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Friday 3 April 2020

Friday Fantasy: The Tomb of Fire

Arc Dream Publishing is best known as the publisher of the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, the roleplaying game of conspiratorial and Lovecraftian investigative horror, but in 2019, branched out into publishing for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition with its ‘Swords & Sorceries’ adventure line and two releases for its ‘Broken Empire’ setting. The first of these was The Sea Demon’s Gold, an adventure offering more dangers than rewards, and doing so in a weird, dank, and squelchy environment, with a strong undercurrent of the Lovecraftian. Where The Sea Demon’s Gold roughly threw the adventurers ashore and into a clammy dungeon, the second scenario, The Song of the Sun Queens, took the player characters to a southerly kingdom and there enmeshed them in its sisterly rivalry, before leading them out onto sun bleached savannah in search of a great treasure.

Each of the two scenarios so far have has had parallels with certain historical regions. So with The Sea Demon’s Gold the feel was that of the Hellenic world, and with The Song of the Sun Queens, it was the kingdoms of Africa. The third scenario in the ‘Swords & Sorceries’ has a Middle Eastern feel to it. Designed for five characters of Third Level, the structure of The Tomb of Fire feels a whole lot like that of The Song of the Sun Queens in that the player characters have travelled to the edges of the civilised world in search of a great treasure. In The Song of the Sun Queens, it was Ndame, the Land of the Sun that they travelled to and from there to the ancient, cursed ruin known as Juakufa where a great treasure is said to rest. In The Tomb of Fire, the Player Characters travel to the Rahaman oasis, in the dry land of Kahlar, at the edge of the great Mahjur Desert, seeking the Tomb of Fire, a ruined temple dedicated to a now forgotten god. It is said that like Juakufa, the Tomb of Fire is filled with great riches, but the local inhabitants will warn that the tomb is warded by great spirits deadlier than any man can defeat. 

For the players, The Tomb of Fire begins with everyone’s favourite roleplaying activity—shopping. Or rather preparing for the three-hundred-mile trek across the inhospitable Mahjur Desert to Jahiz. This trek forms the first part of the adventure, supported by detailed rules for handling its gruelling nature and a table of random encounters. Including a Ranger in the party will help, but either way, one character will be serving as guide and one as animal handler. There is just the one given encounter on the way which nicely, creepily foreshadows the sense of weirdness, distrust, and uncertainty which runs throughout the adventure. Once in Jahiz, they are welcomed by the Bashari, a deeply spiritual people who will constantly offer them prayers to their god, the Lord of Storms. They will be hospitable, once they learn of their interest in visiting the Tomb of Fire, will direct them to visit their high priest in the Temple of the Sky atop the single mountain which looms over Jahiz. He will question their motives, but explain that the Tomb of Fire is the prison of an immortal enemy to the Bashari, a devil of earth and fire known as Kallahaab. He will take Good-aligned characters into his confidence, that he has been warned that evil men are trying to break into the tomb and free Kallahaab and that he needs good men to ensure that they fail and that Kallahaab remains imprisoned. If the player characters are not Good-aligned, then their coming has been foretold, for they are ‘evil men’…

So ideally, the characters must be Good-aligned or particularly deceptive to get the directions out of the priest, but otherwise Neutral- or Evil-aligned characters will need to find their own way. The journey to the tomb will be interrupted by another band Bashari, the Paladins of the Hidden Flame. They are also friendly, but will denounce the Bashari of Jahiz as fools for not worshiping Kallahaab, the true ruler of the land who was betrayed by the Lord of Storms. They want the player characters to free him. This then sets up the dilemma at the heart of the Tomb of Fire—which faith is the true faith and who to trust? This comes to a head in the tomb itself, which although small, merely consisting of six locations, will constantly test the player characters’ faith. This includes a confrontation with Kallahaab within the tomb itself, who will be very persuasive when it comes to suggesting that the player characters free him, including promising to reward them with Wishes if they do…

There is a lot of roleplaying depth to The Tomb of Fire. All of the NPCs, whether human or monster, are interested in the player characters and in persuading them to their cause. So the players will need to decide who to follow, which will be based on two factors. One is their Alignment. The scenario does favour Good-aligned characters, but takes Neutral- and Evil-aligned characters into account. The other is the spirituality of both factions of Bashari, constantly expressed throughout the scenario and full of clues as to what is to come. The Tomb of Fire is not a scenario to be approached in too bullish a fashion, there being a subtlety present in the story that the players and their characters might otherwise miss and so land themselves in the fire… Now that said, the denouement of the scenario will require careful preparation and handling upon the part of the Dungeon Master as there is a great deal going on, whilst the aftermath is underwritten, in that it does not fully explore the consequences of the player characters’ actions, particularly if Kallahaab is freed.

This latter issue points to another problem with The Tomb of Fire and ‘Swords & Sorceries’ adventure line and the three releases so far for the ‘Broken Empire’ setting—and that is a lack of context. So far all three scenarios have been set far from the ‘Broken Empire’ and all three have been set in separate locations, so there is no sense of connection between the three and thus no sense of sharing the same world. This makes each scenario easy to pull out and work into a Dungeon Master’s own campaign world, but there is no world building between them which might otherwise have come about had the three scenarios so far been linked. The lack of context means that the player and their characters do not have any grounding in the setting, so it is harder for them to engage with it.

Physically, The Tomb of Fire is fantastically presented. The maps and writing are both good, but the artwork is excellent, full of character and rich detail, and like those in The Song of the Sun Queens can all be shown to the players as they progress through the scenario.

The Tomb of Fire is again relatively short, offering two to three sessions of play. It feels rich and deep in terms of the setting and its people, pleasingly embroiling the player characters in religious rivalries that provide a really good mix of roleplaying and action—often with an element of horror. Like the previous scenario, The Song of the Sun Queens, it presents more of a setting that nicely draws upon on cultures other than Western fantasy, but again leaves the Dungeon Master wanting and needing more. 

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