Looking Over Dungeon Delve: Caverns of Demise


It's still just cover art

Premise

A champion of the storm god took a divine artifact to the titular Caverns of Demise, from which they haven’t returned, so priests of the god hire the party to retrieve the artifact and find out the champion’s fate.


Good

Despite some heroic implications, the hook is close enough to something out of pulp literature that almost any adventurer would likely have at least some interest in it.


The ideas for expanding the adventure are both nice, taking advantage of the Caverns being “a nexus of planar portals” to pull together all sorts of weirdness while also highlighting potential social/political tensions just waiting for the players to exploit them.


The treant and zephyrs work together rather well, with the former restricting movement and radiating enemy-only damage passively in addition to soaking up a good amount of incoming damage while the latter can deal a surprising amount of focused damage against disabled opponents with incredible mobility and the ability to turn invisible frequently to offset their melee-only threat range. Despite how simple both creatures are, it’s a solid combination with multiple layers of synergy even before the terrain makes the zephyrs seem even more mobile.


Notwithstanding the nonsensical mechanics of failing to save against their ongoing damage, the inferno bats’ stat block is a nice representation of a relentlessly aggressive melee fighter in a different way from previous examples of capturing that archetype well.


The unstable alcoves that can be collapsed in area 2 are a cool touch that goes unnoticed in most write-ups of non-engineered (or even engineered) structures.


The beholder’s “aura” is a great way of letting it use more eye rays without giving it an overwhelming number of attacks on its turn, and I like the flavor of its disintegrate ray causing severe damage over time instead of a single chunk of damage (though I prefer the older approach of disintegration being tantamount to death, but I know that’s counter to 4E’s design approach).


The wonky effects of the Far Realm impacting area 3 are a flavorful way of making the room feel alien, in stark contrast to the plainness of the previous areas.


Being able to recover and use the artifact is great, and its divine provenance helps justify why the creatures in the adventure aren’t using it themselves.


Salvageable

The treant’s aura should have flavorful descriptions when it affects the PCs.


The inferno bats and solamiths in area 2 serve roughly the same tactical purposes (punishing tight formations and attacking vulnerable targets who try hiding behind durable allies), so using both is somewhat redundant. I’d favor replacing two or three of the bats with a brute- or soldier-type fire elemental (or a second salamander noble, if I didn’t feel up to making a new creature) to have something drawing the party members together for the bats and solamiths to then take advantage of.


The “field of everflame” could be explained far less arbitrarily by just saying it represents the convective heat around the river of liquid fire.


The beholder’s death ray working against bloodied targets only is silly. It should threaten everyone.


Bad

Deciding by fiat that “the hidden exit from [area 1 can be found] only after defeating the monsters” is bad, lazy design. Not only is there no justification given as to why, but it also adds nothing to the adventure since the result of not finding the secret door is that further progress is impossible. That the same bad, lazy design is used in area 2 as well is a travesty of editing.


Need I point out how juvenile “[a]ny PC who strikes a solamith with a melee attack receives a soulfire retort in the face” is? The editor really didn’t care when reviewing this adventure, did they?


Narratively, the target of an inferno bat’s inferno touch is set on fire, and if they fail to put that fire out during their turn, it lashes out at all nearby allies. I have trouble imagining how that makes sense.


The boxed text for area 3 has a DC 22 Perception check to notice the energy ready to burst from the portals and a DC 22 Arcana/Dungeoneering check to notice the portals are related to the Far Realm, but the description for the portal traps has those same checks as DC 25.


Overall

This is a wonderful adventure. Granted, it can feel somewhat funhouse because of the major shifts in theme between the areas (similar to Emerald Dawn), but I’m less bothered by it here because the region is meant to be a nexus of planar portals rather than a temple to a delusional dragon “god”. Looking past that, though, there’s built-in greater context from the premise, three distinct encounters that all have both the creatures and the environments working together, and a throw-back, pulp adventure feel that culminates in the party recovering an artifact that they could potentially use thereafter.


On the downside, the design’s flexibility is limited because the creatures and environments are woven together rather closely, and the area descriptions need a lot of work from the GM to actually feel alien and unnatural (though area 3 does put forth some effort in that regard). Some amount of reskinning is certainly possible, but outright replacement of creatures is trickier to pull off successfully. And, of course, options for parley, stealth, or any other non-combat approaches are not supported by the text because it’s an official 4E product, so that has to come from the individual GM.


All in all, while it needs some work to really shine, this adventure is pretty great as-written. It won’t be suitable for use in every game, but it demands a spotlight in any game where it is used.

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