Demon Queen's Enclave

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 130: Demon Queen’s Enclave




The combination of Fourth Edition’s mechanics and the “Delve” adventure format made it difficult for any module during this era to focus on aspects of D&D not related to combat, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t try. While yes, most adventures have featured rote skill challenges and even a handful of NPC’s worth chatting with, Demon Queen’s Enclave is the first (official) one in this edition that emphasizes the role playing part of the game. While players are going to end up in at least a few fights to finish this story, for the most part that means that other plans have fallen apart. It may come as little surprise, then, that in most regards this is also the best adventure yet published for the edition by Wizards of the Coast, and it’s quite possible to end up the best one they ever do considering how different it is from both what came before and what I’ve seen so far afterward.

In Demon Queen’s Enclave, for one of several half-baked reasons the PCs journey down to the Underdark, in specific a drow city named Phaervorul that’s besieged by a force of demons and undead sent by Orcus, or rather one of Orcus’s followers. This might not sound particularly enticing, but the draw here is that this incursion has thrown the settlement into complete disarray. They’ve factionized, and it’s likely that players go from sussing out what the hell is going on down here to figuring out how to use these factions against each other. There’s the current ruler, Matron Urlvrain, but also the nihilistic wizard Jhaelent who wishes to see the entire city razed to the ground, plus their various minions with their own plots, and another group entirely who’ve allied with the invaders. The situation is complicated enough that an intelligent party can likely get through this entire half of the adventure with no, or at least minimal and one-sided, battles. The Underdark half of this adventure is all about conversation and gathering intelligence, and because of this the potential for excellent roleplaying abounds. 


Eventually, the PCs find the source of these demonic forces, which is a portal to the Shadowfell located in the house of an Orcus-worshiping drow. From here, the adventure goes planar, and while this means that the politicking is toned down a bit, it’s still the most interesting interplanar journey we’ve seen so far, and it doesn’t entirely do away with talking as a solution to problems either. 

The odd, interplanar web between these two worlds.

First, players arrive at a “strange bridge of webs,” which due to largely irrelevant lore reasons connects Phaervorul to Deadhold, the Shadowfell realm where Orcus’ minions are coming from. This location is an in-between part of the multiverse, and “the web bridges hang over a folded portion of interplanar space that appears to the adventurers as a bottomless pit.” I’m rather fond of this transitional area and appreciate the concept, even if it begs a few questions regarding how all of this fits together with the rest of the multiverse. However, since nothing in the Fourth Edition cosmology ever really fits well together anyhow, it’s easy to ignore this entirely and just take it as a cool space.

Once players go through a second portal—I guess portals in this cosmology aren’t very good at being portals?—they arrive in Deadhold, which “exists within a splinter of the Shadowfell.” What exactly does this mean regarding the rest of the plane is never explained. Can you reach it from just wandering the Shadowfell, or is it in its own weird location? Is it like the Domains of Dread, or something else entirely? The only real answer that can be given is that the designers both don’t care and don’t know, and while that’s unfortunate, the location itself is surprisingly coherent. Deadhold is essentially a demiplane, and in fact was originally an astral domain seized by Orcus, who then slew its residents and “raised the slain residents as the living dead and drew the realm into the Shadowfell where he could hide it and cultivate it for future use. Today, it serves as a staging ground for his once-great legion of zombies.” Deadhold is “a great desert covering some 700 square miles,” spherical in shape, and only containing two main points of interest: the Sea of Rot, which is a large valley circumscribing the entire realm and serving as a holding pen for zombies, and Hordethrone, a small settlement where Orcus’ potential exarch hangs out and planned his attack against the rest of the drow. 


Now what, you are probably asking, is an exarch? That’s a good question, as I’m fairly certain it was never actually explained in the edition at least up through this point, though many books and articles make use of the term. For reasons unclear, exarchs are essentially a new name for proxies from Planescape. Why this name? Fuck if I know. And like with so much of this cosmology, not explaining things while assuming familiarity only caused a lot of confusion back in the day. I never got a sense of whether the term caught on or not, and the one real change that seems to have been made between them and proxies is that now demi-powers such as demon lords, i.e. Orcus, can have exarchs whereas they weren’t powerful enough to have proxies before. Likely this is because there used to be more logic with how proxies were imbued with divine power, and now it’s just an ineffable process. This change seems both fine and largely irrelevant, but it seemed worth noting.

The Keeper is kinda underwhelming as pictured here. Maybe don’t show this one to the players.

Back in the adventure, even now that we’re in a realm largely made up of demons and the undead doesn’t mean that negotiation has been completely devalued. For instance, the first encounter of this world is with “The Keeper,” a physical manifestation of the plane itself, which never presents itself as a combat encounter no matter what players want to do. In general, the inhabitants of this world are more likely to be hostile than the drow, but they’re rarely completely untenable to parley, it’s just that their self-interest is even more craven than the drow’s. Ultimately, players will have to fight with the potential exarch and kill him, but otherwise it’s possible, and indeed a good idea, for players to spend their time here sneaking around rather than punching everyone they see. 


Even the conclusion of the adventure is strong, despite being covered in two short paragraphs as an afterthought at the end of the final encounter. The Keeper from earlier wanted players to help free this demiplane (or whatever it is) from Orcus’ grasp, and players have the chance to do so if they so wish, allowing the Keeper to take back his hold of the realm. I always love when players manage to have an effect on the planes, and while this one is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, it feels logical with what came before it and momentous for the players.

I think that this is supposed to be an image of Orcus’ realm in the Shadowfell. Probably?

Despite my appreciation for this adventure, I’m still hesitant to consider running Demon Queen’s Enclave. I don’t like using drow because, well, they’re pretty damn racist. It’s possible for intelligent players to write and run adventures using them that cut against their racist conception, but this ain’t one of them, and in the case of this adventure they’re ultimately a stereotypically evil settlement of dark-skinned people who need to be subdued. I know that Wizards of the Coast, after decades of prodding from players, has been trying to make their depiction less racist, but personally I just have too much knowledge of their history to be able to include them in good conscience. And while it would be possible to change their society into one of, I don’t know, dwarves or bullywugs or whatever else you feel like, at that point you’re really designing your own adventure entirely because of how intrinsically all of the drow lore is linked with what’s contained here. 


So yes, this features surprisingly strong story design and a worthwhile look at the planes, but is really hamstrung by so much of it centering around a racist part of the game’s fantasy mythology. I don’t intend to tell anyone else how to play the game, but it’s something I can’t ignore, and as a result I wind up thinking that the otherwise-best-adventure of the setting might still be a bit of a letdown. I realize that I haven’t talked about this much (at all?) with previous adventures that include drow, but in those cases things weren’t so focused on roleplaying—when it’s a dungeon crawl it hardly matters whether you’re smashing up drow or dragons or whoever else, as ultimately they’re just statblocks standing in the way, but their representations feel a lot more real when you’re supposed to talk and scheme with them. Something about this just ends up harder for me to stomach, which probably shouldn’t be the case but is just how I feel. Your mileage may vary, but lately considerations of racism in fantasy are more prominent in my mind, and I feel remiss about not talking about this at all when covering things like Expedition to the Demonweb Pits or The Harrowing in the past.

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