Author: David "Zeb" Cook
Company/Publisher: TSR, Inc.
Line: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition: Greyhawk Adventures
Cost: $9.95 (cover price; now out of print)
Page count: 96 pages
Capsule Review by Christopher Page on 11/15/99.
Genre tags: Fantasy Horror
(Author's note: those of you confused by the review of a long-out-of-print adventure are encouraged to take a look at my previous review of The Temple of Elemental Evil for an explanation.)
Warning: there are extreme spoilers for virtually the entire adventure below. If you have any interest in playing it or think you someday might, this reviewer would, firstly, urge you to reconsider. Failing that, however, you may wish to stop reading now.
Of the many AD&D Greyhawk products now out of print, Vecna Lives! is one of the few that might rightfully be called the crown jewel of a collection. Copies have auctioned for more than $100 and are nearly always hotly contested. Even were it not for its collector value, the name alone would give it a powerful attraction to AD&D gamers. The Hand and Eye of Vecna are among the best-known artifacts ever mentioned in game material, and what fragments are available of the story of the once-supreme lich and his traitorous henchman Kas still tantalize readers.
If only the adventure were better.
I hesitate to call Vecna Lives! awful. It is a very different piece in style, mood, and execution than I'm accustomed to seeing from TSR, and it's certainly possible that those differences affect my feelings on it. At base, however, Vecna Lives! attempts the wrong things, for the wrong reasons, and in the wrong ways. It presents a plot that requires virtually all major characters -- including the players, the entire Circle of Eight, Mordenkainen, Iuz, every single deity in the entire Greyhawk pantheon, and Vecna himself -- to be, or at least act like, idiots at one point or another. I hesitate to call it awful, but that's the gentlest of the terms that fit.
The book isn't bad to look at. The cover painting (by Jeff Easley) depicts a withered eye and hand emerging from a golden chalice, with a Stonehenge-esque set of monoliths in the background. I don't know if it was specifically commissioned this way or if the decision was Easley's, but not showing Vecna himself strikes me as wise; it's hard to believe that any depiction could do justice to the sinister and evil reputation the arch-lich has acquired over the life of the AD&D game. The interior art is by Ken Frank, and...well...I don't like it much. It is cluttered and dark in a pen-and-ink style that fails to evoke the requisite mood of unease and fear, at least in me. It also fails to demonstrate the same level of restraint as the cover in depicting Vecna, and suffers for it. Layout is acceptable, although the maps are scattered about rather than collected in one place, and are not always in the most convenient spots at that.
The problems start with the introduction, where it is baldly stated that "this adventure is meant to kill characters". Reading this put me off right away; what happened to all the injunctions not to run 'killer dungeons'? Is the idea that it'll be more fun if there's a big-name monster involved, or if it's a one-shot? Is it just that TSR trusts itself to do a good one? Well, actually, let's use the text's own words to explain the 'why': "If you let characters off the hook [...] the fear that is so important to this module will not be generated." In other words, the idea of killing characters is to scare the players. This illustrates the first major problem with this adventure; it wants to be a horror scenario, but it doesn't want to work for the scares.
It is hard enough to do real horror in AD&D, a system that was originally built for heroic fantasy adventure and still retains most of its trappings. It is even harder to do with high-level characters, who have the kind of power and resources that even the most experienced Call of Cthulhu investigator can only dream of. If you want to scare a high-level AD&D party, you need to pay careful attention to what aspects of the world around them they can control, and apply pressure by seizing on the elements they can't. Break the rules of the game to make them helpless, railroad them into impossible situations, spring "bang -- you're dead!" events on them, and you'll annoy them rather than scaring them. Vecna Lives! just isn't scary on its own, so it resorts to these kinds of cheap tricks instead.
The introduction continues on by explaining that Vecna Lives! is "like a horror movie" and offering suggestions on various techniques to use on your unsuspecting players. The emphasis on 'storytelling' is fairly heavy, and some of the suggestions are fairly good, if somewhat basic. Others...well, others aren't so good. I'm against the idea of using timers to hurry players up, cutting them off in the middle of describing their actions if necessary; and I especially dislike the suggestion that the GM lie to his players if asked what adventure he's running. Vecna Lives! is going to strain player-GM relations quite enough without this kind of thing.
There's about a page and a third of history on Vecna and his history, which is not guaranteed accurate, and a summary of his current plans. Having attracted a cult of worshippers in the centuries since his 'death', the arch-lich has become a demi-god, and is now determined to grow still more powerful. Hence, he's found seven (unspecified) magical items, and placed them in (unspecified) secret and strategic locations, so that, when fully powered, they will create a "mystical web of energy" that will cut off all other gods from their followers. At which point one might sensibly ask what the other deities think about this whole idea, and why they aren't trying to stop it. Are we to believe that none of them are perceptive enough to have noticed Vecna, smart enough to keep track of what he was doing, or learned enough to have heard of these (presumably artifact-scale) magic items beforehand? In short, does this adventure require the gods to be idiots? Apparently the answer is 'yes'. Idiot Factor: 1.
On to the Prologue, where the players are given the Circle of Eight as pregenerated characters. They are promptly railroaded to a spot outside a mysterious burial mound, which they are expected to investigate. Of course, waiting inside the mound is a chap named Halmadar, who has managed to get himself buried alive there while in possession of the Hand and Eye of Vecna. Naturally, he knows the characters are there, and -- thanks to the powers Vecna Lives! conveniently gives the artifacts -- can read them like books. The Eight proceed to investigate the mound, and in short order are reduced to Zero.
If I'm making it sound like the players have little choice in this, it's because they do. The module states point-blank that they're supposed to lose, that they're supposed to get killed, and that the GM should cheat on the dice if he has to to make sure they do. (To give credit where it's due, the plan of attack presented is reasonably good -- if the Eight do what they're supposed to.) There is no indication given of what to do if the players don't follow the pre-scripted path. Apparently they are expected to ignore the principles of high-level adventuring and just walk blithely in to be slaughtered, rather than sending expendable summoned troops in to scout, keeping even one wizard back in reserve, splitting the entire mound open like an eggshell before they investigate, or taking any of the nearly infinite number of more sensible courses of action open to them. Idiot Factor: 2.
Having had one set of characters wiped out, the players are then provided with the followers of the Eight. Each is quickly exposed to a vision of the death of his or her master, and enjoined to warn Mordenkainen, who had the foresight not to be along. Although they are supposed to be friends and confidants of the Eight, apparently none of them were told where the Circle was going or what they were doing (in case, say, they should all be wiped out and their vitally important mission should fall to others). Idiot Factor: 3.
The characters naturally have to go looking for Mordenkainen (although one would think he would be looking for them in this situation). Virtually every character they might think to talk to is resolutely obstructive and unhelpful, sometimes for the slimmest of reasons -- a 12th-level magic-user is not a powerful mage? In the Forgotten Realms, maybe not, but certainly in Greyhawk. When they finally do get hold of Mordenkainen, he is deliberately portrayed as abrasive, suspicious, and unpleasant. You might think that having had his eight most powerful allies slaughtered would make him eager to avoid alienating their trusted friends who might fill in for them, especially given that the Eight died investigating some dangerous threat that may well now be after him. You would be mistaken. Idiot Factor: 4.
There's the requisite fight with Vecna cultists, and a lot of notes on what the characters can research to find out where the Eight went. The latter is a dull and time-consuming process that eventually leads them, more or less, toward the tomb where the Eight were killed. Given that the players already know where the Eight were, this probably isn't going to hold a lot of fascination for them. Indeed, they are likely to regard it as a barrier thrown into their path just for the sake of stretching out the adventure, and as far as I can tell they are right.
Having, eventually, located the place they're supposed to investigate, off the players go. Of course, because this is that sort of adventure, the idea that they might have magical means of getting there quickly is casually brushed off, they are assumed not to know the route themselves, and there are no guides available in Greyhawk. Yes, that's right; there are no guides in the city who know how to get to Verbobonc. Instead, they need to take a boat, and, no matter which boat they take -- the possibility that one of them might own or decide to buy a boat is naturally ignored -- Vecna's avatar finds his way aboard. It is not made clear what exactly happens to the characters if they pick Vecna's boat, discover who the owner really is, and get captured; then again, it is also not made clear why Vecna is unwilling to waste his energy fighting 'a small-time group like the player characters' but is apparently willing to waste a whole lot of time and energy following them around.
Much like the people of Greyhawk, the people of Verbobonc are smug, arrogant, disdainful, and offensive, or at least they are when dealing with the PCs. If the players elect to avoid dealing with them at all, as well they might by this point, the gnomes whose help they actually need prove much more friendly. This assumes they are quiet about asking their questions. If they actually have the gall to ask about the Cult of Vecna publicly, they are pushed around and abused by another bunch of NPCs, who will, if properly placated, direct them straight into an ambush.
If the players are smart, they head off to a gnome village where, after a bit more testing by the gnomes, they retrieve the Sword of Kas. They are then promptly attacked by cultists of Iuz, who try to steal the Sword for themselves; and this is where the adventure takes the first of the few tantalizing turns that are genuinely interesting. The priest in charge of the cultists offers, sensibly enough considering the circumstances, to join them as an ally in the fight against Vecna. Unfortunately, although the concept sounds great, it's not really followed through on. Does Iuz know more about what's going on? What kind of aid can his cult give? How does this affect the relations of the characters with their deities, much less the rest of the world? The adventure doesn't say, and the priest seems pretty much content to follow the PCs' lead and do evil whenever given the chance. Pity; this could have been a really neat twist to an adventure that sorely needs some of them.
If the players aren't smart, or if they have an unusual tolerance for abuse, they'll track down the Cultists in Verbobonc first, and reach their hidden temple in the middle of a ceremony. The resulting unavoidable battle accomplishes nothing more than to make the players stand around and watch helplessly while the real Vecna takes his Eye and Hand back from the fake one; they are not able to affect the outcome in any meaningful way and will get smacked down if they try. Before vanishing, though, Vecna asks them to meet him at Tovag Baragu so that he can reward them for their help. Why he does this is not clear, as he has plenty of loyal cultists of his own to reward and really ought to be smart enough to know better, but he does anyway, in the best movie-villain "Now I will tell you where to find my secret base!" style. Idiot Factor: 5.
After pointing out that it would be nice for the players to reach Tovag Baragu quickly -- it's a 43+ day journey on horseback -- the module then goes out of its way to nullify most of the methods they can use to do so. (Among other weird points, it's specified that using Teleport Without Error to get there has a failure chance, although why is not explained.) When they do get there, they, presumably, either attack or parley with Vecna, who offers to make one of them a god if he'll kill all the rest of them. Assuming they all refuse, he banishes them off to his prison plane where they can find the one person who can tell them how to beat him. He does not, for whatever reason, relieve them of the Sword of Kas, although it has the power to Plane Shift and hence would seem to negate the usefulness of banishing them in the first place. Idiot Factor: 6, or 7 if you count these as separate acts of foolishness. Oh, yes -- if someone is sly enough to accept Vecna's offer and then try to attack the arch-lich instead, he's destroyed. Period. No save, no die roll, no chance of escape.
For a moment, when I started reading the chapter devoted to Vecna's extraplanar prison, I thought: "Hey, this is about to become really cool." The tone and conception of the place are sufficiently interesting, especially in comparison with the rest of the adventure, that I wanted to know more. I genuinely wanted to run an adventure centered around this horrible place, with the characters struggling against time and the insane prisoners of Vecna to accomplish some noble goal. Alas, not enough information to do something like this is really provided, and instead the citadel is used as a quick setpiece where the characters bargain away the Sword of Kas to its rightful owner in exchange for information on how to beat Vecna.
After all of this torment, you'd think that the climactic battle would be something special. It isn't. The characters call on Iuz, Iuz and Vecna get into a big fight that the characters can't really affect one way or another, they get Iuz to break the Key Magic Dingus that Vecna needs to complete his plan -- they aren't even allowed to break it on their own -- and they shove both demigods through a portal into some distant plane. Finis, at least until one of the two (presumably Iuz, who was more powerful to start with) wins and comes back to Oerth. The book ends with a details on the Eye, Hand, and Sword, the Cult of Vecna, a few new monsters, assorted NPCs, and pregenerated PCs.
As a horror movie, Vecna Lives! might be pretty entertaining. It has enough of the requisite elements that a good director could put them together into a halfway decent film. But as an adventure...as an adventure in which the players are supposed to participate...it sucks. This is a module designed with One True Path for the adventurers to follow, whether they realize it or like it or want to follow it or not. Even worse, it is a movie with a stupid One True Path that ignores massive numbers of relevant factors so the party can be pushed in the direction the designer wants them to go. That may work in the adventure as written, and it would work just fine if this really were a horror movie, but in an actual game, when dealing with actual players, that dog, as they say, won't hunt. It pains me to say so, because I know for a fact that David Cook can do better, but it is probably the single worst AD&D adventure I have ever read, and certainly in the running for worst adventure, period. Don't buy it, certainly not at the scalper's prices it goes for today. Don't even buy it if you find a copy at cover price, unless you plan to resell it. It is a textbook example of how not to write a good adventure, and the one or two intriguing concepts that can be salvaged are not enough to justify wasting money on it.
Style: 2 (Needs Work)