Playtest Review: Tales of the Black Kingdoms
Review by: Thulsa (). "Tales of the Black Kingdoms" (MGP 7714), author Nick Bergquist, published by Mongoose Publishing 2005. 80 pages, black and white, illustrated.
WARNING: THE FOLLOWING REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. IF YOU INTEND TO PLAY IN THIS MODULE, READ NO FURTHER...
The Black Kingdoms is one of my favorite parts of Hyboria, so I was anxious to see if this collection of three adventures would capture some of the spirit of Robert E. Howard's tales set there. Read on and find out if I was disappointed or not...
Artwork: The cover is quite good, but doesn't really illustrate a scene from any of the adventures (as far as I can tell). I'm not too excited about the cover because I prefer the awesome cover illustrations by Quilliams, but that's just personal opinion.
The interior black and white artwork is good, and all important NPCs are illustrated; I used these portraits as handouts to the players, which I think they appreciated.
Maps: The maps are bad, bad, bad! First of all, there is no scale given on any of the maps. They are not very detailed and gives you more of a general feel for the layout of a place, sometimes in conflict with the text. I had to redraw several of the maps myself to make some sense of them; for example, in the first adventure the size of Tarethis' bedroom is larger than the servants' quarters which are said to hold over 100 people! And in the temple of Jullah, the inner sanctum is described as holding at least 25 people during the ceremony but on the map the room is tiny. I also had some problems with the area map of the Black Kingdoms because the location of Atlaia and other areas are not the same as in other Hyborian Age maps.
Stat Blocks: I spotted some errors in the stat blocks, but since I had to rewrite most of the stats anyway (see below) this was not a big problem.
Editing and Proofreading: Even though a dedicated proofreader is listed in the credits of this book, it seems Mongoose can never quite get their quality control right. Some examples:
Levels and Experience Points: Tales of the Black Kingdoms is originally intended for characters of 3rd and 4th level and up, but in our case the PCs were around 8th level when they started and 10th level when they finished. The levels of NPCs were increased and monsters replaced with tougher versions to make it a challenge for higher-level characters. The party typically consisted of 4-5 characters per session (including several fighter-types, thieves and a scholar), although usually there were several NPCs tagging along, too (which was sometimes a pain due to the extra bookkeeping during combats).
The three adventures in the book took a total of 14 sessions to play; each session lasted 2-4 hours. I ignored the suggested XP awards and instead awarded a flat 1,000 XP per session to each player.
Shroud Over Zabhela
A simple plot involving a kidnapping, but quite effective in play as it did not waste any time getting into the action (although there are some problems with the initial setup, discussed on the Conan messageboard; I decided to skip the first two encounters and simply let the PCs walk into the cultist attack at the Artelios mansion, since the PCs had reason to deal with Artelios from a previous adventure).
The players followed the scene of events more or less as outlined in the book. After defeating the cultists of Jullah at the Artelios mansion, they agreed to rescue Tarethis, the daughter of Artelios and Erithemes, who had been kidnapped by a giant ape (at this point the unavoidable King Kong jokes started coming).
After a brief investigation in the Gallah area of Zabhela, the PCs headed for Eshiba's village and then to the temple of Jullah. During a fight with the cultists around a large pit filled with captured virgins, the main fighter-type player character was bull rushed into the pit by a cultist. He didn't get up until after the fight ended, because of the heavy skill penalties for wearing heavy armor.
The white guardian ape in the chamber beyond managed to grab one of the PCs, but was killed when one of the other player characters scored a critical hit and causing death from massive damage. Entering the inner shrine, there was a big climactic fight against the high priest of Jullah and his fellow cultists as they were trying to sacrifice Tarethis to summon a demon. One of the player characters rushed towards the high priest to try to cut him down, but the high priest used his death curse ability (a variant of defensive blast) to slay the PC (or rather, he was left for dead). However, another player character attacked the high priest and killed him by death from massive damage. Meanwhile, the sorcerer among the player characters killed at least four cultists by the use of dread serpent spells. Tarethis was saved, in the nick of time, from the grasp of slimy tentacles coming from a portal to the outer dark.
All in all, a straightforward and action-packed adventure with cool villains and nice locations.
At the end of this adventure, the PCs have likely gained a powerful ally in the Argossean merchant Artelios and/or his Kushite priestess-wife Erithemes, and there is the potential to develop this relationship further if the DM so wishes. I toyed with the idea of involving the party in a black rebellion, with the PCs on the side of the Chaga ruling caste due to their new links with Artelios and Erithemes, but found I did not have time to develop it and opted to use the second adventure, "The Ruins of Atlaia", directly after the first.
The Ruins of Atlaia
This adventure involves Ghanata slavers, a civil war between black tribes, a runaway princess, a rogue Stygian general and his army, the exploration of an ancient pyramid, and a demon trapped in a body of stone. And more.
I was anxious to see how the PCs reacted to starting out as prisoners, without all their equipment (even though they regained most of it later). Each player was given an extra fate point in order to lessen the blow of losing their equipment (some of which was recently bought for the reward money given by Artelios in the first adventure).
The equipment loss did give the PCs a good motivation to track down and exact revenge upon the Ghanata slavers. After twelve days of tracking, the player characters finally had a chance to get the equipment back, as they were ambushed by the chief Ghanata slaver and his henchmen. The PCs had little trouble defeating the NPCs, even though they had been ambushed. The chief slaver was killed in the first round by a single critical hit causing death from massive damage; another tried to flee on his horse but was overtaken and captured.
The rest of this adventure (like the first adventure) played out more or less as outlined in the book (except for the final part). The PCs found Erishka, the runaway princess, and learned about a temple in the valley beyond the mountains. Travelling through those mountains, the player characters fought a pack of werewolf-creatures who were the guardians of the valley. There was a bit of suspense built up as darkness fell and the full moon rose, and the creatures came howling down from the sides of a ravine. During the ensuing fight, one of the PCs had a lucky streak and ended up killing most of the opponents single-handedly.
Arriving in the secret valley inside the mountains with the pyramid-temple, the PCs spent the day sneaking around the camp, and then climbed to the top of the pyramid from the back after dark. Descending the central shaft from the top, they suddenly found themselves within the very throne room where a big fight ensued. The Stygian general, Kephros, fled through a secret door while the PCs fought his guards.
After defeating the guards, the PCs made a bit of a tactical mistake: deciding to split up, some stayed behind in the throne chamber to heal up (using the Heal skill which takes 10 minutes), while the rest followed the escaped general. As they descended the tunnels to the excavation area below, they came to blows with more of the general's bodyguards and their blood was spilled on the floor. The blood had the effect of animating a large six-armed stone statue of the demon Eshu. Even though it used a full 3 rounds to animate fully, the following battle ended in a near-TPK as the demon-statue killed both the Stygians (including the general) and most of the PCs, who spent Fate Points to be left for dead (one poor player character took over 150 points of damage in one round from six successful attacks; however, I allow the use of fate points even though the character is below -10 hit points).
With most of the PCs left for dead, I decided that the Stygian soldiers in the pyramid-temple would manage to finish off the stone statue (which had been severely damaged by the PCs). The Stygians then rounded up the near-dead PCs as prisoners; the final session involved the PCs who had survived trying to free the others. This was only partially successful, as they ended up striking a deal with the commanding Stygian officer, Akbethos, who threatened to slit the throats of the hostages as their comrades attacked. Akbethos kept one of the PCs hostage while sending the rest to retrieve the sceptre which had been stolen from the now-dead general Kephros.
Due to this development, I decided to drop (or at least postpone) the approach and clash of the black armies described in the book.
There was a Stygian assassin sent to track down and kill the rogue general, but in play this NPC did not do much. Since the PCs were intent on killing the general anyway, the best option for the assassin was to remain silent and wait for the PCs to do his dirty work.
The Zamorian agent of the Scarlet Hand managed to sneak off with the sceptre of Azag after the PCs had been defeated by the stone statue. This set up the scene nicely for the third adventure.
The Red Citadel
At first, this seemed like the weakest adventure of the three in the book. But in actual play it turned out to have the right mix of interesting plot, varied combat encounters, and good opportunity for the PCs to choose their own strategy among several viable options.
The player characters started out in the frontier village of Aurik, having followed the tracks of the Zamorian thief who escaped from Atlaia with a mysterious sceptre. As part of the back-story, the PCs learned that there were white (Zamorian) slavers operating in the area, an organization called the Red Hand, and that they were allied with a black tribe headquartered in the Red Citadel.
On their way to see a former member of the Red Hand to learn the location of the Red Citadel, the PCs were ambushed by a group of Red Hand assassins. These thieves attacked with surprise in a back alley and caught the player characters flat-footed. Actually, one of the PCs was killed (left for dead) in the very first round of this first encounter. A powerful reminder of how deadly combat in the Conan RPG can be.
Traveling south to the Red Citadel, the PCs decided to use stealth and searched the area around it and found a cavern on the bank of a fast-flowing river. During the crossing of the river, several PCs failed their Swim checks and were carried several hundred meters down the river before they managed to get back on land. This meant that only a few of the party members were present to fight the giant crocodile lurking in the temple-cavern. This beast grabbed a surprised character and dragged him underwater, but he managed to break free and the crocodile was finished off by the others.
The tunnels between the temple-cavern and the Red Citadel were not mapped out in the book, only described in general terms. I decided to create a map with a few tunnels and traps for the PCs to explore. One of the player characters fell into a pit trap and actually died (was left for dead) when he failed his massive damage save from the falling damage. As the party rested to regain hit points, the bodiless slimer haunting the tunnels attacked, but was finally killed by the fighters using power attacks.
Regarding the hidden tunnel into the Red Citadel, it is stated that this was an ancient passage that later architects were unaware of as they rebuilt the citadel's defenses. However, a few pages later it is stated that Quaridan summoned the bodiless slimer to guard the passages against spies, so at least he knew the secret and it would probably be in his best interest to place more guards there to protect against a Wadai attack.
As the PCs ascended from the tunnels and up into the Red Citadel above, things took an unexpected turn (this option is described in the book, though, I just didn't think it would happen in my game). Instead of getting into a fight with the citadel's guards, the PCs decided to climb the nearest tower, and chanced upon the prisoners from Garundi, a rival black tribe. Learning that the sceptre the PCs were after was actually with Kulbahath, the chieftain of Garundi, the PCs decided to free the prisoners and flee with them to Garundi.
In Garundi, the PCs allied with Kulbahath (while waiting for an opportunity to slay him and take the sceptre, of course). They told the chieftain about the secret tunnel into the Red Citadel, and Kulbahath sent them at the head of a group that opened the citadel gates from the inside. Everything went well until Quaridan, a Zamorian sorcerer who was the real power behind the Red Hand, shapeshifted into a raven and swooped down on Kulbahath, killing him with poisoned talons, snatching the sceptre and returning to his tower (this was a cool scripted event from the book that really set up the scene for the final showdown with the sorcerer).
The player characters realized that they had to retrieve the sceptre to turn the tide of the battle. They fought their way up the sorcerer's tower, through his human guards (Zamorian thieves) and a giant snake (here I used a lesser son of Set to account for the higher levels of the PCs), before finally facing Quaridan in his inner sanctum.
The Zamorian sorcerer was waiting for the PCs and cast a draw forth the heart spell on the first PC, a Cimmerian barbarian, who just barely made his save and kept his heart. On the next round, as the barbarian tried to get into flanking position to help a thief PC, he trigged an attack of opportunity from Quaridan, who hit with a poisoned stiletto. The barbarian was unlucky with his saving throw (rolling a 2) and was dead (or at least left for dead).
Then the PC sorcerer, a Khitan, entered the chamber and cast dread serpent on Quaridian, but the Zamorian was protected by a calm of the adept spell and the Khitan's spell was therefore useless. The Khitan closed his eyes so he would be protected from spells with Evil Eye range. Thus Quaridian decided to cast death touch, but in touching the Khitan he triggered the rival sorcerer's death curse ability (a variant of defensive blast) and that was his undoing as he failed his massive damage save and died.
The Khitan sorcerer picked up the sceptre and ran atop the tower, waving the sceptre and turning the battle to victory for the Garundi rebels. Thus the adventure ended with a big success for the player characters.
All in all, this was a very satisfying ending to a long campaign in the Black Kingdoms. Of course, it could easily have ended in spectacular defeat for the PCs (it looked bad for a while in the sorcerer's tower), but that would have been quite memorable as well!