I’m back! You may have noticed that for most of last week I didn’t blog at all. I got pretty ill toward the end of the week before, and was trying to shake it off before getting back into writing again. I have to fit blogging around my 9-5, my own writing, and any freelance work I’m doing, so sometimes it has to take a backseat.
This week I’m going to be taking a look at Sharn III, City of Monsters by Elven Tower. I’ve already reviewed both Sharn I and Sharn II by the same author. Both of these were good adventures, though sometimes needed a little touching up. The main factor that makes me recommend these adventures to you is the production quality. Although the interior art and covers are mostly stock art, the layout design and cartography from Elven Tower is superb, and definitely worth paying a couple of dollars for.
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.
This product is an Eberron adventure for 5th – 9th level characters. It’s the third in a series of adventures set in the city of Sharn. It should showcase the potential of an urban Eberron campaign, as the whole series started at 1st level and continues to expand. It was first uploaded to the DMsGuild on October 19, 2018. It so far has no ratings or review, and no best seller status.
As with the other Sharn adventures, we get a comprehensive introduction to the Eberron campaign setting, as well as Sharn more specifically. We get an overview of the adventure, hooks for new characters, hooks for characters coming from the last instalment of the adventure series, and a list of important NPCs.
The adventure begins with a battle on Sharn’s bridge against Droaamite monsters who have seized control. The characters come face to face with Haraania – an intimidation specialist medusa. After the fight, the characters have a meeting with the Boromars, who are at war with the Daask. When the characters leave the meeting, they are ambushed. The finale of the adventure sees the characters strengthen the Boromar forces, and then attack the most dangerous ward in The Cogs, hoping to find the heart of the Daask. They are forced to fight off a hoard of monsters, including the ogre mage leader of the organisation; Harannia.
Part 1 – Sharn’s Bridge
We start with a set up which reveals a little history about the events occurring in Sharn, and the ways in which characters can gather information about them. This comes in the form of a gradated skill check. Although I like these kinds of checks in concept (they were great in the old Monster Manuals), I think here it would be more fun to have the characters come across a mix of rumours. Many of these link to the previous adventure in this path, and it would be fun for characters to hear how the truth of their adventure has been twisted by the rumour mill. After learning a little about the status quo, characters are sent to a bridge which has been taken over by monsters, probably by the Boromar. The Boromar’s warehouses and such have been under attack by monsters for the past few weeks.
The encounter on the bridge could go a number of different ways depending on how the characters approach it, physically and conceptually. The monsters on the bridge should be an easy fight for the characters, but they have 10 hostages who can be killed with ease at any moment. Although Harannia, the medusa in charge, is a silver tongued negotiator, there doesn’t really seem to be any way to talk her out of the situation. The only guidance given here is ‘she may agree to release a few of [the hostages] if the characters offer something in return’. This needs expansion, she won’t free them for a loaf of bread I assume? Other than this, the encounter is well detailed, should it come to combat there is enough tactical information to run a challenging encounter, and there is enough location detail if the characters want to try subterfuge to sneak in and free the prisoners.
After the encounter, one of the Boromars shows up and escorts the characters to the next section of the adventure. The author has a habit of these kind of links between adventure parts which to me feels a little terse. It almost makes the adventure feel like a film, where characters jump-cut between scenes and we assume there’s a good reason for it.
Writing: 3/5 There are a couple of grammatical errors that could have been fixed here during editing. The author also has a tendency to use male pronouns, even describing female NPCs as being an ‘accomplished swordsman’. It’s so easy not to do this that there’s not much of an excuse. I would have liked some read aloud text too, but generally the writing here is good enough for the DM to run a scene and elaborate on it themselves.
Design: 4/5 The design of this encounter, save for the lack of roleplay opportunity, is great. There’s enough location information for characters to interact with to make a combat encounter interesting, and there are three useful sidebars that help DMs flesh out the encounter even more. The use of hostages makes an otherwise walk-able encounter far more interesting, and shows good understanding of encounter design.
Production: 5/5 As with all of Elven Tower’s work, the production is professional. Expert maps and layout both aesthetically and functionally. The only thing missing is custom art, but that’s not always feasible.
Part 2 – Meeting the Boromars
In part 2 of the adventure the characters meet with the Boromars, who they might have already met in Sharn II. This gives the characters a chance to learn a little more about the Daask and their leaders, Harannia and Cavallah. They are then asked to help the Boromars raid Khyber’s Gate.
When the characters leave the meeting with the Boromars, they are ambushed by Daask monsters. There are some good tactics included in this section with regard to the goblin mages and trolls, as they both have different agendas. We also get some good guidance on how to adjust the encounter difficulty.
Writing: 4/5 This portion of the adventure seems better edited, and there is read aloud text for both of the major events that occur in it. My only misgivings are the presence of paragraphs that seem to tell the DM what to do such as ‘Do not stall the game with too much conversation…’ Essentially, there are paragraphs of text which could be cut without impacting the adventure.
Design: 4/5 The author has a habit of throwing meetings into the middle of adventures in order to dump lore on the characters. I’m not a huge fan of this, but at least in this instance there is an interesting combat encounter at the end. We also get some new monsters which are good fun.
Production: 5/5 The usual. Amazing aesthetic design work, plus plenty of layout solutions to prevent the text becoming too blocky, and useful sidebars including roleplaying information and adjusting encounter difficulty.
Part 3 – Preparations & Part 4 – Into Khyber’s Gate
I’ve rolled these two sections into one because they really should be just one section, or at least, they should be better linked. In part 3 of the adventure, the characters can help the Boromars prepare for their siege of the underground tunnels in the Khyber’s Gate Ward which contains Cavallah’s Lair. Each action they can take will chance the encounters in the tunnels in some way, aiding the Boromar army (and characters) against the Daask. This is a great idea, but could have been executed better.
Rather than allowing characters to use any ‘attribute’ to make a DC 14 check, I would recommend assigning specific skills and DCs to specific tasks. This makes it easier for the players to make decisions about what their characters can do. Even if the DM running the adventure allows Intimidation instead of Persuasion, they still have a framework. Secondly, rather than numbering each Preparation Action and splitting it into two tables, I’d combine both tables into one for easier DM use. The headings of the table would be ‘Preparation Action’, ‘Skill Check & DC’, ‘Effect’. The effect column could contain a preview for the players such as ‘reduces Daask monsters’, a mechanical description for the DM ‘remove a troll from encounter 1’ and then a piece of narration ‘your inspiring words spur the Boromar soldiers on, their blades taking down one of the trolls before you even make it into the fray’. The author has got most of the way there with this, and the events will play that way at the table, but it won’t be easy for the DM.
Writing: 4/5 The writing in this section is good. There are still a few mistakes that should have been caught; ‘She promises one thousand gold pieces of gold’, but overall the quality is good.
Design: 4/5 The actual encounter design of this section is very good, only the presentation needs tinkering with. Giving the characters an opportunity to affect the battle to come is great, but it needs to be made easier for the DM in my opinion.
Production: 4/5 Part of the design issue is actually a production problem. The tables need merging to make running this adventure easier. Aesthetically it’s great as usual.
Part 5 – Cavallah’s Lair & Conclusion
The finale of the adventure takes place in Cavallah’s subterranean lair. It’s sure to be a challenging encounter for the characters after having to fight their way in, and also provides enough roleplay opportunity as Cavallah tries to sway their will. I think it would have been cool to create a more dynamic setting in Cavallah’s lair, something to be used against the characters, or something they could use against Cavallah, but it’s still likely to be a fun encounter.
In the conclusion of the adventure the characters find the stolen Boromar goods, totalling nearly 200,000gp. I like that this huge amount of money might tempt the characters to break their ties to the Boromar and make off with as much cash as possible. It’s a nice set up for future adventures. The author provides other adventure seeds in the Developments section of the conclusion.
Writing: 3/5 I like to see read aloud text for each important area in a dungeon, especially those in the final lair of the big bad! I also don’t like the way the author has chosen to break down the text, using paragraph spacing rather than subheadings. This makes it a little harder for a DM to pick up and run the adventure. Overall, there is too much text to describe what’s here.
Design: 4/5 There are good tactics written for the BBEG, and the author has thought beyond the fight, giving characters an opportunity for roleplay. There’s also been a good amount of thought put into the future of the characters and Sharn after the adventure concludes. I would have liked to see a more dynamic lair – magical symbols inscribed in the floor, deep pools of water filled with leeches, hanging braziers fills with burning coals – all of these things can give characters ideas on how to fight beyond the d20.
Production: 5/5 Perfectly done. Good layout aesthetically and functionally with sidebars, full colour maps and full colour art.
Conclusion – 4/5
Overall, this is a great adventure, and a good sequel to the already impressive Sharn I & II. I would seriously recommend picking he adventure up, as it’s only $4.95. Well worth the money for what you get! Again, if you’re looking for adventures in Eberron, Elven Tower is creating the best work in my opinion. It’s clear the author is passionate about the setting and immersed in the lore, and is capable of writing adventures that make a lot of sense in the setting, and provide new content such as maps and monsters beyond the remit of just a simple adventure.
My only concern with these adventures is their structure. Sometimes it feels like they are somewhat linear, and often peppered with meetings with NPCs to help move the story along, rather than revealing the lore of the adventure through more evolved play.
The highlights of the adventure for me are the preparation system for the final fight (which needs a little work but is a great idea) and the interesting, motivated villains. Both Cavallah and Harannia are powerful foes and realise that the characters could be powerful allies, rather than just trying to kill them blindly without any thought.
Definitely worth buying!