Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Tommy's Take on Crown of Shadow

So one of my favorite "dead lines" is the Midnight line by Fantasy Flight Games. While everything is out of print, you can probably find most of it for cheap somewhere online (or inflated, I haven't checked), and it all remains available digitally. Including Crown of Shadow, one of the first titles released for Midnight, being an introductory adventure.

Ethics in Gaming Journalism Disclaimer: I received no complimentary copy of this book. I bought the dead tree version with cold, hard cash. There is an affiliate link in this review to the RPGNow listing for the PDF. Purchases using that affiliate link may provide a portion of the sale to this blog, which is typically used to buy RPG titles that I later review.

Just the Facts:
  • Available at RPGNow in PDF format for $6.95.
  • Designed for Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition rules.
  • Pretty much requires the Midnight rulebook (1st or 2nd Edition).
  • 64 pages, black and white.
  • Designed for 4-6 1st level characters.
Warning: There will be spoilers. Practically unavoidable when discussing adventures.

Crown of Shadow was designed not only as an introductory adventure to the Midnight setting (one of my favorite things to come out of the d20 era), but an in-game tour/primer of the Midnight setting. It is basically a courier quest: The PCs are tasked with taking a package from the Dwarven settlement of Durgis Rock, across the land to the Elven kingdom of Erethor.

As these things go, it's pretty much a railroad. All the more so since the setting is stacked against the heroes from the beginning. To draw the Lord of the Rings comparison: Hiding from Sauron's Eye is a cake walk compared to moving through Izrador's lands: Which is almost everything at this point. In the beginning, the PCs meet with an Elven escort from Erethor at a nearby trading post.

The first chapter wins bonus points from me by including an opponent who is WAY out of their league, and not meant to be fought. I don't like clean, sterilized encounters. It's not as intimidating as Hoard of the Dragon Queen's dragon in the first chapter, but it also doesn't have an "out"for thwarting it. It's either run or die.

From there, the group has few opportunities for respite. After the rendezvous, the group finds that Durgis Rock has been sacked by Izrador's forces, putting them on the run and putting an end to the Elven escort, leaving the fate of the missing entirely into the hands of the PCs.

The one true "break" in the action comes when the PCs fight their way underground and to the Pardrum Holdfast, a Dwarven sanctuary...but only if they successfully convince the Dwarves at the Holdfast to aid them.

Once on the other side of the settlement, the forces of Izrador are in hot pursuit, as a tracker that has been following them starts to show his tricks by having his hunting beast possess animals and attack. The group gets a first hand look at what it's like in human settlements when they visit the town of Baden's Bluff, most likely hidden in the cargo hold of a boat, with events designed to test their willpower such as brutal boarding parties.

The last leg of the journey takes them to Erethor, where they find that the forest is perpetually burning thanks to the efforts of Izrador. The hunter springs his trap, having followed the PCs into the heart of the forest and, if victorious, they gain audience with the Elven Witch Queen, who bestows gifts upon them and accepts their package.

Thoughts:
  • The climax is great if you can do it with the right group. Essentially, Jael the Hunter is assumed to have ambushed a member of the group and replaced them. Then, he reveals himself at the finale. The recommendation is that you coordinate this with the player who is most capable of pulling it off, and allow them to run Jael in the final fight. The fate of the PC can be worked out with the player: Jael may have knocked them out and tied them up...or left them laying dead. When I ran this adventure, I only had one player in the final legs, and so I used an NPC for the deception.
  • The Lord of the Rings influence is really, really heavy here (not surprising, given the setting). It's especially blatant at the end, when meeting with Aradil, the Witch Queen, which is likely to evoke comparisons to The Fellowship meeting Galadriel.
  • The reveal of the package is actually really poignant and great, in my opinion, though the authors pretty much expect some groups to balk at it. What's inside? The Dwarves - no longer expecting to survive their underground war with Izrador - have given the Elves the secret to forging mithral, giving up their greatest secret to ensure that it lives on.
  • This really is a great checklist of the Midnight setting: Players get to experience the rising undead, see the desperation of the Dwarves, encounter the human underground rebellion, meet the token good Orcs, gain a set of Covenant items, witness the power of the Legates, encounter a Black Mirror, even meet pretty much all the major Races and cultures.
  • That said, there is very little that the PCs can do to really affect any change. The only real "choice" in the framework of the adventure is what happens when they venture to the Pardrum Holdfast and whether or not they are greeted as allies or cast out with suspicion. Now, part of this can be excused by the nature of the mission, and players who bought into the initial hook probably won't chafe too badly at the rails the train is running on.
  • I ran the last half of this adventure in Savage Worlds after running the first half in d20, and I felt that Savage Worlds combat captured the danger and desperation of the setting much better than the d20 system did.
I am a huge fan of the Midnight setting, in spite of (or because of) the twisted Lord of the Rings homages, and found this adventure to work great as an introduction to the setting. Midnight is another one of those settings I'd love to run again, though I would either stick with the Savage Worlds conversion or transition to Fifth Edition.

The actual plays of our Savage Worlds sessions can be found here, here and here.