Wrath of the River King

Product review

gaming modules 5e dnd review

Wrath of the River King is a D&D module set largely in they Feywilds, dealing with an abduction, a looming invasion, and plenty of planar intrigue. It's available for both 5e and Pathfinder Kobold Press is known for high-quality content, largely because the man behind the company is Wolfgang Bauer, whose name appears in so many D&D and Pathfinder products, it's unreasonable to even attempt to list them all.

I was in North Carolina for work last year and ended up at the vibrant and active and very well stocked Game Theory store. I played a game, and bought as much as I thought I could possibly carry back to New Zealand with me. Relevant to this post, I picked up Wrath of the River King based on the excellent cover art along with the fact that it's a manageable 60-page module. Specifically, it's a module that takes characters from level 5 to 7 (5e) or level 4 to 6 (Pathfinder), and the players in one of my games just reached level 5 during our previous session, so they'll be playing through this next. Luckily, while I was waiting for those players to reach level 5, I had the opportunity to run it as an all day game with some other players: we started at 10:00 and played until 21:00, with a few breaks during the day.

Story

The story of the module, without any spoilers, starts when the PCs learn that the wife of the local miller has gone missing. The miller is accused of doing away with her himself, but he asks the PCs to clear his name and find his dearly beloved wife. Their investigation eventually, as the title and cover suggests, into the feywilds (or just "the Fey" as this module refers to it), which is the plane of Faeries, a kind of echo of the prime material plane but with lots more magic. From there, the players are left mostly to their own devices to decide where to go and what to do, and the rest of the book is basically a pastiche of story elements that players may encounter during their investigation. There are only a few plot points, so if you want this module to play out over the course of a few months, you could easily manage to stretch it out that long. On the other hand, it only spans two levels, so as written it's probably only going to last a few sessions.

I'm not used to running sandbox-style modules, myself. I find them unfocused, and I usually resent having to invent adventures and plots as I play. After all, why bother buying a module at all if I'm expected to do all the work any way? When I first read through the module, I was a little nervous about that; I could just see the PCs wandering aimlessly through the Birch Queen's fair for 8 hours of play with no sign of plot in sight. To Kobold Press's credit, there's a full page of conversation topics for each vendor at the Birch Queen's bazaar, so if you want to use those as plot hooks for side quests, it would be easy to send the PCs on a series of adventures before every achieving the actual goal of that particular chapter. In practise, I found that what Kobold Press provided was truly just atmosphere, and that it easy for me to choose to focus on plot points as the DM, guiding the PCs away from distractions and toward important information.

The Courts of the Fey

The Fey is a strange and overly-magical place, with lots of potential for whimsy and cheap surprises. It's up to you how you want to run it, but I found it easiest and most appealing to treat it less like Narnia and more like Kadath (actually the Dreamland Realm leading to Kadath, but you get the idea). I minimized wacky encounters and plot hooks and concentrated on the sinister. Social encounters were high on intrigue and low on treating the Feywild as a Bizarro World of strange creatures with a loose grasp on human ethics. Don't get me wrong, the fey in our adventure did have a loose grasp on the concept of ethics, but I presented it as true culture shock, in which the fey are mostly acting in ways that make sense to them, and can't understand how a human from the prime material plane could possibly seriously or sincerely not understand. Maybe I'm influenced by the small, subtle moments of culture shock I've experienced in moving from the USA to New Zealand, but my feywild doesn't see itself as Alice's wonderland, but like, I guess, the USA ("what do you mean everyone should get health care?" and "you actually think people should be paid a living wage??"). Perfectly legitimate beliefs, abhorrent though they may be, are the law of the land, and there's no convincing the inhabitants that there's any other sane way to be.

Another surprise was just how liberating the feywild can be when the DM needs something to be hidden until the plot requires for it to be revealed. The PCs can go to one location one day and find it completely empty, and then once they learn about something (or heck a whole castle) located in that place, they can go back only to find that the thing was there all along. Why wasn't that castle there yesterday? Forget it, Jake, it's the Feywild.

Planescape

The feywild wasn't a thing when Planescape was released, so it's not clear where it exists by that canon. But whether you consider it a pocket universe of the prime material plane or a mirror world of it or a plane all its own, this adventure can make for a great introduction to planar adventures for PCs unfamiliar with the concept of Planescape. I took full advantage of this when I ran it, and instead of the portal, as written, leading from the prime material plane directly to the feywilds, I had it lead to the infamous city of Sigil. I didn't let them get sidetracked in Sigil, providing an easy and obvious route into the feywilds, but I wanted to introduce them to the idea of a city of doors that could lead to any number of planes. Whether or not it made an impression, I don't know yet, but at least I know I've planted a seed toward planar adventures.

Part of the module does deal with portals in the feywild. The PCs must find doorways to a specific court, and preferably back to their own home, so the module introduces the PCs to the idea of planar travel in some small way. I feel, personally, that around level 7 or so, PCs ought to have the option to start planar adventures if that's something that intrigues them, so the timing for this module is convenient in that sense. Should PCs choose to continue their plane jumping, Kobold Press's Courts of the Shadow Fey module offers a level 7-10 adventure on the dark side of the Fey.

Design

It's no secret that Wolfgang Bauer and his team have a great sense for adventure design, and this module is a good example of that. In terms of mechanics, there are a few mini-games sprinkled throughout, including the fjording of a river, fending off strange creatures, resisting enchanting music, and more. There are lots of these small touches that give the DM an opportunity to mix the game up a little.

What struck me, though, was the pace of the adventure. Everything happens when it needs to happen, and there are several particularly memorable spectacles and experiences that I don't think PCs will likely forget. They aren't, probably, as memorable as, say, surviving an encounter with Demogorgon in the Abyss, but they're solid show pieces of heightened awareness and uncertainty. They are several encounters that could easily go in any number of directions, and it's an absolute pleasure for a DM to see which way a given group of PCs are going to go.

Verdict

The Fey can be a tough setting. I think it has the potential to be annoying and frustrating for players, and too silly for the DM. But if you latch on to some idea about an alternate hyper-magical, opposite-ethics-day, mystery land, and capitalize on it, then you can run an intriguing, mystical, alluring Feywild setting that you and your PCs enjoy. For me, part of the break-through came when I realised that RA Salvatore had already done half the work for me in Kingdoms of Amalur, one of my favourite video games. Amalur is, basically, the feywilds and it mostly delivers the setting in an appealing and attractive way. Find the feywilds that you enjoy visiting, and use that as your base for this module's world. And then run this module, because it's great fun, and a really rewarding experience for players transitioning from low-level adventurers to mid-level heroes.

Wrath of the River King cover by Kobold Press. All rights reserved.

Previous Post Next Post

Your move