Posted by: NiTessine | August 29, 2010

Module Retrospective: Red Hand of Doom

I recently chatted with someone about Red Hand of Doom. I cannot for the life of me remember who it was, where it was, or even what language it was in. However, the conversation gave me a push to reread the module, which in turn inspired me to write this post.

Red Hand of Doom really isn’t that old a module, having come out in 2006. It was one of Wizards of the Coast’s better adventure modules, released in the final years of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, and written by Rich Baker and James “Mr ENnie for Best Adventure” Jacobs. According to the cover, it’s for characters of levels 6-12. In practice, as I recall, it took the party from around level 5 to level 11.

The module clocks in at 128 pages, and I think it takes the cake for being the longest single adventure module I’ve run from start to finish. I ran it under the Living Greyhawk campaign from December 2006 to April 2007. The RPGA, around 2006, started to adapt published WotC adventures for use with Living Greyhawk. Unlike your normal LG modules, these wouldn’t have caps on gold or experience points, but would just take up an amount of Time Units comparable to that much XP’s worth of Living Greyhawk modules. Your normal Living Greyhawk module took one TU, and the adapted modules could take anything from five to twelve, easily. Your character had 52 Time Units per year, and after you’d used them up, you couldn’t play that character again until next year. This wasn’t usually much of a limitation, and even though we played like crazy, I never hit zero Time Units with a single character. However, some other players did, and it was because of the adapted modules. The three big ones were Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, at 22 Time Units; Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, at an impressive 32 TU; and the biggest one of them all, Red Hand of Doom, which ate up 51 of your precious Time Units, a whole year’s play time. That was partly why we hurried to get it started in 2006, to spread the cost over two years.

The big modules were also split up into multiple parts along the chapter breakup of the adventure book. In Living Greyhawk, you received an Adventure Record after each module, which kept track of your gold and experience points and their expenditure. Ideally, with a Living Greyhawk character of any level, you could pick up their stack of Adventure Records, flip through it, and see how they’ve earned and spent gold starting from their leftover starting cash and accurate to the last gold piece. Also, your average LG module was written for a four-hour convention slot and lasted a single session from beginning to end. After playing dozens, maybe hundreds of these in the Living Greyhawk environment, you got into the mentality that the session weren’t over until you had a brand new Adventure Record, signed by the judge.

With that background, you may understand the thought process that led to us playing the entire module in five sessions, taking from eight to twelve hours each.

Incidentally, there will be SPOILERS in this post.

The Plot

The adventure, perhaps even “mini-campaign”, is set in Elsir Vale, a generic D&D anyplace, though with a geography modelled after a location in southern Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms. Living Greyhawk dropped it into western Sterich. An army of hobgoblins and dragons under the banner of Tiamat are threatening the population of the vale, and it’s up to the PCs to beat back the bad guys. (Yeah, it’s the same valley as in the Scales of War adventure path. I’m gonna be diplomatic and just ignore that it ever existed.)

The module is broken up into five chapters, each handling one stage of the invasion and the PCs’ actions against it. In the first one, “The Witchwood”, the PCs are ambushed right at the beginning by a big force of hobgoblins , supplemented by hell hounds, as they are on their way to Drellin’s Ferry. When they reach the town, they’re contracted by Norro Wiston, the town speaker who looks a lot like Sean Connery, into investigating the Witchwood and driving off the hobgoblin bandits they figure have set up shop somewhere in the forest.

In the forest, there’s a variety of encounters, from meeting the reclusive woodsman Jorr, to fighting a hydra and negotiating with a wood giant elder. The centrepieces of the first part, however, are taking out Vraath Keep and the sabotage of the Skull Gorge Bridge. Vraath Keep is a small ruin where the hobgoblins have established an outpost, watched over by Wyrmlord Koth, a bugbear sorcerer. Once the PCs have taken out the hobgoblins, and their allied goblins and manticore, they’ll find a map with an invasion plan in Koth’s quarters. The invasion force plans to cross the Skull Gorge Bridge nearby, but has not yet done so, and can be delayed significantly if the bridge is destroyed.

Of course, they already occupy the bridge, leading to a set-piece battle when the PCs try to drop the bridge into the gorge before being overwhelmed. Here, we also meet the first dragon of the adventure, the green Ozyrrandion.

At the end of “The Witchwood”, the PCs must convince the population of Drellin’s Ferry to evacuate. Staying in the town to defend it is lunacy, but the module does include information on what the PCs will encounter and the tactics of the horde if they want to make a stand, along with several chances to let them flee. They’ll be fighting an army, and they can’t win, but they’re free to try.

The second part, then is “The Ruins of Rhest”. The centrepiece of the chapter is the assault on, well, the drowned ruins of Rhest, where the army of the Red Hand is breeding spawn of Tiamat. The ruins are guarded by greenspawn razorfiends, hobgoblins, some ogres, some more hobgoblins, and a total of 66 lizardfolk tribesmen. And an ettin. They’re led by the goblin Wyrmlord Saarvith, who rides a black dragon.

In addition to the assault on Rhest, spread around it are interactions with the local tribe of wild elves in an attempt to secure their help against the encroaching Red Hand (snow elves in the LG conversion) and a number of encounters to be played out in the countryside of Elsir Vale during the evacuation – looters, hobgoblin road blockades, a spy, the PCs’ first encounter with a spawn of Tiamat, and, once they’ve really managed to annoy the warleader Wyrmlord Kharn, a hit squad. These encounters really build up the atmosphere of a country under the threat of war. Refugees, evacuation, martial law, burning villages in the distance. Desperation, fear, and grief. There are also details and instructions for how to proceed in case a PC gets captured by the hobgoblins – where he’ll be taken and on what timetable, and what sort of guardians there will be. I appreciate this attention to detail.

From Rhest, the characters find a phylactery of a druid lich (!) called the Ghostlord, who dwells in a dungeon to the south. The army of the Red Hand has been holding it hostage to secure the Ghostlord’s cooperation, and the PCs get to go down and return it to him, in exchange for the lich retiring from the field of battle. They can also attack the lich, and it’s even possible to win, but it’s not an easy fight by any means. Either way, they’ll have to clear out the Red Hand leadership occupying the dungeon – a bard Wyrmlord, Ulwai Stormcaller, and Varanthian, a fiendish behir. When I ran it, Varanthian swallowed Waldemar the dwarf fighter whole and they only got him out with four hit points remaining. “The Ghostlord’s Lair” is a short dungeon crawl, and the shortest of the five parts. Sort of a breather, really, between the slaughter of hundreds that was “The Ruins of Rhest”, and the night of blood and fire that is “Enemy at the Gates”, part four.

In “Enemy at the Gates”, the army of the Red Hand has arrived at Brindol, the regional capital. This one is handled in the style of Heroes of Battle, with the PCs taking the tactical role of a commando squad – a small, independently operating group that strikes hard and fast at very specific tactical objectives, be they hill giants bombarding the city or a red dragon strafing the defenders. If they managed to ally with the wild elves of Tiri Kitor, they have a few helping hands here. Before getting their hands dirty, though, there’s a tactical palaver with the leaders of the city, where PCs may try to affect their tactical decisions about the deployment of clerics and so forth.

“Enemy at the Gates” is epic. After the party has fought several encounters’ worth of delaying actions on barricades and dropped the red dragon Abithriax, there’s a final showdown in the cathedral of Pelor at the centre of the city, between the PCs and Wyrmlord Hravek Kharn and his bodyguards, as well as whatever other Wyrmlords got away in the previous parts, and the Ghostlord, if he’s still allied with the Red Hand.

After the battle, it’s time to tally the wins and losses. There are a number of things the PCs can accomplish in the first four parts of the module, which grant them victory points – defeat enemy commanders, secure allies, destroy the bridge over Skull Gorge, convince the Ghostlord to stay away, destroy greenspawn eggs in Rhest, and so forth. Here, it’s all tallied up. If they’ve done well, the enemy force is broken, and flees back to the mountains, pursued by the PCs and the Lions of Brindol. If not, the next guy down the line assumes command, calls in reinforcements, and assaults again. Here, the PCs have one more chance to kill any named commanders left, but if they fail, it’s a defeat, Brindol is overrun, and the horde wins this round.

Either way, if it just didn’t end in a TPK, there’s still the last part to go, “The Fane of Tiamat”, where the party heads up into the mountains whence the horde poured forth to take out High Wyrmlord Azarr Kul himself, the brains behind the operation and the overlord of the whole horde.

The Fane of Tiamat is a 17-room dungeon with some very dangerous encounters, including the last one with Azarr Kul and his abishai bodyguard. He’s not the last fight, though – when Azarr Kul falls in his sanctum sanctorum, he calls out to his boss. Who then shows up, in the flesh. The actual final battle is against an aspect of Tiamat herself, the goddess of evil dragons.

The Battle of Rhest

The Battle of Rhest is not the largest fight I’ve ever seen in a roleplaying game. That one would have been a battle between a merfolk tribe and an invading force of sahuagin in COR6-13 Tears for Bright Sands, which involved a total of 137 NPC combatants, plus six PCs, with the NPCs using a total of seventeen different stat blocks, and that was played out under the D&D Miniatures rules.

However, the Battle of Rhest was still pretty big, and managed to take longer due to the tactical intricacies of the battlefield. There were a total of 27 different enemy combatants with ten different stat blocks that originally were spread out over several encounters but ended up being alerted when the PCs showed up and then it sorta degenerated into complete chaos that took three hours to play through, with the entire session taking twelve. It was the most physically draining RPG session I’ve ever run, but it was also fun and rewarding – so much so that I came back to run Part II again when another Living Greyhawk group was playing the module.

Somehow, the party prevailed though they were about 7th level and the odds arrayed against them added up to Encounter Level 14. They killed the Wyrmlord, they killed his guards, his soldiers, his animal companion, his dragon, and even his advisor. They killed and then they killed some more. All told, “The Ruins of Rhest” was the bloodiest of the five parts of the module, with a complete total of 110 NPCs slain at the hands of the PCs. The module, with its war theme, is incredibly violent. By the end of the third part, there was a trail of 220 bodies behind the party. The final tally of the entire Red Hand of Doom was around 340-350 dead enemies and NPCs. I remember dimly asking the players: “So, you’ve just killed a hundred living, feeling, intelligent beings. How do you feel?” (Part II included the lizardfolk genocide, when the party wanted to take out all the lizardfolk guard huts, which made tactical sense at the time but was not a real challenge, so we just fast forwarded it, rolled them some damage and declared 54 lizardfolk dead.)

The party composition made it all the grislier. They had only a single primary caster, a cleric, whose spells invariably went to healing the other guys. There was Sir Tharik Hume, a fighter/paladin of Heironeous; Tular, a monk/fighter; Girger Gorluk, a half-orc barbarian/bard; Raziel Whitewind, a half-orc cleric of Pelor; Ardil Alaestrin, a wood elf barbarian/ranger/cleric of Rillifane Rallathil; and Waldemar, a dwarf fighter/dwarven defender. They had no offensive capabilities beyond the reach of their swords, and every kill was made in ugly, brutal melee combat, close enough to smell the enemy and see the light go out in his eyes as you gut him. They were magnificent, as they strode through the bloody battlefield of Elsir Vale and made red ruin of their foes. Somehow, the entire module passed without a single PC death, though a few times it was a close call.

Most awesome of the lot was Tular, who regularly grappled with ogres and won. During the Battle of Rhest, he was bullrushed into the lake by an ogre, and dragged the brute down with him. Underwater, over several rounds, he choked it to death before swimming to the surface. Raziel was another great character, who originally started his career as a human cleric, but managed to get killed in the dungeons below Icespire in COR4-16 The Frozen Spire and was reincarnated into the body of a half-orc. He was also one of the characters who made it into the final Naerie Gazetteer, as the leader of the church of Pelor in Naerie. I’m currently actually working on a module where Raziel appears as an NPC.

(As a side note, Raziel’s death occurred because of a hilarious player error – he’d just been laid off, and came to the game rather tipsy. This led to choosing an inadvisable course of action, namely jumping on his tower shield and tobogganing down an ice slope into a dark, cold, cursed dungeon, far ahead of the rest of the party. Down in the dungeon he met a skeletal dragon. Fortunately, the rest of the party was able to defeat the dragon and recover his body.)

The Spawn of Tiamat

The spawn of Tiamat are a new type of monster that was introduced in a number of sources around the same time: Red Hand of Doom, Fantastic Locations: Frostfell Rift, and Monster Manual IV, which had a whopping 66 pages of them, for a total of 14 monsters. Other new spawn were here and there in different supplements. The spawn encompassed a variety of different kinds of creatures, all keying off the five classic evil dragon colours. There was the blackspawn raider, the bluespawn godslayer, the redspawn arcaniss, and so forth, each with their own schtick. They’re hit and miss, with more misses than hits. I think the whitespawn hordelings are fun, being small bastards that will just swarm over you. The rhino-like bluespawn stormlizard is also pretty nifty, and I’m fond of blackspawn raiders, which form death squads and attack from ambush. However, then there’s stuff like the bluespawn godslayer, which looks like a huge reptilian hunchback of Notre Dame with mumps, and whose attack tactics in a group are to use Awesome Blow to fling smaller enemies into the threatened area of other godslayers, who will then use their attacks of opportunity to beat them some more. There’s the whitespawn iceskidder, which has skates for feet, and the blackspawn exterminator, which is a blackspawn raider with class levels. Six of them, to be exact. The class is ninja.

The spawn of Tiamat had a potential to be a cool addition to the game, but in practice, they were mostly boring or stupid. Fortunately, Baker and Jacobs had some taste when using them in Red Hand of Doom, and we were saved from the more insipid creations, with the possible exception of the greenspawn razorfiend, whose sole reason for existing is to deliver ridiculous critical hits.

Why the Red Hand of Doom Rocks

The module, despite being broken up into parts, and being very long, works as a single, cohesive whole. Especially parts one, two and four have great atmosphere, with a sense of urgency informing the PCs actions when they race to evacuate the town, or cut off the invading force, or break down a roadblock. The situation lives, and it’s not in their control, which makes things tense. There’s also the sense that the lives of hundreds or even thousands depend on their success.

Also present is the option of failure. Often, failure automatically means that the party has died, roll up new characters. In Red Hand of Doom, however, it’s fully possible for the party to royally screw up and see the Red Hand horde win the Battle of Brindol, and live with the shame. This is something I’d like to see more often. There are also options for lesser failures, such as deciding to stand and fight an army at Drellin’s Ferry, or getting captured. There are many options open for the PCs and the writers have accounted for all the likely scenarios.

The actions of the PCs are meaningful throughout the module. The things they do or leave undone or fail at accomplishing are tallied up as victory or alliance points in secret, and in the end determine whether they’ve managed to really break the horde of the Red Hand or if the hobgoblins will strike back. Foes who got away will come back to fight them again in later parts.

I am not really a fan of the fifth part, though. Its length feels redundant after the epic climax of “Enemy at the Gates”. Were I to run it again, I’d probably strip away a full half of the encounters. Still, the fight with the High Wyrmlord and the aspect of Tiamat is awesome, and because of them, I would not drop the entire fifth chapter. The length of it is just too much, and even though the previous four parts have kept the insane amounts of violence in the module varied and interesting enough to keep from becoming boring, this one gets repetitive.

Actually, I must repeat that – the first four parts of Red Hand of Doom are probably the combat-heaviest D&D material I’ve played through, and they never once got boring. I think this is because each combat had a clear reason for being there, interesting enemies and usually also some tactical depth. In “Fane of Tiamat”, it’s just clearing out dungeon rooms.

Finally, it has these little grey text boxes here and there, with the designers’ notes on why this or that element of the adventure is so and so, and sometimes ideas on how to change it if there’s a need. Glimpses behind the curtain like this are valuable for the GM when adapting the adventure for their own needs, and I’d wish more modules had such commentary in them. They also communicate to the DM that there really was a living human being with a brain making conscious decisions about the module and not just dropping random stat blocks one after another.

Overall, it is a fine piece of work that deserves more recognition and fame than I feel it ever received. It was great fun at the table, even in the twelve-hour killer sessions, and there was not a whiff of boredom until the very last part, where it is quite fixable. I recommend that if you see this in a discount bin somewhere or find it on eBay, you pick it up. It’s well worth it.


Responses

  1. I picked up Red Hand of Doom about a year ago, and I can’t wait to run it!

  2. Great synopsis! I can’t wait to run this adventure.

  3. Hey, great review! When I ran the game, I had the same thoughts as you (e.g. the 5th act was superfluous). In my game, though, I had a bit more ranged attack power. I’m surprised you managed to resist the urge to cheese out some of your monsters by having them fly away and use ranged attacks.

  4. Thanks for this. I’ve purchased this module today, and I look forward to reading it especially after your well done write up.


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