What Do I Know About First Impressions? Land of Despair (FABLES: Citadel of the Unseen Sun Four; 5E OGL)

Fables CoverIt’s early in the month, which means it’s time to look at the latest volume of Ghostfire Gaming’s Fables product, their monthly adventure subscription service. We’re at the fourth adventure out of six in this campaign, so we’re moving past the halfway point, angling towards the endgame.

So what does the second half of the campaign look like? Let’s take a look inside.

Disclaimer

I did not receive a review copy of these adventures, and I am purchasing my own subscription for these purposes. I have not had the opportunity to run these adventures, but I am familiar with D&D 5e both as a player and as a DM.

Content Warning

Continuing with the overall theme of the campaign, there are lots of undead in this campaign. In addition, there are scenes that explicitly involve a lot of blood. In addition to dead bodies and blood, aspects of the story have to do with manipulating people, dominating their free will, and isolating them from their loved ones.

Fable Pages

This month’s adventure is 104 pages. For those keeping track at home, that means we went from 66 pages, to 94 pages, to 112 pages, and now we’re settling back in for this issue’s page count. Those pages include a title page, a credits page, a table of contents, four pages of handouts, and a full-page OGL statement.

As I mentioned in last month’s volume, four of the first five pages are the same introductory material for the product line, setting, and overview of the campaign, with the final introductory page adding some information on where the adventure starts.

In addition to the other artwork depicting locations, characters, and creatures in the adventure, each chapter of the adventure has a full-color two-page spread.

Structure

The adventure is set up with the following sections:

  • Chapter 1: Escape from the Labyrinth
  • Chapter 2: Lunsk and the Stillborn Forest
  • Chapter 3: Riven and the Black Mire
  • Chapter 4: Voyd and the Light Hunter
  • Appendix A: New Monsters
  • Appendix B: New Magic Items
  • Appendix C: Handouts

This adventure is for 7th level characters, and the adventure suggests you cap player character advancement at 9th level by the end.

Light at the End of the Tunnel (Here Begin Spoilers for the Adventure)

After traveling through three different adventures worth of the False Afterlife, the player characters ended the last volume at the portal to the Necropolis. They are technically free from the soul-trapping realm created by the Lich Kasimir, but they still have to navigate the Labyrinth to run free on the surface world again.

It may not be a surprise, but the necropolis is filled with the formerly living. Unlike some of the previous adventures, however, the player characters may run into some living, breathing adventurers that are exploring the Necropolis themselves. There is a tower that provides an interesting trap which is also tied into the lore of the former inhabitants’ means of preparing bodies for funerary rites.

The Labyrinth isn’t fully mapped out, but is navigated by skill challenge. The latest guise of the Nightseer Sage makes an appearance, asks for some bones (as in fresh bones), and then points the PCs at an NPC in one of the surface towns. There is also a semi heart-like puzzle involving blocked valves, flowing blood, and a blood ooze guardian.

While there are undead in this section, it was nice to throw in some carnivorous insect swarms, oozes, and some living beings to talk to. I appreciate the recurring Nightseer Sage guises to push them in the right direction, and I appreciate that the advice is a bit less cryptic this time around, even if it isn’t entirely straightforward.

The only thing I think I might have wanted is for something to really hammer home that this is a surface structure, and the PCs are definitely free of the False Afterlife. With all of the other swerves, like dying, coming back to life, and leaving their bodies for a dream town, I think players may still be worried about when the other shoe is going to drop this time around.

Lunsk and the Stillborn Forest

This section feels like a major relief. The PCs encounter a local monster that has a deal with people traveling the waterways, meet up with a corrupt politician, and make some decisions about who they trust more. Depending on how they play the situation, they might get a reward from the troll-like denizen of the waters, or they might get a chance to raid her lair.

In addition to the Aglaecwif dilemma, the PCs can also run into a dryad that has been mutated by the eternal night of the Ostoyan Empire. This gives the player characters the decision point of fighting off the creature or attempting to help her.

I really enjoyed this section of the adventure. After the very high stakes of constantly needing to navigate the rules of the False Afterlife, I really like the idea that we’re back to the more traditional moral quandaries of dark fantasy, with humans that might be worse than monsters, and monsters that might be victims. It’s nice to see the player’s in control of how they want to resolve these situations.

Riven and the Black Mire

Riven and the Black Mire begins to engage more with the politics of the Ostoyan Empire, and the player characters encounter a local town council and an exiled vampire from the Crimson Court. The town council is looking for someone to investigate a local monster . . . not the vampire, who is a perfectly legitimate local noble.

The players will once again have the chance to be more straightforward in how they deal with the poor cursed soul that is haunting the region. Characters have the opportunity to interact with a coven of hags that could help with removing the curse, but they may point the PCs back towards the vampire noble, charging the PCs with retrieving some of her hair so the hags have it, “just in case.”

Exploring the local environs and the vampire noble’s house will introduce the player characters to her companions, most of which don’t have much of a choice but to stay and entertain the vampire Countess Khrystyana Petrovskaya. If they spend enough time in the mires and they pay attention, they may even uncover some of the secrets that pertain to the companions and the mysteries surrounding their lives.

There are a lot of ways to approach this chapter since the characters are only really looking for the cursed dream whisperer. The hags can offer the player characters some magic items for trade if they are treated with respect, and the Countess can provide some gossip on the Crimson Court which may be relevant in the last leg of the adventure. Also, the more they learn about the Countess, the less they may want to leave her “alive.”

I’m an easy mark for hag covens, and I love the portraits of all three hags in this section. I like that the Countess may honestly just sit and chat with the PCs and provide them with some information, and the town council can be a good storytelling device to introduce that vampire rulers are a fact of life in the Ostoyan Empire.

Voyd and the Light Hunter

The final part of the adventure sees the adventurers arriving in the town of Voyd, the location of the NPC that the Nightseer Sage directed the player characters towards way back in the Necropolis. We learned at the beginning of this campaign that some people have a shard of the sun goddess’ power in their soul, and Kasimir is seeking them to use that power for himself.

The Light Hunter, one of the undead enforcers created by Kasimir, have come into conflict with the vampires before (especially since Kasimir’s ultimate goal is the destruction of the vampires along with his ascension to controlling Ostoya). The vampires will keep Liliyana Safe because they don’t want the Light Hunter to have her, but that’s probably not going to be the best outcome for the young woman.

Liliyana’s parents hope the PCs will be willing to destroy the Light Hunter to make sure that their daughter is safe without delivering her to the vampire rulers of the Empire. This gives the PCs a chance to go up against one of the lich’s champions for the first time outside of the False Afterlife.

By the end of this chapter, the PCs should be ready to enter Nov Ostoya, a dangerous metropolis under the power of the Crimson Court, where the Nightseer Sage will reveal the next phase of the unfolding plot.

Appendices

The following new creatures show up in this adventure:

  • Aglaecwif (CR7 Giant)
  • Blood Ooze (CR 7 Ooze)
  • Catacomb Haunt (CR4 Undead)
  • Dream Whisperer (CR7 Monstrosity)
  • Deathsteed (CR 3 Undead)
  • Light Hunter (CR 9 Undead)
  • Verminous Abomination (CR5 Monstrosity)

Even outside of the context of the adventure, I really like the Aglaecwif and its lore. I like “dangerous and evil, but just looking for tribute” style monsters, and I like how their lore interacts with trolls.

The magic items detailed in this adventure include the following:

  • Aurelia’s Tears (Legendary Wondrous Item)
  • Enchanted Map of Nov Ostoya (Uncommon Wondrous Item)
  • The Countess’s Communion Set (Rare Wondrous Item)
  • Fingerbone of Shattered Vows (Very Rare Wondrous Item)
  • Seeds of Hope (Very Rare Wondrous Item)
  • Dose of Bliss (Uncommon Wondrous Item)
  • Lord’s Lament (Rare Potion)
  • Sunstone (Very Rare Wondrous Item)

Aurelia’s Tears, an item that can produce sunlight and enhance turning undead, certainly seems that it will come in handy, and I’m going to be interested to see how it changes the next adventure if the players don’t get the special map of Nov Ostoya.

I think my favorite item is Lord’s Lament, which is actually a kind of magical wine that causes vampires to take radiant damage if they feed off a recent ingester of the wine.

Final Thoughts

I’m so glad that this adventure returned to the surface world. I think the campaign may have spent a little too much time in the False Afterlife. When I think of a dark fantasy setting, I think of the kinds of decisions that the PCs can make in the scenarios presented within. The idea that the biggest monster may not be the literal monsters, and the best way to resolve things may be to balance the relative harm of different actions.

I know I was interested in the adventure series because I wanted to see how the products would present the setting to people new to it. While Kasimir’s history is tied to the events of the campaign setting, it feels like this is the first adventure that really engages with the tone and details introduced in the campaign setting itself.

With some of the content surrounding the Countess’s home and her companions, how she disposes of those she is done with, and her altar to an Arch Daemon of Hedonism, I wish there was a little more of a sidebar just on how to navigate that section of the adventure if it becomes a problem. I said this in the first section, but I think with all of the false starts and “death by flavor text” in a few places, I almost want the adventure to scream “you are alive and in the real world now, just get out of the Necropolis . . . you did it, hang in there!”

Future Wishes

One of my future wishes is also something I wish had happened in previous adventures in this series. I understand that you don’t always want adventures to require all of the material published for a campaign setting, but I would have loved some sidebars showing where PCs might have been tempted to engage with the Transformation rules.

If you haven’t read about these anywhere else, these are effectively templates that give characters new abilities and weaknesses, pushing characters towards becoming some iconic monsters like Vampires, Specters, or Lycanthropes. I think being trapped in the False Afterlife for so long would definitely give them a head start on that Specter transformation, and this adventure might have been a good off ramp to vampire-ville.

I’m hoping that there are more open-ended, meaningful, interesting decision points such as the ones provided in this adventure as the PCs head into Nov Ostoya. The blurb for the next adventure mentions working with some of the gangs of Nov Ostoya to find their mysterious benefactor, and given that the Nightseer Sage has shown up in the past and pointed the PCs in the right direction, I’m hoping the whole crux of this next adventure isn’t tracking down an employer that could just make themselves available to the PCs doing a job on their behalf.

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