D&D Adventure Review: The Burning Plague by Miguel Duran

In running my campaign, I rely a lot on tweaking pre-written adventure modules to fit my needs. Lazy? Perhaps. Effective? Hell yes. The very first adventure in this campaign (see Episode 1: Miner Difficulties) was largely based on The Burning Plague, an adventure published alongside third edition D&D. 

The Burning Plague (TBP) was published in the year 2000 as a freebie alongside third edition D&D. The versions you can find online are labeled for 3.5 edition, but there’s no difference at all between the original PDF released by Wizards of the Coast in 2000 and the currently-available download at dmsguild.com. It was written by Miguel Duran, who also wrote an entry in Wizards’ “Cliffhanger Adventures,” web-based serial adventure modules published in 2001 and 2002. 

Our story, in brief: the little town of Duvik’s Pass relies on its silver mines, the lifeblood of its economy. Four months ago, however, miners began contracting a mysterious disease: the Burning Plague. Sores, boils, fevers, death. The good stuff. As more miners died and the mines were less well-patrolled, a band of kobolds took advantage of the town’s weakness and moved into the mines. These kobolds have now contracted the Plague, too, although they are “too stupid” to leave the mines. The source of the Plague is, in truth, an orc shaman named Jakk, who has sworn vengeance on the smoothskins of Duvik’s Pass for wiping out his tribe a decade earlier. Jakk lurks in the bowels of the mines, where he has found the spring providing water to Duvik’s Pass. 

There’s really three parts to the adventure: the Hook, the Kobolds, and the Orc. I’ll tackle these in turn. 

The HOOK

The adventure itself is, somehow, both over- and under-written. We get lots of long paragraphs on the background of Duvik’s Pass and Jakk’s vengeance quest, but little of that material will ever make it into a session – it’s all background fluff that the characters likely won’t ever need to know. There’s very little about Duvik’s Pass itself, aside from the standard 3e stat block for a town. A few important NPCs are named, but (almost) never mentioned in the text again. The provided quest hooks are generic – hired by a wealthy merchant, run into refugees, one of the PCs has a relative infected with the Plague. 

This all might sound like criticism. I guess it is. But it also provides a lot of opportunity for creative freedom. It’ll take a little more prep work, but you have a blank slate to work with here in terms of quest hooks. And this is a 12-page adventure module available for free when it was released and 99 cents on dmsguild.com today. It’s not meant to do all the work for you. 

Side note: Dragon Magazine #48, the April 1981 edition, used a great classification system to describe adventure types. Class A, B, and C adventures were described in this issue. Class A adventures take more than 2 hours to prep. Class B adventures take up to about 2 hours to prep. Class C adventures take about 20 minutes to prep. I find this system really, really helpful for approaching session prep, whether I’m running something I wrote myself or a module I found online. I would pop Burning Plague into a Class B category. You’ll want to prep it and tweak it, but a lot of the work has been done for you. 

Obviously, in my story, Duvik’s Pass (or Torold’s Pass, as I renamed it) got a few minor tweaks. The hook was Mister E, a government agent looking for contractors; the residents of the town included Sister Dondalla. I will say: I ran this module on a whim. That was how this campaign started, in fact. My friends and I were playing Civilization V online, but our internet kept crapping out. Rather than give up, I suggested we play some D&D – I had some pregen characters lying around, and these PDFs on my hard drive. We jumped straight into the Burning Plague, zero prep, no character backgrounds, just dungeon crawling for fun. If I were to run this adventure again, I can see a lot of ways I would flesh out the background. You can see the evolution of official D&D modules just by comparing this to, say, Lost Mine of Phandelver.

One more tweak to the hook/background material: I would make the disease more interesting. As it is, the Burning Plague has a 24-hour incubation period. The dungeon is short enough that PCs ought to finish it before showing symptoms, which makes the Plague more of a pain in the ass than an actual threat or plot point. A DC 13 Fortitude save overcomes the disease. Characters will take 1d4 Constitution damage every day, following further failed saves, but again: not much of a threat, more of a pain in the ass. Spice it up. Personally, I’d lean into the Burning element of it – it raises your body temperature to the point where, say, you can’t wear clothes, or at least can’t wear armor. And it’s quick-onset, because it’s a magical plague, so skip that 24-hour incubation period and make it, like ten minutes. Also, if you decide that the players are invested in curing the Plague, give them a mechanism or MacGuffin to do so, not just “kill the shaman and visit a doctor.” If a remove disease spell is all that’s needed to cure yourself, aside from waiting the disease out, it’s not that thrilling. But if you can, say, seek out the blessing of the guardian spirit of the mountain, who has been magically imprisoned by Jakk the orc, well, baby, now we got a stew going. 

I’m not sure if this is the official version of The Burning Plague map or not, but it’s what I referenced when I ran the adventure. You may need it for reference, depending on whether or not it’s available online.

The KOBOLDS

The first several rooms of the dungeon are kobold territory. This includes a couple small traps and two separate groups of kobolds – one in the mess hall, one in the mines proper. There’s also a dead miner; the miner’s name is provided in the adventure, and he’s “canonically” the husband of an important NPC listed in the stat block. This can be a good building block for that kind of personal hook into the adventure – his dead body can set the tone for what follows. 

The kobolds are desribed as “particularly dim” in the adventure text, which I think is unfair to kobolds. Kobolds can be famously fun. Granted, these kobolds are supposed to be suffering from the Plague, but I think you can get creative with their motivation. A special treasure? Have they been lured here by Jakk to supply him with fresh cadavers for his dark experiments? The thunderstone trap in the foyer is a good start to the dungeon; it’s up to you how the kobolds respond. Maybe they’re languishing in the feverish throes of the Plague; maybe they’ve burrowed into the walls and have an ambush prepared for anyone who dares enter. As written, the kobolds will remain in their respective areas but gear up for battle on hearing the thunderstone. 

The mess hall kobolds, as written, will fight to the death. They will also, as written, retreat into the larder (Area 4) after suffering a few losses. The larder has another trap – one of my favorites, honestly. It’s a cloud of flour, loosed from rigged sacks when a ripcord is pulled, which provides concealment chance to anyone in the cloud (ie, kobolds). It’s a lovely, creative first-level trap, and it’s worth fudging the encounter to get the PCs into the trap. It’s a good teaching moment: kobolds suck. 

There’s a third trap, a pit trap in the hallway leading to the mines. I’m not a huge fan of pit traps in general, but your mileage may vary. Personally, I’d replace it with a collapsing roof trap, as written in the fifth edition DM’s guide. It’s very believable that the mine is falling into disrepair, and the kobolds would absolutely take advantage of that. A collapsing roof trap is also loud, louder than a pit trap might be, alerting the kobolds in the next room to any approaching threats. 

The kobolds in the mine are a great opportunity to set the tone for your campaign. They are led by M’dok, a kobold sorcerer. As written, M’dok is open to negotiation, mostly because his children are among the kobolds suffering from the Plague. Here is where your players will decide if they are dungeon-crawling murder-hobos or compassionate, nuanced heroes. Not that one of those is necessarily better than the other! It’s really fun to play a murder-hobo game! But this is, frankly, the centerpiece of the dungeon, moreso than Jakk. Jakk is the epilogue; this is where your PCs prove what kind of people they are. 

As written, these kobolds have a +1 cloak of resistance (in 5e, you could substitute a potion of resistance. If you want to get more creative, sub in something from Sly Flourish’s excellent random relics – single-use magical items, found here). You may want something that can specifically help in the fight against Jakk. Jakk will use a darkness spell, for example, so perhaps you want the PCs to have the chance to find something with a single-use Light spell. Whatever floats your boat. But the PCs shouldn’t be guaranteed this item – it may come as an extra reward for treating the kobolds kindly. 

The ORC

The Big Bad Evil Guy! It’s just some dumb orc! 

This is the part of the adventure that, to me, felt overwritten. Jakk’s backstory is interesting, but there’s not much chance of it ever becoming relevant to the characters. That may appeal to you – the je ne sais quois, the verisimillitude of having this random guy with a grudge be the prime antagonist of the adventure, his motives left unexplained unless they string him up and interrogate him. This definitely does not follow the Scooby-Doo model of villainy: pull off the mask, and it’s that suspicious NPC from earlier! Trying to scare people away from the mine so he could take all the silver!

Jakk is a blank slate, in other words. You can dress it up however. Maybe he’s doing the dirty work of a more powerful orc tribe/cult/whatever trying to undermine the human towns. Maybe he’s possessed by a demonic spirit of plague and sickness. Maybe he’s not even an orc – maybe he’s a local druid protesting strip mining, an ecoterrorist. Get creative with it, in other words. This is where the adventure is, as mentioned, a Class B module – it benefits from a few hours of going “hmm, but what if…?” 

There’s a zombie breeding ground before reaching Jakk; you can extend this section if it seems appropriate. Draw it out a little. Jakk is a pretty tough cookie for a party of level 1 adventurers – a level 5 cleric has access to Bestow Curse and Animate Dead in fifth edition, both of which could come in handy. If it seems like the party is going to get his ass, move some of the undead kobolds to his chamber. As always, depending on how you flavor Jakk, consider giving him a magic item – even a one-use relic – that fits his oeuvre. 

The END

The Burning Plague is, as I mentioned, 99 cents on dmsguild.com. You can very easily port it to fifth edition – just plop in 5e kobolds and traps, and re-stat Jakk (but you might want to do that even in third edition, for the reasons mentioned above). It’s also very easy to plop into any campaign setting of your choice – it doesn’t require anything other than some mountains and a little town. The rest is up to you. And really, isn’t that what D&D is all about? The Burning Plague is worth picking up, even if only to use it as a jumping-off point for further adventures. 

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