Death's Reach

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 134: Death’s Reach




This series began because of my love for the Planescape setting, and I always meant to keep the focus as much on it and its antecedents/descendents as possible. Occasionally this has meant the appearance of other campaign settings, but it wasn’t until Fourth Edition that this became so completely unavoidable. Reading through these books and articles, it’s become increasingly clear to me that while lip service is made towards Eberron and the Forgotten Realms, Fourth Edition D&D really is Nentir Vale/Points of Light/whatever else you want to call it; as a result, everything involved with its conception of the planes is derived from this focus. Unfortunately, though, Nentir Valley has also come to seem increasingly small and insular. There’s the single pantheon of milquetoast deities, the handful of threats, and half-dozen planes… and that’s it. Compared with the infinity of infinities that is Planescape, it’s all extremely underwhelming, and that goes doubly so when we consider its sole conception of the afterlife, a topic that’s impossible to avoid with the adventure Death’s Reach because it plays so central a role in its almost non-existent plot. 

Originally published in April of 2009, this adventure by Bruce R. Cordell and Chris Sims continues the barely tangible adventure path series of modules that stretched from level one to level 30 (yeah, Fourth Edition went up that high… it was not pretty). We’ve looked at a couple of these before, but if you haven’t read those earlier articles that’s hardly relevant, as aside from a couple quick nods to earlier events there’s no real linkage with what came before. This is also the first of three Epic level adventures, and as such I doubt many would be terribly interested in even attempting at converting it for another system. The PCs for this adventure are demi-gods, and along their quest they will need to dispatch a demon lord’s aspect and parlay with a god on essentially equal terms. It’s not an adventure for the faint of heart, or for anyone with any conception of the afterlife in their campaign differing the slightest from this particular campaign setting’s. Plug-and-play this is not.


The overarching plot for this adventure concerns all of that nonsense particular to Nentir Vale that I have a general distaste for. Orcus is trying to steal souls from the Raven Queen in order to usurp her. He’s doing this with power derived from a captured-but-not-quite-dead primordial who used to eat souls for lunch, and, umm… yeah that’s it. That’s the plot. And most of the NPCs, too, now that I think about it. I sure hope you like fighting, because if you’re playing this module then you’re about to do a whole lot of it for half a dozen or more sessions. 

The Raven Queen feels like she’s ripped straight from a World of Apocalypse book in the 90s that no one can quite remember the nae of.

To quote the module, “This adventure has four distinct parts … Zvomarana, Citadel of the Raven Queen, Death’s Reach, and the Reliquary of Timesus.” All four parts are actually set in the Shadowfell, though they’re all distinct and largely unconnected districts of the plane. That’s one of the weirdnesses here, in that for the first time we’re now learning that while Shadowfell is theoretically one location that you can get around by normal overland travel, that seems to not actually be the case. At all. These four sections each seem like their own demi-plane, only connected with each other or the rest of the Shadowfell in the most tenuous manner. If that seems contrived to you, at odds with a naturalistic and lived-in conception of this universe, then you’re paying attention. 

Zvomarana may be “the Raven Queen’s holiest of temples,” but it’s also really quaint and seems to only ever have half a dozen or so worshippers actually hanging around, and fewer by the time players show up. Ebon Riders, i.e. minions of Orcus, have ransacked the place, but it’s still necessary to wander around in order to pass through a series of magical gates leading to the Raven Queen’s actual lair, which is also on the Shadowfell though inaccessible otherwise. Whatever, this basically takes the form of five fights, plus a brief conversation with a ghost who will never be seen or heard from again. Roleplaying!


Once they’ve teleported to the Raven Queen’s Citadel, players might wonder what the area looks like… and if so, that’s all left to the DM, because there’s no map or overall portrayal included here despite that being one of the four major locations. Oh sure, the room they arrive in is briefly described, but that’s really it. Maybe the Raven Queen’s citadel is just one large room filled with people who inexplicably want to beat you up (you know an adventure is bad when even your allies want to “test” you with a fight…)? I don’t know, it’s all very rushed and half-assed, though before players can get their bearings and start asking too many questions she’s whisked them off to the next area of the adventure, Death’s Reach, which has some Dawn War lore associated with it but is otherwise just a barren wasteland with a couple locations 

I can’t help but be reminded of how Planescape treated the Powers, which was as individuals beyond the ken of even the most worthy mortals. They were truly impressive, and their worship made sense considering their scope and abilities. Gods were, well, godly. The Raven Queen, by contrast, seems like any other random quest-giving individual, i.e. not nearly as strong as the party. Her unimpressiveness during this encounter is almost stunning, and she seems completely helpless in the face of even the slightest aggression from Orcus. If the players feel like taking over her entire domain, it feels like there’s little she could do to stop this, and at this point they’re far from as powerful as they’ll be at the end of this adventure path.

Aspects aren’t an intrinsically lame concept, but that their level of individualism and interiority changes with every appearance keeps them from ever feeling impressive. They always feel like an excuse to sell miniatures.

Death’s Reach is largely another series of fights, but there is one individual here who can be spoken with instead, Calah, “an angel of secrets.” This is a spy sent by Vecna to keep players… doing what they’re already doing, so, uhh, yeah it’s pretty much irrelevant. After a couple more fights, PCs arrive at their destination and summon an Aspect of the Raven Queen, who in complete contradiction with information about aspects from before acts as her minion—it’s the same aspect vs. avatar issue we saw in Third Edition, except avatars seem to no longer be part of the game. This causes  an aspect of Orcus arrive (why?), and players kill him swiftly and easily; why he’s here and not Orcus himself if this is that important a scheme is never explained. Also weird is that the Raven Queen’s aspect is part of this combat but never receives stats. To repeat myself from earlier, it’s all very contrived. 


Following a string of three or more additional battles, the PCs make into the primordial’s reliquary, where they’ll… fight through another dozen battles. The first of these is possible to parley past, but otherwise it’s just a massive series of battles against largely the same enemies as before. In order to shake things up a bit there’s also a handful of traps and some aberrations to kill along the way (a tenuous Far Realm connection is of course supplied to make some sense of their appearance), but mostly it’s just smashing in a lot of demons again and again and again. Some of them are new to this book, but none are exciting enough to warrant ever being used or even mentioned again in the future. 

Anything touching on the Dawn War even slightly means forcing this particular cosmology onto your campaign. And the Dawn War itself is pretty stupid.

Death’s Reach is exactly the type of D&D module that Planescape was fighting against back in the 90s. There’s nothing philosophical here, and little chance for discussion or roleplaying. Any exploration must be done within a very limited scope, and to say that the rails of this one are ironclad would be an understatement. In essence, it’s a series of 20+ battles with slightly varying scenery, but for the most part that’s it, and if you’re not into fighting your way through every D&D session then this isn’t going to be for you. We learn little new about the Shadowfell or its inhabitants, beyond just how quaint and unimpressive everything involving the Raven Queen really is. She seems weak, her holdings meager, and at this point it’s also feeling like Orcus isn’t much more impressive himself. In place of the infinite, awe-inspiring and mind-shattering scope of the planes of the Great Wheel, we’re left with Fourth Edition’s conception of the planes as a series of pitiful skirmishes. Sadly, at this point in the adventure path, it’s hard to imagine things getting better anytime soon, though I have the distinct feeling that we’re going to be stuck away from the Prime Material Plane until the end. 


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