by Prince of Nothing
Published by The Merciless Merchants
Levels 3-5 (HAH!)
Know, oh Prince, that good sword & sorcery adventures in old-school gaming are still hard to come by; and for all the talk of the mouldering tomes of Appendix N, few have struck the right balance between the imagery and spirit of S&S, and the playability of old-school D&D. Most old-school adventures do not reach deep into the pulp tradition, or fail to grasp what is in there; and most S&S adventures remain semi-interactive railroads, failing on the game level. Indeed, one of the most credible efforts in the last few years has been The Red Prophet Rises, by Malrex and Prince of Nothing; and furthermore, Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers by Malrex was pretty good too. So here is another adventure written by the Prince – and by the gods, he gets it right once again!
The Palace of Unquiet Repose, an expedition into a dead city serving as the tomb and prison of a haughty demi-god, is a monster of a module, a blood-and-guts nightmare in under 60 pages (a further ten or so are dedicated to The Screaming Caverns, an extra dungeon scenario). Those pages are not wasted. The substance – the information to help you run the module – is present, while padding is excluded. Everything serves a purpose, and the text is highly polished. No, it is not an exercise in layout-as-avantgarde-art. The maps are simple, plain-looking, highly readable affairs. The text is ultra-orthodox two-column century gothic, occasionally broken up by mini-maps showing the present area, and pieces of inky-looking art that do not really add much. Bullet points and bolding are used in appropriate places for structure and emphasis. Important details in the text are cross-referenced with the appendices and other parts of the module. It looks as adventurous as Swiss technical documentation, and it all works as unobtrusively and efficiently as Swiss technical documentation – in the background.
The writing is the heart of the monstrosity. It has power, menace, and gloomy pomp; expressive terseness. Opening it up at random points: “The double door is set in the naked rock, man-high, of tarnished, ancient bronze. Faded imagery can barely be made out on the surface.” Or: “These Sial-Atun have been led to the Palace by Captain Sarakhar with promises of infinite riches and godlike might. Instead they find only ennui and ancient horror while they wait for their comrades to return.” Or: “A great marble hall contains rows of carved sepulchers of worked obsidian, edges sharp like razors, gleaming from the light source. Alcoves on both sides of the room stretch off into darkness. Faint glimmers can be discerned within.” It earns its barbarian chops, although the appendices wander into purple prose. Where it matters most, though, the lean-and-mean writing succeeds on the technical level, as a mood-setter, and as a scenario rife with potential for conflict, exploration, and off-the-wall ideas. There are great names. Diorag the Breaker. Uyu-Yadmogh. The Children of the Tree. Gate of the Host Incarnadine. Chamber of Tribute by Conquest.
Leading to a land of dead empires, the Palace beckons. A hazardous wilderness trek is followed by two entrance levels, leading into a vast subterranean necropolis surrounded by a lake of liquid mercury, and then the titular Palace, a 26-area dungeon serving as the resting place of Uyu-Yadmogh, accursed sorcerer king, and his vast treasury. You are not alone: three factions, two coming from outside and one established inside, contend for the ultimate prize (whatever that may be). Death and horror will follow.
The genre is
high-magic sword & sorcery turned up to 11. It is not for everyone. It is macabre,
loud, album cover art S&S, set to metal riffs. (Or so I think, since this
is a musical genre that goes right over my head, and feels pretty much like
random environmental noise to my ears.) It is a lot more baroque and grandiose
than even most S&S fare, a bit in the manner of Diablo and a bit in the
manner of the Final Fantasy series, and I have to confess that it feels rather
over the top. Grimdark easily becomes its own parody, and The Palace of
Unquiet Repose is on the borderline, because it has no “normal” to fall
back on, no section that is just a modest “/11”, and no counterpoints to its
sensory assault. Here is a grand grimdark dungeon-palace “dotted with all
manner of hideous gargoyles”, and haunted by tattooed, cannibalistic,
insane, deformed, gem-studded things. That eat souls. The writhing souls of the
eternally damned. Here are the grimmest motherfuckers of a rival NPC party, one
“a beautiful golden, hairless child, one of its eyes (…) an orb of absolute
blackness”, another one “a monstrous silhouette etched in absolute blackness”,
and he is called “An Unbearable Thing, Drawn From The End of Time, Given
Hatred and Substance (Wolf of Final Night)”. The leader of the other guys
wears “the gilded skulls of lords and generals (500 gp total)” on his
plate mail. The leader of the third faction has “a single wild green eye
staring out of a skull-like face”. Sometimes, you can’t catch a break.
After a while, “Fred the Fighter” starts to look like an appealing concept.
Mr. Thing, He Who Must Be
Fun at Parties
This is not a Palace of honour. Indeed, the wasteland hellhole is more containment zone for a grand sort of evil than convenient treasure-hole, and those who disturb it mostly go here to die. Yes, the cover indicates a 3–5th-level range, but it is the sort of 3–5th-level adventure which will kill off entire parties of characters, starting before the dungeon entrance. Everything here is dead, dangerous, insane, or cursed (sometimes all four). It does not quite become what the loud kids call a “negadungeon” (a punishing killer dungeon where you are much better off backing out and not adventuring), but it is a dungeon where you have to bet with dear stuff to start rolling, and the odds are stacked in favour of the house. It is also a fundamentally static setting even with the rival factions, and in this respect, it is less successful than the lively Red Prophet Rises. “Do you touch the horrible soul-devouring trap for its fabled treasures?” This is the central premise, and it shall determine whether you and your group will like the module. If you like poking bear traps (and the sleeping bears trapped therein), this module has a lot of exciting things to poke, and princely prices to extract. Break off chunks of a massive golden idol. Pry blasphemous death masks off of a mindless golem-thing. Rouse a reanimated demi-god chained with adamantium chains to “a monstrous throne of jagged glass” and find out what happens. You know you want to.
While a bit one-note in its themes, the Palace is very open-ended. This is a place to develop bold plans and win big or lose big. There are useful suggestions in the text to run the scenario and resolve some of the encounters, but there are so many ways you could exploit the Palace and its moving parts (not to mention the rival NPCs) to “break the bank” that it would be folly to list them all. You can sic the proverbial irresistible force against the proverbial immovable object. You can build yourself an invincible army, or a Rube Goldberg contraption to entrap soul-eating 15 HD monstrosities. You can become just a bit too powerful. The resourceful will thrive, and the weak shall be weeded out. Kill or be killed.
In summary, The Palace of Unquiet Repose is a grand module of a very specific sort – one maniacal and meticulously perfected note played very loudly by people who know exactly what they are doing. It is exemplary as a “GM-friendly” module, and it has splendid imagination. All of it, or most of it is brand new – aside from scorpions, the monsters, magic, and NPCs are original creations. And it goes up to 11. Yes, it is very good, if you like this kind of fringe thing.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: ***** / *****
|Mouths. Why did it have to be mouths?|