First I just want to say that I try not to be the first person who reviews a game product if I can help it. Nothing upsets me more than seeing five people all say the same thing about a product when once would’ve been enough. That having been said, however, there are a few points of my own which I would like to express, including some that may agree or disagree with previous reviews.
1) Cover art. I decided to check this module out because of the cover art and when I read the description and saw it was by Wayne Reynolds, a very popular science fiction/fantasy artist I thought the interior would be worth looking into. I agree the cover ten times better then anything found inside but did not feel the interior art let me down. I got a chance to meet Wayne at the Gencon in August and aside from thinking he was a cool dude and very talented artist, from Jolly ole England, I also knew he was expensive so I wasn’t surprised that if Black Skull Games shelled out the money to get him to paint the cover than they probably didn’t have as much to spend on the interior. This doesn’t let a company off the hook, of course, but the interior artwork served its purpose as illustration. Handmade maps, character portraits, and story line depictions were well drawn, informative, and in some cases hinted at the dark sense of humor of the author. As a DM with a group of players who need visual aids a lot, the interior artwork was just as good as anything else I’ve seen come out lately in a module, and in contrast to the big boys on the block like WOTC, wasn’t filled with just a rehashing of stock artwork appearing in other products.
2) Content. The Black Fortress: Death Master is set in the realm of Netherworld and is a pretty standard D&D campaign setting. The story follows your PCs through the town of Bjalnord’s Dale and its undead problems until they reach the Black Fortress on the Negative Energy Plane and a confrontation with the Death Master, a 35th Level Necromancer who is slowly being corrupted by a Lovecraftian inspired chaos entity called Ya’ag Sothoth. Along the way they meet an albino elf, a new race called the Shadowlock, vampire barbarians, death knights, undead elves, “Call of Cthulu“ corrupted humans called the Kthuloi, a living courtyard maze filled with unliving (a new template) variations of different monsters, augmented flesh golems, undead gargoyles, a gladiator arena, a reincarnated black dragon trapped in the form of a female drow, an insane chaos mage, a monstrous arcane creation called the Abomination, the summoned essence of the dead god of magic, the grim reaper, and an epic level bad guy who can only be destroyed by the combined efforts of the one NPC chosen to replace him, the PCs, and a supporting cast of elves, wizards, ghosts, giant spiders, and other beings of chaos.. It sounds like a lot and it is considering the playable portion of the module is only half of its contents, the other half being a very large Appendix of monsters, NPCs, PCs, spells, feats, and magic items found during the adventure. Also contained in the back of the Appendix was an explanation of the basic background storyline, which involved time travel, greater demons, and set up the next two installments of the adventure. The inclusion of this was helpful in understanding some of the back story which might not have been clear without it As a DM I always read everything in any module I buy and this was an extra bonus for me as it helped me think about how I could include it into my own campaign.
I liked the fact that this module had a lot going on. It was a little hard to follow in some parts but on a whole, the plot progressed linearly throughout the entire module and even included various side quests that PCs could be sent through to make the game even longer. The author’s writing style was fine for his first debut and was filled with a darker sense of humor, more akin to what a Stephen King module might look like if he ever decided to write one. Descriptions tended to be long but this didn’t bother me since I was used to the skimpy three sentence descriptions which normally appear in these game supplements and found the explanations a nice change. The module also came with a pre made party of heroes to use and unlike your typical module; the heroes included advanced game play rules like two weapon fighting and racial templates. An Aassimar paladin, a dual wielding undead slaying half elf ranger, a half silver dragon cleric/sorceress, and an orc paladin (probably making the first appearance in any module as a major good guy ever), were a nice deviation from the typical fighter/cleric/wizard/thief party template of most modules.
If I had to say something bad about the content it was that it was kind of rushed in certain parts, too long in others, and I agree with previous reviews that more action should have taken place at the Fortress even though I did enjoy my stay in the Courtyard Maze and the town of Bjalnord’s Dale.
3) Appendix. Although some people might find the inclusion of the appendix bloated, as a DM I much more preferred having all of the NPCs and Monsters available for my use instead of having to carry around copies of the Players Handbook, the DMG, at least four Monster Manuals, a Fiend Folio, a Netbook of Feats, and an Arcana Unearthed just to play it. I also liked the fact that the appendix included either completely original monsters or variations on preexisting ones. As a DM running a Forgotten Realms Campaign how many times do I have to see a module with only Barbarian Orcs, evil drow priestesses, red wizards of Thay, or disenchanted, disgruntled knights as the bad guys in it? Yes granted most of the bad guys in this module were undead, which is pretty generic, but each of the villains were unique variations on the standard rules or had new powers and feats uncommon to the typical creatures. The Appendix also included various new templates for augmenting your own villains and was an exotic cast of new races and new abilities. Even monsters which are pretty universal like vampires, golems, animated statues, skeletons, and death knights were given a fresh coat of paint to make them more challenging and unique.
1) Layout. The interior page layout was obviously meant to be used for the printed form of this module and was not properly formatted to a PDF EBook form. Page numbers appear in the wrong places, and including both the interior and exterior covers in the PDF file pushed the pages out of sequence. I didn’t find it hard to print or to read but I can see some DMs might have a problem with small font sizes in the Appendix as the background images were of some textured paper which sometimes obscured the text written on it. There was no main table of contents page or bookmarks but there was a table of contents for the Appendix which may have been an afterthought of the author who must have run out of time before the module went to print. I’m sure this module looks much better as a book as the layout suggests it was intended.
2) The Villain Maybe. Although I did not have a problem with an all powerful epic level character being my villain, I can see where some DMs might not be up to the challenge of running one since most PCs don’t want their 10th level characters they’ve invested time into getting killed. There is also a need to keep your ally NPCs alive as you cannot complete the module without them. Where this might be a setback for some people, an imaginative DM can and should rearrange any adventure to suit their own needs. If you aren’t planning on continuing the adventure in your own campaign world, a one stop adventure on another world for example, than there is no reason to worry if the PCs can’t beat it. There are any number of scenarios; from alternate worlds, flashbacks, dream sequences, etc that could be used to explain a failure. And even though the main bad guy is well beyond the challenge rating level of the module, you are given enough useful tools with which to combat him.
The Death Master reminds me of The Lord of the Rings. Sauron is the ultimate bad guy of Middle Earth and can’t be destroyed by any person, creature, entity, magic, or weapon except for the one true ring which he himself made. And the only way to destroy the Ring was to throw it into the lava of Mt Doom. The heroes had to make sure the ring got where it needed to go in order to beat the main bad guy, much like this module. Like Sauron the Death Master, could not have been beaten without the help of the NPCs, in this case Frodo, Sam, and even Gollum. If Sam had just gone home when Frodo told him to then Frodo would never have gotten to Mt. Doom. In essence the module would never have been beaten.
Specific and difficult conditions for success and seemingly unstoppable villains are an integral part of Dungeons and Dragons and literature; it is a basic element of writing called Drama, and should never be avoided just because your PCs might complain about fighting an “unbeatable” foe. Remember no matter what’s presented in a module the DM, not the players or the author is in control of their adventure. If you don’t like the conditions then alter them to better suit your needs. DMing 101
The Ugly or the Nitty Gritty
With the exception of the layout and some grammar mistakes which could have been fixed with a proofreader, The Black Fortress: Death Master is an average quality D&D adventure. It’s not great but it is certainly far from being horrible. The storyline, villains, monsters, and characters were all very original and were a nice change of pace from the generic modules or the “re-envisioned reissued” adventures available at this time. At 104 pages it is also much longer than most of the better looking but not as well designed adventures of more main stream and larger companies. If you’re looking for something more challenging then a typical Hack ‘n’ Slash adventure then pick it up. Or if you are looking for some new monsters to throw at your PCs it is just as good as a mini monster compendium. All in all a modest introduction to the world of Netherworld and if the preview of the next two modules is accurate then I can’t wait to see what else they come out with.