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Thanks to Echohawk for the image!

Vault of the Dracolich is a very unusual D&D adventure. It is, to my knowledge, one of only two adventures ever designed for multiple adventuring parties to experience together (at least amongst official adventures). Originally produced for in-store play during the 2013 D&D Game Day, the conceit of the adventure is that several groups will converge on one site to seize a magical artifact from a dracolich’s lair – simultaneously. Several different D&D tables will therefore be working together, exploring a dungeon simultaneously and even potentially trading players as the game goes on.

That’s a cool idea – but not one I’ve experienced! I’m not likely to assemble a grand enough group for such an endeavor. So I mostly picked up Vault for its potential as a “normal” adventure, with just a single group of players. Is it worth exploring if you can’t see it in its full glory?

Vault of the Dracolich is for fourth-level PCs and can handle any number from four to forty or so players!

Warning: I won’t hesitate to spoil the story in the The Adventure section, but I’ll keep the other parts spoiler-free.

The Product

Vault of the Dracolich was originally released in paper form through game stores participating in the 2013 D&D Game Day. It is now available in pdf form, and that’s the version I’ll be reviewing.

The adventure is a 26-page pdf that follows the recent format of D&D adventures – a very readable two-column layout with good editing. The interior is black-and-white with a couple of pieces of art. It includes two maps – one for the DM and one for the players – that are also provided in high-resolution versions as separate files.

Vault was produced and released during the playtest period for D&D 5E (listed under this entry here). This means that it follows somewhat different rules from the official releases (specifically, those in the June 7, 2013 playtest packet). The adventure itself didn’t include monster statistics, but that packet had a 12-page bestiary file with the relevant information.

This means you’ll have to pay careful attention if you want to run this in the final version of 5E and have some experience in setting challenges in order to make the encounters fit. That said, this adventure is meant to be quite deadly, so maybe one doesn’t need to worry too much….

The Setup

The adventure background is reasonably straightforward, though it has more complexity thanks to its setting within the Forgotten Realms. Basically, a dracolich is trying to use an ancient elven staff to empower itself and its cult followers. The dracolich lives in an old temple to the god of murder. The PCs are gathered by a former adventurer to teleport into the area, unseal the vault by gathering some idols, and then recover the staff. The challenges all scale with the number of groups participating (at least up to the expected four groups) – so there is flexibility in how the final goal is achieved.

Vault’s design for multiple groups makes for some organizational challenges, of course, and this gets a fair amount of attention in the text. On the DM side, responsibilities are split between an event coordinator and the DMs for each table. There’s enough going on, and the groups will be close enough to each other, that I suspect the coordinator will be kept quite busy tracking the BBEG and other in-dungeon events. On the player side, each group gets a captain responsible for coordinating with others, and there are some in-game triggers (plus player choices) that can allow players to trade tables.

This is a similar system to Sundering IV: Dreams of the Red Wizards: Dead in Thay, though I think it would likely work better here because this is a one-shot, so the bookkeeping is much easier (and the adventure doesn’t try nearly so hard to keep groups separate). Dead in Thay had lots of artificial barriers to keep groups separate, and it had relatively few “dungeonwide” events. Vault has the potential to be much more dynamic.

The Adventure

Vault is a fairly compact dungeon with 33 keyed rooms. It essentially divides into four areas, each of which will be explored by a separate group. (There are suggestions for working in three more groups, but there are four basic goals – recovering idols that will dispel the wards guarding the staff.) The four subsections have different foci as well.

One group will enter through the front door. They’ll plow through the typical things you expect in a temple-turned dungeon – entry halls, guard rooms, the kitchen, and the old altar. The enemies are almost all the dracolich’s cultists (clerics and warriors), and there are a lot of them. The environment ends up feeling fairly mundane – probably because there are so many adventures with settings like this, and nothing to really make this one stand out. Even the traps are pretty forgettable.

There are a couple of more interesting elements here. One is an encounter with the cult’s leader and his flesh golem, which promises to be exceptionally challenging. This is where the group can complete its first goal, recovering one of the idols. (In addition to their plot-advancement purpose, these idols can grant their bearers some creepy sort of powers from the god of murder, which is kind of fun.) There’s also a prisoner of the cult here, a drow who also tried to recover the artifact and who will give the PCs some information about dangers ahead.

This section uses a bunch of randomizers to determine just what’s happening in some of these rooms. I don’t really understand the purpose of that – no group is going to do this part twice, so why add this layer of complexity? It seems to provide an illusion of dynamism, but only for the DM, as the players aren’t even going to know about the randomness.

All in all, this section is fine, but there’s nothing that stands out.

The second group will enter through a waterfall and explore an underground lake that eventually links to the temple complex. They’ll be given canoes to do this (or they can swim). This part has a much more interesting environment, if only because there aren’t many water-based adventures around. There are also a couple of points where the PCs can choose whether to take additional risks to learn more or gain something useful, which I always enjoy.

Most of the opponents are the mindless sorts that would inhabit an underground lake, at least in a D&D world. There are a couple of exceptions, though. Most important, there’s a hydra guarding the idol. This is likely to be a very difficult encounter, and I like that there’s lots of potential for the environment to become important. There is also a small group of lizardfolk in one room, and an outcast who wants them dead (and who knows quite a bit of useful information) in another. Finally, there’s a roper standing over a big chasm guarding the entrance to the chamber where the climax occurs. Again, there’s a great environment for this fight.

This is my favorite section – there are a lot of different facets to this part, all packed (somewhat sensibly) into a small area. The other sections have their moments, but this one is consistently interesting and unusual.

The third group will enter through a troglodyte village in some nearby caverns. The trogs worship the dracolich but aren’t on great terms with the cult, and there are a few ways the PCs can leverage them to be useful (temporary) allies – by demonstrating their competence against the cult, or by battling monsters in the trogs’ fighting pit. The last could get a bit tiresome, as it requires three random fights, but I guess you’ve got to kill time in case the social PCs manage to dodge the other obstacles.

There’s a bit more to this section than the village: there’s a crazy treant (but not so crazy that social PCs can’t get him on their side) and a ruined elvish ship.

This is an okay section, but thinking PCs will short-circuit the most obvious challenge and probably be stuck with some pointless fights. It’s also not clear how the trogs will react once they find out the PCs aren’t just fighting the cultists but also the dracolich.

The last group gets to explore the central chambers. This has a pretty good variety of monsters but also a gauntlet of traps. They’re not great traps – nothing dynamic enough to be an encounter on its own, really just extra ways to damage unwary PCs – but they do give this part of the dungeon a different feel. In fact, it stands up well on its own even without the traps, as this portion contains the treasure hoard of the dragon, as well as the magical elements of the old temple. It’s a much more fantastical feel than the first section, which is disappointing – there’s a lot of good stuff here, and I would have preferred to see it mixed with that more mundane part.

This first part of the adventure looks pretty fun; although the individual segments aren’t fantastic, they aren’t bad, and for a dynamic one-shot like this they work well. Overall, the dungeon is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a nice map with a lot of variation; while some of the sections are linear, they are small enough I don’t think that’s a big deal. The challenges are quite high – it’s difficult to judge given the playtest, but the dungeon is quite densely packed, and lots of those enemies are quite high-level. There are even a couple of extra elements to liven things up. Most interesting is that, once the PCs begin to find some success, the dracolich will send apparitions of itself through the dungeon to harass the PCs. There are also some teleporters that will mix up the adventuring groups,

The climax of the adventure sees the adventurers try to retrieve the staff itself. This is a very complex encounter – but it would have to be, as for the first time all the groups are supposed to be in the same place. The adventure splits it into four tasks, but three are protecting the key group from various threats (the dracolich, some undead, and the dracolich’s simulacrum…ran out of ideas for the last one, I guess). The key point is to use the idols to disable the wards protecting the staff, and then to grab it.

So, most of the players will be battling things here, while one group tries to do the real work (and battle things too). That’s a classic setup, and I think it will work well – there’s a lot to fight, most of it feeling more like a holding action than a winnable battle (at least in theory). So there’s time pressure, but it’s loose enough that one wrong move won’t screw the whole adventure. I also like that the goal is to grab the staff and run, which is rather different than you normally see in a D&D adventure.

The Bottom Line

Although I haven’t experienced Vault of the Dracolich in its “large-format” glory, I can see why it would be a lot of fun. There is a lot of action and danger, some varied environments (many of which are important for both exploration and combat), and a cool climax full of pressure and a dynamic battle. While the dungeon itself is only average (too many similar monsters, too many boring traps, and not enough physical environment), the extras that go with an event add the extra layer of complexity to spice up that basic structure: there’s a breakneck rush through the dungeon to reach the staff, and then a massive climactic battle with even more to do than there are players. That’s a solid formula for a memorable day of D&D.

But – how well will Vault translate to a home game? In that context, it descends into the average category. There are two ways to play it: basically following the same formula as in the event, in which the PCs tackle one section of the dungeon and then proceed to the climax, or as a more typical dungeon in which the PCs (slowly) explore the entirety of the complex. In either case, you’ll lose what makes the climax so interesting, as the PCs won’t have the same sense of fighting enemies on all sides. The lack of “extras” will also focus more attention on the fairly average dungeon (though, if you’re only exploring one part, there are better and worse parts to choose…). Without the possibility of learning from other dungeon sections, those extra parts become pointless. Additionally, you’ll have some work updating the creatures and challenges to reflect the finalized 5E system.

Vault isn’t a bad adventure - and for its intended purpose it might even be a great one. But it loses a lot of its luster if you can’t run several groups at once. There are better options out there for most DMs.

This is my thirty-second review in the 2014 Iron Reviewer contest.
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Thanks so much for this review! As one of the authors, I really appreciated reading over this. I thought I would comment, though please understand that this is just my attempt to elucidate our design perspective - in no way am I saying your thoughts aren't valid. They are!

vestige wrote:
Vault of the Dracolich is a very unusual D&D adventure. It is, to my knowledge, one of only two adventures ever designed for multiple adventuring parties to experience together (at least amongst official adventures).

Multi-table "battle interactives" are fairly common in organized play programs. For at least 14 years these types of events have taken place, and there has often been a great deal of collaboration and idea lifting to refine how the experience works. One of the primary goals of the D&D team for this project was to create a store gameday that captured the excitement of those events. This was the first such store gameday event and the first official printing of such an event, and clearly a test to see if it was worth doing more often.

It was a big success, such that it was released on DnD Classics and followed up with the multi-table Gen Con event, Confrontation at Candlekeep. It also resulted in Scott Fitzgerald Gray being asked to take the concept further for the design of Dead in Thay and likely supported the idea of the Epic series of adventures for the new Adventurers League organized play program. Scott, Mike Shea, and I really enjoyed the writing process. It was unusually easy for us to work together and the ideas really flowed from start to finish.

vestige wrote:
This means you’ll have to pay careful attention if you want to run this in the final version of 5E and have some experience in setting challenges in order to make the encounters fit. That said, this adventure is meant to be quite deadly, so maybe one doesn’t need to worry too much….

There have been a few reports of recent runs and they seem to indicate the statistics work fine either as written or updated to the final release of the edition.

vestige wrote:
This section uses a bunch of randomizers to determine just what’s happening in some of these rooms. I don’t really understand the purpose of that – no group is going to do this part twice, so why add this layer of complexity? It seems to provide an illusion of dynamism, but only for the DM, as the players aren’t even going to know about the randomness.

I'm not generally a fan of random tables, but I do like them as an option in a printed product. A DM (especially one with experience/opinions) can pick the one that fits best instead of rolling. For new DMs, such tables help to remind the DM that chance can and should be a powerful element. It can be a subtle reminder that the printed page isn't one single script and that different outcomes (whether on tables or not) are good.

Incidentally, I do agree that this section is ostensibly the most dry. That's on purpose to reflect its character and make the others stand out. In actual play the groups don't stick to just their initial area. They tend to wander across the different zones. The map facilitates this with different ways to cross zones and entice players away from just one area. And, because groups are in communication with one another, they often have reason to direct each other into areas they have explored. For example, one table recommended that the table dealing with that really tough flesh golem lead it into the water and this worked perfectly. I was really happy with how the zones worked at the gameday.

This was also our thought as to why it isn't a big deal if the party resolves the trogs quickly or if they spend a long time in the arena. Groups work together to explore remaining rooms and share tips on idols, so the timing can work out fairly well. It is also one of the things the event coordinator does - keeping tabs on which group is moving slowly and helping to encourage a faster group to pick up the slack.

vestige wrote:
This has a pretty good variety of monsters but also a gauntlet of traps. They’re not great traps – nothing dynamic enough to be an encounter on its own, really just extra ways to damage unwary PCs – but they do give this part of the dungeon a different feel.

We (especially Mike) wanted to include some traps, but there were not rules for traps. This is a case where we went with a straightforward approach because it wasn't our job to create rules. (I like many of the creative 4E traps and would have emulated those otherwise.)

vestige wrote:
The adventure splits it into four tasks, but three are protecting the key group from various threats (the dracolich, some undead, and the dracolich’s simulacrum…ran out of ideas for the last one, I guess).

This was deliberate. We were trying to keep an already fairly complex adventure ending simple. ;-) Duplicating the dracolich kept the encounter simpler to prepare, let more tables enjoy the star fight (the dracolich), and ensured players understood that so far they had been facing "just" simulacra.

In play, this was a bit too easy. BUT, given the event length that was desired, this played out as generally a good thing. Players felt awesome for smacking the final fight around a bit, still had a good sense of the story and pressure/danger of the final encounter, and the store could generally stick to the desired end time. I think we would go back and tweak this a bit, perhaps more than any other section in the adventure, but it really held up well given that we were working with very early rules... we actually never saw the dracolich during the writing process, believe it or not! (Okay, we knew it was brutal, but not how brutal... so we did think of ways to explain it being weaker during the first phase and we did think of how the end phase could result in success.)

vestige wrote:
But – how well will Vault translate to a home game? In that context, it descends into the average category.

Here I would say that so far the reports I've read have been very encouraging. DMs have had a lot of fun running the adventure for a single table. I think you may be a bit hard on it, though I can understand your review given that this is a read-through rather than an actual post-play review. As always, results will differ for any given group.

Overall, it was a blast to write and remains one of my favorite projects I have done for Wizards.
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