A trek across the Shadow Marches leads weary travelers to Blackroot, a quiet village of ramshackle huts nestled among the darkwood trees. Here, orcs and humans live in peace. However, all is not well. Something evil has crawled up from below, threatening to devour the village and its denizens. Only a party of brave heroes stands in its way.
I’ve pretty much given up on reviewing the 4e issues Dungeon Magazine. It is just too painful to read, and every review would have been the same, because the issues are nearly always the same.
Instead, I wanted to review something that was accessible and free, for anyone who wants to pick it up to see what I am talking about. Drivethru.rpg carries two free 4e modules. One is Keep on the Shadowfell, the other is Khyber’s Harvest.
There are also a number of adventures available for Living Forgotten Realms, but the necessity of designing for organized play means it would not be fair to make the sorts of criticisms I want to make. Not that they are good adventures for home play, but they are what they are because the structure of organized play requires it.
On the other hand, Keep has been reviewed to death, and also isn’t a good example of a 4e adventure because it was clearly designed before the game was even out. The skill challenges in particular are not illustrative of the later WotC fare.
That leaves Khyber’s Harvest. It was written by Keith Baker, the creator of the Eberron campaign setting, in which Khyber’s Harvest is set. The adventure was written for Free RPG Day, in the same month as the release of the 4e Eberron Player’s Guide and Eberron Campaign Guide; it is an introductory, promotional product, complete with pre-generated characters. It is short and linear; it also has way more flavour than most products published during the 4e period.
The adventure involves a cult to Belashyrra, the Lord of Eyes, which is sacrificing villagers for the usual culty reasons. It starts with the obligatory background, which I generally complain about as being irrelevant to the adventure, but which in this case does a nice job of conveying the flavour of the adventure to the DM. Baker’s strength lies in his ability to convey the essence of an organization, culture or location, and make it stick in you mind in a way that makes it easy to draw upon and draw inspiration from. In this instance it come complete with a free verse prophecy which is relevant to the adventure and manages to not sound cheesy.
This flavourful presentation can be found throughout the module. I remember running this when I was new to Eberron, and I didn’t know much about the Shadow Marches, where it was set, or the orc cultures, or the Cults of the Dragon Below. The module doesn’t actually describe any of those things, yet (as I now know from being familiar with those game elements) I still managed to get the flavour of the adventure exactly right.
Which doesn’t quite redeem the structural problems, but does make it a lot more palatable, and certainly makes the module a pleasure to read.
Bonus points because the information in the background is actually discoverable by the PCs, and may even be useful to them. This is rare in a 4e product.
The adventure begins with the party having arrived at the village, in a minor railroad which I deem acceptable to get an introductory adventure moving, particularly a one-shot. It is certainly no worse than Hommlet’s three paragraph “you have come to the village seeking your fortune.”
After a too-long readaloud (to listen to, it’s fine to read to yourself), the village reeve does his best to make the party feel not welcome, and dodges any questions, although he will point the way to the party’s contact’s cottage.
And here we come to the first problem. This is a social encounter, and the first actual encounter of the module, but the party’s actions have no impact on the results of the encounter. The reeve volunteers that the party is not welcome, will point out the cottage without convincing, and otherwise will provide no information at all, no matter how clever the players are. He may as well be standing there with an exclamation point hovering over his head.
He also has no personality, other than being confident and gruff but not aggressive; the genius Baker shows for adding flavour to a region or an adventure does not extend to this NPC. The reeve is designed to impart particular information, but is not designed to be interacted with.
On the other hand, there is an order of battle stated in the event that the party attacks the reeve, which is a nice touch.
The party then enters a skill challenge, which
represents the player characters’ search for clues regarding the disappearance of Doria and her family. By talking to the people of Blackroot and investigating the Veledaar dwelling, they learn that Doria and her family were kidnapped. The party can then trail the cultists to their lair.
I’m going to go into this in a fair amount of detail, since the link above is to a free copy of the module and you can read it for comparison. It is a complexity 3 challenge, which means the party needs 8 successful checks before three failures. A maximum of 2 successes can come from Arcana, 4 from Insight, and 4 from Perception.
Let’s start with the Arcana skill. With an Arcana check of the ambient energies of the village, you can determine that there is a source of arcane energy nearby. The source is the dungeon entrance, however, you cannot find the source without completing the skill challenge.
Now, checking a village for ambient energy may not be the sort of thing that the party would ordinarily think to do. But if the players know they are in a skill challenge, you can bet the players of the Artificer and Invoker pregens are going to look at their character sheets, notice they have high Arcana scores, and start thinking of a way to use them.
Use of Insight imparts information regarding the mood of the villagers, and conclusions to be drawn from inspecting Dora’s house. It also gets you an audience with an NPC, which imparts a specific piece of information, no more, no less; this is another NPC that is not designed to be interacted with.
Note that you get the information from making the checks, not from observing or talking to the villagers, inspecting the house, or trying to talk to the NPC. That is, the checks may be made out of character, as opposed in in-character in response to a scene described by the DM.
In theory the DM could improvise all of those encounters, but the module does not really support it. While there is a house to inspect, there are no individual villagers to interact with, and the NPC isn’t called out as being there until the check has already been made.
This is why I often say that skill challenges are not encounters, they are an encounter seeds, or at best encounter outlines. If you want to run it as an interactive encounter, the DM has to do some heavy lifting.
And if you do run it by improvising interactive encounters, you can have a mechanical problem. Because if the party never thinks to talk to the (essentially nonexistent within the module) body of villagers, the DM will never have an excuse to ask them for appropriate checks.
To run this properly, you would need to make up a few villagers to interact with, and a reason for the PCs to interact with them. Which you can’t do under the structure of this skill challenge, because we are later told under the “Diplomacy” section that the villagers will under no circumstances talk to the PCs. If you even try, you automatically rack up a failure in the challenge, although you get a bonus to a later Streetwise check.
On to Perception. With Perception you get to notice that a lot of houses are abandoned. You can also notice a few things about Doria’s house in particular, including a pendant that can be useful in the dungeon.
Note that the information gleaned from Perception or Insight checks have nothing to do with magical energy, but we are told in the “Success” section that they somehow make it possible to use Arcana to sense the location of the dungeon. Likewise, the Arcana and Insight checks somehow make it possible to follow a blood trail that otherwise you could not have followed. How? Beats me.
Attempting to Intimidate earns an automatic failure and makes a Streetwise check impossible. Streetwise doesn’t earn successes or failures, but does get you that conversation with the NPC that was discussed above in relation to “Insight”.
Religion also doesn’t earn any successes or failures, but does identify the pendant you (hopefully) found in Doria’s house as a cult’s holy symbol.
This whole section – in fact, the whole adventure up to this point – would be better handled as social encounters with villagers coupled with a site-based encounter at Doria’s house. Sometimes a skill challenge will give you enough material to build real encounters easily. This one gives enough information to build, or even improvise, an exploration of Doria’s house, but not enough to build an effective village with social encounters.
That is a missed opportunity in an introductory product, because even two or three meaningful interactions with the orc villagers could have done a brilliant job of showing off unique and interesting aspects of the setting. As it is, it is probably easiest to skip the village as much as possible, focus on Doria’s house, and have the blood trail to the dungeon be too obvious to miss.
At first blush this is a bog standard combat encounter with the guards at the entrance of the dungeon. However, it does contemplate an attempt by the PCs to bluff their way past. Unfortunately, this is in the form of a complexity 2 skill challenge, which means you need to shoehorn at least 6 skill checks into a conversation where the PCs are trying to pass themselves off as cultists.
It would be more useful if the module suggested what the guards are looking for in identifying a cultist, how they might be influenced or leveraged, and how much they care (maybe they are more afraid of refusing actual cultists then accidentally admitting fake cultists – who would be faking such a thing, anyway?). Then allow the DM to wing it without a fixed number of checks.
One of the guards has a nice, freaky, non-standard magic weapon in the form of a symbiotic worm which attaches to his tongue. If you kill the guard, any PC who wants to shove this thing in his mouth can get the benefit, which is cool. Too bad the mechanics make it something you would want to use sparingly.
Another nice touch is that, when the bodies of the guards are searched, it will be found that each has grown at least one extra eye on some random part of his body. There are a few other bit of flavour, but this and the tongueworm are the best.
You can also interrogate these or any other cultists you encounter, and learn the information in the “Background” section.
The Hall of Living Words
In OSR parlance this would qualify as “special” or a “trick”. It is just a tunnel covered in weird writing, but it is worth looking at the readaloud:
The walls of the cavern are covered with lines of red light—scrawls and scribbles painted in what looks like glowing blood. The symbols resemble some sort of writing, but although this is no language you know, the text is infuriatingly familiar. Suddenly you realize that the symbols are moving—crawling slowly across the walls and floor. Whether you stare or avert your eyes, you are overcome with the feeling that you might be able to force the wall to reveal its secrets to you, if only you put your mind to it.
This is one of the few times I have actually read the readaloud in a module when running it. Better if it had been written in oral language, so that it might be spoken more easily, but still a good job of conveying the mood of the place.
Trying to read the writing can either do damage to the PC or provide some additional information, and grants bonuses or penalties in later encounters.
Glyphs of Madness
This amounts to a baited trap. There is an obvious trap you can walk around. The trap guards an optional area. You can ignore the trap and the optional area, or deal with the trap and investigate the optional area.
Unfortunately, the optional area doesn’t have much interesting in it. This is probably the first time the players have encountered this sort of setup, so you want to reward them for exploring optional areas. That way they are tempted to take the risk the next time they are in this situation.
The Baleful Eye
Cultists holding services before a big magical eye. The readaloud is too long with too many adjectives, and while it has some useful information and decent flavour embedded in it, the players are likely to lose interest and fail to catch the useful elements.
This is an unavoidable combat encounter, but if everyone is wearing a cultist holy symbol, they get surprise against the magic eye. I think it would have been more interesting if it was possible to bluff for at least long enough to make some observations, maybe find the secret door and try to figure out how to open it.
The dolgaunt monster should be plenty freaky to players who aren’t familiar with it, and one of the cultists has another symbiont magic weapon which the PCs can gain. Its not as weird as the tongueworm, though. The jewelry is unique and well described.
When the baleful eye is destroyed, a secret door opens onto stairs leading down to the lower part of the dungeon. At which point you are entering the Mythic Underworld.
The Blood of Khyber
The passage is narrow and the party has to proceed single file. The readaloud here is too long but it has some pretty nice parts:
Clambering along this rough, narrow passage seems unpleasantly akin to climbing down the throat of some great beast … Whispers twist around you—mad voices that fade as soon as you try to hear their words. The stone of walls and floor grows soft and spongy. More troubling, your light begins to flicker and dim, seemingly swallowed by the darkness.
This eventually opens up into a room containing some dolgrim. Dolgrim are creatures created by the daelkyr and consist of two goblins which have been mushed together and mutated. They have two mouths (with two corresponding brains) and four arms, and tend to argue with themselves crazily. These ones don’t have anything useful to say, but one mouth will criticize the other when they screw up in combat.
My players find dolgrims and dolgaunts really memorable. I think they’ve only encountered them once, but they still bring them up as cool monsters.
There is a magic pool of purple liquid. If the players take a short rest beside it, they get the benefits of a full night’s sleep. A decent, nonstandard touch, which would be better if the players had to risk drinking from it to get the benefit.
Also, all light sources are of reduced effectiveness in this chamber. This telegraphs the next chamber.
The Well of Darkness
All light sources in this room are reduced to a tiny radius; if you aren’t carrying a light source you are screwed. You get to fight an ooze of living darkness. If you destroy it, it turns to dust which can be used as residuum.
The Hungry Room
Here is the readaloud:
You make your way forward with your newly returned light, the floor and walls of the cavern gleaming as they become increasingly slick and soft—more like flesh than stone. As you approach a large cavern, the slimy floor begins to ripple beneath your feet like a slab of raw muscle. Across the long hall, three dolgrims raise crossbows as a dolgaunt hisses a warning behind them.
The decryption is more than just flavour. The fleshy floor is hard to walk on, and a number of areas on the floor have hidden mouths that can bite you.
Encounters with dolgaunts and dolgrims tend to be straight up fights, and this is no exception. They are usually treated like undead in that way.
Cultists’ Last Stand
Final battle with the reeve and the cultists. Doria is held hostage, and the reeve makes a short but overwrought demand for the PCs surrender. The encounter assumes that they won’t, but there is enough here to inspire a DM if the players try something creative. If a battle does break out, the PCs have maybe 2 rounds to get Doria away from the dolgaunt who is holding her before it manages to kill her.
Reinforcements start coming in pairs from another chamber. Intuitive payers might have enough information to figure out that these are actually the villagers, who are being turned into cultists and attacking. If they don’t finish up this encounter quickly, they might end up slaughtering a good chunk of the village.
The reeve is wearing a minor artifact called the Coat of Eyes. It is a leather jerkin of chitin and raw muscle, set with dozens of living eyes. When the reeve dies, the Coat detaches from him, shredding his skin as it does so, and slithers a few feet away into a corner.
If you put this on – and one of the PCs in my campaign actually did – you eventually figure out that the Big Bad is observing the world through the eyes on the Coat. the Coat encourages the PC to expose it to new things, and gets mad if you cover it up. Which is a nice little dilemma for the player.
The last chamber is the source of the reinforcements from the last encounter, which continues generating minions to fight until this encounter is over; it is likely that this encounter and the last one will end up running together.
There is a big crystal in the middle of the room, and a number of crystal “coffins” enclosing terrified villagers. Every couple of rounds a pair of them are changed into cultists, complete with extra eye, and attack the party. It doesn’t say how you determine which villagers are transformed first; I assumed it was random. It is likely that some of the coffins will be empty, their inhabitants having already been transformed and killed by the PCs.
It is possible to release the villagers by shattering the coffins; on average a party could probably take out three a round. The other alternative is to tamper with the big crystal in the middle of the room – which requires 12 successful skill checks. The big crystal can’t be shattered.
Note this is actually one of the very few encounters where I think the skill challenge mechanic is useful as a sort of victory point counter. Which makes it a perfect place to illustrate why the skill challenge format is so flawed. Because as written, spamming 12-14 die rolls is boring as hell.
Shattering the coffins actually counts as a success in the challenge, one success for each coffin shattered. So you could probably shut the thing down in 4 rounds doing just that.
Other than that, several skills are available, all of which are variations on tampering with the crystal’s energy. They are all abstract checks, in the sense that there is nothing manipulable about the crystal, no button to push, levers to pull, cracks to shove daggers in, etc. The players just declare how they tamper with the energy, and pick their PC’s best skill to do it. The clerics pray, the wizards disrupt the energy, the thieves tamper with the crystal, the people skilled at Dungeoneering … erm … “manipulates the power of Khyber to staunch the prison’s flow of eldritch energy.” ‘Cause that’s a thing that dungeoneers do. Especially dwarves.
This would be much better if the scene included elements that the PCs could interact with. Maybe the energy running from the crystal to the coffins flows in visible streams, cuing the Artificer, Invoker and Sorcerer to try to redirect it with Arcana. I mean, I know that anyone who plays 4e knows that whenever there is a skill challenge involving magic, the Arcana-trained characters try to tamper with the energy flow, but that’s not a good thing.
A visible flow also invites other ways to tamper. Maybe physical objects can interrupt the flow, or a shiny object can redirect it. And where do the Arcana trained characters redirect it to? There could be consequences to that decision
Or the crystal could be hooked up to an eldritch machine, with an incomprehensible control panel and conduits directing energy to the coffins. You could sever the conduits, but they might explode, or whip around spouting dangerous energy like an unattended fire hose. The Artificer, or a Rogue if you have one, could start pushing buttons on the panel. The Arcana trained characters could still try to redirect the energy.
Or the crystal could be inscribed with unholy symbols, prompting the Paladin and Invoker to start intervening with prayer. Or, since “praying” is always the default action for Religion trained characters in skill challenges, which again is not a good thing, they could instead invoke a ritual or scroll placed earlier in the dungeon. 4e really suffers from a lack of spells and rituals like bless, atone or consecrate, this is a good opportunity to introduce them.
The crystal could sport obvious flaws, allowing a Dungeoneering trained character to damage it with precise blows where other characters failed to damage it by just beating on it. ‘Cause, like, he knows about mining.
Better yet, some activities, like severing the conduits, could have negative consequences, which creates a meaningful choice for the party. Do we sit back while the Arcana trained characters figure out how it all works, while the coffins continue to turn villagers into enemies; or do we take the chance of meddling with things right away?
Now some newer and better skill challenges contain the sorts of elements listed above. But they are listed as narratives delivered upon the making of a successful skill check. While it is possible to run it differently, that is, to describe the scene to the players including these elements from the start, the organization (a) suggests that is not the intention, and (b) means you are fishing through the entire skill challenge looking for descriptive elements to include. And you are yoked to the structure of the skill challenge (which is fine here, but usually pretty crappy).
Much better to set out the interactive elements from the start, and invite the players to start messing with it. And then, when they tell you how they are trying to mess with it, you tell them what checks to make in order for you to properly adjudicate the situation. This has the PCs interacting with the environment in a concrete as opposed to abstract manner, invites some missteps, and makes those 12-14 die rolls a lot more interesting.
All the while making the DM’s job easier.
Ending the Adventure
The adventure kindly identifies which coffins hold Doria’s family members, so the players can know how many they rescued or killed. Regardless, the village doesn’t hold a grudge and is happy to be free of the cultists, rewarding the party with a magic item (DM’s choice).
The adventure stands head and shoulders above most 4e products. I have run it twice, and enjoyed it both times. The weakest points were the village skill challenge, which floundered from having no meaningful social interaction possible; and the Soul Chamber skill challenge because I had not yet figured out how to fix these things.
Clunky skill challenges aside, the overall flavour of the dungeon was sufficiently interesting that no one seemed to care that is was so linear. And to be fair, it is pretty tough to offer meaningful navigation decisions in a seven-room dungeon.
Despite the linear plot, player decisions can have an impact on later events, and even accelerate events if they attack the reeve when they first meet him. Allied NPCs are allowed to die, and there is the possibility for a not particularly happy ending even if the PCs all survive.
There are some unique treasures that double as decent plot hooks. Anyone who decides to put on the Coat of Eyes (dubbed the “Meat Shirt” by one of my players) is likely to draw a certain amount of attention from anyone he encounters, not to mention Belashyrra and his cultists. The monsters are also interesting, the environment is flavourful, and not every monster attacks on sight. On the other hand, social interaction with NPCs and monsters is not well supported.
Overall it is successful. This is partially because of the clarity of Baker’s vision, and his success in conveying it; and partially because he avoids many of the pitfalls of other 4e adventures. Specifically, he places much less emphasis on combat; of the ten encounters, only 7 are combat encounters, two of which run together, and at least one of which can be avoided. And he uses effective transitional devices; you are not floundering to find your way to the dungeon entrance, and he describes the transition between the two levels of the dungeon.
He is hampered somewhat by the standard 4e layout, which can make the more useful information difficult to find. I noticed in some places he mitigated this issue by using sidebars to call out important information that might otherwise have been lost in the wall of text. This is a stark contrast to most 4e products, in which the sidebars are used to shoehorn in information which is only of interest to the adventure writer.
In all, Khyber’s Harvest is a good example of how 4e adventures don’t have to be complete dreck. So, thumbs up, Keith Baker.
Suddenly I want to mash-up Khyber’s Harvest and Against the Cult of the Reptile God. Now that would be a brilliant module.