This pdf is 33 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page SRD and 2 pages of ads, leaving 28 pages of content.
This installment of ECS, written by the excellent cartographer of the series, Richard Biggs Jr., starts with 3 maps of the burial vaults, thankfully without any annoying letters or map-keys. As always in the ECS-series, we get a concise IC-introduction to the location in question and this installment is no different in that regard. The narrative is interspread with bracketed DCs for the PCs to gather knowledge, should they brave the dread vaults themselves. However, the quality of the writing is less captivating than in the other installments and sometimes feels a bit forced.
After that, we get the cast of characters for this installment, all of which get their own original b/w-artwork, which is quite nice:
-Renirus Blackwood (Human fighter (mobile) 11/noble 5) CR 16
Renirus gets a huge array of nice abilities and finally is a noble that doesn't utterly suck in combat. In his background, though, some rather awkward grammatical structures have crept in. There is also a typo in his tactics-section, where a "The" should be a "He" and the final "in the past" should probably be deleted. I'm not a native speaker myself, but for me it sounded strange. In the paragraph "social" a "have been found" is probably missing from the first sentence.
-Vaughn (Human warrior 5)CR 3 Vaughn is the retinue of Renirus.
-Bodyguard sans section on personality or the like, only stats.
-Thief-Taker Blake Steelson (expert 4/fighter 5) CR 8:
A cool Sherlock-Holmes-like investigator with a magical holding cell, Blake's text also suffers from typos, e.g.:
"Blake’s wife and daughter, kidnapped three
years ago, are held hostage and ritually tortured by
Caretaker Bryghtwater in order to ensure his plans of
wealth and dominance remains intact."
Is it just me or is this sentence missing a part? On the other hand, I'm not entirely sure whether Blake is supposed to be an adversary of Renirus or not.
-Caretaker Bryghtwater (necromancy [sic!] 11 - should read necromancer) and his familiar Mayhem:
A necromancer, his text unfortunately also suffers from typos, among others, blank spaces and grammatical errors. More importantly, there is a logical conundrum: If Bryghtwater has already battled the Thief-taker, tortured (and or killed, I don't know) his family, why is he still able to walk the streets? Plus: Why should Renirus, who is not associated with the grave-robberies, be associated with Bryghtwater?
-House Blackwood Zombie (dread zombie two handed fighter 8) CR 8: Nice brain-consuming zombie-brutes. Though talking about "emulating heroic pasts" in context of brain-eating zombies is...strange.
-Kordner Blackwood (dread ghost human fighter (weapon master longsword) 10) CR 12:
Another instance of awkward grammatical constructions that hampers the tragic sacrifice of this poor man. The artwork and stats kicks ass, though.
-Black Shroud Scoundrel (rogue 5/ assassin 2) CR 6: Strange choice: Under special abilities a unique language is listed. More grievous: They suck as Assassins. No Int-modifier? Come on. That makes a measly DC 12 death attack. Even lvl 1-casters can potentially laugh that off, give them at least Int 14 or something like that.
-Giant Cadaver Larva (CR 6): Great and disgusting new critter, right up my alley. Unfortunately features a plural mistake in the very first sentence of their Background section.
-House Blackwood Dragonguard (aristocrat 2/paladin 6) CR 7:
A "vengeful" mysterious knight bent on taking the fortune of the Blackwoods. "Vengeful" and Paladin don't go together in my mind, especially not against a neutral noble of a city, who is an established aristocrat and works with the law. This just feels utterly wrong.
We also get 5 new magic items:
-Blackwood's Torc: Grants bonus to Perception and Sense Motive
-Thief-taker Blake's Holding Cell: An advanced force cube
-Gloom Cudgel: Unholy club that helps in shadows and can summon them and shadow bolts. The "Shadow bolt"-paragraph mentions that 3/day the cudgel can shoot "3 ray" as a ranged touch attack. 3 rays or one? I'm not sure whether this should read "a" or is a case of bad grammar - in any case, it's an error.
-House Blackwood Dragon Plate: This armor once again features declination errors (e.g. it should read: The armor "possesses" instead of "it possess". The armor grants attacks with a tail-blade and the armor's claws, however, it would have been nice to know whether the plate has no armor check penalty to acrobatics, as the +4 bonus somewhat does imply that.
-Watch Commander Whistle: Summon people to your aid. Nice idea.
We also get a new material, Orichalcum and a new spell, Blackwood Curse (Clr 3, Sor/Wiz 4).
The spell. Oh, the spell. It mentions a focus, the Blackwood pendant. I have no idea what that is. A magic item? Can every Blackwood produce them? Is it unique? It inflicts, grab your seats, fellows: 2 negative levels on ALL LIVING CREATURES IN SIGHT, potentially killing a whole orphanage or village in one fell swoop. It also imposes a -2 penalty on skill-checks, saves and attacks. Even if you save, you STILL take 1 negative level. This is a level 3/ level 4-spell. Range is 100 ft + 10 ft. per level. This is the most OP, unbalanced spell I've seen in quite a while.
After that, we get 9 pages of blown-up maps for use with miniatures.
When I first got to lay my eyes on this, I was all excited: We get cool b/w-interior artwork for all the characters, layout is the RiP-standard, it's my beloved ECS-series and I've never seen that many stats in one installment! What can go wrong? Unfortunately, a lot.
After the IC-introduction, there is scarcely a section without either a grammatical construction that forced me to reread it, an editing error or a similar annoyance. The characters felt unfocused - I still don't really get what some of them have to do with the Burial Vaults, especially the Dragon Knight just made me scream "THAT'S NOT WHAT PALADINS DO!" While the Holmes-Moriarty-style-rivalry is nice, it felt jammed in and not really related to the vaults. Plus: Bryghtwater is blatantly evil, so why is he a caretaker? I thought the thief-taker already battled the guy? It says so in the description of his holding cell and can even be gleaned with a Knowledge (local)-check. Is Blake supposed to be corrupt or not? Does Renirus blackmail him or not? It is hinted at in the text, but not clearly. Why does Blackwood tolerate him when he obviously is involved in the grave robberies? Is he holding Blake's family hostage or has he already sacrificed them? What about this bodyguard guy? Why doesn't he have a background? What is a blackwood pendant? Why is the curse so utterly overpowered and has nothing to do with the blackwood zombies? I don't know.
The maps are up to the high quality of the series and the artwork rocks and is a great bonus, but everything else isn't up to the stellar standard of the series. The writing is sub-par, the characters are plenty, but for me quality will always trump quantity and this file, while having quantity with regards to NPCs, lacks quality in their write-up. Their artworks are nice and their stats solid, but the writing still needs some improvement. Frankly put, this installment of ECS lacks focus and some of the characters would have fitted better into their own installments and felt peripheral to the burial vaults at best. So, what's my final score? Well, if you buy ECS solely for the maps and the stats, go for it, for you this is a 3.5-4-star-file. For those of you, who, like me, enjoy the series just as much (or even more) for their short stories, their unique feel and the atmosphere they convey (Voell's Garden being my favorite in that regard), this pdf unfortunately falls short.
I can't believe I'm doing this, but my final rating for this installment of ECS will be 2 stars, due to the low price and the plethora of original artworks we usually don't get for such a low price.