The Carcass of Hope
Lvl 3 – 4
An affluent family crypt turned defunct in the idyllic town of Hope that was destroyed. In those crypts, riches are buried with the dead tempt adventurers. As the evils that have made the ruins of Hope its home, a cult has turned its eye toward the crypt and the powerful artifact hidden within
With these weird, almost bot-like cadences Zherbus heralds in what is certainly the most ambitious entry to date. A mausoleum, a ruined tower, a cult lair, a lizardmen temple and the surrounding environs. The whole is accompanied by vaguely eerie AI-generated art. Will it be enough to grant him victory? Let’s find out!
This solidly intermediate adventure is centered around the crypt of the Mirthmane family and its possession of an artifact, the Penumbra Mirror, which has the power to transform those who pass through it and emerge into another place into Vampires, should they survive, appearing as ‘inky lashing clouds with a singular red eye.’ The writing is weird and this thing could have used another pass at editing, but there is something enigmatic and vaguely sinister about everything, difficult to articulate, like something out of Vampire Hunter D or The Black Company. There are some good names and intriguing concepts. An Inn called the Hissing Bass. The one-eyed hairless magician Evuxon. The Cult of Desir, seeking to bring about the resurrection of their Dead God. One of the hooks involves a company of Royal Soldiers and Spire Magi sent to exterminate the harpy and goblin infested mausoleum, so the characters have to plunder it before
There’s rumors, each one accompanied by the description of a weird tavern patron, and far more importantly, a description of each. The inclusion of a stable of retainers is appreciated, even if most of them are simply described as 1st level fighters.
Tib – middle aged man, scrawny, floppy brimmed hat
There is a cabin in the Mist Oak that one can only find when lost.
Cryptic and alluring, if vaguely dyslexic at times. The town is not given a map (at 5 locations, this is hardly neccessary), and I like it that some locations do not have a clear purpose, but are added for color.
Despite appearances to the contrary, the overland portion is not quite a hexcrawl, lacking random encounters or the type of scattered wilderness encounters that characterize this mode of play. Instead it functions as connective tissue, doing the job reasonably well. Approaching some of the areas can trigger encounters with their inhabitants, and perhaps more importantly, some of the encounters, like fucking around in the location of the Vampire can trigger ‘his Hunt’ and he now appears on the random encounter table of the Mausoleum darkest dungeon style.
Mausoleum proper is ambitious. The Cemetary has random tombs (random tomb generation tables below), there’s a SINKHOLE filled with fucking harpies and a CAVE to enter in case the Adventurers are feeling, well, adventurous, and if not there is always the main entrance. Good map! Notice secret doors (one of which may be gleaned from the harpies if one happens to speak the Harpy tongue), notice also strange sealed doors, which may be opened by a Mirthmane Family Broach, meaning the adventurers get to experience that actual dungeon crawling feeling of encountering a door, then being unable to open it, and then having to backtrack later to see if perhaps they can now. There’s interesting use of cramped tunnels too, and being able to walk through the shallow river is interesting.
Encounters proper are…decent. It depends on whether or not you like Barrowmaze. A tonne of rooms are just Sarcophagi or coffins, with either animating undead or animating statues, maybe some traps, and then treasure, sometimes random too, repeat. There’s a few curveballs here and there, a hallway with webs and spiders + spider eggs, the aforementioned goblin and harpy inhabitants at the fringes, a dash of the weird, but the staple food is skeletons, wraiths, ghouls, coffer corpses, caryatid columns, stone guardians, ghouls and so on and so forth, with the odd mummy or crypt thing as variety. It’s all prettily decorated with prose, lovingly bedecked with treasure but also a bit monotonous.
There’s a few touches of ‘le weird.’ Murals that become more animate as characters inhabit the room, seemingly beneficial, until a Troll steps from the walls and attacks. Nice! A child’s crypt with a single ball rolling forward of its own accord. An enchanted gemstone that creates a cloud of darkness in a room covered with yellow mould. Ouch! The hidden crypt of Mirthmane’s lover, and of course the ghost woman can be reminded of her lover. And the Penumbral mirror, easy to destroy, but dangerous, unleashing terrible destructive power if smashed…but there is a chance it will break if passed through…and there are cultists in the tombs seeking its power. And then there are several rooms in the inner sanctum part that will call the Vampire Derec, putting him on the random encounter table, until the PCs finally come face to face with the abomination.
Treasure is pretty good. Note a concealed vault that is difficult to find and enter, containing a king’s ransom. Not really much in the way of concealed treasure, or stuff that is hard to carry off, or disguised or whatever. Overall amounts are in the 100s, rarely above 1000s, delivered piecemail, but together with the magic items should add up to a considerable sum if the PCs loot through the tomb. Magical items and little dewdrops of treasure are scattered throughout the 20+ sarcophagi and everything is given a bit of description, maybe it needs ONE step more. I’ll give you an example.
Under the dwarven skeleton: 1 gold bar worth 500gp, 11 gp, 50 silver, some loose lockpicks, a shortsword
+2 which will need new hilt wrappings, and the remains of a crossbow
Stone pews sit before a raised altar where memorial services were held. A skeletal brown-robed form lounges lazily on the altar. A once expensive rug lines the middle of the room, now worn and moth-eaten. Gem encrusted goblets and a jeweled rod sit to either side of him
The sarcophagus itself is extremely thick with a 400 lb stone and iron reinforced lid. Inside, the skeletal
remains of a silver gowned woman. On her left hand are 3 rings. One is her thin platinum wedding band,
with three inset diamonds, worth 2300gp. One is a signet ring of Mirthmane which functions the same as
the brooch but is not consumed when opening one of the four sealed doors, worth 1300gp. The last is a Ring of Warmth.
I feel boasting the resolution by ONE notch would make these descriptions really good. As is they are clean but they have no…distinctive style, but not quite generic or boring either, you get the idea there is depth and imagination behind this. It comes across as stark. Am I reading the Gene Wolfe of module prose?
I give people shit for making stunt dungeons with nothing but high concept goofy stuff but this is probably what the mausoleum, for all its merits, kind of lacks. I am looking for some sort of higher level organization, the broaches and the Vampire come close but aren’t quite it. The mirror having no beneficial power and being purely an artifact of evil is kind of fitting, and I dig the little table of encounters with villagers in the all but abandoned Gothidge manor if players pass through.
Or perhaps it is simply coy and I am reading over it. There is a timeline of events but as written it is not really neccessary, the details can just be inferred, and the precise resolution of the events do not interact with the adventure, save in one point, where mentioning Mirthmane’s name to the lady ghost can give her pause. There is a note on the vampire and the lady re-uniting but there is no resolution. Once again, are you just being coy?
Also has an Otyugh in a pit trying to pull people through the bars and breaking free, fed on offal by the fearful goblins. Yeahhhhh.
The random side-crypts are fine as a sort of extra dungeon dressing, with a decent balance between risk and reward. The other side areas are interesting too.
The Tower of Vuul is a nasty little side jaunt, containing a Gibbering Mouther, a fucking Mimic (shaped like a bird bath, well played), 3 Gryphs, weird six-legged ravens that lay eggs in you like wasps and there is an ancient bell at the top. Dare you ring it? Even if the mausoleum is too much tomb robbing for a mortal man, the Tower of Vuul is a delightful little side jaunt that could easily be ported in anyone’s hexcrawl. Very nice.
C5 – In this room sits two chairs made of human femurs on either
side of the room. A simple stone slab rests in the center, with a
long extinguished candelabra topping it at the head of a decayed
corpse, fully in visored helm and dull black plate mail armor. He
clasps a great rusted sword with both hands. This is the armor of
former champion of Ka’arg’ak, Desir Malom, but this is not his
body. The plate mail is +1.
The most fascinating entry, all the more fascinating for its near total absence from the mausoleum proper, the Cult of Desir is a group of desperate fanatics, led by the evil cleric of a goddess of deception that is just using them for his own evil goals, and trailing a band of fanatics with mouths sewn shut. I appreciate giving them a dungeon complex though attaching a cave to it is a bit…contrived? Anyway, this one kind of reminds me of the Dungeon in Spears of the Northmen, in a good way and is much stronger atmospherically. So it’s sacrifical altars that must be given blood to open doors, chairs of human femurs, a giant crab rising from the lake encrusted with gems and the rotting corpse of a deity, attended by tonnes of giant frogs. This section knocks it out of the park, somehow, and it doesn’t even do the set pieces, fancy mapping bullshit or the buildup that well, it’s just a gnarly location with some cool magic shit, inhabited by weirdos. Atmosphere and just a taste of magic treasure goes a long way.
Also a lizardmen ziggurat you can murder, as a treat, or can work together with to kill other people, as another treat.
Carcass of Hope is a laudably ambitious jaunt with some trailing ends. The main course is good, has some fascinating elements but is a bit samey with its cornucopia of tombs to break open and undead/statues to smash, the side-dishes are all delicious and there is something about it that sets it aside from generic boiler plate fantasy. It’s not incoherent, but it is strange, some sort of nu-grimdark aesthethic that I don’t quite get but that I like the taste of. It would probably play pretty well too, and good for multiple scenarios. A serious contender, different from the TSR aesthethic or even the normal S&S aesthetic, but not to be trifled with. I salute you.