Less than two years after TSR had started publishing supplements and adventures set in the Forgotten Realms, there was a bit of a dilemma.

TSR was revising their main product—Advanced Dungeons & Dragons—in an all-new edition. Since the Forgotten Realms line had been built around the old rules, there was a need to update. The decision was to have a big multimedia event to shake up the Realms, and a disaster to explain the changes, with a novel trilogy, and a set of tie-in modules (and later, comics). And this general idea would be repeated with every edition change since.

Personally, I consider this a bad idea on the face of it. First off, any RPG system, no matter how detailed, or simulationist in approach (and D&D has always been a ‘game first’ design) is never going to map 1-to-1 to the “reality” its supposed to represent. When changing rules, especially when they change as little as they overall did in 2e, just acknowledge some things are going to be perceived as working differently now, and move on. The first transition module, FRE1 Shadowdale, doesn’t even try to make a good case for the need for this considering that their ‘note about 2nd edition AD&D rules’, just says magic-users are called mages now, and monster stats are presented differently.

The module has a host of problems all its own. It is a heavily story-based adventure, where no important decisions are left up the characters. The main focus is the start of the Time of Troubles, which from the characters’ perspective is a giant natural disaster that’s far outside their scope of knowledge. One day, much clerical magic stops working, and all other magic becomes dangerously unpredictable.

Okay, that could be a good hook for something limited, or at least where you can start getting a handle on the problem and start working around it. But, no, any magic-users are either going to be unarmored 1d4/level fighters for the entire trilogy, or risk killing themselves whenever they cast a spell (23% chance, -1% per caster level, of either being hit with their own spell—hope it wasn’t something damaging, or having a pit open beneath their feet). Clerics are at least already support fighters, but not only is their magic unreliable too, but they cannot get third level or higher spells for the entire adventure.

Which brings up one of the effects of a rushed production (the module had to be written before the book it was based on was done): By the back cover this is for a level 5-8 adventuring party, while page 4 says levels 1-3. The former is correct, putting it in the favored ‘intermediate’ level range of AD&D adventures, and matches the levels of the characters from the novel. These are listed in the back as NPCs, though they’re purely presented to fill out a small party, except for Midnight, who is the MacGuffin of the story. These largely match the writeups from FR7 Hall of Heroes, except Kelemvor’s stats have some major reworks.

This is set in Cormyr and the Dalelands of the Realms. The former was the center of attention in the original boxed set, while the latter was the focus of one of Greenwood’s major campaigns. Since that point, there had been a few adventures set in the region, namely the novels Spellfire and Azure Bonds, and the Curse of the Azure Bonds and The Shattered Statue adventures, but little else. Physically, the module is the usual 48 pages with faux-parchment printing, and a detached cover. The cover is tri-fold with he last “outer” section replicating a reduced version of the Campaign Set’s 30 mi/in map of the region. A one-sided poster sheet gives color maps of Arabel (where the adventure begins) and Shadowdale (where it ends), as well as a close up of Cormyr. In a more general sense, while all the maps are ones that have appeared before, not all of them had been done in color before. The bits around arriving in Shadowdale give some ideas on how to run the place. That’s about as deep as general lore gets. There’s some new monsters, and a couple new items, and those can be reused, but they’re hardly needed.

Organizationally, the module is pretty well done. Each chapter starts with a series of ‘events’ which shape the flow of the story, and then a series of ‘encounters’ which can happen during the events of that chapter.

The first chapter has a big supernatural storm that starts the Time of Troubles, and then works through establishing just how widespread and serious the problem is. Okay, inciting event, and let everyone get to grips with it. Logical enough. The second chapter starts with the call to adventure. Which is a person coming up to them and trying to unload a quest on the characters. Why she comes to them, out of the entire population of a city, isn’t even considered. Sure, unemployed mid-level adventurers aren’t that common, but you can’t see what level someone is, and the adventure doesn’t even try to come up with a ‘random’ encounter with her, finding her in a spot of trouble, trying fruitlessly to get someone else to help, etc; no, she can detect PCs at a mile, and comes straight to them, and all the worst railroady social cues are thrown around in the module text to press the characters into the plot. (“The audience of NPC bystanders can make comments to shame the PCs into agreeing….”)

The next part is probably the most inventive bit in the module, but challenging to run, and I won’t go into it here. It requires some real thought and the details are all up to the DM, because he’s going to have to tailor things to the characters. Even better, this is a moment where the players get to shine and overcome obstacles, and move things forward. It is also something of a trope, but not an overused one.

And all the adventurers you might expect to get the call instead of the characters? They start coming out of the woodwork shortly after this.

After this we head for a big climax, to happen in the titular Shadowdale. How does the plot move from northern Cormyr to there? Good question. There’s nothing that really naturally steers characters there. Just that our MacGuffin, Midnight, will know she needs to go there. These tracks aren’t even well built.

Shadowdale itself is well presented (given space available), and under threat. With magic unreliable, the Zhentarim are making another try at the Dales. This adds tension to the upcoming climax, and can even be run as a Battlesystem game. However, as the characters will not be commanders, or otherwise largely involved in the battle, it’s best to just keep this as something in the background. Even if it would make a better climax than the real one.

The battle is a distraction, and to feed power to Bane, who has emerged as the real villain throughout the module (if not necessarily who started this mess, that’s still unrevealed), and he’s after an invisible back door into the outer planes present in Shadowdale (no, that hasn’t been mentioned elsewhere either, though it is given as something of the reason that the town is where it is). The characters are supposed to help out with the big fight when Bane goes after the real prize. Not that what they do matters to the outcome of the fight. This is some of the worst of on-rails writing here. There’s a big, epic battle, involving magic spells that you’ll never find in a spell book, and a big explosion to end it, that seems to have killed Bane… and Elminster.

Elminster has largely been an annoying presence in this adventure (having shown up once just to show he’s powerful, and then partially brushing off the party in favor of NPC Midnight while in Shadowdale), so that might not be a big problem. Except, as the only people to have witnessed this fight, the party is immediately charged with the murder of Elminster in an egregious act of Lawful Stupid. Drop curtain.


Frankly, as someone who enjoys many Forgotten Realms novels, the novel this is based off of is the one I regret reading. And trying to translate it into a heavy handed railroad adventure just makes everything worse. Motivations to follow the rails are not properly explored, the DM isn’t really given freedom to handle this as he sees fit. Having spent money on it, the DM might have some buy in to run this module. I don’t see much motivation for the players to buy into going through it.

A major problem with the overall plot is that it is extremely arbitrary. Not only does this get sprung on the characters with little warning, but on everyone else with little warning. The intro in the novel is basically Ao (big-G God), who has never been mentioned before, shows up, tells all the gods of the Realms they’re doing a bad job with all the petty infighting, and kicks them down to the mortal realms to teach them a lesson. Which, spoiler alert, they don’t learn, because they all (or the survivors, at any rate) go back to the same things after being let back into the outer planes to act as gods of the Realms again.

It can be worth contrasting Shadowdale with Curse of the Azure Bonds and the Dragonlance modules. Both of the Forgotten Realms adventures have somewhat forced starts to railroad plots, but Curse puts the characters into a personal problem (the bonds) which they have to solve, so they become motivated to dive into the plot. Shadowdale presents, effectively, a global catastrophe, with no immediate way to determine the cause, or what sort of action will do anything about it. When the plot attempts to pick up, it won’t be immediately obvious that this is going to be a central part of what’s going on.

Dragonlance explicitly has the players be the main characters. All those reference cards of the characters in each module aren’t for the DM to run as NPCs, they’re for the players to run, and for them to understand who they are, and what’s motivating them through the story. Shadowdale is largely the story of Midnight, and she is explicitly kept under DM lock-and-key. No letting a player loose to muck with her part of the story. And we get two big show-piece scenes that the characters get to witness with player actions bludgeoned away. They aren’t the main characters in any sense.

I can’t recommend this adventure on any level. There’s pieces of a few good ideas here, but that’s not worth the price of admission.