The Savage Tide

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 118: The Savage Tide




The last of Paizo’s original run of adventure paths for Dungeon Magazine arrived just as D&D‘s third edition was coming to a close. While there was still one remaining book and a handful of magazine issues printed by Wizards of the Coast after the two companies parted ways for good, for the most part The Savage Tide was the demarcation point that closed off this portion of the game’s history. If nothing else, it served as the culmination for so much of the lore that Paizo and even Wizards itself had been sprinkling into releases over the previous few years. It was a product made by and for die-hard fans, slathered with references from throughout the game’s history but never in a way that overwhelmed the plot. Despite some rough edges, likely the result of a compressed publication schedule, it’s a truly massive achievement, and one that was important enough during its heyday that anyone who played the game during 2007 likely remembers some of the discussion surrounding it. 

As such, when I write about The Savage Tide, I’m not strictly talking about the adventure path in Dungeon. Although the twelve modules that comprised it ended up well more than 400 pages in length, just as important were a series of accompanying articles from a series called “Savage Tidings” in Dragon Magazine. But even this does short shrift to just how much support material was printed. There was a massive, blowout article detailing the first town this campaign is set within, and another one for the second town printed a few months later. There were multiple Demonomicon articles tying directly into some of the series’ main antagonists, Malcanthet and Demogorgon, and another devoted to the in-game artifact by the same name because it crops up late in the series as well. An “Ecology of…” article focused solely on “The Isle of Dread” was printed once the campaign arrived there, and another was written for the kopru when they took center stage. All of this was essentially part of the same Savage Tide event that subsumed Paizo during this period, and a truly capacious edition that collected all of this ancillary material alongside the primary text would easily fill another couple hundred pages, and depending upon what was included it could certainly double the length of the Dungeon series. Suffice to say, there’s a lot going on here.


Given the sheer profusion of words and sources, The Savage Tide is almost certainly the most complex single work ever published for D&D. That is not to say it’s the best, just that its intertextuality made it a unique and singular creative endeavor, an example of just how capacious and fascinating shared world storytelling can really be. Along the way, its story riffs on two iconic earlier adventures from D&D, The Isle of Dread and The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, but it goes back even earlier than that by focusing much of its attention (especially toward the end) on Demogorgon and a magic item from Eldritch Wizardry, the Iron Flask of Tuerny the Merciless. Iggwilv plays a major role, but so does an obscure succubus lord who’d previously appeared in Dungeon in 1987. Characters and references to the earlier adventure paths and one-off modules from Dungeon crop up, but so do ones to adventures such as Expedition to the Demonweb Pits that weren’t being put together by Paizo. The book is full of both deep cuts and big, crowd-pleasing riffs, and not a chapter goes by without at least a few fun Easter Egg, slipped into the numerous pages not so much for players but because the authors seemed to really enjoy the game’s history. That being said, much of the work isn’t planar in nature, and given how long it is, I’m just going to give a quick summary of the first eight adventures—it’s only the last four, after the PCs are at least 15th level, that things leave the Prime. 

While the cover art for this series was wonderful, the internal splash pages were maybe not the best showcase for what made it great.

As the story begins, PCs are recruited by a desperate noblewoman, Lavinia, to help deal with her ne’er-do-well brother, the frustratingly evil (and hard to dispose of ) Vanthus, who unbeknownst to her mostly seems bitter because he’s in love with his sister. Yes, really, though Wizards of the Coast ensured that this was never spelled out as directly as it should’ve been. As the PCs dispatch his thieves’ guild friends, they follow him to a hidden cove where he inadvertently triggers a powerful artifact, a shadow pearl, which triggers one of the titular savage tides and drives everyone nearby into a “savage” frenzy. The PCs head with Lavinia toward the Isle of Dread in order to thwart his other plots and, if they choose to, end up exploring the Lost Temple of Tamoachan, or at least an abbreviated version of it. Right before arriving at the Isle proper, they’re shipwrecked, and searching for a means of survival leads them to an ancient shrine dedicated to Demogorgon. After a few fights with pirates and that sort of thing, the PCs discover that the shadow pearls have been coming from a source on the other side of the island, and in order to try and stop their dispersal the party ends up in the midst of an ancient and long-standing war between koprus and aboleths. They discover another temple to Demogorgon, this one still in active use and being ruled by one of his aspects, but while putting a stop to its production of more shadow pearls Lavinia is kidnapped by her brother, and after much investigation it turns out that he’s taken her with him to the Abyss, or to be more specific Demogorgon’s realm and layer Gaping Maw. Fortunately, they find a magical device capable of taking them and their ship to the Abyss, and this is the cliffhanger chapter eight ends with; after this point, pretty much the rest of the adventure takes place away from the Prime Material Plane.

Whew, that’s a lot, and I’ll be honest, I’d probably at-best skim through this type of summary myself if I weren’t the one writing it. I skipped several big points (and even chapters) entirely because they’re irrelevant to the overall plot, though they’re for the most part all excellent self-contained stories. Most of the chapters are 2-4 sessions in length and some even longer, at least at the pace I usually play, and as such we’re talking about dozens of hours of story here. What’s more, from researching others’ experiences with it online, it quickly became clear to me that most peoples’ Savage Tide campaigns ended with chapter eight or even a bit earlier. After all, D&D‘s mechanics start breaking apart and losing coherence well before level 15, and there are several points where the whole shadow pearl plot can be wrapped up easily without having to delve deeper into their machinations. The first eight chapters makes for a suitably epic campaign in itself, and for all my many years and decades of DMing and playing in various campaigns, I’ve never been involved with the type of high level play that takes place in the last four chapters.

The real story of the shadow pearl and the whole purpose of the entire savage tide business is that it’s only one small bit of a larger plot to activate more than 30 shadow pearls at the same time. Using this unleashed magic, Demogorgon plans on combining his two minds into one, a plot that some may remember from the Sunless Citadel adventure path and in particular its concluding adventure Bastion of Broken Souls. Demogorgon is still at that nonsense, and players’ goal for the last four chapters is to rescue Lavinia and then figure out how to stop this massive savage tide event from wreaking havoc throughout their entire world. 

Due to Wizards being a dick about rights, Paizo was only able to put out its usual supplemental pdfs up through issue 147. This means that maps like this one, which lack labelling, are unavailable past this point. At least they still look good all the way until the end.

Chapter nine, “Into the Maw” by Robert J. Schwalb, is unsurprisingly the most basic of the four planar chapters (in this campaign, as the PCs’ levels increase, so does the craziness) and mostly consists of a dungeon trawl, but even here there’s a lot going on. For one thing, PCs arrive not at Demogorgon’s layer, but instead at the Abyssian Ocean, a location mentioned previously but never given much detail until now. Oddly, the Ocean seems not to be connected with the Styx, though it does connect with Gaping Maw and many other layers of the Abyss, making it a valid planar transportation method previously unused in any adventures. During their journey, players may even come upon a mercane (i.e. arcane) trader, which I also quite like, as it’s a good reminder that many beings visit the Abyss besides demons, often for their own strange purposes. 

One way or another—again, this is a high-level game, and unlike many others divination is in no way prevented from working in this campaign—the PCs find their way to Divided Ire, Demogorgon’s decrepit and chaotic prison. This dungeon is fittingly split between two major islands, one of which is an active volcano, the other of which is jungle. That’s not the real problem, though, which is that in the absence of Demogorgon giving a shit about what happens in his prison, it’s “run” by six factions all jockeying for complete supremacy. These individuals include a shator demodand, a glabrezu who was the original warden, a marilith previously betrayed by Graz’zt’s son (who you might remember from The Shackled City), a bullywug lich, a fallen angel, and a kelvezu demon who wasn’t even a prisoner, she just wanted to take over the joint because she’s nuts like that. Oh, and there’s also Vanthus, whose recent arrival with Lavinia is still making this already messy situation even more untenable. While for the most part this situation is just a dungeon crawl, it’s also possible for players to maneuver and manipulate these warring forces so that it requires a minimum of combat. This makes for a much more interesting location, and one that feels more planar in nature due to how much focus is placed on personalities and motivations rather than just punches and traps. A lot of space is devoted to making each of these factions and their leaders feel distinct—these aren’t just mindless enemies to mow through, and the worst possible way of approaching Divided Ire would be to kick down the front door and start stabbing everyone you see.


Breaking Lavinia out solves one problem, but the question of what to do about Demogorgon remains unresolved at the end of this chapter. Hopefully, players realize that a way of striking against him might involve his previous paramore, the succubus Shami-Amourae, who coincidentally had her pleasure house turned into Divided Ire when her betrayal was discovered. She seems likely to know his weakness, the problem being that she was locked in the Wells of Darkness and no one knows how to get her out. They’re likely helped with this information by the bullywug lich, but as with many other plot threads this is possible to figure out otherwise through paying attention to details or simply divination. He sends them on to find out more information from Red Shroud, the ruler of Broken Reach and someone you may remember from Planescape. 

Andrew Hou’s version of Charon, a character I really never expected to see return to D&D.

“Wells of Darkness” by Eric L. Boyd is a much odder affair than its predecessor, which I mean in a good way. Broken Reach is a unique town that unfortunately isn’t given nearly enough room here, though I’m always happy to see it crop up. Red Shroud’s throne room is fittingly Abyssal, though my overall sense of this section is that it passes by too fast. In any case, she directs players in how to travel to the Wells of Darkness, actually releasing the former queen of succubi from her near-extra-planar cage is left largely to the players. 

The Wells were given a few pages of detail in Fiendish Codex I: Hordes of the Abyss, but this layer is greatly expanded upon in “Wells.” Many new wells are added, though the map is drawn from the book’s earlier one and they fit perfectly together, despite Rob Lazzaretti not being the earlier work’s cartographer. This leads to wonderful lore, and the information that being within these wells means that these powerful entities are in a sense beyond the multiverse and can only be accessed as vestiges (reasons for this are contained within the chapter’s fascinating backstory). Plot hooks dangle by the dozen in this chapter, and I truly wish Paizo or at least someone else had been allowed to follow up on some of them rather than jumping us into fourth edition’s mangled mythology, but oh well, it’s still a great read. Eventually PCs need to deal with the more-or-less lord of this plane, Ahazu, who is the only individual with the power to release prisoners, despite being himself the first prisoner and the originator of the layer’s strange attributes. There are many ways players might go about making a pact with this lord, most of them unsavory, but even with Shami-Amourae freed there’s many devious traps left in place, chief among them Demogorgon flooding the entire layer with the Styx in order to erase her memory. Ultimately, while she reveals that Demogorgon is two individuals trapped in one body, her real advice comes down to little more than “send in a bunch of armies, good luck.” So maybe rescuing her wasn’t all that useful after all, but at least it did involve some cool setpieces, right?

This iconic cover by James Ryman is still my favorite portrayal of Iggwilv ever printed.

“Enemies of My Enemy,” by Wolfgang Baur of Planescape fame, does entirely away with such trivialities as dungeon crawls. Instead, players ally with Charon, who’s pissed at Demogorgon for messing with the Styx. He advises them to seek help from Iggwilv, and from here the plane-hopping really commences. Iggwilv is located in Hades, and actually getting to speak with her involves a lot of ridiculous maneuvering past her arcanoloth apprentices. But as powerful as she is, even an ally Iggwilv like is no army of demons, and so she advises players to look for help elsewhere. Charon’s a good start, but she presses them to work with Orcus and Malcanthet for demonic support, plus one of Morwel’s paramours, Gwynharwyf, who hates Demogorgon for what read to me as rape when she was abducted by him in the past. In addition, she recommends obtaining help from the demon lord Obox-Ob and even one of Demogorgon’s generals. Presumably players pursue every one of these leads, which means visiting Thanatos, the Court of Stars on Arborea, Shendilavri, the Blood Shallows (a new layer of the Abyss), and finally heading back to Pazunia. While it’s implied that these quests for allies can be done in any order, that isn’t quite the case, as visiting the Blood Shallows needs to be done after obtaining the Tuerny’s Iron Flask from Malcanthet on Shendilavri, but for the most part this is a flexible chapter that’s going to run even an experienced DM through their paces.


This is also an extremely long adventure that I hesitate to summarize in full because there’s just so much going on here, though I’ll do my best to make it interesting. After all, several sessions could easily be spent in any one of these locations, and the scope here is immense. Thanatos includes the most entertaining map of the entire adventure path, and ultimately Orcus may be willing to guarantee entire armies to fight against his nemesis in the hope of becoming the next Prince of Demons. Gwynharwyf will happily do likewise, but requires players to prove themselves not through arena combat like the undead demon lord but through slaying a dread linnorm who’s been attacking eladrin and lives on Yggdrasil. Malcanthet’s summer palace is pretty much one immense, full-time orgy, and she’s unwilling to commit any armies to the cause, but will help by bequeathing the PCs with the flask, plus using her Queen’s Kiss ability to channel magical powers to them (which is I guess not literally nothing, but is still pretty weak) in exchange for help destroying one of her servants for being a bit too pouty lately. In the Blood Shallows, players release an imprisoned aspect of Obox-Ob and then trap it in their flask for later use in screwing with Demogorgon. And in Pazunia, the PCs infiltrate the camp of Bagromar, a clone/aspect(?) of Demogorgon, and try to convince him to join their cause against his sire in order to spite his twin. 

The final cover for Dungeon‘s print edition was Wayne Reynolds’ Demogorgon. Unfortunately, this cropped version is the best I was able to find online.

Assuming players succeeded in at least some of these tasks, it’s time to fight against Demogorgon himself. The adventure path’s final chapter, “Prince of Demons” by Greg A. Vaughan, I find myself struggling to evaluate. By now, players are certainly at 20th level (or higher… ugh), and much of what’s left concerns planning for an attack against thousands of demons. There weren’t many mechanics for how this should work out, though, and while there’s an opportunity for a bit of roleplaying in terms of negotiating with the various members of your coalition, in no way did I understand how any of the second part, “The Battle of Gaping Maw,” was supposed to be run. It was fun to read through, evocative and filled with weird details about this layer and its  inhabitants, but actually using it in a game seemed like it was missing entirely. Maybe that new Dragonlance: Warriors of Krynn game would be good for this? Who wins what battle and where seems like it’s supposed to be left up to the PCs, but it also seems pre-determined? I don’t know, it fundamentally didn’t make sense to me, and I’m not going to pretend that it did. All of this is in fact a feint, anyhow, as the real goal for players is to infiltrate a temple named Wat Dagon, which contains the master shadow pearl Demogorgon will use to focus his energy. This takes the part of a wild, unreasonably difficult dungeon crawl that ultimately culminates in a battle against Demogorgon himself. Not one of his aspects, either, the actual Demogorgon, whose final level and difficulty is going to depend on choices players made earlier about how to assault him.

Remember how one of the points of Planescape was that planar adventures didn’t require uber-powerful adventurers? Well The Savage Tide isn’t that sort of adventure path, and ultimately I’m fine with that. The Abyssal fighting here is far closer to The Throne of Bloodstone, and in the case of trying to depose a demon lord that’s really how it should be. It’s a fittingly epic way for the edition to end, and I rather appreciate how ridiculous it is. That being said, there is a good reason that so few groups ever made it to the end, and it’s going to require an impressively good group of players, DM and PCs both, to make this entire scenario work, and I don’t just mean that final adventure with its tens of thousands of demons. Ultimately, The Savage Tide t feels like this type of gameplay done right, at least until that last chapter when it becomes about huge army battles with few mechanics. Despite reams of typos and weird errors, it’s a consistently good read that, had it been allowed the place in the game’s canon it deserved, would’ve shooken up the multiverse in fascinating ways. I ended up thinking that particularly with that final chapter this was barely a finishable adventure, but at the same time it was wonderful to read, and as I said earlier it’s quite easy to extract the earlier parts and run a complete campaign without them. 

Best map of this series, bar none. Robert Lazzaretti gets infinite praise from me for this gag.

Aside from the final four chapters in Dungeon, there are also two “Savage Tidings” articles I want to highlight: ” Gazing Into the Abyss” in Dragon #357 (July 2007) by Eric L. Boyd, and “The River Styx” in Dragon #358 (August 2007) by F. Wesley Schneider. “Gazing” focuses on three vestiges trapped in the Wells of Darkness, Ansitif, Astaroth, and Cabiri. Essentially, I get the sense that Paizo enjoyed pact magic as much as I did, and this allowed them to create some more neat lore concerning powerful fiends, Astaroth being my favorite of the three. There’s also a few paragraphs on “Demonic Harlots” for some reason, which is to say demons who will work for mortals, and a useful page devoted to what type of general knowledge PCs may have about the Abyss.


“The River Styx” is even better, in that it includes a great deal of information about various landings it makes on the Abyss. The main issue with this article is that it’s far too short, and following quite a bit of detail on locations like Thanatos and Shendilavri, there’s just two paragraphs apiece on how the Styx exists on Pandemonium Carceri, Hades, Gehenna, Acheron, and even Baator. This is understandable given that the article’s main purpose is as a reference for those playing through The Savage Tide, but it still feels awkward. The Styx is such a large, weird interplanar highway that I’d love to see it receive far more space—a work really detailing the various interplanar roads was something Planescape was sorely lacking, and I can’t help but wish that this helped fill more of that gap.

As for the production quality of the entire work, it’s mostly high, though there are more typos per page than you’ll find in most adventures, and I have to assume there’s an equal amount of errors in the statblocks that I never noticed because I don’t actually care. Artwork is mostly quite good, though my taste doesn’t align great with Paizo’s and I tend to find their pieces a bit too cartoonish and broad. Robert Lazzaretti did all of the maps for the entire adventure path, and most of them are excellent, though a few are overly chunky and computer-y for my taste. Everything looks good and professional, it’s just not quite as polished as it could be, though that’s only to be expected from a series of periodical articles printed on a deadline rather than an actual book.

If you enjoyed what Paizo did with the Fiendish Codex and the Demonomicon, let alone its prior adventure paths which really felt like they were building up to this one, then you should really give The Savage Tide a read. Many details from the planes, such as the use of real world mythology (Charon had barely been seen since first edition!) or the Outlands effect of reducing magic abilities, would never be seen again in the game. In essence, this is a last big hurrah for the original D&D mythology, with all of the messiness and retcons that brought along with it, and while it’s not perfect, it does care deeply about getting all of the details right. Had Paizo been allowed to print a full release of this work, fully edited and with ancillary material compiled alongside the adventures, it might have been not just the longest, but also the greatest D&D adventure ever written. As it stands, it doesn’t quite work all the way through and shows the pains of its rushed production, but is nonetheless a wonderful read.

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