What Do I Know About Reviews? Empire of the Ghouls (5e OGL)
I’ve been a fan of Kobold Press’ setting of Midgard for a while now. Part of what makes me appreciate the setting is that it manages to walk the line between feeling just right for level-based fantasy RPGs and pushing into territory that many of the currently published settings don’t touch. There is just enough difference to make that difference something interesting to explore.
One example of this is the underworld of Midgard. While there are still entire societies that live deep underground in massive tunnel complexes, those societies aren’t exactly the same as what you might find in the Forgotten Realms. For example, the dark elves are not one of the ascendant empires of this underworld. Instead of drow and duergar dominating the depths, in Midgard you are much more likely to run into ghouls and derro.
Today, I’m looking at Empire of the Ghouls, an adventure designed to take characters from 1st to 13th level, which also includes an extensive gazetteer of the Ghoul Imperium.
The Grim Verses
This review is based on both the physical copy of the adventure, as well as the PDF. The product is about 352 pages long. This includes a credits page, a two-page table of contents, a 5e OGL statement, and six pages of ads for other Kobold Press products. There are also five pages of player handouts, as well as a fold out map (presented on a single horizontally aligned page in the PDF).
The black and yellow exterior is eye catching, and the interior art is the same high quality artwork you can expect if you have ever seen a Kobold Press product. There are several reused pieces, but notable individual NPCs and new monsters all get brand new artwork to portray them. There is a faint image underneath the beige-grey pages, depicting an underground cavern system, but the blues kind of glow hauntingly on each page.
The dark red headers and bone bordered call out boxes all make the formatting easy to follow. This is a fun, thematic use of formatting that looks like other Kobold Press releases, while also having some unique flourishes based on the story content of the adventure. The book itself is a standard sized game book, with glossy pages, and the kind of heft that makes you want to hug it. Is that just me that hugs big solid books?
Much like Tales of the Old Margreve, this product serves both as an adventure compilation, and a gazetteer for the region in which the adventure takes place. The gazetteer touches on the rise of the Ghoul Imperium, ghoul culture and customs, how the empire functions, and then takes a tour of various locations around the Empire, ending with the ghoul’s capital city.
There is more detail here for anyone interested in the changes that happened between the original campaign setting book, and the new version, including the allegiance of Morgau and the Ghoul Empire and the fall of Krakova.
Some of the cogent highlights that are presented in this section include the laws of the Imperium, which allow some wiggle room for living beings to work and trade within the Empire’s borders, and the religious struggles that are happening within the Empire’s borders. You see, Anu-Akma, the God of Death, is the primary god of the Imperium. But Vardesain, God of Hunger, is widely held to be the patron of ghouls, and there is some contention in the Empire over what faith should be guiding the ghouls.
There are sections on the hierarchy of ghoul society, both examining individual NPCs in power in the Empire, and examining what place various types of undead occupy in the Empire. There are many distinct locations introduced, each with its own adventure hook. A few of these places are visited in the adventure, but some are “just off the path” of the main adventure and can be used more widely. While many have adventure hooks, some have more structured encounters spelled out in their sections.
I already thought the concept of a Ghoul Empire was interesting, as well as a Ghoul Empire allied to a vampire kingdom. The added details of political maneuvering, religious unrest, and where the living might be able to survive, if only for a little while, in the Empire, makes this a very tempting location to use for a campaign.
Adventure Summary (and Adventures)
The adventure summary outlines what is going on in the narrative. In general, an ambitious priest of Vardesain is attempting to usurp the throne from the Emperor of the Ghouls. While the ghouls are a dangerous power, they are tempered with their desire to function as a coherent nation. Under the zealous followers of the Creed of All Flesh, the Empire might be turned towards being a more reckless, active threat to the surface.
The adventures included in this section include the following:
- Dread Chambers of the Undercity (1st)
- Holy Robes of Sister Adelind (3rd)
- Blood Marriage (6th)
- Catacombs of the Ghul King (8th)
- Into the Fuligin Realm (10th)
- Pure City of Vandekhul (11th)
Dark Chambers of the Undercity starts in Zobeck and explores the Cartways under the city. The Holy Robes of Sister Adelind and Blood Marriage both explore the Cantons and the occupied territory of Krakova and the surrounding environments. Catacombs of the Ghul King sends the characters to Siwal, in the Southlands, and Into the Fuligin Realm and Pure City of Vandekhul both take place in the underworld, wrapping up the campaign arc.
I’m happy that there are a variety of locations for this adventure. Having played through Out of the Abyss, spending so much time in the unfamiliar underground realms eventually becomes less wondrous and more, well, kind of oppressive. But in addition to providing variety, another thing this adventure series does is provide a bit of a tour of Midgard. Characters start in Zobeck, the city at the heart of the setting, travel to the dwarven Cantons and get a chance to see both the Canton dwarves and the Reaver dwarves, then see one of the cities of the Southlands.
While the Margreve is a unique location within Midgard, it is also discreet in a way that makes it possible to plant the forest in just about any fantasy setting. On the other hand, this adventure showcases multiple locations in Midgard, and highlights how those locations interact with one another. I also love that this tour of Midgard starts with a mission to defend the honor of a kobold, helping to highlight the unique position of kobold culture in the setting.
Several places in the adventure make use of the Shadow Roads, potentially allowing the player characters to avoid longer overland travel, but at the risk of dealing with the creatures that dwell in the shadows of the road itself. While this is an OGL product, I am usually happy when an overarching Dungeons & Dragons campaign includes some important interaction with a dragon, and meeting a cave dragon in a dragon’s graveyard definitely counts.
There are a few places where the characters are looking for an item, get referred to someone that might know where it is, only to be referred to someone else that knows where it might be. This is not going to be a problem for every party, but I think the GM may want to do their best to make that knowledge gained by the person pointing to the next NPC feel important, and not just serve as a speed bump.
I like that we get some capital “M” Midgard feeling in some of the adventures. Not only are the Shield Maidens of Sif an important organization, but there is an opportunity to fight Ragnarök cultists, and get a ride across hostile territory from some Valkyries.
There are some places later in the campaign, once it reaches the underworld, where player characters may be asked to ignore terrible things going on, or to ally with questionable entities in order to oppose other beings that are ostensibly worse. This may be a hard sell for some groups. I would work the slave revolt at the Pit of All Flesh in as a goal, instead of a side effect, for characters that want to feel like they are making a difference. I might also be tempted to portray a later ally in the adventure as a member of the Order of the Ebon Star, an organization seeking to separate ghouls from their vampire allies and curb their imperial aspirations, to add some gravitas to that ally’s promise that he wouldn’t become a threat to the PCs himself.
The drow, as presented in the Underworld Player’s Guide, are a much more neutral force in Midgard, less the vicious, evil, demon worshippers that appear in many D&D settings. There are a few places in the text where it feels as if this direction wasn’t quite formalized for the drow yet, as there are nods towards demon worshipping slavers in a few places. These aren’t plot critical references, however. I do think that if players are looking at the Underworld Player’s Guide, it may be important to tell them that that is literally an Underworld Player’s Guide, not particularly an Empire of the Ghouls player’s guide. It’s actually a little trickier working underworld cultures into the adventure structure than it was working forest creatures from the Margreve Player’s Guide into that campaign.
Structurally, this is a linear adventure, but not a railroad. While there are several objectives to meet, some of them can be met in multiple ways, but all of them point towards the confrontation in Vandekhul. Compared to how the chapter layouts of some of the official WOTC D&D adventures are structured, I really appreciate the distinct beginning and end of each sub-chapter of the overall story.
While I don’t think this is a problem, GMs may want to set the expectation that, under normal circumstances, they won’t be destroying the Ghoul Imperium or killing the Emperor in this adventure. They are stopping an immediate threat, but not eliminating a long-term enemy.
The appendix itself is an extensive section of the book. It includes some important ancillary material, including the following:
- Creed of All Flesh
- Red Sisters of Marena
- Magic Items
- Dramatis Personae
- Random Encounters in the Underworld
The Creed of All Flesh is the “evangelical” arm of Vardesain’s faith, although if you have the Demon Cults and Secret Societies product, there won’t be a lot of new material in this description. The Red Sisters of Marena detail the worshippers of the Blood Goddess that, in part, serve the Vampires of Mogau, and have some important roles to fill in this adventure.
The magic item section is about 18 pages long, and has a lot of fun items. There is a wide variety, from new figurines of wondrous power, to void powered “not a ray gun” items that cause random effects, to blood magic items that produce an effect by draining hit dice from the user. As someone that is a big fan of giving PCs more opportunities to gamble with their hit dice, I like this, and it is definitely in keeping with the tone of the adventure.
Monsters introduces about 40 pages worth of underworld related monsters. Some of the ghouls within can also be found in the Tome of Beasts and Creature Codex, but it’s nice that the relevant stats are provided here as well, for those that don’t have those resources. In addition to ghouls, there are undead dragons, reinforced skeletons, lots of fungus, oozes, crystalline entities, and an adorable swarm of flying salamanders that will still eat you.
Dramatis Personae includes the names and descriptions of some key NPCs, but what I really like about this section is that it also includes what stat block they use (or if they have a unique stat block), as well as page references to where they first appear in the adventure, and where there is art of the character in the book. Some of the NPCs included would make for very memorable recurring characters, even past this adventure. For example, the kobold (former) sage Ozric Snek, Waktawaza the Myconid Prophet, or Vespyr Mir’Dethain, a drow (ghoul) mercenary who has no love for the Empire.
The encounters section is very similar to the Tales of the Old Margreve encounter tables, which, for me, is a definite plus. They give short one to three paragraph explanations not only of what PCs might encounter, but why the encounter is happening, or what the NPCs may want. It makes this way more satisfying to use than out of context encounter tables.
Content Warnings and Recurring Themes
Okay, so right off the bat, it’s probably not a surprise that cannibalism is a major theme of this adventure. In addition to the ghoul’s natural food source, there are a few places where the PCs may need to navigate formerly sapient cuisine, and there are some pretty detailed, in depth examples of even bigger, more grandiose body horror in the adventure.
The “BDSM as shorthand for evil” trope definitely shows up with the Red Sisters of Morena. There is a club in Zobeck that serves as cover for the Red Sisters operating there, and a couple at the club that have been married a long time and are exploring the lifestyle. My advice would be to play up the “normal” practitioners as at least a partial aversion of this trope.
The Red Sisters, in addition to being portrayed as almost constantly wearing alluring clothing, are often described in terms meant to play up both their attractiveness, and a light complexion. While it’s not always the best for representation to come from villains, given how diverse the Crossroads region is around Zobeck, I was saddened that there wasn’t more variety in the character descriptions. Since the Red Sisters are meant to be attractive, this is pushing, even unintentionally, a narrative of “light skinned equals attractive.” I know, it’s the vampire motif, but a motif doesn’t keep a negative connotation from being in evidence.
Speaking of skin color, the artwork has a lot of lighter skinned characters. While there are many undead with blue or grey skin colors, the only darker skin tones appear in the Siwal section of the adventure, although I appreciate that one of the brown skinned people we get is an elf.
There is an interesting contrast between the Red Sisters being highly sexualized, and the Shield Maidens of Sif being presented as steadfast and well trained. Overall, I wish there was a little more discussion of both lines and veils and active safety at the table, considering the overall themes of the adventure.
If you have wanted a good campaign length adventure that will show off the Midgard setting, this is your adventure, right here. It does a great job of touching on several aspects of the setting that make it unique, while still feeling like a traditional multi-location adventure. In terms of organization, I would say this is probably easier to use at the table than most WOTC D&D adventures. The setting is evocative, and there is plenty of material to use even beyond this adventure.
Book of the Hungering Dead
The book could have used more in the way of safety and a discussion of the horror related themes involved. There could have been better diversity in art and description, and the Red Sisters skirt up against the “oversexualized” line. There are a few places where the PCs are asked to work for the greater good or with questionable allies that might prove difficult for some groups.
Recommended–If the product fits in your broad area of gaming interests, you are likely to be happy with this purchase.
Midgard is a great setting, and this adventure showcases that well. This adventure is a good example of one that has a natural flow and a compelling story, and the product includes a lot of value added with the gazetteer, monsters, and magic items.
If you like D&D, this is a good adventure to look at. If you like fantasy settings, this is a wonderfully imaginative set of locations and events. I just wish we could be a little more mindful of diversity and add some more nuance to traditional tropes that are applied to these narratives.