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Tuesday, 2nd March, 2010, 03:49 PM #1
The Adventures of Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer: Shadows of Mirahan
The Adventures of Frank Frazetta’s Death Dealer: Shadows of Mirahan (DD: SoM) is a 92 page adventure for Dungeons and Dragons, 4th edition, for five characters of 7th-9th level. The plot of the adventure follows that of the Image Comics series by the same name published in 2007, which was in turn inspired by Frank Frazetta’s iconic painting done in 1973, and a series of novels published later. The physical book continues Goodman Games’ tradition of high production values. The cover features the eponymous portrait of the Death Dealer with an appropriately evocative font used for the title. The back cover depicts the Death Dealer in a pose from another of Frazetta’s paintings as interpreted by the comic artists. The only detracting bit is the “Great Price” image on the front cover; a removable sticker would have been much preferred.
The interior of the book is well laid out with a good choice of font used to maintain readability on the very light grayscale background on the page. The book is illustrated using art from the Image comic books and converts fairly well from full color to black and white, as much of the art in the comic was fairly monochrome as well. Many of the maps are displayed in an isometric view rather than an orthographic view. I feel that this was a good choice on Goodman Games’ part as many of the encounter locations vary in elevation and these maps provide a good indication of it.
The adventure itself consists of three chapters preceded by a brief introduction to the adventure. After the adventure are several appendices including topics from adventuring in the world of the Death Dealer, new rules, new monsters and pregenerated characters. Each chapter and appendix will be discussed in detail below, and will include heavy spoilers. In brief, and relatively spoiler free, the adventure begins with the party fighting a holding action, in a fortified mountain pass, against an undead horde sent by the god, Mirahan, to destroy the country of Oro. After the defense of the mountain pass, the characters travel through the Eternal Forest to warn the ruler of Oro about the coming invasion. After allying with the druids of the Eternal Forest the characters travel to the Angra Swamp to face the demon general of the undead horde and release the Death Dealer.
In the interest of full disclosure I received my copy from Goodman Games for review.
There are heavy spoilers from here on, if you wish to avoid them scroll on down to my conclusion to get my impressions of this adventure.
Chapter 1 – The Siege of Cascada Pass
The adventure begins with the characters patrolling the border between Oro and Edani, a neighboring kingdom gripped by a civil war. In the mountains the characters encounter a group of Edani refugees fleeing the Shadow Horde, a massive undead army. The party has the option of fighting a holding action in a ruined keep, a remnant from the war between Oro and Edani, allowing the refugees to cross the mountain pass into the relative safety of Oro; or if they choose not to stand and fight, they can attempt to flee to warn Sacramont, the ruler of Oro. If the PCs choose to flee and warn the king the refugees are overtaken and the DM must either figure out some way to get the characters back in the story line or completely improvise as the adventure itself provides no support for the latter option.
The characters are allowed 15 minutes (150 rounds) of game time to explore the ruined keep and prepare defenses against the oncoming horde. The DM is admonished that the players cannot “win” this battle, i.e. they cannot utterly defeat the undead army. This point should be stressed to the players that the goal of this portion of the adventure is to delay the undead and provide the refugees time to get through the pass. I feel that this needs particular attention due to the fact that typical D&D 4e encounters are designed in such a way that they are winnable by an appropriately leveled party. The keep is divided into two encounter paths labeled A and B; the undead attempt to rush in through both paths, forcing the PCs to either split the party or to have prepared delaying actions along both paths.
Once the PCs preparations are finished, or the 15 minutes are up, the undead reach the keep and a running battle begins. Before the descriptions of each encounter location, there is some DM advice provided: first is to encourage vivid descriptions, as the long battle can become a grind; second is how to adjudicate milestones, as each room defended will count as an encounter for milestones; third there are secret rooms in the keep that the players can potentially take a short rest in, and the room will keep them hidden from most of the undead, although the shadow wolves will be able to smell them and call for aid; fourth is general strategies used by the Horde if the players manage to significantly delay the advance.
Each encounter location (room) is numbered and keyed to the orthographic map provided. Locations get brief boxed text descriptions to be read to the players followed by more detailed descriptions for the DM. These descriptions include DCs for items of potential use by the party (for example barring and/or breaking doors, locating secret doors, damage from barrels of oil, etc.). At the end of each description is a short list of the creatures found, and how they “spawn.” For example, in the first location, the players will encounter five foot soldiers, three archers and one heavy infantry; on round 3, three more foot soldiers, two archers and one heavy infantry arrive; on round 5, 6, etc more undead show up. This method of encounter management really drives home the overwhelming numbers of the Horde and that the PCs cannot, and should not remain in one location for long. Other than the two main entrances to the keep there are an additional two escape routes hidden for the PCs to discover. Either of these leads to the interlude between chapters one and two.
This interlude details the escape of the PCs from the overrun keep into the Eternal Forest. If the characters decided to hide until nightfall they can sneak into the woods with no problem, however if traveling during the day it becomes a skill challenge. The skill challenge is of middling difficulty and failure results in a combat encounter. In either outcome the PCs make it into the forest and move on to chapter 2.
Chapter 2 – Into the Eternal Forest
This chapter is set entirely in the Eternal Forest with the characters attempting to evade the Shadow Horde and make their way to warn the king of the invasion. The first encounter is a skill challenge that is more difficult than the previous one, namely in the number of successes needed. If successful the party moves on to the main encounter areas in the chapters, and failure results in a combat encounter. This skill challenge can be run as many times as the DM wishes and it remains entertaining to the players.
Once the skill challenge(s) are completed the characters come across a rallying area for the Shadow Horde. Thousands of zombies and other undead fill a clearing in the forest. The players see a ravine that cuts across the clearing allowing them to sneak through it, rather than trek around. Boxed text discusses what to do if the group decides to circle around rather than go through the ravine; needless to say, if the party opts not to go through the ravine the chapter ends with the same encounter with the major difference that the Horde marches and destroys much of Oro.
The ravine consists of six encounters beginning with a couple of combat oriented ones, though the second encounter has an interesting way for the party to circumvent fighting the monster contained within. Environmental effects also add interesting twists to the encounters and add to the tactical challenge. The final encounter is with a potential ally and will necessitate role playing on the part of the players. An old druid tells of the disruption of the cycle of life and death by the Horde and that the players much awaken the Death Dealer to restore the proper cycle. This last encounter is a major choke point in the adventure, as if for some reason the party does not chose to help the druid his magic fades and the adventure is over.
Chapter 3 – Rise of the Death Dealer
This is the final chapter of the adventure and provides the greatest challenge to the players. After exiting a magical portal the characters find themselves in the Angra Swamp. The entire swamp is covered in think mist obscuring vision and limiting the range of engagements. This chapter begins with another skill challenge of a particularly interesting nature. The goal of the challenge is to once again elude the Shadow Horde and seek out the demon’s lair. Each time the party fails a challenge roll, they face an encounter, and after each of these encounters the difficulty to find the demon’s lair increases, with the final failure resulting in an early fight with the demon. These encounters are all very challenging and will tax the party heavily.
If the characters make it to the demon’s lair they have the element of surprise and are in a much better strategic position. The demon Dazaka’s lair consists of another five encounter locations all providing fairly straightforward battles. The “High Ledge” encounter is very evocative of older editions of D&D, with the most memorable being the cave fisher in the Slave Lord series of modules. The “Battle on the Bridge” once again uses terrain to add tactical depth to an otherwise straightforward battle.
After defeating Dazaka, the characters have a chance to destroy the prison holding the Death Dealer and release him to wipe out the Shadow Horde and thwart the plans of the god, Mirahan. The adventure concludes here with the Death Dealer riding out of the cave and laying waste to much of the undead army. Further adventures are alluded to in destroying the remnants of the Shadow Horde that the Death Dealer did not destroy and the rebuilding of the lands of Iparsia.
All of the appendices are fairly short and will be discussed as a whole here. The first one is a brief look at the land of Iparsia. A discussion of classes in Iparsia is given emphasizing that most heroes come from the martial power source with the more magical power source being very rare. Humans are the only canonical race in Iparsia and each nation gets a short write up including a physical description, general personality traits and any statistical variations. Each nation gains the standard human bonuses, and additionally a +1 to an ability score determined by the nationality of the character. I am unsure as to why the writers chose to use an additional +1 when every ability modifier in D&D 4e is intentionally an even value, and with no demihumans in the default setting having two +2 modifiers would not be unbalancing. Each nationality also receives a +1 bonus to a non armor defense score. Each of the nations, in the tradition of older swords and sorcery fiction, are modeled on different historical societies with names altered to barely disguise the innocent, i.e. Egyptia. A short discussion of nonhuman races is included and offers two options: to include them as presented in the core books of D&D; or to have the party come from another world and have to hide from the populace as they would be mistaken for monsters themselves. I personally am in favor of the unstated third option, and that is to leave them out completely as player race options. This maintains a closer fidelity to the swords and sorcery roots of the adventure.
After this setting discussion come the crunchy parts. Two new feats are introduced: Weapon Mastery and Armor Mastery. Both provide a bonus to a specific weapon or armor. Additional rules are provided focused on critical hits. The threat ranges of all weapons are increased, and now produce an additional effect based on weapon type. The results of rolls on the critical hit tables typically induce some kind of status effect (save ends). These charts coupled with the various status effect powers that the martial classes can produce will have a noticeable tactical impact on the flow of combat. Milestones also get a boost, modeling the increasing death and destruction caused by the party, by adding a bonus to attack and damage rolls.
All of the nonunique monster stats are collected in one appendix and follow the layout established in the Monster Manual, allowing for easy interpretation. This is not the only location for these statistics as they are provided in each encounter as well to minimize flipping back and forth through the book. There is a good mix of monster roles with a preference for brutes and skirmishers. An experience tracker sheet is provided for the DM to keep a running tally of each monster type that is killed; this is a nice bonus and will ease the tracking of experience points during the adventure.
There are five pregenerated characters provided. These are the characters from the comic book series. All of the characters are built using the Player’s Handbook and are well built for this adventure. Much to my surprise, all of the characters are of good alignment; based on the materials presented I would have expected them to be unaligned. There are also stats provided for the Death Dealer himself. As previously mentioned he does not take any active part in this adventure which is a wise decision by the writers as a 28th level soldier would grotesquely outclass all of the characters.
The preface of the adventure mentions Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber and Robert E. Howard as major noteworthy writers and their mention gives the DM a good indication as to the literary model the adventure draws from. The plot of the adventure is fairly linear with a few notes as to how a DM could deal with parties that decide to take another course of action; most of these variations though result in the “failure” of the adventure. Within this linearity some of the outcomes are based on character actions, namely in the number of skill challenges and the choice of skills used to overcome them. This linearity is fairly common in adventures written for D&D 4e, and is an artifact of encounter design rather than authorial laziness. The adventure is very well written and makes great utilization of the skill challenges rules. Another good design decision was to not include the Death Dealer himself in the events of the adventure, firmly keeping the focus on the player characters.
Overall this adventure will prove a fairly difficult challenge to a party. The additional rules in play suitably evoke the feel of both the Death Dealer comics and the sword and sorcery genre. The level of difficulty I feel is a great asset to this adventure and models well the gritty and desperate nature of the the world of the Death Dealer.
Thursday, 4th March, 2010, 05:15 AM #2
Cutpurse (Lvl 5)
Thank you for the kind and thorough review!
Friday, 5th March, 2010, 09:01 PM #3
I write them as I see them and Goodman Games produces fine 4e products.
Wednesday, 12th May, 2010, 07:50 PM #4
R.I.P. F.F. Long Live the Death Dealer!
I thought this was a really good one. Some great pieces and a little history. Enjoy!
R.I.P. Frank Frazetta... Long May You Rock - FEARNet
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