Dungeonlands III – Palace of the Lich Queen
This massive mega-adventure clocks in at 220 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 3 pages of SRD, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us a massive 212 pages of content, so let’s take a look at this!
This review was chosen as a prioritized review and moved up my reviewing queue at the request of my patreons. Furthermore, I received a hardcover copy of this book for the expressive purpose of running it and providing a fair, unbiased review.
Wait, there’s one more thing – after I ripped Tomb of the Lich Queen, the first part of the trilogy, a new one, why don’t I review Part II, Machine of the Lich Queen next and instead jump to the final book? Simple – because Machine and Tomb still receive some polish/revisions and I’d rather review and playtest the best iteration of a given book. All right, so that out of the way, we begin this massive book with a truly extensive and well-written chapter of prose detailing the legends of the 9 fragments the lich queen has stored in her mental palace, providing further and somewhat tragic exposition for the genesis of this being- and after that, the crunch begins.
This being an adventure-review, unsurprisingly, the following will contain massive SPOILERS. Potential players should thus jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right! The lich queen’s hall of world-spanning mirrors lies shattered by her hand, the machine grinding and stuttering – and to reach the palace of her, the PCs will have to traverse what amounts to a gigantic array of planes-hopping. If you’re familiar with Savage Mojo’s Suzerain Continuum, that may not come as a surprise; if not, let me give you a run-down – there are *A LOT* of what amounts to campaign settings galore, each with their own, unique takes. Beyond just taking a look at either of them, the respective chapters essentially provide a means for the PCs (and players) to glimpse at the wondrous realms provided – think of them like a selection of Gossamer Worlds for Lords of Gossamer and Shadows or akin to the strange alternate realities provided in Shadowrun’s classic Harlequin’s Return-saga. So while the cynic in me considers this a kind of advertisement, the fanboy grins and considers this a very smart move – why? Because, let’s face it, at the end of a campaign, there is always the discussion on what to play next – here, more than its fair share of interesting options are provided.
Now, by design, this does mean that each world is represented in what amounts to a short vignette (I’m using this term through the review to denote the literary function implied by its meaning, not one of the others) that sums up some peculiarities and pits your PCs against a target adversary, aligns them with a positive figure and provides a bonus for success, a story-hook/future conflict in the case of failure. The first array of these vignettes, happening in day-time, send the PCs off to a true myriad of established settings and new ones: A Greece-inspired scifi-setting with mechanic pegasi would just be the first of these excursions – beyond this strange world, the PCs get a glimpse at a dystopian cyberpunk citystate controlled by a monolithic church, struggling to find a chosen child that can shatter the boundaries of reality, all while being besieged by strange anarchists and probably playing into the very plans of a silver-tongued angel in service of true darkness. In a celtic world, an assault on a ritual site against armies of demons awaits and fans of Greek mythology may actually fight side by side with Jason and pit wits and magic against none other than Circe.
In a steampunk world of highly-spohisticated goblins, a time-travelling tub and an aerial chase through the dangerous skies provides for a change of pace, before, sooner or later, the PCs get a chance to test their mettle against a demonic incursion to free the Dark One from his celestial prison, finally fighting against a tainted solar…and said being may not even want to escape his eternal prison. When none other than the sung-god Ra draws up on his chariot (a hyper-modern sports-car) to take the PCs on a trip through his hyper-technological pyramids and finally, stop agents of Set in a night-club, including zombie-ravers, that’s awesome. Stopping agents of chaos from exposing the rigidity in a hyper-lawful realm may sound conventional, but at that point, the PCs enter a realm of pure science, elevated to the realm where it becomes indistinguishable from magic – when you’re defending a mad scientist from his elemental Frankenstein’s monster and what amounts to a revenant-igor, all while powerful spirits that embody chemistry, physics and biology try to kill them, your players WILL continue to talk about the wealth of ideas here.
What about a planet where hyper-powerful cybertechnology has been blended with wild west stand-offs or one where hyper-technological dinosaurs duke it out in an alternate stone age? There is also a vignette wherein the 3 ages of Relic blend in a kind of temporal disjunctions, a swashbuckling-themed, fast-paced one wherein the PCs get to defend a ship from a massive sea-dragon and yes, a terrible post-apocalypse of nanite and radiation-caused mutations and doom, where an impending nuclear strike might well be within the range of options. Have I mentioned the sojourn to what amounts to the Plane of Fire or the City of Brass, where agents of an unknown entity seek to extinguish the eternal flames of the grand braziers? Now each of these places does have something to offer for the further journey -and after all those short vignettes, finally, night is upon the PCs as they traverse the myriad worlds – and from here on out, the lethality of the vignettes, in which the PCs so far have shaken hands with legends and gods, increases further.
Here would as well a place as any to note several peculiarities I noticed so far – for one, by necessity for a module that spans this many realities, the respective vignettes are somewhat sketchy – do not expect handholding or excessive read-aloud texts – it is very much assumed that, provided the massive array of high-level statblocks, you as a DM can properly portray the respective worlds. While reading this, I was extremely skeptical whether this worked out in practice, but the frenetic pace assumed by world transitions did, in actual playtesting smash so many unique vistas over my PC’s heads they didn’t mind – whether this whole chapter works depends very much on an experienced DM who can maintain a fast pace that does not allow for too many in-depth analysis on parts of the player – as well as assuming a pretty cinematic transition from key-scene to key-scene. At the same time, though, this actually can work in favor of the module: This high-fantasy realm-stuff, these clockwork-gadgets or high-scifi-stuff you always wanted to use? Well, here you can. I ultimately failed to resist the lure of adding my material and some unique worlds to the fray – after all, how often do you get a chance like that? And at this level, very much all gloves are off – your PCs are called demigods by the module for a reason… Now, this slight opaqueness, which was an exacerbated issue in the first part of the saga, ultimately is here, yes, but at the same time, this book is very much concrete – the key-scenes, like the clockwork aerial chase, provide full vehicle-rules, terrain-hazards and features where applicable, are fully integrated and the book makes smart use of the troop-subtype alongside many items and yes, even the Technology-rules in a minor way. Among the nighttime-worlds, fighting in an alternate Shanghai versus huge mobs of vampires and braving deadly haunts in a realm of gothic horror only constitute two examples of proper rules-usage that supplements the narrative – a significant step forwards, especially considering the fact that the complex builds for the high-level adversaries and allies, while not always being flawless, generally come out on the good side of things.
Not on the good side of things, at least for the players, would be a venture into imperial Rome, where Ceasar has just been slain by demo cultists and only defeating a massive shadow kraken may provide an escape…though this world has a particularly nasty story-game-over for a bad, bad decision on the player’s side… From an imperial Rome in the throes of demonic possession, the journey continues onwards into a tale of American noir, where possessed train yard cranes await. The realms of winter, complete with their nasty fey, do something I would have expected from a certain Dresden File book – including a fey lord that encases himself in a gigantic frost-mecha. In an alternate version of Tokyo, the PCs can duke it out against magical girls corrupted by a powerful hero-hunting demon, before they ultimately are deposited in a realm of darkest fantasy, including a blotted-out sun and a showdown in a ruined abbey before entering the Red Realm, a prison plane, and, more importantly, a nasty place where insanity abounds and a silent hill-esque array of perception-tricks, as well as a harrowing escape await. The final two vignettes pit the PCs against the horrors of a full-blown China Miéville-style fantasy…and has them battle Fafnir. Who makes proper use of the kaiju-subtype. NICE!
Then, finally, the chaos of worlds ends and the palace and its 7 halls loom: Here, this book becomes a much more conservative killer-dungeon once again – with each of the massive halls providing ever-escalating danger as well as full-color maps with solid detail, though you should be aware that no blow-up 1-page versions are provided. In the first hall, massive, lavishly-illustrated briar worms, demonic apes and finally, the Great Beast await the PC’s prowess – only to have to face down the mashine gun-like efficiency of the deadly archer Tianet – though personally, I used the Deadly Aim-feat when modifying Tianet’s build – at her firing rate, the damage piles quicker up that way -oddly, this will not be the last they’ve seen of the huntress and smart fighting is rewarded here. In the Garden Hall, flytrap hydras and the Lich Queen’s foster mother Grandmother Maugh await and the Hall of Grandeur pits the PCs ambitions as well as djinns to finally defeat another mentor of the queen – the erstwhile djinn-binder par excellence, turned into her mayor-domo, Ranalek the terrible. The 4th hall does offer a new challenge – the hall of pleasure, where the lich queen’s consort awaits alongside untold pleasures that can destroy one’s spirit, memory and thus, identities – in this gilded hell, the lich queen’s consort is the gatekeeper and, upon defeating him, the PCs will note he in fact is an automaton – the true fate of the poor sort is cataloged in the adventure “Consort of the Lich Queen”, which I do not own. Even if you don’t have it, though, you’ll notice something – obviously, Ayrawn has purged any thoughts of doubt from her mind to retain her sanity- perhaps the one shot the PCs truly have to defeat her – and defeat her they’ll want after the next hall, wherein the PCs are subject to a nasty, never-ending array of tortures – which may permanently cripple them, if they are not smart enough to escape their mistress.
Speaking of smarts – a vast library may see the PCs fight – but only if they behave in a manner unfitting of the place – otherwise, they’ll find an agrippa, a man turned into a tome and librarian, master who once told Ayrawn to purge memories from herself, seeking freedom – and offering a further piece with which the PCS may shake the immortal confidence of the legendary lich queen. In case your PC’s swords have since then dried of viscera, the hall of bones will end that – while the lich queen’s tutor and lich here also provides a further piece of information about a skull with which the PCs can shake the confidence of the legendary adversary, she also follows her commands and unleashes not only her own might, but also that of a vast horde of powerful undead – and yes, the combines stats span multiple pages.
Finally, after much tears, exposition and pain, the PCS can final track down Ayrawn in her Hall of Broken Mirrors – her and all her mayor allies not yet slain, rendering this confrontation potentially very, very nasty – worse, the lich queen’s phylactery is the very dungeon itself and only by shaking her confidence, only by understanding, can the PCs cause a realmsquake and breach the phylactery…and only then will the lich queen truly be slain by their efforts. Should they achieve this miraculous feat, they’ll bear witness to the collapse of dungeonlands and possibly even ascend beyond the providence of mere mortals – in any case, infinite possibilities await.
Editing and formatting are good, though not perfect -I noticed a few italicization glitches, minor errors in statblocks and the like, but seeing the size of this tome and the complexity of the statblocks, that is not surprising and well within the level of tolerance. Layout adheres to a two-column full-color standard that conspires with a mix of gorgeous full-color and b/w artworks to render this book a truly beautiful book to behold -aesthetically, there is nothing to complain about here. The pdf comes fully bookmarked and my hardcover sports nice, thick, matte high-quality paper and a shiny cover – all great in that regard.
Kevin Andrew Murphy, Darren Pearce, George “Loki” Williams, Allan Hoffman, Andrew Hoskins, Brendan LaSalle, Matthew Medeiros, Richard Moore, Monte Reed – this is one epic book and it was a fun ride to embark on. But also one that is terribly hard to rate.
Why? For one, there would be the issue of high-level gameplay requiring a lot of foresight – pre-written modules have a hard time properly predicting PC-capabilities and one massive issue with the first book was the arbitrary stripping of powers from PCs and the issues with rules-interactions. I am more than happy to report that this book sports NONE of these. Neither will you find “Pcs have to solve this EXACTLY like this”-solutions and similar issues – instead, this massive mega-adventure essentially provides vignettes, vistas and general storylines – you can skip through them at your leisure, ignore some, substitute your own or expand them to full-blown module length.
When handled properly, these vignettes can act as epic, never-ending climaxes – if you took the final scenes of a vast array of stories and stitched them together, a kind of cool-moment-collage, if you will. Better yet, where applicable, the places do sport nice rules-tidbits from mutation-tables to steampunk gadgets. While not all such tidbits are perfect, this is a module and the like is simply not the focus of this review. The world/planes-hopping vignettes ultimately can be a vast amount of fun if handled properly, but they could also go horribly wrong – if you are accustomed to handholding, extensive read-aloud texts and not good at making transitions and filling in the blanks of the respective vignettes, that may result in massive issues – essentially, do not expect any guidance beyond a basic plot-summary and the statblocks for the respective adversaries. Yes, this DOES include a lack of maps for the respective vignettes, but not one I’m going to fault the pdf for – why? Because the focus on cinematic transitions ultimately, at least here, does not require them necessarily. In my game, this went off pretty well after my players sopped trying for the analysis-route.
The second part is a more old-school killer-dungeon and it is very much worth the status as a finale – the palace itself is exceedingly deadly, full of iconic adversaries and challenges and provides a great way for the DM to provide some exposition regarding the dread lich queen. The background story, as written, is surprisingly intelligent and beyond what you’d expect from a killer-dungeon, so yeah – kudos here. On the downside, the lack of one-page maps to print out can be considered a comfort detriment.
So, what does that mean? It means that this module, more so than many others, will prove to be a very polarizing book. If you can see the vignette-style planes-hopping working for you, then chances are, you’ll love this beast and enjoy it immensely. On the other hand, if you as a DM have problems generating transitions or fleshing out details on the fly, or if your players are all about the small details, then this one may result in some issues – the discrepancy between whether this will be awesome, or, well, not so great – it all very much depends on your group’s tastes, capabilities etc..
At the same time, this book, unlike the first one, does not cheat in obtrusive ways – one instance where a sleeping gas may send players to their sleep sans DC or stats comes to mind, but, quite frankly, if DC 40 is too hard for the PCs at this point, they’re doing it wrong anyways… So overall, this book can be considered indeed one of the few examples of high-level modules that truly managed to captivate me – the glimpses at realms beyond the regular, whether released or yet unpublished, is interesting indeed and provides some pretty imaginative ideas and a much needed change of pace, while also providing a sense of the epic to the whole experience.
It struggled quite a bit with how to describe this massive module – and the closest analogue was delivered by one of my players – this is pretty much a module-equivalent of an all-star-movie akin to Avengers – it provides components for each world and concept to shine and show what’s cool about it – but there is, by virtue of its format, no room to linger on the individuals, to go into depth regarding the individual vignettes and their characters. So do not expect the module equivalent of primer or a TV drama, but rather that of a big-screen all-star action movie. Personally, I tend to prefer more detailed modules, which is also why I’m pretty happy to have been able to test this module in detail -and while I did not have an easy time as a DM and preparation did take a lot of time, the results proved to be very entertaining and my players, surprisingly, enjoyed the continuous barrage the weird of the continuum threw at them. While some minor oversights can be brought to field against this book, the amount of material that works and shows an understanding of the intricacies of Pathfinder does offset this in my book.
Yes, I’m rambling. My final verdict, ultimately, will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 for the purpose of this platform, while less experienced DMs should probably round down due to the significant skill this requires to pull off.
Personally, I loved the massive array of cool ideas spotlighted and hence, I’ll add my seal of approval for the vast imaginative potential.
You can get this massive mega-adventure here on OBS!
Do you prefer the Savage Worlds rules? You can get that copy here on OBS!