Prelude to Annihilation – Ruins of Hisari Review

Ruins of Hisari is an adventure written by Lysa Chen centered around exploring a Yuan-Ti city deep in the steaming jungles.  This is actually an expansion to Tomb of Annihilation, the latest hardcover adventure from Wizards of the Coast.  This is for level 11-16 players after you complete ToA.

I am recommending you buy it.  If you’re a player you should stop now because spoilers lie within.  Also stock up on anti-toxin.

If I was going to run a published adventure I would feel more inclined to use a published adventure like this that’s identified as an expansion or sequel to one of the hardcover adventures rather than an adventure set concurrently with a hardcover.  Take the AL modules for example.  If I’m running Princes of the Apocalypse do I replace content from the book with an AL adventure or does it just not count towards the well-defined milestone experience in that book?  With this adventure I don’t have that problem.  It’s also cool that this this is a high level adventure.  You just don’t see a lot of published high level adventures.

So what’s in this adventure?

First, you might benefit from keeping Volo’s Guide on hand to reference.  Specifically for the sections on Beholders and Yuan-Ti.  The backstory for this adventure is heavily steeped in the lore from Volo’s Guide.  This adventure really starts from a single thought and snowballs from there.  Ignore the Proper Nouns and Yuan-Ti Gods and ponder this question.  Beholders reproduce by dreaming about other Beholders.  You have the magic to give someone horrible nightmares.  What kind of fucked up creature would come into existence if you used that magic on a creature that reproduced through dreams?

This is a site based adventure.  The backstory is your players are here because they want to be here.  Either they found a map or a rumor or something that suggested an unlooted Yuan-Ti city might be a cool place to explore or they stumble across this place by accident.

I like how the adventure starts.  You are exploring the…let’s call it the surface level of Hisari.  Stone buildings surround a big crater where a temple once stood.  You can find some good treasure indicating hey, maybe no one has plundered these ruins and there’s more stuff to be found.  You also encounter some friendly vegepygmies.  They can’t speak any language but their own so this comes across as comedic as they try to impress the PCs with feeble feats of strength.  I like this kind of encounter.  When the pygmies are suitably impressed they summon a pair of Girallons, again more monsters from Volo’s Guide.  Two Girallons might weak tea for a level 11-16 party.  I get that this is an encounter to use up PC resources without making a long rest seem like a reasonable idea but depending on your party you might want to bump it up.  There’s also no discussion of the Girallon tactics.  Not necessary as they run up and punch things but it would have been nice.

The real adventure is in this crater in the center of town.  The temple that the PCs need to loot and pillage has sunken into this massive hole.  I wish there was a vertical cutaway picture of this, like a cutaway sort of like what you can see for White Plume Mountain on page 97 of Tales from the Yawning Portal.  Or the Sunless Citadel cutaway map which you can find on Google.  This is a bit difficult to picture but the crater has a lot of vines and it seems the snake head poking out of the top with a snake body which can also be climbed.  The point is that the PCs shouldn’t really be at risk of falling down this crater.  There are no athletics checks called for.

The Pyramid has several levels to explore and each level is a different sort of test.  One level is a mad dash of dexterity checks against a ton of cloakers.  Cloakers are CR 8 monsters and there are ten of them.  The adventure wisely suggests you use them 1-2 at a time and replace as necessary. You should advertise to the players that they’re in a massive sunken temple/cave complex and see cloakers beyond counting and they can move past them if they move fast.

The first level of the sunken temple is a roleplaying encounter.  You meet a weretiger and he is in league with the Yuan-Ti of the temple.  To the point that he has actually built bridges and set up parts of the temple to test the PCs to see if they are worthy of the Yuan-Ti plans for them.  I don’t like this because players, especially the high level sort, are extremely suspicious.  What if they roll insight?  Well the adventure says he reveals he is a weretiger.  Okay, what if they roll insight again?  And then, the adventure has a scroll of detect thoughts in a room with an NPC who is working with bad guys (lower case bad guys, not the Big Bad).  But I still like this encounter.  I like that this NPC lives in a hollowed out Beholder skull to hint that there’s something in this dungeon that can kill a beholder.  I would just play this straight.  Cut out his secret motivation, just have him be a guy living in this crater.

One level is a puzzle and it is vexing me.  It is the traditional, room filling up with lava but there’s a secret door but you need to stand on two tiles to make the trap stop.  There are 12 tiles, two of them are identical.  There’s a handout but boy these are some subtle goddamn differences.  I’ve been staring at this thing and I see 4 identical tiles. (Snark Note – The author noticed this too and an updated version is now available for download).  It would’ve been good to include the mouths shooting lava on this handout so you could demonstrate even with theater of the mind how the room is filling up.  Also it would’ve been good to suggest how long it takes the room to fill up, ideally your players will solve the puzzle before then.  But if they can’t solve the puzzle they’re just going to leave the room, adventure over.  Maybe have a cave in so they can’t leave?

In the next encounter the PCs meet a Yuan-Ti mage and are immediately turned into Yuan-Ti with no save, no conversation, and turning back.  This encounter makes me say, “this is why this adventure is a Guild Adept adventure and not Adventurer’s League.”  You can do wacky stuff like this.  I think some players would lose their minds over this kind of thing.  I like it.  But then you hand the players new stats as their equipment is gone too, which should be a hint that this is not a permanent arrangement.  This is also where the plot is revealed, that the Yuan-Ti accidentally created an abomination, sunk their temple so it would be contained, and then cursed the area so that those of Yuan-Ti blood (including the PCs now) could not enter or exit the Ruins of Hisari.  I like how the plot indicates that the Yuan-Ti (who have no emotions) didn’t really care about creating the monster, they didn’t want to be in this sunken temple and it was really just bad luck that they got trapped too.

What follows is more roleplaying and exploration than anything else.  The Yuan-Ti mage guides them through a dungeon complex which doesn’t really have much in the way of combat challenges and they have a guide so it’s a risk that the players will never explore this dungeon.  The PCs are pressed into a ritual that will require each PC to share things about themselves.  When they do everyone transforms back into themselves.

When the confessions are over, the Big Beholder shows up and IT’S MADE OF GODDAMN SNAKES.  That is a cool take on a Beholder definitely a good boss monster for a dungeon.  Full disclosure, I’ve never run a beholder before.  So please take my analysis of beholder stats and tactics with a grain of salt.

Looking at this Beholder’s stat block, I have some problems.  For starters, the Anti-Magic Cone that beholders are so famous for has been replaced with a cone that forces the players to move closer to the Beholder.  The reason for this is because this Custom Beholder has a nasty bite that can swallow a PC whole and begin digesting them.  The problem with this is that beholders are ranged monsters.  Their strength is in their eye rays.  They fly away from the PCs and shoot them from as far away as possible.  That’s what they do.  It’s a solo monster fighting level 11+ PCs, it kind of needs all the help it can get.  PCs should want to get into melee with this thing, having an eye ray that makes that easier isn’t helping the Beholder.  And it also saps the Beholder of a lot of its punch.  A 150 foot anti magic cone is a serious threat to overcome.  That Fighter with the +2 Greatsword?  The place they want to be is directly behind the Beholder.  Volo’s Guide suggests other spells for replacing the anti-magic cone, but they’re all 7th or 8th level spells comparable with Anti-Magic Field.

The Beholder does have a couple ways to compensate for this.  At any point you can substitute an eye ray to attempt and restrain a PC and then that sets them up for the swallow attack.  It also has some good more directly damaging lair actions than the Monster Manual Beholder.  But action economy is a serious problem for this monster.  I would just make the constricting ability a bonus action or free action it can do to anyone who dares get within 15 feet.  It’s supposed to be tougher than a normal beholder so give it a free ability rather than making its most iconic ability a massive trade-off.

I’m guessing another reason that the anti-magic cone was cut was that this is a tiny room for a large monster that can shoot from 120 feet away.  There isn’t 150 feet of space for PCs to get out of the way of the beholder’s eye cone.  Even for a vanilla Monster Manual Beholder, you want to get in close quarters to avoid the eye cone.  If I ran this I would probably want to at triple the size of this room.  Of course, the PCs may also decide they want to flee or use this entire dungeon to play hide and seek with this beholder.

I would’ve liked some discussion of Beholder tactics in the adventure but that’s not a fault specific to this adventure.  If you go read Princes of the Apocalypse, there’s no discussion of tactics for big boss monsters there.  I see these custom boss monsters and they’re really cool and I’m always like, why make this thing and not tell me how to use it most effectively?  I would strongly advise you read Volo’s Guide before running this adventure.  I can see that the adventure wants me to throw this beholder into melee to swallow PCs and that would be terrifying but I’m just not convinced that it’s a better choice than eye rays at 120 feet.  Although keep in mind, these are suggestions for how to improve the end boss.  Modifying the spells or tweaking a monster if your players have insane ACs is the easiest part of adapting an adventure for home use.  What I need is that idea, that inspiration.  Fucking Beholder Made of Snakes does that.

My final thought is that I like this adventure.  I like it very much and would definitely consider using it.  It captures this sort of Lost World feel very well.  It’s not very combat heavy, it’s a got good opportunities for roleplaying, and a great end boss.  For changes, I suggest taking away the risk of Solum the Weretiger being too untrustworthy, I could’ve used maybe half a page on beholder tactics, and if you really want this end boss to be a Melee Beholder maybe change some of the eye rays as suggested in Volo’s Guide to be more useful.  For example, instead of a fear ray which pushes monsters away and doesn’t gel with a central eye cone that draws them close, change that to a moonbeam eye which gives PCs a disincentive to flank.

I would recommend you purchase this though.  Surely if we pay money we’ll keep getting good adventures and especially non-Sword Coast adventures.  Support your Guild Adepts and hey maybe you’ll get called up someday.

Hisari.  Hissssari.  Heh.

Guild Adept Rant Not Related to Ruins of Hisari Available Now $3.99 Go Buy

This adventure is part of the Guild Adept Program.  What is this thing?  According to the WOTC site, it is a spotlight program.  A group of writers were selected by WOTC to write adventures themed around this latest hardcover release, and those adventures are on sale at the DM’s Guild.  They have their own section on the site where you can see just this content.  I like the idea that there is some curating of the content on DM’s guild because it is im-fucking-possible to judge what good content on there is unless you hear about it through word of mouth.  And since word of mouth is the internet there are a lot of mouths spouting a lot of words.  What’s a DM with a full-time job to do?

The Adept Program strikes me as trying to achieve two goals.  Number one, it is bringing back short, moderately priced adventures that have some guarantee of quality from Wizards of the Coast.  This idea seemed to fall by the wayside with this brave new edition with such hardcovers.  Adventures that might not necessarily conform to the mass-market play it safeness you see in AL adventures.  And with like 10 adventures per AL “season” I don’t have a clue which of these adventures might be worth adapting for my table.

Every time I’ve played a campaign with a new group I’ve looked for a place where I could fit “Whispers of the Vampire’s Blade.”  It’s a great adventure from Dave Noonan, it’s about 30 pages, and well suited to a two-shot, doubleheader, or cut down to a one shot.  Now, in this age of the freelancer, no one wants to keep Dave Noonan on salary and give him health insurance.  I get that.  I get that we’re just not going to see adventures of original Ravenloft length and quality getting churned out monthly for what can’t be much profit.  The Adept program seems like a much better deal for Wizards while still producing short quality adventures.

Goal #2 is the Guild Adept program is a chance for Wizards to make good on the Rocky promise.  Watch D&D Q&As long enough someone will ask, how do I work for Wizards of the Coast?  In 5E the answer seemed to be, you won’t.  You might want to put in your dues but you had no idea where to start.  Then you saw the DM’s Guild and thought, “I’ma write my own adventures and maybe someday I’ll get called up to the big leagues.”  Well, this program is being marketed as the first step into those leagues.  This is good PR to be seen picking members of the community to write content.

So where do we go from here?  Obviously Wizards is looking to see if these adventures sell and get good reviews.  Their stated goal is to do this program for each hardcover adventure.  Now, I hate theorizing because I don’t have some crystal ball or industry knowledge to support wild baseless speculation.  But please allow me to engage in some baseless wild speculation.  Since 5E came out and up through now 5E has been all Forgotten Realms with Ravenloft crowbarred into the side.  And Wizards has been doing a kind of wink-wink nudge-nudge with other campaign settings.  In the back of Princes of Apocalypse and other adventures Wizards has acknowledged that Eberron, Dark Sun, Greyhawk, Dragonlance, and Planescape do exist but they’re not doing anything with them…right now.

I do not believe that Wizards is going to release a Campaign Setting book for, well, any other setting.  Even the FR book we did get is the “Sword Coast” guide.  I don’t know much about the FR, but I do know there’s more to it than the Sword Coast.  I didn’t find that book to be near enough to scratch my DM itch.  Much more developed was the unofficial Sword Coast DM’s Guide in Chapter 3 of Storm King’s Thunder.  But I think the attitude is that if you want to play Eberron or Dark Sun in 5E Wizards is referring you to content already available online, on Drive Thru, on the DM’s Guild.  At the same time, I can’t see Eberron never coming to 5E but I also can’t see it coming with zero content or push from Wizards whatsoever.  I can’t see Wizards doing a press release, “PLANESCAPE IS NOW AUTHORIZED FOR THE DM’S GUILD.”  And that’s it.  So if we’re not getting a 200+ page setting books but they keep doing these “adapt our adventure to five other settings” in the back of adventure books what the hell is then plan?  I have to believe there will be some kind of release eventually.  This is content sitting on the shelf.

I speculate (wildly and baselessly) that at some point we’re going to get a hardcover book entitled Manual of the Planes or something which will feature 4-8 other campaign settings with 30-60 pages each.  Then, through the Guild Adept program, we’ll get say, 2-5 releases for each setting that flesh out different iconic parts of that setting.  You’ll have an Eberron Sharn adventure, a Dark Sun Monster PDF, maybe a Gladiator adventure, a Planescape adventure where you go to Hell, whatever the fuck they do in Dragonlance. Jousting with dragons, presumably.  All of this is would be very low risk, low cost to Wizards compared to releasing a Planescape Setting Book and 50% of 5E players buy it.

This creates a sort of microtransaction a la cart model for campaign settings that I think is gives everyone what can realistically hope for.  There won’t be a 5E Dark Sun Solo Book which I would want, but there also won’t be a 5E Dragonlance Hardcover setting which I don’t care about. All of the Guild Adept content together costs $71.00.  A $50 hardcover plus let’s postulate $40 worth of content per setting that goes along with each of the 4-8 settings in the book.  So that’s potentially $300-$400 total to get all the content associated with this hypothetical book.  Now to me, that kind of model is hella expensive.  But for me, I’d probably only be interested in 50% of that “Manual of the Planes” content.  It costs more than getting one dedicated book but a dedicated book isn’t a realistic hope.  I would be okay with this compromise. #BringBackEberron