Sunday 28 February 2021

[Review] The Palace of Unquiet Repose (DCC RPG)

A Domain of Decay.
A few years ago Prince of Nothing and Malrex released The Red Prophet Rises, an OSR adventure that did a stellar job at capturing the essence of sword & sorcery with its ultraviolent barbarian cult, dreary canyons, and antediluvian ruins. I can't recall when the Prince of the Lowlands started teasing his next project, The Palace of Unquiet Repose, but I was hyped from that very moment, and it seemed like an eternity until the Kickstarter campaign launched. The campaign was successful enough to spawn three conversions of the module: one for Labyrinth Lord, one for Old-School Essentials, and one for DCC RPG. Poor For Gold & Glory got the short end of the stick this time - it's a shamefully underrated retroclone that deserves more attention. But I digress... I have all three versions at my disposal1, but for this review I went with with the best game the OSR has ever seen: DCC RPG.

The DCC RPG version of The Palace of Unquiet Repose is a 75 pages long book accompanied by a 14 page bonus adventure called The Screaming Caverns. The almost monochrome still-life of the cover stands in stark contrast with the violent ritual seen on The Red Prophet Rises, and the eerie black and white interior further reinforces that the days of high adventure and barbaric splendour are over - welcome to the Age of Dusk, a bleak era still suffering from past calamities!

While art is great at giving first impressions and setting the tone, it's purpose is to supplement the writing2. Prince nails it effortlessly. He focuses on the important set pieces of each scene, highlighting their defining features in a terse but pompous prose. Ominous features are left for the last, making them linger on. That's smart pacing, that's how you do effective foreshadowing. Once you absorbed the feel each of the bolded keywords gets its spotlight in a bullet point list. The art and the writing together create a powerful atmosphere unlike any other. The Palace feels like an oppressing, melancholic, and haunting relic of bygone, alien times. It is grandiose dark fantasy reminding me of the depressing world of Berserk, the melancholic journey of Dark Souls, the disturbing art of Giger, the droning songs of Celtic Frost3.

"The Glass Wastes were once the site of an empire, so horrible none dare remember it."

The Palace of Unquiet Repose doesn't waste much time with introduction and summary: it starts throwing useful stuff at you right away, including some damn good hooks (like horrific visions of antropophagy driving a character to the wasteland), juicy rumours (some of them are needless to say utter bullshit), and some random NPCs (most of them aren't right in the head). Besides being useful in kickstarting the adventure these also give a good picture about the status quo. Deep in the desert an earthquake revealed a ruin built by the race of Tzyan - an ancient people who not only hated the gods, but built weapons to kill them. A squad of Sial-Atun mercenaries deserters, a cult of Tzyan called the Nine, and various ne'er-do-wells are looking for the place.

The Palace is a week's travel on foot from the city, during which Dusk Stalkers will harrass the party. They are the cooler cousins of the owlbear - they have a paralyzing scream, they use smart tactics to stalk their prey, they wrap themselves in the skin of their victims, and are actually the descendants of degenerate humans. Their behaviour is smart and believable, and will force the players to think through how they camp if they want to both rest and survive.

"Eroded by the ages, the malevolent visage of some ancient prince gazes down imperiously from a monstrous body of ancient stone."

Once the party reaches the basin they can enter the mythic underworld either through a basalt sphinx [sic] or a fissure. The sphinx leads to a collection of chambers full of ancient traps, eerie murals hinting about the place's forgotten history, and some unusual treasure in form of gilded skeletons. The fissure is shorter, safer, but much more foreboding. Infiltrators are greeted by a camp of mutilated corpses and a Dusk Stalker impaled on a spear among a row of statues, whose mate will attack the moment someone starts tampering with a nearby treasure. 

"Rising from a lake of shimmering quicksilver and misty vapors, back-lit by eerie witch-light, the Palace of Unquiet Repose stands monstrous vigil over a city of the dead."

The two entrances offer different kinds of horrors, but ultimately both lead to the Black Shore. A lake of mercury with a colossal statue of the sorcerer Uyu-Yadmogh emerging from it, wall full of miniature carvings depicting torture and perversion, an evil shrine where one can be baptized to protect himself from the upcoming horrors at a cost, a forest of petrified trees stalked by a glass concubine, the dispirited rearguard of the Sial-Atun mercenaries... The disheartening landscape already offers memorable encounters, and it's still just a prelude to the Palace, which awaits patiently in the background, behind the lake of mercury.

"Nothing can be heard in the city but silence."

Even the walls have mouths.
The haunted ruins of the Necropolis is where the shit hits the fan. The Sial-Atun mercenaries have a base here. They were lead here by Captain Sarakar looking for untold riches, but are stuck here and tired of this place. Among the terracotta and obsidian plants of the Gardens stands the Crystal Tree, which prevents any kind of violence within its sight. It's worshipped by the Children of the Tree, a bunch of hippies living on the fungi growing on the tree. Their leader is the Father, who went crazy and can change from Mother Teresa to Hitler without warning4. He also has an Infinite Dart, a branch of the esoteric tree, the only weapon that can be used in its presence and can damage even the gods. Finally, among the ruins lurk the Nine. They are cultists of Tzyan with unique special abilities and pretentious names - they are not unlike JoJo villains. The Thousand Faced Prince can shapeshift without magic, The Walker in Dreams can leave his body and enter people's dreams, The Shaper of Things to Come can shape clay and stone into weapons, et cetera... Their leader is the hauntingly beautiful Khabareth Who Comes Before, who bound a Wolf of the Final Night into her bidding, a nightmarish shadow creature from the End of Time even she can't fully control.

If the potential faction play wasn't enough, the Necropolis still has some tricks in its sleeves. Nomen est omen, the place is full of corpses, and is haunted by the Azarog, a nigh invincible and invisible creature that is limited in movement but can reanimate the dead to its heart's desire. The scenery also has some memorable objects to play with, but my favorite is probably the Vae Victis, where the still-alive severed head of a lesser god is held on display. When the gigantic face is questioned he keeps repeating creepy prophecies. When the shard from his forehead is removed he answers a question truthfully before perishing. The shard is a deiphage, a dagger that can wound the gods, but can also grow into the wielder's hand and slowly turn him into one of the undead.

"A baroque monstrosity hewn from basalt, obsidian and crimson marble, every square inch covered in reliefs and figurines, super-imposed over one-another as if capturing all possible facets of their nature."

There are several ways to enter the Palace. There is a hallway covered by gaping mouths, that drain your soul unless you have one of the pebbles from the Black Shore, or you threw enough people at it to deplete the trap. If the players manage to bypass the traps the Sial-Atun and the Nine will follow. There is a secret entrance in the Necropolis through an optical illusion revealed by meditating. And finally one can enter through the roof, but it's a difficult climb made harder by the tiles turning into gargoylesque guardians.

How blood sausage is made.
The Palace is baroque, grotesque, and rich beyond imagination: walls are made of gold, treasure stands in piles - literally. There are even rules for vandalizing the place for treasure, which I found amusing. While it might be tempting, it's not necessarily a wise idea. Like the Necropolis, the Palace has its watchdog too. Diorag the Breaker is the re-animated corpse of a demigod chained to the throneroom with 1000 feets of adamantium. Once he learns there are intruders he will follow them and even pop up as random encounter. If the characters can avoid or trick him, they can still be eaten by salivating walls, seduced by glass concubines, impaled in the heart by an immovable nail, splashed with cursed gore by the half-idiotic Master of Cerenomies, or betrayed by a chaotic artifact.

Intrepid players can also descend to the second level, where Uyu-Yadmogh, the Tzyanese prince who built this Palace can be found. He is more of an abominable object than a monster, a colossal fusion of the sorcerer and his minions. He is surprisingly firendly, willing to show his visitors what Judgement awaits them, and offers the secret of avoiding it for the head of the Sial-Atun and the Nine. If his offer is refused or someone tries to take The Tome of Iron and Glass from him he will go mad and start animating corpses and draining souls until he is destroyed - though only two objects can kill him permanently...

The module ends with almost as many appendices as the AD&D1e DMG. I will highlight four because they cover topics I want to dwell a bit more on.

Appendix A sums up the factions, a defining element of the Necropolis area. All three of them has character, iconic NPCs, and a goal which they actively seek to achieve. They are equally willing to ally themselves with the players or murder them to get what they want. Even the hippies when the Father gets in paranoid mood on his random table. Fuck, he is willing to destroy his own, who are willing to sacrifice themselves for him... Though they have less important roles in earlier and later parts of the adventure, the factions make the Palace and its environs come alive and provide memorable friends and foes.

Appendix B lists a bunch of magnificent magic items. One of my favourites is the Cask of Unknowing, which makes people forget about the bearer, but too much use will reduce the bearer's personality and turn him into a non-being. The Many-Angled Instrument of Ethereal Imprisonment is basically the trap from Ghostbusters. The Tome of Iron and Glass contains Nth level spells which require an hour of chanting and a DC 20 spellcasting check to mess up an entire area - except for the imperfect Transcending the Fetters of Mortality, which destroys the ritualist and blinds those around him. The book also contains two adventure hooks (or sneaky advertisement), foreshadowing what modules to expect from the Merciless Merchants in the future. While not as exciting as the magic items, even the mundane treasure is kept interesting, often by the sheer amount of it and the challenge its recovery poses.

I loved you in Dark Souls!
Appendix C collects some of the new monsters. Horrifying beasts are just as important for creating a dark fantasy atmosphere as the eldritch environment. An evocative description is only half the battle though, the creatures must have abilities that put the fear in the metagamer's heart too. The Palace of Unquiet Repose satisfied me both visually and mechanically. Some encounters feel like something right out of Dark Souls. I'm particularly fond of the invincible boss monsters that requires cunning or the serious waste of resources to get through - straight up fighting them usually means quick death. Then there is shit that's just plain weird, like the glass concubines. The idea of autonomous realdolls isn't that weird by default, but making them from glass and electrum, and making one with the lower body of a dragon? I wouldn't touch Prince's browsing history with a ten foot pole...

Appendix F is a topic near and dear to all DCC RPG fans: patrons! The Palace of Unquiet Repose introduces two of them with unique Invoke Patron results, patron taints, spellburns, and spells. The Tesseract Tree worshipped by the Necropolis hoboes is older than the gods. It can not only cease violence, but awaken animals to sentience, hand out Infinite Darts, and even alter reality. To form a pact one has to crucify himself on its branches. The Tree is only willing to have one pact at a time, so before nailing yourself to a tree you have to kill the Father. Uyu-Yadmogh on the other hand is not so picky, though his spells aren't as exciting either: they can sow discord, age creatures, and petrify. Invoke Patron can summon Azarog though, which is nice.

The Screaming Caverns is the cherry on the cake. This exclusive adventure is about slaying a Sial-Atramentar, a maimed servant of the fallen gods that can be only harmed in one specific way. The players will have to figure out that condition through rumours, oracles, or random luck. There is an unpleasant twist though once they enter the monster's lair: he has a friend too. One of them can resurrect the dead but with malfunctions and a hatred against all things they loved in life, the other can shape stone and entomb living creatures in it. The Screaming Caverns is a fun monster hunt that requires a lot of preparations and is very easy to fuck up because of false rumours or lack of information.

I left the layout for the last. While mostly it's clean and uses highlighting, bullet points, cross referencing effectively, it's far from perfect. The way NPCs are presented is confusing. There is an italic description first, followed by stat blocks, equipment, and details. The problem is there is no heading or title telling you that a new section begins, and whom it's about. Even a cheap trick, like putting the stat block first would have helped in differentiating the sections. My other issue is with charts. They are chunky and often flow into other pages. This is a frequent problem for charts with large chunks of texts, like random encounter tables containing stat blocks. They are also ineffective: the cells are full of unused whitespace, making me cringe. I recommend formatting tables so they fit in a single page, and rethinking how columns and rows are used to minimize wasted space.

The Palace of Unquiet Repose exceeded my expectations. It walks on the razor's edge, finely balancing between Negadungeons and Monty Haul. It's a horrible place that can destroy your precious characters, but it isn't unfair and offers unimaginable rewards for the risks you take. It is dark fantasy done right - there is no self-irony, no random bullshit for the sake of weirdness, just foreboding atmosphere delivered with unparalleled craftsmanship. Well done!

Rules system: DCC RPG, Labyrinth Lord,
    Old-School Essentials
Publisher: The Merciless Merchants
Publication date: 2021

Format: softcover
Size: letter-size
Pages: 75 + 14

Available from:
 DriveThruRPG (pdf, print on demand)
An atmospheric
dark fantasy masterpiece.

1 I originally backed the DCC RPG version only and gave some feedback after reading the beta version. Not sure if it's because that or to honour some silly old agreement in the Age of Dusk blog's comment section, but my pledge level was upgraded to have all three versions.

2 I wanted to write a review about Xanadu last autumn, but scrapped it because my judgement was clouded by how I didn't get what I expected based on the pixelated old-school crpg art.

3 The book even starts with some Celtic Frost lyrics on the second page. Another band it reminds me of is Melechesh because of the Middle Eastern influences and occult topics.

4 He also has a 10% chance to die during a seizure. Good times!

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  1. My browsing history is filled only with "good teeth, fertile, good breeding" etc. etc. you long-haired tartar-blooded rapscallion!

    Thank you for going over my work with such a fine-toothed comb, and congrats on teasing out the manifold details particularly the plethora of references. Jojo's Bizarre Adventure was sadly not a source of inspiration for this adventure, but in the future, who knows.

    1. Doesn't matter, if I ever get to run this adventure the Nine will strike awkward poses and wear gaudy clothing.

  2. To solve the mystery of your sudden windfall, it was indeed to honor the silly agreement we had made in the olden days of my blog.

    1. Ironically while the time between the announcement and release of The Palace of Unquiet Repose seemed like an eternity, those olden days feel like they were yesterday.

  3. Sweet review. Been reading Prince's blog for literal years, glad to see him doing well and maybe become one of the "bigwigs" of the OSR.

    1. The OSR has some pretty strong "bigwigs" nowadays. They might lack the superstar image or visibility of some of the former defining names, but that's something I don't mind.

  4. Replies
    1. Thanks! Congratulations on the Saving Cha'alt Kickstarter!

  5. Thanks for the review! Keeping tables on one page is a constant challenge. I like to keep them on one page as well but this time it was difficult--perhaps needing more art to start them on the page or some other trick. As for NPCs, I'll think about what you stated. Perhaps the name of the NPC could go first, but I like the description being first as that, in my opinion, is what the GM needs first to describe what the characters see (instead of a stablock first). Already trying to change that up on the next adventure. ALWAYS love the feedback so that I can continue to improve. Thanks again!

    1. The problem with NPC descriptions is I have no clue who or what am I reading about when I get to the description. Having a name above would help a great deal with that.

      I know tables are a huge pain in the ass. If all else fails and you can't fit them on a page split them in a way that both halves are on the same section of two facing pages - eg. both halves are on the top of the page.

      Keep up the good work!