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DDAL Review of DDAL 04-10 The Artifact (3 stars) [SPOILERS]


The Artifact is the tenth adventure in the Misty Fortunes and Absent Hearts storyline, the ninth set in Barovia, and the most difficult adventure of the entire season for me to review with dispassion. On the one hand, it's a bold adventure that can catch most parties off-guard, starting out looking like a traditional dungeon delve and then suddenly segueing into a completely different sort of adventure (spoilery details below), and its use of random or DM-selected elements in setting up the adventure both calls back to the original I6 module and allows for significant re-playability, something not normally a concern in Adventurers League modules. It's also one of the first adventures that really captures the aspect of Ravenloft that seeks to punish characters who think they know more than they do about how the 'rules' of the domain work. In those senses, it's as good as any adventure published in the season and a worthy module in its own right.

On the other hand, this adventure finally begins the process of explaining what the ultimate plan of the adventure's true villain happens to be, and although the PCs will likely learn little of this information during this adventure, the DM is still left trying to rationalize what has gone before with what is explained in this adventure. If the DM was left scratching her head at how much The Innocent proved to be an 'idiot plot', she's going to have an odd sense of deja vu as she reads through this module, trying to piece together how it all fits with the overarching story line. (It should be noted that few of the adventures flaws can likely be laid at the feet of the designer, Teos Abadia, another veteran Organized Play adventure writer and one of the admins of the Fourth-edition Living Dark Sun campaign, Ashes of Athas.)

The adventure begins with the party travelling to the Amber Temple in the company of Burgomaster Ivan Randovich. The party has returned from the Fidatov manor without supplies and possibly with cursed gold, and so, in the most rational of the adventure hooks, have agreed to travel to the Amber Temple with Randovich in the hopes of liberating enough treasure to save the village from starvation following Lord Strahd's tax collectors hauling away everything edible and/or of value. However, once the party arrives at the Temple, Randovich entrusts the party with a map, and if the party insists, will explain that he learned of the place from ancient scrolls and that an artifact of some power is present that will be needed to preserve Barovia from a great evil. He also insists that the characters not mention his name to anyone they meet within the temple, hinting that great harm would befall Orasnou if the beings within knew he was near. This, in combination with Randovich's surprising involvement in the previous adventure, should raise the party's hackles a bit and warn them that not all is as it seems, but there is little they can do about the situation now. Into the temple they go.

Part 1 of this adventure is perhaps one of the most controversial and complained-about sections of any AL adventure ever, though oddly, most of the criticism has been focused on a single encounter. As it turns out, though, the entire 'secret level' of the temple is designed to frustrate and intimidate player characters. For instance, the very first door the characters must pass is warded with a glyph of warding that, "[o]nce dispelled, triggered, or otherwise removed, the magic of the temple automatically and instantly resets the glyph." The party will likely burn a spell slot, perhaps two, and still have to take the glyph's damage while opening the locked temple entrance. The next room, should the party leave the proscribed path, results in the party being attacked by a magic missile and a fireball every round without any obvious ability to retaliate, until they return to the path. (Granted, if they leave the path they are not following the Burgomaster's instructions, but given how odd the Burgomaster's sudden shift in goals for coming to the Temple were, a rational party might well think -- and correctly -- that the Burgomaster isn't telling them everything they should know, and may come to the conclusion that the answers might be found by straying from the path. If they insist, they will likely perish in that very room.)

Finally, once the party has agreed to follow the Burgomaster's path, they encounter the monster that has engendered so many complaints -- a beholder zombie, accompanied by three ogre zombies. Many virtual tears have been shed* over tales of adventurers hypothetically disintegrated by the beholder zombie's eye ray, though I will defend the choice of monster here:
- For starters, although the zombies' 'ambush' cannot be perceived or prevented, the initial setup of the monsters is such that only one ogre zombie serves as a 'meat shield' for the beholder zombie, and thus parties that accurately determine that the beholder zombie is the primary threat of the encounter should be able to get to it and prioritize it as a target.
- Second, though the beholder does not need to choose its targets at random, it does choose its eye ray at random (at least by the rules in the monster write-up; all bets are off if the DM chooses to ignore this rule), which means there is only a 1-in-4 chance the beholder zombie will get to use its disintegration ray in any given round. If the party is diligent, the number of opportunities the beholder zombie has to use the eye ray is limited enough to avoid most of the danger.
- Next (and most significantly, as many DMs may be ruling this incorrectly), the character targeted by the ray must fail a saving throw to take *any* damage -- a successful save prevents all damage from the disintegrate ray. (If you don’t believe me, compare the text of the disintegrate ray to that of the enervation ray just above it; note how the ‘take half damage on a successful save’ text in the enervation ray description does not appear in the disintegrate ray description.)
- In addition, a reasonably-prepared party may have a cleric who can cast Death Ward on a weak ally at the start of the combat, protecting that ally from disintegration – that some players ignore protective spells in preference to attack spells is not something that should be encouraged or rewarded. (I’ll grant a pass for those parties who’ve been struggling to make max XP in these adventures and thus are only at 6th level, which isn’t high enough to be able to prepare Death Ward.)
- Finally, should the party be weaker-than-expected for the adventure, the suggested encounter adjustments** explicitly direct the DM to reduce the damage of the beholder's damaging eye rays, obviously to avoid 'one-shotting' weaker party members.

It's possible, even with all of those caveats, for a party to either fail to distinguish the beholder as the greatest threat, or to simply fall foul of random chance and have a party member be irretrievably killed (a disintegrated character can only be brought back via True Resurrection, which was unavailable during Season Four and is far too expensive for Tier 2 characters to afford during Season Five and later), but the alternative -- a campaign that never 'ramps up' the difficulty curve and leaves the best spells and effects for the PCs to use exclusively against the monsters -- seems to me to be lifeless and boring. Bring on the deadly threats, so that my characters can boast all the more when they defeat them, and can commiserate with others who fall when they don't.

* - I'm also convinced that it was criticism over this one creature that convinced the admins to allow True Resurrection as a spellcasting service option starting in Season Five, though interestingly, the cost of such a spell service is so high that, even if it had been available during Season Four, pretty much no character built for Season Four could have afforded it.

** - I am sympathetic to one criticism of this encounter: given that numerous AL games are run in game stores, and that those games tend to fill up to the maximum allowed table size, it's likely that this adventure will run with 6 or 7 PCs at such a table, and based on the methodology provided for adjusting the adventure's difficulty, it is impossible for a 6 or 7 character party to grade out as 'weaker than average' for the purpose of adjusting encounters. For the purpose of this one encounter, I'd adjust the difficulty downward if the average level of the party is below 5.5, even if the party consists of 6 or 7 characters; the ogre zombies are capable of doing massive damage if they hit consistently, and a truly low-level party can be easily decimated by a run of good DM luck, which isn't an entirely satisfying play experience.

Once the party completes Part 1 and enters Part 2 of the adventure, the pace and tone of the adventure change drastically -- instead of a dungeon crawl, the party discovers themselves in a surprise murder investigation. The party encounters the ghosts of a number of wizards, set to help guard the secrets of the Amber Temple, but for which one of them was murdered in order to allow one of the vestiges in the Temple to be freed. Hijinks ensue when a number of these wizards decide to possess the player characters, resulting in some interesting potential role-playing opportunities, especially if one of the ghosts possessing a PC turns out to have been the murderer the PCs are looking for.

It is that this point, with the murder solved and the McGuffin acquired, that the DM likely loses her understanding of why the adventurers are even here, and more to the point, if she was a fan of the Ravenloft campaign setting, her confidence that the adventure's designers really understand the setting they're using. Let's rewind a bit so I can explain in more detail what I mean:

As part of the Curse of Strahd hardcover adventure, designer Chris Perkins decided to do something that, previously, had been forbidden: he chose to define the Dark Powers. In Perkins's Barovia, the Dark Powers are vestiges of evil gods imprisoned in amber vaults deep within the Amber Temple, though their imprisonment does not prevent their influence from spreading throughout the domain and even occasionally impinging on other worlds. The last time an author chose to define the Dark Powers -- Gene DeWeese, author of 'Lord of the Necropolis', a Ravenloft novel published in 1997 -- TSR's editors chose to declare that section of the book non-canonical, stating that the Dark Powers would never be canonically defined in the setting, so that each DM can define them as they see fit. Granted, nothing prevents a DM running her own Ravenloft game from ignoring Perkins's use of the Dark Powers, or treating the vestiges in the Amber Temple as lesser yet still potent Ravenloft evils, but Perkins saw fit to include another small detail in his write-up of the Amber Temple -- one of the amber sarcophagi was broken, implying that its vestige had escaped.

This detail was picked up by the developers of the Season Four plotline. They implemented this in Adventurers League as evidence that a vestige had been freed by the ultimate villain of the season, Esmae Amarantha, and absorbed by Esmae, granting her the power she would need to implement her plan. That in itself isn't terrible -- evil creatures enslaving greater evils to their need is pretty straightforward for D&D villains, after all. The real problem came when the adventure reveals that Esmae didn't breach the Amber Temple on her own -- she was aided in infiltrating the wizards' coterie by one of her Obsessions.

Burgomaster Ivan Randovich.

Let's ignore, for the moment, the idea that the party might already believe the Burgomaster is Strahd's puppet. After all, even though the party may well have killed Randovich (and done so more than once!) and seen him return as if nothing had happened (and then been visited by undead wearing Strahd's livery to 'teach them a lesson' about interfering with his appointed authorities), this is at least explicable as Strahd protecting his pride and his image of implacable authority more than the person of Randovich.

The real 'idiot plot' moment comes to the DM when she asks the question: why did Randovich bring the characters to the Amber Temple in the first place?

The ostensible reason -- that the Temple contains treasure that the village of Orasnou can use to survive the winter -- is betrayed as soon as the characters arrive and the Burgomaster tells the party that their real objective is a simple silver locket. And while there is some treasure to be found in the temple, it turns out the Burgomaster is himself carrying more gold than the party is capable of removing from the area to which they've been sent.

Has he been ordered by his mistress to retrieve the silver locket, abandoned when the two of them freed the Evening Glory*** from her prison in the Temple? Why would she? As far as any Season Four source is concerned, Randovich and Esmae (and possibly the vestiges) are the only ones who know the locket is even there (the ghosts of the wizards encountered by the party during the murder investigation show little indication of knowing the locket even exists, much less where it is and what its purpose might be now), and without Randovich's map, any party investigating would likely be slain by the inhabitants of the Temple even before they found the secret level, assuming they even knew what they were looking for in the first place. If Esmae ordered Randovich to retrieve the locket, she's putting the only object that can help defeat her plan in the hands of adventurers who likely will not be sympathetic to her plan. That seems pretty dumb.

Maybe Randovich decided to retrieve the locket to give him leverage over Esmae? He'd need catspaws, because the ghosts of the murdered wizards would certainly recognize him and prevent him from re-entering the sarcophagus chamber, so recruiting the PCs at least makes sense in that case. Yet, if Randovich was aware enough to realize that he wasn't powerful enough to get past the ghosts, why would he then think that he was powerful enough to put down the PCs once they retrieved the locket for him? Heck, if the ruse is working, why even attack -- why not simply accompany the party back to Orasnou, send them on their way with the treasure, and keep the locket as insurance against Esmae? Revealing his villainy and attacking the PCs seems just as dumb.

Of course, the real reason the adventure plays out this way is so that the PCs now have the McGuffin they need (though not really -- more on that in the review of The Darklord) to help defeat Esmae and her plan -- which they still really know nothing about.

*** - The inclusion of the Evening Glory is worthy of a rant all its own, but I'll try to stay brief. The Evening Glory herself, though suitably creepy, isn't a Ravenloft creature, either. She is one of the deities of undeath introduced in the 3.0-era sourcebook Libris Mortis. She's likely a favorite of one of the admin developers and she is at least thematically appropriate, but given that the vestiges in the Amber Temple are said (at least in 5e) to be the Dark Powers, and also given that another of the canon attributes of the Dark Powers is that they have some sort of agreement with outlander deities regarding Ravenloft, having the vestige prove to be a mere deity from a previous edition of the game is as jarring to a Ravenloft fan as finding another outlander deity, such as one of the Mystaran Immortals or the Birthright blood-powers, being responsible for some horrific plot in Athas, a world built on the idea that the gods don't exist there. It's not bad, but it still feels wrong.

There is one cool aspect of the final battle with Randovich -- he becomes significantly more powerful against those PCs who have been gifted by the Dark Powers. (This ability, oddly, gives Ivan a much better motivation to attack the PCs on their emergence from the Temple than the module provides -- not because the PCs are 'too good' as his flavor text says, but because they are almost as corrupt as he, but still 'lesser evils' and worthy of nothing but destruction in the name of his mistress.) The problem here, though, is that the same character who sought the embrace of the Dark Powers in coming back from death before will likely have no compunction about embracing that power again to keep coming back until Randovich is dead, so even this cool 'power up' is ultimately meaningless in the larger scheme of things.

And that pretty much sums up the adventure -- it's an interesting journey, all the more so because of the jarring switch from dungeon crawl to investigation at the mid-point, but the final encounter, which by implication should feel like some kind of grand betrayal, ends up likely making the DM, and perhaps the players as well, wonder what the point was. If the adventure had been more of a stand-alone story, like The Tempter before it, it would have rated much more highly, because the head-scratching nature of the overall plot wouldn’t have harmed its storytelling. Three stars.

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Rotten DM
Thanks, you have given me much to think about. I am dropping the map in the adventure and swapping with a clue board for one level. Now I have to get together the rest of murder props. I also had one the players give me a number off the top of their heads. So I can blame the player if the group does not like the murderer.

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters