What Do I Know About First Impressions? For Whom the Stars Toll (Fables: Pirates of the Aetherial Expanse Episode 5, 5e OGL)
It’s time to look at the next installment of Fables, this time looking at the penultimate chapter of the Pirates of the Atherial Expanse campaign, For Whom the Stars Toll. this episode pays off that setting information that touched on an ancient Storm Giant civilization, and if you know me, you know that’s going to catch my attention.
I did not receive a review copy of this adventure, and I have a subscription to the Fables adventures so I can review the material. I have not had the opportunity to use any of this material, but I have experience both as a player and a Dungeon Master for Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition. My commentary on the ship combat rule is not based on running those rules, but rather based on my analysis of their use versus the core vehicle rules in D&D 5e.
Episode 5: For Whom the Stars Toll
Written by: Sadie Lowry
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,vJacob Walker, Sam White, Abby Zweifel
Cartographers: Luke Beaber, Damien Mammoliti, Brian Patterson
VTT Asset Design: Joshua Orchard
This volume of Fables is 86 pages long. This includes end papers, a title page, a credits page, a table of contents, two pages of handouts, a four page pronunciation guide, and a full page OGL statement. There is full color artwork throughout, and I wanted to specifically point out the images of Akaste and Desdemona as striking pieces of art depicting two of the important NPCs in this adventure.
Charting the Course
This adventure is broken up into the following sections:
- Welcome to Fables!
- Chapter 1: The Beginning of the End
- Chapter 2: Apocalyptic Demoiselle
- Chapter 3: Ancient Foes and Ancient Woes
- Appendix A: New Monsters
- Appendix B: New Items
- Appendix D: Crew of the Adumbral End
- Appendix E: Handouts
- Appendix D: Pronunciation Guide
As with the other entries in the Fables line, about five of the six pages of introduction are the same as in previous volumes, with the final page and an extra paragraph on page five detailing the outline of this adventure and character advancement.
Unlike some of the other volumes, there are only two monsters (on one page) that are repeated from previous adventures. There are four new magic items, one of which is one of the NPC opponent’s special possession. There are also statistics for two unique ships, one of which is an exceptionally large monstrosity of a vehicle.
What’s In Store (Spoilers)
There are a few interesting things that you learn up front in this adventure. There is a recurring song, called the Song of the End, that is meant to pervade the setting before the player characters realize what it portends. There are also three omens that are meant to happen to herald the potentially apocalyptic events of this adventure. One of the omens is a progressive disease that begins to infect the inhabitants of the Aetherial Expanse.
The adventure instructs you to seed the song into events as they unfold, and to run various encounters in between the omens so that they feel more spread out. It also suggests that you may want to let the PCs devise their own objectives to finish up to give you more time to build the tension of these omens, and to keep repeating the song.
If you don’t want to run separate adventures driven by the player characters, there are four encounters included in the adventure that aren’t directly connected to the plot of the adventure, but call back to some other aspects of the campaign, and can be used to provide more space to add in the song and the omens.
I like the foreshadowing provided by the song, and I like increasing tension that the Omens place on resolving the adventure, however, I would have loved to have had all of this information either from the beginning of the campaign, or at least a few adventures earlier. Even with the more extended encounters, I am concerned that trying to weave these into a few opening encounters isn’t going to have the same impact that earlier foreshadowing would have generated.
The Weeping Flesh reminds me a little bit of the Death Curse from Tomb of Annihilation. It is meant to affect everyone eventually, even the player characters. Reaching the final stage of the Weeping Flesh essentially ends up giving the PCs a condition where their levels of exhaustion will eventually outpace their ability to remove levels of exhaustion.
Just as the chapter begins with a number of encounters, there are a number of encounters at the end of the chapter, although only two of them need to be played through. All of this leads to the arrival of The Reaper, the Storm Giant Captain Desdemona, whose job it is to collect the souls of all of the people in the advanced stage of the Weeping Flesh.
Lost and Found
The PCs are expected to either try to catch up to the Adumbral End, the enormous ship captained by Desdemona, or that they will follow up on a lead to find where it has anchored.
If the PCs chase down the Adumbral End, they aren’t likely to be able to win in a fight against the ship, but the adventure allows them to blow a hole in the ship for boarding. Otherwise they can sneak aboard the ship. Given the sheer power of the giant ship, it feels like Adumbral End should be able to annihilate the PCs if they do anything other than just running.
Additionally, if the PCs blow a hole in the ship to board it, they start off surrounded by crew members, and there is a note on what to do if the PCs get captured. I feel like the adventure wants the PCs to take the stealthy approach, but the adventure itself doesn’t communicate this, other than just presenting the Adumbral End as an enormous ship compared to the ships the PCs have likely seen so far.
What I enjoy about this chapter is that it’s not just an assassination run through the ship. The PCs have the opportunity to find out that the crew have lost their memories of who they are and why they started to serve on the ship. They can also find clues that Desdemona isn’t the primary villain, and may indeed be as much a victim as anyone.
While there are a few encounters that aren’t likely to be resolved by talking, the PCs can remind several of the crew members of their former lives, and find out that the Adumbral End is trapped in a cycle of bringing about the end of civilizations, gathering the power of souls for the ancient sorceress Akaste, who betrayed the ancient giant civilization and sided with one of the gods of the Expanse over the rest of them.
There is a section on what to do if the PCs don’t speak to Desdemona about Akaste’s plans, which can either lead to ending the campaign in general defeat, or modifying the next adventure to make the villain of that piece the new Reaper working for Akaste.
A Whale of a Task
Akaste’s lair is inside an enormous whale, and the PCs are expected to encounter it several times to triangulate where it rests. Upon finding the whales resting place, the PCs can then follow Akaste into her cavernous fortress.
By this time, the PCs have learned a secret final verse to the Song that was seeded into the beginning of the adventure, revealing Akaste’s weakness. In order to gain access to her throne room, they must perform rituals that fulfill the Omens that have been occurring across the Expanse.
After fighting through the fortress and performing the rituals to satisfy the Omens, the PCs can challenge Akaste, and put an end to the cycle of Reaping that has ended several societies in the Expanse, freeing the sailors on the Adumbral End. There are also clues in Akaste’s lair that point to her dealings with a villain from Karelagne, setting up the PCs to find a bard that can give them information on finding a magical superweapon before the villain in the next adventure can do so.
This has probably been my favorite of all of the adventures in this series so far, but it’s also a little strange for a few reasons. The first being that I would love to have more foreshadowing of this adventure in the previous adventures, and the second being that fighting an ancient Storm Giant sorceress who has enacted a curse that ends civilizations on a cyclical basis feels like the peak of a campaign, more than racing the representative of a colonial power to a superweapon.
There are a lot of elements in this adventure that work for me. Not only is there the song, but one of the Omens is the return of extinct monsters that feels a really cool way to communicate a massive change in the status quo.
I know if you read my reviews of this campaign, I probably sound very negative about the ship rules for this campaign. I’m not so much against them, as I’m not sure if it is worth the effort to replace a whole aspect of the game with a much more granular system that doesn’t always work the same way the rest of the system works. In keeping with my look at how integral these rules are, it’s not too difficult to run this adventure without them. The chase rules are used in one of the encounters at the beginning, and again if the PCs try to catch the Adumbral End. The combat rules are used enough to let the PCs try to blow a hole in the Adumbral End. Otherwise, the main engagement with the new ship rules would be for any side quest that the PCs or the DM decide to undertake.
After the climax of this adventure, I feel like the next adventure is going to have to go hard to sell the villain as the next piece as being more epic than a Storm Giant sorcerer that has ended multiple civilizations. I want to see it, but I’m concerned that maybe these two adventures should have been flipped.
I’m going to be interested to see if there is a mandatory final ship battle, and how hard it would be to adapt the next adventure to slot it into spot 5 of 6, if it doesn’t quite feel as epic as the confrontation with Akaste. I’m also really interested to see how forming an alliance with one colonial power against another, while also rallying the pirates of the isles to your cause, will be handled.
As nice as it was to see Lord Cutler Beckett get his ship blown out from under him, he also managed to build up our disdain for him over two movies, and was basically playing Palpatine to Davy Jones’ Darth Vader for most of the third film.