What Do I Know About First Impressions? Death is Not the End (Fables: Citadel of the Unseen Sun Episode One; 5e OGL)
Ghostfire Gaming is currently a company that is hard to ignore in the D&D 5e space. The company has produced a campaign setting, player’s guide, and is working on a bestiary for their Grim Hollow setting, not to mention the other projects that they have helped shepherd through the Kickstarter process. While there have been a few starter adventures provided in the campaign setting book, the main thing we haven’t seen yet for the Grim Hollow setting is a dedicated long-form adventure.
Now that we’re entering the new year, Ghostfire Gaming has an answer for how they might address adventures. Instead of publishing a large hardcover adventure in a manner similar to WotC, they have started the Fables line of subscription adventures. In a manner not entirely dissimilar to Paizo’s adventure paths for Pathfinder, Fables will release adventures monthly, with six monthly adventures forming a campaign. I just received the first installment of the Citadel of the Unseen Sun campaign, so let’s take a look inside.
As stated above, I picked up this subscription on my own to get a look at this new line, so I’m not working from a review copy. I have not had an opportunity to play or run any of this material, but I am familiar with D&D 5e as a player and as a DM, and I have reviewed other Ghostfire Gaming/Grim Hollow material.
Grim Hollow is billed as a dark fantasy setting, which in this case also touches a bit on the horror side of things. The adventure contains death, body parts, dismemberment, and cannibalism, expressly detailed in the adventure.
The Shape of Things
Death is Not the End is a sixty-six-page adventure. This includes a title page, a credits page, a table of contents, and a single-page OGL statement. This PDF is in full color, with a two-column layout comparable to the standard WotC formatting for D&D products. Each of the three chapters has full-page art to introduce that section of the adventure, and there are several half and quarter-page art pieces in between.
In addition to the adventure, there are digital assets included. There are digital maps for the encounter locations in the adventure, and a file of tokens, all of which can be used for VTT gaming.
If you are a potential player in this campaign, you may not want to keep reading, as I’m going to delve a bit into the plot of the adventure, including a few of the surprises that hit the party early in play. To give you some basics, this adventure is for 1st through 3rd level characters, and is set in the Ostoyan Empire. This is a land where the vampires of the Crimson Court hold sway, and the sun has been stolen from the sky for over two decades.
The first chapter is going to be the hardest one to pull off. Characters start about to explore a structure to retrieve a magical artifact. The action begins In Medias Res, assuming that the adventurers have taken the retrieval job. After exploring the location and finding the magical artifact, the adventurers will run afoul of the villain of the entire campaign, a powerful lich, who kills them. Yup.
The lich buried the last outpost of an ancient empire deep underground to preserve it. However, he also pulled the sun from the sky to follow the fragment of the empire underground. Or maybe more specifically, he pulled an aspect of the sun from the sky over the Ostoyan empire, capturing part of the divine essence of the dead goddess of the sun.
Souls in the Ostoyan Empire come to this lich rather than going to their natural afterlife, so the lich can feed the souls to his soul object to continue survival. However, some human beings also have a fragment of the goddess of the sun’s power, which interacts strangely with the false afterlife created by the lich. That means that after they die, the player characters are resurrected in the realm of the underground sun.
There are two tricky bits to this first chapter:
- The PCs are hired to retrieve a former soul object of a lich, which they aren’t meant to assume will immediately draw the attention of a lich
- The PCs are going to be overmatched and killed by the lich right after a short dungeon crawl, before the adventure resumes
I think the best way to handle this is to let the PCs know upfront that the setup to the adventure is essentially an extended cut scene, so the DM can get some buy-in to what could feel like a very heavy-handed introduction. Even asking the player characters for buy-in for the extended introduction, I don’t know that I would describe the magic item they are searching for as the former soul object for a lich. The PCs may feel that’s way beyond what they would have agreed to as beginning adventurers.
The next part of the adventure involves the PCs arriving in the Ditches, the lowest level of false afterlife created by the lich. This area, far underground, is filled with undead, hazards, and traps. As the players come back to life, they meet the Dredgers, other people that had a portion of the sun goddess’ divinity in them, and who were resurrected here as well.
The Dredgers explain how to escape the Ditches, and the monsters guarding the gates to the next level. The NPCs will warn the PCs away from tackling the guardians too early. If the PCs can help all of the PCs in the Dredgers fulfill their wishes, then they may agree to help fight the guardian, or at least contribute resources and items to the PCs for their confrontation.
In addition to having various individual requirements, the Dredgers headquarters also need raw materials and food, meaning the PCs can’t sit back and take it easy. They have to make sure they don’t run out of food, and they may not have a safe place to rest without building material.
I appreciate the built-in NPC interactions inherent in the “unmet needs” portions of the NPC stat blocks. I also like that the Dredgers give the DM a “voice” in the setting to do things like telling them they may be too outmatched to attempt to take out the guardian when they first arrive in the Ditches.
One of the unmet needs of an NPC involves getting a sample from the guardian creatures, and I like the idea that this almost trains the player characters to know that some monsters should be run from, and some encounters can have a specific purpose outside of simply a search and destroy mission (even though eventually you will be searching and destroying the guardians).
Light At The End of the Tunnel
The final chapter in the first episode of this adventure involves finally removing the guardian creatures and ascending to the upper levels of the sunken citadel of the ancient civilization hidden from the world by the lich. On the way to the guardian creatures, the player characters may run into a talkative skull that can test them, potentially allowing them to gain some valuable items for their future trials. The skull can also serve as an alternate solution to some of the Dredgers’ unmet needs, and may also be a boon to different tasks the Dredgers perform to maintain their living space.
Eventually, the adventurers will decide if it’s time to fight the three animate mounds of buried bodies that form the guardians of the gate. If the PCs survive the fight and make it past the gates, the adventure allows the group to determine if the Dredgers go off on their own in the corridors that they have just reached, or if they continue to travel with the adventurers.
This adventure introduces three new monsters:
- Bone Mason Sentinel (CR 4)
- Crawling Grave (CR 4)
- Hermit Skull (CR ¼)
- Mud Zombie (CR 2)
Bone Masons are custom-built skeletal soldiers. Crawling graves are an avalanche of dead bodies. Hermit skulls are skulls inhabited by ectoplasmic tentacles. Mud zombies are the “meat” from a corpse that pulls itself together into humanoid form when prey draws near.
I wonder if you could pull off the beginning of this adventure more effectively by starting with the resurrection in the Ditches, rather than having the players go through the motions of exploring the Vestibule long enough to get killed in real-time by a powerful NPC. If you are already asking for buy-in for starting at the place they are exploring, in the employ of an NPC, I don’t know that narrating the rest of chapter one is a problem, and it might help to ease the PCs concerns about being killed by apparent fiat.
The main thing that makes me hesitant about this approach is if somehow the knowledge that the PCs might gain from exploring the Vestibule might pay off later, but I don’t really see anything that looks like a major clue for later adventures. The main thing we’re told about character advancement is the PCs can’t get higher than 3rd level until they dispatch the guardians that let them leave the Ditches. Starting a 1st level would just give the PCs more time to be a part of the Dredgers and scavenge for material, which may not be a bad thing.
Outside of the opening chapter, I like the built-in roleplaying tools for the NPCs, and the justification for player characters to wander around looking for resources and exploring the caverns of the Ditches. I like that the “plan” for attacking the guardians at the end of the adventure is open-ended. They may take all of the NPCs and rush them, or they may just utilize some of the gifts and services of the Dredgers to give them a bit of a bump to their competencies going into that final fight.
Not only does the adventure include NPCs from ancestries native to the Grim Hollow setting, it also jumps straight into some of the unique aspects of one of the locations in the setting. I appreciate that if an adventure takes place in a setting, it should utilize what is unique about that setting.
I like the way most of this adventure plays out, so I really hope that other episodes don’t rely on a heavy buy-in opening scene. I’m interested to see the pacing and level range of future adventures. This adventure allowed for exploration, and “sort of” downtime, but downtime as defined by the needs of the Dredgers’ activities. I would be interested to see if there will be a way to balance downtime with urgency as the story progresses.
I like the add-in materials for VTTs, and I appreciate the added value of those resources, but I would love to see official offerings from Ghostfire Gaming for venues like Roll20.
I’m really curious about where this line goes after the initial six episodes. It sounds like not everything produced in the Fables line will be set in the Grim Hollow setting, but I would like to see the setting supported, given that it has a lot of ground to cover. I like seeing adventures that further support the unique aspects of a published setting.