Monday 10 July 2023

[REVIEW] The Lair of the Brain Eaters

Based on a True Story
The Lair of the Brain Eaters (2023)

by D.M. Ritzlin


Levels 1–3

Hello, and welcome to part FOUR of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

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If you liked the book, you may also enjoy the adventure. This is the case with The Lair of the Brain Eaters, a short dungeon module by D.M. Ritzlin based on The Lair of the Brain Eaters, a short story by D.M. Ritzlin, published in Necromancy in Nilztiria by DMR Books, the best current publisher of sword&sorcery tales (the meaning of the acronym is left to the reader). The short story was a fun blend of Clark Ashton Smith and RPG fantasy; with a likeable if very horny protagonist, grotesque situations, and a plot resolution based on an AD&D random table. The adventure follows the same outlines, describing a network of caves beneath an ancient necropolis, populated by a band of mutated humans called the Yoinog, and a magic-user involved in bizarre, brain-related experiments. Add a set of colourful rumours, a random encounter chart, and an entrance trap that starts the action with a bang, it wastes no time getting to the point.

The scenario encompasses a total of 29 keyed areas over one larger level and two smallish sub-levels. It does not deal with the above-ground necropolis (kind of a missed opportunity), and focuses on the dungeon proper. The main level is nicely non-linear, with twisting cave passages put to good use. In addition to the brutish Yoinog, one might encounter typical “catacomb” monsters, spiced up with a few curveballs, like a captive girl doing the Yoinogs’ errands, and an amorous ghoul lusting after her. There is a decent mixture of encounters, and options to bypass or negotiate with the (barely) intelligent denizens. The central idea is grotesquerie, providing a peek into the debased living habits of the degenerate Yoinogs, and their preoccupation with cannibalism and brain-eating. This is played for dark comedy, although not as successfully as the short story itself – some of the sharp wit of the original is missing here.

The level is rounded out with traps, tricks, and a few hidden rooms. There is suitable treasure for its level range (some of it hidden cleverly but logically), and is right at a level of difficulty that should be deadly for low-level PCs, but not outstandingly so. Weirdness lurks around the edges, and it is used particularly well – not enough to overwhelm the adventure, but enough to give it a distinct style – a brain-plant, a cosmic gateway to explore at the characters’ peril, or a gauntlet of puzzle rooms leading to an alternate exit. The Yoinogs’ master, the bizarre magic-user Obb Nyreb, is worthy of the pen of Erol Otus (or the typewriter of Frank Herbert): a morbidly obese freak with an oddly shaped head and purple-spotted skin, floating through his chambers wearing only a loincloth and a girdle of levitation. His laboratory of magical brains procured from bizarre monsters (doubling as potions if you choose to consume them) is a high point. While many of the encounters are on the simple side, they often have an odd touch or peculiarity that makes them resonate – a collection of occult tomes doubling as treasure, a nest of escaped lab rats with special powers (these would be extremely deadly for first-levellers), or “1d4 stuporous Yoinogs (…) strewn about the room, recovering from drunken debauchery”.

All in all, Lair of the Brain Eaters is a decent, functional dungeon crawl if you enjoy the theme, and a place you could easily place in a necropolis near any major city. It captures the spirit of the weird tales upon which it was ultimately based, and has a good element of macabre comedy. The main criticism I could level at it concerns the module’s scope and ambitions. The 29 keyed areas are nothing to scoff at, and the content is good. But it really feels like there should have been more to it – if there were more strange tombs to pass through, more ways to access the dungeon (as is, the alternate entrance is nigh impossible to find unless following a particular rumour), and just slightly more depth to the encounters, it would be outstanding, and it doesn’t reach that level. Of course, if that’s the worst complaint you have, you don’t have much. I would use this, even along with my own (so far unpublished) necropolis adventure – which is part The Tale of Satampra Zeiros homage, but partly inspired by none other than D.M. Ritzlin’s excellent Lair of the Brain Eaters.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. Playtesters are, in fact, properly credited in this publication. Those responsible for this review oversight have been shot.

Rating: *** / *****