"We who are about to die, salute you!"
Let me make one thing perfectly clear -- under normal circumstances, I hate, scorn, detest and despise so-called "killer dungeons".
I'm the guy who wrote such a scathing (and accurate, I insist) review of Necromancer Games' execrable Rappan Athuk 3 over at ENWorld, that Psion himself pulled it off the website after personally chastising me. Buy me a tequila at a convention some time and I'll tell you *that* story ?
As far as I'm concerned, my fellow D&D grognards who rattle on about the tradition of the original Tomb of Horrors adventure, can take said module and stick it right up their Unearthed Arcana.
Tomb of Horrors remains the only first-edition module my original gaming group ever walked out on ? we picked up our character sheets and left the table, somewhere around room three.
Why? Because these so-called killer dungeons are typically stupid and shallow. They require the least amount of thought or creativity of all the dungeon types to design or to run.
All a writer or DM needs is a mean streak, and a serial killer's affinity for near-impassable traps and nigh-impenetrable riddles. Throw in some high-end NPCs and monsters with enough magical power behind them to furnish a flimsy backstory which "explains" the existence of the slaughterhouse housing the deathtraps, and voila, one killer dungeon!
More importantly, in my opinion, killer dungeons run counter to the entire role-playing ethos. Role-playing games work because the players and an impartial gamemaster get together to entertain each other -- the players face the challenges the GM creates, and the GM adjudicates those challenges as fairly and as entertainingly as possible for all concerned.
As soon as the gamemaster's mission becomes "I'm going to make the players suffer and their characters die", it's essentially game-over, literally and figuratively. If any worthy gamemaster sets his or her interests squarely against those of the players, the players will lose ? and their characters *will* die quickly, repeatedly, and in droves.
With most killer dungeons, the D&D game gets reduced to nothing but mere mechanical dice rolls and random chance -- because the impartial judge has abandoned his or her responsibility to be fair and entertaining. While the *threat* of character death is entertaining to players, the guarantee of it is not.
So, if I hate, scorn, detest and despise killer dungeons, why am I reviewing Goodman Games' Crypt of the Devil-Lich?
Because this killer dungeon is *good*
Despite the introduction insisting that this adventure is a death-trap, it's the right *kind* of death trap. This adventure module is not about low-end, low-brow DM brutality, or intentionally-impossible situations, or foregone conclusions of player-character death ? Crypt of the Devil Lich is about high-end role-playing possibilities, combined with high-risk, serious challenges. Goodman Games has wrapped a story around the mayhem which makes all the chaos and insanity serve a purpose.
Will some of your player-characters die? Most likely, yes. Best be sure your party cleric's on good terms with the angels for those prayers of resurrection.
Yes, there are confounding riddles here, and yes, there are a few very difficult lethal traps, but one never gets the feeling that all of this is contrived merely to make the players suffer. It feels like part of an over-arching fantasy story where the stakes are very, very, very high.
This adventure is about destroying a brilliantly evil arch-villain on her home ground. It's going to be rough on the heroes, and it *will* be a death-trap for the foolish, the impatient, and the reckless.
In the introduction, publisher Joseph Goodman talks about how his company solicited several authors for contributions to this adventure ? how the Crypt of the Devil-Lich is actually a combination of the best ideas and elements submitted by a host of authors. The strategy worked, as there doesn't seem to be any weak "filler" content in this adventure; no mindless deathtraps placed just to keep things tense. Every element in Crypt of the Devil-Lich feels deliberately chosen and placed, so the sense of a genuine setting, with it's own internal logic, is maintained.
Yes, it's deadly, but it feels like a *story*, never a contrived series of no-win situations randomly slung together by a malicious author. The villains -- including the titular Devil-Lich -- are well-conceived, powerful, and evil. They would make fine recurring master villains for a campaign, should they escape the players' final vengeance. After this adventure, the villains' names will surely provoke a strong reaction from any player, or player-character, who knows them.
As with the best Goodman Games adventures, this adventure presumes the default fantasy setting presumed by the D&D core rulebooks, making the Crypt of the Devil-Lich easily importable into most fantasy campaign worlds.
Lastly, Crypt of the Devil-Lich started life as a Gen Con tournament. If your players wouldn't (or shouldn't) risk their beloved D&D characters on an adventure so obviously dangerous as this one, you can always run them through the adventure with the pre-made tournament characters, which Goodman Games has kindly (mercifully?) included in the package.
In my first review of a Goodman Games product, Idylls of the Rat King, I justly praised the publisher for resurrecting and reclaiming all that was good about old-school dungeons, while leaving all the stupidity and dross behind.
Now, to my amazement, Goodman Games has managed to single-handedly redeem the "killer dungeon" sub-genre, and to create something worthwhile out of a sub-genre which I have always considered beyond redemption.
In my opinion, the student has surpassed the master in this endeavor. The Crypt of the Devil-Lich is the high-level, high-risk adventure the Tomb of Horrors never was, and ought to have been.
LIKED: - the assorted player handouts are a very good idea, considering that this is a high -stakes adventure, with player characters' lives in the balance.
- notes are provided allowing this adventure to be run as a tournament or as an adventure, depending on the owner's preference.
- The art and layout continues to carry that old-school strength and simplicity.
- the full-color this time was a nice change, although I'm not sure it's nice enough to warrant a permanent change (and a permanent price increase).
- the pictures from Gen Con of the Goodman Games team, and the winners of the original Crypt of the Devil Lich tournament were amusing.
- an Erol Otus sketch of the tournament winner's character. Erol Otus, kids!
DISLIKED: - For all that this adventure takes the high ground in its design, I still feel that there are a couple of spots in the adventure where it veers dangerously close to the "unbeatable trap" cliche. For that, it loses a star. We've had enough of such no-win contrivance posing as a challenge for years now. If there's no way to win, it's not a challenge, it's simply lazy, vindictive design.
- the pictures from Gen Con :-) Why do all gamers look like they're related, or at least share the same genetic code? Other than the rather radiant Mrs. Goodman, everyone in these pictures looks like relatives of everyone I've ever gamed with. Perhaps it's that gamers seem incapable of wearing anything but T-shirts? :-)
VALUE: Very Satisfied