Sunday 15 January 2023

[REVIEW] The Black Pyramid

Currently Smoking:
Orcus Original
[REVIEW] The Black Pyramid (2022)

by Terrible Sorcery

Published by Noisms Games

Levels 2-3

Enjoy being lost In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard? If so, this new zine/anthology edited and published by David McGrogan might be of interest. The following reviews will focus on the adventures in the recently published first issue. As the call for papers (appropriate, as the book looks and feels like a scholarly journal) specified, submissions would be expected to be between 2000 and 10,000 words, and they tend to be on the brief side. This is both an opportunity and a hazard. Constraints can encourage efficient writing, but they may also limit the scope and complexity of an adventure. It is a fine balance to walk. Appropriately, some of these reviews will also be on the short side. It is a fine balance to walk.

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The Black Pyramid was built as a peculiar mortuary: not to give the dead a proper burial, but to feed them to a great primordial worm so it does not emerge and destroy the surrounding lands. Its priesthood dispersed and gone, its overgrown ruin has now drawn the interest of the Cloven Prince’s cultists – as well as a band of adventurers. This is a module where interesting comparisons can be made with the previously reviewed Offspring of the Siphoned Demon. The dungeon is also a containment facility for a powerful monster; it is also a relatively smaller affair (21 keyed areas on a single level), and it is also arranged in a seemingly simple pattern jazzed up with internal connections. It just goes further and does more with the basic idea – a sword & sorcery mini-module done right.

The setup offers an interesting combination: a static location designed to keep things in, and a group of active antagonists intending to breach it for their own purposes. The second element is mostly added through random encounters, and remnants of previous breaching attempts found within the pyramid proper. Orcus cultists – basically fantasy satanists – are the most “1e” kind of opponents you can use, and a sadly neglected part of old-school gaming these days. Their hideous masks also form some of the loot you can pick up during the adventure. The Great Worm also makes its presence felt, through a clever mechanic: the percentage chance of it appearing on a random encounter is 2x the nearest room number – the deeper and closer you are to the worm’s lair, the more likely it is to make an appearance.

And you will go deep: the level is arranged around a single descending spiral that terminates on the bottom of the complex where the worm’s pit is located, depicted on a single map sheet with depth notations. Shafts, secret doors, and cross-cutting elements break up the pattern, while magical traps hinder progress along the straight line. This is rather good, although I wonder if more could not have been wringed out of the concept with a more extensive map. Alas, these are the scope limitations in effect.

The room design stands out as well-written and punchy (“Three dry-rotted and partially mummified corpses wrapped in rags in the back corner, piled up against a well-preserved cupboard containing two clay jars of sweet reddish honey that function as potions of healing.”) There is a sense of blasphemy to the complex – it lives up to the idea of dark rites being conducted in cavernous halls by a secretive and ominous priesthood. Signs of decay and abandonment are integrated into gameplay in a show, don’t tell fashion. The mangled and acid-scarred bodies of dead cultists serve as clues and a source of loot (if the players stop to think about it a little). Some encounters offer opportunities to negotiate with treacherous Chaotic Evil cultists intent on doing heinous evil deeds. Observation and keeping an eye out for “off” signs are properly rewarded (“a 3’ hole to [room] is concealed by plaster-covered wooden boards and a layer of dust”) while carelessness also gains its own prize. The magic items are a bit too tryhard in that early 2000s edgy way, from the Bloodbow to the Rotting Spike and the Cannibal Crown. The grand prize loot is the skeleton of an Undigested Saint, inlaid with silver, mother-of-pearl, and rose quartz. That is more like the right kind of macabre.

Altogether, this is a module where the concept works, the tone is consistent and strong, and the challenges are varied and conductive to player skill. Accomplished and recommended. Now go make a proper full-length one.

This adventure credits its playtesters.

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


  1. Bloodbow of the Rotting Spike? Sounds like my speed. Very cool.

  2. Wow, thanks for the review! I suppose I do have a little of that early 2000s edigess in me... I blame my misspent high school days playing Vampire.

    I agree that it is on the small side, it was just meant as a small hexcrawl location. Actually, the Black Pyramid began its life as a reworking of those little shrines to Thyr and Muir that are on the way to the Tomb of Abysthor!

    Instead of those wholesome good-guy deities, my home game has the Worm God and something else (I forget). So the Bone Key was intended to open the lower tombs in Abysthor.

    My players ran through it in one session and things slowly got more tense, until they fought the worm whose acid breath totally melted the barbarian. Good times!