Brink of Madness

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 133: Brink of Madness




In my final article for Third Edition D&D, I briefly touched upon the first part of Robert J. Schwalb’s Tear of Ioun/Madness Trilogy, “Touch of Madness.” While this initial installment was published before the edition switch, the concluding chapters wouldn’t arrive until 2009. The entire trilogy centers around an incursion of the Far Realm into the Prime Material Plane (or, since that plane no longer exists in Fourth Edition, the World—yes, that’s seriously what they call it, I’m sorry). But despite the intrusion of kaorti, it isn’t until the final part of this trilogy that things really get interplanar, and weirdly that doesn’t mean a visit to the Far Realm itself. There’s a portal to this other existence in the end, but in order to get there, players are going to have to visit the Shadowfell first… and then go back to the Prime again. It’s a bit weird that way, and you know what, it’s probably easiest to explain if we start at the beginning of this series. 

In the first part of the trilogy, the PCs help defend against a town being attacked by grimlocks and grell, seemingly sent forth by a dude named Malachi for reasons related to returning the kaorti to the Prime. They search for more information and discover that the root of these attacks is an artifact called the Tear of Ioun, which seems to have been cursed in some manner. Before they can nab it, though, the artifact is stolen and whisked away. In the second adventure,”The Depths of Madness,” the PCs do more research about its eventual fate beneath the town (while also beating up a mind flayer for good measure). However, once again the Tear of Ioun has been stolen, though this time it’s clear by who and the adventure ends in a cliffhanger. The PCs need to charge off and follow the thief to Malachi’s lair in order to prevent a portal to the Far Realm from ripping apart reality.


Schwalb does excellent work with the first two chapters of this adventure, developing its central town Wellspring and its many NPCs far beyond what’s typical (especially for Fourth Edition). There’s an active investigation here, and it doesn’t feel like players have to necessarily kill everyone they meet. There are some brief dungeons to fight through, but on the whole the storyline feels driven by the PCs and their altruistic need to figure out just what exactly is wrong with this whole situation. Mysteries tend to be some of the best adventure formats, and Schwalb includes enough intrigue to make all of this compelling. Unfortunately, once things do get interplanar with the third part of the trilogy, “Brink of Madness,” all of that is largely thrown out in favor of a much more typical, and typically dull, dungeon crawl. 

Nothing Lovecraftian going on over here, why do you ask?

Published in Dungeon #163 (February 2009), the adventure requires players to follow the latest artifact thieves into the Shadowfell so that they don’t lose their trail. It’s actually this little excursion that made me feel like I needed to mention the adventures again in this column, as Shadowfell journeys are still (somewhat) infrequent and there’s something from this brief excursion that I want to highlight. 

Players begin their Shadowfell jaunt in a location meant to somewhat parallel where they left, only as a ruin, “the benighted streets of a ruined and empty Wellspring.” This follows what’s been established about this plane, that as a parallel it’s geographically akin to looking at the Prime through a darkened mirror. But only about thirty miles to the north players will come upon a portal leading back to the Prime, the Gloaming Gate, and here it leads to a far distant location with seemingly no Shadowfell parallel, the Fortress at World’s End. Umm, what the hell is the logic going on with any of this? If portals are supposed to essentially slip you between these two worlds, and they’re supposed to be roughly aligned, then this sort of use of the Shadowfell for long distance transportation shouldn’t be possible. None of this is a huge deal, but I do want to point out that the Shadowfell doesn’t work as a transitive plane anymore, and trying to do so even in this limited capacity only causes logistical gaps. 


Clearly the decision to locate the Fortress at World’s End far from Wellspring comes largely from a desire to locate this conclusion in a cold, essentially antarctic location in alignment with the Far Realm’s Lovecraftian origins (At the Mountains of Madness tells the story of an ill-fated adventure to the antarctic that collides with an ancient and heavily betentacled lost civilization).  And that’s all fine and good, but the actual location is very much a typical dungeon crawl, filled with traps, demons, and… yeah that’s mostly it, a lot of traps and demons. While the first two parts of this trilogy had numerous NPCs and varying possible approaches for investigation, this one is the type of Fourth Edition gauntlet that never interested me. As a conclusion to the campaign it’s understandable, but even so my feeling is that this final adventure’s decision to only consist of fights means that it fits poorly with what came before, as most people who enjoyed those modules  are likely to be disappointed by what they find here.

I’m yet to love any adventures featuring them, but I do really dig the Kaorti as a concept.

It’s not until the final room of this dungeon that anything terribly interesting happens: an encounter titled The Bleeding Universe. Malachi has just completed his ritual to open a portal to the Far Realm, and as such is looking classy, with “a distorted face [and] two eyestalks emerging from his eye sockets.” A round later, the kaorti Volarn who contacted Malachi and put him up to this nonsense dramatically arrives, also looking appropriately tentacular for the occasion: “A massive violet tendril with weird musculature rips through the portal. Its end spews out a humanoid form wrapped in glistening sheets of dark resin. Violet skin wriggling with tendrils is exposed here and there. The creature’s black eyes are also exposed, weeping thick oil.”

Most likely this is kinda it as far as the Far Realm goes, but on the pleasant chance that the PCs fail to kill this pair and their minions who gradually begin exiting the portal after Volarn, “Volarn pulls the rest of the Kaorti from the Far Realm. He then sets about spilling more of the Far Realm into the world until that plane’s unnatural forces wash across the planet.” There’s also some kaorti statblocks in the adventure’s appendix, complete with tidbits of lore that for the most part align with their previous appearance in Third Edition (including a reprint of their original artwork), with the exception of their integration with this particular adventure’s plot and the goddess Ioun.  


It’s an underwhelming ending to this trilogy, and while it hints at the potential for something weird and planar happening, that’s really all it does. I appreciate seeing the kaorti make another appearance, but in general it’s another planar letdown, and it feels as clear as ever that this edition doesn’t really know what it wants to do with any of its wonky cosmology. If I were to run this adventure series, it’s really “Brink of Madness” that I would feel the need to rewrite, whereas the first two parts remain quite good.

The Shadowfell is where people in Fourth Edition go to do evil just because that’s what they’re into lately. It’s the plane of half-assed motivations.

Before we finish, I want to take a couple paragraphs to do some housekeeping. “Brink of Madness” isn’t the only planar adventure in this issue of Dungeon, in fact every adventure in the digital magazine was planar. However, one of these was another module from the Scales of War Adventure Path, and though I idiotically decided to cover a previous part as its own article, “The Shadow Rift of Umbraforge,” I’ve since decided that I should just wrap up the rest of the path in one big feature like I did the previous Adventure Paths. I hadn’t realized at the time that so much of Scales of War is planar, and I don’t want to pollute this series with something like nine articles from the same storyline—two is already too many.


The third planar article is “House of Pain,” by Jennifer Clarke Wilkes, which is written in one of the “side trek”-style quickie formats that don’t have much of a storyline. “Someone has been kidnapping eladrin from settlements in the Feywild,” and one of the two encounters included in this brief adventure takes PCs to the Shadowfell. Side treks like this don’t actually do much at all to enhance the game’s lore or characters, though, and as a result just aren’t very interesting to me, at least not enough so to warrant their own articles devoted to them, and so don’t expect more than a mention like this in the future. 

Oh, and as a last note, if you’ve been enjoying this series or anything else we publish at Exposition Break, please consider dropping us a few coppers. I also miss advertising being able to support independent journalism, but until we somehow bring that distant world back into existence this is what makes our coverage possible. 

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