Today it is my pleasure not only to review the second part of AdventureaWeek.com's Rise of the Drow Trilogy, but also introduce you to what might very well be the best underdark module released so far for PFRPG. Without further ado:
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!
As always, thank you for reading my ramblings, see you in part III!