Masters of Eternal Night (1998)
Bruce R. Cordell (TSR)
Level 7 – 9
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 irresistible pull of the psionic seal that has been inscribed upon her skin. If you are particularly 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-wreathed fields of dead crops. 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 successfully co-opted by the hated Illithids along with a thrall resistance you can assist in liberating it.
To add more awesome, your players are pursued 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 domination). 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 considerably.
So what the hell is it that you are looking for? Something really great. Basically, in ye olden days of the Illithid Empire, they used a hollowed out asteroids for spaceships and one crashed, but to preserve its occupants during its long, slow travels across the void, everything is coated in a stasis-goo, which means each thing you dig up is usually 2-3 rooms of something happening, frozen in time until you unearth it.
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 resorted 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 wonderful 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 across different locales. 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, wondrous and weird. 8 out of 10.