Rise of the Drow Kickstarter Interview with EZG





Ezg: Hello everybody! I’m conducting this interview with Jonathan Nelson and Stephen Yeardley, commanders-in-chief of Adventureaweek.com and the minds that brought you the Rise of the Drow-trilogy, which should be considered to be one of the finer examples of adventure-writing featuring subterranean explorations. First, Jonathan, would you give us a brief run-down of what the trilogy is all about?

Jonathan Nelson: Good morning EZG!  I hope you don’t mind but Joshua Gullion and Will Myers from Adventureaweek will also be joining us for this interview.

To answer your question, this trilogy ultimately boils down to a very determined drow matron named Maelora Gullion, whose thirst for power throws the entire balance of the Underworld off kilter and into utter chaos.  Of course, it is difficult to sum up an adventure spanning three modules and over 500 pages with such a short explanation.  Also, as you may have surmised, this tale has been told before… sort of.  Adventureaweek has a knack for retelling stories in a new and very unexpected light with twists and turns to throw off your party and give an entirely new feeling to an adventure.  This quest into the Underworld is just such an adventure.


I relied heavily on spelunking books and information found on the web regarding cave exploration.  I also frequently referenced the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (yes, from AD&D 1st edition) so I could pay my respects to Gary Gygax and David C. Sutherland III.  I really wanted this trilogy to breathe realism yet also pay homage to the masters responsible for setting the stage that is the “Underdark”.

Without giving away too much, the PCs begin their adventure with a plea for help from the Underworld dwarven city of Embla.  A dwarven emissary leads the group through the torn remains of a fort named Krelgar Keep and downward toward the closest Underworld entrance.  In the depths below Krelgar Keep they encounter a foul adversary who has turned drow raiding parties into his own personal servants (good for the surface world, bad for the PCs).  After a very dangerous exploration of the keep the party eventually emerges onto the main road in the Underworld just in time to witness a drow raiding party attacking a dwarven caravan complete with Skildpadders (massive tortoise-bullette creatures) upon which the dwarves ride.  The adventure progresses and introduces the unique dwarven trading city of Embla built into the walls of a cavern with hanging bridges attached to giant hanging “gonjolas” containing all of the major structures utilized by dwarven society.  After this the party chooses one of three paths which either take the PCs back to Rybalka to warn the Klavek Kingdom of the growing danger below, sends the PCs on a secret mission through the depths of the Underworld and a rare Mushroom Forest, or for the bravest souls; force the drow to respond with force by storming the front gates of the drow city responsible for the upset of power in the Underworld.  As I said before, I don’t want to give too much away as that could just suck the fun right out of playing through this adventure so I’ll stop there.


All right – for those of you more interested in the respective issues, I’ve written rather detailed reviews of them, though you should beware of SPOILERS. Now, the overall quality of the trilogy was rather impressive (Scoring 4.5, 5 stars + seal of approval and 4.5 star, respectively), though the modules did feature some rough edges. Now, with the kickstarter for the hardcover expanded version of the trilogy looming, would you be up to discussing these rough edges with me?

0282de7548864a7875b25e815c54e253_largeStephen Yeardley: A lot of ideas kept appearing as we wrote the trilogy, mainly because we wanted to build on the content ideas that subscribers and purchasers seemed to like – mini-games, new creatures, interesting twists, iconic locations and events – but at the same time we knew people would have their own pretty well-formed idea of what a drow city or dwarf-versus-drow confrontation would look like. Those rough edges came about as we stitched our new vision of the Underworld to some of those established ideas; when looked at forensically, the stitching does need tidying up a little in places, you’re right, although the overall quality and playability felt good and, more importantly to us, “right” when taking  such a well-loved adventure path forward. The kickstarter will allow us to look again at how we introduced a wide range of new ideas and make sure they enter the minds of GMs and players alike in a seamless way.


All right, one of my gripes was the fluctuations in art-quality. Believe me, I’m keenly aware of the cost of good artworks – but I have to ask this: The artist willing, of course, will we see more artwork by James J. Krause in the kickstarter-version of the module? I’m asking since his contributions to the original modules rank among the best I’ve seen in any 3pp-publication and my only true gripe with the second module was that his artwork was not featured more prominently.

Jonathan Nelson: I’m going to invite Joshua Gullion to answer this question as he’s in charge of managing the art as well as many other facets of the RotD Kickstarter.

Joshua Gullion: At this time we have an assorted list of artists we are working with for new pieces we’re commissioning for the printed book, as well as a few replacement pieces.  Regrettably we have been unable to meet upon agreeable terms with certain artists used for the PDF versions of this adventure, and as such found ourselves looking to revamp the look and feel of the art entirely.



That one out of the way, the narrative structure of the trilogy is rather interesting, as it features a plethora of branching paths that can lead to vastly differing experiences when running the modules. SPOILERS. In the end of module 1, the players had a chance to warn their home and suffer the consequences of inaction regarding underworld politics. Now, this is indeed, at least when I think about my players, a valid choice and something they might also do via e.g. cohorts and magic. In the original module, the consequence of this decision was rather dire – is this particular venue of action further expanded in the revised Kickstarter edition?

Jonathan Nelson: Each of the paths will be expanded upon and we have even toyed with the idea of a drow-occupied Rybalka where the drow use Rybalka as a launching pad to begin invasion of the Klavek Kingdom and/or Vikmordere depending upon various outcomes.


Speaking of the first module: Does the BbeG gain a closer connection to a particular potential villain in module 3?

Yul-the-MohrgStephen Yeardley: Definitely; Yul was something I wanted to introduce almost as a “someone”, successfully surviving in a harsh environment and able to dominate creatures from the Overworld, Underworld and realms beyond, hence his cohorts and other creatures that could be discovered. He grew in stature as the adventure was written to become a genuine BBEG rather than just someone to be dealt with in a cursory manner.

Now, the villain you are referring to was also someone who grew as I wrote about her, mainly because the setting she is in became one I wanted to be truly memorable. SPOILER She became what I hoped would be much more memorable by being a potential ally – along with her companions – rather than just so much more undead fodder. However, DItD was already out and available when she finally became what she now is, and I realised (like yourself) that I had missed an opportunity to make the links between the adventures stronger.

So with both those thoughts in mind, there will be a much stronger link between the two elements you’ve mentioned, one that will allow the PCs to have an idea that undead can be allies and that help may be waiting for them in strange places – but they’ll have to work hard to earn that help! A seemingly-distracting side quest could allow the PCs to discover something the helpful villain wants or needs in order to help with the ultimate objective. As it happens, the nature of undead will be looked at in much more detail – pretty much every god and goddess, religion and church, cult and community deals with the dead and therefore has a chance to interact with undead. As we have in the final adventure, we’ll look to show that they aren’t all bad, although making a deal with those who represent the Undead Nation can be a challenge in itself.




All right, it is thus potentially possible that a wondrous dwarven city called Embla, featured in module 2 and by the way, one of the best instances of creativity regarding underworld-settlements I’ve seen in ages, lies ruined. Do you plan to provide a “Ruined” version of the city for the story-thread as well this time around? Or perhaps even a gazetteer? I’m asking since I really wouldn’t mind seeing one of these for this gorgeous city…


Jonathan Nelson: That’s a unique idea and something we will seriously consider!  We definitely plan on expanding Embla, there’s a lot of interesting places in the dwarven trade city that will be fleshed out in more detail.  Some of these details have already been written yet didn’t make it into the original PDF adventure due to time constraints.  If we meet the goal on this Kickstarter we’ll be able to provide detailed maps of the city including maps of each “gonjola”, the Cage, and hopefully some of the other important features such as Whistling Cave Bazaar and the Merchant Circle Council Chambers.  Of course we will also be providing more descriptions, details, and NPCs along with these locations so that GMs may use Embla as a real living and breathing city both in the adventure, and within their own campaign setting.  Perhaps this could be the launch pad for new exciting adventures!  Speaking of adventures warrants an additional brief mention: side quests may also be planned for the the city of Embla!


Now, in module 3 the PCs not only attack a drow city, depending on their approach, they might be at the helm of a dwarven force, marching on its gates or infiltrating the place, inciting slave-revolts etc. Now, the default in the original modules was the approach through the city’s back door and it did feature the most remarkable climax I’ve read in ages. That being said, will we see an enhanced support for the full-frontal assault? More things to do before the PC’s presence is detected?

Stephen Yeardley: We’re going to be expanding the pre-assault options in several ways, but the full-frontal assault will be getting more than most. Linked to a set period of time, the PCs will have the chance to visit other settlements and areas of the Underworld, and draw upon any remaining forces that the drow haven’t yet killed, or borrow items from neutral sites – there is the chance they will arrive at a neutral city at the same time as the drow, and have to out-negotiate them for an item, for instance, or find themselves in unexpected places making deals with “the enemy of my enemy”. Some of these places will be centres for isolated guerilla activity, and the PCs will have to pull disparate groups together into a cohesive force. Others will be places they perhaps didn’t originally consider as sites where allies could be gathered. They won’t have time to visit every town or village, and they will quickly discover that those they don’t visit are razed by the drow not long after. In fact, they may find themselves arriving either just as the drow are attacking or immediately after. It will be tense and may find the players disagreeing in the “real world”, but it will allow a stronger force to gather and give the assault a chance. This way in will hopefully be a truly memorable end to Part 2 and beginning to Part 3 of the trilogy.


Narratively, one of the weaker points of module 3 was that a crucial NPC could be passed by – an ally all but required to triumph. Are you going to address that one?

Stephen Yeardley: This is linked to the point about the BBEG at the end of DItD. There will be stronger hints and incentives, scattered throughout the first two parts, to visit the NPC you’re referring to, Ezg, and we will be working on ways to encourage even the most ardent undead-hater to weigh up the pros and cons. There will be chances to encounter the NPC you are talking about – or at least her representatives – long before the third adventure. SPOILER After all, Makinnga has the combined knowledge and experience of something like 50,000 years at her immediate disposal – there must be something she can do for them. It could easily be another challenging encounter for the players, as their PCs have to recognise that their morals and ideals need to be flexible at the very least.


8bb2d3d5f58316409c063515f780bd7e_largeAmong the cooler things in the module, we have a “boss” that draws the PCs into a rather iconic demi-plane – will this place be expanded?

Jonathan Nelson: Ah ha!  The demi-plane of Venom!  I’m glad you brought this up!  We actually had originally intended to “flesh” out (see what I did there?) this plane a bit more than what was written in A15: Usurper of Souls.  In fact, I have a rough sketch around here somewhere of the demi-plane complete with strange organic half-pillars made of undulating human flesh, a sea of deadly poison, and dangerous bridges constructed from human bones which stretch from flesh island to island.  Dark purple and blue flames burn at the end of tall torches giving off “smoke” which transforms into swarms of spiders using their webs and the warm breath of the spider goddess as a means of propelling themselves through the air toward the PCs.  Yes, as you can tell I put quite a bit of thought into this one, but again, time constraints squashed our hopes of getting this demi-plane into map and illustration form.  We do plan on fully fleshing out this horrific demi-plane in all its venomous glory!




Matron-Maelora-1-613x1024The final battle is EPIC in any way, with allcaps definitely being deserved and is almost perfect: When the mandible-shaped stairs leading up to it start attacking the players, they’ll definitely gulp! The battle is EXCELLENT – apart from the cinematic escape from a collapsing building in the aftermath being potentially bypassed by magic. Are you going to take a look at this section and expand it as well, perhaps covering events for the escape beyond the boundaries of said structure?

Stephen Yeardley: A lot was going on with the final encounter, particularly if the PCs had visited every part of the tower before they climbed the stairs, and covering every angle became a little like herding cats (or even blink dogs). It’s fair to say the possible bypassing of the last events is something we know needs looking at, and we will be including ways to plug any gaps that don’t seem like simple railroading or that are stamping on creativity. SPOILER One area that we think will give us greater scope for making sure the EPIC (I’ll take your allcaps, Ezg!) ending is the way the Vidre have wrapped themselves around the tower, intent as they are on claiming their prize. Another way may well be by introducing something outside that you really don’t want to be involved with, something that is taking full advantage of the destruction that is happening. We have other ideas and will make sure they each get fully considered – maybe that family flock of 8 nightwings Makinnga knows will do the trick…


Another nitpick of mine was that the ties between the modules are of a differing quality, with 2 influencing 3 in major ways, while part I remained a glorified introduction. Are you going to expand the ties between the modules and make Part I count more?

Stephen Yeardley: We had the chance to write parts 2 and 3 much more closely together than parts 1 and 2, and you’re right to comment on the fragility of the links between the events in those two. SPOILERS Apart from expanding the influence of the BBEG, introducing ways to contact other centres for allies and having a stronger tie to the helpful villain in part 3, we’re looking at how it might be possible to have further prisoners in Yul’s cells or there be items that allow the PCs to gain favour with e.g. another drow house. Another possibility is that Yul has items that combine to, e.g., allow access to parts of the city that are currently off-limits or form an item that grants a way to influence other city dwellers. Of course, all of these types of things will play upon the conscience of the PCs if they decide to use them.


Now, if your company’s name is not clue enough – you guys are cranking out one module per week and quite frankly, I’m astounded time and again that your modules are not riddled with glitches and errors. Due to the steep schedule, a (surprisingly) small quantity of glitches were in the 3 modules – does this kickstarter mean another pass at editing as well?

Jonathan Nelson: Oh yes.  Our plan is to have this book in patron’s hands exactly 1 year after the Kickstarter concludes.  That is more than enough time to write the new additions and have editors look them over.  This may seem like a long time to some, but we want to do this story justice.  We’re pulling out all the stops, going for the best artwork we can, fleshing out every location we didn’t have the time for the first time around, and of course hiring a team of skilled editors to scour the book for errors.


By the way: Your modules come with full Herolab support – will the kickstarter also feature Herolab-support? With ennie-award-winning cartographer Todd Gamble on your team, any chance on getting the trilogy as a full-blown VTT-compatible module, like RiP’s “Breaking of Forstor Nagar”? Perhaps as a stretch-goal?

Joshua Gullion: Hero Lab files are in the plans as a stretch goal for the Kickstarter, first up actually.  We couldn’t imagine bringing this book to life without providing the tools to properly enjoy it.  VTT maps are a definite probable inclusion, as the VTT community has grown, and we intend to take care of  our friends there just we do those rolling on solid table tops.


While the modules per se were stellar offerings, the same cannot be said about the supplemental crunch, notably a PrC called the Titanic Beastmaster and a imho broken shadow domain. Will these be cut in the final version of the kickstarter? Revised?  Will we get to see more of the iconic, defining items that make your drow-culture stand out like their special quills and paper?

Jonathan Nelson: We plan on removing the prestige class and shadow domain.  Both these former stumbling blocks will be swapped out with new, more suitable replacements.  The concept of a “Venom Domain” has been established with ideas forthcoming! There’s a lot of original goodies to find like the drow paper and quill you speak of, and there will be more, but we’re keeping those hush-hush for now!

Stephen Yeardley: After producing the “Companion of Naytalla” prestige class (C4: The Play’s the Thing), we recognised more was needed to really make the Titanic Beastmaster truly memorable; as Jonathan says, we will be adding suitable replacements that really catch the eye of the PCs and make them want to play that character.


I’d also be interested in one thing that was not developed that much in the original modules – the spider goddess Naraneus. In contrast to Golarion’s drow, your dark elves do worship a dark, spider-themed goddess and the modules hinted at a connection with a Norse-influenced myth that sets her apart from a certain WotC-IP – will we see a more detailed write-up of the goddess and her mythology explained more in detail? What about her spider-shaped temple – I distinctly remember a certain suggestion I offered regarding it…

A15-Temple-of-the-Spider-Goddess-750x579Will Myers (on Naraneus the spider goddess):  With Naraneus, we wanted to do a little old-school-meets-new-school feel.  Yes, she’s a spider goddess, as you’ve seen in previous editions, but she has our spin on the idea.  I went through several iterations on her design, including the idea of an “elemental spider,” which turned out not to work as well as I’d hoped.

Here’s a little more on Naraneus:

“From the beginning, during the Prime Event that created the cosmos, there has been light. However, where there is light, there is also shadow and darkness with a primeval being who dwelt in that darkness. Known on numerous planes by a myriad of names, she is known in this realm by a name whispered by the Drow, Naraneus.”

Naraneus initially abandoned the Drow in an eons-long battle with her sister, Naneth.  After the battle, Naraneus returned to the Drow and taught them of darkness.  Specifically, she taught them the Shadow domain and the Penumbra domain, created by myself and Stephen Yeardley respectively.

Both Naraneus and Naneth, as well as the Elves of the Silent Forest and the Forest itself are going to be fleshed in much greater detail in the upcoming adventure path, “Fallen Leaves.”

Joshua Gullion (on the spider goddess temple):  I can’t give away too much on this yet, but we already have plans for the temple to come alive for the city’s defenses while the PCs explore it. Tie it to the altar and voilà – awesome scenery, balance-checks or falling rubble here and there and we have a cool, more iconic locale. 🙂


All of this sounds like the revised version offered via this kickstarter, with the original modules already spanning over 500 pages of adventure, might actually make this a 5-stars + seal of approval file. Do you already have plans for stretch-goals?

Joshua Gullion: Ah, the stretch goals.  First and foremost our biggest goal is to handle the cost of the book itself, obviously.  But from there we are looking to expand even further on the artwork as an initial stretch goal.  From there I have planned the addition of guest authors adding entirely new sections to the book, Hero Lab files, an exclusive cover for the Hardbound edition (as there will be new softcover versions for the trilogy as well).  There are a few more surprises planned, but I’m not looking to give away my hand entirely just yet.


Okay, so can you give us a teaser of what else to expect bonus-content-wise?

Mushroom-Golem-1-750x707Joshua Gullion:  Ahhhhh, the bonus content…well, let me open this with the minute I was done with the last PDF for this trilogy I knew we weren’t done with this story, as I instantly starting thinking of things we could add, and how much I wanted to see this book in print.  The additional areas and bonus content have been growing and evolving now throughout several conversations, but I think I can safely say we are looking to add an Undersea, with a fully explored and fleshed out Ghost ship encounter with a cursed pirate crew.  A deep dragon and its lair, again fleshed out to the the degree that it could easily be used by a GM as a stand alone if they chose to.  As we were looking at new things we wanted to add we wanted to maintain the sandbox concept, and introduce both material that will expand upon the story as it is progressing, and material that truly has little to nothing to do with the story arc other than sharing a locale.  We recognize that not every playgroup wishes to walk the same path, so we want to further expand upon the idea of options and develop more of our Underworld for PCs and GMs to explore.  Now, that is not saying that all of the new material is in standalone format, we are looking to greatly expand upon both Embla and Holoth, giving enough material that the cities will provide a great deal more roleplay options for groups wishing to explore them…the Mushroom Forest wherein the PCs meet the Fungiant and Mushroom Golem is being re-explored and expanded upon…more detailed local wildlife and natural hazards, potential random encounters, things of that sort.

Stephen Yeardley: Well, Joshua has pretty much all of the material content covered, but I have a few pointers as well. You see, from the moment the PCs step out of their base of operations and head for the ruined Krelgar’s Keep, they will encounter more; more around and within the keep, greater links with outside forces that are in contact with Yul, more prisoners, and so on. As they progress into the Underworld, the players will find more links between events; more that they are unfamiliar with; greater challenges in the forms of puzzles, tasks, mini-events, mini-games and side quests; more decision-making that has real impact on what happens next and in the future; more chances to test their respective resolves and where the PCs sit morally. Oh, and flying creatures in the mushroom forest – the chokers have found some friends…


Well, all the best for your kickstarter – I’m looking forward to seeing the revised and expanded RoD-trilogy and look forward to seeing how it shapes up to be! Thanks for answering my questions. 

Endzeitgeist out.

Check out the RISE OF THE DROW Kickstarter here, or watch the video below to learn more!

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About Jonathan G. Nelson

Jonathan G. Nelson is the editor-in-chief and owner of NERD TREK. He is also owner/publisher at AAW Games / AdventureAWeek.com, a tabletop gaming company based in Snoqualmie, WA. Connect with Jonathan via Facebook.