Pyramid of Shadows

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 125: Pyramid of Shadows




As much as I may pretend at being the most original and insightful thinker when it comes to D&D, that’s far, far from the case. Many others have written about these supplements and adventures before me, and I try to do my due diligence regarding what else has been written about them and is readily available. Then, after reading through this material, I can at least feel confident that my take is relatively new. Now that we’re at Fourth Edition, though, I find myself having a bit of difficulty in that regard. We’re a long way from Planescape at this point, and with an adventure like Pyramid of Shadows I end up wanting to quote from elsewhere enough that I’m just going to post a link to a prior review that I wholeheartedly agree with instead. Here, start off by reading David R. Henry’s write-up from, as he does such an excellent job summarizing the overall plot and content of this adventure that I see no point in trying to do so again myself. 

Done with that? Ok, let’s get down to the planar business and other such nonsense that Henry didn’t focus on. Now is probably also a good time for me to mention that before I began reading through Fourth Edition, I’d assumed that I’d be writing about Keep on Shadowfell, the edition’s first adventure—in fact the first work for the edition at all, as it was published even before the core books, for reasons that confound me. However, despite the name, Keep isn’t actually, umm, on Shadowfell, or at least the adventure isn’t. It’s more like those Temple of Elemental Evil adventures in that its keep has a portal to the Shadowfell that you’re trying to keep from opening, and the actual title is a complete misnomer. Unlike its predecessor, Pyramid of Shadows is fully extraplanar, though weirdly it’s not on the Shadowfell either, and in fact it kinda ignores the entirety of the new cosmology, perhaps because for the most part those new planes are both boring and a bit annoying to use.


The Pyramid of Shadows is a bizarre extradimensional space full of weird monsters and strange magical effects. It exists beyond space and time, appearing in multiple places in the world and planes beyond. The space within it knows nothing of the passage of years. It’s a prison, designed to keep whatever is trapped within it from escaping

Another way of saying all of this is that the Pyramid of Shadows is a demiplane, but the authors here are just really against using that term. Now, I have nothing against demiplanes, and this is a perfect use case for them. If you want to create a completely unique space that has its own rules they’re what you should use, and a full-on dungeon-sized demiplane is fine. Really, it’s a surprise that not only has this not really been done before, it hasn’t been done before repeatedly. But I think that this design decision here was less a brilliant brainstorm and more a matter of necessity. In previous editions, you could find a place for practically any kind of dungeon you wanted, up to and including weird, timeless prisons. But the cosmology is now extremely limited and just doesn’t have space for much… partially because it’s so unclear still that we’re unsure what it does and doesn’t have room for. Could this demiplane have been in the Astral Sea, or the Abyss, or, umm, the Prime? I don’t know, maybe. Probably. But then those places would have to be detailed, and it’s much easier to make it just a demiplane non-location than to try and work all of that out. 

If this map of disparate environments for a sprawling dungeon appeals to you, then this is probably a fun adventure. If not, give it a pass.

Thus, we’re left with a monster zoo demiplane that doesn’t fit well into the new cosmology, and what’s more, the authors didn’t even want to really try. If that sounds like something you want to use in a game, more power to you, and just because the original authors didn’t figure out where to put this doesn’t mean you can’t. There’s plenty to punch here, traps to make skill rolls against, and even a few puzzles.There’s even two pages of this adventure devoted to the possibility of diplomacy, as if this entire location wasn’t just a gauntlet; I appreciate the effort, even though it’s misplaced. 


Aside from the overall pyramid’s lazy interplanar backstory, there’s one other element worth highlighting, which is a few rooms linked with the Far Plane on the second story. Once players hit “Encounter T3: The Heart of Madness,” they wander into a “strange chamber [that] reeks with the fell influence of the Far Realm. A mind flayer named Xzathral tried to create a gate out of the pyramid. He sought to contact a being called Dalmosh, a creature of insatiable hunger. The ritual failed. Instead of contacting Dalmosh and creating an escape path from this place, it turned Xzathral into a pile of pulsing flesh and transformed the area around his workshop into living flesh. Only the powerful magic of the pyramid prevented the transformation from spreading.”


Essentially, there’s a set of three encounters dealing with the aftermath of this event, including even a vortex to the Far Plane… which doesn’t do anything interesting and instead just teleports players about the room it’s in. Pyramid offers a small taste of the Far Plane, but really it’s just another flavor of the monster zoo potpourri, and soon enough players will move onto the next flavor and think little of it. The lack of coherency in the adventure makes it difficult to extrapolate anything interesting from this series of encounters. 

A Far Plane breach sounds exciting, but in reality it’s just a different texture on the walls, at least in this particular instance.

Oh yes, and as a last note, we’re still using that terrible encounter format that Wizards decided on at the end of Third Edition, which I have now learned is called the “Delve” format (and if you think it’s bad for books, wait until you see it used in PDFs for Dungeon…) . In order to highlight battles, this entire adventure is divided into two books, one of which is short and largely concerns things like story and characters, the other of which is long and just consists of describing each battle in a two-page spread. This does work better here in Fourth Edition than before, as the game’s focus on combat matches well with the game’s design. If you want something from your adventures besides a string of fights, then it’s still miserable, but for a straight-up dungeon crawl I get it. The less considered problem with this format is that it also informs designers and causes them to make combat the focus. It’s a feedback loop that serves, as with the rest of Fourth Edition, to put combat first, and so while this is a best use case scenario, that still doesn’t mean I like seeing this format being the unquestioned choice for all adventures. 


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