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DDAL Review of DDAL 04-13 The Horseman [3 stars] [SPOILERS]


The Horseman is the thirteenth adventure in the Misty Fortunes and Absent Hearts series (though for some reason the adventure calls it the 'Misty Fortunes and Empty Hearts' series on its title page; ah, editors), the twelfth to be set in Barovia, and is, at long last, the adventure where the PCs get to find out what they've been doing in Barovia all this time. The adventure is dark, but there's a sense of fatigue even beyond the bleakness of the underlying story, as if the folks involved in putting the adventure together had decided that the season had gone on long enough, and they were eager to have it be done to move on to something else. It's possible that this is simply my own impression, amplified by the reviews I've written in addition to running the actual adventures, but the main reason I suggest fatigue as an option is that there are many options provided in this adventure, more than in any previous, which seem to render things that the party has done in prior adventures meaningless or unnecessary.

For instance, the first part of the adventure involves Ixusaxa Terrorsong, whom the party likely rescued in the previous adventure, passing along the information she knows about the season's true villain, Esmae Amarantha. The previous adventure made a big deal about the Bloodhand orcs not being willing to give up Sybil Rasia, wishing for her to remain as their tribe's seer, and being so committed that the party had to succeed on a difficult skill check or part with much of their treasure to convince the orcs to let Sybil go. Yet this adventure casually presumes that the adventurers succeeded, because the very first scene narrated by the DM is of the party travelling back toward Orasnou with both Ixusaxa and Sybil in tow. There is also an option for groups that did not play the previous adventure to begin with both Ixusaxa and Sybil, by simply encountering them on the road with no mention that they'd been previously captured by orcs. At first glance, this would seem to be a 'failsafe' for groups at a convention where this adventure is offered but not the other, yet a glance at the Season 4 release schedule shows that both The Raven and The Horseman were released in July, with premiers at the same conventions in June -- so the option is really one provided out of convenience rather than necessity. It's nice that some effort has been made to account for folks playing this adventure without having played the preceding one, but the effect of that option is to simply negate most of the significance of both of the preceding adventures, since the point of The Donjon was to rescue Larga Bloodhand who then subsequently led the party to Sybil and Ixusaxa via the events of The Raven. Only those playing through the adventure in the traditional order will likely notice this problem, and even then only if their DM informs them, so the practical effect of this option may well be nil, but the very existence of this as a 'canon' option (rather than just a suggested DM adjudication for those few parties who need it) is disappointing, not least because it sends the message that the 'right' play in the previous module was to ignore trying to get Sybil away from the orcs, because the next adventure would just give her to you anyway.

Ixusaxa fills in the party on what's been going on behind the scenes over the first dozen adventures -- Esmae, obsessed since youth with Strahd, has hatched a plan to transform herself into Strahd's legendary lost love Tatyana and thus gain his eternal affection. To do so, she has manipulated four catspaws, known as her Obsessions, into gathering four items that once belonged to Tatyana. Esmae also went to the Amber Temple and, while there, drew a vestige into herself which gave her the power to 'stretch Barovia's borders', which explains how the party became trapped in Barovia. Ixusaxa also informs the party that the silver locket they recovered from the Amber Temple can 'effectively end...her threat' by drawing the vestige out of Esmae.

So let's discuss why this is a really crappy metaplot.

I once played in a superhero game where villains attacked a number of museums and other places where historical artifacts were kept, grabbed a particular item of power, and then teleported away with the item in their possession, even after being defeated. This proved a very frustrating experience -- it's hard to feel heroic when there's literally nothing you can do to stop the Game Master's plot wagon from rolling down the rails as he intends. Yet in that campaign, we at least had the privilege of being able to figure out who the arch-villain was and what the arch-villain was trying to capture and even ultimately why he wanted those items, even if we had no way to stop any of the thefts or interrupt the ritual he intended to perform. It may have been a meager bone, but at least we were given one. This campaign, meanwhile, hides the arch-villain and her purpose until the penultimate adventure, when the details are spilled out in a way that the adventure has to explicitly warn the DM not to simply provide as an exposition dump, with basically no opportunity to do any sort of research, analysis, or other adventuring to find the information out on their own. (The metaplot could still use Ixusaxa as an info-dump if the party shows no interest in trying to figure out what brought them to Barovia or why, but it would have been better if previous adventures had given the party more chances to learn this information through their own initiative, so that Ixusaxa could confirm the PC's knowledge rather than simply dump it on them all in one go.) Also, Ixusaxa tells the party of the four items of power that once belonged to Tatyana that are key to Esmae's ritual; as it turns out, the party has seen only two of them, and likely only one in person, if their only glimpse of the powder box was in Sybil's vision way back in The Marionette, and they realize that they have been given no ability to prevent Esmae's plot from nearing fruition. By contrast, in Season 2, the party stumbled around encountering the cults of Elemental Evil but had little abliity to discover their ultimate plan, yet even then the party was allowed the impression that their activities were causing problems for the cults, even causing a schism between two of the cults late in the season. No such bone is thrown to the party in Barovia.

The metaplot also makes little sense to those who know traditional Ravenloft lore -- though I don't want to make too much of this, given that Curse of Strahd makes explicit that the Ravenloft of Fifth Edition is not bound to the canon of prior editions. Still, bits like Esmae being able to modify the borders of a darklord's domain against his will (though it's never explained why she does this -- as nothing she needs to complete her plan actually exists in the Realms), and being able to defy the will of the Dark Powers simply by incorporating one of them into herself are grating to a Ravenloft setting fan and add to the sense that the designers are just trying to wrap things up in a presentable package before they run out of season time.

Ixusaxa also informs the PCs that the final Obsession, Omou, is on his way to deliver the final item to Esmae, but by the time the party reaches Orasnou, it's clear that Omou has already delivered his package and fled, sending the village into madness due to...his anguish amplified through his psionic powers? Weirdly, this development will make a lot more sense to a player well-versed in Ravenloft lore than it will to a neophyte -- Omou is a mongrelfolk, and unlike the designer's previous use of yuan-ti and orcs, mongrelfolk (or at least an analogous 'race' known as Broken Ones) exist in the Barovia of the Ravenloft campaign setting, having long ago fled from Bluetspur's mind flayers and the experiments and depredations of their insane God-Brain, so as odd as it may seem, there is actually precedent for a psionic mongrelfolk in Fifth Edition Barovia. Still, the combination of this very un-Gothic horror premise and the sight of the hapless village of Orasnou once again powerless in the face of evil will likely cause even the most stout-hearted adventurer to finally give up on the poor folks; the sight of the village the party has spent so much time and effort trying to protect once again* burning and writhing in madness will most likely break their sympathy for good. Part One of the adventure ends either once the party has aided 15 villagers in overcoming their new-found psionic obsessions, or once the party just decides to let the village burn and rides off in the direction the disturbance went. If the party does finally lose their empathy toward Orasnou, this may prove a bigger problem in the next section of the adventure if their lack of empathy continues...

* - Threatening the village, by this time, feels really overdone because it is overdone. Orasnou is a significant location in a number of Season Four adventures, and in most of them the village is attacked or otherwise subjected to a significant threat: in The Executioner, a mob tries to burn down Laszlo's home on the outskirts of town and is in turn attacked by a gang of undead; in The Marionette, the party recovers from Sybil Rasia's vision to find the town under attack by undead and set ablaze; the next three adventures take the PCs away from Orasnou, but when they return, in The Broken One, the cursed tax collector ends up attacking the village to set up the final encounter; and then we have this encounter. Only in The Beast, where the party has just arrived in Orasnou, does the party spend any significant amount of time in Orasnou without the village being threatened in some significant manner.

Let's wrap up our discussion of Part One by noting an odd sidebar, titled 'Breathless Pacing'. Basically, it's a sidebar that instructs the DM to avoid allowing the PCs to get even a short rest between the three different parts of the adventure, and to emphasize this by "stress[ing] the importance of saving as many innocents from Omou's ravages as possible." The Development section of Part One doubles down on this by instructing the DM to "increase the difficulty of all Wisdom (Survival) rolls in the beginning of the next section by 2" for each ten minutes they spend in the village after finding Omou's trail -- so taking a short rest after finding the trail would effectively increase the DCs by 12. Since the party doesn't technically get to start the encounter section of Part Two until they succeed at three of these checks (fortunately it's not three consecutive successful checks), and since they take damage after each check unless they beat the DC by 5 or more, in effect the adventure is enforcing a fairly arbitrary restriction to disadvantage characters build around short-rest focused classes (warlock, fighter, etc.) versus long-rest focused classes. While I'm not opposed to putting in these kinds of restrictions in general, since not every adventure should allow every class to operate at its optimal efficiency (being a hero is all about how you perform when things aren't in your favor, after all), this piling on of difficult checks and damage seems overly punishing, and can cause a weaker-than-normal party to fail the adventure entirely. If your group is weaker than average, or doesn't have any character trained in Survival, I suggest hand-waving this problem by ignoring the damage from travelling through the forest quickly and simply assuming the party will eventually make the three rolls to find the elves in the next encounter -- the encounter itself has no specific advice on adjusting it based on how long the party spent travelling (whether it took three or twenty-three rolls to get the right number of successes), so ultimately the only significant thing that happens is the DM 'eliminating the middleman' by inflicting damage on the PCs directly rather than via monsters.

Part Two of the adventure involves an old friend we haven't had to discuss in a while; the odd geographical mash-up of the region around Phlan with Barovia. It's been established that some areas around Phlan, such as the Glumpen Swamp and the Quivering Forest, have already been absorbed into Barovia (though they also apparently still exist in Faerun, as none of the corresponding adventurers set in the Moonsea by third parties mention any sort of disappearance of terrain**), yet it's always been unclear whether the elven town of Greenhall, within the Quivering Forest, was absorbed along with the forest itself. (Unclear to me, at least; in the review for The Executioner, we discussed how Greenhall not being in Barovia actually makes more narrative sense, given the events of that adventure and The Beast prior. The admins have explicitly stated, though, that Greenhall does exist in Barovia.) However, even though the party never actually travels to Greenhall proper, we finally discover the reason for Greenhall to exist in Barovia -- the party encounters a battle between elves from Greenhall and creatures of the forest driven to madness by Omou's passage, and if the party fails to defend the elves, the elves are said to abandon Greenhall, leading to a very confusing story award (more on this later). Still, the party never actually enters or even sees Greenhall, so short of the logic behind the story award (which also suggests that the elves who abandon Greenhall are now trapped in Barovia, which creates even more confusion), there's still no real narrative reason for Greenhall to exist in Barovia, and as noted above and previously, the story makes more narrative sense if Greenhall isn't in Barovia but numerous Greenhall elves manage to find their way there.***

** - If pressed, I suspect the admins will resort to the old Ravenloft chestnut that 'time moves differently in the Dread Realms than it does elsewhere', which is a well-worn explanation used by DMs who ran Ravenloft adventures as 'weekend in Hell' excursions that didn't otherwise interrupt their ongoing campaigns by having the adventurers return mere moments after they left, even if they seemed to spend days in Ravenloft. That, at least, is classically canonical.

*** - I also suspect another reason that the admins want Greenhall to exist in Barovia is that it, in theory, adds narrative weight to the events that involve the elves throughout the season -- the encounter in Part Two of this adventure is titled 'Last Stand of the Greenhall Elves', after all, and especially given the story award it seems as though the intent was for this to be a significant, even portentious moment in Faerunian history. The problem is that the PCs are given no real reason to care about Greenhall or its inhabitants (this is directly opposed to the series' treatment of Orasnou, where the PCs are given reasons to care about the village, and then are beaten over the head with those reasons until they lose any sympathy they have for the village or its inhabitants): other than the option to invite the elves that they rescue way back in The Beast to live in Orasnou, there's no real potential for the PCs to interact with the Greenhall elves outside of occasional combat encounters whose impact ends as soon as the party drops out of initiative. Had the season's metaplot focused on solving the mystery of why and how the regions around Phlan came to be part of the realm of Barovia with an occasional trip to Greenhall proper to compare notes with Aya Glenmiir or some other NPC rather than simply racing around from one seemingly unconnected encounter to another (much as the PCs used Orasnou as something of a 'base of operations' and came to know many of the NPCs who dwell there), perhaps more of a sense of the elves and humans working together to try to solve a common problem would have been allowed to develop, and the elves made to seem like willing if distant allies. As it stands, the party can simply ride right by the besieged elves without much if any remorse as they pursue the architect of the chaos. (We'll have more to say about this 'why does this adventure feel like it's not as important as its designers intended' problem in the next review.)

This leads us to Part Three -- the encounter with the Fourth Obsession, where the adventure takes time to give a decent sidebar on how to sensitively portray Omou, the heart-broken mongrelfolk, yet starts the combat after the first DM text block, leaving little time for the DM to use that advice. (It may still come in handy if the party manages to damage Omou enough to convince him to surrender, assuming the party accepts his surrender...) Again, as a way of ensuring the plot doesn't come off the rails, the party gets what they need from Omou regardless of whether they kill him or allow him to live (at which point he ends up killing himself).

Note that the fight with Omou can be very swingy, resulting in either an easy win for the party or a quick TPK, depending on your players and their build styles, thanks to one small thing in Omou's write-up. Many optimizers, having scoured the Player's Handbook and discovered that there are no spells that actually require an Intelligence saving throw, take to using Int as a 'dump stat' to allow them to allocate build points to other, more combat-relevant stats. However, Omou's Mind Blast power, which is likely to be able to catch the entire party, and will certainly catch all his front-line opponents, requires a DC15 Intelligence save to avoid the effects, which includes a stun. When I ran the mod, I caught a fighter/warlock, a war cleric, and two zombies animated by the PC necromancer in the Mind Blast, and since none of them had better than a -1 bonus to Int saves, they stayed stunned for the entire combat. Instead of the listed advice for adjusting the combat for weak or very weak parties, I'd recommend removing the recharge on Omou's Mind Blast and reducing his hit points to 2/3 listed (for a weak party) or 1/2 listed (for a very weak party). It's nice to see an encounter designed to attack optimized characters at one of their weak points, but without quick thinking, a DM who surprises her party with Omou's full power can turn what would otherwise be an interesting final battle into a quick TPK.

(And though, as stated above, I'm a fan of this encounter engaging optimizers on their own terms, I also feel obliged to point out that this is exactly the reason why an organized play campaign shouldn't encourage optimization with the idea that they'll simply throw in the occasional 'anti-optimizer' encounter; unless the DM is sharp enough to notice and make appropriate adjustments for a non-optimized party, the encounter designed to challenge optimizers will simply obliterate more casual players' characters, resulting in unnecessary disappointment. A TPK in the last adventure in a series might still feel epic, if the party stuggled to the end but just barely failed -- a rapid TPK in the next-to-last adventure just feels pathetic.)

Presuming your party defeats Omou, the adventure is now over, and your party has likely given up on Orasnou and knows only that there is a ritual that needs to be stopped. Stopping that ritual? Well, that's the task for our final review, of The Darklord. Oh, and about that confusing story award? Well, if the party fails to defend the elves and they abandon Greenhall, Jeny Greenteeth is incensed with them and refuses to provide any further spellcasting services. Not only is this not as great a burden as the adventure suggests -- by this time any cleric in the party should be powerful enough to cast most of the spells that Jeny would provide via spellcasting services, and the party will be leaving Ravenloft after the next adventure, one way or another -- but it also makes the opening scene of The Darklord extremely puzzling...but again, this is a topic we must leave for the next review.

This adventure wants very much to be atmospheric and project a sense of despair, but in finally pulling the curtain away from the 'final boss', and in continuing to hammer away at the same old tropes we've been using since the second adventure, mostly what we come away with is a sense of fatigue and a desire for it all to be over. Mechanically, the adventure is competent but nothing special. Three stars.

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By this point I had pretty much given up on this season to provide much story continuity or pique my interest. There was a, "Oh, that's what that was all about." moment when we learned about Esme. Oh well.

The opening bit in Orasnou was fun in a macabre way. But the pursuit and fight with Omou is one of my favorite denouements in AL module play thus far. He was a tough little bugger that was a true threat to a Tier II party regardless of optimizers who may or may not use Int as a dump stat (?). I played it twice and was treated with a fun and furious finale in both games. I liked Omou's ennui, too. Poor little evil dude was a pawn of a cruel and unfeeling even-more-evil manipulator. It was all very gothic romance.


Rotten DM
I ran this during Black Friday see my post #60 in my ravenloft thread. A tpk is possible with a weak party even if you do down grade Omou. If you are running these in order I suggest you stat up some of the Town people and have the party make friends with them.. I stated out Rocky (NPC fall guy from the broken one). And had him as one of the encounters. This did throw some of the players for a loop since they loved Rocky.
One thing that did not make sense, if Jenny Greenteeth says no spells for you, this causes a plot hole in the next module.


One thing that did not make sense, if Jenny Greenteeth says no spells for you, this causes a plot hole in the next module.
I'll be covering that in the review of The Darklord -- for now, you can actually make it work, but it takes a DM who is willing to role-play Jeny. I've met DMs who aren't comfortable with that and just use her as a PC rest stop; those DMs are going to have more difficulty, assuming their players earned the appropriate story award.


I played her as faux charming and flirty with a dark undercurrent ("Oh, my, what a gentleman you are to say so! And with such nice skin, too <tongue flicks out of mouth>")

Hags are awesome!

Mythological Figures & Maleficent Monsters