A Darkness Gathering (1998)
Bruce R. Cordell (TSR)
Levels 7 – 9
My brief trip into 2e Land has galvanized my thirst for exploration, thus I have set out on a quest to find more good 2e (sssssshhhh, I know Return to the Tomb of Horrors exists). I began my expedition in a region bordering my previous review of the Illithiad, the accompanying adventure trilogy also conveniently written by Bruce Cordell. Coincidence? I sense a plot.
The central premise is a pretty great one, even if it moves from the traditional wholesome 1e/OSR style of location based adventure to a more story-based (i.e RAILROADERY) format. Mind Flayers want to put out the sun and you are the only ones conveniently near enough to stop them with the help of a mysterious ally, sort of a John Mclane in Die Hard situation. Unfortunately this first part sucks ass.
A Darkness Gathering is for characters of levels 7-9 and given the fact you are going to be having multiple encounters with Illithids, you better play like that too or everyone is a saving throw and a round away from brain extraction death. A Darkness Gathering is supposed to be an investigative adventure, with multiple “independent” mysteries that all need to be solved before the big reveal. Unfortunately it fails on a thematic and a technical level and it feels not so much as a mystery but more like one of those scavenger hunts your mother (that is to say, my mother, your mother was out smoking crack) used to organize when you had your seventh birthday party. Never before have clues seemed to obviously artificial. It feels like some parts of the mystery have been replaced with a really arbitrary tournament module, which is a shame, because there is some good stuff every now and then.
A Darkness Gathering is supposed to serve as an introduction. The sun is slowly dimming and the players uncover a plot to prepare the barely described city of Stormport for the darkening and coming of the Illithid overlords via several convoluted schemes. Think not wheels within wheels but a drunk midget juggling several bottles of moonshine.
The adventure is off to a pretty good subtle start. Not only do we NOT get several pages of exposition, we also get a list of things that the players should know prior to the adventure. Not really a rumor table, more like a list of bullet points, and it is recommended each player knows between 1 or 2 things before starting this adventure. A suggestion is made to introduce this information in an unrelated scenario before running this one if this is possible or compatible. Not bad, Cordell, some foreshadowing.
The foreshadowing is all good stuff. The winter lasts longer then usual, the sun seems slightly dimmer, some stars have dissapeared (which makes no sense from an astronomical point of view unless the Illithid plan to extinguish the sun is carried out across thousands of years with meticulous co-ordination but only a disgusting nerd would notice) someone gets a fucked up dream and there is even a red herring in there to throw people off the scent.
Stormhaven proper is barely described, probably so it is easier to fit into a campaign. It feels like a stand-in. Opportunity for some atmosphere wasted Cordell. A stand-in important NPC (to be replaced with a person of personal significance to the PCs if at all possible, if not its a hot half-elf ranger) asks the heroes to meet her in an Inn in Stormhaven. The Game is afoot!
Some pretense of nonlinearity is given. Roaming around the city means you get a random encounter every hour. Some of these are purely cosmetic but they set the scene really well (eclipse, vagrants that have frozen to death, ice-cold weather that gives penalties) and some give the game away immediately and thus ruin the mystery behind the adventure (illithids). Additionally, each separate mini-adventure leads to one or two other mini-adventures and I suppose it is possible to switch between them halfway in.
The adventure begins at the inn proper, the Generic Fantasy Inn, where you are supposed to meet your NPC buddy. Naturally your NPC bff is missing but you can choose to help a hysterically crying woman who for some reason has chosen to vent her grief in a bar (for white-knights and beta-faggots) or you can rescue a nerd from being picked on by a Barbarian (for white-knights and beta-faggots). If they do not interfere the barbarian goes away and does nothing, otherwise he fights to the death and he is of course level 7 and killing him will alert the guards, who will arrive in 10 rounds. What?!? Or you can sit on your ass and wait for stand-in to arrive. At least Cordell describes how much gold there is in the inn for those of us who like looting. Fuck this. Naturally the inn is led by a 14th level fighter with magical armor and a nine lives stealer sword and two level 7 dwarven bouncers. Heh. Maybe he should go on the adventure while we run the bar.
Comforting m’lady unleashes something worse; poorly written boxed text where you are directed to the sewers to find the dumb broad’s brother, even though she is level 4 and thus you’d think she has at least SOME rudimentary ability and initiative to go look for him herself. At least she joins the party for the search. The boxed text also reveals that a monster took her brother and its name is the Pthistic, removing a potential for mystery and discovery. Asking around for the actual NPC they came to actually fucking meet means they get sent to a warehouse or the City Guard, because of course divination magic does not work, it’s a mystery adventure!
So anyway, the inn is basically the branching off point to 4 different mini-adventures, each of which needs to be solved to trigger
you so hard with this horseshit adventure the final encounter. I think the best way to review this is to go over each one and describe the tenuous strands of clues that link them together.
Section I: Fuck you.
If you helped the nerd he gives you a flyer for a new cult that has been sweeping the city and then goes on his way. It starts out pretty well, the devotees gather on a plaza and a weird dude in a tower overlooking it starts going Thulsa Doom on them with prophecies of the True Masters coming to embrace the faithful and whatnot. This is where the nonsense sets in. Anyone listening to the speech for 10 rounds is automatically charmed for 24 hours and will not do anything to the tower, because of the speaker’s magic lamp. The adventure also assumes that the party will immediately try to break in and murder the speaker/cult, as opposed to doing some quiet investigation or a ruse (doesn’t matter, the wizard won’t really talk, although they leave it ambiguous) and sneakin’ about will result in a lethal response unless one is literally prescient. Doing anything while the speaker is speaking will provoke the ire of 52 humans and later the dreaded and omnipresent city guard.
The tower proper is only rudementarily described and the speaker is, of course, a 16th level wizard that just happens to live in the city without people taking clear notice of this. Really? At least the tower guardians are tarted up a bit, black stone golems sculpted like gibbering madmen with little glass bits that look like stars in them. Neat. Nice treasure also. Granite carvings, paintings, a book collection of the writings of a famous philosopher.
Some of the shit in this tower feels arbitrary, lots of wards and save or die poison traps in lieu of monsters, which is okay, but there is some bullshit going on (attempting to un-wizardlock the upper level of the tower inflicts damage against anyone on the balcony through magical effect, the wizard prepares for attack automatically every night before his sermon, teleporting in gets you sent to a pocket dimension etc.). Also, if your heroes missed the fact you are fighting a high level wizard, this part of the adventure is likely to end with at least one fatality, with a definite possibility of a total party kill. If you fuck up this segment, the wizard will shadow door/teleport away and will be back for the final showdown, pretty much guaranteeing everyone will fucking die. I guess maybe it is doable if you used divination, the tower is not warded against that. I’m ready to call bullshit but level 7-9 characters are pretty capable so maybe this one is just on the edge of doable.
The clues in this part are subtle enough, cracked open skull of the wizard’s apprentice, a disturbing missive (stupidly signed with the real name of the culprit, beginner stuff), some mucous, and a cryptic fragment directing one to the sewers. For incredibly cautious players, this might be very satisfactory, but I suspect less experienced or cautious players to lose many men in the breaching attempt. This section will almost certainly claim the lives of one or two players and several perfectly reasonable courses of action can lead to the scenario turning unwinnable very quickly. A very meticulous, slow, cunning reconnaissance followed by a surprise attack might win the day, but fuck one or two things up and you will be eating Prismatic spray, Finger of death and 15d6 cold damage.
Section II: Beta-faggoting
The second section involves the disappearance of the herbalist Durgan and the descent into the sewers to save him from the vile monster that plagues the city. Finding out the most likely culprit is probably a monster that has been preying on homeless people and that lives in the sewers is almost too easy, but the different ways of finding out this info get it a pass. The sewer itself is supposed to be massive so we get something that is fairly innovative, a sort of d20 based encounter flowchart that eventually leads to the pthistic (though this can take a while).
This section proper is a slugfest, a slugfest that doesn’t allow you to use locate object or locate animal because that would be a good use of that spell and thus we cannot have that can we? Some of the natural hazards are kind of cool (a methane pocket), but most of the encounters involve sewer creatures that need killing (e.g neo-otyughs, black puddings, vampiric sewer gas) or maybe getting aids if you fail a saving throw.
The monster proper is fairly interesting. The pthistic is a creature made up of the negative emotions, neuroses and nightmares of one of the thralls of the illithids, the Captain of the guard, and players actually have a chance to recognize the resemblance, which is excellent and a subtle clue, as opposed to the blatant clues that predominate the rest of this shitfest.
Otherwise, beyond the fact that you are likely to encounter the pthistic multiple times since it keeps regenerating while its magical power source remains intact so you have to remember to target a thing while you fight it in its lair (the oldest trick in the D&D book), this remains a fairly standard part of the adventure. A nice side-note; If you return the handful of coins of the many bodies you find in its layer to the families of the deceased you get an xp bonus. And of course some clues. We end on a downer, even if you save the brother, he is still permanently brain-damaged.
Not bad not great.
Section III: Go home GM you are drunk.
In the third section the pcs uncover a nefarious band of brain-smuggling thieves that supply brains to the Illithids. This section feels like the most bullshit yet. Players inspecting the warehouse had better be taking some commando-level precautions or they are, again, fucked. This section is not quite as deadly as the wizard’s tower, but it compensates for that by feeling even more contrived. This is the most well-defended and deadly warehouse battle in the history of warehouse warfare. You would think thieves relied upon stealth and subterfuge to avert detection but you would be FUCKING WRONG. Get ready for the pain maggot.
Every entrance is being watched, locked and barred from the inside, and usually trapped. Inside is a maze of crates that fall over if you try to climb them (very high chance), unless they are stable areas, in which case they have intruder-repel teams of two 5th level thieves with poisoned crossbows and knives. It doesn’t so much feel like an attack on a bunch of unscrupulous slavers that prey on the weak as it feels like an attack on a platoon of Navy Seals in hostile territory. Of course the leader fights to the death and psionic or magical interrogation reveals nothing 😦
I will give credit where it is due, if you are hardcore enough you can use the sewers to gain access to the warehouse via the privy provided you have someone who can track. When was the last time you snuck into a warehouse via the privy? I am starting to warm up to the level of paranoia that is required to complete this adventure.
Barring a nice encounter with an undead head in a horror vault with frozen heads, this section, while challenging, feels contrived as fuck. A written note from the captain of the guard to the head of the thieves with the guard captain’s name on it defies credibility, surely he would at least just use the first letter of his name? What if his courier gets ambushed or something?
Section IV: What the fuck did you just fucking say about me, you little bitch? I’ll have you know I graduated top of my class in the Navy Seals, and I’ve been involved in numerous secret raids on Al-Quaeda, and I have over 300 confirmed kills. I am trained in gorilla warfare and I’m the top sniper in the entire US armed forces. You are nothing to me but just another target. I will wipe you the fuck out with precision the likes of which has never been seen before on this Earth, mark my fucking words. You think you can get away with saying that shit to me over the Internet? Think again, fucker. As we speak I am contacting my secret network of spies across theUSA and your IP is being traced right now so you better prepare for the storm, maggot. The storm that wipes out the pathetic little thing you call your life. You’re fucking dead, kid. I can be anywhere, anytime, and I can kill you in over seven hundred ways, and that’s just with my bare hands. Not only am I extensively trained in unarmed combat, but I have access to the entire arsenal of the United States Marine Corps and I will use it to its full extent to wipe your miserable ass off the face of the continent, you little shit. If only you could have known what unholy retribution your little “clever” comment was about to bring down upon you, maybe you would have held your fucking tongue. But you couldn’t, you didn’t, and now you’re paying the price, you goddamn idiot. I will shit fury all over you and you will drown in it. You’re fucking dead, kiddo.
So, if you are savy but not genre-savy, your first logical course of action when dealing with a possible mind-controlling, brain-smuggling group of weirdos is to contact the town guard. Unfortunately in A Darkness Gathering this will murder you. The captain of the guard, surprise surprise, is under the control of the Mind Flayers! Nice little detail, when these permanent thralls get agitated, the psionic seal that enables this permanent control on their faces tends to light up, making Shulluth the mind flayer really stupid for putting it in that place.
Stormhaven is pretty hardcore. Its normal guard patrols are 3rd level fighters with 5th level sergeants and its elite guard (The Hawk Guard) is a group of 7th level fighters paradoxically still just wearing normal chainmail. Uh. If you fuck around in Stormhaven they will show up. If you get incarcerated you can forget about magicking your way out, because Stormhaven has magic-proof cells. Bitch!
The layout in this section is kind of fucked, it gives a room by room description while it should really provide you with a scenario and some some shorthand for the rooms. Regardless, you can piece together the notes and discover what is supposed to happen when you go to the guards, namely, Captain Lucian, a 13th level fighter, ignores and obstructs you (telling you it is best if you leave the city after which he brands you enemies of Stormhaven) unless you have found out some seriously incriminating shit, in which case he will summon his elite guard and murder you in his office. Captain Lucian, like a fantasy incarnation of Frank Castle, will dive for his short bow and fire arrows at you whilst he summons the Hawk Guard. If the PC’s have been brought before him for questioning and came willingly they will have been divested of all weapons.
This is Tomb of Horrors in investigation adventure format.
Section V: Ah yes…I was wondering which would break first; Your spirit, or your body.
So even if you sleep and heal up between different adventure sections, A Darkness Gathering is determined to fuck you up and distract you with immersion breaking evidence for no reason once more. Even if you piece together all the clues of the 4 adventures, you are essentially stuck. Fortunately this will not be a great hindrance as Shuluth, the mind flayer (or Ulitharid if we wish to respect its cultural heritage) in charge of the evil plan ™ decides that after the player have taken out all 4 of its agents and essentially destroyed its entire operation it had better do something about it. Cue 10 rounds after a harrowing final battle with the 4th operative, whoever that might be, 3 mind flayers in dampsuits teleport in and start wrecking your shit. Fortunately, the 0-2 people that will still be alive after this attack will be able to locate the enemy stronghold by the map they carry with them. Even though, being capable of teleportation, they would not actually need that map.
The last dungeon is a pretty nice wrap up. Small but that means each room has some punch to it, keeping shit fresh. A final smackdown with Shuluth, an Ulitharid (that means 6 tentacles) dude in psionic power armour and with tentacle extensions (as gross as it sounds) and his two aides and voila, we find our missing friend with his own psionic seal and learn he has been recruited by the mysterious Storm to do something against the whole mindflayer shebang, setting stuff up for the next chapter.
This adventure blows. The investigation part either makes no sense or defies credibility/verisimilitude (a very important part of a good investigation adventure) and the combat sections are too fucking deadly, and in the worst way, by defying credibility or by throwing curve balls that cannot really be anticipated. Some nice atmospheric flourishes and cool monsters cannot compensate unfortunately. Extremely paranoid and skilled players might find this a satisfying, if harrowing experience. It wouldn’t take too much effort to rewrite the evidence/hooks so they makes sense.
I know Bruce Cordell is not a shitty writer, and he has made good adventures before, so what the hell happened? Maybe it was the format of the times.
Final Verdict: Frustrating, unfair and immersion-breaking, flourishes of creativity nonwithstanding. 3 out of 10.