Step one, in my opinion, is to establish some of the NPCs ahead of time to give the party more of a reason to get involved. We've got a few options here, and should probably use multiple.
- Duke Stephen - The Theoden in this story. The entire adventure revolves around his strange behavior and trying to discern the reason and a way to cure it, so it's probably a good idea to introduce him ahead of time. The adventure is written for a level 5-7 party, so we can pretty easily get the PCs to Rhoona a level or two early and have an adventure or two using it as their base of operations. Having Duke Stephen portrayed as a fair and approachable ruler makes it clear that something has changed. Maybe have the Duke hold a feast to celebrate the groundbreaking of the new palace the dwarves are constructing for him.
- Draco Stormsailer - The Grima Wormtongue. Draco is a former pirate and the current captain of the guard. He's also the obvious villain of the piece, yet the PCs don't actually encounter him until the very end of the adventure. Instead, let's have them run into him once or twice before the adventure. Play up his arrogance and comfort in his position. Possibly have him harass a PC rogue and try to shake him down with threats of prison. Give the players a reason to want to see Draco taken down.
- Xanathon - The Saruman. I like the idea of Xanathon's part in this being entirely hidden from the PCs until they've uncovered evidence otherwise. Let them assume Draco is behind this on his own. Establishing the Temple of Cretia as doing good works in the city would be good. Perhaps have Xanathon be the questgiver for the adventure before this one, so the PCs can meet him and know him as a kind and compassionate man. Of course he had his own reasons for getting the pesky adventurers well out of town, but they don't know that.
- Eric of Forsett - The high priest of Forsetta. First, let's drop his level a bit. Instead of not doing something because 'it wouldn't be lawful', it should simply be beyond his capability to take on the forces at play here. Also, cut the cryptic act. If he gets involved at all, it should be as a concerned citizen who has been approached by members of his flock who have suspicions about what's going on. It would make sense that members of the Ducal Guard would worship the lawful god in town, so have one of the younger and more idealistic guards come to Eric with his concerns. He could then introduce the guard to the PCs in hopes that they can help.
- Grimmvat Stonebreaker - A dwarven stonemason. He shows up at the beginning of the adventure to get angry about the decree banning dwarves, and that's pretty much the last we see him. He's a good NPC to have the PCs meet earlier in their career and befriend. If one of the PCs is a dwarf, perhaps they're distantly related. Again, getting the PCs attached to him makes it more likely they'll want to help.
|Maybe a less obviously evil symbol for Cretia while we're at it?|
Next, what to do about the barracks section of the adventure? As written, the PCs are expected to fight their way through 50 or so guards to find Draco's office and search it for clues. My first thought is to just ditch the fighting part entirely and replace this bit with more investigation. That does cut a fair bit of treasure and XP from the adventure though. My solution, then, is to simply move the whole section. Let's say Draco has been slowly recruiting mercenaries over the past few weeks in preparation for his planned uprising. That works better with Xanathon's plans in any case, as he's hoping for a civil war that will weaken everyone; that only works if the Duke has a sizable force still loyal to him. In fact, let's have the highest level of the mercenaries be Cretia-followers who actually serve Xanathon and would betray Draco at the appropriate time.
So the PCs investigation will lead them to a derelict fort a ways outside of town where the mercenaries are being housed. We'll need to rewrite / cut a few of the encounters that only make sense in a guard barracks and maybe change the map up a bit, but mostly the encounters can be run as written. Instead of a note that spells out the whole plot, we can seed a series of more subtle clues as we go along. A larger than expected number of mercenaries with symbols or tattoos of Cretia perhaps, A payroll chest full of Ethengarian currency. A note alluding to a secret meeting at the temple of Cretia. If the players haven't decided the Temple of Cretia is their next stop by the time they reach the final room here then we can drop the obvious clue on them, but in most cases I wouldn't expect it to be necessary.
The Temple doesn't require much in the way of changes. I would allow the PCs to enter Xanathon's study while it's empty so they have some time to search it and notice the clues pointing to the shrine in the mountains before having Xanathon discover them tossing the place. Also, I'd cut the 'riddle' he tells them because really, if that's not on the evil overlord list it should be. "I will not taunt the heroes with riddles that reveal my one weakness." Realizing that he can't be harmed combined with awareness of the shrine should be enough to point the players in the right direction. If it's not, I suppose we can have the Spuming Nooga come to them in a dream and show them the way.
|I am INVINCIBLE! Let me tell you how!|
Beyond this point, we can pretty much run the adventure as written. The shrine is populated by evil creatures and undead like any good dungeon, and the palace is mostly empty until the PCs find Draco and confront him. With just a few changes we've gone from a questionable mystery that repeatedly hits the PCs over the head with the clue-by-four to something that might actually surprise them. The core of the adventure was solid, the trappings just needed a little changing up.