Pushing players hot buttons (at least my players). Player agency 10% (You could fight the Daggers and avoid arrest, but this of course breaks the rest of the scene).
Scene Three:Someone hangs a severed human finger on the doorknob of your room. Stranger number two suggest you visit another stranger to find out what means. Stranger number three reads some obtuse box text and tells them to come back later. If the players return to their lodgings or check on the pregnant woman, or ask about stranger one they are directed to the local madhouse. If they attempt to explore the town they receive a punishment encounter for the Daggers. It turns out stranger number one runs the madhouse and needs someone to find a missing inmate. The players wander the town aimlessly for 1-3 hours and encounter the missing inmate just as he is about to be arrested by the Daggers. They return him to the madhouse and go back to stranger number three. Stranger number three announces he has found an important clue which leads to a book not in his possession which the players must retrieve for him. Leading players around by the nose 100% Player agency 15% (You can actually fight the Daggers without breaking the scene, but you will be in big trouble).
Scene Four: You travel to an iron door in the face of the rock which holds the town castle. A dungeon perhaps? No it is just an L shaped corridor which connects the door to a pit with three levers next to another door completely unopenable unless the levers are in the right position (the L in the corridor is there of course to conceal the fact that the levels do anything). Your book is in the chamber beyond the door. And of course there is a big blobby thing with tentacles in the pit which only attacks when you cross the pit for the second time. There is half a page of text explaining that the blobby is actually a son of Kas the ruler of this land, but it is for DM's eyes only. The players find the scroll case supposed to contain the "book" they are looking for, but it is course empty. However if the they search carefully they will be given a handout and some clues. As they are leaving cultists attack. DM cleverness 100% Player agency hard to say (there are several good fights, but no meaningful choices, and the whole thing is a wild goose chase anyways).
Scene Five: After the "Your princess is in another castle" event of the last scene the party is directed to the city of Cavitius to find the Shadowed Room. They are given a choice of three passes to travel by, however each pass identical. They can climb the mountains, but the DM is instructed to inflict punishment encounters until they give up. Each pass is guarded by a fortress of jackasses to hassle you. In the pass itself is a battlefield haunted by shadows which they must fight. After the shadows is a monstrous war engine build of human bodies. It is of course broken and useless but capable of infecting the characters with a hideous disease if they try to investigate it. Character harassment 100% Player agency 20% (you could climb the mountains 25% All the pass are identical? Useless and lazy -5%).
Scene Six: You follow a pathway lined with stone heads to a giant skull. If you wander off the path you lose a level an hour until you turn into a zombie. Vultures circle overhead as you approach. You knock on the two front teeth that serve as a gate and are immediately let in. You wander and watch undead abuse the human citizens. A stranger approaches and offers to help. Transition railroad 100% Player agency 0%
Scene Seven: You enter the Temple of Venca to speak with the contact the stranger in the last scene has provided. If you are nosy you can find some interesting secrets but will encounter secret guardians as well. You contact, a bodyguard for one of the priests, reveals the location of the entrance to the Shadowed Room and some hints to get inside. Then the priest who the bodyguard is supposed to protect attacks. Nobody helps the priest because apparently priests and bodyguard fight all the time in this temple. You then proceed to the chamber behind a secret door where you solve the puzzle to open a dimensional gateway to the Shadowed Room. The Shadowed Room itself exists out of time and space and is filled with books in languages no one understands. The book the players are looking for is on a bookstand and has been transformed back from the scroll it was in scene four into a book again. You solve another puzzle to escape this realm. You are returned to the chamber in the temple were you entered and are attacked. You sneak out from the city via a passage shown to by the stranger from scene six. High Concept 100% Player Agency 50% (some good fights, an entire realm to wander even if it is devoid of life and empty.
Scene Eight: You return to Tor Gorak to discover it infested with plague. Thus fulling the second part of the mumbo jumbo in the book without you lifting a finger (part one was fulfilled when you got nicked by a cultist some fight back). Stranger number three is dying of plague but manages to hang on just long to reveal the last hints. Transition railroad number two 100% Player agency 0%
Scene Nine: The cultists have surrounded the insane asylum and realized although they can't actually get to the ruler of this realm, the guy in the insane asylum who thinks he's the ruler will work (everyone know random commoners have the same magical power as vampire lords). Having reached the same conclusion (perhaps after several applications of plot hammer to your head) you battle way through the asylum just as the ritual is about to reach its climax (how could it be otherwise). Strangely enough although there are many ways to stop the ritual you are allowed to fail. Hackneed roleplaying timing 100% Player agency 50%
Scene Ten: If you fail Venca is reborn and wanders off to destroy Kas and wreak havoc on the lands of-who-actually-gives-a-f**k. If you succeed you are still stuck in Tor Gorak with only its insane vampire lord Kas to defeat. Your best option, get the f**k out of Ravenloft, is not even discussed. If this is the end of the adventure where's my loot 100% Player agency 0%
Average player agency 20% (scene four has not been counted since I couldn't come up with a rating)
This review places the module (like so many of its second edition module brethren) on "the steal ruthlessly from, but never ever play as written" stack. Aiming it at 5-7 level character also seems to be a mistake as it limits the monsters to not all that scary things and hordes of low level Daggers and Cultists. I am also very disappointed with a Vecna module containing at best only a cameo by Vecna or Kas and no player usable ancient evil artifacts at all.
If I was to rewrite this: I would turn scenes two and three into a sandbox. Scene four would be an actual dungeon and perhaps have some connection to either Cavitius or the Shadowed Room. Scene five each of the mountain passes would contain something different and there would be clues to allow the players to chose. Scene six another sandbox with some bonus item hidden in the now non-lethal but simply annoying wastes. Scene seven perhaps the same but with a secret entrance leading to the inner sanctum rather than walking the front door more description of the Shadowed Room as well as another dungeon or sandbox. Scene eight only happens if players screw-up. Scene nine only if the players really screw-up. Someone better at mind games than me could rethread this so the players actions seem to be helping, but are actually allowing the cultists to accomplish their tasks as well.
P.S. Someday I will write the dreaded "Crotch of Vecna" adventure I threaten my players with when they get rowdy. Perhaps, I will steal some ideas from here.