Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What Do I Know About Reviews? Halaster’s Maze of Madness (D&D 5th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guild)



Since I was already digging into my Encoded Designs D&D products, I put this one on the review list next. This adventure hasn’t even been for sale for too long, but what care have I for clearing out my backlog of RPG goodness in a chronological manner? No care at all, say I!



Into the Purple
If you like D&D, and you like purple, this adventure is going to be right up your alley. While The Rakshasa’s Roost had a “cleaner and better formatted but still old school looking” style to it, this one is slick—and purple. So purple. Light purple pages, purple glowing runes as borders, and purple effects on the various headings.

This isn’t a bad thing. It reinforces the themes of ambient magic, glowing runes, and madness in the adventure. I just figured that if you happen to be porphyrophobic, you might want to be warned ahead of time. The adventure is 37 pages long, including 6 pages of maps, a page of magic items, five pages of monsters, and a dramatis personae to keep all the NPCs straight. There is a mix of stock art and art made specifically for this adventure, and I have to say, that’s a sweet minotaur.

Introduction and Adventure Synopsis
There is a one page piece of fiction that introduces the villain’s point of view, that is reminiscent of how the Fantasy Flight Star Wars adventures often open. This gives the GM some perspective for the bad guy. The next section is the adventure synopsis, which summarizes some of the history of Halaster Blackcloak and the Twisted Rune going back several editions of D&D, especially noting the events surrounding the Expedition to Undermountain adventure from 3rd edition, where Halaster met his end.



The introduction does a good job of summarizing a lot of previous Realmslore into a digestible package, and, getting a bit ahead of myself, there is thankfully a way for this information to come up in the adventure and be relevant, so that it’s not just extra backstory that doesn’t affect the PCs.

There is a quick summary of the assumed sequence of events, as well as a discussion on XP awards for completing quests related to the story.

The Body of the Adventure
The basic structure of the adventure is that someone possessed by a fragment of Halaster’s soul seeks out the adventurers to warn them something bad is about to happen, but being fragmentary, the child can’t provide much in the way of explanation. The group gets led to more people possessed by Halaster’s soul, and each one has some clues that the PCs will need in order to solve their way through a magical maze. When they make it through the maze, they confront an old enemy of Halaster’s who is, himself, not quite feeling like his old self.

I like that the PCs need to interact with multiple NPCs to get their clues, and the fact that some of those possessed by Halaster have information that has nothing to do with this adventure. It makes even talking to the NPCs an integral part of the adventure, so they don’t just find one character and get an info dump from them.

The opening feels a little rushed. I understand jumping straight into the action, but I think I would have almost preferred that the PCs have a little more time to breathe and discuss the situation. If I were to run this, instead of the random portal to Undermountain, I might have the PCs directed to the Yawning Portal, to an alcove in the entrance level of Undermountain, to at least introduce the connection between the Yawning Portal and Undermountain. That said, I know that Halaster and random portals into Undermountain, far removed from its physical location, are an established trope of the setting.

The pacing feels as if it’s being written to get this adventure done in a standard four-hour slot, if the players stay focused on their goal, but there is enough material to decompress and play, if the GM utilizes some of the hooks built into the adventure.

Clues and Puzzles
I’ll admit it. I’m not always a fan of “real world” puzzles in adventures. Often it feels like something that is obvious to the author isn’t going to be obvious even to the brightest of players if they don’t have the same frame of reference and experiences as the author. The cleverer the puzzle is, the more likely that either the players are right in line with the author and get it immediately, or the players will never, ever, follow that line of thinking. Additionally, some players that might not want to figure out puzzles just tune out during that segment of the game.

Despite all of those above misgivings, solving a puzzle can feel very rewarding, and it is a trope of the genre. It also something that doesn’t feel nearly as rewarding if it’s relegated to a skill or ability check. So, I can see why puzzles still show up in adventures.

In this adventure, there is a puzzle in attempting to figure out the sequence of clues delivered, and then there are a few places where these clues must be implemented. I think these clues walk the line very nicely between pointlessly easy and time-wastingly hard, to the point that I can see that, at a table of 4-6 people, someone is going to come up with the solution quickly. There are also some built-in checks to nudge the PCs in the right direction.

Specifically, these clues and puzzles relate to navigating the magical maze mentioned above. The maze requires the PCs to do something in each area to leave that area in the proper manner to advance towards their ultimate goal.

Encounters
Most of the encounters involve standard combat with a twist, such as a dangerous environment, potential hostage situation, or a similar complication. Many of the monsters that appear are also standard monsters with a twist, such as gnolls that have thematic, triggered abilities, or magically mutated zombies that complicate the use of magic to defeat them.

Depending on how well versed they are in Realmslore, the final boss fight gives the PCs a chance to take out a long running villain of the setting in a unique manner. It’s kind of nice to have the PCs acting against a home grown Forgotten Realms villain, rather than importing one from another campaign setting. Cough.

Future Developments
While the introduction feels like it rushes into the situation to get to the action, there is a lot of secondary information that doesn’t directly pertain to this adventure. This information is usually summarized quickly, so that it’s not taking up pages of text, but does spell out that there can be more going on if the GM wants to develop those hooks.

A Round at the Yawning Portal
The adventure does a good job of using the setting of the Forgotten Realms for its basis, but in a way, that is broad enough to appeal to people that have never invested heavily in the lore. The puzzles managed to walk the line between providing a feeling of accomplishment without the players feeling like Batman trying to outwit the Riddler. The adventure also manages to make use of the weird properties of Undermountain to deliver some context for the quirky encounters that are presented.

Pouring One Out for Fallen Friends
The adventure is great once it gets going, but the beginning is a bit abrupt, and while it spends some time discussing the resolution of the plight of some of the people in the adventure, it doesn’t dwell on how exactly to deal with the logistics of resolving the situation other than in very broad strokes. This may not be wholly negative, but it does give the impression of an episode of a TV series where you cut to the action and assume that once the bad guy is defeated, all the people potentially imperiled by the situation will be safe “off screen,” because the action is over.

Inspiration from Madness
The adventure is very clear on how to run it, and has many options for expanding its use. It walks a very well-crafted line between being a good adventure on its face and utilizing the tools that the campaign setting itself provides. Back in the 3.5 days of Dungeon Magazine, when people were asking for more Forgotten Realms specific adventures, this is the type of adventure I wanted to see. If you want a self-contained adventure for 5th edition D&D, I don’t think you are going to regret picking this one up.

**** (out of five)


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