Review – Sharn – The Missing Schema

This week I’m back with another review! In this article we’re taking a look at Sharn – The Missing Schema and adventure by Elven Tower set in the newly available Eberron campaign setting. For those of you not in the know, publishing on the DMsGuild was previously restricted to the Forgotten Realms (including Chult) and Ravenloft/Barovia. Then, in July earlier this year (2018) the Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron was let loose onto the site, making it a legal setting to publish in. Since then, a whole host of Eberron products have broken onto the scene, and this is one of those!

Before we dig right in, I’m going to take a moment to explain my (probably highly flawed) rating system. Each review I give will be given a rating out of five in each of three categories: Design, Writing & Production. Design will focus on mechanics for player and DM supplements, and on the narrative of adventures. Writing will always focus on the style of the writing, including how well it has been edited and how comprehensive it is. Production will take into account layout, artwork and the general flow of the document. Also, despite receiving a free copy of this product to review, I’d like to stress that all views are my own, and I’ve not pulled punches where I feel improvements should be made.

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This product is intended to be an introductory adventure for a party of 3-6 through levels 1-5. It showcases the urban nature of Sharn and provides a nice intro into the Eberron campaign setting and includes some amazing maps from Elven Tower, who is best known for his cartography. The title was first uploaded on August 10th 2018, but had a big update on August 27th in response to some criticism in the reviews. The issue seems to be that the encounters were a little unbalanced, and resulted in a few TPKs. I didn’t read the adventure before the edit was made, but it’s reassuring to see that the author has taken on board this feedback and made some changes.

The adventure begins with a comprehensive introduction to running D&D in Eberron, and more generally for new DMs. It contains some great information about the gender of Warforged (something I’d never really considered), and the advice presented for new DMs is short but definitely useful. This also includes some session 0 help to get the players to create characters that have a reason to be together, and take on the adventure. This is all useful stuff, and whilst it won’t be awfully useful for more experienced players, it’s definitely welcome.

After the intro, we have an ‘adventure primer’ which serves as the background to the adventure. We have a rundown of the major NPCs, a basic outline of the adventure, and then a more detailed part by part breakdown which is extremely helpful. One thing that becomes clear here is that some of the content of this adventure will not be accessible without first buying the Wayfinder’s Guide to Eberron. Several factions, houses and important locations and items are given a reference from the guide, and no other detail. For new DMs, this kind of cross-referencing might be a little too much to handle, and I would recommend that all information required to run the adventure is included within it. Thankfully, most of the details are covered in some form or another throughout the adventure, but it would be nice to see some sidebars with important information right next to the references.

SPOILERS! The basic plot of the adventure is straight forward, which is good for an intro adventure. Professor Daela of Morgrave University has information about a schema (a magical blueprint) hidden within an ancient House Cannith laboratory within UnderSharn. The characters delve down into The Depths, potentially with help from a guide, and try to recover the schema. Whilst they’re at it, agents from the Order of the Emerald Claw are also trying to recover said schema, resulting in an inevitable face-off between the two parties when the order manage to pinch the schema from the prof later on. As far as plots go, I think this is a decent one. It has a nice pulpy feel, not far removed from an Indiana Jones film, which is typical of Eberron adventures. It’s easy to follow for new players and DMs, and serves to teach them a bit about Eberron as a setting, as well as how to play D&D.

Part 1 – The Bounty

The beginnings of this adventure focus around roleplay and ability checks. A great place for a new group of players. The characters meet with the Prof and interact with him whilst he explains his quest, and the opportunity to flex their proficiencies to learn some additional information about the major elements on the story. This part of the adventure, as you can imagine, is also peppered with information for the DM about Sharn, and some neat graphics of skycoaches and notes and maps which could be shared with the players to help them picture the scene. These graphics and the information in sidebars really help to paint a nice scene for the adventure to come.

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My biggest concern with this element of the adventure is the density or read aloud text. There are several pages which are almost entirely taken up by this, which could result in a DM monologue that lasts for several minutes. I can understand why this has been done, new DMs often don’t really know what to say to their players to keep the story moving along, but really there is just too much of it here. Whilst some of this text is evocative and interesting, some might cause players to zone out, which is the last thing you want. I also noticed a reference to a Charisma (Diplomacy) check, which should definitely be changed to (Intimidation/Performance/Persuasion). Despite these criticisms, I do think that Part 1 paints a great picture of Sharn, and sets up the adventure nicely.

Design: 4/5 I like that ability checks have been accounted for in the early stages of the adventure, and that there is a clear narrative from the start. The hooks provided in the introduction to the adventure are accounted for during the progress of Part 1, which is something you don’t always see in adventures. The only thing holding back a score of 5/5 here is the reference to a Diplomacy check, which could seriously confuse a new DM.

Writing: 3/5 Although much of the writing is interesting and comprehensive, the sheer quantity of read aloud text holds this section of the adventure back.

Production: 5/5 I cannot fault the production of Part 1. There are numerous useful graphics that players will love, there are useful sidebars which help to break up blocks of text, and the quality of layout and artwork within are of professional standard.

Overall: 4/5

Part 2 – Sharn’s Foundations

Now that the intro is out of the way, we can get into the meat of the adventure. It involves a handful of combat encounters and small dungeons crawls in the sewers beneath Sharn, and in the old House Cannith laboratory. The encounters and ability checks throughout this section seem balanced to me, although the characters should definitely be given the opportunity to rest between encounters. A large number of the monsters encountered during the combat encounters are new creations of Elven Tower. I’m not sure how I feel about this. Part of me likes the fact that by buying this adventure, you have almost all of the monsters you need, but on the other hand, a new DM might struggle with the fact that they’ve bought a Monster Manual and can only use the swarm of rats from it. Thankfully, the monsters Elven Tower has created seem well designed and are heavily Eberron based, so I think it makes sense to have them.

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Once again, this section sports a lot of read aloud text. It seems that the author has decided to provide narrations for movements between the locations within Sharn, which does make some sense, but is not something you often see in published adventures. He also writes the dimensions of rooms into read aloud text, which is a pet peeve of mine, especially when the maps provided do such a beautiful job of displaying all the dimensional information you could desire! The maps here are truly works of art and, in conjunction with the artwork, make the product easy on the eyes.

My favourite element of this part of the adventure are the NPCs. Both Thi-Chaik and Bloody Spear are interesting and nuanced characters in their own right, and should be a lot of fun for a DM to portray. It’s always useful for a new DM to have a DMPC during intro adventures in my opinion. Although they add a little more work when it comes to combat, their ability to drive the plot vastly outweighs any extra rolls. The author has included sidebars with additional role playing information for the NPCs too, which is extremely useful.

By the end of Part 2, the characters should have recovered the lost schema, and be ready to return to the Prof and get their bounty. Little do they know that the adventure is far from over!

Design: 4/5 I think the encounters in this section of the adventure are well-balanced, and the author has provided sidebars which enable DMs to adjust the encounter should they feel the need. My only issue is the use of new monsters throughout. I think it would be easier for a new DM to use monsters from the Basic Rules or Monster Manual. Thankfully, the author has provided a second document with all the monsters that ensures you don’t have to flick back and forth in the pdf.

Writing: 4/5 I would guess that almost 50% of the text in this part of the adventure is read aloud text, some of which conveys information that is easily seen from the maps or handouts. There is also some unusual phrasing within the text, but it doesn’t disturb the flow of the writing too much. What really saves this from being a 2 or 3 here is the brilliant NPC writing. Having some great characters within an adventure can make up for a lot!

Production: 5/5 Once again, the layout and flow of the document are brilliant. The artwork all fits perfectly within the document, despite the fact that it varies in style. The maps and handouts especially are brilliant.

Overall: 4.5/5

Part 3 – Flying Chase

Part 3 sees the party return the recovered Schema to the Prof, and gather their reward. However, after doing so, the Prof is ambushed by agents of the Order of the Emerald Claw and the schema is stolen. Desperate, the prof begs for their help once again, and the party take up the chase against these vagabonds. What follows is an evocative but potentially deadly chase through the skies of Sharn atop soarsleds and skyrafts. This encounter should be a lot of fun, but the DM ought to be a little careful about the chance of falling to death from one of the crafts, and the number of potential damage sources (including ballista fire from the warehouse).

 

This section of the adventure is highly linear, and really lacks player agency in quite a big way. They are unable to prevent the schema being stolen, then are required to chase the agents for the adventure to continue. Once the chase is underway, they’re not actually able to catch up or prevent the agents reaching their warehouse, meaning that whilst the whole section should be great fun, players might feel like their on the railroad a little. Despite this, the adventure is marketed as introductory, so I can understand why a linear story is more appropriate. I would like to see at least one more option for the characters, especially one where the characters catch up with the skycoach.

Design: 3/5 Although I enjoy the idea of an epic sky chase through Sharn, the linearity of this section of the adventure lets it down a little. I would have liked to see some alternatives to arriving at the warehouse, or at the very least some interesting things that might happen during the sky chase. The author’s ‘Falling in Sharn’ sidebar is great though!

Writing: 4/5 The adventure here is a little heavy on descriptive text once again. The writing generally is coherent and evocative.

Production: 5/5 Consistent, excellent production throughout the adventure.

Overall: 4/5

Part 4 – The Warehouse & Conclusion

The finale of this adventure takes place within the warehouse where the Order of the Emerald Claw have taken the stolen schema. The warehouse is relatively small, and there is only one real combat encounter within. This isn’t a problem in my opinion because the characters will likely be in a bad way already thanks to the chase. Eventually they meet the villain behind the whole enterprise – Arthemis d’Cannith. They have an opportunity to interact with Arthemis rather than jumping straight into combat, which is always good to see. In addition, the author has included some helpful DM tips to help balance out the combat should they need to, as well as a sidebar to help adjust encounter difficulty.

 

Should all go right for the characters they end up recovering the schema from the warehouse, as well as some blueprints that seem important. They can then return these to Professor Daela and conclude their adventure.

Design: 5/5 I like that the author has taken some serious steps here to make sure a DM can balance out the final encounter to ensure a satisfying ending. Although this isn’t necessary for all adventures, I do think it’s important for an introductory adventure like this.

Writing: 4/5 Reverse my usual complaint – sort of. Not every room in the warehouse has its own read aloud text, something that is a must in my opinion. Other areas have too much read aloud text again. As this part of the adventure is relatively short, it’s not too bad. I think the conclusion to the adventure is written very well, and tries to cover for all eventualities, which is superb.

Production: 5/5 Yet again, the production is superb.

Overall: 4.5/5

Conclusion – 4/5

I thoroughly enjoyed this adventure, and think it would be a great start to any Eberron campaign. I’ve never played in Eberron before, but I would definitely want to run or even play in this adventure, and then continue onto a full Eberron campaign. My only issues with the adventure are the quantity of read aloud text, and the linearity. Despite these flaws, I think Elven Tower has put together a epic introductory adventure that new DMs and players should find easy to run and thoroughly enjoy! As of right now, Sharn – THe Missing Schema is only $4.95, an absolute bargain for the level of detail and effort that has gone into this work. If you want to play Eberron in 5th Edition D&D, this is a perfect place to start!

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