Grave of the Heartless (2017)
M.Greis (Greis Games)
Lvl 3 – 4
We are on a role. Greis made a bunch of adventures, almost all tombs, all of them good to excellent. Grave of the Heartless is the third installment in a nominal trilogy of adventures, set in the vaguely defined Hinterlands, where adventurers travel from The Lost Fortress into the untamed frontier, murder the shit out of humanoids, unearth ancient treasures, encounter ancient evils, and other classic D&D shit. While not as good as its predecessors, Grave of the Heartless still has a lot going on.
Grave of the Heartless takes place in a burial mound of the chieftain Teutorigos, and has the characters seeking out his shade for various reasons; to return a stolen hammer, to beseech him for aid, to find a group of youngsters that have undertaken to stay a night in the tomb and so on. This odyssey into the depths is nicely furnished with ominous rumors of heartless monstrosities, missing Hobgoblin warbands and Curses.
The main problem of Grave of the Heartless is that it is at its heart, a Pointcrawl disguised as a dungeon. It still retains some of the nonlinear exploration possibilities of its predecessors, but there is explicit mention that sound does not carry from place to place, meaning Grave does not have the same sense of interconnection, continuity and versimilitude as the previous entries. We are left with a series of interesting encounters that don’t quite make a cohesive whole.
Also, fuck the map. It’s presented as a series of hubs with keyed pathways indicating what pathway leads where, divided per level. I would have liked an n-dimensional rendering of the map so the interconnections can be seen in one eyeblink. The three-dimensional aspect is neat and props for making the map nonlinear but I think it could have been easier to read.
Everything else is handled fairly well. Grave of the Heartless is teeming with ominous and horrible imagery and effects and sets itself up very well. Dead animals with their hearts removed litter the entrance, places of ancient sorcery thrum with a murmuring heartbeat, one of the main entrances is guarded by The Heartless, almost unkillable undead that are kept at bay with fire, entrances set with skulls, places where the wall between this world and the afterlife is thin etc. etc. The atmosphere is much stronger then most Tomb maps. A lot of its elements feel less like game objects that you interact with and more like features you’d expect to encounter in a cursed tomb, it feels very natural.
There’s no random encounters but there’s a sort of toll in the form of the Heartless guarding the entrance, and the dungeon is small enough so that the lack of random encounters should prove no significant barrier to the completion of the adventure. It is almost meant to be played as a series of single encounters, each one separated from the rest causally, and healing up does not affect the lethality of the encounters to the degree that it would in larger dungeons.
For some reason I keep thinking of The Stygian Garden of Abelia Prem and I think its worthwhile to make a comparison since Grave is altogether a superior breed. Both are strong atmospheric pieces, but Stygian Garden doesn’t really do anything beyond that. Almost all straight up monster fights, some weird treasure etc. The interaction is lacklustre. Grave has shadow guardians that may be bypassed by finding and walking through a stone maze on the floor, an obelisk that cuts through everything with planes of force that transports you to a dream world where a super-technological group of elders waits for news of a clean world, rooms so impregnated with magic that your magic detecting wizard will bleed from his eyes and nose, hobgoblins with a trapped leprechaun that just want to get the fuck out etc. etc. The point is that all the encounters have something interesting going on beyond weird window dressing (Arthaus Homos take note). Sometimes the difference is all the more pronounced for the simple nature of the encounters. It’s that crucial difference between 4 Firebeetles or 16 Firebeetles covering something valuable. One is automatic engagement, take the hp loss, march on. The second is interesting, it presents a strategic obstacle that must be tackled in some way.
Treasure is sparse, which is par for the course for a Hinterlands module. Mundane treasure is decent, not boring, belt set with pearl and jade in the shape of a fox and so on, and far more importantly, magic items are unique or interesting reworks (Strength potions that exhaust you at the end of the duration, very powerful healing mushrooms that might put you in deep sleep, knives of black ice, an enchanted quiver. It’s good and totally unpretentious.
But it doesn’t have that extra oomph that Flooded Temple or Tomb of the Dragon’s Heart bring to the table. It’s just a good module with strong atmospheric components, one you can probably do in one session if you maintain good discipline and limit the amount of monthy python references you fucking nerds.