I’ve reviewed the previous entries by Small Niche Games, but I hadn’t had a chance to read anything new in a while…until Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands was just released, a gazetteer-style release for The Chronicles of Amherth!
WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands is $7.95 in PDF format at RPGNow, or for $15.95 you can order the print version and get the PDF for free. Ghoul Keep and the Ghoul Lands runs 132 pages, larger than the entire Amherth setting book, and is set just north of the Duchy of Valnwall, meaning you could easily run the earlier adventures in Valnwall and then move North.
The rules support is for Labyrinth Lord, as usual. The book opens with some important themes to remember, such as Isolation (the PCs, once they get in, don’t have a lot of room to run), Adventurers Are Heroes (but people can only become Adventurers in the capitalized sense if duly sponsored) and Undead Rule The Night (so stay inside when the sun goes down).
The Ghoul Lands are actually the Kingdom of Makaar Mor (a reference to another company’s supplement, Lesserton and Mor). Lorrgan Makaar was ripped to pieces by Valen of Vay, but Makaar survived this dismemberment and now his disembodied head rules his kingdom while seeking out the rest of his body. The Ghoul Lands are surrounded by mountains and is dominated by The Cult of Rebirth. This could be a Ravenloft domain already.
A good overview follows, with a calendar, a section on the tech level (they are about semi-Bronze Age) and the topic of alignment (most folks fall in the area of Lawful-Neutral and Neutral-Evil…few Chaotics or Evils). Women outnumber men five to one and everyone is assumed to be serving the Ghoul King Lorrgan Makaar, from the barons to the nobles to the commoners.
The geography section aims to provide “just enough detail” without mapping out every inch of the world, with the major landmarks even about a paragraph. For instance, the Westwood is an untamed forest uninhabited by humans which holds all kinds of ruins and monsters. The Cowl is a river known for its dangerous undercurrents, hidden debris and quicksand bogs.
Palatz Makaar, the seat of Makaar Mor’s power, has blood red waterfalls that flow into a blood red lake and a large chunk of the city that is now underwater. Each of the five Provinces of Makaar Mor have suitable evocative landmarks with definite room for exploration and adventure.
The Cursed Ward of Valen surrounds the Ghoul Lands and damages (to the death) any undead that tries to cross it.
Adventuring can be…interesting…as warriors and rogues are respected for their prowess, but clerics and magic-users are viewed with suspicion, and clerics preaching of other Gods treated as Heretics. And demihumans are automatically treated with suspicion. Oh, and remember how you have to be sponsored in order to be an adventurer? Well, there’s this whole ritual you also have to undergo that allows you more freedom to move at night. It’s creepy, it involves ghouls, and it has a nasty surprise if you do certain things…that’s all I’ll say.
A dozen plot seeds are provided, with many being open enough to go multiple ways (like Lorrgan Makaar selecting a bride: Do the PCs answer his call to help track her down…or help her hide?). Another seed involves overthrowing the King and ties in nicely with others (like having an evil NPC help the PCs out…leading to the PCs having to deal with the bad guy left over), and even an old prophecy that is left entirely to your interpretation.
The NPC section stats up the Ghoul King, his Barons, The Cult of Rebirth as well as providing information on The Church of Law and Order and The Keepers of the Old Law. Makaar’s Brood as the children of Lorrgan Mor, half-human and half-ghoul, each with their own motivations and goals. The Ghoul Lands even houses a blue dragon, an elder vampire and a swamp witch.
New magic items include the Dead Man’s Draught, which tricks lesser undead into thinking the drinker is also undead, as well as the Cape of Entanglement (which can be a surprising and effective weapon), Herkon’s Ink (which can provide magical tattoos), the Spear of Rot (which injects rot grubs into its victims) and the Sword of the Unliving (which burns the flesh of the living upon touch).
Relics include the Sword of Valen (though both the powers and fate of the sword are shrouded in mystery) and the Skeletine Throne, made from the bones of Lorrgan Makaar’s enemies.
The Flora and Fauna section includes plants like corpsegrass (which can force the dead back into unlife) and ghostmoss (which can heal the dead and poison the living) as well as creatures like bonewraiths (made up of the bones and spirits of fallen soldiers), and half a dozen types of ghouls, including the half-human gahouls.
Ghoul Keep, which is pretty much the entry into the kingdom, is fully mapped out with its traps, treasures and pitfalls, as well as random encounter charts. The Agden Commoner’s Hall is also provided as a base of operations and includes a list of rumors, relevant NPCs and rules for haggling, as well as a series of games used in competition (like arm wrestling and Five Finger Fillet). Plot seeds are also provided for the Hall.
Kalitus Corpi, a sandbox adventure, is also provided. It is an exploration of an evil, ruined temple (how the PCs get there is determined by the GM, though suggestions are provided) that is housing a hidden cult that is in opposition to the Cult of Rebirth, though far from good guys themselves. It also includes a really freaky temple inhabitant that is essentially a four armed undead human rat maggot.
Rules are provided, based off of an old Dragon magazine, to tweak undead in order to make them stronger. Finally, the book concludes with an index.
WHAT WORKS: As is usual for Small Niche Games, they provide a lot of gameable material for a good price. Lorrgan Makaar could easily be a Ravenloft Dark Lord, and I mean that as a compliment. This isn’t a straight forward “let’s go kill the bad guy” supplement, though you can certainly do just that. Raltus the Undying is just absolutely creepy. The lands are detailed enough to get you going while providing plenty of room for you to add your own twists.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK: As usual, my biggest complaint is that it isn’t written for a system I’m a bigger fan of, but a little conversion work later and that’s not an issue.
CONCLUSION: My favorite release yet from Small Niche Games. Making an undead kingdom gameable in more than just the “kill everything that moves” sense isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but they pulled that off here. Lorrgan Makaar is an interesting villain who is operating from a position of power while having very noticeable vulnerabilities that prevent him from being unstoppable. You could easily get a full campaign out of this book, either using native-born PCs or travelers from outside The Ghoul Lands.