“What’s Past is Prologue” is a Level Zero adventure, and the first of 12 adventures being released for Eberron. What that means is that the players are given a pregen and asked to fill in some details about the character like their name and race and background.
The setup of the adventure is very simple. The PCs are hired in a bar. They’re accompanying Professor Moonsong, a guy from Morgrave University, to a mysterious location where they will recover arcane artifacts. There is no mention as to what they’re being paid. I understand why, because Gold is No Longer A Reward, but it’s weird. It reads like the PCs are just being impressed into servitude. They might overhear someone mentioning something about “The Boromars” funding this thing. The Boromars are a Halfling Clan that acts as the Mafia in Sharn. They are very cool.
The next morning the PCs board an airship. It strikes me as weird that the people backing this operation could afford an airship but not Level 1 characters to do the job. The adventure says that House Lyrander has nothing to do with this ship or this job. “Not every pilot is a Lyrander Heir and this ship has no affiliation with the house.” Well actually (there I go) you need the dragonmark to command the elemental and fly the ship. Also the art that they chose to recycle is a dragonmarked member of House Lyrander. I guess they’re junking that to make things more flexible.
At this point I go on a tangent. Skip down to the part that says “okay back to the adventure” if you don’t care.
Okay I can’t put it off anymore we need to point out the elephant in the room. This adventure has lore errors. And they’re distracting. An earlier version of the adventure said in its opening paragraph that the Last War was fought in Cyre, a kingdom to the north. This page was corrected although the word “Galifar” doesn’t appear in this adventure. They then repeat the error on page 5, referring to the Civil in the “kingdom” of Cyre. This will probably get corrected too. The tone of the flavor text is just off. It’s not how I think I as an Eberron fan would write it.
I think we Eberron fans need to calm down though. We got very excited to see that Keith Baker was involved with the release of the Wayfinder’s Guide and that product was very good. Then this is the second 5E Eberron release and oh no there’s a lore error in the first paragraph. Put down the torches and pitchforks people.
Let me indulge Eberron Fans for a moment. If you’re not a fan of the setting skip this paragraph. All right, it was a boneheaded error and I don’t think someone familiar with the setting would’ve made it. We know Cyre is a province of Galifar and its ruler, Mishann, was the rightful heir to King Jarot before her siblings challenged the succession. Having said that, the succession politics of Galifar are poorly written. When the King died, his eldest took over and their five children would become the governors of the five nations of Khorvaire, the continent where Galifar is located. In the extremely likely event that the heir to the throne does not have five children they just figure it out. That’s some messy writing and hard to understand if you are brand new to this setting. End paragraph
I think part of the problem here is that the writer(s) seem to be intentionally trying to reduce the number of Proper Nouns.
Take a step back with me. Eberron is the first campaign setting in 5E where the proper nouns matter. Think about this for a minute. The proper nouns matter in Eberron. Really chew it over. The Houses, the nations, the NPCs. Forgotten Realms is so big and so generic that writers can essentially put anything anywhere they want. Nothing really has weight in that setting. We’ve had this progression of hardcover adventures all ostensibly in the same canon and nothing really matters. Dragons steal 75% of the GDP of the Sword Coast and it’s a blip. Who’s Dagult Neverember? Who gives a shit?
But in Eberron every PC will have an opinion about the Day of Mourning or Cyre or King Kauis in a way that no one in the Forgotten Realms really gives a shit about Neverwinter. That’s a fun place to visit, cool name, but it isn’t something you shout as you run into battle. In Eberron, a DM can ask, “What did your character do in the Last War?” It’s an instant character building question. Eberron is full of these kind of questions that immediately say something about your character. Forgotten Realms doesn’t have this and that makes it a lot easier to say, “My parents were cobblers. I decided to become an adventurer.” You can definitely make up more if you want but being from Waterdeep doesn’t suggest a story or differentiate you from other characters in the same way as being someplace in Eberron.
Okay back to the adventure
The Airship takes off the next day. The players don’t really seem to have anything to do but explore and if they explore they find that the thing is loaded with explosives! This would explain why level zero PCs were hired, because listen up y’all it’s a sabotage!
The players don’t really have anything to do during this scene as the airship accelerates and rams into another airship that mysteriously appears. The adventure can’t seem to decide if we’re supposed to use the Thug stats or the Bandit stats for the crew here, both are used in relation to this encounter. If you decide to fight the crew in the hold, they’re thugs, but on the decks they’re bandits. Not that it matters though. It’s just kind of a cutscene as the ships ram into each other, the crews on both ships die, and the PCs are the only survivors. Mention is made how Professor Moonsong strides onto the deck with like ten wands strapped to his wrists.
There is a little section at the bottom of a page in this chapter called “Playing the Pillars” that describes how to use the three pillars of D&D in this section, those pillars being Combat, Exploration, and Social Interaction. But the adveture says, well combat isn’t an option, exploration only reveals the ship is packed with explosives, and the NPCs have little to say so social interaction is kind of out. It feels like the author was required to put this sidebar in here but had no idea what to do with it. This is understandable because of the new format, but it’s weird. It’s one thing to tell your authors, “Hey feel free to write an AL adventure with no combat required,” its another thing to say “Each Scene Must Take The Three Pillars Into Consideration and then explain how to use them.”
The adventure expects that the PCs will jump for the other airship as Professor Moonsong and the first ship are destroyed. The PCs can explore this new airship and find that it was developed without the use of House Lyrander’s dragonmark. The adventure doesn’t really convey how big a deal this would be in Eberron. One House breaking another house’s monopoly on their Dragonmarked Magic Stuff is something you could do an entire campaign about. Again this chapter has a sidebar about “Playing the Pillars” that basically just says “this is a puzzle with no combat or social interaction.” The writing seems to try and argue that cutting wood to solve the puzzle is a combat option…uhhh…no it isn’t? The adventure doesn’t point this out as much as it should, but the ship is carrying a cargo loaded with Dragonshards, the rare magical gemstones that act as the fuel for Eberron’s magitech stuff. That is the important detail in this scene that you want to get across to your players.
So the players need to fix the airship and secure its cargo, a bunch of inert warforged, to get the ship to move again. Apparently the ship is self-aware or sentient or something because it talks and brings the party back to Sharn. For those keeping track, Professor Moonsong hired a bunch of nobodies to go on an expedition. Despite the extremely short distance from the city he managed to finagle an airship, which is extremely expensive, for the sole purpose of blowing it up so he could get a different airship. The PCs survive and are being brought back to Sharn where this all started.
The Airship flies itself back to the poor section of Sharn…which is weird…only to find that their faces are on wanted posters. At this point they’ve been out of the city for like, six hours. That’s damned fast work. Also the adventure makes a point of saying that Lower Dura, where the ship docks, is an area the city watch has basically abandoned, yet the players need to be on the lookout for the watch and there are wanted posters. The objective given here is that the players need to prevent the dock officials from searching the ship and…wait why would the PCs care? If the ship is searched, the Boromars come after the PCs and there’s a combat. At that point any logical PC would be surrendering because this is all a Cohen Brothers style misunderstanding.
Okay whatever the PCs get the ship inspected or don’t and now the adventure says “The PCs need to get their ship repaired and Sebastien is the best” woah woah woah “Their Ship?” Who in the hell said this was their ship? At this point the PCs should be running away from this thing. Why would they care? This is like if you were hired to rob someone’s house and then you hit someone with a car during the getaway and then you decide to wait with them.
After the PCs get “the Ship” repaired or say if they run away from this cursed thing Professor Moonsong shows up. He apparently survived the crash of the first airship and he just starts monologuing about his Cannith blood and being abandoned by his families but he’ll show them HE’LL SHOW THEM ALL!! A fight occurs but it doesn’t matter how it goes because the crossbow on the ship automatically shoots the shit out of him and he goes flying off a cliff like Wiley Coyote. At this point, more Boromar halflings show up and the adventure kind of just assumes the players will jump on the ship which flies them away to safety.
This adventure really needs a synopsis where it lays out the plot to the DM. Otherwise you’re not really sure what the most important stakes are as you go into each scene. As a service to you, let me lay this out for you. Your chief villain, Professor Moonsong, is actually Merrix d’Cannith, an established Eberron NPC who is very much a Lawful Evil, Mad Scientist, Ends Justify Means type. He has put together a crew that nobody will miss to pull a false flag operation. He is trying to steal this fancy airship and its cargo of Dragonshards from his own house, House Cannith. He fails initially, but it seems like such a fancy ship returning to a shithole like Lower Dura is part of the plan. At this point, the PCs know too much. Even if they just ran for it, they’re witnesses. So the Boromars and “Moonsong” come after them and the PCs get away. The third act here is kind of a mess in terms of what it expects you to do and why you’d want to do it.
I can’t sugarcoat it, this is a bad adventure. It seems to expect the PCs to take certain actions but doesn’t give a strong enough incentive for the PCs to care about doing those things. The plot is a series of bottlenecks and if the PCs don’t act a certain way you’re no longer playing the adventure. This adventure feels like a DC movie in the style of Justice League or Batman vs. Superman. It is trying to cram in “Things you find in Eberron.” There are famous NPCs like Merrix d’Cannith and airships and warforged and Boromar halflings and Sharn without an idea of how to make a coherent adventure out of those elements.
This adventure really doesn’t work and requires enough labor on the DM’s part to fix that I can’t recommend you buy this. A few lore mistakes are easy to fix, the third act isn’t. Especially since this is a level zero prequel adventure and these are not the PCs you play with going forward. They become NPCs in the storyline, apparently, but there’s no indication how that will pay off later.
Other Odds and Ends
I see that this game and Dragon Heist both implore players to use the “slow progression” option. What this means in the context of the new season 8 Adventurer’s League rules is if you choose to go with “slow progression” you get half of the checkpoints you would normally get to put towards your characters. This “permits” you to play your character longer at lower levels.
I’m struck with the opinion that this is not my problem. If your adventure takes x hours to complete, and rewards are given based on playing for x hours, those are the rewards. I didn’t choose to gatekeep the adventure based on an abstract concept like “Adventurers of 6th Level or Above Need Not Apply.” How about I put those checkpoints towards other characters? How about I do anything else other than “accept half of the reward out of the kindness of my heart.” If it’s not a compromise don’t market it like one. Just tell people, “hardcover adventures give half the rewards because that makes the math work.” I’m not taking half the reward for a fictional character because a PDF asked nicely. Does anyone really care if I have I stable of level 3 characters running around? Or that I’ll keep this level 3 chap going and put these rewards on different characters? Who’s doing the math here?
I’m not usually the person who complains about what is owed to my fictional character for playing a game I enjoy. But I also don’t want to be a chump for the sake of not complaining on the internet.
I see in the online reviews price is being brought up. I think the following things are both true.
- DM’s Guild content has created this kind of race to the bottom pricewise to the point that a creator can’t really make a living wage for writing DM’s Guild content, be they Joe Blow or Established Guild Adept.
- $4.99 per adventure for a 12 part series of 2-4 hour adventures is a lot of money.
I’m thinking back to my thoughts on the Guild Adept program back when I reviewed Ruins of Hisari (which I recommended buying). I said the program seems to be aimed at rebuilding the market for short, moderately priced adventures with some guarantee of quality but on terms that are more favorable to Wizards of the Coast.
Having said that, 2-4 hours is a bit shorter than I would like see. I would much prefer like a 4-6 hour adventure or maybe 6-8? Not everything needs to be that strict 2-4 hour one-shot formula. And it’s a 12 part adventure, the adventure itself is not a self-contained story. With WotC trying to write adventures with less mandatory combat I think by necessity you’re going to have adventures that should take longer as players have fun roleplaying their way through situations.
My “But What About” in this instance is usually, “But What About Whisper of the Vampire’s Blade?” You can get it on Amazon in hard copy for $10, on Drive Thru for $4.99. As written, it’s a 3-4 session adventure. I usually cut it down to about a six hour session when I run it. It’s part of a series, but the adventure itself tells a complete story. I think this is the model they should be reaching for. Instead of twelve, 2-4 hour adventure for five bucks a pop, put together 3-4 adventures that span about twelve sessions and charge $15-20 each. Maybe I’m hoping for too much, that’s too much project to pull together. Again, I get that having twelve freelancers each do a one-shot is going to be more profitable to WOTC than 2-3 people who now need to be managed and edited putting together a longer project.
There are adventures in this Embers of the Last War season that I want to buy. Boromar’s Ball, The Kundarak Job, Blades of Terror, based on the taglines alone these sound like adventures I definitely want to read. But based on the quality of this Prologue and the pricetag, beyond these three I’m going to wait until I actually run these to pony up for them.