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Review: Sword of the Ember Knight [5E]

Roberts has been a games enthusiast since 1997, a reviewer since 2009 and a cynic since 2014. He is always the last in initiative rolls.

Cover art of "Sword of the Ember Knight."

Cover art of "Sword of the Ember Knight."

  • Publisher: Adventure Awaits Studios
  • System: Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons (may require minor tweaks for other systems)
  • Release Date: 21 October 2020
  • Price: Free

Mini-Adventure, Mega Effort

Sword of the Ember Knight, penned by Benjamin Palmer of Adventure Awaits Studios, is a free 'mini-adventure' for characters of third level to be used in Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons. A mini-adventure is right: Out of the six pages that make up the PDF file, only three make up useable material; the rest is cover art and Wizards of the Coast's (WotC) required terms of use. A lack of meatiness to the text might appear merciful to game masters in need of a side quest for their party or a simple one-shot, but upon closer inspection it hardly argues itself to be a skeleton.

The premise of Sword of the Ember Knight is a good story told badly. Long ago in the Dumear Valley, there was once an evil king who spread fell plague across his lands. This was until a knight, whose name is lost to time, decided to slay the king with a sword that—upon prayer—would ignite in flame and struck a single killing blow against the evil ruler. This had brought peace and prosperity; however, a prophecy foretelling the king's return was heard and, like the Ember Knight, was also lost to the ages.

As written, there's an even greater amount of words explaining what I just said in less detail. It is neither an evocative nor a helpful tale. Players who take the time to question why the king corrupted their subjects, the god of the Ember Knight, the history of the Dumear Valley or the origin of this prophecy will cause game masters expecting a quick and easy adventure more headaches than the material is worth. This story will likely appear in any homebrew setting with far more detail and enthusiasm by its creator, and those questions can be asked by a far more captive audience.

The Honeywell Inn, where players meet the historian Silas.

The Honeywell Inn, where players meet the historian Silas.

The adventure at least provides details on how the players can start this quest:

  1. An Old Acquaintance. Someone the party apparently knows calls them to the Honeywell Inn, regarding the Emberblade.
  2. Passing Through. The party is hailed over by someone who claims to be in danger, and the threat turns out to be credible.
  3. In Search of Treasure. The party has paid to meet someone who knows of the Emberblade, along with all the loot that comes with it.

These are fine enough hooks, and they firmly plant the party in front of the doors of the Honeywell Inn, wherein they will find Silas, an old man with low hit points who is seemingly the only person who knows what this Emberblade is. In a way, the lack of knowledge anyone else can give creates a sense of great importance; there's no time to ask commonfolk, and this specific field of lore could be cataclysmic if lost. On the other hand—and more likely—it could just be because it's rushed, as the author has to produce several adventures per month for their customers.

Silas can only tell players what the prologue states, as there's no table about what Silas knows and how truthful it is. It's a rather positive coincidence that the legend of the Emberblade is so long forgotten that there are zero lies or rumours spread about it. How Silas came of this information, and how correct it is, will remain a mystery unless GMs put additional effort into writing it up . . . which they could do with a story entirely of their own making.

Of course, the historian/prophet/seer/mummer won't give this information until he's escorted from some thugs who are on his trail, having heard of the treasure, rather than to use the weapon for good. Three bandits and a bandit captain will enter the inn, harass patrons and demand to know of Silas' whereabouts.

The adventure becomes something of a video game at this point, as players have to avoid the bandits' cones of vision (see the above illustration). In what has become Metal Gear Silas, the party must succeed stealth checks; for every failure, the bandits turn 90 degrees clockwise. They don't turn in the direction of where the sound came from, but simply rotate like an automaton on a pre-programmed route. I'd like to remind readers this adventure was released in October 2020, long after Curse of Strahd and other adventures where Count Strahd von Zarovich moves around Ravenloft to achieve his aims, rather than pacing around his castle.

One such Bandit Captain.

One such Bandit Captain.

There is the possibility that players will end up in combat, and the barkeep will tell the combatants to take the brawl outside. He doesn't join in with his own stat block, fighting either side (or taking sides with paying customers), and there's no written consequences until the players move on. More on that soon.

Interestingly, the adventure doesn't entertain the chance that Silas might be kidnapped or slain, which could mean the adventure goes on for longer (which would do this caper a favour) or it comes to an abrupt end, unless he has the maps to the two locations that follow exiting the Honeywell Inn.

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Highway to Hell

Having escaped the Honeywell Inn with their lives, Silas will tell the party all he knows (read: the opening paragraph) and send them to find the Tomb of the Ember Knight, followed by the Barrow of the Evil King. If players caused a ruckus at the inn, guards may halt their journey and pay the court a fine, serve their sentence, or pay with their blood. It's a relief this part of the adventure is written as an optional encounter, because it raises more questions that require GMs to be prepared to answer.

If the players pay the hefty sum of 100 gold pieces each, they can continue their journey to sell the sword and make up the cost. If they go to jail, they stay in the slammer for fourteen days and the supposedly spreading darkness waits for them to leave. And if the party fights, the guards will surrender and flee if they're given half a chance. There's also the idea that the party can convince the guards they're on a quest to find the Emberblade and defeat the evil king, but why they would believe this bygone myth is beyond me. There's a lot of inconsistency about what people know, true or otherwise, about the Ember Knight and their former despot, once more requiring the GM to keep track of this information so they contain their players' belief.

Whatever happens, the party moves onto the Tomb of the Ember Knight. The map of this place is just as jarring as the adventure, being a mish-mash of manmade halls and rooms, and natural formations. It also wastes time for careful players, whose marching order consists of those with the best darkvision and stealth skills up front. Nothing happens until they reach the centre of the initial 'room.'

The Tomb of the Ember Knight; beautifully drawn as always, but an exercise in nonsense design.

The Tomb of the Ember Knight; beautifully drawn as always, but an exercise in nonsense design.

Caution is recommended in the tomb however, as three spiders await players who tamper with their latest catch: a corpse encased in web, clutching onto two vials of antivenom, a herbalist's kit, and a silver dagger. In a one-shot, these are safe to be chugged or sold, but can provide essential later on.

The spiders are hardly a threat—much like the earlier bandits—but their poison attacks can wear down the players if they don't rest before the next encounter. They are given ample warning of the goblinoids that will ambush them in the room following the drawn out navigation of a tunnel, with a trap that will make noise if triggered. If the party doesn't clumsily waltz through the noise maker, they'll find some goblins, a goblin boss, and a hobgoblin asleep; otherwise, they'll be sprung upon.

The party has no choice but to rest as the path ahead is blocked off by a cave-in, which is a rare moment of self-awareness in adventure design. There should be structural errors, especially when it's become the home of things that don't appreciate good architecture . . . like gricks.

After digging approximately four hours to clear the cave-in and move ahead, the party will have to search high and low if they want to catch the gricks: serpentine creatures with beady eyes, tentacles with which to grasp prey and bring it into their beaks. They're very sneaky in rocky terrain, and this most certainly is, and the complete darkness doesn't help matters at all.

Though I have criticised the map design I confess that the cave feels natural. There's no benefit to seeing the entire complex as far as it goes, which provides more form than function. That's precisely what a cave is, after all. But the players will eventually paw their way through the darkness to find steps, and light, as they come across the tomb of the knight proper. There the party finds two doors, and should anyone try to approach them both, the Sentinel—a dirty great statue with the Gladiator stat block—approaches and will initiate combat.

The gladiator is the toughest fight in the adventure.

The gladiator is the toughest fight in the adventure.

The Sentinel fight is, in a word, overkill. I would strongly recommend GMs at least give the party a chance to either rest up, heal up, or perhaps even convince the statue that they aren't there to rob the tomb, but use the sword to defeat the tyrant who has returned. Yet again the adventure fails to entertain the possibility a GM might want to use a riddle, skill checks, or even let the party pass should they prove themselves worthy. And while I sound like I don't give GMs enough credit to think for themselves, I would expect an adventure to provide suggestions to inspire these creative choices and diversions. Once again I must stress the purpose of this adventure is to be quick and easy, and as written, it is only one of those things.

The Sentinel, much like the D&D Beyond page's description suggests, will not fight to the death: merely when each player it perceives is down to zero hit points and unconscious. However, if they try to reach the door after reaching consciousness, the Sentinel will try to gently dissuade would-be tomb robbers by pummelling them back down to zero hit points again.

This requires a merciful GM though: the Sentinel can easily kill party members without thinking thanks to its three multiattacks per round, its ability to raise its armour class to 19 as a reaction, and having no negative rolls for saving throws.

Upon defeating (or outright skipping) this encounter, the party enters the final resting place of the Ember Knight. Awaiting them are altars with assorted jewels and coin, but the real McCoy is the Emberblade: a +1 longsword which deals an additional 1d6 radiant damage to undead. Combined with the silver dagger from earlier, the party now has a means of taking out their foe through martial means.

The entrance to the barrow.

The entrance to the barrow.

On the Road Again

There are no written interruptions to the party's travel to the barrow of the evil king, where it's up to the GM to decide the level of corruption present, or what form it takes. The players will find a mound with two entrances beneath a ring of pillars, as if they will walk through the eyes of a face peeking above the earth. Within is a catacomb, and to the leftmost side is a sarcophagus, the resident within awaiting those who would attempt to bring its end once more.

The evil king returns as a wraith who cannot yet leave the barrow, which begs the question of what the big deal is. If anything, the party's presence has made the situation worse if they fail. Wraiths are incredibly nasty creatures that, while having low health and a middling armour class, have a few tricks up their ghostly sleeves.

Wraiths have resistance to nearly all attacks and types of magic, including immunity to necrotic and poison damage. Their smoking form allows them to pass through someone like a breeze, albeit with difficulty, and because they hover they are immune to certain conditions, such as being knocked prone or being grappled. The evil king has a single attack, which - upon a hit - can drain the life force from its target, reducing the character's maximum health by the damage it dealt. This can mean a player dies without being able to throw death saves. In addition to that, the dead player may be risen as a spectre with similar abilities to fight their once allies.

A wraith, conveniently depicted with a crown.

A wraith, conveniently depicted with a crown.

When the undead tyrant is defeated, the wraith vanishes into a jet of mist, and the Dumear Valley is finally free and clear of this threat. Players can take the treasures left behind, and show off the blazing sword to the few NPCs who are even remotely aware of the myth come true. If the guards were previously slain, or damages dealt to the inn at the beginning, the party may need to be held accountable for that, but the Aftermath doesn't go into the consequences. Clearly, the embers have run out by this point.

Ashes to Ashes

Sword of the Ember Knight is a story worth telling: the tale of a hero's treasure being used to fulfil its purpose of good once more has more justification than most of the tomb raiding that goes on in adventures. But if a story is worth telling, it's worth telling well. That is its shortcoming, and ultimately, that's what matters most.

As a dungeon crawl for those who really don't care about roleplay and story, it's perfectly adequate. The combat encounters provide enough variety and appear frequently enough to justify some of the shortcomings of navigation in the second act. An expendable party of level three characters will meet a worthy match here.

But for those who want to adopt this adventure to use in their own game, they needn't bother. GMs can and should come up with characters and themes that fit their own homebrew setting so that most of this adventure can be scrapped, rather than try to cram in as much notes and lore as they can think of to fill the massive gaps that appear between each paragraph.

It's not broken by any means (the total gold value of loot can be argued as excessive), but it's easily one of Adventure Awaits Studios' worst works. Most of their other free adventures provide more detail and a much more fulfilling experience. It was fun to play, but could be so much more if it was given the attention it deserves.

Scoring System Explained

My review score process is as follows. Out of five stars:

  1. is for a badly designed product that I did not enjoy.
  2. are for a badly designed product I enjoyed, or a well designed product I did not enjoy.
  3. are for a badly designed product I greatly enjoyed, or a well designed product I enjoyed.
  4. are for a brilliantly designed product that I greatly enjoyed.
  5. means it provided irreplicable experience and one that will appear in very few reviews.

Sword of the Ember Knight gets two stars for being a shoddily designed adventure, but the blueprint is clear enough to the point where a GM with enough time and patience can turn it into something better. And it was a fun adventure to play, but it would lose nothing with better designed maps and encouraging players to come up with scenarios to make this quest worthy of recommendation.

Final Verdict

© 2021 John Roberts

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