Today I'll take a look at the third installment of Michael McCarthy's adventure-arc of draconic destruction,
The third installment of Michael McCarthy's Saatman's Empire adventure-arc is 66 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages ToC, 1 page advertisement, 1 page SRD, leaving us with 60 pages of content - the longest module of the arc so far, so let's take a look!
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players may wish to jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here? So far, the PCs have foiled two of the incursions of dragons into the territory of the Klavek Empire - first by ending Midwinter's cold snap in A16, then by vanquishing titanic Storm and thus ending the sabotage of naval trade. By now, the PCs will probably have realized that there's something brewing, that some force engineers the draconic problems. Said force is the self-proclaimed heir to Saatman's Empire and the goal is nothing but the utter destruction of the Klavek kingdom to recreate the draconic empire of old. One of the most central figures in this plot would be Incandium.
Incandium is essentially one of the key-players in Saatman's gambit and when a dragon challenges the PCs in public to meet with Incandium and the Half-dragon (with membraneless wings of fire) offers them the choice to surrender or die. Not sure whether I like the angle where he comes personally, though: I'll probably just send an illusion or something to ensure he doesn't get killed off. Going alone off to kill the PCs when he has a neat array of allies/servants and a great fortress seems like a stupid move to me.
Now, Incandium's base is no push-over: A volcano studded with tunnels at different heights: And the adversaries found will show that Incandium knows no mercy, not even for his brothers and sisters: The former now guard low levels of the tunnels and as minor dragons, still are challenging, though twisted by his experimentation. The latter await, at his command, other dragons to breed with - such is Incandium's decree. But in order to even access this part of the volcano, the PCs will have to defeat a sliding block-puzzle - or bypass the puzzle via being nimble enough. Nice to see a puzzle! Another set of caverns contains a clan of harpies as well as the bones of Incandium's mother, whom he slew due to his less than nice childhood.
The third set of caverns hosts Incandium's kobolds and features an interesting feature: Traps. Too many of them - so many in fact, that they partially cannot be disarmed anymore and require those foolhardy or brave enough to walk them to weather the storm of assaults. Also, Incandium's elite kobolds are nothing if not deadly, even without the extreme heat of the volcano. At the lip of the volcano, elemental guardians await and in the depths of the caves, hidden in the maze of tunnels and chapters, two suites of chambers might make for good locales to have Incandium make his final stand (for the module prescribes no location and assumes he perishes in the first encounter) - his set of private chambers (which includes the draconic father of fire, an elemental prince) and his lab includes more pieces of information to unearth his weird experimentations - and we get an extremely cool puzzle that has the players assemble a pyramid-shaped key that comes as a player's handout with graphical representation. Damn cool!
Finally, by piecing together clues, groveling before the elemental lord or sheer chance, the PCs may find the true secret of the volcano: A temporal anomaly, currently in the process of being studied by no other than the blue dragon Saatman himself! After some bartering, he sends his elite mages of the Serpent Sanguis-cult at them and teleports away - his plans for harnessing the temporal anomaly to hasten the aging of dragons and create an army of old wyrms to squash the Klavekian Empire being sabotaged - but Saatman is far from finished!
The module also includes a write-up for a new spell, redirect teleport, a new magical item, 3 alchemical items, a write-up of a new deity, of the elemental lord (and gaining his favor or curse) as well as a short write-up (fluff-only, no organization stats/PrCs) of the Serpent Sanguis-cult.
Editing and formatting are top-notch - I didn't notice any glitches this time around. Layout adheres to AaW's 2-column standard and the respective rules for skill-checks, puzzles etc. are now set before scrolls - nice to look at. In contrast to A18, no semi-transparent dragon in the background of the pages this time around. Personally, I prefer the scrolls to A18's layout. The cartography (including hand-outs for the 2 puzzles) thankfully once again comes with player-friendly versions of the maps - especially the puzzles getting two thumbs up from me! The pdf is fully bookmarked and as per the writing of this review, the herolab files have not yet been provided. Not all is perfect regarding formal criteria: Each monster gets its own page in the statblock-appendix, which is nice, as you have the necessary stat ready. However, this also means that some of the pages (e.g. those with less complex stats) are half-empty: Lost space. Worse, the annoying dissolution of the separation between 3.5 and PFRPG-stats has been kept, meaning you'll either print out all (and have stats for a system you don't use) or pick the pages by hand, which sucks and is less comfortable than the organization by system AaW used before.
Incandium's Eruption is longer than its predecessors and it shows: Where A16 and A18 suffered from what feels like cut-downs and a lack of space to develop their awesome locations, this one does the job - from intense heat, to caves laden with opium-fumes, there are quite a lot of hazards, environmental issues to complicate things and iconic locales. The breaking of formulaic structures where the boss is not waiting at the end is also an interesting decision. Add to that the neat puzzles and cool background story as well as inner-dungeon dynamics and we have by far the best installment of the campaign arc. In fact, my only gripe with this module remains the combat index and its impractical implications for the user, resulting in a final verdict of 4.5 stars, rounded down to 4 for the purpose of this platform. Author Michael McCarthy can do it, after all and I'm looking forward to reading the finale, hopefully full of neat environmental hazards and iconic locales as well!