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DDAL Review of DDAL 04-14 The Darklord (4 stars) [SPOILERS]

Pauper

Explorer
The Darklord is the final adventure in the Misty Fortunes and Absent Hearts adventure series, and it is credited to Greg Marks (a.k.a.: Skerrit/skerritthegreen), the Associate Resource Manager of the D&D Adventurers League. This is a sign that the designers intended for this to be an epic final adventure, one where all the stops are pulled out and the players are treated to an experience fitting the climax of a mini-Ravenloft campaign. In some senses, this works -- there are a number of cool moments in the adventure that up the challenge significantly over what has come before, and it will take both a resourceful and intelligent party (or an extremely forgiving DM) to get all the way through to the end without being significantly low on resources. Unfortunately, there are very few real emotional payoffs to be had in this adventure -- it's almost as if this adventure was one of the first written, and when other adventures in the series were submitted with somewhat different details than this one, this adventure simply didn't get updated to reflect those narrative changes.

Let me give a simple example from the previous adventure, The Horseman. In that adventure, the party is racing off in pursuit of Omou when they discover a band of Greenhall elves protecting the elven wizard Aya Glenmiir from a maddened treant, and the adventure notes that Aya is only able to cast cantrips because she has lost access to her spellbook. (This isn't strictly how wizard spell prep works under 5e rules, but I didn't worry about it much at the time, simply because the move helps keep the spotlight on the party rather than on the high-level wizard who happens to be the party's friend.) Yet in this adventure, the party finds they have need of Aya's services, and when they discover her, she's said to be resting in a cave, reading her spellbook by firelight. It's a small but jarring inconsistency, which might be further exacerbated by more jarring inconsistencies (say, the enmity of Jeny Greenteeth mentioned in the review of The Horseman, which makes it difficult, though far from impossible, to explain why she seems so eager to aid the party in reaching Esmae).

Probably the biggest emotional payoff of the adventure, even the season, is intended to be what happens once the party has retrieved Aya and travelled with Jeny into the woods to a prepared location for her to use her hastily-gathered 'coven' to discern Esmae's whereabouts -- the party must protect the witches for four rounds, and then Sybil, who volunteered to participate in the ritual without hesitation, dies.

Spoiler alert.

If your group is anything like mine, though, Sybil's death really doesn't have much meaning or emotional impact. She's been a cypher since she was introduced back in the very first adventure, and save for a helpful vision she provides at the beginning of The Marionette, hasn't been especially useful or even significant to the plotline -- the party rescued her family in the initial adventure, Suits of the Mists, then Sybil herself in The Donjon. One player in my own group, who decided he'd devise his own character's backstory and intended RP story to mirror what he expected Sybil's to be ended up abandoning his experiment just over midway through the season, because Sybil, by that time, had clearly become nothing but a red herring, a MacGuffin, a distraction from whatever the main thrust of the plot was intended to be. Again, it's another moment that seemed to be written from the outset, but never got the support from the rest of the season needed to make it a really interesting or memorable moment.

So what does work? There's a mechanic by which the party must provide items they've collected from other adventures (some of which may have been treasures, so your DM will need to have allowed those items not to be 'automatically converted' to gold as the AL Player's Guide suggests) in order to provide a 'focus' for the ritual -- those objects end up granting minor boons and hindrances depending on the item itself. It's a cool idea, even though the boons are wildly unbalanced -- since the boons aren't defined as expiring after a specific number of uses, they range from being able to cast detect magic at will to being able to cast misty step at will, or even becoming unkillable (the 'when you are reduced to zero hit points' boon -- it probably should have read 'the first time you are reduced to zero hit points during this adventure'). Nevertheless, the boons are flavorful, and even though most of the hindrances are RP-based and thus can be safely ignored by anyone not interested in RP, for an RP-focused party they can add to the fun of the adventure. The fight with Esmae comes after a brutal sojourn through a partially ruined keep, where tricks and traps are as deadly as the creatures that await the party's arrival. Esmae herself, for a villain whose plan relies so heavily on illusion and enchantment, is statted out as a pretty heinous damage-based caster: she's got the full gamut of damaging spells, from fireball and lightning bolt all the way up to finger of death, so the party will have to beware of their hit point totals, even if they think the real danger is to their minds or hearts.

One other thing to be aware of; if you started this series of modules with a larger group, but lost a few players as the relative lack of excitement and odd tonal choices took their toll on your players, be aware that the advice for 'downshifting' the challenge of this module is missing in a number of significant places -- the battle with the goblyns while Jeny is starting her ritual, the secret room at the top of the spiral staircase -- these areas have no guidance at all for how to modify the adventure for a weaker-than-normal party. In other areas, such as the banquet room that contains one of the two secret doors the party needs to open in order to get to Esmae's ritual chamber, the advice is minimal at best (drop the monster's AC and attack bonus by 1, and reduce its HP by 20; the monster's AC isn't its main defense, though, and the creature has the ability to deal significant damage without having to make an attack roll -- better advice would be to lower the HP by 20 and reduce all damage by one die type, so d10s become d8s while d6s become d4s).

As the climax of the Ravenloft season, The Darklord is a viciously difficult module for those who aren't optimized for combat, and will be challenging even for combat-monsters if they haven't also been paying attention to their skills. In that sense, it's a fitting close to Season Four and is worth four stars on its own. Unfortunately, the odd places where the adventure doesn't 'sync up' with the rest of the season, as well as the general weakness of the season as a whole, and that most parties will likely not play this module as a 'one shot' (even though structurally, it's probably the best suited Season Four module to be used as a 'one shot') causes me to not recommend it, despite its high rating. Enjoy it as the end of your sojourn in Ravenloft, and as the end of your 'weekend in Hell', one way or another.

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Pauper
 

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jasper

Rotten DM
Due to some the reasons Pauper gave and the lack of adjusting the encounters due to short rests, I would say this is a 3 stars. My players took 2 short rests during the adventure so I changed the ritual time amount down to 3 rounds instead of 10. Now I would if I redo the module, only reduce the ritual time down to 7 rounds.
It was nice if players who got certain magic items played or used their items during combat but a dm can not expect that. For example there is a wind fan given out in another adventure which would counter a spell in the tower. I gave out props for the magic items which would give boons but most of my players did not keep them, or bring to the table.
Also the lack of real penalty other than down time days if you Fail to stop Esmae is a bother to me. Oops. The count is getting hitched to another girl and your pc is not invited to the wedding.
 

Pauper

Explorer
Due to some the reasons Pauper gave and the lack of adjusting the encounters due to short rests, I would say this is a 3 stars. My players took 2 short rests during the adventure so I changed the ritual time amount down to 3 rounds instead of 10. Now I would if I redo the module, only reduce the ritual time down to 7 rounds.
Great (or sick) minds thinking alike? My first draft of this review had the adventure coming in at 3 stars, but in retrospect, since many of the complaints I have relate to other modules, I finally decided not to hold the weakness of the season against this module as much. As a straight dungeon crawl, it fits both the theme and the challenge of White Plume Mountain, here in Season 6.

And my group also took two short rests during the exploration of the castle, so I reduced the ritual to being complete when Esmae took her action to maintain it during the seventh round. The party had to 'bucket brigade' the locket in order to get in enough checks to burn through her Legendary Resistance, but they managed it. (I also ruled that, once the Evening Glory was exorcised from Esmae, nothing prevented the Dark Powers from directly intervening to foil Esmae's plan, so I ran the 'successful conclusion' scene even though the party hadn't even damaged Esmae yet.)

It was nice if players who got certain magic items played or used their items during combat but a dm can not expect that. For example there is a wind fan given out in another adventure which would counter a spell in the tower.
Amusingly, the player who took the wind fan was complaining about it throughout the season, so I finally took up his offer to trade it to Larga Bloodhand in exchange for Sybil's life. Once he realized that he could have prevented literally 100 damage to the party if he'd had it, he was suitably chagrinned.

Also the lack of real penalty other than down time days if you Fail to stop Esmae is a bother to me. Oops. The count is getting hitched to another girl and your pc is not invited to the wedding.
I agree, though I didn't mention it in the review because, again, it's a flaw in the season structure rather than strictly a problem with this adventure. With that said, there was going to have to be some allowance for parties who couldn't complete the mission -- the idea that not being able to get through this adventure would possibly doom a PC to permanent retirement wouldn't have flown, back when we didn't know for sure if we were getting an independent downtime activity to escape from Ravenloft.

I may need to put together one last essay reviewing the season as a whole rather than any individual adventure. As much as I wanted to like the season, being an old-school Ravenloft fan myself, I really didn't enjoy it and I felt that my players were less excited than relieved to be done with it at last. At least I managed to earn Dedicated DM in Season 5 for running it!

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Pauper
 

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