A Review of the Sword of the Dales Trilogy
With Tips for the DM
The Sword of the Dales Trilogy is a series of three adventure modules written by Jim Butler and published in 1995. It was designed for a party of 4-6 players, levels 1-4, and uses the Second Edition AD&D rules. I ran these adventures c. 1999, and I have a lot of fond memories of the experience. I also had a few frustrations with the modules. I have written plot summaries of the modules elsewhere, so I will just try to state here what I think were the good and bad points, and give the DM a few tips on what to look out for when running them.
These adventures were written back when TSR was trying very hard to produce a kid-friendly product. Dark themes are kept to a minimum, illustrations have at best a PG rating, and unlike some more recent products, the layout is very simplified. Some people prefer the darker material of recent years, but I am perfectly happy with a PG or PG-13 rating. I may want to run these for my children some day. The only problem I have with the kid-friendliness is that in trying to simplify things, I think the author sometimes left out important explanations that the DM needs in order to understand what is going on. He also expected the players to follow exactly the path set out in the adventure, and din't give the DM a lot of guidance about what to do if the players make a different choice.
There were two places where this caused me a good bit of trouble. One was in the lower level of Gothyl's tower when the heroes were told to touch the skulls and recite a phrase that would free Randal. Gothyl, appearing as Hedistrin, tells the PCs:
"Across the lands and rivers below," she states, her eyes glancing to Randal Morn. "I heard one of the wizards say that this phrase would release Randal from his entrapment, but someone must touch the skulls of the skeletons nearby as the phrase is spoken. This will purge his presence from them." (Emphasis added.)
That makes it sound as if the heroes should touch all of the skulls, or at least more than one skull. My players gathered around the skeletons, and each one touched two skulls, subjecting them to two attacks by the spirits of the dead apprentices. When I told them that something was attempting to possess them, they assumed that they had made a mistake in performing the ritual, and began trying different combinations and permutations with the skull touching.
Granted, there may have been only one sober person at the table that night (it wasn't me), but I think the wording was confusing. That only worked to Gothyl's advantage, of course, so there's no reason why she should have been more clear. It would have just been nice to have the misunderstanding anticipated and guidance provided for the eventuality. I very nearly got a total party kill as a result of it.
The other problem I ran into was when the PCs reached Dagger Falls during the final module. Rather than the entire party entering the town to do reconaissance, they split up. The two who were deemed better at that sort of thing went into the city, and the rest made camp in the woods outside. The two in town managed to get into a tavern brawl, and land in jail. Meanwhile, the rest of the group was captured by a Zhent patrol. Before I could get the latter into the jail, though, the other two had already managed to escape. Getting the entire party where it was supposed to be at the appointed time was quite a challenge.
It's not clear to me why the PCs would want to enter the town in broad daylight anyway. It seems like they would have had better luck going over the wall at night. If they had thought of that tactic, or if they had used a good disguise, there is no suggestion on how to handle those situations. Any good DM would give clever players a good chance of success for coming up with creative solutions. He would have had to completely abandon the module at that point though.
In short, I have to say that the author was not able to find a happy medium between overloading the DM with information, and leaving him with insufficient guidance.
That said, however, we had a great time playing the module. I recommend it, with the above caveats, to any DM running a campaign in the Dalelands area. It covers an important piece of Realms history that you will want your players to be involved with.
For DMs who do not use the 2.0 rules, converting this adventure may be problematic. Although most of the monsters and villains are fairly generic, the encounter levels will have to be adjusted, especially if the party begins at 1st level. Second edition characters were notoriously front-loaded with skills and abilities. They were a lot more powerful in proportion to monsters of the same hit dice than 3e characters. I started the adventure with my group at second level, using 2e rules, and there were 5-6 of them. I still managed to kill one of the characters with the undead encounter in Shraevyn's tomb. I don't think that a group of first level 3e characters would survive that far, unless the numbers of their enemies were greatly reduced. Their first non-random hostile encounter is with a group of 20 kobolds. Granted, kobolds are weak, but 10-12 have an EL of 3 in third edition. If a first level party had no random encounters during the day, and if the DM was willing to let them sleep through the night, and if the players were fairly experienced, and if the kobolds did not make too much use of their terrain advantage, the heroes might be able to survive the encounter without DM help.
The DM should also take into account some of the differences between the 2e and 3e versions of monsters. For example, an encounter with three stirges, though probably not too much for the group, may significantly effect future encounters due to the Con damage suffered by characters. That encounter occurs within a day of an encounter with a group of four Ftr2 Zhents, which is already a very dificult fight (EL 5!!), and will be much worse if some of the players are drastically low on hit points. One possible solution would be to have Lhaeo give them a potion of restoration or two when he sends them off.
This will be less of a problem when the PCs run into the hairy spiders (use small monstrous spider) in Spiderhaunt. Their next encounter will with Madarn, an ally. He will take them to Telimas, who can restore any Str damage they've suffered.
There are monsters for which the non-2e DM will need stats if he is to run the adventure as written.
- Arch-Shadow - This is what Gothyl is. I don't know any product that provides third edition stats for her. Presumably, this would be a template in 3e. It's very much like a ghost, and one could simply use that template on a wizard of at least 11th level (the minimum necessary to attempt lichdom). I would replace its touch attack with one that bestows negative levels though. Also, the Sword of the Dales is now essentially its phylactery, and it will attempt to protect the sword from being destroyed.
- Darkenbeast - Detailed in Monsters of Faerun.
- Demi-Shade - This is what Gothyl aspires to be, and becomes by killing Ilthond. Again, I don't know where alternate stats could be found for this creature. My suggestion is to use the ghost template as above, but advance the creature seven levels for the levels she drained from Ilthond. This will make her a very high level recurring villain for an ongoing campaign. Typically, after becoming a demi-shade, the creature spends time planning its next move. Gothyl will need to secure her phylactery asap, though, lest some bright adventurer figure out her true nature and how to destroy her.
- Firestars - Unknown. This is not an important encounter, though, and may be either skipped or faked.