This module clocks in at 26 pages, minus one page of SRD, minus ¾ of a page blank, leaving us with 24 ¼ pages of content, with covers already subtracted. My review is based on the PoD saddle-stitched softcover version of the module, and I do not own the pdf-iteration; as such, I can’t comment on the merits or lack thereof of the pdf.
This adventure is intended for use with Swords & Wizardry rules, which means 1 save, HD and HP noted, and both values for ascending and descending AC noted. As always, conversion to other OSR rules-sets is pretty simple. The module is intended for 4 – 8 characters of level 1 – 2. As far as formal properties are provided, we get separated Gm and player-background, 4 rumors for cursory and 6 for extensive inquiry, and a note for novice GMs to instill some sort of time pressure upon the PCs. The complex featured within covers 2 dungeon-levels and it’s pretty easy to expand that further, should you choose to do so. The module comes with proper read-aloud text printed in italics, and the module sports suggested random encounters for the two dungeon levels. Spells are, oddly, capitalized, not italicized. The module also features tables to repopulate the dungeon, for wandering monsters may actually be eradicated – dedicated players can slowly exterminate the monster population. It’s a small thing, but something I liked. Each room also comes with a white box in the middle of text, left there for your GM notes as you run the module. There also is a d20 treasure table. As for the setting/environment, this can be seamlessly slotted into pretty much any environment.
All right, so this is pretty much as much as I can say regarding the formal criteria of the adventure. In order to dive further, I need to go into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs around? Great! For as long as any cared to remember, the monastery of the harsh, but just Iron God, a minor deity, has always stood atop the catacombs devoted to this entity. The monks, however, have grown complacent and corrupt under the leadership of the corrupt Ardarus. One month ago,, just before the corrupt monk’s plans could come to fruition, something happened: Lightning struck from the heavens, and the complex’s splendor was ravaged, the renegade monks were transformed into living iron, now littering the dungeon: These beings experience the agony of their existence in extreme slow-motion, which renders the dressing of the complex utterly unique and creepy: “Did that weird statue’s arm move since we were last here?” Amazing.
The Iron God remains, guarding the entombed dead below…as well as lording over another evil, the immortal Eater of the Dead. The fall of the monastery from grace it but a month away, making the PCs primed to explore this site of divine wrath. The adversaries and random monsters do a good job at enforcing the notion of the complex – undead, vermin and goblins that have moved in constitute the lion’s share of the respective combat encounters. This, however, never made the module boring, which is in large parts due to the complex making sense – from embalming chambers to meditation chambers, the module offers a surprising sense of cohesion of a complex makes sense. It should also be noted that the complex, above and below, is pretty varied and allows for pretty free exploration. The dungeon is surprisingly nonlinear. Small treasures, like flammable embalming fluid, spells held in open books in the archive and similar small tidbits help render the complex alive.
Oh, and PCs should be careful – entering the catacombs (which include a couple of rooms on the first level, as well as the entirety of the second level) sans the proper respect and ceremony will suffer the consequence – namely, hallucinating within the catacombs! No, there’s no save – this is about PLAYER skill over PC skill – and it’s about atmosphere, for where the monastery’s massive ruins feel dilapidated and struck by powers beyond ken, the catacombs feel…well, like catacombs. Actually creepy. An iron, three-headed dog guards the entrance, a call-back to Cerberus that anyone will understand, and while this potent entity is not to be trifled with, it’s not there to attack the PCs. (The boss of the monastery-level is the cursed, corrupt leader of the monks, still capable of moving properly…)
In the catacombs, giant ticks, snakes hiding in walls…and the Eater of the Dead. This immortal beast is MUCH more than the PCs can hope to defeat. The pdf does telegraph the presence of the Eater, and provides plenty of warning, but once they enter the Eater’s room, they will have released it by presence of their very life…and if the PCs are smart, but greedy, they may do something clever. Said Cerberus-dog-thing? Well, luring the Eater to the dog will result in the dog being destroyed, but also in a weakened Eater that the PCs just MIGHT beat if they’re lucky. And mind you, the PCs will have plenty of time to figure that out. Why? Well, the eater is basically indestructible and mpervious to damage, and once unleashed, it will follow the PCs. Yeah, the PCs may end up exploring a big part of this module with an indestructible god-beast thing silently watching them. This is simple, but incredibly unnerving and brutal. The Eater cannot be harmed…until it enters combat, which it will do when the PCs run into undead. I love this. It’s genuinely unnerving.
But, you know, all that treasure below in the tombs…all that gold…it beckons, right? So yeah, The PCs will go down there. They will explore…and it’ll follow. To quote from the Psalters of the Iron God:
“Fear the Eater of the Dead,
Clothed in stone.
He who finds him cannot bind him,
He who leads him soon feeds him,
He who sees him frees him.”
Yep, diligent and smart PCs may not free the Eater, be warned of its power…but the careless and completionists will have an exciting and deadly challenge added to the module…
Editing and formatting re very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a no-frills two-column b/w-standard. The pdf has one small piece of b/w-artwork inside, and the b/w-cartography is really nice, but unfortunately no player-friendly, unlabeled versions were provided in the book. I can’t comment on electronic features, as I only own the softcover.
Matthew Finch was one of the authors that got me hooked on old-school gaming once more; his design-aesthetics are great, his prose is vivid and his complexes make sense and are suffused with a sense of the archaic and raw, in the best of ways. I stumbled over this module more by chance than anything else, and I’m glad I did. While the baseline and creatures per se may not look like they are that uncommon, the angle of divine wrath and the subsequent dressing of the complex, in addition with the cool “bosses”, the emphasis on player-skill in several instances over PC skill, and the overall tough but fair design render this one of the best introductions to old-school gaming I could think of. Yes, PCs can die, but the adventure is never unfair.
This presents a quintessential, challenging, but manageable old-school dungeon, and it does so without being boring, without resorting to the standard dressing and boss trapping you’d expect.
This book teaches central tenets of the experience and manages to evoke more atmosphere than I expected it to. With 57 keyed locations, it also provides quite a bit of gaming, bang-for-buck ratio-wise.
Now, granted, the cover isn’t exactly pretty. The book feels barebones in the aesthetics department. But honestly, who cares? This is better than a ton of pretty books; it has atmosphere, skill and panache – and I’m a substance over style kind of guy. I’d take a great module sans art over a mediocre one with astonishing art any day of the week. This adventure is definitely worth owning. My final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.
You can get the pdf-version here on lulu!
You can get the PoD-softcover here on lulu!