Necropolis Playtest Review by Bradford C. Walker on 30/10/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
If you're looking for either a well-written and playable fantasy Egypt sourcebook or an old-school Gygax adventure module, this is what you want. Otherwise, you can skip it safely.
Author: Gary Gygax w/ Bill Webb, Scott Greene & Clark Peterson
Company/Publisher: Necromancer Games
Cost: $29.95 (US)
Page count: 288 pages
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: yes
Playtest Review by Bradford C. Walker on 30/10/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Historical Horror Other
Gary Gygax’s Necropolis is a 288-page hardcover d20 fantasy adventure mega-module and setting sourcebook for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. This module is meant for a group of four to eight characters, ranging from 10th to 18th level, and it takes place in a fantasy version of Egypt called “Khemit”. (Veteran gamers will recognize the cover and the title from the old Dangerous Journeys version of this product.) Everything that a Game Master (hereafter “GM”) needs to make use of the setting is in this book, be it variant rules (a ranger variant), new spells, information about the gods of Khemit as well as Khemit-specific prestige classes. All of the information comes in the verbose, bombastic and very enthusiastic style that Gary Gygax is well known for; some may find this style a bid hard to read, even for old-timers like myself.
The organization of the book presents its contents in a linear, straightforward manner. Chapter One is the Introduction, wherein Gygax presents the module and put forth a few of the more obvious issues revolving around its use. He doesn’t spare any effort in pointing out what’s available for the GM to use to bring the setting to life and engage the players (let alone their characters) in the scenario. Chapter Two is the one that presents the background behind the events of the module: an evil mage-priest of Set by the name of Rahotep made a move for power back in the day and failed. He and many of his lackeys ended up buried in a necropolis far away from civilization. Rahotep is now near the time where he attempts to become a demigod. The PCs need to stop him or Very Bad Things will happen, first to Khemit and to the world.
Chapters Three through Eight, and then Chapter Eleven, present the titular adventure in its entirety. All of these chapters contain the maps, stat blocks and other notes that the GM needs to run that part of the adventure. This approach makes the adventure mostly linear in its presentation, and it could be run that way without any problems. Chapter Nine and Chapter Ten aren’t really chapters, but more like misnamed (and misplaced) appendices. The former chapter is an epilogue that addresses the fallout from the PCs’ efforts, including where to go from the end of the adventure. The latter chapter contains the plot device that launches the PCs on the adventure: The Blemmyish Tribesman’s Account. (It makes for a great handout, and I recommend making a copy for this purpose.) There are five appendices after Chapter Eleven. These combine to form the Khemit setting sourcebook content that will have GMs coming back time and again to this book: the monsters, spells, classes and cultural information that brings this fantasy Egypt to life. This book has more substance to it than most products of its type or size, and for that I am grateful.
The artwork is solid, competent and well placed. The pieces compliment the text wherein the artwork lies quite well, so the GM can often use these pieces to show the players what their characters see. I am very appreciative of this use of artwork, especially when the art is well done, and should there be another such mega module in the future I would like to see this approach maintained. The book is also easy to read, even after accounting for the Gygax writing style, thanks to the way the text flows like water. As a work of useful art, Necropolis is top notch; the style and presentation truly is classy and well done.
But how does it play? Well, as an old-timer I knew that this adventure wouldn’t be easy; Gygax is well-known amongst old hands for designing some of the meanest modules to ever see print, including the infamous Tomb of Horrors. I was right; Necropolis punishes PC incompetence with death- early, often and repeatedly. Some of the encounters could easily result in wholesale PC slaughter if the PCs don’t maintain vigilance at all times. If there is a flip side to this, then it comes in the form of fast experience point gain; the PCs should gain those eight character levels swiftly, and they ought to take every advantage to power up accordingly. They’ll need it to succeed at the end against Rahotep and his best minions.
For the test, I rounded up the Iconics again and went with the default choices: Jozan the human cleric (this time of Ra, since he’s just like Pelor), Lidda the halfling rogue, Mialee the elf wizard and Tordek the dwarf fighter. Each PC received gear appropriate for a 10th level character of their class, with some modification for the setting. The test focused on game-play and adventure design, not on characterization; you can get all of the help that you need with the latter from watching Conan the Barbarian, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and The Scorpion King. The GM has two options for hooking the PCs into the adventure: the Casual Approach and the Direct Mission. The former is an excuse to go tomb raiding in Khemit, which is illegal under common circumstances; the latter makes the PCs into agents of Pharaoh out to investigate reports of evil activity. Both options use the aforementioned tribesman’s account as the device that puts the PCs into the hunt. I chose the Direct Mission for its intense focus upon finding the problem (Rahotep) and smashing it.
Warning: Past this point, there are spoilers.
Chapter Three and Chapter Four describe the start point for the adventure: Aartuat Village and the nearby Pool of Hapy, respectively. The PCs travel here with one of the merchant caravans that regularly travel through Aartuat, stop here and establish their base of operations. The PCs need to do three things here: register with the local magistrate, meet their contact (a local by the name of Khonsu-khaibet) and get a briefing on what the situation is around Aartuat. The problems are that the contact may be hard to find, that the information may not be forthcoming and that the minions of evil in Aartuat will attempt to slay the PCs before they get anywhere. This is likely to come in the form of the local hedge-wizard, Shenau, and the demoncroc that he summoned. (Note: It is what it seems: a demon in crocodile form; this is the first of many new monsters introduced in this module.) Shenau will also be likely to round up most of the other minions in town and lead an attack on the PCs using them as lackeys and cannon fodder.
The problem that’s likely to come up here is that the PCs will blunder about town unless either they or some external force (either an NPC or some meta-game influence) focuses the PCs’ attention upon the above-mentioned tasks. The other is that the PCs will fail to make allies of their contact and the other friendly powers in or near Aartuat, such as the attendant of the Pool of Hapy and the merchant that deals in religious figurines; both of them are vital to the PCs’ success later on. Shenau, besides being the mini-boss NPC of this part of the adventure, has one of the Nine Evil Objects (no lie; that’s what they’re called) that the PCs need to kill Rahotep.
(Note: The PCs met their contact early on, who took them to the above-mentioned NPCs and briefed the PCs on what’s happening. Lidda noticed one of Shenau’s lackeys, so the PCs watched for trouble. Trouble came when the demoncroc attacked the group as they exited the Pool of Hapy; the fight was brief, but it was just the beginning. Shenau got his lackeys in place and ambushed the PCs just on the village outskirts; this fight would’ve gone much worse had the PCs not brought Khonsu with them. Shenau fled the village; the PCs got the authorities to round up the others, living or dead, while they licked their wounds.)
Chapter Five is the next piece in the adventure; it covers the road that connects Aartuat to the Gorge of Osiris. Here the big encounters are with a bandit gang that’s loyal to Rahotep, a sand devil that guards the bandits’ lair and the Pylon of the Duat that is just before the Temple of Osiris. The bandit leader has another of the Nine Evil Objects, so the PCs must (as with Shenau) take him down and wrest the MacGuffin from him. This is not easy so long as the bandit leader has his gang to screen the PCs from him, but it’s doable. The pylon encounter hinges upon turning “Anubis” to the PCs’ cause; otherwise it’s a certain Total Party Kill. After this chapter, the PCs should’ve leveled up once at least; most should’ve leveled twice by now.
(Note: This took several attempts by the PCs, and they had Khonsu helping them; a series of running skirmishes managed to get the job done, but it involved a final fight at the lair, which meant fighting the sand devil.) The encounter at the pylon went a bit better than expected; the “Anubis” figure is a cursed, insane mage-priest of that god that the PCs convinced was surrounded by servants of Set. This wasn’t as hard as it seemed because it was true; having a 20th level NPC ally watching your back in a pitched fight with a dozen or more animal-were monsters (i.e. wolfwere, owlwere, etc.)—some of them have class levels—makes that encounter challenging instead of suicidal.)
Chapter Six covers the Temple of Osiris, which is now under Set’s control thanks to the surviving mortal followers of Rahotep. The trick here is to recover the two Evil Objects kept here, clean out the evil folks and reconsecrate it to Osiris. Skipping this place is not an option if the PCs want to defeat Rahotep. Any NPC allies that you can bring along are good things. Chances are that the PCs will either clean it out from the topside down into the Osirium level, or do so in reverse; it depends upon when the PCs figure out that the priests are Setites and not Osirians, and how the Setites respond to the PCs. PCs should level up once or twice at the end of this chapter.
(Notes: The PCs twigged to things early, but played along to lull the Setites into letting their guard down. They cleared things from the Osirium outward, as difficult as that was, and got the Evil Objects. They sent word to the Pool of Hapy attendant about the temple, along with a request for reinforcements; they moved their base of operations up to this temple before proceeding further. They left the mage-priest of Anubis behind to look after the temple until help arrived.)
Chapter Seven covers the Gorge of Osiris. This is a wilderness encounter region where the PCs follow the path until they find their way to the titular necropolis of Rahotep. A great many tombs dot this place, most of which are just side encounters; following the path from the Temple of Osiris to its terminus is best for groups that don’t want to engage in unnecessary side quests. Random encounters are common here, many of which are either undead or demonic. Some PCs will level up here; most will if they clean out all of the tombs.
(Note: The PCs did stick to the path, dealt with the tombs encountered in an expedient and respectful manner and didn’t get nailed with too many random encounters. Jozan’s clerical powers proved particularly useful here. Most of the encounters here involved negotiating with ghosts or dealing with some sort of trap or puzzle.)
Chapter Eight is the Tomb of Rahotep, and it is every bit the dungeon crawl from Hell that Gygax is infamous for. There is one false conclusion that could easily trick PCs into going away believing that they’ve won. Gygax places two rest points specifically so PCs could safely heal, recover and level up between dungeon levels; that ought to be enough to tell you how lethal this place is for careless PCs. Even skilled, alert and cautious PCs face a non-trivial chance of very permanent death; if a PC succumbs to one of the Nine Curses and later dies, the corpse becomes a nasty undead creature that spawns more like it when it kills. (Oh, and it inflicts Wisdom damage; that’s a nasty thing to do when you need every cleric PC that you can find.) The point of this crawl is for the PCs to make their way to the bottom, where there is room that contains nine pillars; each pillar is an icon that binds a piece of Rahotep’s soul to the necropolis, yet separates them. The PCs must locate all Nine Evil Objects, match the objects to the pillars and then destroy them before Rahotep either slays all of the PCs or turns them to his service.
(Note: By the Dice Gods, this one is a meat-grinder. Khonsu died after getting cursed, so he came back as one of those undead things; Jozan blew a holy smite to put him down. The copper skeletons were quite a surprise; no one took them for constructs until after the melee began. The PCs had to back up several times, think on their feat and make use of everything they had or found to get through. If it weren’t for the mage-priest of Anubis meeting up with them, they’d surely be Rahotep’s undead slaves instead of his slayers. Even then, it took a couple rounds of leveling up and the help of that NPC ally to do it.)
Chapter Eleven is a side-quest to a Temple of Set. PCs get there via the Temple of Osiris if they trigger a teleportation trap. Most PC groups should be able to handle this place by the time that they could possible come across it, and they ought to get a level or two out of their efforts here. This is new material that isn’t in the original version of Necropolis, and it’s a neat—but entirely optional—addition to the adventure.
(Note: After the adventure, I had the PCs back up and give this one a go. They went in as 13th level characters; the PCs had a challenging side adventure trying to get out of the place alive, especially after the unseelie sphinx encountered them when the PCs got outside. The PCs ran from that sphinx, and then they found a way back to the Temple of Osiris after resting to recover the party’s spells.)
Necropolis is not for the gamer that insists that his PC never be faced with encounters that severely outclass him, because such encounters exist. Necropolis is not for gamers who get offended at permanent PC death or Total Party Kills should they screw up, for that is the nature of this module: incompetence is punished by total destruction, or worse, at every turn. Necropolis is not for gamers (or PCs) who aren’t about practical problem solving; if you lack such skills, then your PC will certainly become Rahotep’s latest undead slave. If you’re the gamer that loves the First Edition feel of Necromancer Games modules, or if you’re the gamer that looks at modules like Necropolis and says “Bring it on!” then get it. Ditto for anyone looking at a well-written and very playable fantasy Egypt setting for use in a D&D campaign. For everyone else, you can safely skip Necropolis.