The first edition of Dungeon to include 4e adventures. While filled with most of the elements that make published 4e adventures anathema to player (and DM) agency, these are better than most. It can go substantially downhill from here.
“The search for a missing paladin takes the PCs deep into the heart of a frontier torn apart by cult wars—and face to face with an ancient evil.”
After rescuing refugees, the PCs are recruited to discover the fate of a paladin who went missing while attempting to destroy an evil cult. This adventure is a good example of taking a competent and workmanlike premise and spoiling it by trying to force it into a linear, plotted structure.
What should be a combination town/wilderness crawl and series of social encounters (when trying to find the location of the cult) is reduced to a skill challenge that shows the basic problem with skill challenges. If your players find road travel, village exploration or social interaction interesting, they lose all of the benefits by engaging in a skill challenge instead. If they find those boring, rather than just summarizing the trip they get a dull, gamey travel/social interaction montage. Those who want to do it don’t get to do it; those who don’t want to do it are forced to do it in part. Everybody loses.
The only choices available in the skill challenge are to pick your best skill that you think applies, and let the DM tell you what action your character has attempted as a result. This results from the DM presenting you with a general situation – “The PCs seek out frontier villages, searching for information on Jaryn, the cult, and the location of the Black March” – instead of specific situations to which the PCs may react. For example, consider the following two entries for primary skills in the challenge:
Nature (DC 22): In the absence of trade roads, the PCs must use Nature to seek out the intermittent foot and cart paths crisscrossing the wilderness.
Streetwise (DC 26): While in a village, the PCs talk with the locals. However, the folk of the frontier are reluctant to speak of the Hand of Naarash to strangers, and only one Streetwise check can be made per PC. High DC Bonus: The party gains one piece of information (see below).
In the case of the Nature check, you are not presented with a crossroads and asked to pick a path. You decide that Nature is an appropriate skill to use when “seek[ing] out frontier villages, searching for information on Jaryn, the cult, and the location of the Black March”, and if you roll well enough, you gain a success in the challenge.
Similarly, you get information by rolling the Streetwise check, and not because you have sought out an NPC, or the DM has placed one in your path, and you have actually spoken to said NPC. So, kudos for including a rumor table, but lose points for not using it properly. And lose more points for plenty of references to generic unnamed NPCs without ever giving any of them a smidgen of personality.
In theory a skilled DM could bring this to life by improvising the intermittent footpaths or the conversation with the NPC, But in that event, the skill challenge serves as an encounter outline, not an encounter itself, and the language in the skill challenge entries is not exactly inspirational. That, and improvising at least 12 decisions or encounters (you need 12 successes to win the challenge) without being repetitive and tracking successes and failures, the events flowing from such successes or failures, and the modifiers that successes at certain skills place upon other skills, places a high cognitive load on the DM. It would be less work and more organic to just wing the whole thing.
After a series of forced combats and quantum clues that you receive regardless of your choices, you find the cult and either engage in a skill challenge to infiltrate the cult, or sneak in and have an extra forced combat instead. There is then a short, linear dungeon of forced combats before the “surprise” ending.
This adventure would work best if you found a place, or a couple of places, where it would work in whatever campaign setting you are using, drop it there, and then let the players stumble on it, or not, as they choose. The thing would be much better and easier to run with an overland map, so if you have one, just place the encounter locations wherever they would be, and let player choices determine whether they and how they get there. Use the rumor tables (which are not bad) as rumor tables are generally used, instead of as rewards in the skill challenge. And make sure there are actual villages available for the PCs to travel through, and NPCs with personalities to talk to. You will also need to put some work into fleshing out the cultist’s camp.
Sleeper in the Tomb of Dreams
Something stirs in the dark heart of the Warwood, and in response something stirs in the stars. A simple encounter with bandits on the road leads the PCs to a frightening place where even dreams are deadly.
Decent writing, a nonlinear dungeon, interesting encounters, and significantly fewer combat encounters and skill challenges than the usual make this adventure worth wading through the usual text bloat and organizational issues.
This is essentially a fetch quest. The background is short and decent, which is promptly garbled by the quest-giver. You would think that is important, but whether you run with the quest-giver’s version or (with a knowledge check) learn the true backstory is irrelevant unless the DM takes the elements and builds later scenarios around it.
There is a vision which is well communicated for the most part, with reasonably evocative language. There are a number of non-combat encounters, and metaphorical buttons for the PCs to push – like the skeletal steed which can be an enemy or permanent mount depending on how it is treated. It is a nice mix of combat, traps, empty rooms (with or without treasure), and “special” rooms.
There are quite a few interesting magic items, like the skeletal steed (which is essentially an item); the gems with unusual properties that make them less valuable than they seem, and may have repercussions long after the PCs sell them; and the magic weapon which calls out what the PC is thinking during combat, and could be a disadvantage in combat if your opponent speaks your language.
There are a few sour notes. As I mentioned above, there is a lot of unnecessary text. There is too much irrelevant information about former uses of rooms and such which is unlikely to become relevant. When the odds of information being useful are significantly less than the odds of losing relevant information among the text bloat, the information should be omitted or hived off into an appendix or sidebar.
The division of information between the event/location summaries and the tactical encounter pages that can make it difficult to follow the adventure – where to run a single encounter you have to deal not just text bloat, but with text bloat in two different locations in the adventure.
There is also the odd forced combat encounter but they are generally bearable.
If you were to update this to Monster Manual 3 math, an 8th level party would be unlikely to survive the final encounter. If you have not taught your players to run away when appropriate, you may need to scale it down.
With a highlighter and a few marginal notes, this is usable as-is. If I was to use it, I would adapt the hooks to be rumors, put the opening encounter on my random encounters table, and choose a hex for the entrance to the dungeon in the event of a hex-crawl.