Let's start with the length of this adventure. There's a reason you don't see 8 hour adventures being released as often (or at all) through the Adventure's League. It puts a real burden on any local retailers that want to run these campaigns at the store. Something like DDEX3-04 can't be run on a weeknight in one sitting, and it leaves Saturday or Sunday — once again, if you want to run it in one sitting and not break it up. (Note: It can be easily broken into two rounds.) However, this adventure brings back warm memories of the all-night D&D sleep over adventures I once hosted in my youth. It's a wild ride, and it is a great lead up to DDEX03-16 "Assault on Maerimydra," which is quite possibly my favorite D&D module... ever? Yes, I'll go there. Ever. (And is another lenghty adventure. Apparently, I have a "type.") SPOILERS AHEAD, BE WARNED.
For adventure hooks, "message by squirrel" should be standard for all adventures. I think we can agree on this.
Round 1. Part 1. This sets up the adventure as a search and recover mission. The drow of Szith Morcane need Xaven Tanor'this needs to be rescued in order to have any hope reclaiming their home. The "faerzress" sets up a new standard for adventures, tier 3 and up: Do not even think about teleporting. Whether it's this one, or Durlag's Tower, or Eye of Xxiphu, teleportation spells get shut down. (Do the game designers worry that teleporting away will break the game? Surely we can have other motivations to keep players in their place.) If time is of the essence, you can blitz through this section quickly. But why?
Round 1. Part 2. Madness and navigating the tunnels adds some interesting flavor with in-game consequences. With the Howling Pit Encounters, four encounters can be quite a handful — but the randomization is nice. It create a dungeon crawl without the dungeon. For home brews, you could add or reduce as needed for time.
Round 1. Part 3. Like so many adventures, there is some great background here. ("Maram il Vass was approached directly by agents of Graz'zt shortly after the demon lord was exiled to the Underdark" and so on.) It's a shame that there's virtually no way for the players to figure this stuff out. #CoolStoryBro
"Grabber Forth is a big fan of using counterspell to annoy enemey spellcasters." Who isn't? Players don't normally get to tier 3 murdering everything in sight. It should be fairly easy to get past this section without a fight. Also, if YOU had one 9th level spell, would you take Time Stop? Probably not. But it's just too cruel to go with Wish, Meteor Swarm, or Power Word Kill. Agreed?
Maram il Vass is a ultroloth. But your players might get through the whole adventure without ever finding out. The negotiations can be very entertaining.
Round 1. Part 4. The setting of the Hanging Gardens is delightfully creepy. Kudos to the writing team.
Possible typo: "Hanging Gardens" and "Blood Needs" are both labelled as part 4.
Round 2. Part 5. Black Ember Outpost can be a real fun challenge — getting past the walls and into the outpost should be a pain.
Round 2. Part 6. Everyone's favorite imp PIPYAP makes a return (originally appeared in DDEX1-8). I gave this module an extra star just for including Pipyap, and will continue to give all Pipyap appearances an extra star. The "Deal with a Devil" story reward is kind of hilarious. A warlock can have Pipyap as... no, not his familiar, but as his/her patron. Bow down.
In this section, moving around Maerimydra is the real challenge. If overwhelmed, don't kill the players — have them take prisoner where they can fight in the Bloddy Coliseum.
Round 2. Part 7. Another typo? The overview has a part 7. The actual adventure doesn't. Part 6 is 7? Don't worry about it too much. It all works out in the end. Players need to bring a live fire giant back with them, which can be an interesting problem for them to work out.
Rewards and treasures. In my opinion, the Ioun Stone of Regeneration isn't too great as a legendary item — but players don't get too many opportunities for a legendary item, for obvious reasons. So enjoy. It wouldn't have be my first choice. And Pipyap coughs it up rather easily. If it were truly "legendary," you hope for a more epic intro than Pipyap simply handing it over. That's a small quibble on my part.
[4 of 5 Stars!]