Tabletop RPG Review: Epic Encounters: Bridge of the Duergar Cult

I’m not a religious guy, but there are some holidays that I celebrate.  One of those is Free RPG Day.  This year, I got a chance to hit a couple local stores and picked up some unexpected things.  Side note: you should always try to buy something when you attend Free RPG Day, because it’s about supporting your local game store as much as it is about celebrating the hobby and bringing in new people.

This was my first experience with Epic Encounters.  As far as I know, they’ve all been intended for Dungeons & Dragons 5e, which is not a game I play or run.  Also, if memory serves, previous years have featured encounters with miniatures, and I’m trying not to even think about getting back into miniatures (that’s a time & money suck I do NOT need in my life again).  Recently, however, I’ve been running a hodgepodge of the two Phandalin-set adventures from the D&D Starter and Essential boxes, using Dungeon Crawl Classics as, among other things, an experiment in adapting the systems.  As it has turned out to be extremely easy to do, especially because you can play so fast and loose with DCC, I figured a bit more 5e stuff wouldn’t hurt.

With Bridge of the Duergar Cult, we get a very epic encounter, to be sure.  Perhaps a bit too epic.  It feels like the climactic battle of an ongoing campaign, or at least the end of a “chapter.”  Instead, this cuts out all the investigation, journey, exploration, and story and throws you right into a pitched battle against a powerful enemy in a complex and dangerous environment.  There’s a little chart to allow you to scale it for characters of 1st to 4th level, 5th to 10th, or more than 10.  I’ll admit, my knowledge of 5e is very low, having only played a few sessions, but even with scaled-down difficulty checks and damage levels, this feels like a scenario meant for experienced players using experienced and powerful characters.  Just fighting the Duergar phalanx that characters face when this starts could be a TPK (total party kill) if they aren’t smart and lucky.  And it gets worse from there.

That said, if you’re running a game set largely underground, be that the Underdark of the Forgotten Realms, or any other extended underground world, populated by various kingdoms of darkness loving creatures, this could make for a cool plug-in.  If I use it, I’ll certainly be planting seeds earlier in an ongoing game.  Perhaps name drop the Duergar king, have run-ins with Duergar on the surface or in other cave systems, or find a partial text written by a dead adventurer who had learned some of the king’s plan.  Whatever the case, I would want this encounter to have a bit more emotional weight when it hits.  And hopefully, have PCs with some serious firepower to back them up.

Other than its somewhat disconnected state, which may be simply a function of what the Epic Encounters line really is (again, I’m not sure as this is the first I’ve read), my only real concern is the two maps.  On first pass, they look cool.  However, they’re really too busy to be especially useful, and worse, there’s no key.  So as I was reading the entries for various individual aspects of the locations, I was having a hard time figuring out what and where each thing was.  Numbers corresponding to the descriptions would have been super helpful.  And if I’m being honest, I’d rather have had simple, black & white illustrations when it comes to maps.  That would be much easier to use than these dark, busy, CGI(?) maps.  Maybe that’s me.  I tend to do theater of the mind on a lot of stuff, so I really just want a functional map, not a pretty one.

Overall, this is an interesting little encounter that I may hold onto and plug into a DCC game in the future, if I ever take my players into the world below.  If that happens, I’ll no doubt be adding to it in order to weave it into a longer game.

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