Dungeonlands II: Machine of the Lich Queen (Revised)
The second mega-adventure in the Dungeonlands trilogy clocks in at 120 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 113 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This being an adventure-review, the following obviously contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, only GMs left? Great! We begin this second part of the epic high-level module, once again, with a massive short-story, the legend of the rat king, which, with its neat prose, manages to set the mood for the things to come. Having braved the Tomb of the Lich Queen, the PCs now have entered the massive machinery that guides the endlessly recombining rooms of the tomb – and thus, while movement and a lack of a unified map of the overall dungeon still are in here (whether you treat them as bug or feature), the machine of the lich queen is ultimately more plot-driven than its predecessor.
While wandering monster tables and the like still can be found here and while the sequence of encounters is still pretty much left for the GM to customize for his/her individual campaign, there is a tighter story-sequence woven into the encounters that makes the respective challenges feel more concise, fitting – let’s for example take the first part of the dungeon: Beyond truly interesting traps like webs of shadows and eclipse engines, we meet the first construct maintenance staff…but the interesting component here would be the exceedingly interesting combination of environmental peculiarities, monsters and the maps themselves – when the devastating winds of time trap unleashes one of its effects, for example, you’ll be gulping…and yes, the PCs may actually meet a young iteration of the lich queen…but ultimately, the first part of this part of the dungeon is all about finding and meeting the aforementioned Rat King – former familiar of the Lich Queen, abandoned and torn between love and hate…but how the audience goes…well, I’m not going to spoil that component.
In part 2 of this massive module, the PCs are trying to make their way towards the heart of the grand machinery – either hindered or helped by the Rat King’s elite, to potentially find an unlikely ally in a demon, mighty Mulcimber who they may have faced before…What if the grouchy mechanics of the machine actually need the PCs to deal with a complex series of deadly hazards right within the jumbled intestines of the machinery? Well, simple – awesomeness, that’s what happens! Even cooler – the task to stop the eternal reconfiguration of the machine itself is a similarly epic array of hazards, challenges.
It actually gets better – you see, the demon wants to take the Angel Anats’ place in the heart of the machine – but the machine of the lich queen will not be foiled easily: As waves upon waves of foes are thrown at the PCs, as its vessel rises for a truly exceedingly epic finale!
Wait, what? Finale? Well, not really, for, you know, I barely even grazed the surface of the story-encounters that you need to run – Part III is all about optional encounters, and if you thought they’d be standard random encounters, you couldn’t be more wrong – for one, small maps of the rooms help envision them (though, again, like in the first part, I think one-page player-friendly maps would have been a must from a comfort perspective…) and from oscillating pistons to auxiliary power chambers, lightning gestalts, molten golems and avalanche elementals to upgradeable alchemical golems, the challenges here are in no way B-side material, if you excuse the analogue – in fact, e.g. the corpse processing faculty and the resurrection room, to name two, have the chops of being potential final areas of less lethal dungeons.
Like the previous installment, this massive book also features what amounts to a lethal high-level bestiary, containing new creatures like the deadly coldfingers, gas trolls, living madness, the aforementioned avatar-style vessels, quicksilver panthers and profane shells and e.g. sticky blob swarms! (Which, coincidentally, may be used as a distraction against certain foes…)
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to a beautiful 2-column full-color standard and the pdf comes fully bookmarked with nested bookmarks. Artwork is copious and features a blend of lesser used stock-art of weird creatures as well as several original pieces. The cartography of the respective rooms is per se awesome, but, like its predecessor, remains a big flaw of this module: No player-friendly one-page maps you can print out/copy means that battle-map drawing will be a hassle.
Okay, the prose by Richard Balsey, Kevin Andrew Murphy and Darren Pearce is good – the rules by George ‘Loki’ Williams are better, though. I still remember the original first part with its copious issues, which has since been improved upon significantly. I’ve already reviewed Part III, the finale of the Dungeonlands-Saga, with its planar journey through the Suzerain Continuum…but, honestly, I wasn’t too stoked for this one, mainly since the massive dungeon promised yet more grindy rooms, yet more chaos…but the cube-like room-reconfiguration works, by virtue of its flavor, much better for the Machine of the Lich Queen then for her Tomb – you see, players expect something odd like that going on here – it makes sense, feels less arbitrary. More importantly, though, this may actually be the most refined of the three mega-adventures that make up the saga: The huge array of diverse skill challenges, the unique hazards and challenging adversaries gel together better than any component of part I did.
The Machine is a holistic experience. More so than the first module, it feels like its modularity gimmick makes sense in-game and that the chaotic recombination is actually a feature rather than a bug – thanks to the often neglected virtue of indirect storytelling: You actually get to see the nit and grit of the tomb and thus, this elevates the first module in hindsight from a narrative, if not from a design point of view. From the processing of minions and intruders to the flair of the individual rooms and their inhabitants, the machine of the lich queen feels more concise than either of its brethren – though, admittedly, the third part of the saga is so by design-choice and mitigates this by virtue of unbridled creativity.
Now, I already mentioned the map-issue and, don’t be fooled, it is a significant one. I don’t know how you handle the like, but I tend to print out player-maps and hand them out (either by room or in its entirety) and then draw only the basics on the battle map or have my players do the drawing while I take a coffee/cigarette break and recapitulate the mechanical peculiarities of a given encounter. In part III, the omission of proper player-friendly maps was offset in part by the sweeping planar scope – whereas here, the detailed circuits and the like make me none too keen to properly draw the mini-maps for the room on the battle map…or even a one-page player-map. Basically, this is inconsiderate and imposes more work on the GM than one should have to do.
At the same time, though, and this is important, this one mops the floor in every regard with the tomb – and quite frankly, each of the rooms has the potential to be the heart of its own dungeon, its own glorious highlight. As a scavenging ground for encounters, hazards, etc., this excels as well: Need some ideas for the infiltration of an alien ship, a clockwork titan, a gigantic deific machinery? Well, here you go! The whole of the respective encounters tends to surpass the sum of its component parts, rendering just about any encounter herein truly interesting, captivating and stellar scavenging material to boot.
How to rate this, then? Well, as mentioned above, I consider this absolutely excellent in all content-related components…but at the same time, the omission of maps does hurt this book and its scope is, by nature of the beast, slightly less epic than part III’s. I awarded part 3 my seal of approval and rounded up from 4.5, since it did feel like its scope deserves it. Content-wise, rules-wise, however, I vastly prefer this one and would be praising it even more, were it not for the map-issue. Hence, to represent the streamlined experience, my final verdict will clock in at 5 stars…though the map-problems cost this the seal of approval it otherwise would have received.
If you prefer the Savage Worlds-version, well, you can get that one here on OBS!