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Thursday, 22 March 2018

Blind as a Basilisk

Published by North Wind Adventures, Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent is a scenario designed for use with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Weird Fantasy and almost all other Old School Renaissance retroclones. Designed to be played by between four and six characters of between Fourth Level and Seventh Level, it originally appeared in Knockspell #1, Mythmere Games’ Old School Renaissance fanzine, but has since been revised and illustrated as a sixteen page booklet. Now to be fair, it does not have the production values of Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes and The Mystery at Port Greely, but the maps are clear and the few black and white illustrations are decent enough.

The scenario takes place in and around the City-State of Khromarium, the dismal, seedy port whose harbour is the largest known in Hyberborea. A man promises to lead the party out into the Lug Wastelands outside the city to where he and his late brothers last spied a giant lizard which left gems in its wake… Could the beast be the Xavadar Crypt Serpent of legend, the creature said to protect the last barrow of the Xavadars? The Xavadar family was a noble house who fled the city in ancient times to escape the Green Death, a plague which then devastated many of the peoples of the world. The family is said to have entombed itself in a great crypt wherein the family necromancer put them in a slumber which would last until the Green Death ran its course… In this, the scenario alludes to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe at least as much as Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Weird Fantasy draws from the weird fiction of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith.

The scenario is divided into three parts. The first presents some background on Khromarium and the Xavadar family, plus some clues to find should the player characters want to conduct some research. There is actually very little for the player characters to find out in this way, but it may well give clues as to what they might find in the Xavadar family crypt. There is also room here for the Game Master to expand the adventure with further clues and NPCs, perhaps tying it in further to his own campaign. The second part leads the party out onto the mudflats of the Lug Wastelands where the dangers consist of the boggy terrain and the various indigenous animals and vermin. Again, there is room here for the Game Master to expand the scenario with an encounter or two of his own design, perhaps with rivals come in search of the Xavadar family tomb themselves. Otherwise, the trek across the mudflats is quite ordinary…

The third part of Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent is the tomb itself. Here the scenario becomes even more straightforward, linear even, but then this is a tomb we are dealing with. There are two ways in—the main doors and a cavern network. Even the latter is quite linear, though the Game Master could expand it if he so decided. There is of course far less room for the Game Master to expand the actual tomb, which consists of a series of rooms, traps, and encounters with the undead, all leavened with sepulchral flavour and detail. Much of it moss ladden and long gone to rot of course. In terms of design it is more realistic than fantastic, mundane even, at least in terms of a Dungeons & Dragons-style game. Where it is more fantastic is in the presentation of the Sightless Serpent, actually a unique variant of the Basilisk which weirdly, has gemstones for its tears. ‘Weirdly’ in a good way, of course, for this is a scenario for use with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Weird Fantasy. There is a very good reason for the presence of the Sightless Serpent, as well as for the gemstones it cries. Besides both the greed of the NPC guide and the player characters, that is, though it may not come to light if the player characters decide not to do their homework before setting out for the tomb. 

The primary issue with Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent is the hook—the reason to get the player characters involved. The only one given is greed and that may not be enough for some players and their characters. A few more suggestions to hook the characters in would certainly have been useful, but not beyond the means of a Game Master to create on his own, especially if wanting to run the scenario as part of his campaign. That said, if the player characters consist of tomb robbers and thieves, then greed and the chance to test their skills against an ancient tomb is as good a motive as any.

As a one-shot, Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent is a decent enough, Swords & Sorcery-style scenario which plays down the sense of the fantastic to be found in typical Dungeons & Dragons settings. This allows the weirdness of the Sightless Serpent and gothic undertones of the Xavadar family tomb to come to the fore and so impart some of the feel and flavour of the author’s Hyperborea setting. The various elements of the setting though—the seedy City-State of Khromarium, the Green Death, and the entombed Xavadars—make the scenario easy to adapt to a setting of the Game Master’s own design and work it into his own campaign.

Charnel Crypt of the Sightless Serpent nicely underplays both its weirdness and its sense of the fantastic to present a grim, if slightly gritty affair. Worth a good session or two in terms of gameplay, the scenario can be played as is or easily adapted by the Game Master.