Monday, 12 November 2018

[REVIEW] The Mortuary Temple of Esma

The Mortuary Temple of Esma

The Mortuary Temple of Esma (2018)
by Anthony Huso
Self-published
5th to 7th level (or slightly higher)

This is a long overdue review of a module that deserves more attention. I had planned to review it as soon as I read it in the Spring – but misplaced my copy, which only turned up again at my weekend house as I was readying it for Winter. So here it is, a bit belatedly: a great AD&D module based on the author’s personal notes from the 1980s, given a new polish and some expansion and rewriting. It is both a good document of the way high-level AD&D was often played (I remember fairly similar, although less good dungeons from a very different time and place), and something that has excellent playing value today. It should be no surprise the module is good. I have known Anthony’s work since the early 2000s, when he created some of the best Thief fan missions of that time, with a signature design style featuring expansive, sinister cities, labyrinthine plots, high drama, purple prose, and brooding sluts. He had later worked as a level designer on various computer games including the Dishonored computer games – again, a standout series – and he has recently published a range of AD&D supplements, with the same imagination and attention to quality.

As acknowledged in the Foreword, The Mortuary Temple of Esma was inspired by the eerie and strange Forgotten Temple of Tharizdun, the “White Album” of Gygaxian fantasy scenarios. Tharizdun is the most Lovecraftian AD&D module in a line which had always drawn generously from Lovecraft, but this time without being imitative: it conjures the same ideas of wrongness and blasphemy while constructing its own disturbing imagery. It is also a tough meatgrinder of a module, with deadly battles to test a hardened adventuring group; not to mention how much of the content is hidden in fair but progressively more obscure ways. Finally, it has art completely outside the established AD&D style, so much so that it feels like a weird third-party bootleg to a mainstream family game. I bring this up because, beyond the acknowledgement, Mortuary Temple is to Tharizdun what Tharizdun is to Lovecraft: a homage, but an original one which carries forward the general idea while following its own path. The design features I noted for Tharizdun all apply to the Mortuary Temple – in their own natural context.

What the module offers is a three-level dungeon underneath the mausoleum of an elf lord (for four total levels). It is somewhat a mixture between a monument to love similar to the Taj Mahal, a testing ground, and a place to bury unpleasant cosmic secrets. It has its own strong style, featuring a clash between lost beauty and unwholesome corruption – not only in the place’s trappings, but the content of the encounters. Accessing the mortuary temple’s secrets involves not just careful discovery, but making sacrifices and wagering one’s life and belongings. It certainly has strong choices and consequences – and the rewards are artifact-level magical treasures both iconic and powerful. This is a module for a large party of characters who have grown into their stature and earned their experience levels and magic items (it is not a low-magic scenario either – it is ideal for groups who know how to exploit two wands of Orcus and three hands of Vecna). Whatever the outcome, it will be a memorable adventure.

Module interiors
It pays off that the author knows and respects the AD&D rules without becoming their creative servant. The module leverages this knowledge to build a deadly gauntlet of encounters with powerful and resourceful enemies who know and exploit their environment (without being omniscient about it). The top level alone is a brutal battleground, which will test a party’s mettle before they can descend to the dungeons. The encounters mix the familiar with the new – well-known AD&D monsters with original creations (or old mainstays given a new spin). The following levels are more focused on puzzles and smaller mysteries, while the final one is once again a brutal tactical slaughterfest (note, the module practically requires a battle mat or a table setup to run fairly). The encounters are puzzling mini-scenarios on their own, from forgotten tombs to a nightmarish underwater realm and a place of emtombment forgotten by the outside world, and beyond the scope of what one would expect from a sacred elven resting place.

There are two aspects of the module I find less good (and the reason why it did not receive the rare five-star rating despite being close to it). First, while the individual encounters are almost always excellent, the core puzzles to progress deeper into the module feel mechanical, a bit like CRPG quests instead of D&D’s creative problem solving (although the module predates most actual CRPGs). I think these are the artifacts of 1980s play which did not age so well, even if they are, in fact, authentic (here, Tarizdun has stood the test of time much better). The second reason is that the two final levels are somehow less inspired than the materials preceding them. This is no accident, since the original group of players never actually reached them, and the magic of playtesting – the transformative force which puts the GM’s materials into their final context – is not present.

The adventure is presented in a fairly easy to follow format, although I suspect table use would require a fair amount of underlining and a bit of cross-referencing due to the material’s interrelatedness and complexity. The prose, when it comes to the brief but heavy descriptions, is sort of a familiar trademark: “Shod in plated steel, gallant valves of white stone hang picturesque, but unsecured. The wind whimpers and, across the walls, curtains of unchecked clematis flutter and sway. No longer square, the doors pivot on huge pins, making ravenous sounds where stone brushes stone.” (Compare this with the introduction to Calendra’s Cistern, a Thief mission from the year 2000 – some things are reassuringly constant.) It is not long, but it is as purple as it comes – and yes, there is ancient elven love poetry, an almost disturbing amount of it. On the other hand, the information in the location key is broken down sensibly, the various forms of highlighting and side boxes are helpful, and the whole thing is well put together. I usually don’t review production values, but like Tharizdun, Mortuary Temple features a non-standard art style featuring the author’s pencils and crayons, mostly greyscale with rare dashes of colour – fitting the mood of an original module. It is pleasing to look at, as are the maps – which are original, with digital enhancements.

The Mortuary Temple of Esma is among the best releases of this year, and even its slight weaknesses should not detract from its power of imagination and skilful execution. It is as good as deadly mid-to-high (but more emphasis on “high”) level AD&D gets.

This publication credits its playtesters (or at least it seems so from the Special Thanks section).

Rating: **** / *****

3 comments:

  1. I've been ogling this one on Lulu for some time. I need no further deliberation. Thanks for the review!

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  2. Thanks, Melan, for the review!

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  3. Sounds intriguing, thanks for the review! Time to look up the current LuLu coupons...

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