What Do I Know About First Impressions? Come Sail Away (Pirates of the Aetherial Expanse, Episode 2, 5e OGL)

CSA CoverIt’s taken me a little longer to get back to looking at this month’s Fables adventure, Come Sail Away. I’ve had some hearty reviews on the docket lately, plus, working for a school district, for some reason, it gets busy when students come back to school. Go figure.

This month’s Fable continues the Pirates of the Aetherial Expanse storyline. The PCs are adventurers sailing the magical waters of a special portion of the Astral plane. This is and isn’t similar to Spelljammer, in that it takes place in the Astral plane, but involves a bit more traditional sailing, even if you’re sailing on distilled magic in fluid form.

This campaign introduces alternate ship management and combat rules, which are meant to be layered into the campaign over time. We’ll be seeing some of those rules at play in this adventure, although it’s still a relatively light engagement with the new rules.

Fables–Pirates of the Aetherial Expanse

Episode 2: Come Sail Away 
Written by: Alison Huang 
Head of Fables: James J. Haeck, Joe Raso 
Story Design: James J. Haeck 
Art Directors: Marius Bota, Zoë Robinson 
Pirates of the Aetherial Expanse Writers: H.H Carlan, Anne Gregersen, James J. Haeck, Gabe Hicks, Alison Huang, Anthony Joyce, Kat Kruger, Sadie Lowry, Sarah Madsen, Sam Mannell, Joe Raso, Jess Ross, Jen Vaughn 
Managing Editor: James J. Haeck Editors: Michele Carter, Matt Click, Ashley Lawson, Joe Raso Graphic Design: Martin Hughes, Scott Fraser 
Cover Design: Christine Fozler 
End Page Design: Abby Zweifel 
Interior Illustrators: Kristian Agerkvist, Ridell Apellanes, Carol Azevedo, Luke Beaber, George Bennett, Bethany Berg, Allie Briggs, Josiah Cameron, Stephanie Cost, Kent Davis, Nikki Dawes, Alex Drummond, Christine Foltzer, Tony Foti, Quintin Gleim, Doruk Golcu, Ashley Hankins, Matt Hubel, Andrei Iacob, Maggie Ivy, Josh Ketchen, Diana Khomutina, Kate Laird, Tatii Lange, Carson Lowmiller. Damien Mammoliti Jake Murray, Brian Patterson, Karina Pavlova, Pixoloid Studios, Mihai Radu, Caio Santos, Elisa Serio, Janna Sophia, Katariina Sofia, Kai Stevens, Kelly Toki, Philipp Urlich, Brian Valenzuela, Jacob Walker, Sam White, Abby Zweifel 
Cartographers: Luke Beaber, Damien Mammoliti, Brian Patterson 
VTT Asset Design: Joshua Orchard

This Month’s Installment

This month’s installment of Fables is 88 pages long. This includes a title page, credits page, table of contents, a four page pronunciation guide, and a full page OGL statement. There are full page pieces of art dividing the different sections of the adventure, as well as several portraits and illustrations of NPCs, monsters, and locations. As with previous volumes, it’s pretty slick looking.

What’s Inside

This volume is divided into the following sections:

  • Welcome to Fables
  • Chapter 1: Island Bound
  • Chapter 2: Maladell Island
  • Chapter 3: Fosfior Island
  • Chapter 4: Caldere Island
  • Appendix A: New Monsters
  • Appendix B: New Spells
  • Appendix C: Pronunciation Guide

Like previous installments of Fables, most of the introduction is the same as previous installments, with the final page summarizing the events of this particular adventure.

The Adventure Unfolding

This adventure assumes that the party is going to take their partially assembled and technically functional ship to the politically neutral Isle of Drakes. This is meant to be a relatively short trip for the ship, and the suggested adventures have toned down consequences for sea travel, so that the party’s brand new (sort of) ship doesn’t get done in by a random encounter.

Most of these encounters either do minimal damage to the ship, involve monsters that aren’t a threat to the ship as a whole, or even encounters that allow the PCs to begin gathering resources, such as collecting rainwater in barrels.

The Isle of Drakes actually consists of four islands, Maladell, Fosfior, Caldere, and Velstarron Island. As the PCs approach the island, they run afoul of famous ship and pirate captain, Charleston Kriegler of the Apocalypse. This is where the adventure introduces the chase mechanics, as Kriegler effectively bets them that they can’t make landfall on an island before he catches them. He’s doing this for sport, so if he wins, he’s just going to total their ship.

Velstarron Island is assumed to be their destination, as it’s the closest island. Because the ship is understaffed, one of the primary reasons to visit any of the islands, beyond getting provisions for the ship, is to recruit new crew members. 

I really like this as a set up for the adventure, but I think there are four potential pitfalls in this chapter:

  • If the PCs didn’t calm Markhoff in the previous adventure, you may not have had an NPC to point them towards the Isle of Drakes
  • PCs probably aren’t going to take too kindly to automatically having their ship destroyed by boxed text if they lose the race
  • While this chapter says that Velstarron is the best place to get a new ship if theirs is destroyed, there is no follow up on this information, like suggestions of how to sign on to a new crew or how to steal or win a new ship
  • Beyond needing to recruit more crew than is available on Velstarron, or pick up more supplies than they can get, no one specifically points them towards the other islands

While I don’t have a great fix for getting a new ship for the PCs, I think having Kriegler take the PCs under his wing to nudge them towards the other islands works so long as they win the race.

Island Hopping

The structure for the rest of the adventure is picking an island from Maladell, Fosfior, and Caldere, talking to the NPCs there, and finding out what jobs are available and what trouble is brewing. In several instances, characters from one island will have something that needs to be transported to another island, or people from one island will need something that can only be picked up on a specific island. There is also an NPC that can be recruited from another crew to fill a role on the ship.

There are jobs available at different ports, and completing these jobs in different ways adds to the characters reputation, as does their interactions with the islands. Working for authorities bumps your law reputation. Helping the locals bumps your good reputation. Stealing or failing to perform some task might bump your chaos reputation axis, and harming others for your own profit bumps your evil reputation. In addition to these jobs and their effects on your reputation, taking different jobs increases the chances that you will find various island rumors that can lead the PCs to other islands to investigate.

Maladell is an island whose most notable inhabitants are a fairly laid back crew of druid-pirates, who do more “grocery shopping” than bloodthirsty raiding. Your potential new crew member asks them to help deliver some produce in exchange for water, which helps to get the travel between islands going. There is also an opportunity for the PCs fortune to be told while on the island.

Fosfior Island has a natural conduit to the Elemental Plane of Water, putting it in a powerful trade position with the other islands. The jungles on the island include dangerous plants that can cause hallucinations, and if the PCs try to snag water from sources other than the Wellspring, that water may have side effects, like poisoning the characters, or introducing them to the hallucinatory properties of the plants on the island.

Caldere is an island with a magical conduit to the Elemental Plane of Fire, and it mines a material that can be used for firearms and gunpowder like substances for cannons. Because the local mountain sometimes erupts creatures from the plane of fire, there is a militia organized to protect the citizens. There is also tension between the Mayor and the head of the local militia, and the PCs can also find out why elementals are increasingly attacking the island population.

Overall, I really love the hub structure of this adventure. The PCs have latitude to explore where they want, and can follow up on the jobs they want. The only real problem I can see with the structure is if the PCs don’t follow up on the clues on the different islands and don’t resolve the primary issue, but there are enough NPCs to nudge the PCs into action if they stall out.

Since it seems evident that an element of later adventures in this series will involve trying to unify the islands against a threat, I like that this gives you a tour of the islands, tells you what each one is known for, as well as establishing the symbiosis between them, and then layers in some of the local politics. Assuming the NPCs the PCs will interact with in the future adventures as the ones who are important to this adventure, it does a good job of laying the groundwork, while creating a close sandbox with internal inertia.

Monsters

There are a few reprinted monsters from the first adventure in the form of the Aetherbeasts, but we also get the ship mimic (CR 6), as well as various dangerous plants from Fosfior, ranging from CR ½ to CR 5. There are also new Volcanic Elementals in different forms, from CR 2 to CR 5, representing fire tinged creatures from the plane of Air and Earth. The rest of this section includes stat blocks for various NPCs found in the adventure. 

New Spells

The new spell introduced is Aetherial Rift, which opens a gate for transporting items up to 10 miles away while holding open a 10 foot tall portal, which cannot be used by the caster. This is mainly a utility spell for transportation of goods.

Circling Back on the Ship Rules

Except for some of the points I made in the first chapter, I really like how this adventure comes together, and I liked the previous adventure as well. The island adventure hub is a great design choice for low level offerings in this kind of setting. That said, I’m still not really comfortable with the ship rules.

My biggest complaints are:

  • They run against the grain of how other D&D 5e rules work
  • They seem to be trying to create a Master and Commander feel in a Pirates of the Caribbean setting

While there are a few places where reputation might start to affect NPC reactions, for the most part, the only new mechanics that really get engaged in this adventure are the chase rules. Honestly, the chase rules were the new aspect of the rules that concern me the least.

That said, part of what I wanted to do with this series is to look at the ability to run this without adopting the new subsystems for the setting. Up to this point I think it’s still fairly easy to do so. You could handle the chase easily as a group skill challenge with or without the additional information provided in Ghosts of Saltmarsh. Additionally, Seas of Vodari includes a chase table similar to the chase tables that exist in the Dungeon Masters Guide that can be used for sea chases.

Final Thoughts

Despite starting off with the PCs shipwrecked on an island together, I think this campaign, so far, feels a lot more open to PC freedom and agency than the previous Fable. From an adventure structure standpoint, I really like both of these adventures, and I’m looking forward to future installments.

Future Wishes

I think designing rules that sit on top of what already exists in D&D 5e when those rules emphasize the theme of a setting or an adventure is great. I’m not as excited about rules that change resolution mechanics or reframe game rules that are more global into contextual rules (for example, ships having their own size categories).

While I think it’s unlikely, I would love to see these adventures continue to be fairly easily converted “back” to standard ship combat assumptions, and in the longer term, I really hope that future rules modules flow more naturally into the core D&D 5e experience. I love experimentation, but the ship rules feel a little too far afield for my tastes.

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