Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Review: The Black Libram of Nartarus

When I came home this afternoon and found a parcel behind the screen door I clutched it gleefully to my chest and began to do a happy-dance, much like Gollum on the edge of Mount Doom when he finally got his 'precious.'
My precious, today, was a shipment from Paizo containing AEG's Ultimate Toolbox, and Troll Lord Games' The Black Libram of Nartarus.  I'll have to put off reviewing Ultimate Toolbox until I've had more time to absorb the contents of that massive tome, but I've already given the Black Libram a read-through despite the risk to sanity and soul.

The Black Libram of Nartarus is a supplement for Castles & Crusades that introduces sword & sorcery-style dark magic and necromancy to the game.

Seventy-three black magic and necromantic spells are described from three profane tomes: The Black Libram of Nartarus, The Grimoire of the Witch Queen, and The Draconium of Kyuleshedrac.  Not only does the inclusion of the tomes from which these spells originate recall the books of forbidden lore so familiar to fans of H.P. Lovecraft and R.E. Howard, but many of the spells, themselves, have names that drip with sword & sorcery flavour: Blades of Shambere, Cursed Rot of Medjedu, Ebon Bands of Binding, Guh-shun's Thorns of Anguish, Lassiter's Curse of the Serpent and they cry out to be used.

Guidelines are given to allow any spell casting class (including druids and illusionists) to tread the perilous path of necromancy.  I find this particularly useful as druids in my campaign are not tree-hugging guardians of all creatures great and small, but wardens against the capricious and often terrifying forces of nature, and who routinely make blood sacrifice to appease Shub-Niggurath or Ithaqua.  It would take little to push such grim adepts onto the path of darkness, raising an army of undead animals to do their bidding.  In order to gain access to necromantic spells, a spell caster must state his intent to begin studying the dark arts at the beginning of the level preceding the one in which they would be able to cast spells of that level (i.e a caster wishing to gain access to 3rd level necromancy spells must begin studying at the beginning of 2nd level), an XP cost is added to the normal amount of experience needed to gain that level to reflect the extra study required.  In a similar fashion, necromantic powers, such as the ability to Command Undead like a cleric, can be learned by a necromancer by stating his intent at the beginning of a level and paying an extra XP cost.  He would then gain that ability at the start of his next level.

One of the best things about this book, in my opinion, is the chapter offering guidelines for sacrificial magic.  I've always felt that the traditional magic system of D&D is not as sinister as I would like it to be, and I've long sought a way to incorporate blood sacrifice into the game.  If you play in my campaigns you've probably lost track of the number of times you've rescued a naked woman bound to an altar, about to be sacrificed to a dark god.  To quote Lovecraft: "It needed the nourishment of sacrifice, for it was a god, and the blood is the life.  Even the Great Old Ones that are older than this world will answer a sorcerer's call when the blood of men or beasts is offered under the right conditions."  Black Libram now offers a reason, beyond sword & sorcery genre convention, for putting all those women on altars to begin with.  The guidelines for sacrificial magic increase the casting level of spells by a certain number of levels and for a certain number of hours depending on the hit dice of the victim.  The blood can be taken from willing or unwilling recipients or even from animals, but animals provide the least benefit, while the greatest power is derived from the blood of the pure and the innocent.  I'm pleased that I finally have the tools to tweak the magic system to what I thought it should always have been.

There is two pages of new magic items and artifacts, including the sacrificial dagger, that ubiquitous cultist accessory, that further increases the effectiveness of a blood sacrifice.  Finally there is a chapter devoted to new monsters.  My favourite of these are three new types of wolves: Ghoul Wolves, Shadow Wolves, and Vampiric Wolves.  I found all three wolves disturbing and creepy, and the description of the Ghoul Wolf reminds me a great deal of the zombie hounds in the movie, Resident Evil.

I would be remiss if I didn't comment on the art.  Both the cover and interior illustrations were made by Peter Bradley, and they set just the right tone for the book.  The pages are scattered with numerous scantily clad women in perilous situations, dark tomes, and evil creatures.  His illustration of the Vampiric Wolf depicts a sentient malice that I find unsettling in the best possible way.

I don't buy a lot of game products these days.  I've been stung far too often by books and supplements that have disappointed me.  All too often I flip through them and, uninspired, put them on the shelf where they languish ever after.  I took a chance with Black Libram, and I didn't really expect much of it, but I was very pleasantly surprised.  This is, quite simply, the best game supplement I've bought in years.  Its twenty-eight pages are filled with lots of useful aids to help me inject more of the dark sword & sorcery flavour that I want into my game.  Although it was written for Castles & Crusade it is, of course, completely compatible with any older version of D&D or its retro-clones.  The book isn't perfect; anyone familiar with Castles & Crusades will be all too familiar with typographical errors and editing omissions, and Black Libram is no different.  But this is a small complaint that in no way diminishes what is, in my opinion, an excellent game aid.


A Paladin In Citadel said...

Sounds neat, is this by mailorder only? If not, I will check it out at The Sentry Box on the weekend.

Love my Ultimate Toolbox, though i'm told that Toolbox (which I dont have) is slimmer but more useful

Sean Robson said...

If Sentry Box carries Troll Lord Games products then they should be able to order it if they don't have it in stock.

I think I'm going to love Ultimate Toolbox. I spent some time flipping through it this afternoon and it reminds me of how I used to just pick random spots in the DMG to read when I was a kid. I'm looking forward to studying it some more.