Evil Ruins (1983)
Stephen R. Bourne (Mayfair Games)
Levels 2 – 5
Once more it is that destined time, when the bluejays sing like royal clarions and the sun rises forth like the Aegis of Zeus itself. A time of renewal, of baptism, of hope. A time of laughter, rebirth and fine omens. What better occasion for the regard of adventures from bygone eras?
Evil Ruins is a Role Aids adventure for DnD and is the second shakespearean pseudo-historical adventure by Stephen R. Bourne, preceding the dismal Throne of Evil. Where Throne of Evil is a banal exercise in railroading, tedious pettifoggery, dull straightforward melees and an asinine conclusion, Evil Ruins is an overwritten dungeon with a senselessly tacked on mystery plot, occasionally showing some promise before smothering it under mountains of confusing dungeon descriptions. While an overal superior effort to Throne of Evil, Evil Ruins is long-winded, poorly organized, tedious and dull.
Evil Ruins takes place in the irritating pseudo-historical realm of England, at the ruins of Castle Tintagel, said to be the original site of King Arthur’s Castle. For centuries the place has been a thorn in the side of the local Duke, who is all too happy to have a local religious order hire the adventurers to deal with the situation. Observe how the writing has one extra superfluous link in the chain from quest to player, an approach that would repeat itself time and again. The Religious Order, represented by a premade PC by the name of Manuel the Strong , hires the PCs to rid the world of Tintagel’s evil, and even throws in a potion of Extra Healing per PC! What uncharacteristic generosity!
One would consider the matter closed and thus the adventure ready to commence, but Evil Ruins has barely finished with the opening Act. “A Long Time Ago,” it states. What follows is a long-winded Shakespearean tragedy in the manner of Macbeth, where the Good lord of Tintagel is cuckolded by his trusted friend, and thus two sons are born, but one is not the King’s true child. Intrigue follows: The evil Godwin convinces his own (unwitting) son Cedrick to slay King Leefrick and take his throne when his son Ethelwaine is away to distant shores. Then more blackhearted tragedy follows as Ethelwaine is cruelly murdered upon his return to the castle. Now Cedric is king, but he suspects Godwin and has him killed, only to learn he has unwittingly slain his true father (again!). A curse falls upon the land and black clouds gather. Bereft of Godwin’s military skill, vikings raid heedlessly and the west provinces revolt and Tintagel is haunted by what Cedric suspects is the ghost of his half-brother.
With his kingdom crumbling to nothing around him and fearing himself beyond all redemption, Cedric figures the only sensible thing to do is to covert to the worship of Arawn, hideous god of Death, and teach his children to follow in his footsteps for fear of falling into hell. 10 generations of men follow in his footsteps. Damn.
Did you get all that? 2 Pages of Backstory to get to the damn dungeon. While figuring out the story is supposedly the objective of the damn thing the hints leading up to this are obtuse to the point of autism. I challenge any prospective dungeon designers to conceive of the following; If you conceive of some mystery the party must discover whilst in the process of exploring the dungeon, don’t write out the backstory in the beginning of the book. Just put the clues in the rooms and have your playtesters read through it. Could they figure out what was going on? No? THEN YOUR PLAYERS WILL ALSO NOT BE ABLE TO DO SO AS THE EVANESCENT MEDIUM OF VERBAL INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING NECESSARILY PREDICATES A GREATER SIGNAL-TO-NOISE RATIO YOU SHIT-EATING MOTHERFUCKERS.
The party starts out with the same three rumors, but to their credit they are at least tantalizing; unearthly wailing coming from the castle, rumors of immortal brothers waging a war within its ruined environs and rumours of a buried Viking treasure should excite and beckon forward. The players meet at an inn, get their shit, and are now ready to move out.
The first hurdle is getting to the castle, and is handled rather admirably. The Castle is surrounded by tens of miles of neigh impenetrable wilderness, and cliffs ravaged by cruel waves on the seaside. Travel by sea is all but impossible, and travel by land has a very high chance of resulting in getting lost and ending up where one started, though in the adventure’s defence, there is an opportunity to capture the hobgoblin servants of the Cleric of Arawn and force them to lead the PCs to the castle. The problem, you see, is that no one knows where exactly Tintagel is located. Asking around town reveals that only one man knows where it is…enter the Son of GM PC.
John Daleson, high level Ranger and absolute tossfiddler, is introduced in his own irritatingly nonsensical cutscene to guide the PCs through the wilderness by generally holding their hands. Total collapse of the dopamine system is narrowly averted by at least giving Daleson an ulterior motive and there is no sign of a GM shield. Being a total dick, Daleson is guiding the PCs to another ruined watchtower to take hits from an evil Wereleopard while he seeks to escape with the money. He also won’t help with the actual dungeon, won’t help with various traps encountered along the way, despite knowing how to avoid them and is best murdered in his sleep like any other GMPC to gain access to his vast treasure trove of enchanted items.
The overland section is actually not that bad. There is a good balance of atmospheric random encounters, the walking dead, bad weather, Intelligent Spiders that may be negotiated with (although they are horribly aggressive), traps and a fucking Doppelganger. The encounters proper are solid. The Spiders are looking for their spider king, a tollbridge inhabited by a troll (classic), and the watchtower proper. Its only a five room complex, but there is good use of terrain, featuring secret doors, darkness and clever use of creatures in the encounter (a Wereleopard and his Leopard pet are excellent suggestions). The reward (a statue of king Leefrick) gained from the spiders cleverly hints at the unfolding mystery. We follow it up with another clich-ssic, the characters pass through a graveyard with open plots and fight the risen dead. Thus far, this section is well done.
Evil Ruins spends some time setting up the entrance to Tintagel and is much stronger as a result. The use of classic horror tropes like a werewolf groundskeeper and an animated fountain statue of the Great God Pan spices things up and is a nice introduction to the atmosphere of the dungeon proper.
The difficulty of Evil Ruins is going to vary severely with the amount of magic weaponry in the Character’s possession. Since only Manuel the cleric is pre-made and armed with a magic weapon by default, the first floor of the dungeon might severely cripple a band of doe-eyed young troublemakers with a random encounter of 2 Gargoyles straight out of the gate.
The Dungeon proper suffers from bloat in the description. The author is very focused on telling you what rooms once were, or how the contents of each room is connected to the plot, meaning each room turns into a russian novel style description. There are some nice attempts to integrate the story into the actual gameplay by having…say, the skull of the murdered Godwin float towards a secret door if the PCs play Leefrick’s flute in his bedroom, but its so cryptic I suspect few if any PCs would figure it out. The descriptions further tick me off by describing opulent, lavish furnishings without giving any gold piece values for them, something of a cardinal sin. I was pleasantly suprised that the rooms do make good use of cross-referencing (if they refer to guards arriving from another room, it is specified what room and where their stats are located etc. etc.).
Credit where it is due, the maps avoid symmetry for the most part and are equipped with their fair share of traps, secret doors, portculli, making them useful, despite their postage-stamp size. The appearance of flows of lava on the second level defy credibility somewhat, especially considering Tintagels position near the sea and the sea caves below it, but there is a nice progression from castle corridors to subterranean caverns and the use of natural obstacles that must be circumvented/avoided through preparation or cleverness is a nice feature.
The main problem with Evil Ruins is one of mistaken priorities. It is an attempt by the author to tell a shakesperean tragedy through the rather baffling medium of the dungeon format. Atmospheric furnishings notwithstanding, most of the encounters are straightforward combat with straightforward combat, interspersed with secret doors, traps and the odd obstacle. Monsters are for the most part standard fare like zombies, venomous centipedes and monstrous humanoids. Occasional apparitions and tapestries are meant to communicate a story but understanding it is optional to the completion of the dungeon and much of it reaches the level of fluff, not even relevant to the central story of the betrayal. There is supposed to be a conflict going on between the evil spirit of Ethelwaine and the cleric of Arawn but there are little more then static indications this is occuring. We are often told that things are taking place, rather then shown that they are taking place.
There’s some nice fluff. Black pentagrams, dusty catacombs, ghouls that kill and mutiliate in the same manner that Ethelwaine was killed and mutilated, enchanted stone eyes placed atop corpses etc. I also really like one entry on the wandering monster table; 30 skeletons. Fuck yeah. When is the last time you encountered 30 fucking skeletons. You better damn well run.
There is a core to Evil Ruins that could work in theory. The use of Macbeth for inspiration is a good one, and the idea of having to figure out the mystery behind some ancient tragedy in order to complete the dungeon proper is one I have not seen (with the possible exception of The Grinding Gear, which implemented it in the most direct, forced way possible) but in the end it all comes down to the execution.
Another telling example is the lowest level, the Sea Cave, which is inhabited by various creatures like Giant Clams, Smugglers, a Giant Crab and so on. This is where the tomb of Ethelwaine is located. The spirit of Ethelwaine, horrifically mutilated, rises from its tomb, wailing like a banshee (and inflicting 3 damage per round UNLESS the PCs figure out that using the flute protects against this, AGAIN NEEDLESSLY CRYPTIC). After it is vanquished, the PCs discover a SCROLL that was teleported there by a friendly magic user that explains the fucking plot. THE WORST. This confrontation should be the crowning piece of the whole adventure, the dread revelation that causes ice to creep into the veins of prospective tomb robbers as they mouth; ETHELWAINE. AFTER ALL THESE YEARS?!? WHAT HORROR! before it descends upon them, wailing with the voice of hell, shrivelling flesh with its touch and aging men merely by the sight of him. I wanted the wraith of King Gin’yursis in buried Cil Aujas, but instead I get fucking Casper the friendly ghost.
Credit where it is due, there is some nice magical treasure, like a hammer in a rotting viking longship that can be used several times to augment a Cleric’s Spiritual Hammer spell, or enchanted eye-stones of Ice.
Pros: Some nice atmospheric description, set-pieces and encounters in the first part. Good, non-linear map. Decent treasure. Shakespeare in Dungeon?
Cons: Pointless exposition. Monotonous dungeoncrawling. Long-winded thick paragraphs of banal room descriptions. Wasted potential.
When it comes down to it, Evil Ruins is a good idea buried somewhere in a thick wad of mouldy wrapping paper. A few phrases of atmospheric window-dressing strike a distant cord in some forlorn chasm of the brain while all else is smothered with lifeless inane exposition and turgid, sluggish description, stifling any sort of momentum or impact Evil Ruins could have potentially had. After arrival in the courtyard, the adventure slows down to a crawl. While not a terrible adventure, it is a mediocre one presented in an unusually ill-conceived manner. It is best to let this ancient spirit rest undisturbed in its forgotten crypt. Read Shakespeare instead. 4 out of 10.
 Most of the Role Aids pre-mades have had something interesting, and this one is no exception. Manuel is a cleric with some dwarfish traits that virtually SCREAMS Templar, only for some reason he is described as a cleric of Zeus. This MIGHT be excusable if the adventure took place in some sort of Lyonesse-like Elder Era, when Merlin was but a spry lad, and Christ had but recently risen from the sands of distant Jerusalem. Since Evil Ruins mentions Viking Raids and thus takes place somewhere after 793 A.D., when the pagan gods of the Greeks were admired only as statues.