[Review] Masters of Eternal Night (2e); A promising second act

The second part of the Illithiad adventure trilogy (unofficial title) by Bruce Cordell takes place almost immediately after the first part, but this is where the similarities end. Part 1 was an investigation, this is a sort of wilderness trek with a sort of dungeon at the end. Also, part 1 sucked, this one is pretty good. Traditional OSR folklore states that 2e was terrible, so what the hell happened with this one?

We begin the adventure by teaming up with significant NPC (or a hot elf babe), following the strange yet irresistable pull of the psionic seal that has been inscribed upon her skin. If you are paricularly careless or if you play with my players and she has an um…accident, you need not fear, the psionic seal can be transferred onto a willing donor. And you can interact with it by asking it telepathic queries, to which it gives obtuse and cryptic replies. Nice way of setting up some foreshadowing through an interactive medium. As far as plot devices go, I am hooked.

So yeah, the players must travel over a world now bathed in unnatural winter towards a crater that holds the next step in the adventure. Digging tools will be needed, as well as supplies for a journey of about 4 weeks. Because of the livestock deaths and crop failures, prices are increased by a factor of 10. Neat. This feels like an expedition. An expedition across once familiar land now turned into a frozen, twilit hellscape, littered with abandoned ice-bound villages, frozen livestock, and frost-killed crop-fields. The weather itself is handled rather simply, anyone dumb enough not to bring adequate winter clothing must save every hour or take cumulative penalties that do not go away until you get 1 hour of warm rest somewhere per penalty point.

In earlier days this would have been a hexcrawl but now it is a simple line, with random encounters every 4 hours. What would be locations on a hex map are now random encounters. Frozen villages (that you can loot!), refugees (or they could be bandits, great! Will you trade XP i mean do good for precious food and cold weather gear?), ravenous animals, snow monsters that wandered in, blizzards and thin ice (easily one of the most lethal encounters on the table) and even a village that was succesfully co-opted by the hated Illithids and a resistance you can assit in liberating it.

To add more awesome, your players are persued by the Thralltakers, a dickbag group of illithids in a horse drawn sleigh, with their retinue of powerful adventurer thralls and their tracker, the Intellect Devourer Bluntfell, kept on a leash of bone links. Fuck yeah! As is only right and proper, Cordell has taken several paragraphs to give them some excellent and intelligent tactics. The Thralls could have used more description, but each does have something to make them stand out from your run of the mill henchman (i.e Zeon the henchman can fire a mind blast 1/turn from a psionic seal on his face and is quiet, his psychopathic tendencies kept in check by the psionic dominaiton). As nemeses, these fit quite well and they will likely be a thorn in the side of the PCs until they reach the crater proper, at which point they will become less cautious and commit more fully to fucking them up.

The crater proper is nicely done. It even has a gimmicky card mechanism to simulate what area of the crater you are excavating. What is excellent is that you are rewarded for being smart. If you are just going to use digging tools you spend about 2d100 man-hours per site, meaning you run a serious risk of running out of food or accumulating some serious random encounters. Fortunately, several spells (i.e divination, digging spells, x-ray vision) cut down your digging time severely.

So what the hell is it that you are looking for. Something really great. Basically, in ye olden days of the Illithid Empire, they made a sort of hollowed out asteroid and it crashed, but to preserve its occupants during its long, slow travels across the void, everything is coated in a sort of stasis-goo, which means each thing you dig up is usually 2-3 rooms with a situation. The encounters proper are very cool and atmospheric. You’ve got your buried illithids, your segment locked in the middle of a slave uprising, your elder brain that has turned to undeath to survive and you can negotiate with it (best result, you get an illithid vampire that has a 10% in each combat to turn on the PCs fucking awesome), your alien gardens, your nest of bulettes, a submerged fragment with a water weird and so on and so forth. I can’t recall a single fragment that I thought was boring or even mundane. Nice treasure too, even mundane treasure is described in an alien fashion and tarted up a bit (i.e psionically imbued powder that acts like oil of slipperiness), crystalline coins instead of boring old gold, bulette eggs, strange psionic items, alien pesticides and so on. It truly feels wonderous and new.

The conceit is that you cannot just keep digging until you find the thing you are looking for (which is, again, super awesomely, a weird nautiloid like space craft). The Space craft also needs to be flown, for which you need the brain-mate, a piece of brain imprinted with the co-ordinates that the ship needs to go too, which has been divided into 4 pieces. Nice encounter balance too, a good mix of fighting, interaction, the exploration of hostile territory, the odd trap and even an opportunity for faction play. We end, of course, with a smackdown in the bridge with 3 brain golems as the ship prepares for takeoff, to the final destination and the conclusion of the adventure.

Man what a joy to read. Masters of Eternal Night is brimming with good ideas, fun, creativity, atmosphere and so on. Nowhere does it feel hackneyed or stale. Even today you would have an excellent time running this. I knew Cordell had it in him. Join me soon for the final part of the Illithid trilogy.

Final verdict: Exciting, wonderous and weird. 8 out of 10.

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12 thoughts on “[Review] Masters of Eternal Night (2e); A promising second act

  1. The best thing about this module is the assortment of psionically-embued items. Cordell really did a good job of expanding on psionics. There also seems to be a good amount of weird, slimy biotech at play in this one… just making a character choose whether or not to use a dubious liquid decanted from a human skull is a nice, grisly touch. It’s a really nice, by which I mean nasty, touch to portray the mind flayers as truly alien, not just inimical.

    On a hunch, I recently obtained the ‘Iron Gods’ Pathfinder Adventure Path from a close personal friend, and it has a similar vibe- a bit of ‘Expedition to the Barrier Peaks’ mixed with a bit of Lovecraft. I’m not a 3E/Pathfinder guy, and would have to pare away all of the extraneous stat blocks to make sense, but any adventure featuring the decaying hulk of a biological space shuttle can’t be all bad.

    It’s funny, most of the bad reputation of the 2E adventures can be chalked up to the overuse of “Designer PC” characters that the PC’s are supposed to play second fiddle to. I can’t remember the name of one particular product (it was the sort of thing that I was pissed I’d wasted time downloading from a torrent, and deleted after a quick scan), but it involved the player characters tagging along with a ‘lost royal heir’ type. **SHUDDER**

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    1. [Psy/biotech]
      The portrayal of the mindflayers here is great, but in an adventure about mind flayers that is no more then expected. The weird psy-tech and the psionic items, even if they are simply reskinned dmg items, add a lot to the exotic nature of the adventure. Its just so good, I can’t believe I had never heard of this adventure before now.

      [Iron Gods]
      From what I read about it (Jamal/the pathfinder website), Numeria was basically a country ruled by barbarians with laser weapons and haunted by robots. That sounds fucking great. I used to be a bit of a luddite when it came to mixing fantasy and sci fi but most of the takes I have seen on it actually were actually fairly satisfying. There is a bit of a 90s dip in the overall quality methinks. Still, Temple of the Frog ftw!

      I might consider reviewing some pathfinder since I have played and run 3.5 but my little birds on the RPGSite inform me that Paizo may have done more then tipped its toe into the fetid mire of SocJus which is a bit of a turn off for me. A friend of mine stopped buying White Wolf Mage books (a sound decision by itself), because White Wolf has done the same and it just got too crazy, and that guy is by no means judgemental or bigoted. Still, early Pathfinder is apparently quite good, and avoided the generic fantasy smorgasboard of forgotten realms in favour of a glorious kitchen sink.

      [GM PC]
      The Worst, i’ll see if I can dig that one up for ya. 2e had its share of railroadery bullshit and downright boring modules, probably more then 1e, but we might be able to chalk that one up to an increase in modules in general. The style is different, Cordell’s adventures have a far more high stakes ‘epic’ feel to them with more associated railroading (or at least with more of an objective) then the old 1e S&S stuff but I recall several 2e modules (Return to the Tomb of Horrors, Die Vecna Die, Night Below) that were in no way inferior to their 1e counterparts.

      [Psionicist]
      That struck me also. A psychic would be very helpful in this adventure trilogy and probably thematically appropriate as fuck. Pity the psionics option rules are cubersome and unwieldy.

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  2. It just struck me… this adventure would play completely differently if the party included psionic characters. In particular, the intellect devourer encounter would go from a scary ordeal to a routine cakewalk. How about a psychic crush on your ass, brainbeast?

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  3. That seems… acceptable.

    Pathfinder is… OK, I’m baffled by the existence of Pathfinder. I don’t understand why the edition warriors didn’t keep playing 3.0 or 3.5, rather than migrating en masse to this clone product that made it ‘necessary’ to buy so much more stuff. (I do own a lot of it in PDF form, but that was a Humble Bundle bargain, not something I’d have indulged in at RRP.)

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    1. The edition warriors migrated because the product migrated old bean, and one should always buy more product. That being said, I have heard some rumblings from a mate of mine who is more intimately familiar with the system that it is more streamlined, it has more stuff and options per level (and we need those options, cant have an rpg without tonnes and tonnes of options) and the balance was better (lie!).

      3.0 had some crippling deficiencies that 3.5 tried to fix by polishing up the deficiencies and dividing them equally amongst the classes, ensuring deficiencies could be had by all. I think threw my hands up in defeat when i read the book of nine swords, what a piece of bollocks.

      (ego te absolvo, Pathfinder is not a bad choice for a very rules heavy fantasy combat simulation system).

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      1. [buy more product]

        Ah yes, how foolish of me. A thing exists and therefore a need for the thing exists, even if you already have a very similar thing, and it is the very similarity of the things which justifies the existence of the new thing.

        [improvements made by Pathfinder]

        A polished turd still belongs in the shitter. I am also confused about this “more streamlined” and “more stuff/options”. These are concepts I struggle to reconcile.

        [Pathfinder is not a bad choice]

        I will play it on sufferance if the GM is a good egg but it’s not my rules heavy fantasy combat simulator of choice. (I prefer the one I’ve already learned three quarters of for the sake of wargaming.)

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      2. [Buy some product!]
        If I were prone to flights of wild, unsubstantiated elfgamefagging I would propose that, as a game expands, it gets more codified, and different expansions and sourcebooks tend to “code-in” certain updates or changes to the overall game which might not be to milady’s fancy (See later excrable 3.5 supplements). One could of course point to the fact that it is a relatively simple task to hit these rules with a hammer until they work just fine but men are lazy. Also, new settings/monsters/adventures are always welcome, unlike player options books which run the risk of turning the game into a piece of shit via option fatigue.

        [Streamline/more options]
        You can give more options while reducing the different ways the options change the game and the mechanics that determine how a character is built.

        [Fathpinder]
        Fathpinder is doable but sub-optimal i agree.

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  4. As a non 3E/Pathfinder player, I’d venture to say that the success of Pathfinder was largely driven by the adventures they published. The original Paizo adventure paths were for 3.5, if I’m not mistaken. My hunch is that the system was principally their way of ensuring rule book support, thanks be to the OGL and WotC/Hasbro be damned. The spice must flow, after all, so House Hasbronnen had to be thwarted.

    I’ve only read some of Pathfinder’s adventures, borrowed from a Close Personal Friend- “Rise of the Runelords” has some real envelope-pushing content, tap the fuck out of that X-card, Pathfinder ogres are squicky as hell. “Iron Gods” makes good use out of some sadly neglected B/X monsters- fuck “product identity” and bring on the brain collectors! The WotC workaround made for better material using monsters unknown to many players.

    I have no interest in the ruleset, and little in most of the material, but Pathfinder’s appeal is no mystery- it’s all down to gameable content released at a time when Wizbro was seen as abandoning its fanbase. Now buy some product!!!

    Like

    1. [Adventure Paths]
      Can corraborate, they originally made a bunch of adventure paths in Dungeon which were very well received.

      [House Hasbronnen Product Identity]
      Actually forced some innovation/wurldbuldyn/diversity(the good kind, that is to say, not Terrygoodkind) so a force for good in retrospect.

      [ruleset]
      Analysis apt. Game set match. Man I have astute readers. Hi mom!

      Like

  5. [Buy some product!]
    Well – yes. That’s how it works. Expand, codify, bloat, create obsolescence.

    I can’t establish if you’re accusing me of lassitude or not. It is a relatively simple task to carve away the cancerous filth surrounding the good honest innards of /some/ games (provided they were working organisms in the first place; I am not convinced that there is a coherent and playable game under the skin of Rifts and I am amazed that people manage to play that shit).

    Agreed that new material for GMs is preferable to further bloating character creation. I won’t say ‘always better’ because sometimes a good ‘prestige class’ can add a lot to a game and sometimes a monster/setting book is full of tedious horseshit.

    [Streamline/more options]
    I feel such a course runs a terrible risk. Options which don’t provide a significant change to the experience aren’t worth having in the first place. How significant would you say the specialist mage is, really?

    Like

    1. Post necromancy, an unpardonable sin, but this is my blog so I can do what I want and no one can stop me.

      [Of bloat and tinkers]

      I’ve always frowned upon people making more then a half-hearted attempt to fix broken games. There is so much stuff on the market it seems like so much effort over nothing. If something does not work, play something else. This is not to say houserulings and minor adjustments cannot improve a rickety game with a firm foundation, but anything past that is a fools errand. I’ve heard a man saying he plays a “mixture of 3e and 4e”. What lunacy?!?

      Tinkering with complex, playtested rules-behemoths with many interlocking components is something that should be left in the hands of very conscientious, very analytic veteran GM’s. If one’s mind is more focused on the fluff (as mine tends to be, though I love myself some systemfagging every once in a while), one tends to overlook how an adjusted rule interacts with the rest of the system. I recall a houseruling on drowning in 3e that left me scratching my head in puzzled vexation, why not use the rule as written if one of your players can recite it from memory? This was also in support of my thesis that in any game the GM should know the rules better then any player, anything else is a breach of authority and therefore a liability.

      [More options]
      Aye, options with flat bonuses are usually tiresome and shit, but options that change the way a character is played or add some new ability are, theoretically and up to a certain point, very welcome. Power creep is also an unavoidable consequence of more options, making the game inaccesible to new players and rendering many earlier options obsolete. See also the terrible terrible The Lathe Worlds player options for Dark Heresy.

      Specialist mages are fine since you have to sacrifice a school or 2 to get yourself some extra spellpower. I don’t mind those one bit.

      Like

      1. [necromancy]

        I’ve never understood that stupid forum trash rule. That’s how you end up with four million threads for the same stupid question. When I was a lad, we told little Billy that it was ALWAYS BETTER TO POST IN AN EXISTING THREAD THAN TO START A NEW ONE.

        [she’s a bloater, cap’n]

        I suppose there’s a distinction between ‘fix broken’ and ‘tailor functional’. I tend toward the latter – if something is out and out shit, lacking a clear and functional core down to which I can tunnel with laser-like intensity and focus, there’s no point in dealing with it.

        [the GM must move in mysterious ways]

        I have had functional experiences with players who serve as rules monkeys, dealing with the tedious minutiae of which feats do what and allowing me to focus on engineering a more spectacular world. It should be noted that I only do this when my arm is twisted into running a system that I don’t actually like or understand, which I am much less willing to do these days. In the past I was flattered that people would seek me out to run a game and couldn’t bring myself to say no. In current practice I agree with you.

        [options]

        ‘Power creep’ is not something which concerns me overmuch in RPGs unless an individual player is feeling superfluous to the operation of play. I have no problem with the overpowered nature of the Paladin because the class has a 1-2% chance per PC of even being available. I gatekeep some classes behind high stat rolls in order to make sense of them. The Barbarian does not refrain from wearing armour because of some arbitrary universal restriction, he does so because his physical stats are sufficiently high that advantages to initiative/speed/accuracy are more significant than armour class, and his class abilities are a further equaliser which is justified by that potential.

        Like

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