This module clocks in at 36 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, ½ a page SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 31.5 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This adventure is intended for 6 – 10 level 3 characters, and is situated in the city of Punjar. Picture an opium-clad, decadent haze, a metropolis of ancient stones, foundations old as time itself. A moloch – you don’t have to run this in Punjar, but you do need to have a decadent city with a storied past. As always, we do get plenty of read-aloud text, as well as a list of the encounters in question. My insistence on the setting of this module stems from its difficulty: The adventure’s complex is dangerous and pretty much requires that you can set it up properly. Without foreshadowing the shape of things to come, the players will be hard-pressed in this one. Groups that have no idea what “legwork” means will learn the hard way here that this rumor table that’s included herein? It’s not just decoration.
The module features two official handouts – one depicting a pretty epic room, one depicting a scroll that takes up half a page. Official handouts? Yep, one of the primary sources of treasure (and danger) is lavishly illustrated in a gorgeous full-page piece. This, while not explicitly designated as a handout, is de facto the third one.
All right, this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
Only judges around? Great! So, in ages past, the cult of the Carnifex rose: Recruiting from the lowest of castes, from the diseased and crippled, a strange death cult arose, exalted in its worship of the transience of flesh, serving as the grand Overlord’s executioners, reminding the decadent nobility of the ephemeral nature of their lives, of the might of Punjar’s ruler and the cult. The decadent city’s delight over the macabre chthonic cult wasn’t universally shared, though – thus came Azazel of the Light, radiant and fanatic, bent on purging the world of the unclean. He amassed his Swords of the Pious and invaded the subterranean sanctuary of the Carnifex cult with a small army of the city’s brightest scions, girded in armor agleaming in the rays of sacred light. They dived below, but for all his might, not even Azazel could hope to slay the goddess. In his desperation, his pleas echoed beyond the realms of godlings and divinities, and tapped into the primal source of life itself. Suffused by the light of raw creation, he plunged the goddess into darkness, and sealed her away with the sacrifice of three of his best. Today, the descendants of the nobles that fought the Carnifex and her cult guard the hidden entry to the tunnels below – and the secret that remains.
It is into these storied halls that a ragtag group of adventurers wants to make their way into, that they’ll seek to plunder for gold and glory.
Come on, if that is not a set-up of pure awesomeness (and my prose is not half as good or detailed as the authors’), what is? This basically is the perfect Thief-age Conan story-set-up. This background story, or at least the nature of the Carnifex cult, is of the utmost importance for the PCs to know, for the beginning of the complex is very much crafted to potentially ward off intruders: Provided the PCs don’t fall to an ignoble death or are eaten by an immobile, disgusting and bloated spider-thing that tries to reel them in, cave-fisher style, they will witness skull-and-bones-death iconography that would be cheesy sans context, but for once actually works here. The PCs may actually cause and be swept away by an avalanche of skulls and indeed, further pain looms – as well as the bottleneck. The nature of the cult? Its secrecy and deviousness? It makes sense: In one room, the PCs are presented with multiple doors, and while the impulse is, of course, that one is the right one, they all lead to danger. The truth is a kind of Xanatos Gambit – none of the doors are correct, and the entry to the hidden sanctuary is actually a completely different thing. Considering the deadliness of the door traps, it takes some experienced players accustomed to dungeons that can make sense from a builder’s perspective to deduce this beforehand…though the challenges themselves can well be survived.
Though, granted, the PCs will need their resources for the things to come after this nice ante-chamber-ish mini-level. If the PCs have survived the challenges so far, they know what they’re doing. That’s good, for they are facing off against a military force. The swords of the pious yet guard these halls, and with drums, guards and a defense plan, they are formidable foes, fanatical in their devotion. They also are grotesquely mutated from the radiance emitted by the shell of Azazel, by the force of life. Death, but a conclusion to their service…which in itself is twisted, considering the ideologies of the prime players in question. The PCs may discern more from the ramblings of an exiled madman from their ranks, should they succeed in not being slain first, though traps and tactics make that a true challenge…but one that may pay off: The unofficial handout I mentioned? Well, these halls house the reliquary, where the most sacred implements and magickal tools of the Carnifex are left, from the eponymous jewels to the dreaded Grimoire Nex…but greed does have its dangers – this is not a place for the faint of heart or unskilled to plunder, and the intrinsic details provided ultimately mean that success is very much up to the skill of the players in judging, amidst other things, the risk-reward ratio accordingly.
Sooner or later, the PCs will find themselves in a brutal battle against a legion of the swords of the pious, and, should they live, have a chance to witness the lavishly illustrated and grotesque idol venerated by Azazel…speaking of whom…well, turns out he killed the three swords to seal the Carnifex, but the incomplete binding (which constitutes a kickass puzzle that can be solved logically) leaves only one conclusion: Azazel has never completed it. He refused to sacrifice himself and finish the job! At the very latest should this seal be sundered, Azazel will attack with all that remains of his mighty force. The radiant commander has perfectly drilled his men, and beyond that, strikes against him rupture the hollowed out shell of the divine essence…oh, and he has his own frickin’ crit-table. It’s deadly, and his tactics basically make him a multi-stage boss fight of the highest caliber, honestly one of the best finales to an awesome module I’ve seen. Oh, and yeah, the PCs may free the Carnifex. Meet her. Talk to her…or, if they fall, they may find such interesting amulets on their necks…And yes, the Carnifex is described in a way that manages, in a few sentences, to make her both alluring and utterly frightening. And yes, if you do think that the vast treasure may prove to be an issue – there are some ideas to handle that provided…
The bonus adventure included, penned by Brendan J. LaSalle “Lost in the Briars” doesn’t really have anything to do with the main adventure, but I actually believe that this is a good thing this time around. More focused, it represents a brief wilderness adventure. Nockmort, a meteorite-mutated treant, has almost finished a ritual that would allow it to ascend to godhood – all that it requires is an elf, so an elven PC (or an ally/retainer) can help regarding the stakes. The forest exploration features trees animated by Nockmort handing off, fire-brigade-like, animals, fleeing peasants, bandits, and a take on the Slenderman, Mr. Saturday Night. The forest also features a couple of keyed encounters, but ultimately focuses on thwarting Nockmort’s ascension ritual….and yes, it has less reliable Plan B scenarios…Nockmort, fyi, is BRUTAL. This may “just” be a humble bonus adventure, but it is NOT to be taken lightly! Unlike the main-module, it does not feature read-aloud text, which is a bit of a pity, considering how much I usually enjoy the author’s prose.
Editing and formatting are top-notch on a rules-language and formal level. The module sports a ton of fantastic b/w-artworks of the highest quality, and particularly the two official/unofficial full-page artwork/handouts are amazing and make up for the fact that no player-friendly unlabeled maps are included in the deal – which is a pity, for the gorgeous b/w-map also sports artworks of adversaries faced within. Utterly baffling and hopefully an oversight – the pdf-version actually has no bookmarks! That is a huge and annoying comfort-detriment. If you don’t want to print this (which I did) or get it in print, consider this enough to detract a star.
I like how Brendan J. LaSalle’s bonus adventure takes a step back and does something completely different; it is a mechanical challenge and a fun, on-the-way sidetrek module that still has the DCC-flavor. It was a wise choice to opt for this route.
Why? Because I consider Harley Stroh’s “Jewels of the Carnifex” to be an example of a nigh-perfect Sword & Sorcery yarn. The prose is phenomenal and lavish, yet terse enough so it doesn’t bury you. The complex is plausible, deadly, and focuses, ruthlessly, brutally, beautifully on player agenda and player skill over rolling of the bones…though there’ll be plenty of that. I also adore and welcome the fact that this module pulls no punches. At 3rd level, your PCs and players better know how to properly dungeoncrawl – or this module will teach them. With delicious pain. This is a hard module in all the right ways. It makes sense, and even in its nastier moments, always remains fair. This is the antithesis of petty and fiat-laden – it is brutal, yes. As brutal as a good Sword & Sorcery yarn should be. It also helps that the prose and atmosphere feels as though Mr. Stroh had channeled the spirits of Leiber and Howard (or Roy Thomas, Savage Sword of Conan, minus the requirement to abide by the comic code – that was the non-goofy, pretty mature-audiences-oriented era…) and fused them with adventure-writing. This reads like a lost Conan-as-a-thief story, just with your PCs as the cast – and it plays just that way. And, in the end, you may well have a king’s ransom to carouse away in Punjar’s streets…provided you survive.
If that has not been made ample clear by now – I consider this a brilliant yarn. If you even remotely enjoy the Sword & Sorcery or dark fantasy genres, then consider this a must-buy. 5 stars + seal of approval, easily given. This also gets my best of tag as one of my all-time favorite Sword & Sorcery modules – and that in spite of the lack of bookmarks and player-friendly maps, which usually would cost this at least one star – it’s just too damn amazing to rate down.
You can get this glorious Sword & Sorcery gem here on OBS!