E1 Death’s Reach was the first 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons adventure for the epic tier of play. Released in April 2009, it followed on from the Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress adventure and led into to the second epic tier adventure Kingdom of the Ghouls (which I will be reviewing in a few weeks time). For character levels 21-23 the adventure is written by Bruce R. Cordell and Chris Sims.
I haven’t been overly impressed with Bruce Cordell’s 4E adventures (such as Keep on the Shadowfell and Assault on Nightwyrm Fortress), which is weird because his 4E supplement books are absolutely brilliant (Forgotten Realm’s Campaign Setting, Draconomicon, Open Grave) and in my opinion those three are about the best 4E books there are. Chris Sims’ other 4E work includes the Demon Queen’s Enclave (a great adventure), Monster Manual 2 (a decent Bestiary) and he also worked on the Forgotten realm’s Campaign Setting book (a fantastic book). So the two designers have a great pedigree.
NB. This is not a playtest review.
For those familiar with the 4th Edition adventure path series, Death’s Reach follows the same format. Gatefold cover, double sided poster map, 64 page (main) adventure book and a 32 page adventure overview booklet.
Okay, just to get this out of the way I hate the cover to Death’s Reach. Not that its a bad illustration in and of itself, but its got little if anything to do with the story (unless I have missed something) and more importantly there’s nothing epic whatsoever about it. Epic requires some capacity of scale, either in the location, or in the size or multitude of the antagonists. You can’t be afraid to pull the ‘camera’ back when it comes to epic art. Here we have none of that. I think you have to lay the blame at the art director (or art directors – since this book has two such people listed in the credits).
The story (and indeed the adventure) itself involves four locations:
- Zvomarena (5 encounters): Great Temple of the Raven Queen and portal to her realm. Arguably the best part of the adventure
- Citadel of the Raven Queen (2 encounters): Basically an interlude where the heroes meet the Raven Queen herself.
- Death’s Reach (8 encounters): The area of the Shadowfell where the reliquary is located. Read a bit flat to me.
- Reliquary of Timesus (13 encounters): The prison of the primordial Timesus. This section maybe drags on a bit too long.
- The Basics: I think you have to hand it to Wizards of the Coast when it comes to getting all the right pieces together. The maps look great, the layout is functional and concise, its got plenty of hooks, enough rumours. It just looks about as easy to run as you would hope for.
- The Encounters: Individually I think the encounters are pretty good. In particular I think Zvomarena would make a great ‘delve’ even if you weren’t planning on running the whole adventure back to back. I do sometimes wonder if thematically each location really cements its own identity.
- New Monsters: Only two new monster entries (Blackstar Hosts and Astral Warwings) though with six and five stat-blocks between them respectively. However, new monsters and variants of existing monsters also pop up within the adventure itself (such as the Worm of Ages; Shonvurru the undead Marilith). I quite like the Blackstar Host creatures which is handy because they appear in 9 of the 27 combat encounters – personally I think they unleash these too soon, I would have kept them for the Reliquary; but thats a minor nitpick. Also the art for the Blackstar Hosts is arguably the best in the whole product, pretty cool designs, although I would have played up the whole ‘chess piece’ connection even further. By contrast the Astral Warwings only appear in one encounter…in fact not all their stat-blocks seem to be used in the adventure itself.
- The Format: One of the biggest mistakes in my opinion with the 4E adventure path format is that WotC divorced the art from the encounter information. It makes flicking through the main adventure book a very sterile experience. Now in some ways you can understand why, since it would be difficult to cram in more information into the double-page spread given the current layout. But I actually think by reducing the font size slightly and making better use of the space would enable you to include an illustration into each encounter and that would immediately set the scene for the DM.
- Not ‘Epic’ Enough: Sad but true. This first epic tier encounter really does nothing to give you an epic adventure. No enormous foes, no massed ranks of opponents, little or nothing in the way of weird and wonderful places to visit. The adventure really does little to build up the villain either (a flaw in previous adventure paths as well). The story itself is something of an anti-climax, since you cannot impact Orcus plans. In addition, as a story in its own right it never really works: it doesn’t follow the three act structure; theres no real rollercoaster of events; it doesn’t build to a suitable climax – it never really ‘ups the ante’.
- The Art: Beyond the inappropriate cover, the interior art isn’t up to the high standards you’d expect from a company like Wizards of the Coast. That said, the maps are, as ever, fantastic.
I think its the sort of product that probably plays better than it reads. Individually I think the various pieces (encounters, new monsters and so forth) are very interesting, but I am not as convinced the way they are put together is as inspiring. I’d probably have chopped the Reliquary into three parts: the physical, trap-laden prison itself; created some fantastical demiplane housing (or previously housing) Timesus; and finally concluding with some encounters against Orcus’ servants.
5 out of 10.