The Shadow Rift of Ubraforge

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 126: The Shadow Rift of Umbraforge

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When Wizards of the Coast took back their rights for Dragon and Dungeon magazines, they had a pretty good sense of what the most popular parts were. In the case of Dragon, this meant continuing the Demonomicon even if they no longer had access to the series’ original writer. For Dungeon, this meant kicking off a new adventure path, this time even longer than what came before due to the game’s new level cap of 30. However, what they didn’t think to do was to support this adventure path in the sister publication, or to even give a road map for how this path was going to develop. As a result of this and Paizo putting out some of its best work ever almost simultaneously (with Rise of the Runelords), the Scales of War path is largely forgotten. I’m sure some groups played through the entirety of its 19(!) adventures, but I have to imagine the number who made it all the way is incredibly small. That the adventures often stand alone poorly didn’t help much, either, and the whole affair is a strange footnote on the overall history of adventure paths. Even if you’re a diehard fan of this campaign style, this is probably the one you missed. 

I’m not going to try and write about the whole series here, as I found reading through it pretty miserable, in no small part due to its use of the Delve format that Wizards insisted on throughout Fourth Edition. The lack of a synopsis also makes it unclear how often this path actually heads away from the Prime, and if this were the only part that does so and I had to read through another 800 pages in order to find that out I think I’d go crazy. If you are interested in running this campaign, or adapting it to Fifth Edition or anything else, I highly suggest using this devoted Scales of War fan wiki as a resource, as it makes the entire process far, far more manageable (there’s even a synopsis!), and helps with linking things together when oftentimes Wizards’ own sloppiness made the overarching storyline tenuous-to-nonexistent. 

I admit, this artwork is pretty badass, even if it looks more than a bit like artwork for Mordor.

One of those failed linkages occurs in this very adventure, specifically in its incredibly bad first half. Umbraforge begins on the Prime and only arrives in Shadowfell midway through, but the journey there is ridiculous and insane. It involves hunting down a weapons supplier from earlier adventures, who makes a series of decisions that would make a Bond villain cringe. Allow me to quote a bit from an rpg.net forum series about this adventure path.

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Onwards to a poorhouse which the forces of darkness are using as a front for their arms and mercenary smuggling operation. The poorhouse is run by a pair of retired paladins. You read that right, paladins. Good job 4e took away their detect evil then eh? Worse, the big bad Sarshan is sitting in their common room keeping an eye out for the party! Worse, Modra is right downstairs! Honestly, you know when you want to start shouting at the screen when people are being dumb on the TV? Well I got some strange looks on the train reading this car crash I can tell you. So Sarshan sizes up the opposition (making the earlier skill challenge totally redundant), yet leaves them to track down Modra for him. Did I mention, he’s right downstairs! The party have to find the secret door in the cellar. If they don’t, again, the adventure comes to a crunching end. This sort of thing is where D&D gets it’s [sic.]video game rep from. The party get to go around knocking holes in walls while the crowd ignores their every move. If approached I guess the NPCs trot out the same line they did when you first walked in. Rubbish.

The idiots in this chamber haven’t realised that Modra is lurking in the room next door. Right, next, door. When your party finds him, he summons some wraiths and jumps through the portal while the undead deal with the party. Apparently the wraiths can’t return through the very portal they arrived through. There’s another portal in the room, with zero function, in fact it’s utterly inert. So why is it there? I don’t know, neither do the wraiths, neither does Modra, no one knows. Just have your party follow Modra through the portal would you please? So long as there isn’t more than 5 of you, as it has a totally arbritary [sic.] cap on it (don’t forget your GMPC!)

Hey at least when you get through, you get to have an adventure in the shadowfell before level 5. That’s quite exciting isn’t it? Hello? Are you still awake? Anyone?

None of this is even getting into a key that the PCs were supposed to grab from the previous adventure, which was never actually included there because the editors of this series just plain forgot to include it. “I ran this a while back, and had got a heads up on the wizards board as to the crucial error in the previous module. The PCs were supposed to get a key off of a dead dark creeper in ‘Siege of Bordin’s Watch.’ The problem was that the key wasn’t mentioned at all in ‘Siege’.”

The Shadowfell is apparently a goth paradise.

But not a lick of this introduction is actually planar, and the adventure does improve once PCs arrive in Shadowfell, which I suppose is faint praise but nonetheless true. One thing I hadn’t realized until now was that Shadowfell isn’t quite like the Plane of Shadows from previous editions, and this particular location looks more like Gehenna, filled as it is with “magma shadow rift that flows from a low, rocky ridge.” What the hell is a magma shadow rift, you ask? I have no real answer for that, except to say it’s typical magma in everything except location. Nothing about this plane having rivers of magma was mentioned before now, even in the Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters book or its accompanying artwork, but you know what, if this plane is going to have its own identity in this edition this is a cool addition. Shadowfell seems more hellish than anything prior to now (and no, I’m not going to start covering the Domains of Dread, i.e. Ravenloft realms, just because they’ve been moved to Shadowfell—they’re just as planar as they were before, but really they’re still their own weird niche of the multiverse), but I see nothing wrong with that, even if it leads to nonsense like “magma shadow rift.”

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Umbraforge is a worthwhile location, and usable beyond just this adventure… which is good, because I don’t think Shadow Rift itself uses it well at all. That being said, it’s also essentially Isengard with the serial numbers filed off and plonked into a random part of Shadowfell—as such, the end of the adventure is just an assault on the tower at Umbraforge’s center. Unfortunately, actually adventuring around this city is also largely beyond the purview of this adventure, which instead spends several pages on how to run it as a series of skill checks, none of which really matter anyhow. This really distills an entire town into a handful of dice rolls, and reduces the amount of roleplaying needed dramatically. Somebody, somewhere probably thought that this was a valid goal for part of a roleplaying game. They were so, so wrong.

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Eventually, players need to deal with the man who more or less told them to go this direction earlier, Sarshan, as despite apparently spending most of his time cosplaying as an old man back in the Prime, he’s also an evil wizard warlord whose armies of doom are threatening the multiverse. Err, ok then. There’s also some nonsense regarding the party’s original prey, Modra, but his actions make so little sense that I’m not going to get into it. 

Our first map of part of the Shadowfell. It’s a nice map, even if it hardly feels like a distinctive plane here.

Players stop Modra from completing his sabotage of the tower (don’t ask), fight their way to Sarshan, and then triumphantly… surrender? Sarshan asks the PCs to join him or die, blah blah blah, though no ideas are put forth for what to do if the party doesn’t surrender, making this some pretty intense railroading for something many PCs wouldn’t even consider an option. And then, afterward, Sarshan has to have a combat with the PCs and escape, which is always a mess because it means players can’t actually affect things, they’re mostly just watching as events happen in a preordained manner. The tower goes down, some earthquakes hit at overly convenient moments, and players make it to the overly convenient portal back to the Prime. 

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The most annoying thing about Umbraforge is that the town at its center does have potential. I can easily see cannibalizing the second half of this adventure for parts, making up a more coherent series of actions for the villain as an excuse to visit the tower, etc. But as it stands, I would absolutely stay the hell away from this adventure, which contains oodles of cliches and frighteningly little logic. It does develop this new(?) Shadowfell plane a bit in what seems to be a worthwhile manner, but the dross surrounding all of this made for a weird combination. This is also a huge problem for the overall adventure path, because you have to more-or-less play through all of them in order for everything to make sense, but when an early component is so poor (this is only part three) it puts a huge wall in the way of actually keeping the campaign running. Had Wizards done what Paizo did with their paths and explained the entire storyline from the beginning this wouldn’t have been as much of a problem, as this allows DMs to bridge things in their own way if they don’t like part of a campaign, but the company wanted to keep later elements secret and so this wasn’t the case. 

So yes, we get to journey to a new-ish plane for the first time ever, but unfortunately what happens there isn’t enough to recommend checking it out again. On the plus side, the Shadowfell doesn’t seem to be identical to the Plane of Shadow, so it’s possible there may be some fun developments here in the future. I wouldn’t hold my breath for this, but I suspect we’ll be spending a lot of time here soon so we might as well be optimistic about what that entails.


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