I received my copy of the next D&D Adventurer’s League Epic, “Ark of the Mountains.” But Snark Knight, you might say, all you did in your review of “The Iron Baron” was bitch and moan. You’re right. That review was heavy on bitching and moaning. At the end however, my feeling was “I want to try again.” It’s like sex, no matter how poorly you did you still want to give it another shot.
Maybe that’s just me.
It would be helpful for me to recall what I would’ve done differently to make The Iron Baron better. Thing Number One: Transparency. I’m not sure yet if I’ll be running the low, medium, or high level portion of the adventure but this time I’m going to be more transparent with the players. I’m telling them the Monster’s to hit, damage, AC, Saving Throws, anything and everything to make combat go quicker. In my home games I hate sharing that kind of game information with my players because I want to preserve the mystery. But is that kind of mystery useful, especially in a one shot with strangers? Not really. In keeping with transparency, I will use and learn to love average damage from Monsters. The other thing to do is Cheat. Cheat Early and Cheat Often. The Iron Baron PCs (who were lovely people) rolled up on me with the power gaming tactics. If I need to alter the monsters to fix a glaring hole in their defenses I’m doing it. None of this “beholden to the adventure” crap. I’m not going to cheat to kill them, but I do want the game to be challenging. If someone wants to Conjure I’ma be ready this time. No bribing a player with inspiration just to get home an extra hour earlier. In a home game there is a sort of gentleman’s agreement not to break out your munchkin tricks too often, your twin polymorphed T-Rexes and Conjurations. In One Shots that social contract doesn’t exist in my experience.
So what is the story for Ark of the Mountains? The Sword Coast is still being menaced by Giants jockeying for position within the Ordning. This adventure centers around a Cloud Giant, Baron Rajiram. He’s basically a sky pirate and seems like the sort of asshole adventurers would’ve sorted out years ago. In this adventure he’s trying to recover a priceless artifact from a lost Dwarven settlement: the eponymous “Ark of the Mountains.” This adventure is crying out for a better more Indiana Jones style name but WOTC would probably get sued if they called this adventure “Recoverers of the Forgotten Ark.” This Ark is not a chest to hold Holy Artifacts. This is an Ark in the Noah sense rather than Moses. It’s a bigass ship capable of traveling through sea, stone, and sky alike. It’s loaded with weaponry and steam pipes and really really does not fit the Forgotten Realms medieval fantasy motif.
Like “The Iron Baron” we’ve got another asshole giant using ancient Dwarven magitek to fuck up the Sword Coast. Unlike The Iron Baron, this adventure actually has two prequels called “Durlag’s Tower” and “Durlag’s Tomb.” They’re adventures for 11-16th level characters where The PCs recover a runestone which activates The Ark. Boy, I joked that The Iron Baron needed to have a Rogue One style prequel where adventurers actually get all these maps and caravans for the start of that adventure. This time that adventure actually exists. I haven’t read them but I might pick them up on DMs Guild because they purport to be filled with traps. Not considering myself adept at writing traps I’m always looking for inspiration there.
At this point I stopped writing and went to the DM’s Guild to buy the prequel adventures, Durlag’s Tower and Durlag’s Tomb.
Methinks the writer of “Ark of the Mountains” did not actually read the two prequel adventures, “Durlag’s Tower” and “Durlag’s Tomb.”
Evidence the first: The Giant villain of Ark commands a flying pirate ship and maintains his brutal leadership with his Staff of Thunder and Lightning. Which would be totally rad except that exact same magic item was wielded by a Quasit (a demon the size of a cat) in Durlag’s Tower. Think of it this way: in Ravenloft you do not have a prayer of killing Strahd until you find the Sun Sword. In the story of Ravenloft, the Sun Sword belonged to Sergei, Strahd’s brother. Finding this magic item is a critical part of the adventure and an iconic moment. Ask anyone who’s played Ravenloft or Curse of Strahd, “where did you find the Sun Sword?” and you’ll get a story. But what if your players already had a Sun Sword before they started playing Ravenloft? You can almost hear the air going out of the adventure. One of the points of playing Ravenloft is to find this thing. You can’t play Ravenloft if the players already have a fucking Sun Sword. This item should not be in Ark or Durlag’s Tower. Your PCs can’t get The Staff of Thunder and Lightning. Instead they get A Staff of Thunder and Lightning. How does this not turn into the French Taunter from Holy Grail?
Cloud Giant: YOU WILL KNEEL BEFORE MY STAFF OF THUNDER AND LIGHTNING!!
PC: No thanks! We already got one!
Cloud Giant: TREMBLE AND DESP-wait what?
Evidence the second: The goal of Ark is to stop the cloud giant villain’s flying pirate ship by commandeering another larger flying pirate ship buried beneath Durlag’s Tomb. Your employer, a person named SEER, uses magic to dig the ship out from beneath the tower and then you have to go kill the monsters on the ship so you can drive it. Because these monsters, selected by Durlag for the task of driving his Steam-Heli-Carrier, are hostile to anyone who would seek to use it for some reason. In order to activate the Ark she uses a magic tablet found in Durlag’s Tomb by “raising it and speaking a word of power.” Problem. The tablet is described in Durlag’s Tomb as “a 1000 pound slab of copper measuring 7 feet on a side.” Obviously there are solutions to this clear error. Maybe SEER reads the tablet instead of lifting this thing over her head Rafiki style. But I’m inclined to run this part straight. I want to see the players’ faces when SEER, described elsewhere as an elderly Asian woman, deadlifts this son of a bitch and starts The Quickening.
Let’s get into the crunch for Ark of the Mountains. Immediately this adventure is different from Iron Baron in how the map is laid out. Rather than give you a dungeon with rooms connected by hallways you have a map of the Ark with 4 sections of the ship. Each section of the ship has monsters defending it. But! The objective is not merely to kill the monsters. Your objective is randomly determined by quests handed out at the start of the Epic Event. An example is in the little folder that the adventure came in. In the example, there is an enchanted face in one section of the ship that creates wind to fill the sails. The face gives you a riddle to solve in order to get it on your side. Then another table (because it’s an Epic and there are 12 tables) gets the next quest to seize control of the ship’s steering wheel now that you can propel the thing. The riddle is so easy I think this is a great place to cheat. Maybe best 2 out of 3, maybe an enemy on the ship starts answering riddles to take control of the ship back.
This brings up the question of what happens if the PCs run to the next section without defeating the monsters after they finish a quest that (as written) will take about 5 minutes of real time to complete. I honestly don’t know. My first thought is, “well the monsters chase them.” Not sure that will work in an Epic program. The way I kind of see this event operating now is a bit Yakety-Sax with people from each table completing quests and running around to give each other quests. It seems much more chaotic than Iron Baron but it also seems more like the atmosphere you’d want for a D&D Epic. The Iron Baron, despite being called an Epic, could be made into a standard adventure for five PCs with one good re-write. Ark actually uses of the Epic Format with twelve other tables accomplishing things that immediately affect your table. The price of this is chaos. I don’t know what I have to run until we start the event. I don’t know how much I should prep aside from everything. This is going to require much more flexibility which I’m fine with at my own group, who knows what will happen with another table of strangers.
So I don’t know what quests my table will need to achieve in order to gain control of the Ark and kill the Cloud Giant guy. What I do know is what kinds of monsters will be running around each of the four sections of the ship. And like the rest of the adventure it’s kind of a mess. Each section has a different group of monsters and they are a grab bag of different monsters with a vague theme of undead and Elemental Earth type creatures if there is a type. The Iron Baron, while a slog, had more consistency to it. It was pretty much every fire themed monster, some giants, some hobgoblins, and a couple volo’s monsters. I think I called Iron Baron a grab-bag too but Ark is way worse in this respect. You got medusas, gorgons, basilisks, skeletons, Galeb Duhrs, golems, wights, all in the same giant airship. Someone is getting petrified here. There’s a chariot on the deck of the ship. I know the ship is massive but that just seems weird to have a chariot on a burrowing flying sailing ship.
Odds and Ends
There are also random events that can happen. Remember that the cloud giants are shooting at you the whole time this is going on and they can damage the ship. They are also sending reinforcements to secure the ship. But these are tied to the quests so I have no idea how these are going to get used until the Epic actually starts.
This adventure makes use of some of the “humanoid archetype” Volo’s guide monsters such as the Warlord. But the adventure identifies this as an Azer Warlord. So the stat block for this monster is completely lacking in Azer like traits. I had this same problem in Iron Baron where monsters couldn’t do their iconic shit. So unlike Iron Baron, I’m cheating. Fuck you, take fire damage when you attack an Azer. That’s what Azers do.
If it sounds like I’m being too harsh I’m not too worried because this adventure gives out 3 or 4 permanent magic items per table and a slew of healing potions. I’m guessing they want people to feel like D&D epics are bonus levels but this feels like way too many for a single adventure.
Some things I like about this adventure more than the Iron Baron are the environmental effects. Like on the Gun Deck of the ark there are guns to fire. Or the engine room has flammable fuel. In most instances these effects can be triggered as a bonus action or they’re clearly worth the effort to use. Iron Baron had environmental effects that could be triggered like scaffolding or a steam vent but there were three different effects to use in an encounter of four unique monsters and it was just too damn complicated to remember. In Ark, all of the potentially damaging effects do the same damage. And it’s a good amount of damage. And the monsters are using them when the PCs walk into the room so there’s a reason to fight for control of them. The effects are easier to use and the adventure gives you a reason to remember them. I approve.
The Iron Baron handwaved giving the players a short rest by having Moradin show up in disguise to give them a potion that gave them the effects of a short rest. I’m tempted to do the same here because in the narrative of trying to takeover an airship being attacked by cloud giant pirates there is no fucking way everyone can call a ceasefire for an hour to have tea.
One gap in this adventure is that there’s no specific stat block for the Cloud Giant villain, Baron Asshole Guy. I assume that he is a “Cloud Giant Smiling One” from Volo’s Guide because that stat block is in the back of the book but this monster is nowhere else in the book. The CGSO is a weird monster. It’s Cloud Giant with sneak attack. It also has a few more spells that it can use to get that sneak attack like invisibility, suggestion, personally I’m looking forward to Telekinesis. But some of them are useless in combat. Like they have Tongues. Great for an NPC in a persistent campaign but not great for a one shot about sky pirates. Not every spell has to be useful for combat though. Maybe cut out the parts we don’t need. Writers, edit your monsters. Pump up that difficulty. Getting psychically thrown off an airship by a Pirate Giant is a noble death. I hope this time I actually get to use The Big Bad because last time I didn’t get to use Fire Giant Dreadnought at all. It was probably for the best because my munchkin PCs would’ve kicked his fucking ass.
I’m not sure what else to say about Ark of the Mountains. I won’t know what the objectives of the PCs are until I actually get to the event in a few weeks. All I can really do now is draw up my maps and look over monster tactics, but even then I’m not sure if I need to prep the default encounter for each of the 4 rooms or the tougher encounter if that section of the ship is invaded by the Cloud Giant’s forces. The adventure itself is too randomly generated to render an opinion before actually running it. At the end of the day though, when the sample objective given is a middle school level riddle the text is telling me that this is still an adventure for doorkickers. Sure you can roleplay and maybe solve a puzzle or two but there isn’t a reason not to bring your finest combat beast.