Prince of Undeath

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 138: Prince of Undeath




I was legitimately unsure at times if we’d make it, but we’re finally here, the end of Fourth Edition’s HPE adventure path. We’ve had dungeon crawls, more dungeon crawls, one surprisingly open and fun adventure, and then a few more linear dungeon crawls but sometimes in environments doing their best to pretend we’re not in a dungeon. It’s taken us all the way from level 1 to level 30, and we’ve moved from a couple adventures that were widely played on a massive scale to a series that online research suggests maybe half a dozen groups ever touched. We’ve even now found our way into the most metal and ridiculous scenario the game has featured since the classic Throne of Bloodstone kicked our asses back in First Edition AD&D. I haven’t really enjoyed reading through all of these modules—and joyfully skimmed the ones that I didn’t need to cover in full—but it has been an edifying experience. Thank God there’s only so much more of Fourth Edition left (and relatively few adventures, aside from the still-terrifying-to-me prospect of finishing the Scales of War Adventure Path), is I guess what I’m trying to say. 

Prince of Undeath kicks off right after Kingdom of the Ghouls ends, with players pursuing the fragments of longtime McGuffin/primordial Timesus. That’s right, moments afterthe last big battle ended, it’s time for PCs to start battling again so that they can take over a ship, do some more battles, take the ship down to another battlefield, and then battle a few more times until Orcus himself gets his face punched in. My general sense of the adventure in actual play, from the handful of reviews and posts mentioning it still available online, is that like the rest of the adventure path and also all other early Fourth Edition modules the fights are actually pretty easy and the balance all of whack, thus leading one kind soul to even create a stunningly good conversion guide for bringing the entire thing up to par with what would sometimes be called edition 4.5 while also making the overall storyline more coherent and sensible. That’s right, despite its less than half-decade length, there was a full-on revision of Fourth Edition, though the reason few know about this edition 4.5 is that by then so few people played Fourth Edition at all that the changes involved with it went largely unnoticed by the gaming public. I can’t tell you for sure, though, whether it’s actually as easy as claimed because I’ve never played this adventure or anything else remotely this high level in Fourth Edition (I’ve never touched anything in “epic” tier), and nor will I ever do so. What I’m here for is the story and lore surrounding this string of over-the-top battles, and despite the fact that this is essentially a set of 30 encounters hastily glued together, there is still an awful lot of lore to dig into. 

The Shevaithan doesn’t look quite as stupid as its name suggests, but it also doesn’t look great.

The adventure is divided into four main parts, plus a series of ridiculous fights at its conclusion. All of this takes place off the Prime, i.e. the “natural world,” and in fact it’s only the silly conclusion that’s not set within the Abyss, though it’s also not really the Abyss as you’re probably familiar with. We’ll get to that in a bit, but in short this is another adventure HEAVILY reliant on Fourth Editon’s cosmology, and while it can be retrofitted to other settings, it doesn’t mesh well with the Great Wheel. It’s a Fourth Edition-ass Fourth Edition adventure, and so you’re going to have to suspend a lot of disbelief as far as the makeup of the multiverse and the logic of how any of it fits together are concerned (let alone the logic of its NPCs). Events are contorted around the adventure, and the sense that this is a real place with real people living their lives outside of what’s happening is never going to become remotely plausible. Which isn’t to say that there’s nothing interesting going on here, just that there’s roughly as much roleplaying involved here as there would be in an average session of Heroquest.


Players begin by being teleported onto a “chaos ship,” which I want to be clear is not remotely the same thing as the ships of chaos from In the Abyss, which were designed by the Doomguard and are a key metaplot point from the early Planescape setting. This ship, with the beyond terrible name Shevaithan, is an incredibly contrived location that just so happens to have portals or other access to every location players are going to visit in this adventure. Its existence is also a bit weird otherwise, in that it’s far smaller and crappier than its two brethren who left beforehand, and while it’s supposedly there to transplant Doresain and a few remnant parts of Timesus, this feels like a tenuous stretch, and so the ship feels like it’s there just for the convenience of allowing the adventure to take place… which shouldn’t be necessary for a group of this level, but the adventure also invents new rules about teleportation in the Abyss that says it’s only possible, uhh, when the adventure wants you to be able to do so. Seriously. Once the ship’s captain is dispatched, a failsafe occurs and the ship is stuck until released from moorings all the way back in Everlost, which conveniently has a teleportation circle leading exactly where characters need to go. Huh, what a coincidence</sarcasm>.

Everlost was established in Third Edition’s Fiendish Codex I, which also includes other bits of information reused here such as the name of Orcus’ castellan, Harthoon. But this is set in a special part of Everlost never previously mentioned, the Red Hold, which is Orcus’ incredibly metal primary palace. First, players need to make their way past the Death Gate, an encounter that is emblamatic of how the entire adventure works. Players can immediately fight, or they can try to parlay, in which case the guardians laugh at the PCs for a while and then attack. There is no other option for getting past this area, and for inexplicable reasons (which contradict later material…) it’s impossible to pass into the Red Hold except through the Death Gate. Oh, and just as inexplicably, two of the gate’s guardians are beholders—turns out a lot of beholders work for Orcus and are chilling in Everlost, though this weirdness is never mentioned. 

Conversely, the Death Gate looks stupid as fuck.

Players will fight past an encounter literally named Bloodstorm, a smattering of ultra-high level undead, equally ridiculous demons, and then run into a… Ghost Door? What? Turns out, the Raven Queen has an encampment in the midst of Orcus’ own plane in his personal fortress just down the hall from where he spends most of his time. Logical! Getting in involves disarming a trap that creates infinite iron golems, but once there players can rest and relax with angels for as long as they like in an interplanar realm that shouldn’t exist. This demiplane, Talaberel, shouldn’t be possible because there’s no way to get into the Red Hold except past the Death Gate, right? Right?! But no, a buncha angels chill there, and just… yeah that’s about it. They don’t really do anything, but they do have a nice pad to hangout in. PCs can explain the plight of the multiverse and how it directly threatens the Raven Queen who these angels claim to serve, but regardless the angels say they’re not going to help. Given that their whole mission is to thwart Orcus this makes absolutely no sense, but at least it’s an interaction with NPCs that doesn’t involve swinging weapons. I also enjoy that players can try to warn the Raven Queen, but doing so or not has absolutely no effect on the adventure—railroading is a term that gets overused, but my god does Fourth Edition love doing it. 

After players destroy the four wards keeping their ship moored, possibly rescuing some slaves along the way (though the adventure seems to think this is a poor idea), they return to the execrably named Shevaithan and send it off towards the Forge of Four Worlds. Now, I have absolutely no idea what this location’s name is supposed to signify (what four worlds?), or why such a thing would be in the depths of the Abyss, but it’s a cool location. Players are of course too late to stop Timesus from being reformed—by now, they’re probably quite sick of always being too late to stop anything, and this isn’t going to improve anytime soon for them—but they can punch a lot of demons and random devils as they try to figure out what to do next. The forge itself is:


…a crystalline island mote of power pure—a lattice of raw elemental and arcane energy, congealed and crystallized into solid matter. Its interior is an intricate web of chambers and passageways guarded by the forgeborn—immortal abominations created to defend the Forge of Four Worlds.

At the heart of the Forge stands the Soulfire Furnace, where incalculable energy of the Abyss is channeled and shaped. It is written in obscure texts that the Forge of Four Worlds offers the power of a primordial to those who can control the Soulfire Furnace. Among some archmages and eternal seekers, it is said that the Forge of Four Worlds might in fact be constructed from the essence of an ancient primordial.

Or in short, yadda yadda yadda primordials, something something primordials Abyss elemental evil something. What does it actually look like or feel like to be there? I’m still not clear, and I read through multiple sections purporting to explain it at varying points in this book multiple times. 

Another question you might ask is why, exactly, are devils attacking the Forge? Presumably it’s to stop Orcus, but if so why are they making such a stupid attempt? It also seems worth remembering that in Fourth Edition the Blood War is at a truce, and so this huge attack makes even less sense unless they’re suddenly going to change that aspect of reality and push the setting’s metaplot forward (hint: they’re not). There’s also a confusing bit where the demons are still trying to put Timesus back together, even though he’s long gone from this location? This is really where I lost parts of the plot, as the Forge has turned into a chaotic battlefield where no one’s motivations make that much sense. Timesus is forged and gone, so why are the demons still defending the area? Same with the devils attacking it? Worst of all, in order to explain what PCs are expected to do next, the adventure literally has random knowledge inserted into characters’ heads telling them to head to the Heart of the Abyss. It’s about the laziest form of storytelling I can imagine and almost impressive in how little of a fuck it gives about letting players decide anything for themselves.

Timesus seems fine (it helps that Matias is a much better artist than Adam Gillespie…), but the Heart of the Abyss he’s smashing up is singularly unimpressive.

The Heart of the Abyss is another new location, and though it’s less intentionally vague than the Forge of Four Worlds, I still rather hate it. The Abyss in prior editions was terrifying because of its infinitude. It was beyond comprehension, an endless black hole of evil with no purpose. But in Fourth Edition, there’s an origin story for the Abyss and with this an endpoint. The heart is:


Where Tharizdun planted a shard of evil in the Elemental Chaos, it metamorphosed into a crystalline Heart that grew in size and power over the eons. Traveling all the way down the throat of the Abyss to find the Heart at its foundation is nearly impossible. Only a dozen or so creatures have previously managed it. Of these, less than a handful managed to carve off a splinter of the Heart for their own foul purposes. The true nature of the Heart may never be known, but those who know of its existence believe it is evil made manifest.

I.e., it’s where Tharizdun evilled up the joint and made the Abyss (Fourth Edition loves Tharizdun and always tries to make fetch happen with him). Most importantly for this adventure, it’s now decreed that the reason Orcus wanted to free Timesus wasn’t anything having to do with his portfolio, even though this made sense and at least tied Timesus in thematically with the Raven queen, it’s that a splinter of the Heart can be used to kill a god. Timesus himself is both controlled by Orcus and not. He seems fully cognizant and able to make decisions, but at the same time he’s just endlessly smashing the Heart until he dies. He even has a hilarious evil villain final line in which he tells players what to do next in order to keep the adventure going. He doesn’t make much sense, but this part of the adventure is actually surprisingly short and by now players are used to just moving onto whatever fight the adventure wants them to have next.

But how, you might ask, should players get out of this location given that we know teleporting from the bottom of the Abyss is impossible? Well it’s not impossible if the adventure wants you to, and Vecna intervenes to create a super convenient teleportation circle keyed up to exactly where characters need to go next, despite that this breaks all the rules and that if Vecna was so aware of what’s happening then why wouldn’t he fix these problems himself? “In addition, the sigils provide the adventurers with a one-time benefit—passing through the portal also provides the benefits of an extended rest.” Now, there’s lazy writing, and then there’s this, which is such a half-assed way of sticking things together that I’m almost in awe. It feels like the authors threw up their hands and just said, “You guys want to fight Orcus, go fight Orcus already. Fuck the story, let’s go punch a demon.” And you know what, fair enough. 

I know that this is supposed to be Orcus, but doesn’t that just look like Baphomet with wings taped onto his back? Also: I know that the Raven Queen is supposed to be insanely unimpressive, but even so this is rather insulting.

In addition to all of this, Prince of Undeath has all of the usual Fourth Edition adventure problems, i.e. very little artwork (even less good…) and the baffling Delve format that makes events as difficult as possible to understand. Because so many of the fights are located on the chaos ship, even the battle maps are pretty middling and pointless, as it’s largely the same thing reprinted a dozen times over the course of the book. I’m also rather unimpressed with the new demons. Demons have always been about power, but here we have CR 25-27 demons who are “the lowest” of all demons. Uhh, what? No. I also would be more partial to the new fathomals given their wonderfully horrific artwork were it not noted how much cooler they are than classic demons, as this type of try-hard approach just feels unimpressive—that their lore relates directly to primordials doesn’t help, either.


It’s a dumb end to a dumb adventure, and I’m trying to imagine just how many hours it would take spent in pure, unadulterated Fourth Edition battles to get this far into the adventure path and it makes me kinda sad. I’ve long been convinced that roleplaying games are a strange art form in and of themselves, and with this able to produce transformative experiences the same as other works of sublime art… but this is about as far on the opposite end of RPGs as it’s possible to get. It’s dumb and schlocky and probably a lot of fun for people who absolutely love this battle system, but for anyone else I’d give this adventure, and with it at the very least the previous two leading up to it, a hard pass.

Weirdly, I do find it fitting that the villain of this adventure was Orcus. After all, it centers around murdering a god (as ridiculously weak as she may be), which is something few but he have succeeded at in the past, and it also features nonsensically high level characters murdering everything in sight. But it also puts the spotlight on the least interesting version of the planes, one not only uninterested in ideas or characters but even logic and simple common sense. I can’t really see the appeal here, even if intermittent parts seem like they have potential were they placed into a far better story. Here’s hoping that few other Fourth Edition adventures touch on the planes and that we can put this era behind us as soon as possible. 

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