Monday, March 20, 2017

Dragons of Renewal DL4: Dragons of Desolation


Dragons of Desolation Cover by Keith Parkinson


The finale to the Autumn Twilight arc takes place entirely within the dwarven kingdom of Thorbadin. Now that the PCs have the Helm of Grallen, they possess a surefire way to get the dwarves to listen to them and possibly provide shelter for the refugees.

Overview

The Heroes of the Lance find the way into Thorbadin, and while there meet the noble Arman Kharas. After fighting their way out of Northgate with Theiwar dwarves in pursuit, they are brought to the Life-Tree of the Hylar where the Council of Thorbadin holds court. After the council debates, the PCs are sent on a quest to recover the Hammer of Kharas in the Valley of Thanes.

Venturing to the Valley, the PCs find a tomb on top of a floating mountain. While there a pranksterish copper dragon disguised as a dwarf acts as a guide. Before they can claim the Hammer, they fight Verminaard's draconic mount, Ember, at the top of the tomb.

Rushing back to Thorbadin, it turns out that the Daegar and Theiwar clans are in league with the Dragonarmies. By letting their forces into the mountain kingdom, a civil war occurs with the purpose of overthrowing the ruling Hylar and gaining possession of the Hammer for themselves. Amid the prisoners is Berem the Green Gemstone Man and Eben Shatterstone, the latter still posing as a loyal comrade if the PCs haven't found him out yet. The PCs are escorted or taken prisoner to the Temple of Stars, where Verminaard awaits. A grand battle occurs dramatically near a pit, which Verminaard is likely to tumble into should he be slain. Regardless of the battle's events, Arman is dealt a grievous injury and dies a hero. With the Hammer, the Hylar leader Hornfel is crowned King and order is restored.

Depending on how long the heroes took, the refugees' fate is either safe from or massacred by the Dragonarmies. Riverwind and Goldmoon have the option to marry if they're PCs in the adventure. The quest ends on a note that although the heroes struck a decisive victory against the Dragonarmy's forces, the battle for Krynn's freedom is far from over.

Things to Change/Look Out For



Maps: The AD&D adventure's strong suit is that it had more detailed maps of Thorbadin and its districts than the 3.5 adventure. Although knowing where the PCs are is not a necessity, given that most encounters are event-based than dungeon-room-based, it can be a nice visual aid to have.

Verminaard's Offer: This is only in the AD&D version, but I advise that you excise this. It's basically an opportunity for the villain to show up, gloat, and make an offer to the party to betray the refugees. While this can work in a book, show, or similar medium, in a tabletop game it's far more likely that the players will try to attack. Given that random nature of die rolls, it's possible that a lucky party might knock the Dragon Highlord off his mount and kill him right then and there.

Northgate: Overall, this section is fine as-is. The PCs meet Arman Kharas, who knows the way better than they do, and provides some good opportunity to do heroic stuff and save prisoners. However, the party is motivated to retreat as an onslaught of theiwar soldiers, dozens at a time, come to assault the party. Regardless of gaming system, running 30+ enemies at once can be a real slog unless you're using a singular "mob" template. I suggest keeping the theiwar army encounters more descriptive, and have a half dozen fight the PCs at a time when they're running.

Dark Dwarves and Derro: In the later RPG supplements, the evil dwarven clans of the theiwar and daergar are their own subrace of dwarves, but not the classic duergar and derro in other settings. In the original AD&D game, the theiwar dwarves are derro.

Personally speaking, I prefer having the dark dwarves physically and mechanically indistinguishable from the other dwarven clans. It plays up the "civil war" factor and makes it seem more subtle in having the Theiwar thane being a secret Dragonarmy agent. Unless the party has a dwarven PC, to an outside observer the feuding of council politics comes off as a less-established clan jockeying for power, rather than an obvious Evil McTraitorface trying to play the part of a villain with good publicity. It also avoids the question of why the council would tolerate and trust a thane from a subrace who are on the whole afflicted with murderous insanity.


Life-Tree of the Hylar

The Council: The Council is currently unsure of the Dragonarmy's true threat, and their isolationist policy will make them reluctant to open up their gates for refugees. After the Council debates, they will send off the PCs to find the legendary Hammer of Kharas as a token of goodwill, given that the Hammer plays a decisive role in determining which clan's thane becomes king of the nation. As a token of ensuring the party's cooperation, the council keeps Eben Shatterstone as a hostage (which is Raelgar, the Theiwar Thane's, idea). If the PCs refuse, they are imprisoned to await trial for trespassing on Theiwar territory and murder if they killed at least one dark dwarf in Northgate.

Holding off the "Lady in the Lake" Monty Python jokes, this is the next best way for the PCs to go on a dungeon crawl. However, the default example's a bit forced. Have the scene play out normally, but instead of making it the reward an open-ended "whosoever recovers the Hammer of Kharas, that person will the dwarves of Thorbardin befriend," attach a more tangible reward. Most likely shelter for the refugees, or agreement to refuse the Dragonarmy's offers (which the Theiwar and Daegar have been advocating for).

Another thing to consider is that in the AD&D version, the PCs have a chance of realizing that Verminaard is telepathically dominating Raelgar's speech during the meeting by noticing his mannerisms are similar to the Highlord. This is not present in the 3.5 version, but either way things don't change much on whether you include it or not. Even if a free agent, Raelgar's condemnation of the PCs still sets him up as a person the PCs shouldn't trust.


Battle Against Ember

Duncan's Tomb: There are precious few monsters and traps in this dungeon, and the main inhabitant is the copper dragon Evenstar. Emphasize the few encounters, traps, and Evenstar's trials in packed general areas instead of planning out the entire dungeon or doing a room-by-room search. Otherwise it will just feel empty and featureless.

The battle against Ember should be climactic, although like previous dragon encounters he is extremely powerful in 3rd Edition. Using the stats of a Juvenile Red Dragon, but increasing the size category to Gargantuan (without the Strength and Constitution increase) makes for a more reasonable encounter. Additionally, I also turned the flagpole into a mostly-depowered dragonlance which breaks after the battle. This helps demonstrate the power of the campaign's namesake and gives the players a taste of things to come.

For 13th Age, I used a modified Large White Dragon's statistics, save that cold damage is converted to fire and I switched around the vulnerabilities as appropriate.

Both versions of the game have smaller encounters afterwards: in AD&D's case kapak scouts, and in 3.5 six of Ember's children. I personally discarded any encounters in this chapter after Ember, for she served well enough as a climactic battle for this sub-section.

Return to Thorbadin: While the PCs were gone, the Theiwar and Daegar clans helped Verminaard and the Dragonarmies gain access to the kingdom, plunging the realm into civil war. This portion of the adventure involves the party fighting their way through soldiers to the Temple of Stars. One of the encounter locations includes a Daegar prison holding Eben Shatterstone and Berem the Green Gemstone Man. I personally did not include Berem in this adventure; on the contrary, one of the PCs bore the mantle of the Green Gemstone Woman for a 13th Age background. This worked better, as otherwise Berem is an easily forgettable NPC. I'd personally not have him in this adventure, and if he must show up in the campaign have it be during Dragons of Spring.

Capture: In the 3.5 version of the adventure, the PCs are supposed to go to the Temple of Stars after encountering Thane Rance of the Daegar, who demands the PCs surrender (albeit the PC bearing the Hammer of Kharas is allowed to keep it). If not, they must fight a total succession of 93 dwarves and draconians altogether. This is a form of rail-roading I despise.

Instead, allow the PCs to find out the Temple of Stars' location from enemy soldiers, Hylar allies, Arman Kharas himself, or likewise. It feels more satisfying for the party to walk in of their own accord and confront Verminaard once and for all.


The Fall of Verminaard

Final Battle: The climactic battle in the Temple of Stars is  easily one of the high points of the Autumn Twilight arc. Even so, there are a few things to change to make it better.

First, discard the forced handing of the Hammer of Kharas to Verminaard. Be it via the traitor Eben or telepathic mind control, these both take away agency from the PCs with little change in the endgame (Verminaard fights the PCs).

Second, there's a lot of enemies to keep track of. Verminaard, Arman Kharas, the fireshadow, Eben Shatterstone (potentially), and the dark dwarf and Dragonarmy soldiers. When running this battle, I had Thane Raelgar as an enemy NPC which Arman was busy fighting, and the dwarves and Dragonarmy soldiers as a sort of "mob" template which the PCs could attack as a whole.

In the default adventure, the two dark dwarven clans turn on each other when the Theiwar side with Verminaard, as the Daegar thane Rance had a deal that the Dragonarmies would hand him the Hammer instead (Verminaard seeks to take it for himself). This makes for some nice internal treachery, but another idea is to have valiant Hylar soldiers come rushing in to help, particularly if Arman is not with the party. Either way, the pitched battle makes for a chaotic background.

Thirdly, the standard adventure has Arman die regardless of the course of battle from a poisoned blade. This is meant to be a valiant sacrifice, but instead allow the PCs the option to change this. In my games I had Arman and Raelgar fighting in the background, describing how the heroic dwarf was starting to lose, as he lost his footing and the treacherous Thane raised a poison dagger to plunge into his chest...

At that point, one of my PCs rushed forth to save him in the nick of time, taking Raelgar out with a critical hit. Naturally your own campaign's conflict will be different, but granting the PCs the choice to momentarily disengage to save Arman at the risk of leaving their party open has more narrative and tactical impact.

Finally, there is the matter of the giant pit of death in the center of the Temple. It's a given that one or more PCs may get the idea to push Verminaard into it. Indeed this is how the Dragon Highlord met his end in the novels, but it can be anti-climactic system-wise if a PC uses a single bull rush, spell, or opposed Strength check to knock him in on the first or second round.

One idea is to place Verminaard a fair distance from the pit, or to give him a spell such as levitate to have him come back up. But this is quite obviously meant to mitigate a valid tactic with minimal dramatic impact. Another idea is to have him fall in when shoved or at the brink of death, but have him summon the fireshadow to lift him back up out of the pit with a blazing vengeance! This makes the battle feel like a nice evolution from a "first form"to "final stage" boss, to borrow video game terminology.

In Conclusion

Dragons of Desolation requires a few adjustments, but individually take little effort to change and fix.

I'm happy to have completed the first arc of the Dragonlance saga. I plan to begin writing for the Winter Night arc sometime next week. This will also be the first time the saga's two-party split-up is addressed in detail!