Grasp of the Emerald Claw is a 32-page adventure for 6th level characters written by Bruce R. Cordell and published by Wizards of the Coast for the Eberron setting. It is the final adventure in the series that began in short adventure "The Forgotten Forge" (found in the Eberron Campagin Setting), and continued with Shadows of the Last War and Whispers of the Vampire's Blade.
I ran this adventure as part of that series earlier this year, so this is a playtest review. It is also going to be in the more detailed style I'm adopting for reviewing adventures, so beware! There are spoilers ahead!
Design: Bruce R. Cordell
Additional Design, Development and Editing: Bill Slavicsek
Cover Illustration: Wayne Reynolds
Interior Illustrations: Steve Prescott (definitely one of the best artists Wizards has)
Part One: Lady in Distress
In true pulp/noir style, the adventure begins with (a) it raining, and (b) the patron of the heroes under attack and them having to save her. The text notes that this adventure begins a couple of weeks after the events of Whispers of the Vampire's Blade, and also notes how to use it as a stand-alone adventure.
The introductory section is only two pages long, and is really one encounter: finding Lady Elaydren d'Cannith (the party's patron in parts 1 & 2 of the adventure series), rescuing her, and then getting the information on what must be done.
It seems that the various schemas discovered by the PCs in previous installments have been stolen by the Emerald Claw - my favourite evil group in D&D at present. So, Elaydren needs the PCs to recover them for her... and also find the final piece. It's a fine start to the adventure.
Unfortunately, things take a downturn in the sidebar: "What Happened at Town House 19?", which explains the background behind the adventure. It's all logical and enjoyable to read. Unfortunately, the PCs will have no means of discovering this during the adventure. I *hate* that. If you're concluding something, at least bring out the mastermind at the end. But, no, it seems that Wizards are leaving hooks open for you to use at a later date. I'd much prefer things being wrapped up here. Well, some things will be, but the PCs are still going to be mostly in the dark.
Part Two: From Here to There
This section of the adventure is 8 pages long, and deals with the first part of following the Emerald Claw. It seems that they've made their way to the continent of Xen'drik. Luckily for everyone, Elaydren can call in a few favours and has a new submersible that can take them there...
Maps for the undersea ship are inside the front cover, and there are details on its contents and the personality of its gnome captain and his motivations. This is all good to see. The adventure is flowing quite nicely at present.
As one may expect, no undersea voyage can go without a little trouble. In this case, it's the sahuagin who have been blockading Xen'drik. This is a nice touch that shows the PCs some of the interactions between the races and nations of Eberron. The encounter is EL 9, and quite challenging. Interestingly, it has been cut down from the original, which Bruce Cordell has posted on his site. (see here)
Assuming that is successfully navigated (and my group did, although they had an advantage with 6 PCs), then Xen'drik is the next stop. About three pages deals with the trading port of Stormreach and what the PCs find there. I must pause and mention the excellent artwork that Steve Prescott uses to depict Stormreach - it's one of my favourite pieces of D&D art.
This is an investigative part of the adventure. The Emerald Claw have headed off into the jungle, and the PCs must first find that out, find which direction they've taken, then hire transport of their own - all without drawing attention to themselves.
One of the few real blunders of the adventure happens here. Bruce Cordell places a Bodak, of all things, as the threat that they face when they attract attention. Bodaks are superbly deadly, and the way this one is introduced is very likely to kill most of the party. I know it did mine, (and I had 6 PCs!) before I basically neutered its death gaze to a "comatose" gaze.
Apart from that, the investigation is well presented. You have an expedition from Morgave University that can be interacted with, as well as enclaves for House Cannith and House Lyrander. We found this fun.
There's also a NPC who will join the group in Stormreach: Muroni, a half-elf scholar who is seeking out revelations about the Draconic Prophecy, and thinks the PCs would be a good group to tag along with. There's no problem faced if the PCs leave her behind, but if, as my group did, they take her with them, she's likely to prove quite helpful.
Eventually will come the need for the PCs to leave. This will occur by riverboat - it's almost impossible for the PCs to find and airship, and by foot would take too long. They've got the documentation from Lady Elaydren to hire one, but the PCs need to convince the riverboat's captain.
So, quite a bit of roleplaying, some undersea travel, and some combats. Things have shaped up quite well so far - except for the Bodak.
Part Three: Riding the Marlow
The next section of the adventure is all of two pages, and is primarily a random encounter table for encounters down the river. There's some flavour text to make this seem like a trip down the exotic Amazon River, but most of this isn't that important. (Useful, but not important).
That comes with "The Giant Hands". Xen'drik used to be ruled by giants, and the Emerald Claw have ended up in one of their ruins. So, as soon as you see the ruined statues, you've found them. There's one encounter here with the Claw soldiers guarding a skiff. One will try to run away to alert the other Claws. Guess what happened to him in my game?
There's a nice bit of role-playing here as the guards try to stall the PCs. Muroni can also pipe up to keep the adventure underway... "You must reach this Garrow before he finds the object he seeks, for you must be there when the great event unfolds." Cryptic and unuseful to the players. Definitely prophetic babble.
Part Four: The Ruin
The centrepiece of this adventure is the massive ruin of the ancient giant empire. 16 pages - half the adventure - is devoted to its features. The maps are on the inside cover of the adventure, and are extremely clear. Unusually, they're drawn in one square = 20 feet! I can assure you, once you draw out sections of it on the battlemap, your players will be left in no doubt that it was built by giants. The illustrations of the ruin are likewise evocative and excellent. I wish Steve Prescott worked on more D&D products.
One of the really nice features about the ruin is the existence of both giant and human-sized steps. The smaller steps are due to the drow race that used to serve the giants. And, yes, the drow still haunt the ruin, though a shadow of what they once was. I like details like that.
Random encounter tables, dungeon features, check. Sidebar about who lived in the ruin, check. All good here.
As the PCs try to enter the ruin, they get attack by drow - an EL 9 encounter with a drow Warrior 7 and 6 Drow Warrior 3. (To make things confusing, the leader's stats are here, and his minions are in the appendix). This encounter is much easier than it might appear - with only +2 leather, the drow leader has an AC of 15 and only 38 hp. In more recent adventures, Wizards have adjusted the CR based on poor equipment. This isn't the case here.
Mind you, they *do* have a rolling boulder trap. (Cue Indiana Jones music). That's probably deadlier than the drow.
This level is basically empty. There are the drow "nests" that hold a few dire rats since the drow were forced out by the Emerald Claw, and there is a Gargantuan Monstrous Scorpion trapped in one of the rooms (a god to the drow, they keep it fed; with what I don't want to know). The Scorpion was never found by my group.
Most interesting are the two sets of stairs: one to the "Dark" Level, a level that is entirely enclosed within the ruin (thus, dark), the other to the Temple Level, where the Claw are.
The Dark Level
Six Emerald Claw Soldiers (human War 2) guard the level. After the PCs sweep them aside, the rest of the level becomes possible to enter. Well, once the doors are opened. What makes this fun for the DM (and damp for the PCs) is that the level is full of water. Once the doors open, a great torrent of water can sweep them off the edge of the ruin, and 50 feet to the ground below. What fun!
(Yes, one of the PCs in my group failed all the saves and ended up on the ground below. At this point, everyone was about 7th level, so it wasn't deadly, just inconvenient).
Within the Dark Level, once most of the water has drained away, can be found one of the two puzzle clues to the portal at the top of the ruin: ancient runes of the giants on an interior ziggurat. Alas, if the PCs encounter it early, it's incomprehensible. They need something from above for this to make sense. There's also a Drowned.
Drowned are like Bodaks - very deadly. Unlike Bodaks, the PCs do have a chance to get away from them and not die just due to one failed roll. Stupid play will see PCs die, though. This was the third occasion I have used a Drowned, and the PCs were not that smart. I had Muroni keep dragging them out of the drowned's suffocation aura so they could recover.
There's not much else here. Altogether, it's variety but not much more. Things get more interesting up above.
Temple Level (areas 14-26, 4 pages)
More stairs, more Emerald Claw guards. To deter those who'd want to just fly up here, there are dire apes wandering about the exterior as well.
At this point, the PCs run into the main group of the Emerald Claw forces, including some of their leaders (a mummy sorcerer 2!). Plenty of space is given to helping the DM with their tactics.
The rest of the level has more areas to explore - some already explored by the Emerald Claw, and some trap-filled areas that haven't been. This also has one of the deadliest traps of the adventure - a weakened wail of the banshee that will affect just one more person, having already wiped out five Emerald Claw soldiers. This is a really nice trap, because the PCs have plenty of warning. If they do brave the trap, they can gain a minor artifact - not necessary for the adventure's conclusion.
(If you're wondering what my group did: they took the better part of valour and avoided the trap).
Observatory Level (areas 27-39)
At last, the PCs can find out what the leader of the Emerald Claw taskforce is up to... well, they could if they knew who he was. This level contains traps, monsters, Emerald Claw soldiers, treasure, and a giant throne.
The throne is the centerpiece of the level. To the PCs, it will appear that a captured scholar is examining it, but it's really Garrow (first encountered in Shadows of the Last War), the leader of the Emerald Claw taskforce.
At this point, the adventure can go seriously wrong. Garrow is meant to delay the PCs for a while, get them into a fight with the remaining Emerald Claw forces, then activate a magic portal and disappear into the Vault area. Unfortunately, it's quite possible that the PCs will disrupt this somehow. If so, you'll have to adapt what occurs here. It's the one bit of possible railroading in the adventure.
The PCs will have to follow Garrow. They can either do this immediately, stepping through the portal, or later, in which case they'll need to gather clues from the previous two levels.
The Vault Level
At last, the conclusion of the schema plotline! It seems the giants were experimenting with Warforged themselves (this clears up some backstory as to where House Cannith got the idea during the Last War...) They created a sentient creation pattern, and it wants to get back together. And Garrow (or the PCs) have just brought the missing pieces...
This basically boils down to two fights: one against Garrow, and one against the released Xulo. The latter is *extremely* difficult. Construct, 142 hp, AC 26, DR 5/-, Full Atk +16/+11/+6 (2d10+7, slam). Little wonder that one of my PCs died during it; and the rest had to escape before coming back.
The entire ruin has some nice areas in it, and a few areas of wonder. All in all, it's a pretty fun (and unusual) dungeon layout. It also brings to an end the original series of Eberron adventures.
Grasp of the Emerald Claw is a pretty solid adventure, despite a couple of encounters that seem inappropriately difficult, and the one bit of required NPC action that could (and did, in my game) go so badly wrong. It ends with some really enjoyable pulp action. "I... am... complete! Xulo is... whole!"
Perhaps the last word should go to one of my players in the Eberron campaign, and his thoughts about the adventure:
"This was the first 'module' game that I have ever played that I really enjoyed. There is a plot and it is of course important to follow it, but I think the key to a good game is making it feel less like a choose your own adventure and I feel that was the case with this adventure. [It] felt a lot more spontaneous, like we were really in control of what was happening."
I guess subjective experience counts for a lot. I played through this and none of us players liked the adventure. Throughout the whole trilogy of adventures we felt constantly rail-roaded, without actual impact on the course of events and we felt that everything was forced, sort o a patchwork of encounters and battles that didn't really mesh together. In your words (merric) it sounds much better than how we experienced it. Nice review in any case.
My players had enough brains to stay out of the wail trap as well (though the fighter managed to get caught in the other main one), and since neither of the two was a rogue, there was no way for them to disarm the trap.
Instead, they used the adamantine greatsword of the fighter to go through the wall into the room