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Reviews of 'Key of Destiny'

Key of Destiny

by Christopher Coyle
Age of Mortals Campaign, Volume 1


Reviews of 'Key of Destiny'

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Reviewer: Clarion

Rating: Stars

Key of Destiny is the first in a massive adventure trilogy for contemporary Dragonlance, and is designed, much like the original DL adventures, to take a group of characters from first level beginnings through to twentieth level and beyond. In this adventure, the characters find themselves in a post-War-of-Souls Ansalon struggling to reach equilibrium after Mina's defeat and the return of the True Gods, as they become embroiled in a quest to uncover the secrets of a mysterious artefact known as the Key of Quinari.

Dragonlance is a campaign which is absolutely begging for high-quality, professionally-written adventure modules. The campaign's seminal adventure series – the DL series, which charted the original Chronicles trilogy - is now pushing 25 years old, and in many ways Dragonlance adventure writing is a lost art (how many DM's, for example, could name even three modules from the setting which aren't part of that original campaign?). The tumultuous history of the Dragonlance roleplaying game is of course partly to blame, but it's criminal that a setting famed for its heroic story-telling, and which boasts one of the most influential module designers of all time as one of its creators, has been left out in the cold. The time has definitely come for Dragonlance to make its mark on the modern roleplaying radar, so does Chris Coyle come up with the goods in Key of Destiny?

Kind of.

The adventure is not a resounding success, but neither is it a failure by any means. It is a long and inconsistent ride for players and DM alike, but it captures the spirit of the Dragonlance campaign extremely well, and paints the convoluted face of Fifth Age Ansalon with a deft and often surprising clarity. Key of Destiny is not an adventure that could be easily ported to any other setting (though DM's with too much time on their hands could give it a go), and this, as far as I'm concerned, is actually the first tick in the adventure's favour. For too long have Dragonlance DM's had to rely on other settings, adventure anthologies, or their own pens for inspiration, and it certainly isn't before time that we can now lay claim to something that entirely belongs on Krynn.

Key of Destiny is both a site and event-based adventure which takes PC's on a long trek across Ansalon, and one of the immediate strengths of the adventure is its variety. Over the course of the six chapters, the party will experience many of the varied environments and territories which comprise the Age of Mortals, including Balifor, Kendermore, the Desolation, and the Peak of Malystryx itself. The complex political landscape of the Age of Mortals is also present and correct, with the Knights of Neraka successfully making their mark as the setting's ubiquitous background bad-guys, and a showing from Dragonlance's mandatory refugee population, now in the form of the Silvanesti exiles. Over the course of a long and arduous journey, the party should truly feel it has dipped its toes in more and varied locations than is common in five or six levels of experience.

Several extremely well-realised and interesting NPC's add a human face (or elven, or dwarven, or... well, you get the idea) to the proceedings, with excellent illustrations acting as a visual aid to the DM. Detailed sections on local flora and fauna, which are sure to keep the druids and rangers in the party very happy, are also a welcome addition to the adventure. The same attention to detail is given to many of the towns and cities as well, although I would have liked to have seen a concerted effort to give Pashin, the town where the adventure starts, a complete treatment as a potential home base for the characters. Still, what is there serves as a solid foundation for DM's.

Key of Destiny's canvas, then, is a marked success, but in terms of the adventure design, the module starts to falter. The first problem is the incessant momentum which constantly drives the characters forward. In playing the adventure as written, the players are very likely going to get the impression that any delay in accomplishing the mission goals is simply a bad idea, and this is a big problem for any DM trying to use Key of Destiny as the framework for a new Dragonlance campaign. This is especially problematic given the relative newness of the Age of Mortals setting, and the headline selling point of the adventure trilogy which is to take a group of characters from 1st to 20th level. To succeed as a campaign framework, there have to be pauses in the action, downtimes for training, and a break from the plot. Key of Destiny pays lip-service to these requirements in chapter four where it introduces NPC's who can give wizards the Test of High Sorcery, or serve as an introduction into the Legion of Steel, but there is little more than passing reference made to these opportunities, and since the characters have been pushed incessantly forward to this point (and indeed chased out of Pashin more than likely) they have no reason to assume they shouldn't get into Kendermore as quickly as possible.

Given that the players are of pretty much exactly the level where they have to make these kinds of career-defining choices, DM's may therefore want to build a pause into the action around Ak-Khurman and Balifor. Again, though, they should be catered for in this respect. An entire chapter devoted to the critical 3rd and 4th level of the PC's careers would not have gone amiss, including rich detail on potential Tests of High Sorcery, the role of sorcerers, and several NPC and plot-hooks into all of the major factions of the setting. It's this kind of attention to detail which would have further highlighted the uniqueness of the Dragonlance campaign and shown that the author was really thinking hard about the needs of the DM.

The second main problem I found with the adventure is a hoary old chestnut which is often (and somewhat unfairly in many cases) levelled at the classic Dragonlance DL campaign, rail-roading. In Key of Destiny, a definite line is drawn from chapter one through chapter six, and the module gives the characters no chance to deviate from it. Prophecies, declarations of destiny, ghosts, dreams... they're all used to push the characters in a single direction, and little or no advice is given for DM's who find their group wandering off the chosen path. Worse, the adventure occasionally relies on assumptions about character behaviour (for example, engaging someone in conversation about a particular topic) to reveal important plot elements.

A lot more open-endedness would definitely have been welcome. It should be up to the players to make the connections which drive them toward the adventure's final battle, not some cheesy boxed text. A more thoughtful approach would certainly have given the characters a chance to stretch their legs in the campaign world, and all-but eliminated the pacing problems I mentioned above. In many respects, this problem is much worse in Key of Destiny than it ever was in some of the better DL modules, and I know for a fact that my own group felt more pestered, shooed, and cajoled towards the denouement than anything else. They certainly had very little sense of making the connections themselves. It's disappointing to see that some of the innovations which were experimented with twenty-some years ago in the DL series (branching plots, multiple endings) have still not found their way into mainstream adventure design.

Other design problems are smaller but numerous and conspire to increase the workload of the DM. The proliferation of boxed text, for example, has to be mentioned. Chapter three, The Shattered Temple, has huge swathes of narrative in the form of illusory 'flickers' which inform the PC's about the history of the Shattered Temple and how it came to be in its current, cursed state. I have in all honesty never seen so much of the stuff, and what's worse, that information has to be given to the PC's in some form, or else major sections of this and upcoming modules in the series will have no context whatsoever. In the end I resorted to having the PC's actually live through these events as if they were there, and I know of at least one other DM who used a time-travel plot device to the same end. Having the adventurers actually impact the history of the site works extremely well and should, without a doubt, have been the focus of this chapter. As written, I would guess that the Shattered Temple will be an exercise in boredom for most players. You have been warned.

In terms of simple mechanics, I have few complaints. Encounters seem well balanced, if a little unintentionally amusing at certain points (the image of the exploding old crone in Pashin brought forth raucous laughter from my group). Where they need to be challenging, they are, and a lot of effort has obviously been taken in fashioning detailed sites for many of the encounters in the module. The technical artwork is competent for the most part, although there are a couple of missing maps which you will find in the errata document if you take the time to look for it, but in contrasts the illustrations (rendered by Eric Vedder) are first class, and a real boon to the DM. The layout is fine, with an excellent appendix, but which is, again, riddled with omissions which have been subsequently fixed by the errata. (These avoidable editorial problems are really a stain on the product; I can only hope that a compendium of all three adventures is released with all of these problems rectified.) As a physical product Key of Destiny is excellent, with top-grade paper and binding, and although I'm not a fan of Easley's art in general, he is inextricably linked with Dragonlance and has produced a fitting piece of new art for the cover, which is sure to go down well with many Dragonlance fans. As a product, you get your money's worth.

In closing, it turns out I've ragged on the adventure's flaws more than I've sung its praises, but that doesn't change the fact that overall, it is an extremely enjoyable and suitably epic opening to the adventure trilogy. There is lots to do, lots of interesting friends and foes to meet, and a huge selection of varied and imaginative areas to explore, most of which will test the mettle of the entire range of character classes and races open to the Dragonlance player. By that measure alone, Key of Destiny is a success, but I can't help but feel that it was also a missed opportunity. Sovereign Press is really setting out a stall here by releasing a massive, epic adventure that is far more ambitious than most other products on the market, but a little more consideration for the DM, a little more open-endedness, and a little less boxed text would have made Key of Destiny an absolutely unique and outstanding product. As it stands it's a very enjoyable module that falls short of its potential, but we can look forward to Spectre of Sorrows to continue the adventure and perhaps fix some of these flaws. In the meantime, even if it didn't hit a home run, Sovereign Press is to be congratulated on its attempt to recapture the glory days of the epic Dragonlance campaign.


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