My review of E3: Prince of Undeath, the final epic tier adventure path module from Wizards of the Coast, designed for Levels 27-30. It follows on from my E2: Kingdom of the Ghouls review from a few weeks ago.
Note: This is not a playtest review.
Finally, at long last Wizards treat us with an actual cover worthy of the source material and the epic tier itself. Wayne Reynold’s is back with an even more impressive painting of Orcus than his wonderful Monster Manual cover (easily the best of the Monster Manual covers to date). I still prefer pale and pasty, bloated Orcus to the angry red, ‘buff’ Orcus, but I have never seen any illustration by Wayne Reyolds I didn’t think was brilliant and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here at all. Great cover – off to a wonderful start.
Inside is the, now familiar, slipcase format with 32 page adventure book, a 64 page encounters book and one double-sided miniatures map. Its notable that there are 13 illustrations in the entire book (discounting maps of course) which is basically one every 7 1/2 pages, even though nearly all (10 in fact) of the illustrations are squeezed into the last 6 pages of the adventure book. After seeing all the WotC adventure path modules I am definately of the opinion that divorcing the artwork from the main body of the work is a massive mistake, leading to the book seeming a bit sterile. What artwork there is in the book is nice though, with depictions of Pit Fiend vs. Balor and Timesus the Primordial being my personal favourites.
The story involves the heroes stopping Orcus’ plans to become the god of death by supplanting the Raven Queen herself. But ultimately its all a bit of a wild goose chase until the showdown at the end. But I suppose the journey is half the fun, even if a cynical mind might see it as ‘grinding’ to become powerful enough to defeat Orcus. I think the Paizo method used in the Savage Tide (Demogorgon centric) Adventure Path works much better in that the PCs can take on Demogorgon at any time (but will probably get slaughtered) so they find ways level the playing field by weakening Demogorgon directly and indirectly while gaining powerful allies and items. In Prince of Undeath there is none of that foresight.
The adventure itself takes place in five areas:
- Chaos Ship (5 encounters): A ship that can travel the Elemental Chaos. These encounters are spread over the course of the adventure.
- Red Hold (11 encounters): Orcus ‘impenetrable’ citadel at his capital city Everlost.
- Forge of the Four Worlds (7 encounters): The place where the Timesus ‘jigsaw’ was put back together.
- Abyssal Nadir (3 encounters): The deepest depth of the Abyss where Timesus is trying to break off shards from the Heart of the Abyss.
- Court of the Raven Queen (4 encounters): Where Orcus and his forces are in the midst of defeating the Raven Queen.
- Creatures: The adventure presents some new monsters and conceptually I really liked them: Abyssal Servitors (demonic beasts of burden); Fathomals (creatures that live at the bottom of the Abyss); Forgeborn Abominations and of course Timesus the Primordial himself, who is conceptually very cool even though his stat block looks quite flimsy.
- The Chaos Ship: The basic idea of the chaos ship has a lot of potential, unfortunately that potential is not really explored here becoming more of a convenient bridge between the different locations rather than offering any particularly new experiences.
- Grinding: The PCs begin this adventure (arguably) not powerful enough to slay Orcus, by the end of the module he poses little threat to them. Instead of resolving this power shift with story based objectives (like Savage Tide) this module just seems to embrace the metagaming conceit that the PCs will simply level up by the time they beat past Orcus’ mooks. In fact Orcus would actually be smarter pitting no demons or undead against the heroes because doing that only serves to make them stronger.
- Just not Epic Enough: No real gravitas to events transpiring. Check out my article The Ten Commandments of Epic, this adventure ticks few if any of those boxes.
- Lack of Personality: Partly to blame with the format and partly with the writing a lot of the adventure is soulless (no pun intended). Here’s an example of what I mean. There is a Vampire Lord in the adventure who is a Level 28 Elite Soldier. Thats higher level than a Balor and almost a Demigod in his own right. So a fairly important character you would imagine. What does the module tell us about him…basically nothing. His name is mentioned briefly (and not even within his own stat-block where he is referred to as simply “Vampire Lord”). Nothing about his background, history, role in Orcus’ retinue, personality. He’s just a faceless mook. Just like the Balor Champion in the book (not even given a name even though he is in effect a Demigod), just like Harthoon the Lich (who has about 1 line detailing his duties), just like the Pit Fiend Captain. Its almost as if they are not even trying. The important NPCs are utterly devoid of personality. I’m not saying every single NPC needs an essay accompanying them, but pick out maybe half a dozen important NPCs and flesh them out. Give DMs something to get their teeth into. Here, the NPCs are just stat-blocks.
- Meagre Challenge: While I haven’t played this module yet I have read several reports from others who have and its pretty clear from them that the encounters as written were almost zero challenge for the epic tier PCs. Firstly, monster damage had not been updated to DMG2/MM3 standards at this point. Secondly, at the back end of the epic tier, Player Characters are so powerful that Encounter Levels of even +1 and +2 are basically speed-bumps. Orcus himself is slightly tweaked from his Monster Manual stats but really nowhere near far enough to make him a credible threat. See my version of Orcus for a much sterner test.
- Railroading: I touched on this above with regards the story. The players are sort of expected to jump through hoops: go here, then here. Theres no real freedom of choice or options within the adventure. Unlike say the final installments of Savage Tide Adventure Path where the heroes have maybe 4-5 different options (to gain allies, artifacts, weaken Demogorgon personally or slay his key allies) before taking on the Prince of Demons.
- Level Scaling: Something that annoyed me when reading over the adventure is the inherent Level Scaling of 4th Edition Monsters. Here’s an example of what I mean. A glabrezu is a Level 23 Elite Brute in 4th Edition. In this module you fight a Level 26 Elite Brute Glabrezu ‘Gatewarder’. Now my point here is that if the PCs keep levelling up and the DM keeps throwing higher level versions of basically the same monster at them (and I should point out there are a dozen such examples of this in this book) then the players won’t have any sense of progression. What makes this all the more frustrating is that 4E has its own built in mechanics for giving a sense of progression – Monster Ranks (ie. minion, standard, elite, solo). Instead of fighting higher level Glabrezu in the same numbers (typically 1 leading some other monsters) they could have used a single 4E Glabrezu in E1: Death’s Reach, a handful of Level 27 standard versions in E2: Kingdom of the Ghouls and a large number of Level 35 Minion versions in E3: Prince of Undeath. This gives the players a much better sense of progression in that the monsters they struggled with a few adventures ago they are now hacking down with ease. Instead of, we are higher level now but these Glabrezu are also higher level – it totally negates any sense of progression.
- Verisimilitude: A number of things struck me as odd reading over the module. For instance, where were the guards of the Raven Queen? Did Orcus really invade her Realm with about 2 dozen mooks? Why does no one in Orcus’ retinue have a name or personality? Surely when designing a module around Orcus you have to give some thought and consideration to the type of resources a demon prince can and should be able to bring to bear on a situation. If you think of Orcus as ‘the President’ then he’s likely to have specialised personel for both strike teams and bodyguards. Epic tier Secret Service Bodyguards and ex-Navy Seal Black-Ops teams, James Bond-esque lone assassins, funding to call in the best Mercs in the business, a network of undercover operatives, tech teams tracking with satellites and cctv. The greatest travesty of all is that Orcus already has these characters sprinkled throughout his history. But they are absent from this adventure, as is virtually any personality.
I think this is (fractionally) the strongest of the E series of adventures but for the most part doesn’t escape its planar dungeon crawl feel. After seeing Revenge of the Iron Lich I am also convinced the WotC approach leans too heavily towards combat (and for the record I am a big fan of 4E’s combat).
Overall 5 (out of 10)
The ‘E’ series in totality…
Not epic enough, in fact I would go as far as to say not epic at all. Contrasts with Paizo’s Savage Tide are unfavourable to say the least.