[Review] Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands (LL); Blue-collar Mordor

[Gazetteer]
Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands (2012)
Peter C Spahn (Small Niche Games)

Hades. Mordor. The Shadowlands. Stygia. Zothique. The Lands beyond the Wall. The Land of Iuz. The Plains of Obsidean. Citadel Cavitius. We all know these places. We might not know all of them specifically. But we know what they mean, in our gut. We know they are places you do not tread lightly. We know this is where evil holds sway. Abandon all hope.

Peter C Spahn, overall a very talented adventure writer, attempts to tread in the footsteps of many before him and tackle that most hallowed of tropes for his own Chronicles of Ahmerth setting by describing the dreaded Ghoul Lands and Ghoul keep, lying north of the Duchy of Valnwall. The result is a decent but somewhat flawed gazetteer for Ahmerth. In a business where the market is flooded with a thousand instant Shadowlands (just add nerd), that might not be enough to carry the day.

Reviewing Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands is frustrating because I feel it punches below its weight class. The normally razor-sharp and purposeful Spahn flaunders and stumbles his way through much of this 133-page Gazetteer for the Chronicles of Ahmerth Campaign Setting. The prose, while for the most part very workmanlike and sufficient for the task at hand (a Spahn staple), is remarkably clumsy and downright fails to inspire at times, with the noted exception of the stellar short adventure Kalitus Corpi in the back of the book. The adventure is almost depressing for its exceptional quality, showing us the Lord of Darkness Spahn we needed, not the edgy Frank Metzer Spahn that wrote the majority of the work, and the gazetteer is very much the weaker for it. While the sparse art pieces are pretty good, the Order-of-the-Stick style cover art and, dare I say it, the font of Ghoul Keep works against the atmosphere it is trying to convey. Don’t get me wrong. This is not a piece of shit. I just feel it could have been better then it was.

I have divided my review into multiple parts more for convenience then as any sort of emulation of the structure of the Gazetteer, which operates by chapters both long and short.

Part I: The Ghoul Lands

The Gazetteer opens, perhaps not unsurprisingly, with a very legible map followed by a useful summary of what the Ghoul Lands are all about. In short, the Ghoul lands are a cross between Mordor and some A.Merritt style Lost valley civilization, surrounded by inhospitable terrain on all sides. By day, its archaic population barters, works the fields, obeys the dictates of their hereditary aristocracy, pays homage to their Undying Ghoul King Lorrgan Makaar (with two Rs for extra akwarrd) and sacrifice their firstborn sons to the omnipresent Cult of the Rebirth. By night the doors are locked while all but those warded by the priesthood must suffer the depredations of the THOUSANDS AND THOUSAND OF GHOUL HORDES THAT ROAM THE LAND AND LIVE IN THE ENDLESS CAVERNS BENEATH THE EARTH. That certainly sounds like a place I could learn to love.

Some history, which lasts half a page and therefore deserves a high five and an Ennie because nothing is as fucking annoying as long ass fantasy backstories. Spahn instead takes the smart approach and drops hints about the history of the Ghoul Lands throughout his work, referencing notable events in the descriptions of certain items, monsters and places whenever they come up.
The Ghoul Lands are tied to the kingdom of Mor, described in the Faster Monkey Games Lesserton & Mor gazzeteer [1]. Sorcerer Baron Lorrgan Makaar was present when an unknown magical calamity (a ubiquitous feature of Ahmerthian history) laid waste to everything and turned into an inhuman monstrosity as his followers deserted him. Makaar figured just because he is now a walking crime against the natural order that doesn’t mean he doesn’t still have a title and carves out a little barony, complete with kidnapped human subjects to work the fields, so he may restore Mor to its old glory only better because it has more roving hordes of flesh-eating undead monstrosities. Sadly he runs into the natural enemy of evil expansionist empires of distant antiquity; Fucking Elves.
After a giant slapfight, the asshole Valen of Vay sunders the Immortal Makaar into six pieces and scatters them across the continent (we can all see where they are going with this one) before erecting a magical barrier (TM) to keep the undead hemmed in on their own fucking turf so the world doesn’t have to put up with their shit any longer. The subsequent centuries of internecine slapfighting in Ghoul Land is interrupted by a band of adventurers that return with Makaar’s head and everyone is thrilled to discover they can just graft it onto a healthy youthful body and its FINE as long as you water it and replace it every couple of years. Now returned to unliving power, Makaar seeks to recover all of his other limbs so he might have enough power to break the barrier [2].

Perhaps its the weird juxtaposition that turns me off from so much of the work. Spahn didn’t turn the Ghoul Lands into a literal Mordor but more a dangerous but still habitable place adventurers can visit and even hail from. Not the Abyss but Thay if you will. As a result much of the organization of the Ghoul Lands comes across as surprisingly banal, with its 5 provinces ruled over by mostly ordinary human barons. The culture itself has interesting aspects but the approach is flawed. If you are going to describe a culture to us you can either just rip off one or two historical cultures and season to taste so everyone immediately gets what you are going for or make up some sort of unique culture of your own and determine its customs and general appearance based on extrapolation and the rule of cool. Ghoul Lands wants to have its cake and eat it too by using archaic bronze-age trappings like bartering, chariots, bronze weaponry and so on mixed with weird magically raised fortresses and undead knights. The whole feels contrived and vaguely artificial. For example, the Ghoul Lands are insular and isolated but not TOTALLY oblivious to the world and the stated reason of their fighting forces still resorting to Bronze weapons out of tradition rings false to me (the disparity between iron and bronze being of such a nature that it would be equally plausible to forsake, say, the wheel for traditional reasons) and there doesn’t seem to be a shortage of iron anywhere. I mean fuck, does traditional feudal organization even make sense at this point? You’d expect cities to look like the fucking Attack on Titan fortresses.

From the architecture Ghoul Lands tries to echo both Ancient Greece and Egypt and I appreciate the cosmetic details such as shaved women with a single scalp lock and intricate tattoos, as well as the mandatory sacrifice of the Firstborn serving as an explanation for the disparity between men and women and the relatively egalitarian nature of this feudal dictatorship, and important elements of the setting like the periodic SACRIFICE OF THE FIRSTBORN TO BE TURNED INTO A GHOUL or the ANNUAL MIGRATION OF THE GIANT ANTS FROM THE MOUNTAINS are turned into festivals or important events on the calendar so they feel fully incorporated into daily life in the Ghoul Lands. Spahn tried to do the same with adventurers by making them the sponsored champions of the aristocracy, somewhere midway between Aristocrat and Commoner, which helps make their presence within an otherwise very rigid and paranoid country somewhat plausible. I am on the fence about adventuring guilds in general and think the Pathfinder’s guild is the absolute WORST take on it I have ever read so anything that reminds me of it leaves a foul taste in my mouth.

There is another nagging inconsistency of scale, but it is more of a hunch. Every firstborn son is marked for Ghouldom, many punishments involve being Ghouled and so on and so forth and often the regional capitals of one of the five baronies will have a population of a scant 1000 people or less [3] but then you will suddenly get a Penal Mine stocked by 10.000 people that makes no sense. How are they even fed?

And while we are on the subject, what the fuck is up with the economy in this place? Spahn tried to do something interesting by making barter the primary method of trade but then he goes full retard by INCLUDING GOLDEN COINS ANYWAY BUT ONLY FOR NOBLES BY LAW BECAUSE FUCK IT and allowing for complicated financial constructions of debt or writs of exchange so the whole ends up feeling INCREDIBLY convoluted. Why bother with the introduction of a barter system if you are just going to paper over it anyway?

The gazetteer covers everything from warfare to religion to major holidays at the breakneck pace we are used to seeing in such products as GAZ1, describing general trends before going into the specifics of each region. It’s got the most important element you need for a good gazetteer: Conflict! It’s not PCs vs the Evil regime by necessity. The multitude of factions ensures that no matter who you side with or how often you were bullied as a child you will always have someone to hate and murder for their gold! Besides a secret mission of the Order of Law that is trying to convert the poor Ghoul-landrians (or whatever you call them), you can expect the witch so spiteful she turned Hag that offers revenge for a terrible price, pissed off Blue Dragon, Ancient Vampire rival to Makaal and the odd elf tribe to tussle with if you get bored of planning subversive expeditions to infiltrate Ghoul Keep. If there is a weakness to this element it is that, though almost all boxes for a good Gazzeteer are checked, the overall quality of these entries is uneven and even lacklustre at times.

I will attempt to illustrate my problem here. Almost every damn city in the Ghoul Lands is ancient and has tunnels or sewers or dungeons in its abandoned parts. Sometimes this is used to great effect, as with, say, the Ruined Tower of the Green Wizard (which is said to drain the land of life and no trips inside it are the same twice). I love that. That’s a good dungeon hook. A bad or mediocre dungeon hook is…The Ruined Tower of Baerl once belonged to a guy who betrayed his troops during a Graheem attack and it was set on fire, now there are monsters below in the cellars. “Like the Old City this palace is a place ripe for all sorts of adventures.” “The Labyrinth Lord is free to flesh this and this out” Can you get any fucking lazier and more redundant? I HATE THAT LINE. It tells me that I am free to do something that I already fucking can. It is up to YOU, THE CREATOR, TO GIVE ME SOMETHING INSPIRING SO I FEEL LIKE FLESHING IT OUT IN THE FIRST PLACE.

I don’t want to sound like the Gazetteer is a piece of shit, it’s NOT. It’s so loaded with potential for adventure you are bound to find SOME sort of possibility entertaining but the focus should have been less on the quantity and more on the quality. The question of WOULD YOU GO HERE? is answered with a resounding yes. But goddamnit it needs to hit the gym, lose ten pounds and work on its attitude.

The actual adventure hooks feel so…obvious. Try to take down the Ghoul King, try to steal one of the brides of the Ghoul King, spy for Valnwall, some enemy of the king tries to enlist the PCs etc. All very straightforward stuff, and nothing is actually wrong, but compare that with say…the old Basic Gazetteer hooks. I mean they had shit too, but there was such inspiration there. Dwarf golem demagogues, complicated wizardly ploys, enchanted rainbow lakes… that’s what this section needed more off.

The section on NPCs is ho hum. Makaar is actually the highest level character by far in the comparatively low fantasy Ahmerth, clocking in at level 18 wizard, appropriate for an immortal wizard king and making him one of the most powerful characters on Ahmerth in terms of direct power. The rest of the various rulers, priests and warriors are functional and have appropriate motivations and agenda’s but the descriptions are too standard. I appreciate little nudges like the high priest being a 0th level NPC and the return of the monk class as a perpetually silent executioner class with a vow of silence so they cannot betray the secrets of their training but none of the heads of these many organizations really stand out or are particularly memorable with the exception of the half-ghoul children of the Ghoul King or the twisted Brinda the Swamp Witch. I APPRECIATE the inclusion of not one but THREE rival adventuring parties since rival adventuring parties are underused and in Ahmerth adventurers are supposed to be a relatively common occurrence even in the Ghoul Lands. You would expect a party of brooding edgelords what with their country being ruled by Vecna-Sauron but they seem remarkably milquetoast.

Demkin was the baron’s head blacksmith until the day he discovered a secret treasure
trove hidden deep in the palace dungeons. The sight of all that lost wealth kindled the spirit of adventure in Demkin’s heart, and Baron Tuller granted his request to form an adventuring company. Demkin left his wife and four children in the baron’s care, and periodically returns home with treasure and gifts for his family .

Daaaawwww. It’s like watching an adventuring party of Podrick Payne, Samwise, John Snow and OTHER Samwise.

The Gazetteer ends with what is arguably the most useful part of any Gazetteer; New items and monsters! I like the inclusion of chariots to give it that antiquities feel and the rules are so simple using chariots actually becomes feasible (driving over people with a chariot is pretty strong but the chariot has limited durability) and the inclusion of those wheel sickle blades is fucking awesome but why is its price listed as 500+ gp? Fuck you, give me a fixed figure.

The magic item starts out pretty metal, with potions brewed from the rotting flesh of zombies or a potion of anti-magic shell brewed from wizard’s blood that must be poured in a circle around the caster to take effect. This entire section suddenly seems to recall what it is supposed to be about; Badass fucking necromancy from the land of evil. Eyes that must be crushed to view things remotely, wind-travelling chariots, enchanted elfskin gloves, pipes that attract ghouls [4], spinal column whips, masks of human skin…the list goes on and is metal as fuck. The armor and weapons section is a little weaker and the Tekla [5] section is a huge cop-out by mentioning the limbs of the Ghoul King but neglecting to describe either them, Makaar’s Skull Throne or the Legendary Sword of Valen so fuck you Peter. Don’t tease us with that stuff and then cop-out on the statts for no reason. Overall, fucking cool.

The bestiary is alright. Spahn once again leads with a section of magical herbs, mushrooms and vines that are all necromantically themed and should provide pretty great flavor. The monster section is kind of ho hum. Lots of Ghouls with class levels or half-ghouls fill the bulk of the piece, but there are some alright entries; the Bonewraith is a hideous gestalt of dozens of slain soldiers and I like the low fantasy Skark Hound as the signature hunting animal of the dreaded Knights of the Cold Host.

Part II: Ghoul Keep!

Oh you thought this would be the end of the Gazetteer? WRONG BITCH! This thing is PACKED! 113 pages long and we are not even at 58. The largest section of the book concerns a description of the aforementioned Ghoul Keep; a magically raised fortress of fused bone that protects one of the few means of egress into the Ghoul Lands.

Ghoul keep is not so much an adventure as it is a fully fleshed out Adventure Location or module in the old sense. The GM can easily use one of several hooks to make it the setting of a marvelous adventure, probably involving a Hidden Fortress style infiltration into Ghoul Keep via either a cunning disguise or the monster infested caverns that lie below the ancient citadel.

It therefore comes across as a bit more functional and boring then a dungeon proper, but there is certainly room in Ghoul Keep for the odd secret passage, cunning trap (an honest to god bottomless pit), magically trapped cupboard, long-forgotten chamber containing a trapped balor (with accompanying classic demon escape strategy of pretending to be a nice guy and then fucking everyone up if you escape), animating statues or series of water-logged rooms, a crypt with a steward. For the most part, it is mapped like a realistic fortress, complete with arrow slits, barracks, audience chambers and magical skull catapults (okay maybe not that last one). The complex is guarded by humans by day and by Ghouls by night, a nice touch. You don’t necessarily have to run a rescue the prisoner scenario, there are plenty of places in Ghoul Keep where you can steal Charts of the fortress or the surrounding area which can be sold for huge amounts in the nearby duchy of Valnwell (which also makes for a nice bonus mission objective even IF you are going to bust someone out of jail).

Like in the Ghoul Lands proper, the inhabitants are conflicted and you can find the odd usurper, murderous sociopath, secret doppelganger or scheming sorcerer between the various flunkies, tortured servants and villainous undead worshippers patrolling this dungeon of terror, human sacrifice and misery.

I have three real issues with Ghoul Keep that keep it from being shiny and chrome. The first is that the caverns, the most dungeon-like parts of the entire castle, are pretty bland because of a large amount of rooms containing copy-pasted descriptions of ghouls rummaging through bones and attacking on sight. That is fucking lame. The other is the omission of both A) a time table and B) a complicated plan of action in case the alarm is sounded, both of which would have made it vastly more easy to run the proposed infiltration mission that should really be your ultimate goal. My last gripe is that the phrase “the Gm should feel free to decide/expand upon this” pops up waaaay too often [6], in various branching corridors, in empty cellars with inhabitants and with an ancient obelisk.

Despite the 1d6 Ghouls searching for bones copy-pasta and the shameful lack of a co-ordinated response in case the alarm is sounded, Ghoul keep makes for a good villain lair and is complex enough to make for a good adventure site. A month of gruel and water for daring to write  “THE GM SHOULD FEEL FREE TOO EXPAND UPON THIS FURTHER” in a non-PWYW product this fucking often though.

A last note on the hooks. The relatively simple nature of the hooks is appropriate for a location like the Ghoul Keep and I feel Spahn covered just about every way you can use the fortress as a site for adventure, most of it involving some sort of covert infiltration of the place.

Part III: The Agden Commoners Hall.

Arguably the least interesting part of the entire supplement, the Agden Commoners Hall is located in the province of Caramor and serves as a sort of Hommlet for any enterprising PCs that seek to adventure in the region, with a sunken ruin nearby. What you get is a relatively simple map, three different seedy taverns along a sliding scale of seediness along with three hundred million three page descriptions of 0-level shopkeepers. What makes it sort of work is the fact that almost all of the shopkeepers have hooks, enmities, quirks or hidden agenda’s. Despite being a little bland, at times to the point of banality, Agden is not bad for what it is. It goes without saying that a clutch of nobles TO BE DETERMINED BY THE GM make their appearance, making me drink the cyanide faster. There is a nice list of games of skill the locals like to play, which allows you to win money or status at cost to yourself. They are all violent or at least debilitating, which very much fits the seedy atmosphere of Agden.

Geral of the Hood is a cloaked huntsman who sells animal pelts and freshly killed deer, boar, and wild turkey in the plaza courtyard. Common trade items sought include arrows, axes, knives, food, ale, clothing, lamp oil, and camping gear. Geral serves Ulek Ariaas as a hunter and guide. Geral is also the unofficial leader of a group of hill bandits that occasionally waylays caravans and traveling bands of adventurers.

It’s alright but it’s no Fever Dreaming Marlinko. Agden has enough competing criminal factions, spies, damsels in distress, adulterous female sergeants and other assorted riffraff to sustain the PCs for a homebase for several sessions. Last and probably least, Agden has a rumor table with disconcertingly direct hooks that feel like they should be spouted incessantly by nameless townspeople in a Final Fantasy game. “The ruins of the Old City are full of secret dungeons and lost treasure just waiting to be uncovered.” Geee.
These are followed with relatively straightforward hooks for simple adventures, probably not that dissimilar from what your GM runs if he has 1-2 hours of prep time. Nothing fancy, Caravan guards, New Monster, Sewer Adventure and some interesting ones aswell: A Prize Fighting Tournament or Chariot Race in the monster-haunted Old City sounds fucking kickass, and the Unholy Child concerns a sort of reverse Antichrist child who naturally radiates protection from evil and is thus considered anathema by the Church of the Rebirth. Is this the last gasp of decent adventure hooks from an otherwise broken and tired man?

Part IV: Kalitus Corpi

Not so!  The short adventure in the back of the book is the only thing about Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands that I unequivocally support. We are talking Old Peter C Spahn here, when he had a full head of hair, drank nothing but whiskey and spent his time picking up waitresses and jumping canyons on his motorcycle.

Korpus Kalitus concerns a freaky corpse-eating cult long thought extinct, lurking in the ruins of the Old City near Agden. Simple hooks lure the characters to the location. It is an eminently simple lair assault but it is nevertheless great because of the awesome trappings and commitment to a vision. It’s like a short story from Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane or Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique.

Skeleton guardians. Crumbling masonry. Cultists with robes and masks of tanned human skin. A Carcass scavenger with an old dwarven +1 bolt still embedded in his hide. And…RALTUS THE UNDYING! A hideous undead half rat, half maggot, half human avatar of their rotting cannibal god, looming in a putrescent pit of offal, sewage and corpses.  War-dogs in harnesses of leather and human bone. A mad-hermit with a necklace of human finger bones and a mask of human face leather. FUCK YEAH. METAL.

There is barely any opportunity for roleplaying or negotiation (although if the GM desires it there is a schism between Raltus and the original cult leader) and the whole thing is pretty straightforward WHICH IS PERFECT. There is no way this ends in anything but a mash-up of Karl Edward Wagner’s Kane, Army of Darkness and Solomon Kane. Everything will need to be chopped to bits and cleansed with purifying flame with Destroyer of the Universe or Painkiller blasting from the speakers. Fleeing cultists, catacombs filled with the dead, collapsing temples (yes of course they can), fires and people screaming at the top of their lungs.

Full credit where it is due, all the NPCs here are distinct, have little motivations and there is even a nice random encounter table. It makes me wish the rest of the Ghoul Lands were fucking metal like this. Where is that Peter C Spahn in the rest of the work?

Pros; Chockfull of hooks and adventuring seeds, albeit it at times almost banally straightforward ones. Good locations. Original take on yet another land of evil. Great adventure in the back. Good magic items. Very much a supplement to be used and not read. Incredibly strong adventure in the back (MAKE MORE OF THOSE PETER).

Cons: Tonal inconsistency and a lack of commitment to a singular vision makes it come across as much weaker then it really is. That fucking DA GM IS FREE TO DO SUCH AND THUS. Writing is bland or even banal at times (though not in the last part).

Fuck this one hurts. Ghoul Land and the Ghoul Keep reminds me of the old Basic DnD Gazetteers and is very much a product of the OSR in the sense that it is a product to be used during play, not passively absorbed and left to gather dust on an overladen shelf. I appreciate the occasional glimpses of the witch-fire wreathed netherworld of bone and undeath that shines through the descriptions of villages and drinking competitions. GK&TGS is half Dwellers in the Mirage and half Mordor and it ends up being neither and that is a DAMN SHAME. The frequent use of blank space to be filled by the poor suffering GM and some copy pasted descriptions don’t add to its charm. For all that griping, it is a worthwhile but flawed effort and I pretty much guarantee you will get some use out of its nine thousand hooks, spiffy new magic items and stellar adventure if nothing else. It doesn’t suck and it just BARELY makes the cut of a good adventure region but it could be SO much more. Why do you hurt me like this Peter? 6 out of 10.

[1] Faster Monkey Games and Small Niche Games are unofficially placed in the Chronicles of Ahmerth, though this process seems to be one way mostly, with minor entries serving to place certain Faster Monkey Games adventures on Ahmerth, rather then quintessentially Ahmerthian concepts like latent spellcasters or Lailons turning up in random Faster Monkey Games adventures. Though I might be wrong.
[2] Goddamn I hope you weren’t doing a fantasy trope drinking game. The undead sorcerer trying to recover his multiple body parts trope was seen earlier in TSR’s Vecna but even before that in the villain Claybore from R.E Vandermanns Cenotaph Road series for example.
[3] And for a secluded agricultural valley civilisation that makes sense actually.
[4] The ghouls will not harm the caster but must be led to a place where they can feast. If there is no such place, they will eventually devour the caster.
[5] Essentially the artifacts of Ahmerth
[6] I.E more then once.

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