Saturday 6 August 2016

[REVIEW] The Hungry Undead

The Hungry Undead (2007)
by Jolly R. Blackburn
Publisher: Kenzer & Co.

Released for the fourth edition of Hackmaster in 2007, this module departs from the parody of the early HM line, and presents a mini-dungeon full of undead that’s – sorry! sorry! – dead serious. The trade dress evokes mono era TSR, although the interior follows a style with more detailed stat blocks and Hp/AC boxes (armour damage is a feature of the game), as well as decent-looking cartography and illustrations.

The Hungry Undead
The premise of the adventure is interesting, outlining the history of a tribal vampire cult whose successive generations excavated the interior of a large stone outcropping named Sleeping Bear Rock. There is ample historical and geographical justification for what we are going to see, which pretty much sets up the tone of the following product: meticulously logical, slightly over-explained. After the obligatory adventure hook, we have the description of what is essentially a dungeon with 15 areas (although some of these have multiple sub-areas). As tomb adventures go, this fare is solid, playable, but far from outstanding. Most are what I would call obvious encounters – there is a tomb, an undead monster is slumbering inside, it animates when the burial place is disturbed, and it has some treasure or grave goods. Or the burial place is protected by a magical trap. Or it is “an unremarkable crypt that was never used” (there are too many of these).

For all the TSR flourishes, the whimsy is missing. The design is mostly too straightforward, too (eco-)logical. It is a David Attenborough vampire lair. Here is where they rest. Here is where they were unleashed by foolhardy adventurers. Here is the evil temple full of evil-looking statues where they worshipped. Great place, but it turns out it has been looted and the statues are just statues. There is a mass tomb filled with thousands of human skeletons and piles of skulls, which is just a mass tomb. A treasury holds a sword +1, silver arrowtips, some gold bars and lots of useless rotted weapons. “A weaponsmith can fit the spearhead to either a spear or great spear for 4 sp. A fletcher can fit the arrowheads to either flight or sheaf arrows for 3 cp each”, David Attenborough explains, very calmly. Why doesn’t something interesting happen at these places?

Then there are three or four scattered encounters which are somehow way better, and you wonder why the rest of the module isn’t like this – a creepy battle with a massive amount of slowly awakening undead, the body of a high priestess preserved at the height of her beauty which explodes into poisonous dust, etc. The area descriptions are vivid and interesting. The undead have cool names like Janir Kodajy, Ranjar the Great or Jarbyr Raji. There is environmental damage. Mud. Bas-reliefs. Cryptic inscriptions. A room “suffused with a crimson tint”. This is wonderful imagery that should be exploited to the fullest by a module worthy of The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan or at least the crypts found in Judges Guild classics like The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor and Citadel of Fire; instead, you mostly get to fight a bunch of undead vampire things in a pretty place. Playable? Playable. Fun? It should be. Average? Yes. It is an average module that didn’t quite reach for the great potential it had in itself. And that’s a pity.

Rating: ** / *****

(Originally published on TheRPGSite)

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