EZG reviews Tomb of the Lich Queen (Part I of III)
This mega-module is 142 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page advertisement, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of backers-by-level, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 134 pages of content – quite a lot, so let’s take a look, shall we?
This being an adventure-review, the following contains SPOILERS. Potential players should jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here? We kick off this module in an unconventional way – via a full-blown short story by Kevin Andrew Murphy that depicts the legend of the Lich-Queen in a rather compelling narrative spanning a full 21 pages – the cliffnotes version would be that on a world, once there were tragic heroes/villains, gifted with the tears of the legendary angel Anat. By trickery and fate’s tangled web, the protagonists escaped a cataclysm on their world, the wizardess essentially took possession of all the tears, becoming an immortal being leaching souls and the life-blood of said legendary angel. There, on an island called Paxectel, beyond space and probably, time, the Lich-Queen still waits, the Angel Anat still subject to a heinous torture, while mad Tismaya, adversary of the lich queen, still walks the lands.
After a short section of advice on the Suzerain-setting and placing the module, we are introduced to the cliché introduction of the module – it kicks off in a tavern. Yeah. But at least a bard plays a gorgeous song (fully depicted), allowing for a rather neat, fluffy means of providing background exposition to the PCs – especially since advice on tune etc. are provided as well If the PCs decide to follow the mysterious bard, they are swallowed by a vortex of energy. and unceremoniously dumped on Paxectel island (fully mapped, btw.!) – and here, in this pocket dimension, the PCs capabilities get crippled: Looking into another plane entails a will save (called willpower save here) to prevent taking damage. I assume this extends to the ethereal, but that’s a minor detriment – worse would be the inability to summon creatures (apart from eidolons, which work as usual); Summoning-specialists are limited to creature-simulacra created by the island and may not choose to call specific creatures -no planar allies and the like. Per se an interesting fluff-restriction, but one that could have provided a more…tangible impact on the summoned beings for a unique experience – as provided, the results may even slip by your PCs completely. Another restriction would be: No inter-planar travel, no teleportation, no flight, unless via natural wings. while I get the intention, essentially, that’s cheating. One of the things that makes designing high-level modules HARD is the fact that the PCs are that mobile – stripping them of the ability instead of making it unreliable or risky feels like an arbitrary crippling of grown abilities. I also take offense at the categorization of “only natural flight”. What is natural? A wildshaped druid? A race/class with levitate or similar powers as racial abilities? What about characters that have gained access to flight as spell-like or supernatural abilities? Can eidolons still fly? We need hard guidelines to properly implement restrictions like this, cop out though they are.
All right, so a bunch of level 15+ PCs are stranded on this island in a pocket dimension -they probably start exploring immediately, gathering artifacts of the original heroes/former companions of the Lich Queen. Here, I honestly almost ragequit this review. No. Seriously. Why? because this module HAS NO MAPS. Yes. No maps. There is a free web-enhancement that includes some bonus encounters as well as cards with parts of maps on them – but these cards have no grid and the map-component makes up about 1/2 of the card – useless for map-purposes. And know what? There is a map-supplement! It’s a separate pdf costing…. 30 bucks. Yes, immensely detailed etc. But know what? Why not provide minor maps for the module they’re selling it? Oh, and Dungeon Tiles… + 15 bucks, yet another separate pdf. let’s do the math, shall we? 20 bucks+30 bucks+15=? 65 bucks. Pdf-only. You still have to print these. OUCH. And no, I don’t have these supplemental pdfs.
Now to be fair, we get a way to use d10s+d20s to choose rooms, but still – this lack of regular maps makes the whole experience of trying to picture this dungeon jarring at best…. Which is a damn pity. For the unique constructs of the puzzle/living dungeon/deathtrap lying under the island brims with imagination – diminutive engineers, alternate flesh and iron golems – wow. Now let’s take a look at the rooms, shall we? Well, there’s for example a room with colored tiles, in which a strange melody is playing – a melody that contains the key to solving the trapped floor-puzzle. Why no fly over it? Oh, wait. You can’t. Flying’s forbidden. *sigh* And yes, disabling the traps brute force is possible – but it’s weird since we don’t have a map to show us how many of these tiles are there. Or what about a poison gas chamber that can be bypassed either by a rogue or by committing a selfless act? Crushing corridors, deadly sound-emitting statues or blood moss? Rather cool, though the latter fails to properly use the grapple-mechanics for what is clearly a grapple in lieu of opposing strength-checks. There also is a cool illusion, but no strength of the aura/spell mentioned to properly handle high-level magic ways to bypass it. And yes, dealing with Trismaya the Mad, the adversary of the Lich Queen (no less dangerous than the Lich Queen) and unearthing information from her ramblings is also required. Have I mentioned a deafening discourse with the voices from beyond?
Among the deadly, and lavishly illustrated adversaries herein, we also find a vampiric ranger, a unique outsider (the champion of woe) and an inexplicably CN movanic deva (which makes no sense, seeing the good-subtype and lack of any in-game rationale why he’s not fallen), a planetar and then, finally, the final boss encounters, one of which is a red-gold hybrid dragon (!!!) and the second, guarded by a CR 20-trap (!!!) would be a false CR 17 lich queen – after which the way into her deadly puzzle machinery that whirs behind the dungeon’s walls is finally opened – here the second module will begin upon release.
The final 20 pages contain further adversaries to populate the dungeon – and the builds are AWESOME: These are deadly, lavishly-illustrated, awesome foes, well-worthy, deadly high-level builds – from cool and creepy to Rhino-slug weird, a cool mini bestiary/NPC-collection!
Editing and formatting are top-notch – I didn’t notice significant glitches. Layout adheres to a drop-dead gorgeous two-column standard that is easy to read and stunning to look at – well fitting for a premium product! The same can be said about the excessive, vast amount of super full-color and b/w-artworks (the latter of which are rather scarce) – though veterans of 3.X-days may know some, though by far not all of the character-artworks from Bastion Press’ “Allies and Adversaries”-supplement. The pdf comes fully bookmarked, but sans a printer-friendly version – which is bad, since this pdf will extol a BRUTAL drain on your printer.
Örks. An excessive background story, a dungeon of tomb of horrors-deadliness-level, supreme production values…what’s not to like? Indeed, this module is a meat-grinder, a challenge, a module to brag about when surviving. A high-level challenge. Full of superb prose, cool characters, imaginative monsters. A module that mentions a lot of PFRPG-builds, utilizes spells etc. well and overall, can be considered not only well-crafted on a basic level, but actually well-written – copious, awesome read-aloud-text helps prospective DMs run this. And yes, it breathes the spirit of old-school adventuring while hitting high level high fantasy notes. On the one hand – on the other, this module fails – the artifacts of the former heroes/erstwhile companions of the Lich Queen get no proper item-stats, here and there are inappropriate mechanics used to resolve challenges. And then, there’s the final issue on a content-level:
The module cheats in the worst tradition from the old-school days: The fiat. Abilities don’t fit your idea? Flat-out ban them. There, I said it. The CHALLENGE of high-level design is not cranking up the numbers, it’s about dealing with the possibilities at the PC’s disposal. Flight and Teleportation being chief among them. Just flat-out banning them is a cop-out. And that’s not the only instance. If you scrape the beautiful surface, you’ll notice a lot of these problems in the details – from missing school-auras to not using the proper, existing tools to e.g. craft illusions etc. (thus including ways to bypass them), this pdf, with all its at times neat knowledge of details and usage of supplements feels like it at times just didn’t care and instead only DM-fiats solutions. Much like a railroady videogame, the challenges herein usually have ONE proper solution that you’re supposed to go for. Cleverly using the abundant resources gets you nowhere as a player – and worse, often the intended solutions don’t follow the logic of the available resources, whereas at times, the supplement makes SUPERB use of them and the respective rules. Nevertheless, as much as I’m loathe to say it – cheating players out of resources is bad design with a capital “B” in my book.
That being said, when tackled on its own, this module still should be considered a joyous read and the meta-complaints I just fielded can be offset with a good DM. What’s really problematic would be the lack of maps.
Call me a jerk, call me old.school, but I don’t care for any amount of gorgeous artworks or 20 pages of short story when I don’t get FRIGGIN’ MAPS for 20 bucks. Yes, this book is beautiful and yes, I get that the dungeon is supposed to be modular – but know what would help? Maps of the rooms. Maps that don’t require me to spend an additional 30 bucks (+ potentially 15) to get the maximum out of this module. And yes, the additional map-packs may be the cream of the crop, the nirvana of maps – but what does that help me when the supplement that uses them does not even feature low-res or downscaled rudimentary versions?
As written, the encounters and characters are superb, the text great – but sans a map, the whole complex remains opaque in its dimensions, possible connections etc. I’m honestly, even after weeks, still pissed at the omission of what is not just decor (like the gorgeous artworks), but rather a central component of any module. Think about similar premium products: Rappan Athuk, Razor Coast etc. (and yes + maps, this comparison is justified) – you get 3-5 times the content AND MAPS. You can get map-packs in addition, but they are not omitted from the mega-module. Think how an AP would stand up if Paizo told you: “Want maps? You HAVE to buy our (kinda optional) map-packs, no more maps in the APs. But we’ll make them really big and shiny.” Would you be ok with that? Thought so. Now think about said products and how to run them sans maps. Get my drift? I don’t care how good the 30-buck map-pack is, selling a 20-buck module sans cartography is just an insult in my book, especially sans pointing out the lack of proper maps.
It’s been a while since I’ve been so conflicted about a product – on the one hand, I love the NPCs, creatures, storyline and several of the challenges herein – as a toolbox to scavenge, this is awesome. On the other, I have rarely been so frustrated by a module, so pissed off by a product. From the lack of a printer-friendly version to the lack of maps to the writing cheating PCs out of some of their best tricks to make the module work, I feel like this pdf, when it had the chance to revolutionize what one can expect from dungeon crawls, opted to go for a beautiful polish and then made essential components add-ons. Where’s the printer-friendly version?
It took me some time to get what made me so annoyed by an otherwise great supplement – it’s that this pdf is inconsiderate. From the lack of maps to the lack of a printer-friendly version to a lack of consideration regarding high-level character options, this module is superbly written, yes. But it also says “Here’s the way to do this – and that’s the way. Have problems with it? Want comfort? Tough luck.” And honestly, for me as a person…In spite of loving the characters and set-up and the adversaries and often creative traps, this module is ruined by not being able to use them since they’re cheating by taking player-resources out of the game in the first place, when they instead could have worked WITH the options. Created teleportation-puzzles, ones that require planar callings etc. – working with the system instead of against it. For me as a private person, this module fails to deliver what it sets out to do – utterly. As a reviewer, though, I have to take into account that you might not mind the non-standard rules here and there or perhaps you just have money I frankly don’t have and just shrug the maps away, saying “Pff, Endzeitgeist has no idea, with these maps the module is the best thing ever and I don’t care about players being cheated out of some of their abilities!” – I can’t verify this, but I have to take it into account. This pdf is production quality-wise 5 stars +seal of approval, content-wise a 3.5 and for me personally, a 1-star disappointment. As a reviewer, taking into account the feelings of others and different takes on what’s important etc., I’ll instead settle on a final verdict of 3 stars. Caveat Emptor, though. I can’t verify it, but you should probably get the 30-buck-map-pack as well.
You can get this mega-adventure here on OBS!