Mon Sep 17, 2007 10:54 am  
The Sinister Spire - Reviewed

Title - The Sinister Spire
Publisher - Wotc
Format - Soft covered booklet
Pages - 64 pages
MSRP - $19.95
Rating - 2 Stars
Reviewer - Glenn Vincent Dammerung aka GVDammerung


The Sinister Spire is an adventure for 5th Level characters. It is set almost entirely in a devastated drowish vault, wherein is located the city of Pedestal on the shores of the underground Sullen Sea. Pedestal was devastated by a magical plague that left the “Plagueburst” crater in the middle of the town. The town is now run by gangs and the mysterious Es Sarch, a unique undead, who has no particular powers of note but who manipulates all within Pedestal as a information broker. At the center of Pedestal is the Necromancer’s Spire, a natural column that is partially hollowed out into a dungeon complex. Originally, home to a necromancer distinct from the drow, the Necromancer’s Spire was abandoned for reasons not fully known and is now the lair of Fadheela a medusa/yuan-ti halfbreed.

Setting the PCs in motion within this environment is their search for the stolen bones of a king who, a prophecy states, may return to help his kingdom in its hour of need. Unless the king’s bones are recovered, the prophecy may not be fulfilled. The PCs must turn to Es Sarch for help, who asks them to accomplish missions for him in return, all while navigating the dangers of plague ravaged Pedestal. Ultimately, the PCs must confront Fadheela. The bones, however, have already been removed from the vault.

Intended to be a followup to Barrow of the Forgotten King and a precursor to the Fortress of the Yuan-ti, but also playable as a stand alone, The Sinister Spire utilizes the “delve” format. The delve format consists of individual encounter areas mapped for miniatures use. Overall maps of the vault, Pedestal, and the Necromancer’s Spire are also provided.


The Sinister Spire is a thrown together adventure with little thought given to background or setting beyond that necessary to get the PCs through the adventure. The PCs seem to be expected to either 1) not inquire very much about the environment within which they are operating or 2) not care about the environment. What is left is to get the information you need and kill anything that gets in your way - no questions asked. This is a very simple minded sort of adventure. Let’s see how.

We can start with the drowish vault, which is mapped. It appears altogether to pristine, or put another way, simple. There is the Sullen Sea, which appears to be more of a smallish lake, the town of Pedestal and the Spire. That’s it. There is very little here to spur the imagination. In a homebrew, this level of detail would be fine. In a professional product, this is not acceptable and appears lazy design - “just make it a cave, a town and a spire, already.”

Next we come to Pedestal. First, the name is an insult to a gamer’s intelligence. Why not call it “Drow Town,” or “Drow Bluff?” Those names would be about as original and more descriptive. “Pedestal” is not a name but a poor descriptive. Any DM worth their die could come up with something more evocative. Pedestal s a dull, unimaginative name. This, unfortunately, fits the actual city.

D&D has been around a few years. In those years, drowish civilization has been explored a time or two, most notably in the famous Vault of the Drow. There is such a thing as drowish architecture and city planning. Pedestal doesn’t look or feel like any kind of drow city, devastated or not. It looks like any old city. This is, again, uninspired design bordering on the lazy. Would it have been so hard to give “Pedestal” some drowish character so that players could wax eloquent after the adventure about the cool devastated drow city they fought their way through? No. It would have been easy had one cared to try. No one cared to try.

“But wait!” Isn’t Pedestal sufficiently distinguished by its character as a plague ravaged town? Particularly given that Plagueburst that left an actual crater where a large portion of the town once was? Not exactly. The plague is described as magical but its genesis is not discussed in any detail. It just hit the town and left a physical crater. Everything is here to make the plague cool and you keep waiting for the coolness to be revealed. It never arrives. In other words, it is a deus ex machina to devastate the town and make things difficult for the PCs. It feels contrived.

Things do pick up a bit when the PCs encounter Es Sarch but again we see laziness. A unique undead type? Cool! What makes him unique? Um. Well. See. That’s the thing. Not much. He is an information broker but that is really about it. His mystery is all posing. But then again, that’s all the adventure apparently needs him to be as he sends the PCs off on some missions to kill time before the adventure’s conclusion. Here again, the plot device is old and threadbare - you undertake missions for me and I will help you. In a better executed adventure, this old chestnut could work. This is unfortunately not a better executed adventure.

Finally, we arrive at the Necromancer’s Spire. It was inhabited by a necromancer who existed in Pedestal separate from the drow. Then, he disappeared. We are not told how he managed to so exist among the drow of all people, what he was up to or where he went or what his ultimate fate was. The Necromancer’s Spire is thus transformed from a cool, mysterious lair into just another dungeon - only vertical! This is horrible design. Spend a paragraph and fill in the Necromancer’s backstory. Put the present situation into some context. To return to an earlier point, this in almost insulting, imaging that the players and PCs won’t care or won’t inquire. In a professional publication, for which I am asked to pay five cents short of $20, I expect more.

At last, we come to Fadheela. I’ll make this quick. She is essentially just a weird half this/ half that monster to kill. The end. No attempt is made to make her anything more. If you are not awed by the coolness of her half-medusa/half-yuan-ti nature, the adventure gives you nothing else. Relying on a monster, as just a monster, to be a cool villain, without more, is a huge risk. Herein, it doesn’t pay off. With some backstory or context, Fadheela could have been more memorable. As it is, she’s just weird swordbait.

Setting up the Fortress of the Yuan-ti, the bones of the king have already been sent on ahead by Fadheela. So, the whole adventure seems a bit pointless. It feels that way too - pointless and listless. But mercifully, its over.

Okay. Pretty harsh evaluation so far. While deserved, there are a few good things about The Sinister Spire. All of the half-there parts of the adventure just chronicled are developed sufficient to run the adventure and as such are available to the enterprising DM who wants to build the backstory and contextual elements the adventure did not deign to include. This is a fixer-upper adventure and by that measure doesn’t get in the way of DMs looking to add it to a homebrew or really any campaign. It is that generic in the main.

In this regard, Es Sarch is clearly the NPC with the most potential. Even as sketchily described as he is in the adventure, he comes across as cool. He easily stands out as the most memorable part of the adventure. With a little work, adding maybe a template, Es Sarch could become a recurring character in a campaign, and not necessarily the bad guy. While presently ensconced in pedestrian Pedestal, Es Sarch is already bigger in the imagination than the city. Transplanting him, or leaving him be, could both be options. In my view, he deserves a better stage than Pedestal.

Looking at just the mechanics of The Sinister Spire, the adventure works. It is for this reason it avoids a 1 Star rating. While not inspired, it works and it can be made to serve. Those looking for a quick adventure with themes of drow, the underdark but with the twist of a vault fallen on hard times will find The Sinister Spire covering that ground. In this, The Sinister Spire does present a unique environment. More the pity it was not better developed.

For the GH fan, the Sinister Spire is an example of a "fallen vault" of the drow. Here on CF, in the long running Underdark thread, there has been speculation about potential other vaults and fallen vaults. The Sinister Spire is an actual example of such a concept actually executed in print, albeit not a very good example.