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Friday 17 May 2024

Friday Fantasy: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen

It is a year to celebrate. The Queen’s Onyx Jubilee is about to begin, marking the ninety-fifth year of the merciful monarch’s glorious reign. Queen Yoros has the good fortune to be so long-lived and so youthful still, and her people rejoice at her fortune and the beneficence of her reign. She is even gracious enough to invite subjects from all levels of society, including the peasantry. For them, this is a chance to see the queen, to enjoy her hospitality, to pay their respects, and to make memories that they will tell their grandchildren. Unfortunately, only one of these facts is actually true. Whilst the queen is holding a celebration—of a sort—and does want the peasants to attend, hence the invitations, this is not necessarily to their good fortune, although it might be the making of them… They awake to find themselves in an opulent palace, a bitter taste in their mouths and bestial death cultists looming over them. Where are they? How did they get there? How do they get out? These are questions to be answered in Dungeon Crawl Classics #101: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen, a scenario for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #101: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen is, as the title suggests, the one-hundred-and-first title in the ‘Dungeon Crawl Classics’ line from Goodman Games. Befitting the fact that it has passed that milestone, Dungeon Crawl Classics #101: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen is a Character Funnel. This is a feature of Dungeon Crawl Classics, a scenario specifically designed for Zero Level Player Characters in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. Dungeon Crawl Classics #101: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen certainly is tough, a great mausoleum turned fouled fane, crawling with savage cultists, sepulchers marked with vicious traps, the smell of death and decay unavoidable, all the while something monstrous lurks in the upper halls ready to vomit flesh-burrowing grave worms at intruders, and a mellifluous voice urges intruders to come to her rescue… Inspired by the short stories ‘The Charnel God’ by Clark Ashton Smith and ‘Imprisoned with the Pharaohs’ by H.P. Lovecraft—and surprisingly—Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee. The whole complex has been turned into a temple to Mordiggian, a god of death, and it combines a slightly eerie feel with a Lovecraftian undertone and a sense of dread and uncertainty, all punctuated with screams of terror and death…

Dungeon Crawl Classics #101: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen begins en media res. The Player Characters awake to find themselves lying on the floor amidst rows of bodies. Cultists pick over the corpses. It is a wonderfully creepy opening. Once the Player Characters have dealt with the cultists—as is typical for a Dungeon Crawl Classics Character Funnel—with a mass brawl relying on luck rather than skill, because after all, they are intentionally incompetent, they can begin to explore. There is a lovely scale and grandeur to what is the royal funerary complex, dwarfing the Player Characters, its opulence, let alone the persistent and pervading stench of the grave, constantly serving to remind them that they are out of place.

The Player Characters have two objectives. One is to find out where they are, the other is to get out of wherever they are. To do that they are pulled onwards by the mysterious voice into the first of several funeral vaults. These are the last resting places of various royal personages, holding not just the bodies of kings and queens, but items that are necessary for the Player Characters’ survival in helping them defeat the ghastly threats they are likely to face towards the end of the scenario. They are also the opportunity for the author to have some fun with the Judge in presenting puzzles and traps for the players and their characters to overcome and/or survive. They often include a great table of random (or appear to be random) events that can befall the Player Characters, either killing them in interesting ways or changing them radically in true Dungeon Crawl Classics fashion. If the Player Characters can overcome these nicely detailed set pieces, they have the means to defeat the threats they will later face. Wielding these means also hints at possible roles or Classes that the survivors can take after completing the scenario, that is, Cleric, Thief, Warrior, and Wizard.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #101: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen being a Character Funnel means that there is a possibility of a Total Party Kill. Fortunately, the scenario offsets that by providing a ready supply of bodies, some of which like the original Player Characters, may not actually be dead. These can readily replace the original Player Characters, so that a player could easily play through the scenario and complete it with a completely different set of Player Characters. Given the deadliness of the scenario in places, this is a distinct possibility, as is the chance that the Player Characters make an attempt to escape the funeral palace, totally unprepared, get killed, and almost have to start again, looking for the means to defeat the foul foes that killed their forbears and successfully gain their freedom.

Physically, Dungeon Crawl Classics #101: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen is very well presented. If the frontispiece looks a little goofy, the rest of the artwork is decent and the cartography is excellent, nicely depicting the scale of the funeral complex. The scenario also includes four handouts and these are nicely done.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #101: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen is a really nicely done Character Funnel with lots of atmosphere and dread, but it does leave the Judge and her players wanting at the end. The issue is that in escaping the funeral palace and in the process, both discovering quite why Queen Yoros has managed both to stay so young and achieve the ninety-fifth year of her glorious reign and ending that reign, their actions have potentially calamitous consequences for her kingdom. The question is, what happens next? What happens to the kingdom which has just lost its (evil) queen? What are the consequences for the Player Characters? Of course, this is entirely up to the Judge to develop, but the idea of having inadvertently brought down a kingdom is such a delicious idea that you wish that Goodman Games would actually publish a sequel exploring what happens next.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #101: The Veiled Vaults of the Onyx Queen is a richly detailed and enjoyably thematic Character Funnel. It gets the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game’s second century of scenarios off to a delightfully grand and morbid start.


Goodman Games will be at UK Games Expo which takes place on Friday, May 31st to Sunday June 2nd, 2024.

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