Today I’m going to take a look at the furious finale to Adventureaweek.com’s Rise of the Drow Trilogy,
Rise of the Drow III: Usurper of Souls
The final installment of the “Rise of the Drow”-trilogy clocks in at a whopping 252 pages, 1 front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages ToC, 8 pages of very readable and informative bios of the AaW-team, 1 page SRD, leaving us with a whopping 239 pages of content. Not bad!
This being the review to the conclusion of the final installment of AaW’s Rise of the Drow-Saga and sequel to one of the best underdark adventures I’ve read in quite a while, the following contains SPOILERS and for your own sake, you should skip to the conclusion if you want to participate in the module as a player.
Still here? All right! Depending on the choices they PCs made in the predecessor modules, they are off to rather different start and later in the adventure, the paths may diverge even further. Anyways, in last adventure, the PCs have entered the drow city of Holoth via either frontal assault or the back door and this is where the module kicks off – with the details on the compound of house Gullion and the attack/infiltration in full swing. Thus, at the beginning, the module is a rather free-form style exploration/infiltration and provides us with information on e.g. the slave dens, in which dinosaur-riding drow as well as an advanced tyrannosaurus are guarding the slaves. Worse, indoctrination and clever favoritism has bred a significant amount of slaves that might turn on the PCs when freed! The mushroom gardens also have their shepherds – corrupted mushroom golems, abducted from last module’s excellent and innovative finale.
True to the sandboxy style of the presentation, we also get the fully-detailed, many-layered spider-shaped temple of Naraneus, the Queen of Spiders for the PCs to attack and explore and pilfer: Among the loot some rather cool unique drwarven weapons the PCs can find (e.g. an urgosh and a trident) as well as a rather neatly detailed library in which not only several books are detailed, but which also houses a nice secret that can potentially help the PCs deal with a color-coded puzzle. The PCs can also encounter a neat unique mosaic golem and even a book golem. Whether the PCs ignore the temple or clear it out before they enter the steps to the adjacent Tologorith tower remains up to them – also rather nice: Depending on the path they’ve chosen, the PCs may actually stumble upon a battle between the drow and the crystalline vidre, who are anything but pushovers and not too pleased by the dark elves’ (perceived) failures. Tolgorith tower, base of house Gullion and location of the artifact Vidrefacte, will be not a pushover for the PCs to explore: First of all, the massive amount of ritual sacrifices enables to drow to have forbiddances, guards and wards and unhallow in effect – ouch. Better yet, the defenses and tactics of the drow soldiers actually make sense in the defense of the tower – but fret not, this module does not devolve into a drow slugfest, for the dungeon of the tower contains an unlikely ally for the PCs, provided they survive the beastmasters of house Gullion – in the crypt, the PCs can find a plethora of undead – that don’t want to kill the PCs and instead come with an offer under the guidance of Makinnga Gullion:
The mistress of undead on her artifact-level powerful blood throne wants to shatter the Vidrefacte and put an end to the deal with the crystalline, soul-consuming Vidre – and she knows how: By sending her undead allies into the artifact, she plans to subvert its powers, tearing it asunder and breaking the tower in the process. Unfortunately, any contact with the artifact could cancel the trial and thus, PCs will have to keep their foe’s hands off the artifact. Worse yet, they probably wouldn’t survive the tower’s collapse – unless they agree to a nice ploy – Makinnga suggests they bring her personal belongings of members of house Gullion will be needed in order to create an effect that will postpone the collapse of the tower for the PCs to escape as well as providing them with a camouflage cover that could enable them to flee. Better yet, we get a sheet naming the respective characters on which the items secured can be tracked easily – nice help for GMs and players alike! Well, and if the players seek combat, they’ll have their hands full here as well – Makinnga’s allies include a nice gnomish demi-lich that will come to her aid… Said demi-lich is actually rather reasonable btw., and in no way required to be defeated – a nice classic “what you sow is what you reap”-situation.
Now, even with this potential ally, the rest of the tower will not be a cakewalk – take for example a haunt that has the players swarmed by phantasmal waves of poisonous spiders or the penultimate major hindrance between the PCs and the showdown with the mother matron: Maltorya, mad cleric and next in line for the matron’s title, seeks to not only defeat the PCs (they happen upon her as she conducts a grueling sacrifice), but pull them to the private demi-plane bestowed upon the house by the dread spider goddess – a place of viscous, extremely lethal poison, airborne spider swarms and a deadly and disturbing confrontation to say the least and the one place I would have LOVED to see further detailed – with a map and scenarios à la “fighting on swinging rope bridges over the sea of poison. Here, the module has essentially missed a chance. That being said, it’s not the final confrontation and essentially we get two boss battles at once. Climbing the mandible-like stairs (including painful biting) to the final level of the tower and the battle royale.
I don’t use that particular compound often. It is wholly appropriate here – what at first kicks off as the epic showdown with the insanely powerful mother matron for the crystalline artifact quickly becomes an all-out brawl: While it takes some round for the matron to realize that the undead (if applicable and a deal has been struck) seek to destroy the Vidrefacte instead of attacking the PCs. Of course, the PCs may also have problems with the undead and the Vidre that bursts in on the fourth round, making this showdown rather complex. Great help for the DM to run this encounter is provided in the form of a round-by-round table that lists tactics/things happening by group and thus makes handling the groups rather easy as well as providing a nice guideline to making this conflict as cinematic as it should be. If the PCs have scored ALL items, they have 14 rounds to escape the tower – and here, we get another piece of coolness: Instead of just having the collapse be hand-waved (seen that done rather often), we get 11 different things that can happen – write them upon sheets and the roll these bones for chances of collapse, people tumbling out of the tower, exterior walls breaking etc. – climactic, tight in its allotted time and hardcore, the escape will have your players on the edge of their seats. Oh, and if they want to featherfall/fly out of the tower, falling chunks/quakes/errant sonic blasts etc. can hit them there as well, if you as a DM so chose – I can see at least some of the collapsing parts working well in this instance as well. Hopefully, they manage to evade capture and slip out of the ruined section of Holoth.
Depending on their choices, though, the beautiful city of Embla might be no longer existent, people may have died or survived and it is time to reap the fruits of the labor of their help – Mikannga, if they chose to deal with her, actually honors her deal…for now and the PCs may find themselves even be revered as some kind of demi-gods by the dwarves. As often, though, the best ending, the one of the smartest path with the least casualties is the one that has the heroes remain mostly unsung – a nice parallel with real life, though easily remedied, should you chose to do so.
The pdf also contains lists of XP by used path of all the Rise of the Drow modules and a write-up of Naraneus, the Spider Goddess (including the penumbra and shadow domains – the latter coming with 9 all new spells, one of which is essentially a shadow-themed fireball-clone – that deals untyped damage. That’s a no-go. Against a fireball, you can protect yourself. Against a shadow blast? No protection from shadowy untyped energy exists, making this lvl 3-spell vastly superior and unbalanced even when compared to an already very strong core-spell like fireball. The Vidrefacte is also fully detailed and after that, we’re off to the encounter indexes, which contain full stats both for 3.5 and PFRPG – and also some elaborate backgrounds for several of the characters herein. 8 full color maps are interspersed throughout the pdf and the final pages are taken up by a list of “what has gone before”-style events as well as a chart that provides the most likely outcome of all three main paths the trilogy can have taken.
Editing and formatting are very good, though not perfect: I encounter e.g. a homonymy-error and some other minor hick-ups. Layout adheres to AaW’s two-column full color standard and Todd Gamble’s cartography is, as usual, excellent. Special mentioning deserves the STELLAR cover artwork by James J. Krause, the man behind the awesome fungal golem artwork in part 2 – the BBEG depicted oozes “dangerous, beautiful, fully armed drow lady”-flair. Awesome! The pdf comes with extensive, nested bookmarks and a background-less printer-friendly version. As per the writing of this review herolab-files have not yet been added, but will be.
Here we are, at the conclusion of the Rise of the Drow-Trilogy and oh boy, it ends with a bang! This module is best summed up as “War in a drow city” or “Infiltration of a drow compound”. Have we seen similar things before? Yes, in Endless Night, for example. Where this module truly excels is the focus on the grounds of house Gullion and the fact that this place is DEADLY. Dumb PCs WILL die. This module should be considered a free-form, sandboxy, extremely detailed infiltration/escalation that, when handled, should feel reminiscent of e.g. the final section a Bond movie – foes left and right, climactic battles, sneaking, death traps and a furious “blow all up” finale. The individual characters are great, the locations iconic and the finale (and pre-finale including a demi-plane)ROCKS.
That being said, the adventure has one narrative peculiarity a DM should be aware of: In order to grasp what happens in the finale, the PCs are presumed to find and talk to a NPC they could easily miss – while orchestrating a meet-up should prove no problem to any DM, it’s the one weak link of a finale that otherwise is just simply epic. Best of all, the whole product oozes a constant sense of a lion’s den, looming death and potential for conflict and style. The locations the PCs visit feel vastly more unique than my frame of reference “City of the Spider Queen”. In contrast to “Endless Night”, the PCs are not glued to infiltration-rails and could just as well try to take the drow spells and blades blazing, though actions like this will have consequences. Their actions obviously do matter – and a couple of useful foreshadowing lets one anticipate what will come of the aftermath of the Rise of Drow Trilogy. I also like how the actions in part GREATLY influence everything that goes on in this module, making a good example that player-driven narratives and sandboxy environments work perfectly in tandem when handled with care.
Regarding the links with adventure I and II, the ties to 2 are rather dominant, while Part 1 remains essentially a glorified introduction to the whole module – foreshadowing the potential ally by making her an ally of adventure I’s BBEG – which would further make the byzantine politics of the drow city obvious. If you’re planning on running the Rise of the Drow-trilogy, I wholeheartedly encourage you to read ALL 3 modules and prepare them as one mega-module. Unlike the Monstrous-Arcana 2nd edition trilogies, these modules are strongly linked together in a compelling narrative. Enemies fight smart, the module is full of details (somewhat alike e.g. RSP’s Shadowed Keep of the Borderlands”) and the challenges are real and evocative. Think of it as one mega-module in 3 parts.
I really like the ambition of the product, AaW’s bristling creativity and the finale as well as the option for the PCs to do vastly diverging things throughout the module. Not all is excellent, though: The new shadow domain unfortunately feels slightly repetitive and features a spell that is terribly unbalanced and needs revision. The module also has slightly more minor glitches than what I’ve come to expect from AaW. Then again, the module is, even SANS stats over 90 pages long – add the stats of your choice (e.g. 68 pages for PFRPG!) and we get a bang-for-buck ratio one truly can’t complain about.
That being said, in spite of the options of different paths and the strange allies the PCs can make herein (and probably should, regarding the power-level of the foes in these pages), this module feels a slight bit less polished than Part I and II – there are some ideas like a demi-plane that could have easily be enhanced to be even more memorable. That being said, I’m nagging on a VERY HIGH level here – the finale of the Rise of the Drow-trilogy is a great module, full of tension and flavor. It’s just that with some minor tweaks, it could have easily been a legendary module – good news being that DMs should not be too challenged by making the very minor modifications to enhance the module even further. The DM/player-aids to handle a complex fight, a sub-quest and the final escape also rock hard and make running this module also a feasible endeavor for DMs with less experience. How to rate this, then? After some rather extensive deliberation, I’m going to settle for a final verdict of 4.5 stars, since the minor weak point coalesce with some missed chances from me considering this excellent. This module offers a lot of band for buck. It is also a better read than “City of the Spider-Queen” and completely different from “Endless Night” in scope and tone – thus, I’ll round up to 5 stars.
And If you’re interested: If I had to rate the whole trilogy, I’d give it 5 stars, but for now remain just short of the seal of approval.