[Review] Vlad the Impaler – Blood Prince of Wallachia (3e 3PP); Terror is the Passion of Revelation

[Setting/Adventure]
Vlad the Impaler – Blood Prince of Wallachia (2002)
Mike Benninghof & J.R. Phythyon Jr. (Avalanche Press)
Levels 8 – 10

Fiction has always been my first love. Part of that is escapism, undeniably so. But also because fiction is pure, it washes away the graininess and chaos of the real world and is thus able to convey ideas, concepts or sensations with a clarity and a force behind it that the real world is hard-pressed to match. But sometimes truth can be stranger and more terrifying then any fiction. Sometimes what actually transpired is a thousand times more far-fetched, horrific and terrifying then even the most far-fetched imaginings. Sometimes the most black-hearted super villain does not begin to approach the inhuman cruelty of the human animal. Genghis Khan. Ashurnasirpal II. Nero. Timur. Dread figures that have carved out a red place in history. But one has captured the popular imagination like few others have. I speak of Vlad Tepes. Dracula. The Impaler.

Vlad the Impaler by Avalanche Press is the third and last installment in a series of historical adventures set in 15th century Europe, each accompanied by a sort of semi-campaign setting. Vlad the Impaler focuses on the titular Vlad Tepes II, Prince of Wallachia, one-time ward and scourge of the Ottoman (and mostly other romanians) and Impaler extraordinaire.

Benninghof’s adventure line has thus far been exceptional in terms of premise and the overal adventures were quite good and had some interesting customization options, if hampered by the fact that Benninghof has only skimmed the 3e rulebook and could give less of a shit how many bonus feats a 5th level fighter gets, an admirable attitude that becomes a vince only when writing for 3rd edition products. A problem with the customization of the previous adventure was that nearly half of the adventure’s content was left on the cutting room floor but Vlad the Impaler doesn’t have this problem because it restricts the customization to a single all important point that determines how the adventure resolves and colors everything that has been encountered thus far without rendering the adventure the least bit generic. Au contraíre! Vlad the Impaler is absolutely drenched in gloomy, opressive medieval horror and wonderfully contrasts the supernatural horror of the folkloric vampire with the mundane brutality of life in the dark ages. It also seems that Benninghof had one of his interns read the player handbook because Vlad the Impaler is nowhere near as shoddy as its precursors.
One would thus be tempted to conclude that with Vlad the Impaler Benninghof and Phythyon have delivered the ultimate in historical fantasy adventure using a sort of early two-thousands game-design equivalent of the fusion dance but you would be FUCKING WRONG. Avalanche is built of broken dreams and lost potential and this outing is no exception.

Though I labelled Vlad the Impaler as an adventure since it is in every way a follow-up to LDoC, only a third (a measely 20) of its page count is dedicated to the purpose of adventure. The rest is a type of miniature campaign setting, with all the classic faults of the Avalanche approach to a proper campaign. The only difference with something like, say, Aztecs (okay the last link I promise) is that in this case the writing is not only focused on a place but also a person.

For what it’s worth, as an unusually long primer to a relatively short adventure in 1450s Wallachia it does a hell of a job of getting you interested in the period. The picture of Vlad Tepes as a ruthless autocratic warlord of monstrous cruelty punctuated by an odd sort of justice is compellingly rendered in but a handful of pages. I shall attempt to convey Vlad the Impaler’s take on Vlad Tepes with three short facts about Vlad:

1. In order to persuade the King of Hungary of his loyalty to the cause of beating the Turk, Vlad sent him the 23.809 noses of its garrison.
2. Vlad’s particular obsession is the impalement of nursing mothers, where the condemned’s breast is bared and the infant nailed to her bare breast and kept in place with rope.
3. Vlad has a golden chalice placed in the middle of the town square of his capitol in order to entice would-be thieves. Thus far it has not worked.

It is perhaps fitting that the section on Vlad the Impaler consists of only two parts, the first titled ‘Blood Prince of Wallachia’, the latter simply ‘Impalement’.

The bulk of the product focuses on the princedom of Wallachia, a backwards but very fertile region bordering the ever expanding Ottoman Empire in the South and the Catholic kingdom of Hungary in the East. Wracked by war, poverty, famine and corruption and caught between the designs of the Ottoman Sultan and the Pope, the beauty of the place is contrasted everywhere with the utter misery of its inhabitants.

This is a HARD medieval place. Almost omnipresent illiteracy, a total lack of trained priests (most Orthodox priests left with the fall of Constantinople), peasants live to be 25 or 35 if they are lucky and are as a general rule, unwashed and reeking, villages are sacked about once a decade, the artistocracy (Boyars) are corrupt and illiterate fools who preoccupy themselves with breeding horses when they are not extorting taxes from the local peasantry and Vlad Tepes is an absolute ruler within one day’s travel of his location and a distant lord beyond that. Wallachia’s people are fatalistic and superstitious and it takes some truly inhuman brutality to shock them.

Complicating the politics of the region somewhat are the german-descended miners of Transylvania (Siebenburgen) to the North. Representing a middle class that is utterly unknown in Wallachia, the City-dwellers pay their tax in Gold but are otherwise entirely independent and disdain even to speak Romanian. They are supported in their isolationism by the Szekely, Hungarian-descended plainspeople who bond with the Transylvanians in their utter contempt for the reeking dung-covered illiterates that populate Wallachia. There is the frequent Ottoman raid for slaves and horses and of course the Gypsy (or Roma) have recently entered this region in the wake of the departing Mongol hordes. No one likes Gypsies, especially not Vlad.

Anyway, about 25 pages in, the book abandons its (admittedly engaging. vivid and absorbing) treatment of the subject material and begins doling out the crunch. Two prestige classes, one for the Boyar (aristocrat) and one for the Hussar (elite mounted cavalry). I don’t really see how a glorified robber baron merits anything more then a leadership feat and the tax/overtax ability the Boyar receives could conceivably be done by anyone (a staple of bad class feature design). The Hussar (further subdivided into the Red and the Black Hussar depending on the background of the character) is a fairly simple but interesting mounted fighter class that I don’t really have much to say about either way. I guess the Hussars are elite troops so a prestige class is appropriate.

After this we get 2 more NPC classes, the Herbalist and the Lautar. The Herbalist is the medieval equivalent of an alchemist, capable of brewing poultices and elixers with a variety of different effects. I appreciate that alongside the obligatory effects like healing or blessing, most of the poultices actually have effects like increasing your sexual prowess, making you fall in love or inflicting a curse upon the first person who drinks it. I like the idea of the herbalist but all this mechanical support just makes me wish it was 2e land again and you could just make up a 0-level NPC that could make potions that did whatever you wanted. The Lautar is a fairly interesting low-magic equivalent of the bard. Although outlawed by the Orthodox church, their waning presence has allowed them to retain considerable influence within the region. Kept from full on PC-dom only by a d4 and an absolute inability to wield weaponry, the songs of the Lautar can inspire, calm animals, call storms, increase sexual prowess or even stop a nursing mother from providing milk (a most dire curse!). These NPC classes I kind of dig, both add a lot of flavor to the region and its not hard to come up with situations where the presence of one of these could add an interesting complication or boon to an adventure. The problem is that as written, there is not nearly enough to run a full on historical campaign in Wallachia (gorgeous maps of the region taken from actual scans of ancient regional maps nonwithstanding). If you are going to do a campaign you need some sort of gazetteer, landmarks, hooks and important NPCs (you have 1 admittedly).

Anyway, this is a 3rd edition supplement so new feats or “new” feats are added. In this case Avalanche decides to reprint feats from the All For One setting and that means the Amputate Feat and the firearm feats (sorry about that link guys but it’s a good reminder). In addition, the Behead feat from the Celts setting makes an appearance (allowing you to behead an opponent on a critical hit if you confirm a crit again). One would theorize it would render combat far too unbalanced but since a medieval campaign is supposed to be all gritty, levels are low and the Behead feat requires at least an Attack Bonus of +4, I actually find its inclusion rather apt. Swordfighting in a historical setting SHOULD be dangerous.

While the inclusion of gunpowder weapons is perhaps apt given that Vlad’s forces were among the first in the world to use portable cannons mounted on wooden blocks in battle (as opposed to during a siege), the appearance of the Grievous Bodily Harm rules is considerably less welcome. Not only do firearms as written interact poorly with body armor (in the sense that they are inaccurate but armor somehow provides a full bonus against them), but also the lack of a physician class in the dirty middle ages means the survival chances of anyone suffering Grievous Bodily harm are practically zero. I mean maybe that’s realistic but it would also be realistic if you died from the pox before you were 8 right? Just keep the rules for the Arquebus in Last Days of Constantinople, d12 x3 crit with a long ass reload time. I like the lethality of firearms and I like a missfire chance but as written the damned things are a bizarre mixture of overpowered and useless. Make it touch AC for christsake.

Vlad the Impaler also has some new monsters and they are FUCKING AWESOME. Maybe the best take on 3e vampires I have seen and praise the Lord because 3e Vampires gradually became boring super-people with too many spell-like abilities and what little flavor they retained was nearly buried under a wagonload of fortitude saves, fast healing and other such tossfiddle.

VtI has three undead only, the first being the Strigoi or Romanian Vampire. This thing is one hundred percent folkloric awesome. It needs blood or mother’s milk to survive and will Blood Drain you on a successful grappling check (Con drain is a little harsh though). What sells the creature is the commitment to genre emulation in lieu of balance. The Strigoi needs to be properly staked to the earth (staking alone is not sufficient) or properly burnt to be destroyed permanently. There is an AWESOME subsystem for actually staking the fuckers while you fight them (if you do not restrain them they can attempt to rip out the Stake) and even beheading or dismembering them does not kill them. Unlike your classic vampire, the Strigoi actually gains incredible power if it enters a choice, and it can slay anyone by uttering his name from the bell tower. There are too others, the bizarre dung-eating Odru and the demonic raven Vudoklak that absolutely bleed flavor and makes fighting the undead in a world virtually without clerics or magic every bit as terrifying as it should be.

The Adventure Proper: Son of the Dragon

The last 20 pages or so concern the actual adventure, titled Son of the Dragon, involving the titular villain and possibly our noble heroes from the previous two installments. It is a strictly Linear adventure, leading from encounter to encounter, and though there is the theoretical possibility of deviation in all sorts of ways, eventually each encounter will have to be passed before one can proceed to the next.

The Linear adventure, simpelest and most common in actual homegames because in theory it requires the least prep, happens to be one of the hardest to do right. All the emergent gameplay one can get from a proper dungeon with furnishings is vanished and one is left with few means to elevate the game. I will give full credit to Son of the Dragon when I say it uses one of these means, STYLE, to its utmost advantage. For only 20 pages that relies a lot on DESCRIPTION in order to convey the style the players need to render the whole palatable this thing packs a lot of punch, pulling off a classic Gothic Horror story with the neccesary twists and turns without ever feeling like a convoluted railroad with long sections of Boxed Text to make everyone fall asleep.

It is the year 1456 Turkish-occupied Varna, 3 years after Constantinople has fallen. Your old employer Monsigneur Marcello has gathered our by now very experienced band of adventurers to perform yet another service for the Holy See and Christendom. Elisabeth of Pardova, ruler of a powerful Italian merchant empire and bankroller for the previous Greenland Saga, has travelled to Wallachia and met up with Vlad the Impaler. This is bad news bears since women tend to end up dead around Vlad and the Church really needs her money. He already sent an agent ahead, but he went missing. It is the party’s job to return with her, and if the disturbing rumors are true, kill Vlad if he is a hellspawn and demon. If he is not, he is to be left untouched, since he does serve as a thorn in the backside of the Turks. An appropriate 10.000 gp reward shall be yours if you succeed.

The genius thing about the customization feature is that only in the end will it be revealed if Vlad is human or demon, and while it doesn’t change the buildup, it changes the RESOLUTION of the adventure and the context in which it takes place. Its subtle, elegant and I dig it.

First one must travel through Ottoman occupied lands and cross the river Danube into Wallachia. The roads are patrolled but multiple ways of travel reduce or increase the chance of an encounter (good!), the patrols are not immediately hostile and can be bluffed or bribed (good!) and even if one is captured a cunning roleplayer can talk his way out (great)!

Already there is a foreboding atmosphere, which only gets worse once the PCs enter the village on the other end. Abandoned, dirty and decrepit, the sight of a single hussar leaving on horseback at the sight of the PCs sets the mood perfectly. A dilapidated inn with the sign broken off, with fully fleshed out NPCs inside, telling you about the hauntings in the village BUT YOU AREN’T ACTUALLY EXPECTED TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT AND NO ONE WILL OFFER YOU GOLD SINCE THEY DON’T HAVE ANY. There is a small troop of soldiers tasked with preventing any turks, gypsies or merchants in league with such from crossing but the soldiers are lazy, underpaid and fatalistic. The writing is subtle and rings true.

The haunting is another piece of joy. Two of the Obru attack villagers in secluded locations, having killed some and smeared others with dung. They steal farm implements and other objects of small value to entice villagers to leave their houses. They are tough but won’t necessarily kill, and they can off course be interrogated (and have separate, well-fleshed out personalities!). Resolutions have repercussions further down the line! Splendid.

After that you are in for a rollercoaster ride of empty villages, impaled families, meetings with corrupt bureaucrats that can turn into a hostage situation, ominous foreboding, damsels in distress that are not what they seem, dogs and man oh man does the atmosphere hit hard. For a 3e adventure, the lack of forced combat is positively refreshing and the use of classic gothic horror tropes mixed with horrific scenes of everyday medieval brutality lends the whole an uncannily eerie atmosphere. I am pleasantly reminded of the movie Solomon Kane (without the CGI balor at the end).

The undead in this adventure are really tough but I suspect a party of 8th+ level adventurers consisting mostly of fighters should be able to figure out a way around that, if only with liberal applications of the Power Attack feat and perhaps some torches. It is by no means unwinnable, but the Moroi (living dead) in this adventure are quite formidable.

The adventure concludes with a magnificent meeting with Vlad, Maria and (in all likelihood) an old acquaintance from LDoC in full, horrific glory and is very likely to turn into a bloodbath no matter Vlad’s True nature. Benninghof makes magnificent use of a technicality (Vlad is the head of the Church in Wallachia by his own lawful decree) to give him the ability to cow the undead, thus explaining their service to him even if the GM decides not to make him the Son of Satan.

The encounters are described abstractly, but since the encounters derive most of their complexity from the situation (i.e you must find a way to take Maria back to the Church but she has no intention of leaving) then any tactical complexity requiring a map. I am pretty damn sure this thing works as written, and for once that’s a compliment.

Vlad the Impaler is a last, whooping hurrah in this series of Avalanche Medieval adventures. Sure the performers are drunk, the stage is littered with used hypodermic needles and the gitarist barely remembers his tunes, but damn it they are playing Smoke on the Water and that’s MY SONG.

To sum it all up, the Campaign setting itself is interesting but requires fleshing out, the introduction of the Grievous Harm rules represents an unnecessary gremlin bugaboo and the prestige classes are nice but rather superfluous but damn it if I didn’t get another taste of some Damn Fine historical adventure involving history’s greatest Badass.

I consider this a sort of soft training for the posts to come because I hereby solemnly swear that I WILL be reviewing the Transylvannia Chronicles for Vampire the Masquerade, and god save my soul. I just can’t quit you Vlad. 6.5 out of 10. The adventure is pretty awesome but the campaign setting is more of a historical primer with very little in the way of hooks, locations or important NPCs. Read it as an unusually long introduction so you can deliver one hell of an ending to a damn fine trilogy of historical adventures on a system that is almost comically unsuited for it, even if the conversion was any good. Pray for a Runequest conversion that will never come or dust off your GM Mittens and let the homebrew flow. What a time to be alive!

My rating system might need fixing with Avalanche shit. I find myself appreciating the spirit in which things were made and the execution but cry bitter tears of nerd rage when I consider the steps I would have to take to implement them. Damn it Benninghof, why couldn’t you do a 2e?

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