Dead God Excavation (2018)
Ven’ger As’Nas Sat’ani’s (Korth’alis Pub’lishing)
Le’vels 1 – 3
The Monolith from Beyond Time and Space + Alien: Covenant
Dead God Excavation marks my first Response review. Normally I only read what others say about a module after I have reviewed it myself so as to not influence my judgement. This time is an exception. After a heated discussion at tenfootpole.org, I took it upon myself to plant my flag in front of Venger’s besieged castle and die on its ramparts if I must, for love of elfgame and the reviewing-gods, to ensure it is judged as it must be judged. Let’s dig in.
Dead God Excavation is a weird experimental 10-page adventure by Venger Satanis for Crimson Dragon Slayer (but compatible with OSR you know the drill yadda yadda) and signals a departure from the more traditional dungeon and hexcrawls into more modern territory. That means there will be no Tenfootpoles, no Secret doors, no Maps, no Random encounters, no Vaccine, and No Lieutenant Yarr! Instead it starts as a linear adventure that ends with a location or object that has a variety of ways it can be interacted with. Where my review diverges from established canon is that Venger has intended it as a sort of session zero (as he mentions in the introduction) to kick off a potential campaign, and I will be reviewing it in that light.
DGE takes place in the ancient kingdom of Voss’th Ekk, a decadent realm of great age, wealth and littered with buried antiquity. A great earthquake reveals a tomb from an age before man. Enter the PCs.
A series of rumor tables are provided to give a little color to the city and provide the PCs with quick and dirty motivations which are serviceable but not overly inspired. I liked the little details the rumors gave to bring Voss’th Ekk and the unfortunately named City of Flush Petals to life. “The city of flush petals is so rich even poor travels are given wine at the gates.” “A new constellation has appeared in the sky.” Those are good hooks, bringing the place to life. The motivations for visiting the damn tomb are too standard, I think part of the problem is that Lovecraft is so overexposed that one need only mention his name to conjure forth from thin air the suitable character motivations for a lovecraftian DnD adventure. In fact I will give you 30 seconds to come up with some yourself. Are you ready?
A) Visiting Archeologist. B) Cultist pursuing rumors of Great Old Ones C) Out of Cash and looking for work, D) Visiting astrologists E) Barbarian
Did you get any of them right? Here are some more I made up as I typed this.
A) Lured by strange dreams or visions. B) Pursuing rumors of evil sorcerer ancestor C) Pursuing eldritch calling after reaching 18th year of age (see A) D) treasure map on ancient starfish-icon.
These motivations serve but they are too standard. Adding specificity would have helped immensely. The problem with using Lovecraft and only Lovecraft is that its overexposure means it has evolved into what is essentially a stereotype. I talked about this in my review of Fish Fuckers, where I concluded that doing ironic Lovecraft is perfectly legitimate at this point since the tropes are so well known they are almost clichés. The indescribable has become mundane. The irony is that if you want to do proper Lovecraft it is almost impossible to use anything FROM Lovecraft, just the concepts behind it. The unknowable. The eldritch.
Anyway, the Tomb has appeared in the land of Hob’s Crossing, a desolate region long considered cursed by the local peasantry. You get another d4 reasons why the adventurers actually GO to Hob’s crossing, which are again serviceable but unremarkable. Notice the commotion around the tomb, wanting to trade in the city, hired to investigate by nobles or overheard cultists talking of buried artifact (that last one is alright).
The Adventure proper begins with a bit of tussling with some vaguely-vancian bat-creatures (grok-nods) feeding off the side of the road. This one should have gotten in some foreshadowing. If you are going to do an adventure with so few encounters every piece should contribute significantly. This section is labelled SIGNS and PORTENTS and notes the demons mostly come out at night but the tomb has disturbed them into attacking by day. That’s too subtle. This could have been better if;
A) The creatures would have been long thought extinct [foreshadows great age of tomb]
B) The creatures are not normally aggressive [foreshadows corruptive/unnatural nature of tomb]
C) The creatures had carried some sort of artifact belonging to the culture that made the tomb [both]
Or something. Creepy visuals alone must augment a deeper sense of anticipation and dread.
A collection of NPCs has gathered around the tomb, overseeing the excavation. The first thing I noticed is that they do not have statts while some are clearly meant to enter the tomb and participate in the adventure. That’s bullshit. The NPCs are described in terms of appearance, allegiance and atavistic motivation (i.e greed, boredom etc. etc.) and some are actually secret Great Old One worshippers, which is a great little addition. There are two brothers, both sorcerers, one really evil and one good and carrying what is essentially the Necronomicon (the Al Azif hahaaah, take a drink!). The NPCs are pretty colorful, but the problem here is specificity again. Let me give you an example:
He is here to make sure a potential business opportunity is not lost and will engage with the party if he believes there is some new angle he can leverage.
Too vague. This needed about one additional degree of specificity. Let me show you what I mean by specificity by adding a degree.
He is here to obtain relics from the tomb for his wealthy patrons and will attempt to bribe (500 gp) or cajole the PCs into obtaining an artifact or him.
In contrast, this is what happens when we remove a degree.
He is here to do business and will engage with people to see that business is done.
As written, the NPCs are nice but its not really clear what we are meant to do with them. I assume everyone will attempt to go inside but this needed to be articulated better. Do more work.
The first good bit comes next. The gigantic tomb is sealed off with a door of iron and can only be opened by spilling blood on its doors by midnight (awesome). You can glean this fact from the Al Azif (awesome). Touching the Doorway bombards with all sorts of messed up sensory impressions e.g nauseau, temporal distortion, whispers (awesome). Korvex the Sage somehow has not figured out how to open the tomb, complains of a migraine and wanders off, leaving his super rare book for the PCs to find and flip through (FUCKING RETARDED). That is an unacceptable level of stupid in my book. Dead God Excavation keeps making the right noises but it somehow bungles up the lyrics. This needed, again, more thinking-through.
The expedition proper begins with the asshole Zirnakanen, dick Sorcerer who seeks to raise whatever horror slumbers within the 500.000 year old tomb. He tries some sort of ruse and if that fails will attempt to ally with the PCs to enter the tomb, only to betray them in the end. If his ruse is successful he will open the tomb himself (HUMAN SACRIFICE) and and go inside first, otherwise everyone goes in like you are watching a sequel to Alien or something. I think that’s what Venger was thinking off when he wrote this; a classic set-up where everyone goes into the tomb, environment picks off a few, revelation of the horror, monsters pick off some dudes, ethical dilemma -> part of the team actually traitors. As it is, the Sorcerer is a bit too obviously evil but his henchman is not so the dramatic reveal should work out.
An exhalation of gas escapes. It sounds almost as if the antediluvian air were whispering to those near the entrance. It smells of decay and corruption, and there is an undercurrent of some wet, almost sweet, fungal stench, as well.
Writing is too flowery but gets the point across. Half points. The tomb is essentially a corridor of indeterminate size followed by a single room. Its actual size and shape is undefined, but this might be intentional (a noneuclidean space perhaps). Anyone inside the tomb takes damage from Acid unless you devise a means of protection (that’s cool! environmental hazards that must be bypassed are cool!) and suffers random reality distorting effects every 15 minutes of exploration. The environmental effects are pretty hard and outline the fucked up nature of the tomb. Creeping Red Death Mist siples into your lungs, screaming faces appear in the air, tentacles (take a drink) erupt from the floor and attempt to drag you down. It’s dangerous but there is no save or die bullshit, as long as other characters are nearby they can rid a character of the Crimson Mist or prevent a character from being pulled under. Characters can opt to search for weird stones that “allow sorcerers to communicate with entities from other worlds” but no statts or gp value is provided. Its like half a push-your-luck mechanic. Follow through.
The big reveal of the Old One Q’UAVAZHROOMTH HOOREKNA, lying dead but dreaming inside an impossibly large space is an awesome image, complete with a mad flutist creature discordantly thrumming away and is one of the strongest atmospheric bits of the adventure. The big problem is that the information is conveyed in a manner that makes it tedious to tease out significant details. The order the information is presented in is inefficient. Why is the mad flutist creature not given some minor statts (i.e give it 1 hit point and make sure it is always there if the PCs return after disposing of it).
So what does the room actually contain and more importantly CAN IT START OFF THE CAMPAIGN? Fucking around with the Dead God gets you killed (save or die), and if your PCs are understandably hesitant an NPC gets to take the bait, petrify and explode. There is treasure in the form of weird, life-draining face-hugger whip of obscene potency, monsters in the form of hatchling spawn of the great old one, eldritch runes that contain a flesh-twisting spell and the salts of the Ancient High Priest Ix’athog Naar. The idea seems to be that once you open up the Tomb you must now figure out what to do with the damned thing lest
Q’UAVAZHROOMTH HOOREKNABetty stirs and brings a new age of eldritch darkness to the kingdom of Voss’Thekk. Again, the salts of the ancient Sorcerer is a CLASSIC but it is not FOLLOWED THROUGH with any sort of agenda, mechanical support and so on. C’mon man.
I think I could have overlooked many of the flaws of DGE if this segment had been executed properly. The adventure is reticent about the effect of reburying the tomb or means of putting the God back to sleep, stating only that it “requires the sacrifice of a hero” and there is a hint of it in the Al Azif. The threat is poorly defined and the resolution is too open.
Ideas for follow up adventures are given but they are so standard I am not getting into it. On paper I should be loving this and I am not. The follow up feels like it was aiming for mediocre. Mega-dungeon under the tomb, explorers/cultists come to check shit out, ritual to awaken god in the Al Azif, corruption seeps out of the tomb requiring ritual cleansing (I like that one), Hatchlings break loose and increase in size. This is all so STANDARD. DEFINE. CARVE FROM THE AMORPHOUS OOZE OF ACCRETED FANTASY POPCULTURE A MONUMENT WORTHY OF OUR ADORATION. DO NOT BORE US WITH THESE PALTRY OFFERINGS OF RAW MATERIALS.
In order for this thing to work as a session zero it needed the following ingredients. It needed a good premise, it has it. It then needed to seed the initial adventure with a plethora of NPCs, hooks and opportunities to get the game rolling. It tried but it doesn’t follow through. The wizard salts and the NPCs represents a missed opportunity and the hooks for follow up adventure do not intrigue. They are functional but they do not inspire or in any way transcend the base clay they are sculpted from. The tragedy of Dead God Excavation is that as written, Q’UAVAZHROOMTH HOOREKNA will most likely remain in the ground, dead and soon forgotten.
Did you think I would be lenient? I am born of Harrow-Kings. My nursery rhymes were funeral dirges and executioner’s hymns. My anthem is the lamentations of martyrs and the keening of widows. I bear the skulls of philosophers and poets upon my gilded mail. I am a Reaper of the Hobby. Ruin-maker. Skull-taker. A hundred elfgames and more have passed before my blade. Yours I find wanting.
Venger As’nas Satanis, I sentence you for the crime of letting carelessness and sloth spoil the fruit of the gods. For the crime of crawling when you should have walked. For forgetting the lessons of the past.
For the crime of being Human.
When we should have been Gods.
3.5 out of 10.