Today, I want to introduce all of you to a truly hidden gem of the 3.5 era, one that still ranks among my favorite anthologies and which you actually might now know about. Now some of you may know the name Morten Braten from necromancer Games' excellent "Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia"-book. What most of you won't know is that he, more or less all by himself, released an anthology/setting-book breathing the spirit of Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith etc. - all contained in Xoth Publishing's
This adventure-anthology for 3.X is 200 pages long, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial/ToC, 1 page appendix for references and bibliography, 1 useful page-appendix with 80 items miscellanea, 2 pages of SRD and 1 page back cover, leaving 193 pages for the adventure anthology. It should be noted that a whopping 42 pages of maps can be downloaded in a separate zip and don't feature in the page-count of the book. The maps range from hand-drawn to PC-generated and are useful, but not too beautiful - they serve their purpose and there are many, which is nice. I'll mention the amount of maps for each adventure separately. We also get an extra map of the World of Xoth.
The first thing you'll notice is the fitting b/w-artworks, which, while stock, serves to underline the atmosphere of the world. Layout is nice and easy-to-read two-column format and features a graphic border. Editing is surprisingly well done, I only noticed 3 glitches in the whole big book - quite a feat for Morten Braten. Who is that? Well, Morten is the author of one of my most favorite Necromancer Games-books from the 3.X days of old, Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia (AK:M for future reference), to be precise. This book introduces the World of Xoth, a savage world inspired by Clark Aston Smith, Robert E.Howard and their iconic creations, spiced up with a bit of gothic horror à la Lovecraft - we're in for Conanesque, savage, bronze-era action where wit and raw strength are matched by bearded, drug-addled and perverse sorcerors. A word to the warning - While the book is not explicit in its mentions of depraved sexuality (and personally I wasn't offended), I gather that morals in e.g. the USA might be different, thus the content is intended for mature players and readers, which is also acknowledged in a side-box on the very first page.
Before we jump into the action of the adventures, we are introduced to some basic assumptions of this mini-campaign as well as optional rules you might (or should) use in conjunction with these adventures: First of all, there are no true alignments: There is just "normal" and "cosmic evil" - that's it. We're in for shades of grey. Next up: Monsters are rare and trigger fear checks, i.e. get frightful presence. Magic is rare and mysterious, combat is deadly (with massive damage and death effect rules), an optional rule for armor damage reduction and a rule for faster natural healing of wounds. Next up are the characters that are suitable for the world - of the core-classes, only barbarians, rogues and fighters are allowed. The ranger is more or less replaced via the new nomad class and due to there being no gods or divine magic, all spellcasting prowess falls to the NEW sorceror-class, a caster that reflects the traditional image of the spellcasters from the Hyborian Age better than the regular core-class. If "Sorceror" is mentioned in this review, it refers to this new class and its restrictive but very flavorful spell-list of non-flashy, mysterious magic. Wait. No divine magic? Yep, that's why natural healing is faster than usual. Wounds HURT and combat should be carefully picked, as will be shown in the adventures. If you act dumb and fool heartedly jump into every battle , prepare to die. A lot.
With the genre being human-centric and having no place for halflings, elves and the like, we also get a huge array of different kinds of humans who get varying racial traits and abilities depending on their stock - we get a huge array of 23 of these nationalities. Furthermore, we get 26 feats centered on the new sorceror and the nationalities. I liked the feats and their story-centric approach to organizations and the secrets of magic. In the next chapter we delve into sorcery, how to restrict spell-lists, the effects of maddening taint sorcery has on its practitioners as well as several new spells. 23 cults and demons with their specific available spells are provided for your convenience and we also get new drugs, weapons and alchemical equipment.
This concludes the 41-page campaign-section of the book and kicks off the adventure section of the book - next up is the first of the adventures, thus from here on SPOILERS ABOUND!!!
Still here? All right, so let's check the first adventure out:
The Necromancer's Knife
comes with 3 maps, one of the city, a hand-drawn map of a charnel house and a rather confusing map of catacombs. The basic premise of the adventures is that the PCs come into possession of a dagger that is inhabited by the spirit of a restless necromancer bent on revenge against one of his former pupils. One of the PCs (or a guard captain) is possessed by the spirit and from there on, the PCs are in for a race against time to infiltrate the catacombs of the city via the charnel house of the cities' cult of skull-masked, depraved priests to the necromancer's final resting place where they'll hopefully either destroy the spirit and the necromancer's knowledge (his spellbooks are kind of his phylactery) or reach an uneasy truce with him, making the PCs his chosen tools of vengeance. The infiltration is actually very well-made, but the possession-angle might cause problems, depending on your group. Other than that: Nice, sandboxy infiltration.
The Spider God's Bride
comes with 4 maps, one city map, 2 maps of a mansion and one player-friendly map of said mansion. This adventure begins with the PCs being hired as caravan guards by a fugitive priests in disguise as well as his retainer and their slave-girl, who turns out to be a temple-"virgin" devoted to the perverse Spider-God. Thus, the adventure starts with a wilderness trek through the Kharjah Pass and the al-Khazi desert, spiced up via both a two-page table of random encounters and a deadly nomad tribe. After enduring the harsh and deadly climate of the al-Khazi, the PCs reach the city of Zul-Bazzir, where they continue to serve as bodyguards for the priest and his allies after moving into an Eastern-style mansion that will be attacked by deadly assassins - during said attack the priest will be betrayed by his servant and the girl, who will give birth to the abominable spawn of the spider-god. In the end, it's up to the PCs to stop the temple-maid, her lover and the dreadful abomination she has brought into the world. The spawn is a new creature presented n the appendix.
The Jewel of Khadim Bey
This adventure is introduced by the PCs hearing about the theft of the legendary jewel of Khadim Bey and the subsequent plea of one of the thieves of the jewel - The woman scorned sets the PCs on a quest to kill her partner, who has supposedly left her to be caught by the guards. Supposedly? Yep, as the woman is in fact an instigator who wishes to make the PCs kill an agent of the local ruler - whether they kill him or look through her treachery, they will have to hold the abandoned temple where they encounter him against a whole cult of cannibalistic nomads. After that, the trail leads to Abu Khafi's notorious house or trail the perpetrator to Melik Khan, a corrupt, silver lotus addicted general whose house the PCs will have to infiltrate to prove his involvement in the conspiracy and clear both their names and bring the spy to justice...or ally with her. The plot allows for all kinds of interesting developments. The adventure also features 3 maps.
The Eidolon of the Ape
This adventure is a very straight-forward infiltration (brute force is not an option) of a temple devoted to a dread simian god. Deadly, hard, cool. Simple, yes, but also a quite remarkable adventure.
The Crypt Thing of Khorsul
The PCs are recruited by one of two feuding mountain lords to steal an amulet from his enemy, who dabbles in black magic, and kidnap the "son" of his enemy. As often, though, not all is as it seems and the true sorceror is the lord who hired the PCs, the "son" a traitor to his sorcerous master. After infiltrating the castle of one lord, they might learn the truth about the dark witchcraft (or not) and venture out to a mountain cavern to clear out the immortal creature the other lord has created, hopefully ending the sorcerous threat their once-employer poses for the whole region, either at said location or via infiltration of the lord's own mansion.
The Vault of Yigthrahotep
The PCs find a clay tablet and are subsequently approached by a group of merchants, who tell the PCs about a gold mine to which an item they possess as well as the clay tablet and a third glyph point. The merchants and PCs join forces and traverse the deadly Katanga desert, braving its terrible sandstorms, slavers and finally reach Katanga, where they'll somehow have to gain entrance to a temple, find the hidden glyph and then brave the deadly jungle towards the purple spires that conceal the gold mine - near which, unfortunately, lairs a tribe of in-bred locals led by an incestuous, grossly obese witch queen. After hopefully escaping the predations of said fiends, the PCs finally can venture to the lost mines and brave the monkey-men that have claimed the place as territory to finally reach the vault of Yigthrahotep, where the merchants will reveal themselves to be shapechanging snake-men bent on freeing their mighty kin from hibernation - the PCs will have to deal with their treachery and the dread creature they unwittingly unleashed upon the world. The adventure features 6 maps and is among the coolest, darkest and most disturbing ones among the adventures presented herein.
The Swords of Zimballah
The PCs venture towards the savannah-city of Zimballah to prevent the balance of power in the region from shifting, as a rogue priest of the living flame has agreed to reveal the secret of crafting iron weapons to the local ruler. Via a safehouse, various factions and the battle of both wits and blades with agents, the PCs will have to infiltrate the royal palace of Azimba and either kill the rogue priest or even get him out alive. The fact that he is quite comfortable and can conjure elemental creatures to his aid does not facilitate the task - the opportunity to stage a slave rebellion, however, does. The adventure comes with 4 maps.
The Slaves of the Moon
This adventure is set in the cursed city of Kumara, located in a desolate, mist-bound valley that prevents the PCs from once again leaving the area. The isolated two-class society there is lorded over by a ruling class of were-leopards. The royal palace, once again, can be infiltrated by the PCs and provides some challenging defenses. The fact that there is dissent between were-creatures wanting to end the curse and ones who revel in their bestial natures Caught in the act and barely suppressing their nature, the aristocracy bids the PCs to destroy the remains of the sorceror who cursed the town, prompting them on a delve into his crypt and a battle against his dread remains. Moreover, via this the PCs might uncover a way to end the curse once and for all by killing a legendary creature and potentially toppling the social order in the cities' political microcosm. The adventure comes with 5 maps.
The Daughters of Rhama
Stumbling over an encoded message, the PCs are led to the city of Yaatana, a cult devoted to a supposed orgiastic moon goddess, which they may infiltrate to put an end to the dark creature devoted to filth and sickness behind the supposedly harmless cult. The adventure comes with 2 maps and a handout for players. This was my least favorite adventure, because it was rather on the short side and does not feature that much documentation.
The Call from the Abyss
Being the longest adventure of the series, I had high expectations for this one: The PCs come into possession of a strange (and VERY creepy) magical conch-shell that sets them on course for a mythical island. From the city of Ghazor, the PCs have to meet up with a spy in a rather hostile tavern to enter the half-submerged royal tombs in Ghazor - after killing the dread creature there, the PCs finally can obtain the map describing the path to the legendary island of Namthu. After recruiting the service of a vessel, the PCs will hopefully root out the hidden priest of a dark god hidden among the crew-members and make their way to Namthu, where bloated dead rising from the deeps, flesh-eating birds and worse will greet them. Worse, the priest might instigate an attack against them and the temple they will want to explore is not only infested by the rotten undead and similar terrors from the deep, but also floods with the tides, imposing a time limit on explorations. To add insult to injury, the PCs will have to clear partially collapsed passages and scale the Eyrie of the flesh-eating bird-creatures to disable a force-field blocking their passage in the temple (and yes, they get sufficient hints to do that). Once they have cleared the force-field, though, they will have to battle the dread cephalopodan sea-god to claim the accursed treasure of Namthu or live with the knowledge of having unleashed an elder evil once again to roam the high seas, thus providing a sufficiently epic and cool final adventure. This adventure comes with 8 maps.
After that, we get the appendices, with three new templates (Bloated One for the servants of said sea creature) and Corpulent (for grossly obese enemies) and Rhama's Blessed (translates to disgusting and stinking) as well as two new creatures, the devil birds of Azimba and the Spawn of the Spider God from the second adventure.
I already commented on the formal criteria, so I'll just get right to it: This one is hard to rate - on the one hand, we get A LOT of adventure (in fact enough for half a campaign or even a year or two of play time) for a meager 10 bucks and a lot of cartography. On the other hand, the cartography ranges from nice city maps to hand-drawn ones that seem not too professional. What is professional, though, is the editing - I only noticed 3 minor glitches in 200 pages - that's top quality!
In the end, I guess it comes down whether to if you like the swords & sorcery genre or not - if you're willing to delve into the world of Xoth and accept its premises, your PCs will have a very challenging, fun time. If they're smart, that is - many adventures are VERY sandboxy in style and challenging. Infiltrations are hard and if your players first approach is always "Bash its head in", they might be in for a rude awakening in some of the adventures. If you and your players tend towards rather sneaky and smart play-styles, though and if you are an experienced DM (novices will be hard-pressed by the amount of potential ways stories might develop), this book will provide entertainment galore.
The only word of warning I have to utter is that your players have to be comfortable with trusting (at least for a time) NPCs and settling up temporary alliances with them, as some adventures hinge on cooperation. What's my final verdict, then? Well, for me as a huge fan of the S&S-genre, I loved this anthology. It provides a lot of material and some of the adventures genuinely provide a sense of antique dread and iconic locations that I loved from the stories I used to read all the time. However, as a reviewer, I have to acknowledge that some of the adventures don't hold up to e.g. the brilliant "Call from the Abyss" or "The Vault of Yigthrahotep". My final verdict will thus take the VERY low price into account as well as the had-drawn pieces of cartography that might impede the fun for some DMs. My final verdict will be 4 stars. Detract a star if you're very picky about beautiful maps and original artwork, but add a star if you're a fan of the Swords & Sorcery genre - Fans of Ancient Kingdoms: Mesopotamia, Conan etc. practically have to pick up this gem.