Review – Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale (D&D 4E)

Monster Vault: Threats to the Nentir Vale is a DM supplement for Dungeons & Dragon Fourth Edition. Nentir Vale is a 128-page, full color softcover book with eight sheets of tokens, and retails for about $30. It is tagged as being “for use with” the D&D Essentials line, but is a standard size RPG product.

The Basics

As the name implies, Nentir Vale is a collection of foes for the DM to deploy against his players, all of them set in the Nentir Vale. Nentir Vale, by the way, is one of the most monster/bad guy organization-infested stretches of real estate you will ever find, with a couple of towns and ~700 groups trying to burn the Vale down. Actually playing a campaign in the Nentir Vale is probably going to lean towards an exercise in picking these organizations/tribes off one by one in ascending order of difficulty.

Although a “monster” vault, Nentir Vale is primarily concerned with adversarial NPC organizations, which may or may not fall into the monster camp. Each group gets a write-up, stat blocks for several different sorts of “basic” members, and one or more “name” leaders. Even most of the monsters still a good story-hook write-up – the dragons, for example, aren’t just generic members of new breeds of giant fire-lizard, but rather specifically named beasts with their own quirks and personality. These organizations/monsters are almost all plug-and-play – they’d be very easy to pick up and drop into your own campaign. It’s not that they don’t have interesting story aspects; it’s just that those story aspects don’t tie into each other much or have much attachment to any particular place.

The eight sheets of tokens are standard 4E fare – sturdy, and double-sided for healthy and bloodied. There’s also a double-sided poster-sized fold-out, with each side divided into two maps/encounter areas. I’m a little concerned about the binding on the book, as parts of it appear to be loosening after just a read-through and then writing this review.

Writing/Editing/Layout

I found the writing in Nentir Vale to be excellent for D&D – the different NPC groups were presented in an interesting way that made you want to cram them into a campaign, with enough detail to get you hooked, but not so much that it droned on. The layout was standard D&D 4E – nothing wrong with it, but nothing special. All the different critters, and most of the NPC types, had decent images to work with. I didn’t notice any editing issues when reading through the book.

Contents

Normally this is where I’d go chapter-by-chapter through what’s in an RPG book, but that doesn’t really apply here, so I guess it’ll be something of a list. The foes you’ll find in Nentir Vale include (in ascending order of toughness):

– Felldrake (four types, levels 1-4): Drakes who have been altered in various ways by some demon-loving tieflings.

– River Rats (five types and one named, levels 1-5): The River Rats are an urban crime syndicate whose base of power is centered on the docks. They recruit young, bringing street urchins up to think of the gang as their “family.”

– Iron Circle (seven types, levels 1-5): The Iron Circle are mercenaries who seek to conquer the world in the name of their demon lord, Asmodeus. The monsters in the entry include four varieties of soldier, and three varieties of the group’s tar demon allies. Unlike the Fell Court (described below), the Iron Circle is presented with a pretty straight face about their global ambitions, which are a bit overblown given their levels.

– Twig Blight (four types, levels 1-3, 5): Twig Blights are evil plants that prefer blood over soil nutrients, when they can get it.

– Fell Court (five types and one named, levels 2-5): A band of mafia-style tieflings with a demonic patron, delusions of grandeur, and a desire to restore a lost tiefling empire. Can be used in conjunction with the felldrakes.

– Boggle (four types, levels 3-5): A troublemaking creature with minor teleportation and spying abilities. Steals babies and curdles milk when the PCs aren’t around.

– Witchlight Lizardfolk (eight types, levels 3-8): This entry describes several tribes of lizardfolk who make their home in the Witchlight Fens. They are mostly under the control of the black dragon Shadowmire, described below.

– Tigerclaw Barbarians (seven types and one named, levels 3-8): The Tigerclaw Barbarians reside in the frozen northern reaches of the Nentir Vale. The tribe is ruled by tiger-flavored shifters.

– Peryton (two types, levels 4, 6): Peryton are giant birds of prey with stag heads, which hunt by dragging pretty back to their nests, then eating their hearts.

– Raven Roost Bandits (six types, three nameds, levels 4-8): An otherwise unremarkable bandit gang, the Raven Roost Bandits are distinguished for being led by three shadar-kai who decided that the normal world was easier pickings than the Shadowfell. Each outlaws trains and commands a different category of troops, preventing the trio from turning on each other too easily.

– Daggerburg Goblins (nine types and two named NPCs, levels 4-10): Like many goblin tribes, this one sports hobgoblin leadership and some bugbear muscle. They are raiders, employing hit-and-run tactics from the back of battle worgs.

– Clan Bloodspear (six types and two named NPCs, levels 4-10): This tribe of orcs swept the last remnants of civilization out of the Vale 90 years ago, and are scheduled to make a repeat visit in another ten. The clan includes a number of orc/something hybrids.

– Wolf Runners (one type and two nameds, levels 5-6): A bandit gang led by a werewolf that fights using both wolves and human members. Wolf and dire wolf stats have to be pulled from elsewhere.

– Blackfang Gnolls (five types and one named, levels 5-8): A tribe of gnolls focused on demon worship.

– Abyssal Plague Demons (six types, levels 5-6, 9): A straight-up monster class, the plague demons can infect characters and turn them into plague demons. They have some really awkward backstory about a demon lord of a dead universe. Mostly just a random monster type.

– Dark Drake of the Moon Hills (three monster types, levels 6-8): Evil drakes with some stealth.

– Gray Company (four types and one named, levels 6-9): An evil-ish group of soldiers whose leader claims to be the heir to a long-lost empire. They gather magical items that may or may not be heirlooms, and may attempt to insist that the PCs hand over a recent find. They claim nobility, but are a fairly grim lot, including the use of “fallen heroes” (undead).

– Phantom Brigade (five types, 6-8, 12, 14): The Phantom Brigade is a good-aligned collection of undead knights who are still trying to fulfill oaths made during their lifetimes. However, characters may still come into conflict if they wish to ransack a ruin that the knights are sworn to protect.

– Frost Witches (four types and one named, levels 6, 8, 12, 15, 18): The Frost Witches are a primarily female organization dedicated to the worship of the evil elemental prince of cold, Cryonax. In the Vale, they are one of the organizations that is loosely “allied” with the white dragon Bitterstrike. As the level spread indicates, the frost witches provide a challenge across a wider level range than most of the foes in Nentir Vale, with the higher level threats representing the foes to be found at the Frost Witches’ home camp.

– Bloodfire Ooze (monster type, level 7): Like the title says – it’s an ooze that’s made of blood and has fire attacks.

– Barrowhaunts (two minions, five named characters, levels 7-9): The barrowhaunts are an adventuring party that was cursed while delving ancient tombs to keep coming back until they were killed, and now hang around as undead trying to kill off anyone else who wants their stash.

– Harken’s Heart (three types and one named, levels 7, 9-10): A druidic organization, Harken’s Heart is (sort of) on the good side of the conflict between the Harken and Winterbole treants. Harken’s Heart had a bit of a ruthless and overzealous streak, however, so they were cursed to quickly become powerless when they left their forest. They could be allies to PCs in conflict with evil tribes/organizations, but also enemies if Harken’s Heart attacks nearby settlements (entirely possible given the druid’s refusal to accept any harvesting of forest resources).

– Hound of Ill Omen (two types, levels 7-8, one named, level 10): The hounds of ill omen are what remains of the loyal servants of hill tribes who were wiped out by the Nerathan empire, and they still haunt the battlefields where their masters were slain. Somewhat oddly, the hounds are the standard, higher-level monsters, while the level 7 monsters are the minion apparitions of the tribesmen. The named is an elite hound.

– Penanggalan (levels 8-10): The flying-head-and-entrails vampire from Asian mythology. Different levels represent different states for the creature.

– Mages of Saruun (six types, levels 8, 10, 12, 14): The Mages of Saruun rule over the subterranean ruins of an ancient minotaur city. The group is mostly dedicated to discovering ancient secrets for profit and power. They are mostly not overtly evil, although some have become warped by their discoveries. The types represent various levels of mage, plus minotaur golems and bats.

– Cadaver Collector (construct plus a named, level 9): The cadaver collector spends its days picking up dead bodies and impaling them on its armor spikes. The named is a necromancer who has learned to control the constructs, and uses them to collect raw materials.

– Hurly-Burly Brothers (two named level 9): Twin trolls who hate each other, and can only be killed when together.

– Vampiric Mist (three types and one named, levels 9, 11, 19): The vampiric deathmists are what remains of a lich’s vampiric guardians after a failed effort by a bog hag to destroy the coven. They no longer operate in any organized fashion and, as their name might indicates, are essentially insubstantial mists that drain or corrupt their targets in various fashions. The Crimson Deathmist (the level 19 monster) is what became of the nine vampire lords who lead the coven.

– Bitterstrike (one dragon with vassals, levels 8, 10): The weakest of the dragons running around the Vale, Bitterstrike is a somewhat oblivious white dragon that has made somewhat treacherous vassals out of the nearby cold-themed NPC organizations. Bitterstrike’s vassals include shifters, treants, witches, satyr, and drakes. The dragon himself is a level 10 solo threat.

– Mooncalf (four types, levels 10, 12, 15): Mooncalves are giant octopi (including the nasty beak) with bat wings. They appear once every eight years and stick around for a single lunar cycle (I have no idea where the “calf” bit comes from). Mooncalves fight by grabbing with longer tentacles, then pulling enemies into its bite. They can also create tiny thunderstorms. Variants include mooncalves that can teleport instead of making storms, bigger mooncalves, and the much nastier level 15 mooncalf, which can make itself invisible.

– Dythan’s Legion (six types and one named, levels 10-13, 15): Legatus Dythan commands a vaguely Roman-legion-themed (and evil) legion of dragonborn who seek to restore their race’s long-lost empire (yes, there are apparently a lot of long-lost empires in the Nentir Vale).

– Winterbole Treants (two types and one named, levels 11-12, 16): The Winterbole Treants are one of two groups of treants in the Vale. Although both sides are unaligned, the Winterbole definitely give off the “bad guy” vibe. The two sides once engaged in civil war, but the Vale now separate the two forests, precluding much active combat (as their name indicates, the Winterbole reside in the snow-covered northern forests). The higher-level named mob is the leader of the Winterbole Treants.

– Gravelstoke Family (five named NPCs, levels 12-16): Although they’ve been on hard times since the fall of whatever empire it was that fell, the Gravelstoke’s now seek to return to wealth through a return to their traditional occupation – assassins.

– Vestapalk (level 13 dragon with a level 6 kobold): This green dragon has received visions, and now seeks to establish himself as an object of worship.

– Calsystryx (level 14 dragon with level 4 kobolds): Calastryx’s backstory has it cursed and sleeping, but soon to awaken. The red dragon’s made point of interest is that it has three heads (and will sprout another before you kill it). The kobolds are would-be worshippers.

– Harken Treants (two types and one named, levels 14-15 and 20): The “good guy” side of the treant civil war, the Harken Treants are from the more temperate southern forests. At level 20, their leader is the toughest monster in the Vale, although a typical group of characters would probably not come into conflict with the Harken Treants.

– Scroll Mummy (level 15): Not a mummy at all, a scroll mummy (or grisgol) is a construct that is formed by discarded magical items and is powered by a lich’s phylactery. It makes random magical scroll attacks, in addition to claw strikes.

– Hunter Spiders (three types and one named, levels 15-17): The Hunter Spiders were a drow raiding party that was trapped on the surface when its tunnel back to the Underdark collapsed. They are led by a drow werespider.

– Ragewind (level 18): A ragewind is a whirling collection of weaponry animated by warrior spirits.

– Wandering Tower (level 18 type walking around with some two level 14-15s): A wandering tower is basically a giant mimic – instead of a monster that pretends to be a chest, it’s a monster that pretends to be a building.

– Shadowmire (level 19): The evil threats in Nentir Vale top out with the black dragon Shadowmire, who rules over the swamps of the Vale. Shadowmire maintains multiple false lairs and can create magical simulacra of himself.

In addition, Nentir Vale sports a glossary of terms used in the various stat blocks in the book (very handy for not needing to bounce back and forth to multiple tomes mid-game), and a very brief overview of some locations in the Vale (along with a map, of course).

Judgment Calls and Verdict

What stands out most to me about Nentir Vale are the generally interesting and transportable adversarial NPC organizations. They have enough flavor, and self-contained stat blocks, that you could just drop them into an existing campaign for a nice little touch – without having the book takes pages and pages going into the sort of highly detailed background you might get in a campaign setting book. You could, theoretically, just run a campaign through the Heroic and Paragon tiers just having your characters root out the subsequently tougher groups and tribes, but there’s hardly any cohesion between the different groups presented – some of them tie loosely into another one or two, but that same “plug and play” nature of groups that’s a benefit for dropping an individual organization into your own campaign is a detriment for using Nentir Vale whole cloth. Plus, as you could probably tell from the group/tribe write-ups above, the Vale as presented is a bit oversaturated, managing to hold four dragons, the ruins of half a dozen empires, tribes of every standard sort of humanoid, and so on. But I don’t see that as a problem – this is a Monster Vault product, after all, not a campaign setting. And, I think, a rather good Monster Vault at that.

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