[Review] The Necropolis of Nuromen (Blueholme); Successor

[Adventure]
The Necropolis of Nuromen v1 (2015)
Justin Becker (Dreamscape Design)
Level 1

Nuromen

Necropolis of Nuromen is the expanded edition of an adventure that came out in 2013 for the Blueholme retroclone, based on the holmes basic set. It was made on the trail end of the imitative period of the OSR and thus, by and large, is a fateful imitation of the type of adventure you’d see for DnD Basic in the early 80s, minus all the warts. It is very good.

Nuromen the Necromancer was a powerful and evil magic-user who attracted a number of like-minded followers to his tower set upon a rocky knoll in the Delvingwood. Here they built a small town, known as Law’s End because it lay beyond the reach of all kings of the Realm. Nuromen took advantage of an extensive cavern network beneath his tower, expanding and fitting it out with fine stone and woodworks. This underground lair became the abode of his family and his henchmen and, according to legend, the site of terrible debaucheries, rituals and experimentation.

Unfortunately for Nuromen and his band of evil, a terrible doom befalls his tower, wiping them out. Expeditions are mounted but all suffer a terrible fate. Wood elves watch over the site. Unfortunately, the Elves are fading, goblins are moving in, and the site is once again open to exploration. Enter the PCs!

Necropolis is an enhanced version of the original Maze of Nuromen, incorporating an expanded surrounding area, as well as an extra mini-quest to be explored after the adventurers have survived the original Maze. The combination of frontier castle with a handful of staple NPCs, forsaken ruin inhabited by evil and wilderness area puts on immediately in mind of B2, and my recommendation would be to omit most of the setting detail and simply place the Maze on the site of the never described Caves of the Unknown as an additional location to explore alongside the Caves of Chaos.

The area consists of the Delvingwood, a deep and enchanted forest only navigeable by the Elfway, erected from pact between man and elf, and inhabited by bandits, warring goblins and elves and all manner of wild beasts and enchanted creatures. There’s hints of the same care being taken to establish that this is a place separate and distinct from the Lands We Know, although I feel an opportunity is missed by making the place too civilised. There’s lumberjacks taking advantage of the forest’s preternatural regeneration, caravans of merchants travelling to the far off city of Blueholme and patrols by the Lady Leikas of the Lily and her Griffons etc. etc. It feels more like a little nook of chaos surrounded by civilized lands, rather then a place beyond the Lands of Men, where what we know of the world no longer applies and I think it is the weaker for it.

There’s nothing wrong with the description of Camlann Castle, dominated by the White Tower and later expanded into a township by her ancestors. This and numerous other references are reminiscent of Lord of the Rings, the elves a combination of Tolkien and Lord Dunstany, but this gives them a fey sort of mystery that was generally absent in Basic [1]. That being said, the surrounding area does little to contribute to the adventure proper and in some cases is almost a distraction. I can’t help but feel Becker’s energies could have been better directed. There’s a rumor table for intrigue within the fortress but there’s no rumor table for the Necropolis proper, for example. Several other examples of game-relevant content like item availability, NPC retainers or treacherous assailtants that were present in B2 are also absent. The NPCs have fluff but they do not possess much in the way of potential gameplay [2].

There’s a considerable table for travel from the fortress to the Necropolis, both on and away from the Elfway. As one may readily surmise, straying from the Elfway is cruisin for a bruisin, with Owlbears, Ogres and a Cockatrice being possible encounters. Necropolis tries to add an extra layer of versimilitude by providing a maximum amount of monsters per encounter, meaning eventually the area will be depleted, though I find this superfluous. If random encounters take place in a fixed notation any fatalities can be subtracted from possible room inhabitants until the total is zero, and for open areas we can assume the size of the location means the number of inhabitants is either unique (as in the case of the Cockatrice here) or unlimited. It’s all about versimilitude. Why have five Owlbears but not six etc?

The encounters proper are described but more in terms of context then any actions they might be taking. It’s usefull but it could do a little more to make them come alive. Sometimes Nuromen gets it perfectly:

This young dragon is wandering the forest in search of a suitable home, and is considering Law’s End. It tends to avoid fights.

Voila. Motivation, Activity—> Done!

And sometimes it does not:

A few bugbears have come to the woods with the goblins, but they are not really affiliated with them and are far more aggressive.

A subquest in the form of a party of elven travellers searching the crown of their prince, betrayed by the evil Nuromen, adds more spice to the mixture.

The Dungeon proper is excellent, coming across like a lost episode of B/X without ever feeling like a tired rehash. Language is evocative without being flowery or self-indulgent. It feels like a place that is worthy of exploration.

The Necropolis of Nuromen is a marvel of engineering. Carved from the natural limestone caverns beneath his tower, the halls and corridors are grand and imposing with fantastically sculpted columns supporting high, vaulted ceilings. Nuromen had the inhabited portions dressed with stone, frescoes and wood which, in spite of the age and
neglect that have taken their toll, are still impressive in their hedonistic and decadent splendour

The entrance into the dungeon proper is properly introduced (characters must rappel down a shaft), there’s different factions exploring the dungeon at one time, making the place feel alive, there’s multiple means of exploration (including a perilous underground river that allows you to skip the entire 1st floor), secret doors in sensible locations [3], natural obstacles to overcome and multiple doors with keys. There’s a few empty rooms to give the whole some breathing space and prevent one from being overwhelmed and they are all keyed to a single description at the start of the adventure, aspiring module writers take note. On the whole, the use of naturalistic locations like barracks, pantries, a weird garden and a wizard’s laboratory are more reminiscent of B1 then B2, though the ridiculous length of some of B1’s room descriptions are fortunately avoided. There’s even an alchemy lab where the PCs are free to sample potions.

Inhabitants take sensible precautions like posting guards or setting ambushes. Goblin raiders are interspersed with vermin, the living dead and the crowning piece of the first level, two fucking Harpies in a large open hallway. I respect a module that puts in at least one encounter that will be a total shitshow if the PCs are not ready for it.

There’s also, wait for it…riddles! The ghoulish corpse of the greatest thief in the Realm guards a treasure on an island and poses a riddle or it attacks, clearly a homage to Gollum. There’s an enchanted door that will only open if you give it the password…but you can figure out the password from the surrounding area!

Necropolis rides that fine line of having classic content without coming across as entirely old hat or derivative. Mundane treasure is richly described, painted ivory dice, elven viands, a fine silver puppet belonging to Nuromen’s daughter. Enchanted weaponry, an amulet that makes you irresistible to goblins of the opposite sex, a book of worship of the Chaos God Gamosh; there’s wonder without a violation of the feel of B/X, a rare subtlety. An elven crown that if donned even once, raises the charisma of the user but will lower it in the presence of dwarves.

The final confronation with the wraith of Nuromen is likely to bust everyone’s balls, but the low hit points of the evil Nuromen make it at least technically possible to finish the dungeon with a large party. The traps and tricks guarding his hoard might claim one or two more incautious assailants as a last, spiteful stab from the evil Nuromen.

There’s a second small adventure in the back involving a band of brigands led by a disgraced noblemen hidden in a cave complex but it adds comparatively little to the adventure as a whole and may easily be committed. It lacks the richness, cleverness and variety of the Necropolis proper.

As a fan of the old stuff I can’t help but have a soft spot for 1st wave OSR. Nuromen captures the essence of B/X without copying its flaws and never once feels like an old hat.  It demonstrates yet again that the essence of Dnd is as viable now as it was thirty years ago. A rare treat that may be seamlessly slotted into one’s Mystara campaign without a missed beat. ****

UPDATE: After careful consideration, I have decided to bust it down to a high ***. B9 kids, not even once!

[1] I would direct the jury to Dungeon #1 ‘The Elven home’, where elves are essentially hippies living a degenerate, hedonistic existence of hot mineral springs and carefree frolicking that is risible to the upright, dungeon-crawling man.
[2] We need a unit of measurement for game-play potential, with a hostile monster starting out at 1 and a description of what a room once used to represent at 0.05.
[3] Secret doors in seemingly random places are a fucking waste of time and reward either luck or tedious, autistic dungeoncrawling. Secret doors whose existence may be gleaned from careful mapping, contextual cues or cryptic hints are welcome indeed!


8 thoughts on “[Review] The Necropolis of Nuromen (Blueholme); Successor

  1. The use of Harry Clarke illustrations elevate this module. They turn what would have been a workmanlike, generic product into something atmospheric and eerie. It’s a good example of how to use public domain art if you’re a broke-ass indie RPG writer.

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  2. Interesting. I reviewed Maze of Nuromen many years ago ( https://beyondfomalhaut.blogspot.com/2016/08/review-maze-of-nuromen.html — reposted from TheRPGSite) , and found it fairly generic and paint-by-the-numbers, except the wonderful art, which seemed disconnected from the module text. Since both you and Bryce have spoken favourably of the present version, I am starting to wonder if
    a) I have missed something essential;
    b) the module has been improved substantially in the update.

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  3. [ZoZ]
    While I disagree with your conclusion, I find your premise fascinating and accurate. The art elevates the material and supports its very strong thematic premise and the at times archaic english that predominates the module.

    [Melan (and ZoZ)]
    I have concocted a theory that I believe will reconcile the competing worldviews with only minimum loss of face to myself, and with both of you recognizing me as the One True King of the OSR, or else suffer an eternity of dolorous wretchedness in the accursed Pit of Despair (Maastricht).

    B) I have compared both versions, the dungeons are identical.

    So my theory is essentially that my palette has been ruined by multiple months of garbage. The last thing that I rated above *** was B5 Horror on the Hill, essentially a no brainer when it comes to how good it is. After that I had to make due with occasionally satisfactory modules interspersed with crap, Kelvin Green, Elves and the nadir of the B series. I was thrilled to find something that was classic, good, clean wholesome fun.

    Your criticism of Nuromen boils down to it not doing anything new, which is…mostly accurate. However, one may observe the care and consideration that has been put into arranging the different encounters, the evocative use of language, the eerie faery tale atmosphere, the talking door: “Nuromen! Nuromen! Strangers have breached thy Maze!”, the wraith Nuroman and the tragic element of his love for his daughter, riddling ghoul, the animating skeletal arm with the rusting sword, the effective use of magic tomes and cursed objects, the quality of the map and so on and so forth, and observe that it applies said elements in a way that makes for an above average dungeon.

    So if I would be pressed at gunpoint to say Nuromen is good I would do so. It’s got a good premise, the difficulty is a little on the brutal side for a first level adventure and there’s plenty of that elusive vanilla DnD flavor without it coming across as boring.

    However, I’ll give both of you credit in that having weighed the argument in my head I don’t think its as good as anything else I have rated ****. Is this on par with B1, B4, Shadows of Evil, Pinnacle or The Inn of Lost Heroes? No it is not. It is, however, in the same ballpark as Beastmaker Mountain, Shadowbrook Manor, or some of the other homage modules. I’m busting it down to *** accordingly.

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    1. I think three stars is well judged. Interesting point about finding secret doors/rooms by deduction rather than having a lucky elf along or a team of forensic examiners proceeding at a snail’s pace. I can’t think of many examples in published modules. Maybe R1 To the Aid of Falx/I12 Egg of the Phoenix in which you are trying to find the vampire lair where some potions of silver dragon control are present: there are other, easier to find potions, then you can use locate object and triangulation to get a fix. I’m sure someone must have used the idea from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” that the dimensions of different
      floors don’t match up, so there must be a secret room.
      It is a different matter in something like S1 Tomb of Horrors of course: you should be using every divination and detection spell known, and proceeding with extreme caution.Preferably with someone else going first.

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    2. Well, I did say this module is a good example of how to use public domain art, not a great or perfect example. Some of the art doesn’t quite match the text and some is a bit compressed, as if the layout guy took a full page illustration and shrunk it down. Nevertheless, I still say it makes The Necropolis of Nuromen much better than it would have been otherwise. A lot of contemporary fantasy art is ugly and cheap, and fantasy RPGs are a visually-driven genre. Sprinkling in some Harry Clarke helps set this one apart from the rest of homage modules.

      As a side note, The Gardens of Ynn is also illustrated with the art of Clarke, as well as a bunch of other dead guys. The art is even more discontented from the the text and the layout isn’t as good as it is in NoN, but the writing and game design are better.

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      1. I agree with you about contemporary fantasy art being, on the whole, ugly and banal. Somewhere around Planescape and Dark Sun fantasy art gave its last dying gasp and curled up and died.

        I disagree with you about Gardens of Ynn. The art direction there is coherent with the text and feel of the module to the point that I suspect the author wrote the module based on the pieces of art, instead of finding art to match the content of the book. I encourage a second glancethrough for emphasis. I’ll fully agree that Gardens is much better then Necropolis, though maybe a 10 might be on the high side, even if it does introduce what is essentially a new type of DnD adventure.

        Good observations thus far, even if I don’t always agree with your conclusions.

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  4. I’ve run this twice and both times were fun. It has its flaws, for sure. The text is a little long and obscures some details. The overview of the region is a bit incomplete or sketchy at best. However, a referee with some experience can do a lot with it and fill in the gaps without too much trouble. I like that the PCs aren’t the only active explorers in the dungeon. The entrance has goblin ropes already descending into the shaft when the PCs show up. My players turned a weaker goblin to their side and encountered a couple of young elves illicitly exploring the dungeon which helped them defeat the harpies. Lots of other good stuff: the temple of Gamosh, the secret of Brother Bryargood, Nuromen’s lab, etc.

    I also agree with everything that’s been said about the maps and the art selection. They do a lot of the heavy lifting. Just using the art as a cue you can easily extemporize the dressings of any of the rooms – burgundy velvet soiled with rat droppings or unburnished brass goblets stained with wine circles. The whole place feels like ‘72-era Roxy Music and the characters from the Master and the Margarita had some decadent eldritch orgy that blew up and the PCs are exploring the remains of the morning after a century later.

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