Hello and welcome to this week’s review! Today we’re taking a look at Sharn II, Council of Roaches by Elven Tower. This is the sequel adventure to Sharn – The Missing Schema which I reviewed a few weeks ago. I gave that adventure a 4/5 stars. It stood out for its amazing production quality, but was let down a little by its linearity and weighty read aloud text. Overall, the adventure was a definite buy though, and it’ll be nice to see how this second instalment continues the story!
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. Writingwill 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.
As mentioned before, this product is the sequel to Sharn – The Missing Schema. The author reccomends that it is for 3rd to 7th level characters. The adventure was first published on September 12th 2018, and has so far been given two five star ratings and reviews.
As with Sharn – The Missing Schema, we get the usual introductory information for running a game of D&D, specifically running one in the setting of Eberron. We’re told that this adventure can be run as a stand alone, as well as a sequel to Sharn – The Missing Schema.
Next up is an adventure primer which gives a brief background to the adventure. SPOILERS: Most of the Council of Sharn has been replaced with roach thralls which have been infiltrating the city for years and posing as members of ordinary life. Only Ilyra Boromar, a halfling linked to the Boromar Clan, has realised that something is up. After the concise introduction we’re given a rundown of the important NPCs and then an overview which summarises the flow of the adventure. The basic flow is that the characters are asked to protect a council member who turns out to be a roach thrall. The party go to meet the Lord Mayor who asks them to investigate into another council member who has been acting strangely. The party turn up to a house full of thralls but escape, and are told by Elric Boromar that they’ve found the roach nest. The characters then head down to explore the lair and uncover the roach conspiracy in Sharn. Finally we have some adventure hooks which link the characters in from Sharn – The Missing Schema, or drop them into the adventure should they be starting with Sharn II – Council of Roaches.
Part 1 – Boromar Ambush
In part one of the adventure, the characters head to meet Haras Kant, who offers them a job as enforcers. He needs people to protect his friend and councillor Maza Thadian whose life has been threatened in the past. Little do the characters know that she in a roach thrall. Haras even sets it up as if there’s a conspiracy against her within the guard, who seem to be doing a poor job protecting her. When the characters meet Maza in the Oaks Restaurant, she reveals to them that her life was threatened by an assassin from the Boromar Clan, and that political tensions on the council is high. There is a rift between her and her followers, and those of Lord Commander Lyan ir’Talan.
The following day the characters escort Maza to a meeting with a fellow councillor; Javan Tomollan. The characters might notice that the two seem to be communicating non-verbally, giving a clue that something is amiss. Before long, Elric Boromar and his kin attempt to assassinate Councillor Maza. The assault happens over a few short rounds, and is assumed to end in the death of the Councillor, which reveals her to be a roach thrall. I’m not hugely thrilled by the linearity here. I would rather the characters are given clues (such as the purple blood from the councillors wounds) rather than essentially being told there’s nothing the characters can do to stop Maza’s death. Although the transformation scene and resulting, confused combat between the roach thrall, the Boromars and the characters is likely to be a lot of fun, it would also be nice to have other eventualities explored. At the end of the combat, a huge number of Sharn Watch guards arrive and sort of Deus Ex Machina the plot.
In the end of this part, the characters are summoned to meet with the city council to explain what they saw, and are asked by Haras to find out what’s really going on with the roach thralls.
Design: 3/5 Although I love the story here, I think it lacks a little subtlety, and the characters are really driven down a single path. The assumption that the councillor is killed and then transforms is a little jarring, and the mismatched odds for the fight enforces the railroad feel. I’d much rather have a section dedicated to possible outcomes; Maza dying, Elric Boromar being killed etc. and how this informs the plot going forward. On the positive side, all the mechanics of the adventure are sound thus far, and the ability to make checks which reveal more information the higher they are is great.
Writing: 4/5 Although the author has clearly made an effort not to provide such long passages of read aloud text, this adventure is still on the verbose side. I feel as if a lot of the information in this first part of the adventure could be condensed or cut. I also noticed a few spelling/grammatical errors. Despite this, the writing is clear and where it needs to be and flavourful where it can be, which is good.
Production: 5/5 As expected, the production quality of this adventure matches that of Sharn – The Missing Schema. There are plentiful graphics and illustrations, and the use of sidebars, boxes and the like make it a delight to read through. The only improvement I can think of would be custom artwork, but that’s not within everyone’s budget.
Part 2 – Meeting the Lord Mayor
In part two the characters are called to meet the Lord Mayor of Sharn, Cathan ir’Demell, and to sit in on a council meeting about the death of Maza. The characters have lots of opportunities to detect that something is wrong; the smell of the room for example. Eventually, the council come to the conclusion that Maza was killed by transformation magic, and that the Boromars are to blame, and should be ousted from the council and routed from the city. As far as I can tell, there’s not way for the characters to influence this, nor is their any guidance given about how to respond should the characters take any action beyond ability checks.
At the end of the meeting, the characters are approached by Lord Cathan. He wants the characters to investigate a close friend on Ilyra Boromar – Councillor Borian. Cathan is in on the roach thrall conspiracy, and knows that Borian is a roach, but worries that he might blow his cover. Thus, he sends the characters to his home knowing that they will destroy him. I’m struggling a little to understand this motivation. If I were a roach inside the council, I think I’d just tell the characters to get lost, or even try to get them killed. I assume that’s what he’s doing sending them to Borian’s home, but it’s not made clear.
Design: 2/5 I’m not a huge fan of this part of the adventure. It seems like a lot of exposition that the characters are expected to sit through with no reward. There is also reference to an Intelligence (Arcana) check where the DC is lowered by the characters level. This is not common practice in 5e D&D. Instead, I’d recommend giving advantage to characters over a certain level, or to characters of a relevant class.
Writing: 2/5 Large chunks of the text in this part could be cut. The whole part takes 3 pages of the adventure, but could almost certainly be condensed into 1 or 1.5 pages. There are a handful of spelling errors, including one in the title of the part.
Production: 5/5 As usual, the production is on point. I like the sidebars which provide roleplaying information especially.
Part 3 – House Inspection
Once the characters arrive at Borian Haldorak’s home, they have the opportunity to investigate the cockroach conspiracy even further. Not only is Borian himself a roach thrall, but there are failed roach thralls (horrible, maggoty cockroach creatures) in there as well. Seeing these creatures could disturb the characters as they witness the vulgar transformation of Borian. During their fight in the household, Elric Boromar emerges to help the characters out. He convinces the characters that the Boromars had nothing to do with the murders, and can point characters in the direction of the roach lair.
Design: 4/5 None of the encounters are gated in any way, and the use of Elric to help out characters is a nice touch. The chemical handout message (a strange piece of acrid smelling parchment with a hidden message upon it) is sure to be a hit with players who work it out.
Writing: 4/5 Again, there’s a little too much information in the text here. Personally, I like to have a read aloud description for each location, followed by short mechanical descriptions of the area’s contents, prefaced by a subheading to make the information easy to distil. Despite this, the descriptions of the household are good, and the important information is relatively easy to get to.
Production: 5/5 Once again the production here is amazing and includes what I assume are custom sketches of the roach creatures and of Elric Boromar. The maps are, as you might imagine from Elven Tower, beautiful.
Part 4 – The Roaches’ Lair & Conclusion
This section starts with something I don’t like much;
‘Any attempt to reach or contact any councilor at this point of the adventure does not work. The PCs are not allowed inside the council hall.’
I don’t understand this choice by the author. It feels here like we’re protecting a plot that has already been scripted by the author, and cannot be deviated from, even if the characters are thinking logically. This kind of railroading is acceptable if you can at least come up with a realistic reason for it, but just saying ‘no you can’t do that’ never goes down well in an RPG session.
The dungeon that succeeds this is a lovecraftian horror fest of cockroach creatures and terrifying hatcheries and implantation chambers. At the conclusion of the dungeon, the party are attacked by the Lord Mayor who is an omega roach thrall as well as his cultist followers. The whole thing has a great cthulhu-esque feel to it.
The adventure culminates with a conclusion that helps to tie up any loose ends and explain what might happen next in a world where several high-ranking council members have been killed. We also have a load of new creatures in an appendix, plus player friendly maps and handouts. The production of these is incredible as always!
Design: 4/5 The dungeon makes good use of insanity mechanics, is fluid and has some player agency, but the encounters are relatively straightforward.
Writing: 4/5 I have the same concerns about the writing of this part as the previous. Cut text, make it concise and well formatted, try to include read aloud text for each location.
Production: 5/5 As always, great maps, great layout, great use of sidebars and boxes.
Conclusion – 4/5
Although I did enjoy this adventure, especially its premise, I think there could be a lot done to make it more fun to run and play in. The high production quality of Elven Tower’s products always makes them worth buying, especially at the lower price point of $4.95 for 50+ pages of content. The subterfuge and political manoeuvring within this adventure should appeal to a broad array of players, as should the high powered combat finale.
My biggest problem with this adventure is the story line. It feels linear and mapped out, and seriously lacks player agency. Although it’s good to have a central theme and plan for your adventures, it’s often the case that these adventures are reduced to a list of scenes like a play that the characters must go through. There is little to encourage players to think outside the box in this module, and though the lovecraftian, noir feel of the adventure could have been developed into a true sandbox web, I’m left feeling a little disappointed with its presentation.
Despite its flaws, I think this adventure is a great buy! There are some amazing maps and handouts, and the premise of the adventure is really very good. I’d suggest buying it, and allowing characters to run riot in the world, trying to figure out which council members they can trust, and which have been infested with roaches. It could make for an awesome campaign!