Halls of the Blood King (2021)
Diogo Noguiera (Necrotic Gnome)
Lvl 3 – 5
A new power is rising in the west. The promising Gavin Norman, of deserved Dolmenwood fame, has taken the OSR by storm with his slick, immaculately laid out B/X retroclone marketed to the young and this is the year of his Rising. People have recommended Halls of the Blood King, a Best by tenfootpole, as a target for further reviewing, and what luck, for all the goodness that I had been exposed to had started to thaw my ice-bound heart and dull the blade of the headsman’s axe with all the power of DnD at its most ambitious and wonderful. It is therefore with great joy I can impart to you that Halls of the Blood King is the best adventure that I have ever almost given a negative rating and all who would contest me I will face in single combat.
But how can this be? One asks, as one peruses its gorgeous and colorful art, lays eyes on its obsessively bulletpointed format, nods approvingly at its high concept, the lack of lengthy paragraphs of text and use of multiple factions. The USEABILITÉ, one exclaims. Bryce’s standards are made manifest. But the body has been left without a spirit that animates it. Is Bryce now staring outside the window, gazing contemplatively in his glass of pinot noir, muttering “I have become death, destroyer of worlds?” as he sees the terrible new machine world his innovations have created?
I am often harsh. Skerples’s tomb thing. Two stars. The Dungeon Age adventures? Three stars. High Moors? Fucking three stars (I expect to remedy that one) I gave Veins of the Earth the same rating as the humble Dusty Door by Shane Ward. This is because the measure of the thing is in the sum of its parts, and all great and humble alike, tread in the footsteps of giants. If you want to touch the sun you had better bring wings of adamant. I bring this up because anyone who claims that Halls of the Blood King is bad is off his rocker. It’s polished, eminently useful, creative, colorful and probably fun but it is emblematic of everything I dislike about the new direction of the OSR so it will have to serve as its Emmanuel Goldstein and be martyred for the sins of an entire hobby.
I begin. The concept is good, reminiscent of latter day Castlevania. The King of all Vampires (in the universe!) visits this world every century for a single night in his plane-hopping castle, to have all the vampires of the world reaffirm their loyalty and pay him blood-taxes. It stays on this plane for a single night, and you are there to do various things, maybe steal, maybe rescue someone, kind of up to you. Fantastic premise for something to terrify the shit out of your players after the Giants have been driven into the mountains, the Underdark has been colonized and all the gnomes have been exterminated. And then you see the level. 3-5? What is going on here?
Scale is the first thing that the adventure gets consistently wrong. This is the Vampire Monarch of multiple worlds, and he lives in a castle that is 100 x 100 feet, with 40 rooms? He has about 20 retainers? Perhaps Chateau of the Blood King would have been more adequate? The gates of this plane-travelling bungalow are guarded by…2 3 HD footmen? Ehhhhh. To its credit, the gate does come alive and bite you if you try to come in unannounced. Climb the spiked fence? The vines animate! That is cool. You can appease them with spilled blood and get across that way. That is clever! There are many ideas in Blood King that are clever and cool, but how they operate as a unit is novice level.
This problem of scale persists throughout the rest of the adventure. There are a total of 12 guests in the manor. Corridors are 10 foot wide at best, a single stairwell 5 foot. There is a spectacular illustration of a great door with a fanged mouth, larger than a house, that belies the cramped layout. THAT is what this place should have looked like. Instead a single central hall with a series of rooms about it. It’s not linear but its very dull. This concept should have been like G1 on Acid and six hours into a metal album. Holy shit you are breaking into a Vampire King’s Palace uninvited. Fuuuuck. There are great Fanged Doors blocking entry into the hall…That’s good…oh but you can also just take the clearly visible servants stairway up to the second level. Okay I guess.
This scale problem goes for the inhabitants of the Halls also. 7 HD vampires, each one a potential death sentence for a 3-5th level party, that’s good, but Noguiera clearly wanted to give you the option to face the major players in this 40 room palace in combat so you have the blood spider queen functioning as a sort of 32 hp Lolth with 4 retainers, the King of All Vampires in the Universe has 11 HD, 55 hp, and no backup plan in case he gets attacked. Granted that is still more then enough to destroy any of the characters in single combat but I can’t help but compare this gentleman, who is supposedly so powerful he has an orrey that holds entire miniature planets and can walk all the worlds, to Strahd, and somehow Strahd comes out the winner.
There’s a good idea that CAN work, a Vampire hunter has infiltrated the palace and has started drinking the blood of a captured vampire (won’t he turn to gaseous shape? Oh apparently chains soaked in holy water would keep him. But doesn’t she run out of holy water?) but she has made her lair in a barricaded room…of a lively 40 room castle. Marvelous. You can see this work in a larger place, with entire floors that have gone decrepit as their ageing lord no longer cares or even forgets whole wings of the place…but this is a lively place that sees visitors paying tribute every other day (I assume? The Palace only stays for one night).
From the descriptions of the garden and the palace, with its blood-drinking carpets with the textures of tongues and its inscriptions of terrible slaughter you get the idea of constant menace, but Halls of the Blood King is actually far too easy and friendly. You enter without an invitation. SHIT SHIT SHIT. Then comes the good design; you can search the coats in the vestibule and find a spare invitation. Awesome. What is the result if you fuck up? 1d6+1 3 HD guards arrive…and that’s it. Oh. Sleep spell. Kill. Take uniforms. Whats next?
There’s a lot of interactivity where something clever can help your chances but I seldom feel that the adventure punishes you if you do something stupid. Treasure is abundant and placed in fairly obvious places, with some complex items like a piano or scraping off the gold on a throne providing some challenges to would-be pilferers but I kept waiting for a vicious trap that never came. A sliding book-closet with spikes to protect a library with volumes worth several thousands, including a fucking spellbook (with a drawback of draining hp, granted). There’s a book on how a vampire may remove his heart and be immune to stakes and fire…and then notes that the King might have done this so as to remove any chance the players fail to graps this clue. His heart is hidden BUT AGAIN NOT GUARDED AND NO TRAP. IF YOU FIGURE OUT WHERE IT IS YOU COULD LITERALLY WALK UP THE STAIRS, PICK THE LOCK AND FUCKING STAKE IT. The key to the damn thing is literally unguarded in somebody’s coat. The dungeon, ah yes, perhaps if I outsmart the guards there are some prisoners I could…there are no guards? How can you keep a vampire in his cell if he can turn to gaseous form? This is the only prisoner?
Everyone who is not a blood thrall seems pretty chill and mostly uninterested in fighting you. We all love faction play, and there’s a way to do it properly. OH HELLO YOU HAVE FOUND US PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE TO JOIN OUR SECRET ALLIANCE AGAINST THE KING? Says the kings’s daughter. AHA, THANK YOU FOR FREEING ME, YOU SEE I WAS JUST PLOTTING AGAINST THE KING, WOULD YOU PERHAPS LIKE TO JOIN ME IN ONE? Says the void fungus-infected prisoner. THANK GOODNESS YOU ARE HERE, I WAS PLANNING ON KILLING THE KING, says the Vampire Hunter. THANK YOU FOR FREEING ME, I SHALL SERVE YOU LOYALLY IN EXCHANGE FOR MY LIFE says the Vampire prisoner of the Vampire Hunter. IT IS INDEED FORTUNATE THAT YOU CAME DOWN HERE INTO MY LAIR, AS I AM LOOKING FOR CATSPAWS TO PLOT AGAINST THE KING, says the Blood Spider Queen, who inexplicably has a lair in this 40 room house, despite feeding on vampires. There’s some cute stuff, like a guy who is actually the mortality of the king trapped in the mirror, and you can use the mirror against him, or a banshee noble lamenting the loss of her son, and if you find him she can become mortal again. That’s great stuff, if you dose it properly. But this is not how you do faction play.
Good Faction play is like The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. You have some guys, they don’t like you, they don’t like eachother and while the PCs are preparing to throw flasks of burning lamp oil over them, one of the PCs goes like WAITAMINUTE, LET’S TALK INSTEAD, MAYBE THERE IS SOMETHING WE BOTH WANT. And then you slowly figure out what each side wants, with the PCs switching sides occasionally, since both factions (or more!) probably want to kill the PCs the second they outlive their usefulness. None of that tension, of violence waiting to happen, of shifting alliances, is really here. I’d figure if the King has been around for a while he probably fends off this sort of shit every day. The Blood Queen is the only creature that has the decency to at least betray the PCs to the King if they disclose to her that that’s what they are after.
The format is almost perfectly utilitarian and reminds me of the description of pop-music compiled by computers from Orwell’s 1984.
East Guest Room
Ransacked (everything’s scattered on the floor). Blood stains (mortal). Signs of battle (Seleana attacked a vampire guest). Bed, closet and dresser (damaged).
Made of dark wood (lighter than it appears, drawers lined with teeth). Fine garments hanging from the drawers (Seleana was seeking something).
▶ Search the garments: If not taken out of the drawers carefully before searching, requires a DEX check not to cut themselves on the dresser’s teeth, suffering 1d4 damage. Examining every piece carefully uncovers a small silver key with an old noble family’s crest—just like the Blood King’s brooch (opens the Observatorium’s sun [Area 34])—and a hand-crafted ivory comb (250gp).
Not a word wasted, easy to find and easy to read. But something is missing? This is almost sub-literate, a step away from using emoji’s and pictographs to describe rooms.
There’s good stuff. It’s a very colorful adventure, and the descriptions of rotted roses that are restored to blooming vitality after drinking blood are cool, animating blood in a golden bathtub is cool, the idea that thralls regain their senses if they fail a morale save is incredible but a good idea, and all the monsters are atmospheric. Vampire guests from alien worlds, the possibilities that that opens up are immense, and yet each of these is reduced to a single motivation and oddity. Treasure is delightful, a kaleidoscope of obsidian knives, hidden (say, if the PCs think of plucking some rare blood or herb and bringing it along), expensive liquors; a kaleidoscope of shiny objects. A sunbeam in a piano. Some of it is fragile or hard to carry, introducing some complications, but never TOO HARD.
The interaction with the Blood King is actually very dynamic and well done, and it works well with the way the adventure has been designed, as more of a location to explore then anything with a fixed mission objective. That I very much appreciate. If you bring the King a blood rose he is touched, if you perhaps draw the link between him and the bashee lady in the guest room that he never talks to he might even grant you a wish, otherwise he is disdainful and bored and will summon guards to dispatch the Pcs. That kind of rings true, and his treasure, an elixir of life and a crown with gemstones filled with blood, is a suitably tempting target.
The intent is clear: to create something memorable, light-hearted and fun without worrying overmuch about the silly premise or how it all sticks together or making it too stressfull. And that’s exactly why I don’t like it. I have lost the ability to enjoy the well-intentioned work of an OSR novice. I want BIG BOLD SWEEPING Adventures or I want something tight and immaculately crafted like a watch. This falls right between the cracks for me. Rules for dungeon-design are applied, probably by reading Bryce’s blog, but the underlying understanding, what is not communicated but implied, has not yet been absorbed. I would call it well-intentioned but naïve.
I think if this had been scaled down to just some interstellar vampire guy with his household it would have worked better. The factions…its too much for an adventure of this scale. Tone it down. Restrain it. Not everyone needs to plot against the king. Maybe have some dudes plot against eachother.
A King of Vampires, you have to imagine every fucking Vampire is basically Strahd. Then imagine the guy that controls all of them, visiting so many worlds he only stays one day per 100 years. There was a pulpy sci-fi novel about a galactic empire of Vampires by John C Wright, and the head vampire was this nightmarish lump of flesh the size of a celestial body, who held all beneath him in unbreakable psychic duress and held entire systems worth of lifeforce in its protean shape. That’s the kind of guy you start to think of when you hear Blood King. A court filled with alien vampires. The potential is limitless, undead from a distant star. One can imagine a spire carved from the last rock of some dead world of the first vampires, 10 levels deep, eclipsing the sun and animating all the dead within a 100 mile radius. But you get the crappy handheld port.
Do me a favor if you read this; If you are new to the OSR and into Castlevania or whatever, probably check it out. Are you of average intelligence, do you score high on the Openness to Experience scale, and do you have a low disgust sensitivity? None of the things that I just said will bother you in the least, you won’t notice them, you won’t have an embedded frame of reference that will disintegrate under the myriad contradictions implied by this work and you will just think AWESOME and have a good time, a better time then with some of the more hacktastic stuff around honestly. If you run long campaigns, if you are already familiar with some of the better works of the OSR, or if you are into the more restrained, classic stuff, ESPECIALLY with a higher difficulty curve, I think you will probably have the same response I had and decide how cute and then turn away in spit contemptuously.
I can’t in good conscience give this a ** when I compare it to the voluminous torrents of dross that come out of Hell’s Latrine Pits so I will settle on a very stern and fatherly ***, a single quantum away from a **. Promising creativity and a good premise, coupled with abundant utility, good treasure placement and interactivity but lacks verisimilitude and follow-through and the faction play is too much. The Utility Standard will have to be abandoned soon.
Update: Busted down to 2 stars. We can do better then Not Bad.