I’ve been meaning to write/post this review for a while now, but the holidays prevented me from doing so. But now that all of the eggnog is finally gone, let’s take a closer look at Claws of Madness, which is billed as “a standalone 5th edition adventure carefully designed for a group of 1st level heroes” and is available here. I’m going to be pretty vague in my discussion regarding the specifics of the adventure so as not to spoil anything for potential players and dungeon masters, but hopefully you’ll end up with a good idea of what to expect if you pick up a copy of the adventure.
First of all, let me just say that the production quality is top-notch. The adventure booklet is a 38 page full-color affair, printed on quality paper. The book looks and feels nice, with quality artwork and location maps that work thematically with the adventure. So aesthetically, the product meets/exceeds expectations. Aside from aesthetics, the plot elements and encounter areas are described well. There is enough explanation and description that even a novice dungeon master shouldn’t have too much trouble running the encounters as they are presented.
Ok, so the book looks pretty, but how about the adventure? Fortunately, there is a lot to like here as well.
First, both the history and current events surrounding the adventure locations has been fleshed out enough that you can certainly run this as an adventure that exists “in its own world,” but geographic details are vague enough that you shouldn’t have any trouble dropping this adventure into an existing campaign world along a coastline or near any sizeable lake or other suitably large body of water. Even the main plot elements involving the Hand of Narkul, and the mysterious “far realm,” could easily be made to fit your established cosmology with only minimal jostling. While reading this adventure, I didn’t have a problem imagining these events taking place somewhere along the Sword Coast or even in my own campaign world, which I quite liked.
Second, I appreciate that there are multiple avenues of approach to many of the encounters within the adventure. While there are plenty of opportunities for combat, there are also encounters that could – and in some cases should – be resolved in other ways. I particularly like a plot twist in the adventure that may or may not be obvious to your players depending on how savvy they are or how much investigating they do. The adventure includes a mix of town, wilderness, ruins, and cavern encounter areas which was a nice surprise from such a relatively short adventure. This mix of locations and approaches should give multiple player and character types a chance to shine – also a big plus. The book does feel like it is geared towards novice players and dungeon masters – which is absolutely fine and fitting for a 1st level adventure – but I also feel like veterans would enjoy what this book has to offer.
Thirdly, I like that there are multiple avenues of approach to reaching the main adventure site, allowing players to potentially explore different wilderness encounter areas and learn different information. My only criticism here is that one of these approaches isn’t fleshed out like the others,garnering only a paragraph of description, and as a whole I feel like more could have been done with the wilderness encounter areas that surround the main adventure site.
Of course, the shortcomings of these wilderness encounter areas are easily fixed if you feel like putting in a little extra work, but that brings me to my main criticism of the adventure as a whole: it’s just too short! The story is so good and the adventure sites are so engrossing that the whole thing feels rushed as an adventure designed to take characters to only 3rd level, especially considering how quickly you can reach 3rd level in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. Thankfully the nature of the encounters and the antagonists makes it fairly easy to expand on the adventure without too much effort; you could even flesh out a whole new adventure location in the barely touched upon “howling caves” if you really wanted to personalize and expand the adventure. If you are looking for something shorter in length or if you are looking for something you could expand upon yourself without too much trouble, then this might not be much of a criticism at all. When I run this I plan to flesh out some of the encounter areas and story arcs a bit more, and I probably will end up dropping a small monster lair into the aforementioned howling caves area.
As for other minor quibbles, there is a puzzle in the adventure that needs a bit of tweaking so that it feels more like something that would have been used by the dungeon’s original inhabitants instead of just being a thing that was put there for adventurers to figure out. Also, the adventure as written is difficult to wrap up as a “standalone” or one-shot adventure; the Hand of Narkul and the Far Realm are pretty strong themes that really want to steer your future adventures, which may not be a bad thing if you’re happy exploring the paths that they lead you down (in fact the publisher even has a follow-up adventure currently in the works. Check out www.LoreSmyth.com for details).
Overall this is a great first effort by a new publisher, and a well-designed adventure that I would recommend to others and that I plan to run myself. I’m definitely interested in seeing what else Lore Smyth will offer us in the future.
Full Disclosure: I actually won my copy of this adventure via a Twitter giveaway. I was not promised anything for reviewing the product and receiving it wasn’t contingent on reviewing it or anything like that but still, I felt it was important to mention that I didn’t actually purchase this product. Having said that, I can honestly say that I would have in no way been disappointed if I had purchased this product with my own hard earned money. In fact, I’m looking forward to the Kickstarter for the follow-up adventure which I will probably support.