Review of DDAL 04-11 The Donjon (2 stars) [SPOILERS]


The Donjon is the eleventh adventure in the Absent Hearts and Misty Borders storyline, the tenth set in Barovia, and is listed as a four-hour adventure. It is also a confused mess of an adventure, partly due to its attempt to link back much of its backstory to the initial Adventurers League season set in Phlan, and partly due to its attempt to create a modular adventure experience for maximal replayability that results in a series of generic, unconnected encounters that leave no underlying through-line for players to get any sense of a story. Since the adventure itself has nothing important to add to the overall storyline underlying Season Four, the adventure's lack of a consistent internal story makes it seem like a tedious waste of adventuring time while the PCs wait for more interesting things to come along.

(As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that both this adventure and the previous adventure, the Artifact, have featured mechanics and story elements intended to increase the adventure’s replayability, despite these adventures being criticized for ‘locking in’ their characters to only play Barovian content. In a season where most players are only committing one character to the storyline, if that, it seems counter-intuitive to spend time and effort trying to make adventures replayable for multiple characters. It seems reasonable to say that whatever time and effort was spent on this task would have been better spent coming up with a more sensible and compelling meta-plot.)

Before we begin, though, let’s address yet another example of something that might be seen as a minor editing error, but can become a huge issue if not ignored or addressed. In the section on Spellcasting Services in previous adventures, the DM is informed that Jeny Greenteeth can perform spellcasting services for the party. In this adventure, although the same text that says Jeny is the only spellcasting source exists on page four (in the boilerplate “Help From Who?” section), another sidebar on page nine notes that characters can seek spellcasting services from Jeny or from Aya Glenmiir, the elven mage that the party has only occasionally encountered through the season, won’t encounter in this adventure, and who doesn’t have most of the spells listed on the allowed AL spellcasting services list. The only spells Aya might be able to cast are Remove Curse and Identify, and only the former is listed on Aya’s list of spells in any of her writeups in the Season four adventure modules. If the DM is inclined to allow PCs to make use of Aya as a spellcasting service, she needs to figure out, without any support from this adventure, how to get the party in contact with Aya and what spells she might have (because she’s not written up in this adventure, either). A small seeming error that results in large amounts of confusion for well-meaning parties and DMs everywhere – it’s something of a metaphor for the season as a whole.

Let's start our criticism of the adventure proper with the Adventure Background. The origins of this adventure go all the way back to Season One of the Adventurers League, with the dracolich Throstulgrael and his relationship with the Cult of the Dragon, whose plans the players (though most likely not these specific PCs) may have interacted with in DDEX 1-7, Drums in the Marsh, and DDEX 1-12, Raiders of the Twilight Marsh. The background states that, as part of his plans, the dracolich expanded his influence from the Twilight Marsh to the Glumpen Swamp, drawing a group of yuan-ti native to the swamp into his service, and convincing the yuan-ti to enslave orcs from a local orc tribe -- the Bloodhands, which the players may also remember from DDEX 1-12 -- to replenish the snake-peoples' ancient temples and expand them to provide a lair for the dracolich. This seems like a reasonable set of things to happen, and also explains the final location the PCs likely encountered in The Innocent, as this part of the swamp was part of the environs around Phlan captured and translated into Barovia. It's also, in theory, a good thing to include callbacks to previous adventures, as a way to reward players who've participated in those previous adventures with a deeper understanding of the setting and to provide clues for upcoming adventures; some of the best Adventurers League adventures from previous seasons make use of this combination of call-back and foreshadowing to powerful effect.

In this case, though, the story doesn't really hold up under any kind of scrutiny. One problem is that there are no yuan-ti in the environs around Phlan noted in any historical Forgotten Realms lore.

The Moonsea area has been covered by a handful of D&D sourcebooks and adventures over the years, including specific sourcebooks for AD&D ("The Moonsea") and Third Edition D&D ("Mysteries of the Moonsea"). The most comprehensive book regarding the Realms as a whole is almost certainly the Third Edition-era Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting, which includes a section on the Moonsea. None of these sources reference any yuan-ti settlements in the Glumpen Swamp, or anywhere else near Phlan or the Moonsea. The most comprehensive sourcebook on the yuan-ti is the 3.5-era sourcebook "Serpent Kingdoms", which notes both the large yuan-ti holdings in and around Chult, as well as smaller, ancient holdings in Najara (near the Sword Coast and Western Heartlands) and the Vilhon Reach, but also makes no reference whatsoever to any holdings in or around the Moonsea.

It is certainly possible that the admins have decided that yuan-ti have always dwelled in the Glumpen Swamp, despite their being no record of them in any previous edition of the game. That doesn't automatically make their inclusion a good or beneficial thing.

Another problem is that it brings in monsters that aren't really fitting for the Ravenloft setting. I've already mentioned the somewhat jarring reaction provoked by the inclusion of the yuan-ti in The Innocent can cause in that review, but among veteran Ravenloft players, an even bigger jolt is likely going to be caused when they return to Orasnou following the events of The Artifact and discover orcs. Why? Because another one of the defined traits of the setting -- along with the idea that the Dark Powers would never be canonically defined -- is that orcs do not exist in Ravenloft.

On one hand, this sounds like a nit-picky criticism -- if PCs and other monsters can be plucked from other worlds and brought to Ravenloft, why not orcs? And that would be fine, if the reaction of the townsfolk of Orasnou to the orcs was to treat them as weird, unknown creatures that they have no understanding of. But that's not what the designers have chosen to do -- they've chosen to again misunderstand the lore of the Ravenloft setting by having the folks in Orasnou refer to the visiting orcs as 'calibans'.

Calibans exist in Ravenloft as a compromise -- if you don't have orcs in the setting, how do PCs get to be half-orcs, which have been a core race since Third Edition? The Third Edition Ravenloft Setting resolved this problem by reflavoring the half-orc PC race as 'calibans', an odd 'race' of folks touched by magic or curses in the womb which resulted in a creature mechanically (though not racially or culturally) almost identical to that of a half-orc. This is reflected in the Ravenloft Campaign Setting with the following text: "Orcs are unknown in Ravenloft, even as creatures of legend. For this reason, no half-orcs are native to the Land of Mists. However, creatures do exist that fill the half-orc’s role: calibans."

The problem is that the admins have taken this text to mean that, since calibans = half-orcs, calibans also = orcs, which the very next paragraph in the Campaign Setting would have told them is not the case: "Calibans are physically powerful but misshapen humanoids. No two calibans look alike, but common deformities include twisted backs or limbs, asymmetrical features, bristly hair or tusk-like teeth." Some calibans may have deformities that resemble the physical features of orcs, but that doesn't mean calibans are orcs.

Again, the justification for this is that the people of Orasnou don't know what orcs are, but they do know what calibans are, and so are confusing the former for the latter, since that is what they know. And it's fine that the relatively ignorant guardsman Oleg would make that mistake. But there's a sidebar that discusses calibans that is basically copied from the Ravenloft Campaign Setting that further confuses the issue, and all of the major NPCs in Orasnou are aware that these 'calibans' live in a tribal arrangement, which is not something that calibans do, since calibans do not have a mutual familial relationship that would encourage them to band together in this fashion. It would have been best to simply ignore the whole 'caliban' point and simply report that the creatures refer to themselves as 'orcs', which nobody in Orasnou has ever heard of. (Again, recall from the Ravenloft Campaign Setting: "Orcs are unknown in Ravenloft, even as creatures of legend.") As in previous adventures, the insistance that the natives of Ravenloft are just too dumb to understand where their knowledge isn't really knowledge encourages the PCs to think of them as ignorant and thus unimportant and deserving of whatever dark fate they befall.

The real aggravation resulting from the admins’ casual inclusion of orcs and yuan-ti in the adventure is that it ignores a group that would be both much more suitable to the Ravenloft setting and has already been foreshadowed in earlier Season Four modules – werewolves. Strahd considers himself the master of all wolves in Barovia, so the werewolves that exist there are naturally his enemies (and thus would be amenable to disrupting his plans, or aiding the plans of those who might stand against him, thus giving the pack at least a tenuous possible connection to the main storyline villain). And a pack of werewolves were presumed to exist way back in DDAL 04-02: the family of cursed werewolves that Alina came from, and in theory might be inclined to avenge her somewhat brutal murder at the end of that adventure by the PCs. Such an occurrence would even allow the admins to ‘wrap up’ Laszlo’s story, to detail what became of him after the events of DDAL 04-04 The Marionette. Finally, the use of werewolves as the adventure’s main antagonists would provide yet another opportunity for the DM to make use of Jeny Greenteeth and her spellcasting services, in the likely chance that a PC contracted lycanthropy from their opponents, not to mention provide an opportunity for a character who’d managed to offend Jeny to regret that decision. It’s difficult to say how much more interesting this adventure might be if the adversaries were both more suitable to the environment and had connections to previous adventures in the season, but if you were even a bit more excited at the prospect of facing werewolves instead of yuan-ti, then I think you’d agree that it would have been at least somewhat more satisfying.

Part 2 contains the series of encounters that leads from Orasnou to the adventure's climax, and the adventure setup presents the encounters as being navigable in a sense -- each adventure site connects with other sites to create unique 'paths' through the adventure which allow the adventure to be vastly replayable. The two main problems with the actual encounters as presented are first, the areas are very generic and give little flavor as to what story the adventure is trying to tell (which is a big part of why the adventure areas can be connected with one another in so many different ways), and second, the areas are described very mechanically which leads to a very mechanical presentation and play experience. (You might also think that the existing yuan-ti site detailed in The Innocent might play a role here, too, but the adventure goes out of its way to point out that the site from The Innocent has no role to play in this adventure.)

Each encounter area is divided into a number of sections. General Features provides the typical AL adventure material for local light sources, general sensory impressions, and terrain. An 'Exploring' section describes a general interaction between the PCs and the area as they pass through it or explore what it contains. Each area contains an obligatory Combat section, which is a fight that is expected to occur there, but doesn’t have to. There's also a Social Interaction which is sometimes related to the combat and sometimes not, and sometimes provides clues as to what might be coming later in the adventure and sometimes not. (Whether the Social section is useful or not seems largely random, with no clear way for the party to know what path might be most revealing or illuminating.) Finally, there's a table of four possible additional random encounters, introduced by the same sentence in every encounter area, and which strongly suggests that the party should always be surprised by these encounters, which seems like poor word choice on the part of the adventure designer. The potential random interactions range from a number of non-events that simply provide generic flavor to outright combats with powerful monsters -- the party can end up encountering a shambling mound or otyugh in some areas, while encountering a single needle blight in others. Alert DMs can use these encounters to help balance the difficulty provided by the adventure -- use the tougher encounters if the party is having too easy a time and the more flavorful non-encounters to ease up on the party -- but this advice is nowhere stated in the adventure**, instead simply repeating again and again to "roll 1d4 if you decide that now is a good time for the adventurers to be surprised". Some of these sections include treasure, and as would be expected, where it does exist, the treasure is available in every encounter so as not to deprive some parties of treasure.

** - Oddly, once the party reaches Part 3, there's a recognition that the party's resources may have been bled by the different random 'surprises' they encountered on the way to the adventure's climax, but presents this as a way of telling the DM to arbitrarily adjust the difficulty of the yuan-ti encounters in Part 3 or even to allow a short or long rest as a way of making up for the previous 'surprises', the latter of which is a highly blunt instrument to use to try to balance the remaining adventure's difficulty -- it's hard to imagine a party, given a long rest prior to Part 3, that wouldn't simply cake-walk through what is supposed to be the most exciting part of the adventure. It would have been more effective, and a better resource for DMs, to explain how to use the Part 2 'surprises' to soften up a powerful party or let a weaker party pass largely unharmed through the adventure in preparation for a more consistent presentation of the encounters in Part 3 given the party's strength. For instance, instead of making the encounters in Part 2 random, have each encounter keyed to a particular party strength, so that tougher parties face tougher interim encounters, and explain to the DM how to track the party’s resources (Are they asking for short rests? Are the spellcasters running low on spell slots?) so as to be able to more precisely monitor when the party’s resources have been depleted enough so that Part 3 is an appropriate challenge.

The climax of the adventure in Part 3 is the party's arrival at an ancient-looking tower. The party can find their quarry, the orc chieftain Larga Bloodhand, who they've come to rescue from the yuan-ti, but they can't get to Larga before a yuan-ti grabs her and takes her deeper into the tower, forcing the PCs to follow. Oddly, each of the three levels of the tower also contains a set of random encounters similar to that in Part 2 previously, complete with the same exhortation to "roll 1d4 if you decide that now is a good time for the adventurers to be surprised", and there is no overall 'site' map with a key to the areas described, simply a set of 'random crossroads' maps, one map for the 'room of statues' encounter on level two of the tower, and one for the final encounter area on level three where the party can finally defeat the yuan-ti and rescue Larga. The other encounters seem thrown-together and somewhat random, including a number of traps that are difficult to explain how the yuan-ti dragging a largely insensate orc chieftain managed to avoid them even if he knew where and what they were. In short, the second half of this adventure is likely to seem tedious and irritating to most parties.

As it turns out, rescuing Larga does have a part to play in the overarching story of the full Season Four storyline, but the party won't learn what that part is until the next adventure, The Raven. Anyone who ends up missing this adventure will find that they have no problem following the story through the next adventure. (This becomes a more and more obvious issue as the end of the season approaches, and we'll deal with it in more detail in the review of The Horseman.) Nothing really happens here that is absolutely significant to the overall story arc, and so it becomes yet another adventure that stands or falls based on its own story. In this case, the adventure falls and falls hard; it has neither the interesting hook of a very thematic story to tell as The Tempter did, nor does it take any chances with the structure of its story to present an experience that players might find more memorable as The Artifact did. In effect, ‘The Donjon’ is a fitting title for the adventure, where the PCs must mark time as they wait in hope that a more interesting adventure will come. Two stars.