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Wednesday, August 6, 2014

UK4- When a Star Falls

The seminal UK series has many great modules, but without a doubt the best is UK4 When a Star Falls by Graeme Morris. As I alluded to here concerning the derro, UK4 is a match made in heaven. Derro and this module= awesome.

Given the module code, as one would surmise it was created by the UK division of TSR. It was released in 1984 and is the standard 32 pages with full color art for most of the maps that are excellent. The cover notes: for 6-10 players of levels 3-5, although I can't imagine playing with that many. The graphical layout includes the orange border at the top that was common for modules late in TSR's run of first edition. It also sports the Union Jack, why? Just because they can. The layout, the borders, the interior illustrations, the font for the titles, everything about it is great. The cover? Can't say enough about it, it fits the module perfectly. Also having one artist doing all of the artwork really pays off. Rather then a clash of different styles say as in, module A1- Slave Pits of the Undercity.

A flood of memories from the memory web...
I wanted to buy this based on the cover alone back in the day when I was a poor, cash strapped pre-teen and saw it in Dragon. And when I finally got it? I think I read it ten times in the span of a few days. When the argument breaks out on the web or which AD&D module was the best? I'm there backing UK4.

Everything about this module is perfect or near perfect. The stat blocks read easily, the text blocks for the PCs are crisp and concise and the art fits from stem to stern. And one of the best aspects of the module it has derro in it! When I first got it I had no idea, but considering that they are my favorite monster and this is my favorite module? Bonus! As I noted here, yeah, I'm a big fan of derro.

The premise of the module is that the PCs need to investigate a fallen star. The notes to the adventure has the party spotting the fall of the star fairly close to them, 3-4 nights prior to the start of the adventure proper. In the immediate area thereafter the party encounters a memory web, a monster that absorbs the memories. It is wounded as the elder sage's monks presumably had injured it prior to the PCs encountering it. A flood of memories are imparted to the PCs once the memory web is slain. A few of these memories are vital important and the PCs automatically know their way to the Tower of Heavens. While it might seem a bit ham-fisted with the utilization of the memory web  does get the adventure moving quickly. That is of the players put two and two together. Comets are harbingers of doom and in a quasi-medieval society like most AD&D campaigns portray the people would react roughly the same which should lend them to be curious if nothing else. Plus it beats "a stranger in a cloak walks up to you in a tavern."

There is a fly in the ointment of the elder sage sending out his monks to retrieve the fallen star, the second sage, his first pupil named Piyarz is trying to usurp Shalfey's position. With the elder sage's monks gone Piyarz attempted a coup. The coupe was only partially successful as the elder sage was able to barricade himself in the uppermost portions of the Tower of Heavens. Additionally Piyarz sent his primary minion the shade Sion to track the elder sage's monks and then ultimately the PCs, He attempts to track engage the PCs, having no other clues after the death of the monks. Given his abilities as a shade its unlikely he will allow himself to be killed. The best bet is to let him slip away as needed, then reappear to harass the PCs in hit and run raids.

From the memories the PCs should be able to glean the fact that a druid/sage named Derwyth has the knowledge they need in regards to the location of the star. If the party was smart enough to grab the bestiary that Shalfey's monks were toting he will trade the book for calculations for of the fallen star. As an aside, if this were a 2nd edition game or even a 1st with proficiencies and a character had astronomy or astrology as a non-weapon proficiency should have  shot at determining this. f they don't have it and NWPs are not in play, its 1500 gps to find out...

Once they are armed with the knowledge of where the star has fallen the party will be on a course for location of the star's impact. The location of the fallen star just so happens to be the outpost of Derro who have been raiding the surrounding countryside.For the derro it was case of wrong place/wrong time. The star crashed into the top of the pass flattening their abode, trees akimbo and slaying a good chunk of their companions. Their ruined lair is very cool, it depicts recent events very well: the derro and their slaves are digging out, there is massive damage to the lair and some of the inhabitants do not rest easy. Like many portions of this adventure there is the potential to build off of this lair after the modules completion. Once (if) the party makes their way through the derro they will recover the eponymous star, its not magical, but very valuable.

Therno Pass is the next locale after vacating the derro lair. There are some pre-set encounters that can be developed further or the DM can use the excellent and flavorful random chart, a strength almost all of the UK series.

One of the coolest segments of the adventure is next with the Tower of Heavens and the sages that dwell within. Situated in a river it is accessible via ferry and has a ton of great maps. The tower is guarded by gnomes? (Ugh) Reaching the tower is no small order and the ferryman Hadley will try to get the players to engage in Shalfey's password. If they are smart and paying attention he is a good source of information as to the current state of the tower, such as he knows it.

The sages that reside in the tower in particular the elder sage is dependent on the recovery of the fallen star, but this is unknown to the players at first. Piyarz's rebellion was a result if his impatience for taking the role of elder sage.  Once he receives them and then blows them off the PCs (while trying to pocket 3,000 gps in the process) they are left to try and make their way through the tower without presumably causing too much damage and find the elder sage.

The elder sage, Shalfey
The color coded sages signifying rank from pupil up to the elder sage Shalfey wearing white robes down to the lowest ranking being Cipolla. Each has a retinue of monks wearing the same color robes. The interaction of the PCs with eh tower inhabitants should be noted, Shalfey will be grateful for his rescue, he will not be happy if major damage and loss of life is inflicted on the tower and its inhabitants. I've used the elder sage and his surviving pupils as a reoccurring NPCs in my games before and some were decidedly less then cordial to the PCs and suffering at their hands. A side note here I love the spectator at area  T17, anytime a spectator appears its time for great role-playing!

The path to Shalfey is not easy through the tower with a few defenses that can cause a great deal of grief. Area T18 and the Bridge of Faith and the Labyrinth at area T20 with its permanent maze spell can cause problems.

When they finally meet the Elder Sage he is just finishing up burning the previous set of the Books of Prophecy. They are now blank and no longer any use to him. The PCs must now take the fallen star to the a group of reclusive deep gnomes who will trade the next set of books for the star. Shalfey agrees to pay the adventurers one magical item apiece that will be randomly determined when drawn from a prismatic sphere.

The location of the wizened deep gnomes is not too far away and the trip there can be uneventful or full of peril at the DM's choice.

The ancient deep gnomes are known as Kagu-svirfnebi. They are a small band that splintered from their main clan some time ago and have been waiting for the arrival of the PCs. They were alerted via scroll that said the contents of the dome (actually a prismatic sphere) would be exchanged for a black rock that they would cut into one of the greatest gems ever known. It would take them a lifetime to cut it but lust and greed overcame them and they cut off all contact to their kin and waited. Now the PCs come with the stone and their long wait is nearly over. Their long waiting has turned them slightly evil and with a penchant for avarice.

Deep Gnomes and their whacky machinery
Kagu-svirfnebil have a small, but well kept lair and have made some interesting monsters, the Maschin-I-Bozorgs which are basically Da Vinci style tanks set in fantasy world. In all I like them, I'm just not crazy about the name. They can be quite effective given the levels of the PCs in this adventure and with their number and the gnomes milling around it should be obvious to the PCs that a parley is in their best interest.

Assuming the PCs agree the gnomes will honor their word the gnomes and will take the PCs to the "shimmering dome", the star-rock is required to collapse the dome. Despite their alignment they will without fail hand over the star. They cannot be fooled and will know the true rock should the PCs try any subterfuge. Once they rock the PCs will be escorted to the same area where negotiations began. Once they are their the gnomes retreat closing a thick door behind them and setting off tehir machines to bar the PCs from coming after them. They PCs might think the whole edifice is collapsing and the DM should not dissuaded them as only the areas past K6 are damaged as the deep gnomes make good their escape.

But all is not done in order to get the books back to Shalfey the PCs must get past a pair of sub-adult red dragons. This encounter could be very deadly as the two youngish red dragons  show up once the kagu-svirfnebil's workshop self destructs; alerted to the rumblings in teh mountain they wing out to investigate. Granted they are small, but the party might be exiting the rumbling workshop in a hurry with the deep gnomes sabotaging their equipment. They might be at less then full hit points which means multiple breath weapons is going to easily slay the PCs. If run in 2nd edition AD&D these two dragons could be a TPK if the PCs fight rather then parley. A young adult (closest in size to fiest edition in my opinion) does 10d10+5 for ist breath weapon, and one breating every other round? I doubt any group of 6-10 adventurers levels 3-5 can withstand that.

Once the dragons are cleared its off to Shalfey and their rewards for hauling back the books and the adventurer concludes. But a crafty DM can apply many of the hooks left in the module: what are the derro doing in teh area? What happens when the gnomes carve the gem? Perhaps the derro want it for one of their crazy machines as in one of Richard Shaver's stories. What about Sion the Shade? If he wasn't slain he can appear and reappear to annoy and harass the PCs later on. There is also the potential for using Derwyth and Shalfey as reoccurring NPCs. Shalfey is old and is likely to have many contacts in the kingdom/land where the tower is situated. The place is a repository of lore and prophecy, adventure hooks via the tower can be easily planted. Suffice of to say there is plenty of ways to utilize the material given later on.

Some final thoughts

  • There are only two real quibbles and they are minor: the minimals! ugh, I'm not a fan of these guys. Each of the two times I've run the adventure I've skipped the minimals. To me this is no great loss and I didn't even have to think twice about it. If I were to run it again I'd perhaps use the gibberlings as an ambush force, but that's about it.
  • The second quibble is I've never liked the names of the sages other then Shalfey. This is probably more personal preference then anything else.  Maschin-I-Bozorg? Huh, what the hell is that???
  • Throughout, the random encounters really fit the feel of the module.  It very much feels as if one were in an enchanted land with the right balance of animals and monsters. As I noted up post the vast majority of the UK series reflects this.
  • A good tie in adventure for this module is Cloudkill in Dungeon #79. It can be used after this module for another link to derro activity in the surrounding lands. Perhaps they are from the same city as the derro in the module, perhaps from a rival savant?
  • If the PCs search area K8 there is the potential for staggering amount of money, to the tune of 10,000 gps. This coupled with the large for low levels horde in the red dragons lair represents a staggering amount of treasure. It maybe more then some DMs want in their game at this level so be warned.
  • The use of red dragons at the end as the PCs are hauling...books. The breath weapons of the red dragons could pose a serious risk to the adventurers cargo... something to consider if they don't.

Any way you slice it, this module is hands down great. No matter which scale one uses it gets 5 out of 5 stars or 10 out of 10, yep its that good. 

(Ironically, as I write this about my favorite AD&D module ever, one of my most treasured... I cant find my copy at all. So it looks like its off to VultureBay to find another. If it holds true to form prices will spike just as I go to buy one).

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