Review: E2 Kingdom of the Ghouls

Posted on April 26, 2011

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This is the second Epic Tier adventure path module from Wizards of the Coast. It follows on from E1: Death’s Reach which I reviewed a few months ago here, and leads into E3: Prince of Undeath (a review I have already written that I’ll post in a few weeks time).

Bruce Cordell is back from the first (E series) module and is here joined by Chris Tulach (whose work I’m not that familiar with, but I know he does a lot of DDi material for Dragon Magazine).

Note: This is not a playtest review.

First Impressions

The cover is notably better than E1 Death’s Reach, featuring as it does characters from the actual module itself, in this case centreing the main villain Doresain. But the cover still does not say “Epic” to me, let alone scream “EPIC!!” as epic should do.

The interior format is typical WotC fare, slipcase cover with two adventure booklets (one 32 page, the other 64 page) and a poster sized double-sided map. Production values are up to their usual high standards, although the lack of artwork in the larger adventure booklet really makes reading it a bit more chore than fun.

The story basically involves the heroes on the trail of Orcus’ followers (who are up to no good as you might expect) embroiled in a plot involving the ancient primordial Timesus. So its a little bit railroaded, with the heroes really only able to ‘hit their marks’ rather than directly influence events. Although you could argue the White Kingdom section could conceivably work as a sandbox area given a bit of effort (the adventure itself handwaves away the possibility of a direct assault on Doresain’s Palace, saying: “the army of ghouls and other flesh-eaters would rise up to stop them”). Instead they have to sneak in through the back door and defeat Doresain.

The adventure itself takes place over four locations:

  • Sigil (6 Encounters): The famous ‘City of Doors’ where followers of Orcus smuggled a mysterious cargo.
  • The Embassy of Ghouls (7 Encounters): Headquarters for a secret slavery operation that funnels slaves into the White Kingdom.
  • The White Kingdom (8 Encounters): Part of Orcus’ Abyssal layer ruled by Doresain the King of Ghouls.
  • Doresain’s Palace (9 Encounters): With Outer Palace and Inner Fane areas.

The Good

  1. Potential: The more I think about the White Kingdom itself, the more potential I see for some great adventuring. Maybe the lake of black blood springs from a wound inflicted on Gorgimrith and stopping the wound could make the living mountain attack Doresain’s forces? Maybe Doresain is trying to create an army of Bone Golems from the Marrow Mounds? Taking a leaf from Savage Tide, what if the heroes had to strike a deal with enemies of Orcus (Yeenoghu would have been perfect for this given his past with Doresain) to draw away the bulk of his forces allowing them enough time to assault the Palace directly.
  2. Production Values: You can criticise WotC for many things but they get all the basics right and even though I mentioned on a recent forum thread I’d love to see them do some handdrawn maps, in all fairness the Dungeon Tile maps are excellent. Every encounter has the big double page adventure format (even though I would argue half the encounters really don’t need it).

The Bad

  1. Ghouls: Okay the module is called Kingdom of the Ghouls and features the King of the Ghouls, so it was probably going to involve ghouls in some manner. Yet its the way ghouls are incorporated into the module that just annoys me because it touches on one of the worst aspects of 4E design, a lack of progress felt by the players because the SAME monsters just scale with the PCs. You can fight Ghouls at Heroic Tier, Abyssal Ghouls at Paragon Tier and here we have some Epic Tier Ghouls. Why are these ghouls epic tier at all? Who knows…actually we do know, because the designers needed some to fill the void. Epic tier monsters should be epic in and of their own merits, either because they are that powerful, or because their history and origins warrant it. Here there is none of that, simply ghouls that are epic because the designers wanted them to be, theres no attempt at any justification.
  2. Lack of Challenge: This may well be the easiest adventure ever. Looking over it, the encounter levels for the individual encounters are shockingly low for an epic tier module – and thats even before taking into consideration that the monsters are all Pre-Monster Manual 3 damage upgrades. Here are the encounter ratings based on the Level the PCs would be at the time: +1, -1, +0, +1, +1, +1, +0, -2, +1…+0, -2, -1, +0, +1, -1, +0, +1, +0, +0…-1, -1, +0, +0, +1, +0, -1, +1, -1, +1. Its a total and utter walk in the park, there are no encounters greater than EL +1…at epic level thats like just letting the PCs win without a fight. If you are considering running this you may want to seriously think about beefing up the encounters quite a bit.
  3. Running Out of Epic Monsters: The lack of breadth in epic content within the Monster Manual is pretty obvious when they throw together a Crownwing, Storm Gorgon and Dragonborn Champion into an encounter simply because they are of the appropriate level. Whats worse is that they don’t even bother to customise the monsters to make them fit in (Skullwings? Nightmare Gorgon ridden by Ghostly Dragonborn Champion?). I mean how much cooler would these modules be if every single monster was customised (as opposed to virtually none)?
  4. Verisimilitude: This adventure features 3 monsters of equal power to Doresain and 5 who are actually more powerful than him. Given that the PCs have to defeat these others to get to Doresain you would have thought he might have decided to beef up his personal security quite a bit. In fact theres no real sense that his Palace would be equipped to defend against an armed force and no one in the Palace really seems to take much notice of the heroes breaking in and making a mess of the place.

Conclusion

Individual parts are good (even if rarely what you would call epic) but the package as a whole disappoints. The basic impression you get from it is that it has no soul, no charm, no character. There are some interesting ideas (Gorgimroth the Mountain), a few worthwhile monsters (like Nightbringer the weapon) and a handful of evocative encounters (the Court of Teeth for instance). But overall its all a bit bare boned.

What I think WotC need to do is forget about the Dungeon Crawl approach and string together some mini-sandbox locations. Map out each of these and explain the possible guard and random encounters. Then concentrate on maybe 3-4 important scripted encounters for each of these major areas. This would cut the number of scripted combat encounters by a half, giving you more time to customise them and make them special.

Overall 5 (out of 10)