This review is coming in two parts because this book is worth taking time with! Part one covers all 14 of the Tier 1 adventures (character levels 1-4).
Unique among one-shot adventure collections in that Uncaged has a tightly unifying theme gloriously realized through adventure scenarios that often feature tough moral dilemmas, Uncaged Volume I is a triumph. It is beautifully laid out with several tools that make it incredibly easy to navigate it’s 26 adventures, many of which feature new monsters, magic items, and encounter maps. With the exception of maybe one or two missing references that might affect gameplay, the editing is incredibly consistent, making it a joy to read. If you’re looking for one-shots that are more than just dungeoncrawls, there might not be a better release out there.
Uncaged Volume I is the first of a 4-part compilation of Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition adventures. The unifying theme is that each adventure focuses on a single monster (or in rare cases, deity) classically represented as female, and to twist the tropes surrounding that creature somehow. You’ll see instances of typically evil monsters being given much more sympathetic motives, creatures whose actions are misunderstood or misrepresented by quest-givers, and more. While there are plenty of pretty “classic” D&D adventures in here — dungeoncrawls, wilderness exploration, mysteries — there are also a good number of moral quandaries to be found. I’ll summarize each adventure briefly down in the review below.
All of these adventures are 3,000 word one-shots, though plenty open up a lot of opportunity for expansion or revisiting. Most contain new monsters and/or new magic items. Appendices include an index of all the new monsters, an index of all monster references (i.e. for the monsters referenced from books like the Monster Manual), and player versions of the featured adventure maps. Notes in the introduction include a Content Warning reference that shows up with most of the adventures. This is perfect for folks that use a session zero to setup campaign and adventure expectations, creating an inclusive and safe environment for all gamers.
Editors: Dr. A. Kelly Lane, Alex C., Ashley Warren, Brent Jans, Christopher Walz, Dani Roanoke, Hadeel Al-Massari, Hannah Rose, Jeff Ellis, Jessica Washburn, Jessica Ross, Joe Nehmer, Liz Gist, Michael Haney, Stephanie Lee, TK Johnson
I purchased the hardcover and PDF bundle with my own hard-earned cash.
This review will contain plenty of spoilers.
Let’s tackle each adventure in order.
Maid in Waterdeep
A mermaid who had to make a difficult choice in saving lives beocme sthe target of a vile cult because they think she made the wrong choice. Lily — the mermaid — hires the party to help her take down the vengeful noble behind the cult, Heks Vand.
Maid in Waterdeep is a straightforward series of encounters leading to a final confrontation with a mustache-twirling villain: pretty basic but endlessly classic D&D-style adventuring. The story is good and makes sense, but there’s a few points where the text goes out of its way to mention the “infernal props” and so on that Vand has in his lair, but the final fight includes nothing overtly fiendish, such as a summoned low-level demon. This causes that final fight to feel a little lackluster after such a great setup.
The editing and clarity of the mechanics are great, even nearly perfect. That sets up much of Uncaged: clearly a high-level of effort went into making it representative of a polished effort.
Cry of the Sea
This adventure is about a small fishing town on the verge of collapse, for most of the able-bodied fishermen have gone missing. The mayor cares little for the concerns of the remaining wives and children, simply hiring the adventurers to return his men. But the party will face a hard choice, because the men were abducted by sirens after the waterways were catastrophically depleted by the fishing. They will have to save the men, help the sirens, or find a solution that does both without endangering the environment.
Once again, great editing and mechanics can be found. Cry of the Sea is an excellent, open-ended adventure with a really fun moral dilemma at the end. It’s the perfect “here’s a situation, what do the PCs do?” style of adventure. Unfortunately, the DM may have to develop that ending, as few clear solutions or consequences are offered. Left undeveloped, it could easily force this adventure to run much longer (2-3 sessions, at least), but no matter what, the final say of what happens to the town, the men, and the sirens is completely in the hands of the adventurers.
From the Forest They Fled
Animals are fleeing the forest in droves and the adventurers are hired by the folk of Ashvale to investigate. Soon, they are face to face with a conflagration in the heart of the woods, and it appears to have been set by a dryad!
Excellent editing and mechanics appear, this time with great effort going into using environmental hazards and random encounters to both increase the challenge of the adventure as well as set the tone and pacing of the scenario. The moral dilemma at the end of this adventure is phenomenal: the dryad is setting a fire to help a stand of trees that need it to survive. So it’s easy for the party to misunderstand the dryad’s actions and motives, and moreover, the dryad cares little for the motives of the party. But the fact is that nature sometimes needs destruction to thrive, and the dryad’s actions are controlled…but if the party interferes, the conflagration could spiral out of control and consume much more than the dryad intended. Although it’s not called out too clearly, a possible “fire line” appears that can be noticed by astute adventurers; this part of the adventure needs to be handled with care as it can give away the dilemma to early, but ignoring it could feel like a “gotcha” moment.
Lai of the Sea
The story of a hero killing a coven of hags and going on to establish a town obscures the truth: the “hero” was less than honorable. The lie of his legend has festered, and the one coven member yet alive has now set her sites on poisoning the town as she is consumed by anger!
The series of unfortunate events that lead the party from scene to scene in Lai of the Sea strains credibility on a read-through, but hopefully plays a bit better. The DM will have to really sell the legend that makes up the backstory in order for the PCs to feel invested one way or the other once they meet the hag, because the twist just isn’t worked into the other components of the adventure very well. There are a few formatting mistakes here or there, but nothing that will affect gameplay.
Despite these flaws, I really like what this story is trying to accomplish. One more development pass would have probably found more ways to work in a scene or two that sets up the legend versus truth theme that this adventure focuses on, and in the process would have made it perfect. Had that happened, the moral dilemma at the end would be incredible: to convince a hag not to poison a city! DMs using this adventure’s backstory in the settlement of their players’ headquarters will likely find a great payoff, since they can seed elements of it through previous adventures before running this one.
The Weeping Woman
A pair of children go missing, and the heroes are tasked with exploring the nearby woods to find them. Their journey forces them to re-live different versions of a tragedy that gave birth to the spirit haunting the woods, which might be the creature behind the abducted children…
This is an incredibly evocative adventure, featuring a beautiful map and a great use of flashbacks and side-story to reveal the adventure’s plot. This culminates in a dramatic conclusion that could be a major fight or a beautiful, bittersweet conclusion. There are — relatively speaking — few threats throughout most of the journey because the flashback angle takes precedence; some parties may not like this, but the imagery and the reasons behind the party seeing visions of the tragedy are amazing. Overall, the mechanics and editing are great, though some of the read aloud text shifts formatting inexplicably (italics then non-italicized fonts).
If you want a genuinely creepy, moody adventure that would be right at home in Ravenloft, this is a stellar one-shot.
Lost Children, Found Family
A woman named Enaxi once unified the five cities of the desert. But the people have since spun tales of Enaxi’s curse — becoming a lamia — to undermine her great works. Vengeful, the lamis depleting the cities’ water supplies and attracting rebellious youth to her utopian commune. The heroes arrive just in time to broker peace or instigate war.
The intro art alone is worth the admission: seeing the shapes of adventurers reflected in the water as they gaze upon Enaxi and her followers is incredibly powerful. In turn, this adventure doesn’t disappoint: top-notch editing, great use of skill challenge-style mechanics in two instances (surviving a sandstorm and debating a counselor to broker a truce), and a truly exciting moral dilemma! It’s all there.
My one and only complaint is that it’s often a little too obvious that combat is being actively dissuaded throughout the adventure. Multiple instances of “if combat should be initiated…” are followed by overwhelming forces simply arriving on the scene, rather than any real statement of forces and tactics in the settlements. That said, they aren’t entirely unbeatable, so murder-hobo characters won’t perish out of hand, but they will certainly lose out on what this module does best. That there are included challenges and consequences spelled out no matter what the adventurers do is welcome: all too often, the endings of moral dilemma one-shots are simply left completely open. Not here. Lost Children, Found Family covers everything in a satisfying way, leading to an almost certainly memorable conclusion.
A Wild Hunt
A young girl’s family is cursed, turning her mother into a lycanthrope forced to consume the rest of the family (and others) until a monk hires the PCs to help lift the terrible curse.
A Wild Hunt has little chance for a happy ending: it is a series of tragedies that lead to some utterly dark content regarding the young girl and her murderous mother. The party is given one chance to undo the curse by locking up the mother for 100 days, but the daughter has already seen some very, very twisted stuff. If it sounds like I’m being down on this adventure, I’m not: it is a downer, but it’s incredibly good, in terms of dilemma, pacing of the clues through encounters with seemingly random creatures (but they aren’t random!), and the nature of the creatures involved. I like dark stuff, and this feels like those X-Files episodes where a perfectly moral character is forced by some supernatural event to commit awful acts: there’s no redemption, no happy ending. But it’s still endlessly interesting!
I found one error in the stat block note on p. 61: it says it uses the same stats in both forms, but then contradictorily notes referencing both the jackalwere and wolf stat blocks. Beyond that, editing and layout are fantastic.
An elven noble fleeing from the furies must atone for his crimes to become the rightful ruler of his land…but he will be tested, as will the party!
Death’s Agents is a perfect “escort the NPC” plot with some ethical and moral dilemmas. This setup leads to some really cool rewards and a potential curse that will springboard an entire campaign if you let it. Additionally, this adventure is much more combat heavy than most of the other tier 1 adventures in Uncaged, and it handles it in a very, very good way. Tactics entries are included throughout, making it the kind of module that will sing during play.
I did find a few minor editing issues in this adventure:
Italics missing for the dialog on p. 67.
Cassandra is named on p. 67, but at first it’s confusing that she’s the vampire that turned Aegisthus. I had to re-read the passage a couple times to realize what exactly was going on there.
There are rules mechanics that erroneously appear in a read aloud box (p. 68). This won’t affect gameplay because the rules are needed, just make sure you to read them out loud to your players!
The stat block for Orestes is missing, and ghost is not bolded (p. 68).
Only the issue with Orestes is going to affect gameplay, so I don’t think this is major stuff to worry about.
The Tale of Sepha & Ade
A noble’s daughter has fallen in love with a drow. They secretly elope and and flee to the drow’s hidden stronghold before a major festival, forcing the noble to hire the adventurers to track her down and discover her fate. And more importantly, the heroes have to decide what to do about this forbidden love.
This is the sort of investigation-heavy adventure that plays well at the table. It specifically calls out multiple clues, and investigation — whether detailed or light — is going to lead to results that drive the adventure forward, even if it is along paths that aren’t always optimal for the adventurers. That’s how you do investigation right: there is no “fail, full stop” that puts the brakes on advancing through the adventure, there are simply interesting consequences for different degrees of success and different levels of exhaustive searching by the party. Interestingly, The Tale of Sepha & Ade has a few possible endings explored, but they are so brief it leaves you wanting more. Not because they don’t work or are missing things, but more because there are some really interesting consequences that simply have to wait till you play through it to develop (the doppelganger storyline being the most obvious one).
The Banshee’s Tale
A noble family’s castle is haunted by a banshee, so they ask the party to set things right. But what the adventurers find is a darker origin to the family and their troubles, and way more undead than they bargained for!
I’ve mentioned that only a few of the adventures are straightforward dungeon crawls, and The Banshee’s Tale is one of them. It features a nice Forgotten Realms reference in Kelemvor: not the only setting reference in Uncaged, but easy to dig into or ignore, which is always great. The twist of having the banshee be the only “good guy” in the dungeon is fantastic, pitting player knowledge against a moral dilemma wrapped in an undead-slaying dungeon romp.
Editing is great, though I noticed that ghasts and ghouls weren’t bolded (p. 83) and there’s an issue with a line break past some boxed text (p. 85).
A swamp tied to a boo-hag is dying as a town continuously expands into it, upsetting the ecosystem. The hag begins to enchant the locals, feeding their life force to the swamp in order to regenerate it. But the delicate balance of life-for-life is quickly spinning out of control, and it’s up to the adventurers to broker peace or bring ruin to all.
This is a really fun adventure. There’s a mystical barrier element that seems a bit flimsy, but the ultimate dilemma in the adventure is really good. Better yet, the conclusions include a lot of long-term repercussions and rewards (or punishments!) that can serve as a good backdrop for future stories, or as a constant reminder in future sessions of what the party has done, for better or worse. The editing overall is extremely good: there’s an extra “e” in enchantment and a somewhat under-explained DC mechanic on p. 89, but beyond that, perfection!
The Demon’s Heart
The party arrives in the town of Axeholme to investigate disappearances of townsfolk, but instead get dragged into a battle of wills raging between a succubus and the cambion son she was forced to have. Both wish to retrieve an item that can free them or enslave the other. But they need the adventurers to do their dirty work for them.
The Demon’s Heart is a unique adventure in that it is a simple double-cross that the party walks into. It’s a fun plot with clear motivations that’s simple to enact. This makes it absolutely perfect for manipulating the player characters without the complexities and lies bringing the whole thing tumbling down before the adventure ever really gets underway: often the simplest machinations are the best ones, after all. The only flaw I potentially see is that the succubus (Kathrine) doesn’t have a great reason for being absent when the adventurers enter the hallowed tomb, but if she’s present, her true nature will immediately be revealed. DMs may have to use other NPCs as a means to draw Kathrine away without alerting the PCs that doing so seems contrived.
Other than a reference to a pit fiend being listed as a “pit lord,” the editing is on point!
A community in decline wrongly put a medusa up on a pedestal. They seek to placate her, thinking only she can bring back the town’s prosperity. But the medusa is neither an evil scourge nor an omnipotent savior. How do the adventurers break that to the townsfolk, and what fate will befall the tragic medusa?
Lost Gods is an excellent example of the “no win” scenario, resulting in potentially multiple moral dilemmas that the party will face. On the one hand, it will be a downer much like A Wild Hunt, but it’s logical and there still is going to be resolution of a sort, so it’s not a full on hose-job unless the party just starts killing everything in sight. My only point of contention with editing was that there’s text missing in the second bullet on p. 102. As far as the scenario, I found the final lair of the medusa somewhat underwritten: it needs detail to set up what a set-piece encounter it is, considering this is the space that the medusa lives in, haunts her, and also (hopefully) doesn’t turn into near-automatic petrification for the player characters.
The Secret of Shadow Grove
A small town built around a connection to a (not entirely malicious) night hag has caught the attention of a local noble, and his first agent sent to investigate has gone missing. Do the players save the agent at the cost of the town’s women, or thwart the noble’s bigotry?
This adventure is an interesting depiction of the night hag: she’s more of an avenging angel in the guise of a demon than some hate-filled monstrosity…but she’s not entirely just an anti-hero, either. The encounters — or at the very least the conclusion — rely largely on the party being able to detect or interact with the night hag’s victim while she uses her night-haunting abilities on the noble’s agent, which doesn’t receive quite as much advice as I would’ve liked in this scenario. But that said, the scenario itself is great, lending to a sort of Twin Peaks vibe of things being wrong, but the party not knowing why or how for quite some time without a few incredible leaps of logic. I love that sort of building dread, and it’s baked right into the scenario.
The editing had a couple misses:
I didn’t know what I strophalos was, so a picture would’ve been nice. Not a mistake, more of a “I’m dumb” moment once I Googled it and realized I’ve seen these a million times!
P. 111 and p. 115 both repeat the contents of Luneli’s chambers.
P. 111 and p. 117 don’t have the plane shift spell italicized.
Same with mass suggestions on p. 118.
This book is gorgeous. The POD from DMsGuild has increased in quality greatly over time, and this is no exception, feeling in every way like a fully professionally printed and bound book (because that’s what it is!). The Uncaged team have used some nice, simple layout tricks to pack the book with great, high-quality art — even the stock art I’ve seen plenty of times before is used only when and where appropriate to enhance the text — and the presence of useful Appendices including player versions of the encounter maps and monster references makes the book supremely useful. On top of that, each adventure’s opening page has a content warning, level range, and note about what monster is the focus of the adventure. All of this makes navigating the book easy and pleasurable, so even if you don’t use the adventures as written, you can quickly find monsters, maps, and individual encounters to cherry-pick for your games.
Big bonus points for the digital version! The PDF comes fully bookmarked, but better yet, the digital version comes with a zip file containing all of the adventures in print-friendly versions (no background graphics, no art), as well as a separate PDF of all of the maps. This makes the digital version extremely “table-friendly” since you can just print out what you need and nothing more, beautifully formatted to save you printer ink but still give you everything you need. I’m personally still a fan of having the printed book, but you can’t argue that this makes the digital version extremely attractive for folks who (1) aren’t collectors, and (2) who don’t need every adventure immediately on hand.
The editing is, overall, extremely good. I’ve noted a few misses here or there under the individual adventures above, but literally 99% of them are things like “didn’t bold such-and-such.” Given that there’s maybe a dozen of those sorts of things over a spread of well above 100 pages, and given that playability is only affected in maybe one or two cases due to missing references or text, I can’t justify taking off more than one star. With the layout as good as it is, it’s hard for me to even ding it the one star, but it’s what I’d do for the top tier professional publishers, so I’ll grudgingly do it here.
Content 5/5, Form 4/5. This averages to 4.5, and as always with D&D, we round down for a final result of 4! I love it!
The Tome Show has an Uncaged roundtable featuring hosts Paige Leitman and Ginny Loveday joined by Uncaged developer, writers, and artists Ashley Warren, Gwen B, Liz Gist, Cat Evans, Nemo Bueno, and Jessica Marcrum.