Sunday, May 3, 2009

Review: Drow War II, The Dying of the Light

Here's a review of a D+D Supplement I wrote for EN World back in the day. It seems to have dropped off the site since they reorganized. So, though Edition 3.5 is a thing of the past, it's always worthwhile to find quality supplements, whatever edition they might be written for. Enjoy

Drow War II: The Dying of the Light

By Adrian Bott

What’s inside?

Two hundred fifty pages of content. This campaign module is a series of thematically linked narrative adventures, designed to take characters from tenth through twentieth level as they struggle against an insidious and implacable foe. The content is divided into ten chapters, each roughly corresponding to a level of advancement, although depending on the choices of the players, these might not be resolved in sequential order. These adventures are a sequel to Mongoose’s [i]Drow War I: The Gathering Storm[/i], also by Adrian Bott . Only players who are willing to accept a lot of backstory should venture to play this module without first completing the former adventure.

Is it pretty?

When Mongoose revealed the cover design on its website, I was less than impressed. This says more about my poor quality monitor than the artwork, for when I saw the book itself, I was surprised and impressed. The cover by Anne Stokes depicts dragon-mounted Drow attacking ships. Most of the colors are greys, blacks, and violets, giving the book a “Drow feel” to it, but there is a bright green acid bolt issuing from the dragon that does a lot to emphasize the violent action. The elegant diagonal composition is so powerful it almost pulls the viewer into the battle. Interior art varies in quality but it is engaging throughout. More to the point, it does a great job of enhancing the text and providing GM’s with a good visual representation of the unusual environments and characters from the text. The only repeated art is the cheesecake shot of the Terror. And, hey, I’m not complaining.

Is it easy to use?

There’s a lot here, and while the first few chapters are fairly linear, players will soon have a wide range of choices. The large-scale quests open up, with no obvious order in which to accomplish them. Each of these quests leads to a follow up adventure. A GM will have to keep good and careful notes about the party’s knowledge and their progress, lest he become overwhelmed in the complex web of the plot. I’m not complaining—it would have been too easy to turn a project of this nature into a linear, programmed adventure. But player freedom can sometimes mean GM headaches. Be warned. A GM will undoubtedly have to do a lot of flipping back and forth through the book, and chapter headings are not marked in the margins.

How good is the content?

OK, I was a big fan of the first module, so it’s not surprising that I like the second one as well. What was good there is good here. A few things stand out in the sequel, though. Given the magnitude of the campaign (which is still unfinished) and the fact that it is geared to fighting a single adversary, the Drow, one might be concerned that the adventures would grow stale or repetitious. Far from it. Drow characters appear in most of the adventures, but they are vastly outnumbered by many and diverse other adversaries. There are demons, undead, half-dragons, constructs, and…well, lots of baddies. ‘Nuff said. Equally impressive are the diverse environments in which adventures take place: arctic, underwater, seaborne, extra-planar, desert, and urban. It would take an inept GM indeed to make this variety stale.

I was especially impressed by the diplomatic adventure included about halfway through the book. While there is a “Council of Elrond” feel to it (C’mon, it’s hosted by the elves!), there is a lot for players to do. Diplomatic goals are clearly spelled out in the text as well as what they players will need to do in order to accomplish their goal. Their successes or failures have a direct and profound effect on the outcome of the campaign. And for the most action-oriented, there are some assassins lurking around, just to spice things up!

Which leads to a question. The first module introduced the concept of ‘Victory Points,’ a tangible way to reward players for making decisions that help them achieve their broader goals. Earn enough victory points, and the big battles are much easier. That same concept is present in the second installment, but the mechanic is gone. Instead, through diplomatic, role-playing, and adventuring efforts, players secure the aid of more troops for the final battle, which in turn will help them achieve victory. I guess the question is: why introduce a game mechanic and then ditch it when similar circumstances arrive?

How challenging is it?

Given that each adventure is geared to a specific level, the challenges are usually appropriate to the party. However, the style here tends to emphasize fewer encounters which tend to have a high CR. I get the feeling if characters get in over their heads, things can get bad very fast. And, as noted, there is no set order for the adventures that take place between 14th and 18th levels. Some of the encounters in these chapters are lethal. Characters whose repertoire consists of the frontal assault and nothing else might need help.

How flexible is it?

Drow War I was fairly flexible. A campaign world was provided, but the adventures could really be set in any fantasy world with a medieval European feel. Drow War II involves many more nations, international diplomacy, and foes from the ancient past. It is not inconceivable that a GM could retrofit the Drow War series into his campaign world, but with the sequel, it would require much more work.

Is it professional?

I found two typos in my first read-though. The book looks good, and though there is an obvious effort to cram a lot of information into a limited space it is quite readable. Quite inexcusable is the lack of many of the adventure maps. The maps of at least three keyed locations are missing from the book. Given that the two final pages are a campaign-specific character sheet (nice, but expendable), their exclusion was almost certainly an oversight rather than a sacrifice for space. Hopefully, Mongoose will release the maps as a web enhancement.

What’s the best thing about it?

The Drow War books, taken together, are a primer in how to put together large-scale epic-feeling campaign. A recurring villain, always just out of reach. A twisted and Byzantine plot. Many and varied foes. Exotic locales. A narrative that leads to an epic conclusion but offers the players meaningful choices along the way.

What’s the worst thing about it?

The missing maps mentioned above, in the days before the Web, would be a fatal flaw. Hopefully, the error can be rectified. A copy of the campaign world map from the first volume would also have been handy, given the amount of globe-trotting the players will be forced to do. Adrian Bott was good enough to e-mail a digital copy of the missing sewer map, which I have posted HERE.

A GM who prefers to have a lot of flexibility, or one who has a campaign world to which he is emotionally tied and loath to change, might see the book as being overly restrictive. But then, why the heck did he buy it?

Is it worth the price?

Oh, yeah. The cover price of $34.95 includes ten engaging adventures that average over 20 pages each. At $3.50 per adventure, that’s a pretty good value. The quality of writing is good, flavored with skill and imagination. This book might even be worth the price for a GM who has no intention of running the adventure, if only to study how to put together a meaningful epic campaign.

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