The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill: review

Cover of "The Orphans of Vinsnake Hill" with "Reviewed" stamped on it.

Innocent orphans taken hostage by an unseen figure, forest animals twisted into abominations by dark magic, a haunted forest, and an abandoned wizard’s tower; what more could you want from an introductory adventure?

In The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill, we get an exceptional 5e adventure suitable for levels 1 – 4. Heiner de Wendt wrote an interesting and compelling plot that takes place within the world of Braythe. If you haven’t already read my deep dive into that particular locale, I recommend taking a look. It’s a fresh high fantasy campaign setting filled with new creatures, races, and classes. I’ll provide a link to my deep dive below.

I found The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill a compelling read. The mystery that unfolds within the pages of this module would make great content for an ongoing fantasy novel series. Since it is an independent Dungeons & Dragons module, the outline and conclusion of the plot are delivered quickly, yet I still felt compelled to keep reading by the intriguing mystery. I needed a deeper look at how the events unfold. Players who have no idea where their skill checks will take them will inevitably be captivated as well.

Found within the pages of “The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill”

What’s it about?

De Wendt presents a local village in need of help. People have gone missing, including three children from the hamlet’s orphanage. The villagers suspect foul creatures from the cursed forest, but something darker seems to be at work within the shadows. It will not take long for an intrepid band of adventurers to uncover clues pointing toward a sinister history. This is just the sort of thing a newly formed adventuring party could cut their teeth on!

The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill is a dark, but not too dark, high fantasy adventure. The story unfolds as a mystery. De Wendt gives us two plot hooks. As mentioned above, people are going missing in the small village of Vinesnake Hill, and the villagers need help stopping whatever horror lurks within the cursed forest. The second is a job offer; retrieve a valuable item from an abandoned wizard’s tower located near the village. Both hooks are excellent and intriguing, but I believe different types of adventuring parties and game tables might get better use out of one or the other. I’ll dive deeper into that in the next section.

As the adventurers unravel the mystery surrounding the disappearances, they uncover clues revealing the motivation of sinister figures as well as Vinesnake Hill’s history. There is also a subplot revolving around a local lumberjack with a dark secret. His mind has been twisted after encountering rats tainted by the cursed forest. Interestingly enough, this minor plot twist does not necessarily need to be explored in order to progress the overarching storyline. In this way, the befouled lumberjack serves as a red herring.

Unlike a typical red herring, however, Mako the Rat Master provides deeper insight into the unholy blight plaguing the village. De Wendt effectively wrote a subplot that ties directly into the history of the cursed forest, the mutated animals dwelling within, and the missing villagers, and he did so without giving away the overarching plot. This isn’t an easy thing to do for novelists, let alone within the broad and unpredictable landscape of a TTRPG module.

Tainted Rat token from “The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill”

As the adventurers dive deeper into the core plot, they’ll find that the foul magic that twisted Mako and his rat minions (serious Willard vibes) seems to originate from the abandoned wizard’s tower located deep within the cursed forest. After investigating the disappearances and speaking to a varied and well-described cast of NPCs, the adventurers will discover that the tower may not be abandoned after all.

De Wendt provides more than enough avenues to approach the plot conclusion. Even a completely fresh table of D&D virgins should be able to find their way to the big bad, but that’s not to say it will be easy. Clues need to be discovered, pieced together, and followed. Players are going to need to think as much as fight while running through this game, but the risk of getting completely lost and having no direction is low.

Completely baffled and confused players is a DM’s worst nightmare, but de Wendt has you covered. Even though the mystery will challenge your players, there are plenty of targets to aim at. A DM could play this game three or four times and see three or four different stories unfold. If the group gets lost or confused, they can look in another direction and find another path through the adventure.

Tainted Weasel token from “The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill”

As they progress, the players will find a dark story playing out as a result of a magical Inquisition. The lone survivor of a witch-hunt (wizard-hunt) was twisted by the cruelty inflicted upon her and the other members of her order. I found the antagonist’s plot interesting and complex. On one hand, she is doing terrible things to the village. She is unquestionably the villain, but she is also a victim. Her mind has been shattered by powers outside of her control.

The players will have to decide how they wish to handle the moral ambiguity of the plot conclusion. Frankly, I wish I saw this kind of writing in more novels and films. If handled correctly, the DM has all the material necessary to make an emotionally jarring and memorable game. By the plot’s climax, everyone at the table will be invested in how the tail plays out.

How does it work?

The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill is a module designed for D&D 5E. The monsters and challenges fit a party between levels 1 and 4. Overall, it’s a standalone adventure that provides a balanced level of mystery, role-play, combat, and creativity. It also serves as an introduction to de Wendt’s campaign setting, Braythe: shattered realities, though it is not necessary to be familiar with that world. The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill effectively stands on its own.

Painting of Vinesnake Hill by Averee Chaloupka

Within the text, de Wendt provides DMs with plenty of concise, well-written suggestions for employing the module. “Concise” and “well-written” are the keywords here. You don’t have to worry about getting lost in droning rhetoric or never-ending passages regarding lore. The content gives you enough detail and texture to provide a rich narrative without overburdening you with an avalanche of details. Essentially, this is a DM-friendly adventure.

As I stated before, Vinesnake Hill suggests two plot hooks for opening the game; the abductions and mysterious treasure hidden within an abandoned wizard’s tower. Upon reading the module to its conclusion, I feel that though both plot hooks are solid, a table will benefit more from one hook over the other depending on their character level and player experience.

Finding the Missing Orphans.

Tainted Child Token from “The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill”

Hearing about a village in distress is an excellent way to start a new game. I believe this module best serves as the first adventure for a newly formed game table. The other plot hook is solid, but functioning as an introductory adventure is where this module truly shines. Trying to find the missing villagers allows the DM to set a heroic tone for the table. Even if the party has a jaded rogue whose only in it for the treasure, the adventure still centers around being “the good guys”.

The structure of the rest of the module also works exceptionally well as the initial adventure of a newly formed game table. I would even say that this is an excellent game to start new, inexperienced players out on. It’s a well-balanced low-level adventure appropriate for people who have never played the game before. The mystery necessitates player ingenuity as much as it requires character skill checks. D&D virgins will have plenty of opportunities to learn game mechanics as well as role-play and tactics. After all, there’s more to D&D than just rules.

Treasure Hidden within a Wizards Tower

Just as the mystery of the disappearing villagers is an excellent plot hook for a newly formed game table and novice TTRPG players, the hunt for treasure hidden within an abandoned wizard’s tower works well for a party of seasoned adventurers or players, or both. Low-level parties often look for work on adventuring boards or in guild halls. This plot hook is perfect for a game table that has recently concluded a mission and is ready for its next adventure.

Painting of the Corrupted Forest by misskajafortune.

Could the adventurers be moved by the tragic circumstances befalling Vinesnake Hill? Sure, and they probably will want to lend a hand. No matter the plot hook, the story’s climax occurs in the wizard’s tower. The different plot hooks serve more to set the tone and motivation of the adventuring party. Are they there to help or are they there for the treasure? Either answer is perfectly acceptable. But treasure hunters will constantly look for their prize as they proceed through the module. This approach works more efficiently with experienced players. They don’t have to be pros, but they should have a sense of balancing their character’s motivation within the context of the story.

Who is this game for?

Mako the Rat Master token from “Orphans of Vinesnake Hill”

This is the perfect module for a table of new players, players who have never played with each other, or a green DM. De Wendt made consuming this module easy. We’re given plenty of suggestions for adjusting encounters and challenges to match the level and skill of both players and characters. And the storyline is intriguing, rich, and memorable. The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill is an excellent way to kick off a campaign.

The mysterious item found within the wizard’s tower can also serve as a plot hook for your next mission. It doesn’t need to be a McGuffin, but it can be. If you just need something to get your game off the ground before launching into your homebrew campaign, you’ll have everything you need within this book. Even the history and motivation of the villain are flexible enough to fit your own agenda.

The antagonist and her order were hunted, attacked, and tortured by a group that makes no appearance within the module itself. This lays the groundwork for the larger landscape, adds detail to the plot, and provides plot hooks for future adventures, but most importantly, it frees the DM to rewrite the villain’s history. If you have a campaign planned out, you can easily replace this history with the one that fits your storyline.

My take

Painting of the Vinesnake Vineyard by angeloquintero

I can’t help but give The Orphans of Vinesnake my highest recommendation. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. It’s an interesting 5e module that balances the fundamental elements of its core system, storyline, skill challenges, role-play, and combat. Too often I see modules that lean excessively on one of these elements, typically storyline. As a result, the actual play-through ends up awkward and slowed by the imbalance. Heiner de Wendt knows his platform, pacing, and, most importantly, he knows how to tell a good story through the medium.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is an excellent introduction to Braythe: Shattered Realities. If you’re looking for a fresh and interesting campaign setting, you’ll have trouble finding better than Braythe. The world is pieced together by mysterious powers after a planet-smashing apocalypse. The remains of which are transported to a pocket dimension and linked to other fragmented worlds by immovable monolithic chains. Is that epic or what!?

Braythe is a solid setting. It provides high fantasy while still offering surreal mind-bending visuals and mechanics. With Spell Jammer being released within just a few weeks, this pocket dimension offers the multi-verse a unique world that still makes swords and sorcery its foundation. The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill is a great way to start your campaign in this fleshed-out and dynamic setting.

Whether you’re exploring Braythe or simply looking for an adventure for a low-level party, The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill has you covered. It’s worth the reasonable price listed on the DMs Guild. Honestly, the next time I run a game at these levels, I plan on running this module. It’s an excellent example of quality game writing and I look forward to watching my players solve the mystery.

Until next time, keep rolling those dice, and don’t let the vinesnakes bite.

Ash Alder

If you’re interested in picking up The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill, the link is provided here. Also, I would recommend reading through my review on the overarching setting, Braythe. You can also check it out for yourself. They recently moved to Roll20, but it remains a free campaign setting.

The Orphans of Vinesnake Hill
Braythe: Shattered Realities (Review)

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