Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Vecna: Eve Of Ruin Review: D&D Plays The Hits In A Treasure Hunt Through 50 Years Of Adventure

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WARNING: While Vecna is all about secrets, this review contains HUGE spoilers for Vecna: Eve of Ruin. So beware!

It’s the 50th Anniversary of Dungeons & Dragons and, despite some bumps here and there,the game’s Fifth Edition (itself approaching its tenth anniversary) is still going strong. This year’s slate of releases kicks off this month with Vecna: Eve of Ruin, a long awaited return for one of D&D’s most iconic villains. Vecna’s return has always heralded misfortune, since simply becoming a deity in his own right has never been enough for the archlich. His reach has long roamed beyond his home plane of Oerth, and now his plan threatens to shake the whole of D&D’s multiverse. Arranged against him are not just our heroes but also two powerful spellcasters and one other, potentially even more dangerous villain who’s true motives sit at the core of the adventure’s story.

Eve of Ruin is notable not just for the return of Vecna but also for being the first truly high level adventure released in Fifth Edition, starting characters at tenth level and finishing them at level twenty, which as of now is the canonical level cap for Fifth Edition. Going high level for this adventure was an incredibly smart choice by the D&D team, since it lets them really go all out showing off what Dungeons & Dragons can do. At the end of the day that’s the goal of this adventure, a celebration of every aspect of D&D.

Do You Want To Know A Secret?

Vecnan cultists keep a repository of information and scrolls in a makeshift library in the catacombs
Vecnan cultists keep a repository of information and scrolls in a makeshift library in the catacombs

The big new mechanic of Vecna: Eve of Ruin is the discovery and collection of secrets. Hidden motives, secret identities, and tragic backstories undergird every story within this book and are the key to tying the sometimes disparate stories together in a semi-coherent fashion. Secrets are a major part of Vecna’s portfolio and it is with dark secrets that he and his cultists intend to conquer and remake the multiverse in his image. In Eve of Ruin, your goal is to collect as many of them as you can to turn against him. During the final confrontation with The Whispered One you essentially turn the secrets in for a buff to help you defeat him. The more you rooted out, the more assistance you’ll get against him. Which you’re going to need, even at 20th level.

Evernight is Neverwinter's dark mirror in the Shadowfell
Evernight is Neverwinter’s dark mirror in the Shadowfell

The adventure kicks off in a sort of odd way, with a relatively self-contained “teaser” adventure set in Neverwinter, where the characters are established heroes. The Cult of Vecna is up to no good, kidnapping the people of Neverwinter and draining them of their knowledge and souls for their masters ritual. It has the very classic D&D setup: royal invites you to his house, he tells you a problem, you go solve it. And from there it becomes a fairly standard dungeon delve as your players work to free four kidnapped nobles from the Cult and put a stop to their operations for good. Things take a turn at the end, though, when the interruption of the Cult’s ritual opens a portal to the Shadowfell and the city of Evernight. There, the PC’s are treated to a vision of the Vecna’s cults throughout the Multiverse and their rituals as well as Vecna himself, who regards them with his single, glowing eye.

The next part takes place in Evernight, which is one of the coolest settings I’ve seen in a 5E book. It’s the Shadowfell version of Neverwinter, having most of the same geography but with no sun, surrounded by lava and, oh yeah, everyone in the city is undead. Unfortunately not much is done with this setting since the PC’s are given one encounter at a Mausoleum that allows them to return to Neverwinter. Enterprising DM’s can probably pry a little more out of it if they want, but there isn’t much info given to allow that.

This first chapter essentially exists to set everything up and get players invested in Vecna and the story, but its relation to the rest of the adventure is a bit weird. Usually a story like this is a separate publication (like they’ve done with Vecna: Nest of the Eldritch Eye) and I wonder if this started out like that. The characters get a connection to Vecna in this story that mechanically lets them “intuit” secrets but from a story perspective is most of Vecna’s presence in the book until the very end. He’s the big bad and he’s of course behind most of the danger in the story, but he doesn’t really have the presence of more successful villains in past 5E adventures like Strahd or Zariel.

Will The Real Mordenkainen Please Stand Up?

Tasha, Alustriel, and "Mordenkainen" discuss Vecna's plans
Tasha, Alustriel, and “Mordenkainen” discuss Vecna’s plans

The “Big Good” of this adventure is the powerful witch and former queen of Silverymoon Alustriel Silverhand, who has summoned versions of Tasha and Mordenkainen from Oerth to help destroy Vecna. Unfortunately she did not actually get the legendary wizard like she thought, instead getting the Vampire Lord Kas disquised as Mordenkainen, who wants to defeat Vecna but only for his own selfish ends. His meddling with Alustriel’s wish spell is what summons the players (who in story have spent weeks or even years away from the events of Chapter One) to their presence. Here the players get to meet their “mission control” for the rest of the book and gain their quest: gather the pieces of the Rod of Seven Parts to defeat Vecna. Kas, of course, wants to collect the pieces of the rod so he can free Miska the Wolf-Spider and kill Vecna himself. The adventure is structured such that players don’t figure out who Mordenkainen really is, but they did at least include contingencies if players DO investigate or notice some of the odd things about him. Most of them involve getting slaughtered and resurrected by Alustriel, but hey it’s at least something to give you a bit more agency.

Web's Edge

The chapter isn’t ALL talk and intrigue, since it ends with players entering Web’s Edge in The Underdark to get the first part of the Rod. Here they’ll face off with cultists of Lolth and foil a plot of theirs to destroy a nearby mining operation. It’s not much more than a standard Underdark outing, but the Spider-Dragon boss is really cool and it’s never a dull time when you’re dealing with Lolth.

In Rod We Trust

What comes next is the largest portion of the book and I think the part that will end up being the most controversial. Chapters 3-6 are a whirlwind tour through the Multiverse, essentially a “greatest hits” selection for all of D&D and making stops at familiar 5E locales as well as one place making it’s big debut in this edition. Each one is almost entirely self contained except for two things: the secrets you can discover and the rod piece that acts as each portion’s MacGuffin and is usually a part of the story’s evil plot. Rather than go through them all in extreme depth, since they don’t tie in that strongly to the overall plot, I’ll just give some quick hits:

The Lambent Zenith's Last Voyage"

“The Lambent Zenith’s Last Voyage”

Location: The Astral Plane

This is the Spelljammer portion of the story, taking place aboard the wreckage of the titular Spelljamming ship. Herein lies the second part of the rod as well as the crew of the Lambent Zenith who are being essentially held Hostage by a Slaad after the ship wrecked. To get their piece of Rod, the players have to unravel the web of lies and defeat a massive Hertilod.

“The Ruined Colossus”

Location: Eberron

Eberron makes a return in this story, which turns a Warforged Colossus into a dungeon and introduces the most prominent aspects of the Eberron setting: weird magic, robot guys, and a slightly different alignment system.There’s also a big gooey brain at the end you can talk to, so that’s neat.

A Warm Welcome to Barovia

“Death House”

Location: Barovia

Yes it wouldn’t be a celebration of D&D history without Count Strahd showing up. This was one of my favorite stories but MOSTLY because it’s a great little tonal shift into horror ( as you’d expect) and filled with the ghouls, ghosties, and suspicious villagers that are the hallmark of a Barovia story. There’s a seance, the haunted house starts to change and move, and the people who own the house apparently are distant cousins of Fred Durst. And yes, once you get the piece of the Rod, Strahd makes a big dramatic to entrance to monologue and screw with you just for, from what I can tell, shits and giggles.

“Night of Blue Fire”

Location: Krynn

The Dragonlance setting makes an appearance with a surprisingly gothic story pitting a tribe of werewolves against Lord Soth. The villains are using their rod piece to create red moonlight and corrupt the good werewolves. The final boss is a Lunar Dragon, which is something we’ve not seen in an adventure yet. Not a bad story but definitely a little atypical for Krynn.

Rerak serves as the final boss of The Tomb of Wayward Souls
Rerak serves as the final boss of The Tomb of Wayward Souls

“Tomb of Wayward Souls”

Location: Oerth

Greyhawk makes its return to Fifth Edition (last seen in 2019’s Ghosts of Saltmarsh) with a classic Gygax tomb crawl. This chapter has everything to make your old-school D&D dungeon heart happy: weird puzzles, altars that are mostly there for set dressing, a kraken. And in grand Gygax fashion, the whole thing ends with a fight with an (apparent) lich. A very fun homage to D&D’s history.

“The Dragon Queen’s Pride”

Location: Avernus

After some of the darkness and old-school throwbacks of the previous chapters, this adventure takes us back to Avernus for some of the greatest hits of Descent Into Avernus, with Soul Coins and Infernal Engines aplenty. Compared to the dungeon crawl of the past chapter, this one has players flexing their RP a bit work their way around the Red Belvedere casino and gain access to the final piece.

This whole section is unfortunately not greater than the sum of its parts, feeling much more like a loose anthology than part of a story in forward motion. The thing is dripping with fanservice and while that’s fun, I think players might feel a little railroaded as they go through. At times it feels like a dark ride showing off the history of D&D and all the cool things in it.

Secret And Lies Are At The Heart On The Eve Of Ruin

The Battle for Pandemonium

Once players have all seven parts of the Rod, its time for Kas to show his hand, quickly taking the Rod and shoving off to Pandemonium to summon Miska the Wolf-Spider, a demon lord closely tied to the Rod of Many Parts who last appeared in 2015’s Elemental Evil. The travel to Pandemonium puts players at the heart of a great war between Kas and Vecna, and they have to make their way through the demonic wasteland to stop Kas and defeat him. This is where the whole adventure really comes into its own thanks to some truly epic and unique setpieces and a fantastic villain in Kas. Players are 19th level at this point and it’s a great opportunity to flex their powers against some villains that let them go all out. And Miska is one of the coolest bad guys in D&D history.

Mr. Bones Wild Ride

Astral Dreadnought

The final confrontation with Vecna is possibly one of the wildest conclusions to a D&D adventure I’ve seen. Functionally, the players go into a small cave and then go through three portals, each of which show off Vecna’s plans for the Multiverse. The first is on a version of Oerth where Kas has been imprisoned by his former Master to be tortured for eternity. This alternate Kas is too depressed to fight, but he will give you his sword.

The next portion takes you to an alternate Neverwinter, where Lord Neverember has become a death knight and subjugate the city in the name of Vecna. This version of Neverember must be defeated to move on. The third portion is a strange version of the Astral Sea where Vecna has killed all of the gods and scattered their bones. The goal here is to free the Astral Dreadnought from his donjon and dismantle the unreality. Once all three have been dismantled (by use of the Rod or a spell slot) then the final fight begins.

Vecna himself is the big final boss and as level 20 adventurers, he’s going to be a challenge. Luckily, the players have a plenty of tools to help them in their fight as well as their gathered secrets, which help them navigate the cave and prep them for Vecna. He’s got a TON of spells at his disposal though as a free teleport, an insanely powerful necrotic attack, and a whole mess of undead to summon.

Final Thoughts

Vecna

Vecna: Eve of Ruin is a celebration of 50 years of Dungeons & Dragons and as holistic creation it definitely succeeds at that fact. Every era of D&D has been given some love from the heyday of the 80’s to the modern 5e Renaissance. Unfortunately as an adventure it falls victim to some of the more annoying design aspects that can crop up in 5E adventures. In fact, I think this might actually be one of the more railroaded adventures I’ve read, though there are plenty of places for a well-read DM to expand players options to create some variety. But it feels much more like a guided tour than I think it should, giving you the “theme park” version of D&D rather than a more organic experience.

However, one place it DOES succeed is as 5E’s first big high level adventure, using the player character’s high levels to maximum effect with epic setpieces and a whole host of incredibly cool boss fights that will test the creativity and strategy of seasoned groups. It’s a fantastic introduction to high level play for a fanbase that has largely been stuck maxing out around level 12 for nearly a decade.

You can check out Vecna: Eve of Ruin now on D&D Beyond or at your FLGS, where you can access a gorgeous alternate cover showing of Vecna’s vile hand. It will be available widely on May 21st at an MSRP of $69.95. And don’t forget to keep an eye out for the Beadle & Grimm’s Platinum Edition, which you can learn more about in our interview here.

Images via Dungeons & Dragons

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