Although there are Tier 4 Adventurers League Adventures, and Dungeon of the Mad Mage lists a level range that stretches to 20th level, none of the published adventures for Dungeons and Dragons 5thedition officially contain a single storyline that spans 1st to 20thlevel, so for players that want to experience the full range of D&D content in a consistent campaign, the options are sparse.
Because I wanted to see what a campaign like this would look like, I was particularly interested in The Demonplague, a level 1st through 20th level campaign by James Introcaso and Johnn Four. I’ve been following the development of this adventure for a while, since the Kickstarter. One particularly interesting design choice is that the broader campaign arc is split across four adventures, and each of those adventures has a different design structure.
The Tier 1 adventure has a more traditional structure, where tasks are handed out to PCs, they return to their home base, and they head out for new missions. The Tier 2 adventure is a sandbox adventure, where the characters have a number of objectives presented upfront, and they can complete them in any order or manner they wish. The Tier 3 adventure is a hex crawl adventure, where characters travel across the terrain to find hidden locations relevant to the story, and the Tier 4 adventure is a large dungeon crawl.
The overall arching story of the adventure is the aftermath of a comet striking a traditionally cold climate, radically altering the environment, and also reawakening an ancient demon and the plague they have set lose multiple times in the past to lay low previous civilizations. It’s an intriguing premise that I wanted to look at more closely.
The Form of the Destructor
This review is based both on the PDF version of the product and the physical book. The compiled single volume is 372 pages, with 4 pages of Kickstarter backers. The book has line art with a black and white interior. The book is single column, with many, many charts, and the font is larger than usual, making it easy to read the book.
Purchasing the PDF grants access to a few extras unlocked in the Kickstarter campaign. These include a single page document for converting the Cellar of Death adventure to this campaign, three image galleries, an NPC log, and three side trek adventures that can be added into the main campaign.
The Frozen Necromancer
The first adventure in the collection introduces the scenario, a base of operation, and a range of encounters that help set the stage for the region the PCs will be operating within. The first adventure is split into six chapters. The first chapter is an introduction to the region and the overall situation, and the next five chapters include locations where the PCs will need to complete missions to advance the storyline.
The introduction expounds on the history of the region, which has been ruled by elves, dwarves, goblins, and a previous human civilization, all of which have fallen over the years. From the time the elves arrived, there has been a demonic supernatural plague vexing the various civilizations, and massive destructive rituals have been used to stop the spread of the plague when cures could not be found. When a comet strikes the region, it changes from a cold region to a hot, blasted landscape, and this comet damages the prison of the demon that set lose the plague centuries ago, and both the demon and the plague are now growing threats.
There is a lot of establishing material in this adventure. There are tons of encounter charts that include more than just random hostile creatures. Various uncovered ruins and treasures hint at the history of the region, and other encounters portray the terrain as dangerous and reinforce the rapid climatic upheavals that have happened. These random bits of story do a better job reminding the group of the overall story of the campaign more effectively than some of the D&D hardcover adventures.
The town and various side quests in the settlement add a lot of depth to the party’s home base. Most of the named NPCs in town have some kind of quest for the player characters, and some of those dovetail with the larger missions that need to be done for the adventurers to find out about the wider threat to the region. The most compelling aspect of this world-building is the refugee situation and the upcoming vote for town council, issues that dovetail with one another as the newly arrived refugees are seeking representation.
Once the party completes an early mission to an overrun fort, the momentum starts to build for them to explore a few other locations, letting them learn about the threat to the region and giving them a reason to finish their investigations. In a nice twist to the standard formula, the undead wizard that the PCs are trying to track down actually wants to cure the plague, but the PCs find out they need to stop him from accidentally making things worse.
There are a lot of strong establishing elements in this adventure, but there are a few things that undercut that strong start. A lot of the quest givers in town are bad or unlikable people with secrets, and that might undermine the PCs affection for their home base. The first person of color described ends up being evil, and they disguise their evil nature by appearing to be a younger white girl, which feels a little tone-deaf. There are also a few thematic elements that get hit hard—there are serial killers in town and in the refugee camp that are unrelated, and if you want to detect evil, all you need to do is look for NPCs that are described as dirty and smelly, because that is apparently synonymous with evil.
It’s a strong, detailed starting point that the DM may wish to modify a bit if their players run into some of the repeated elements in too rapid succession.
The Winter Druids’ Legacy
In the course of tracking down the undead wizard in the previous adventure, the group ends up in contact with the ghost of a druid that has information on how to attempt a ritual that could either banish the demon lord responsible for the plague, or seal the region in ice to stop the plague for another thousand years. The ghost gives them the location of several items they will need for this ritual, and they can go to various locations and gather these items in whatever order they wish to do so.
Each of these locations is inhabited by the ghosts of the druid circle that covered the region with a glacier in the distant past, and those ghosts can help to nudge the PCs in the right direction as they look for items. Each of the locations is the remnant of one of the fallen civilizations from the region. There are new quests available in town that can be accomplished while they seek out the components for the ritual, such as finding more resources to keep the town going.
One of the components is a living, friendly creature, which I think is meant to offer a moral quandary to the players. Unfortunately, the text quickly introduces a potential “out,” which is very dependent on D&D-isms and the concept that death eventually becomes a temporary inconvenience in the game.
I really like that the random encounters change in this chapter, reflecting that the Luna Valley is changing over time. Cultists are more common, more demons are gathering in the region, and there are hints of other conflicts going on in the region among the goblins and others that live outside of Tomar’s Crossing.
When the PCs return home to Tomar’s Crossing between adventures, there are a few different events that can occur, including missionary cultists and raids from undead and demons. There are notes on how the town will develop differently, depending on who won the elections and if the council has been overturned by different factions in the region.
I like the open-ended structure of this adventure, especially as a follow up to the more linear starting adventure. It feels like a good progression for the player characters, giving them the feeling of being in a little bit more control of how they accomplish what needs to be done. I like the emerging and changing encounters showing that the region is moving forward in time and hinting at the changes that are going on behind the scenes.
While there is activity in Tomar’s Crossing, and in most adventures the events that can happen between visits would make the town feel dynamic, compared to the first adventure, the town feels a bit more static. I almost wish that the noble or knightly uprising had been moved to this chapter as an ongoing issue to resolve, adding more internal developments to the external assaults on the town. I also wish that the moral quandary of the living component for the ritual were a little more open-ended and difficult to resolve from a moral standpoint. It feels like the adventure puts the PCs on the hook, then almost immediately says, “but if you do X that you can probably do soon, it may not be an issue.”
The third adventure in the campaign is arranged as a hex crawl, where the PCs are looking for various locations by setting out across the wider wilderness. As with the previous adventure, there is a section updating the encounters in the Luna Valley as the region changes. This also provides an excuse to introduce tougher encounters by pairing the story of these encounters with the worsening situation, such as a further increase in demonic presence, and dragons and giants fighting over terrain as the situation worsens. Even some of the environmental hazards become more overtly magical, as the energies of the crashed comet infect the land.
This adventure proceeds differently based on how the group is handling character advancement. If characters gain a particular level, they can trigger an encounter or situation that needs to be dealt with, and once they have proceeded through all of these, the story moves on.
The reason the adventurers are wandering the land is that they need to find the entrance to the location where they need to perform the ritual for which they gathered their items. Unlike other hex crawls that I have seen, this location isn’t set. The PCs wander from hex to hex having encounters. After a certain number of encounters, they gain a level, and a plot-related event happens. Once all of the plot-related events happen, then the next empty hex they enter is the location of the place for which they have been searching.
Ironically, I think I would enjoy running this adventure more than I would a traditional hex crawl, because it’s based on story triggers and advancing plot elements, but I’m not sure that someone that wants a traditional hex crawl will be as happy with this adventure. Unlike Tomb of Annihilation, the relevant places don’t have a fixed location, the hex crawl is kind of a virtual simulation of a hex crawl, where locations show up when they need to show up. I like the pacing of this, but if the PCs pick up on the magic trick, it may potentially rub them the wrong way, especially since traditionally a hex crawl introduces the possibility that you might run into a few places that you really aren’t ready to tackle, which means adventurers may need to assess threats and strategically retreat, research, and gear up to return to that place.
There is a ton of randomly generated content in this section, and it’s really a marvel to behold. I feel like this could make for some seriously dynamic wandering, and it means that the time between the “scheduled” encounters isn’t going to look the same for any two groups. As someone with a weakness for giants, I really like the idea of resolving a dispute between giant clans and the potential to ally with them, and I like that this potential allegiance isn’t negated by “but these giants are evil.”
There is a repeated element that is hard to view objectively by reading through the adventure—the previous adventure featured a demon raid on Tomar’s Crossing, and one of the “scheduled” events in this adventure is another demon raid. It makes perfect sense for the overall progression of the story, and given how many encounters you are likely to have in this adventure. However, depending on how much time will pass between adventures, it may feel less like it just happened and is now happening again. Reading through the book linearly, it echoes a bit with the structure of the last adventure.
The final adventure involves the PCs performing a ritual in the prison of the demon lord that caused all of these problems across the centuries. The PCs need to decide if they are going to do the safe thing for the world, and cover the region in ice, the short-term thing, by curing the plague, or risk it all by getting rid of the demon lord Xancrown.
The dead from all of the previous civilizations in the region are drawn to the prison. Some of them appear as undead, and others are reborn as devils guarding the demon’s prison. Over time, the cultures came into conflict with one another and came to control certain corridors, and the PCs may be able to ally with one group or another to gain access to different areas of the dungeon.
In order to take out Xancrown, the PCs need to gain access to his prison to dispatch him once and for all. Each of the societies in the dungeon has one of the keys needed to access the prison, and various faction leaders will task the PCs with different quests to hand over their key. In some cases, these quests involve inciting violence between other factions, so there are some potentially hard decisions if the PCs want to do the right thing and/or don’t want to just wipe out a whole faction.
That said, each faction is made up of fiends and undead, even if the fiends remember a lot more of what they were before they were transformed. The PCs may need to learn some personality traits and interests of different creatures in the dungeon to most effectively negotiate with them, which provides some nice potential for interaction.
I like the political element, and the factions that can be pointed at one another, rather than just outfitting the whole dungeon with one monster after another to be killed. Thematically, some of the undead choices feel strange. For example, vampires imply feeding, which feels like a strange form of undead for a creature trapped in a dungeon for a thousand years, and in a few places, it feels like “undead + desired CR” may have been weighted more heavily than undead that follow a theme for the culture.
There is also part of me that wishes the devil’s were a whole separate “jailer” faction, instead of being transformed members of the previous societies. I know this makes the devils less predictable, since they aren’t literal devils, but I don’t think there is enough groundwork to explain why some members of the older societies incarnate as undead, and other show up as devils, so the twist feels a little hollower.
Xancrown’s prison itself is pretty disgusting, so if you aren’t a fan of rooms painted with vomit, you may want to change the description of the final fight.
I went back and forth on how to look at this. At one point in time, I considered reviewing each adventure separately, but given that the campaign is sold all together, and has a strong unifying theme, I wanted to look at the whole product at once.
Creating a unified story for a 1-20 campaign, intentionally creating a separate adventure for each of the tiers of play, and switching the adventure structure for each of those adventures, is very ambitious. I’ll revisit how well I think this came together later, but I wanted to spend some time on what the adventure did right, but also, what those elements that worked made me wish was also included.
I wish the individual fallen societies had a stronger feel to them. As it stands, most of the societies have some cosmetic elements ascribed to them, but not really a radically different feel. For example, there are literally encounters where you run into a construct, and it could be from any of the fallen cultures, but it will have a few different visual elements based on the society.
I’m going off on a tangent here, but I almost wish each society had fallen, not due to the actual plague, but on the bad traits that overtook them as they worried about what to do about the plague. For example, make it more explicit that the elves became even more insular, and that caused civil war that ended them, the dwarves became obsessed with placating death, and their fascination with death caused them to fall into nihilism, the organized hobgoblins abandoned the law and order that supported their society, and they fell to internal fighting due to the chaos cult, etc. I would have also liked it if the modern society in Tomar’s Crossing was a literal council made of up all of the races who had previously fallen, with elves, dwarves, goblins, and humans altogether, as a kind of bookend to the other societies—can these people together overcome what they failed to overcome apart?
Its heavily implied that Tomar’s Crossing is largely cut off from the rest of the world, and resources become precious, but people still seem to really care about gold instead of more practical trade goods. I wish more of the background around town had been trying to trade with people for survival, possibly cutting trade deals with non-traditional trade partners like duergar. There is an encounter that briefly implies that angels might be keeping the region quarantined, and I wish this had been made more explicit, with angels keeping people from teleporting or plane shifting away from the region, while they decide if the region needs to be figuratively nuked for the sake of the rest of the planet.
I also wish that, since the Kickstarter had mentioned making the different adventure types explicit to help newer DMs get acclimated to varying adventure styles, that the individual adventures that employed those types had a little bit of a definition of the adventure types, and a discussion of best practices for those styles.
I want to reiterate that this is a wish list that I developed because the adventure was doing certain things very well, but the more something does well, the more I wish outlier elements would tie together in a stronger manner, and creating a 1-20 adventure provides a lot of room for these wish lists to develop.
Happily Ever After
All of the little pieces of this adventure do an excellent job of conveying the overall story, and the emerging random encounters keep the adventure from feeling too static. When the adventure is working, it feels like it is progressing with urgency without too many confusing, interlocking, moving pieces. There is a ton to interact within this adventure, so characters that want to dig in and get invested have enough texture to do so. Plagues and demon lords are great elements for an epic feeling campaign, and the adventure, overall, does a good job of presenting familiar and comfortable tropes, and then doing something new and different with them often enough to keep things fresh.
The Original Grimm Ending
There are a few thematic elements that get hit a little too often, a little too close together. In a few places, the variety of monsters could be better. The small elements do a great job of conveying an implied greater story, but there are a few places where that greater story could have been cemented, but the adventure defaults to more superficial descriptions and connections.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
This is a super ambitious product that I think will be a satisfying experience for anyone that wants an adventure that will take them from 1st to 20th level. It does a good job of making the threat feel present consistently, and remaining thematically on point, but it may fall into a few predictable patterns from time to time, and some of the twists don’t feel like a strong enough payoff for the established included elements.
It’s about the only product you are going to find that presents a consistent 1st through 20th level experience for Dungeons and Dragons 5thedition, but thankfully, it does what it does satisfyingly.