Sunday, 9 March 2014
RPGPundit Reviews: Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands
This is a review of the sourcebook “Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands”, written by Peter Spahn as a Labyrinth Lord compatible product, published by Small Niche Games.
This is a review of the printed edition, which is about 128 pages long, softcover with a colour cover (though not very colourful, as it depicts the ominously dark Ghoul Keep aforementioned in the title, I presume), and black and white interior. The interior has some nice maps and dungeon blueprints and relatively few actual art pieces.
The setting material is nominally for a small and isolated kingdom found in the world of Amherth (see my previous review of the Amherth book), but in fact due to its isolation the Ghoul Lands could easily be transported to any isolated region of any other fantasy setting; at least, any fantasy setting that would find it within tolerable parameters of weirdness to have a kingdom governed by Ghouls.
The concept is quite interesting: from the outsider’s perspective, its assumed that past Ghoul Keep there is nothing but Ghouls-all-over as far as the peoples to the south of the Ghoul Lands know. But in truth, anyone who somehow gets past Ghoul Keep will find that north of the mountains there is a small feudal kingdom of humans; albeit a very weird and dark kingdom, where the King himself is an intelligent Ghoul, as are many of his court, the only church allowed is the cult of the death god, and the people live to serve the ghouls (and eventually have the “eternal reward” of becoming one). In other words, a strange and dark lawful evil kingdom, where nevertheless the people themselves are not necessarily evil, just trapped.
The Ghoul Lands are a smallish kingdom, with five major regions; each is described in decent detail, along with information about the (human) nobility that rule them and the major settlements (including a few nice town/city maps). The interesting thing about the Ghoul Lands is that we’re not talking about something like the old D20 “Midnight” setting; the Ghoul Lands aren’t even quite like many of the Ravenloft domains. There’s no question that the people are oppressed and live in some terror of the ghouls (they are forced to securely lock themselves in at night when hordes of ghouls come out and walk the surface world) but like people in crappy horrifying societies everywhere, they have mostly learned to adjust to terrible situations and daily life as portrayed in the book seems mostly quite normal. “Normal”, that is, for a kingdom where your King is an immortal Ghoul-wizard, your princes are his half-ghoul children, the human nobility are bound to his service, the only religion allowed is the cult of undeath, the priests of the aforementioned cult are obtained by taking the firstborn child of every family away forever to be raised in the priesthood, where hordes of undead roam the night and no one will ever do anything to stop them, and where you will almost certainly be turned into a ghoul when you die.
But you get a lot of information in the book about people’s lives, their work, dress, festivals, and what is perhaps quite successful about the setting is how this seeming normality gets intermingled with the insanity of what’s happening in the Ghoul Lands in just the right way. Its quite well done; in some ways much creepier than if it was just despair and terror all the time.
There’s also one very interesting choice on the part of the author, something that I don’t think was in any way required by the setting itself, which is that the Ghoul Lands have no system of monetary commerce. Everything is done by simple or advanced barter of trade goods. Coins found in treasure hordes from ancient dungeons can be of use only as a kind of trinket for nobles, who indeed collect them, but you can’t use them to buy yourself a horse or a sword (though since normal citizens aren’t allowed to manufacture or trade weapons, you couldn’t get a buy a sword regardless).There are guidelines for the barter system and haggling provided in the chapter on the “Commoner’s hall” (a sample starting area for native PCs); this chapter also provides an excellent viewpoint of what normal life is for people in the Ghoul Lands, while set up as a “village of homlet”-style “home base”, with a map, stats for shopkeepers, a rumour table, and adventure ideas; it is followed by a short starting adventure set in the city where the hall is located which involves examining some ancient ruins and fighting some undead rat-monsters that are part of a rival (unsanctioned) undeath cult.
Where exactly do adventurers fit into the Ghoul Lands? One option is of course if they’re foreigners, where they will find themselves in a very creepy and hostile place (particularly if they’re wizards, who are strongly regulated and must serve the ghoul king, or clerics who are outlaws if they worship any cult other than the “cult of rebirth”). The other option is to make a party of natives; adventurers are not outlawed in the Ghoul Lands; rather they must be sponsored by a nobleman and be officially registered. This allows them to carry weapons and the like, and to go out and fight monsters of different kinds (though of course, they cannot go to kill ghouls; in fact, adventurers must go through a fairly terrifying ritual that will keep the hordes of ghouls that roam the night from attacking them, though the ritual effect will be broken should they ever slay a ghoul).
In addition to the location material (both regions, cities, and geography), there are character descriptions (with full LL stats) of the major nobles, the Ghoul King Lorrgan Makaar and his half-ghoul children (who are some of Makaar’s major lieutenants, though some of them plot against him), the high priests of the Cult of Rebirth, a lengthy list of adventuring companies of the ghoul lands, and some of the monstrous rivals to Makaar’s rule (including a blue dragon and a vampire, both of whom hate Makaar and have tried to destroy him in the past; as well as the elves and dwarves who live in the outlying regions, and halfling gypsies(!)). What Makaar is most worried about is an ancient prophecy;he was almost destroyed by an ancient hero named Valen (who actually cut him into pieces, most of which are still lost to this day, so that Makaar is really just a head that gets attached to some poor human host body each year… recovering other lost parts of his body is one of the major reasons the Ghoul King sponsors adventurers). Valen also created a magical barrier which keeps all the ghouls inside the Ghoul Lands, preventing them from being able to sweep out southward to other kingdoms. Makaar is obsessed with re-building his body, breaking that magical ward, and watching out for rumours that one of Valen’s descendents will come back and complete the prophecy by finishing the job of killing him.
I should note that in following with the balance concepts laid out in his Amherth setting, Spahn has kept the character levels of NPCs on the low side. The Ghoul King himself, the most fearsome creature in the book, is an 18th-level ghoul wizard; but most of the other NPCs in the book are far lower in level (even the Dragon and the Vampire are both just 9HD creatures), and many of the priests and nobles are only 0-level NPCs. None of the 20 or so “famous adventurers” listed in the NPC section are higher than level 5. This is a setting quite apt for low-level play and where mid-level characters will be fairly kick-ass.
The setting also introduces a couple of dozen new items, quite a few of which (but not all!) being somehow undead-themed (be it undead-creating, undead control, undead warding, etc). The most interesting non-undead-related item is a magical ink that is used to put a tatoo on a person; when it is used in this manner a random permanent magical effect is bestowed on the subject (in true old-school fashion, some of these random effects are more powerful than others, and some of them are in fact negative).
The book also has a number of new flora (of interesting varied medicinal or quasi-magical uses) and of course fauna. You get a number of specific subsets of Ghouls, of course; but you also get a half-dozen or so monsters that aren’t ghouls; quite a few aren’t even undead, though most are quite scary in some form or another.
As for the eponymous Ghoul Keep itself, this is a fortress in the southernmost end of the Ghoul Lands, in the mountains, blocking off the only mountain path to and from the Ghoul Lands. It is just a bit north of the great ward that ghouls cannot pass. People who come from foreign kingdoms to the south often mistakenly believe that Ghoul Keep is the epicenter of the Ghoul Lands, and that this is a kingdom composed entirely of ghouls (rather than the keep being just the frontier post of a larger human kingdom ruled by ghouls). They also often mistake the commander of ghoul keep (one of the Ghoul King’s half-ghoul sons) for the Ghoul King himself. I could see this being a great campaign switcheroo: a group of brave and mighty PCs go to the “ghoul lands” to slay the “ghoul king” of the keep, and after the job is done find out that they’ve only killed the REAL Ghoul King’s son, and that the real kingdom is much larger and scarier (and weirder!) than they could have imagined.
In the book, Ghoul Keep is presented as a classic dungeon, complete with graph-paper dungeon maps and numbered locations. Its quite well done, too.
I would classify the Ghoul Keep dungeon as a very large dungeon (while still shy of a full-blown megadungeon); you have three surface levels of the keep itself, and three cavern/dungeon levels, each with a map that covers an entire page of the book. That should give you some idea the size you’re dealing with. Most groups would get several sessions of play out of the keep alone.
The book is split about 60 pages of setting material to about 65 pages of adventure material.
So how do we conclude this review? If it is what you’re looking for; that is, if a really great dungeon and an unusual micro-setting is what you’re looking for (as I doubt many people woke up this morning thinking “I would love to play in a setting where a Ghoul King rules over a human society”), then you will find this a very worthwhile product.
The good points are undoubtedly the dungeon of Ghoul Keep, the interesting and thoughtful way Spahn has presented the society, and that its still recognizable and gives adventurers a clear set of roles in spite of its uniqueness as a setting.
The bad? Only that its a very unusual setting; the Ghoul Keep itself could probably be ported into just about any fantasy setting (I wouldn’t be surprised if I didn’t use it in my Albion game) but the Ghoul Lands would be quite unusual and might not fit even as a “microclimate” in every fantasy world. So it is a bit limited in scope. But if its range fits your aims, then you have a surefire winner here.
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(originally posted January 26, 2013; on the old blog)