It’s universally understood, though not often said, that evil is simply cooler than good. Evil people are the ones who get to dress in the most arresting outfits, make the grandest speeches, and perform the most memorable actions. Simply put, evil characters make a bigger impression than their righteous counterparts…though oftentimes the good guys can come close.
In Way of the Wicked Book Four: Of Dragons and Princesses, players and GMs get to see this truism up close and personal. Heck, it’s even in the book’s title – this is adventure is all about those most fearsome of beasts, dragons, as well as women of nobility and power. While the PCs have met some truly arresting characters so far, it’s here that they begin to truly begin interacting with the kingdom’s power-players on a regular basis.
But before we get any further into the meat of the adventure, let’s look at the technical aspects first. The fourth Way of the Wicked book comes as three PDFs. The first is the main adventure itself, while the second is a printer-friendly version thereof. The last one is labeled as being “player handouts,” which is a slight misnomer; rather, it’s a single player handout, and four maps of major areas that have all of the labels removed, making things easier for the GM (though some might grimace at the fact that the name of the place depicted is still featured on each map).
The main file, one hundred-six pages in length, presents itself fairly well on a technical scale. Copy and pasting are enabled, and the text is fully searchable. Bookmarks are present, but again there’s only one bookmark for each major section of the book; if you want to find a more specific sub-section, you’ll need to scroll to it manually. Both of these are also true for the printer-friendly PDF.
Unfortunately, the printer-friendly PDF only lives up to its designation half-heartedly. Its idea of being “printer-friendly” is to remove the background coloration from the pages, and set the page borders to being grayscale lines. All of the interior illustrations and maps are still there in lavish full-color.
Having said that, the main file is notably resplendent. The pages are set on a dark tan background (which, I think, is meant to look like parchment) with ornate black borders on three sides. Full-color maps are present for each major section, and of course the interior illustrations are all in lustrous full color as well. I must once again tip my hat to artist Michael Clarke, as the various pictures of the major characters that the PCs meet are, to be blunt, arresting. Each one of these pictures clearly conveys the thousand words that they’re worth.
My last technical critique is regarding what’s not here, rather than what is. There are no files that are optimized for e-readers or Macs. While this wasn’t a big deal to me personally, I suspect that it’s a bit more of a nuisance for those who want versions of the book optimized for those devices.
Now, let’s get down to the adventure itself. As with previous installments, this one actually begins almost exactly where the previous one ended – I’m of two minds about how the book actually opens with what feels like the epilogue to its predecessor; on the one hand, it feels almost anticlimactic, as instead of moving forward with the plot you’re dealing with the loose ends from your last adventure. On the other hand, this helps to lend a much greater sense of cohesiveness to the campaign as a whole, since the adventures feel much more interconnected…something I suspect was author Gary McBride’s intent.
Regardless, the adventure opens with the PCs in what’s left of the Vale of Valtaerna, having not only snuffed out the holy flames of the state religion’s most holy site, but also slaughtered every living thing in the valley. Or at least, that was the plan. If the PCs succeeded, then they get to march their army out (absorbing the surviving bugbears into their own evil organization, if the rules from Book Two are being used) with no fuss as they continue their evil plans.
Cogently, however, the book spends more time talking about what happens if the PCs failed and some survivors managed to escape. In this case, the winter thaw finds an army of light (FAR outnumbering the PCs’ forces) preparing to retake the Vale. This is another classical “villain moment,” in that it presents the PCs with the question of what they’ll do regarding their minions when it comes time to beat a hasty retreat. While the PCs can likely escape on their own, there are various actions presented, along with their consequences, should they also want to save their minions and greater retinue.
Once the PCs escape, it’s time for them to relax before their next assignment. Rejoining with the humanoid army led by Fire-Axe at the recently-conquered city of Daveryn, the PCs can kick back and accomplish some side-quests for a month. This is largely a chance to catch up on XP and treasure (in the form of some good old-fashioned looting), but does have several opportunities for the PCs to find several clues for their upcoming assignment.
Speaking of being assigned, after a month of squashing what resistance remains in Daveryn, the PCs’ master sends them one last assignment: to kill the king of Talingarde. Of course, this isn’t as simple as just poisoning his food – the king marches at the head of an army, and attacking him there is suicide. Rather, the PCs are to create a huge calamity back at his palace, where his young daughter resides. The king, loving his child so much, will magically transport back to defend her…which is when the PCs will ambush him.
Of course, this requires creating a disaster of sufficient magnitude, and it’s here that the titular dragons begin to come into play. The PCs need to enlist the help of the great black wyrm Chargammon. This is much easier said than done, as the dragon eats anyone who approaches him. So first, they need to find a way to secure an audience.
This part of the adventure seemed, to me, to be a bit rushed – not the issue of the PCs’ master giving them their next assignment (the book is actually very cognizant of the fact that the PCs are by now straining their metaphorical leashes) – but rather, how the PCs are supposed to think of the manner in which they’re to safely meet with Chargammon. Simply put, one of the aforementioned clues in sacking Daveryn is the key here, but the sandbox nature of the conquered city means it’s less than certain that the PCs will even look in the right place, let alone find it. The adventure basically tells the GM to make sure the PCs find this clue somehow, but only offers a few off-the-cuff suggestions for what to do if the PCs don’t go to the right area and look in the right place; it’s a weak point in what’s otherwise an excellent adventure.
Once the PCs discover the clue, it’s off to find the one person who can secure them a meeting with Chargammon. This is largely a sidetrek, as the adventure makes it fairly easy to locate the correct area once the PCs are on the right path, and the fight is relatively brief.
Only after this is done can the PCs meet with the powerful black dragon, being able to journey there in relative safety (I have to interject here that the picture of the black drakes that dwell on Chargammon’s island made me think of a certain dragon named Toothless). The actual meeting itself is anything but safe, however, as Chargammon is as arrogant as he is powerful. It’s very easy for PCs who are stupid or proud to provoke a fight that they likely cannot win. Again, this is an area where the plot moves along very thin rails; a minor disruption can have major repercussions here.
Chargammon, in the true style of RPG NPCs, won’t agree to do anything unless the PCs undertake a quest for him first. In this case, he wants a rival dragon slain – a copper dragon of less power but greater allies named Eiramanthus. This is no small thing, as like Chargammon, Eiramanthus commands his own island.
The island is an otherworldly place. Eiramanthus is a planeswalker extraordinaire, and alters his home to better reflect the nature of his travels. As such, the entire island has an alien feel to it that also gives it certain defensive properties. The major defenses are the creatures who dwell there, however – in addition to visitors and the local servants, Eiramanthus’s home is occupied not only by the dragon himself, but by his three concubines; exotic and powerful women that he wooed on his travels.
I was critical of some of the previous parts of the adventure because they had clear directions that they wanted the PCs to go, but offered only a relatively narrow range of options for how to make that happen. Here, the situation may seem somewhat similar, but I don’t hold this against the book. That is, if the PCs are stupid, they may end up facing Eiramanthus with most of his servants and concubines helping him, which is likely to overwhelm the PCs. It’s far smarter to use some degree of subterfuge to try and take them down one at a time or in small groups.
There’s little advice on what the situation is or how to make sure things don’t go south quickly. I don’t consider this a bug, but rather see it as a feature. This adventure is for high-level PCs, and at this point if they’re not using some degree of strategy, the fault is entirely their own. That the PCs are likely to face disaster if they try to kick in the door is how things are supposed to go. At this point, punishing them for not using their heads is the correct thing to do.
It’s after things are done here that the plot makes a significant leap, as it’s here that the PCs are given not only a great deal more information on their master’s past, but are given the first direct information regarding overthrowing him. The seeds for the next book are sown here…
Once Eiramanthus is slain (and his truly prodigious hoard, which includes some amusing souvenirs from other dimensions, has been claimed), Chargammon is willing to hold up his end of the bargain. Now all that’s left is to head to the capital city and prepare to lure the king into the death-trap. This is an area where the PCs will again have a chance to explore a major city, but that part is left to the gazetteer at the end of the book.
For the final act, the king’s palace is detailed. Sneaking in and overcoming the defenders isn’t what I’d call cakewalk, but it’s by no means a truly difficult affair, which makes sense as most of the martial forces have marched to the front. However, plenty of soldiers remain that even a high-level group should be wary of sounding an alarm before their ready to commit regicide. Once Chargammon attacks, however, the king (who is a paragon of a certain eight Virtues, for fans of a particular old school RPG series) comes running…along with his closest defenders. Remember, they came back because the situation was dire, so even caught unaware they’re still ready for a truly tough fight. To slay a king here will be no small thing for the PCs.
The adventure doesn’t quite end there, as there’s a “cut scene” involving Chargammon and the princess. I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, as this is written as a narrative, and so it’s difficult to know if this is meant to be read to the PCs or is simply an extra for the GM. Ideally the former, but that might not be workable. Far better, at least in terms of practicality, was the FAQ-style section where the book dealt with what to do if things went awry at various points. This was a very bright idea, as this adventure more than others offered places in which various parts of the plot could conceivably be done out of order, ignored, or changed depending on the PCs’ actions. The suggestions for how to get things back on track are most welcome.
Of course, the book doesn’t end here. A gazetteer is given for the capital city of Talingarde, Matharyn. While I was expecting to be tired of city guides, I was once again proven wrong. Matharyn has its own feeling; whereas other cities are populated by people pragmatic in their approach to life and work, Matharyn really is a bastion of order and goodness. This is a city where the people are good and do good, and the author notes that this is quite likely to throw less-selfish evil-doers for a loop; it’s hard to imagine a society more perfect than one where everyone works for the common good and is genuinely happy. Luckily for those characters who want to destroy such virtue, there are ten brief side-quests given as well.
The final section of the book is a discussion regarding how to run the campaign for PCs who become vampires or liches. If this sounds random, it shouldn’t, as the previous book presented the PCs with a golden opportunity to become vampires, and this one presents a similar method for achieving lichdom (I won’t spoil the surprise here). This is the first of a two-part section, with this first one eschewing mechanics (save for one new magic item that allows vampires to survive in sunlight) in favor of advice and suggestions.
It’s worth noting that this section is also fairly lopsided in favor of vampires. While the initial part does talk about some of the issues with playing a lich (e.g. can lich powers be voluntarily deactivated? What to do if someone steals your phylactery?), the majority of it talks about what to do regarding the many weaknesses and restrictions of vampires. This may seem like would-be lich PCs are being snubbed, but it’s understandable given that vampirism is much easier for most PCs to achieve, compared to lichdom. The section closes out with book-by-book advice given for running Way of the Wicked as a campaign about the ascendancy of a vampire kingdom.
Overall, there’s little question that Of Dragons and Princesses stands alongside the previous three adventures as a high-water mark among adventures. However, it never exceeds the standards its predecessors set. Small issues regarding how smoothly the plot continues onward, along with one too many “fetch quests” for my taste (e.g. quest to figure out how to meet Chargammon, quest to secure his aid, etc.) make this an adventure that’s excellent by any other standard, but not quite so much as the others.
Of course, those are small complaints compared to what’s here overall. From the flight from Valtaerna to the first real discussion of overthrowing the PCs master to the assassination of the king and so much more, there’s a huge amount of high-quality adventuring to be had here. Stamp out rebels, murder kings, and bring the world one step closer to damnation as you perform deeds Of Dragons and Princesses.