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Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Mummy's Mask - The Slave Trenches of Hakotep


I opened my review of the fourth segment of Mummy's Mask, Secrets of the Sphinx with a comment about how I'm not a big fan of dungeon crawls. I did that in order to set up a contrast with the fact that I actually really like Secrets of the Sphinx—enough to declare it a “dungeon crawl done well.” Conversely, I'm opening this review with a reminder of it because the next segment, The Slave Trenches of Hakotep by Michael Kortes, is a pretty good example of why I'm not a fan of dungeon crawls.

While there are aspects of the adventure that I like (including one great NPC), overall The Slave Trenches of Hakotep is a long slog through a succession of dungeons, each filled with traps and monsters, and many of them forming pieces in an overall puzzle for the PCs to put together. Apart from that one NPC, there's very little opportunity for roleplaying interactions, and very little to keep the adventure spiced up and moving along. It will take many sessions to play through, and most of those session will start to feel like the same thing over and over again—and that's not good.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

The adventure has two main parts, both of them dungeon crawls. The second is considerably longer, being made up itself of a bunch of stylistically similar dungeon crawls. Of course, in an adventure path set in Osirion, one expects dungeons crawls through old tombs and pyramids filled with traps and ancient undead creatures. It's part of the appeal. However, previous instalments of Mummy's Mask have handled this much better. The Half-Dead City made a point of each of its three dungeons being very different, and each one contained a history that unfolded as the PCs ventured through. Secrets of the Sphinx contained a complex political set-up that the PCs must navigate in addition to the dungeon itself. Slave Trenches, on the other hand, has pretty much none of that.

Having recovered the body of Chisisek, Pharaoh Hakotep's architect, in Secrets of the Sphinx, the PCs now have the opportunity to use spells like speak with the dead to communicate with him. From Chisisek, they can learn that, in order to find and bring down to the ground Hakotep's flying pyramid, they need to travel to the titular Slave Trenches and follow a series of steps to activate them. Hakotep designed the Slave Trenches as a way of attacking and grounding Shory cities (the ancient Empire of Shory, which was contemporary with Hakotep, was most well-known for its flying cities and was an enemy of Osirion). Hakotep died before the Slave Trenches were ever used for their intended purpose. However, while they were designed to be used against Shory cities, they can be used against any flying target, including Hakotep's pyramid.

Before the PCs can go to the Slave Trenches, however, another flying pyramid attacks Wati, and the PCs must hurry back there to defend the city—and this is where the adventure itself begins. This opening has so much potential and I was really excited by it when I first started reading it. With the death of the Forgotten Pharaoh in Secrets of the Sphinx, Hakotep's ib (the portion of his soul that contains his emotions and will) became free and travelled to his pyramid to rejoin his ba (his personality or psyche). At that point, Hakotep reincarnated as a mummy lord. One of his first actions is to send one of his favourite generals in life, Isatemkhebet, now herself undead, to collect the PCs. She does so by taking her own flying pyramid to Wati and threatening to destroy the city unless they turn over the PCs to her.

It's great to see villains being proactive for a change, rather than just sitting back and waiting for the PCs to come to them. Hakotep here actually takes steps to deal with a threat against him. Unfortunately, once Isatemkhebet reaches Wati, she stops being proactive and just sits back and waits for the PCs. The adventure even contains the line, “Isatemkhebet spends her hours patiently lying in wait in her sarcophagus for the PCs to arrive and present themselves to her” (19). She is literally a monster who waits in her assigned room until the PCs arrive to kill her. One could almost see this as clever meta-commentary, if it weren't for the fact that virtually everything else in the adventure does exactly the same thing. A few mummified harpy servants show up at the entrance to Isatemkhebet's pyramid to take the PCs to her, but otherwise, her pyramid is just a static location where everything has its place and nothing ever changes.

What makes the opening truly not live up to its potential, however, is its treatment of Wati—or rather its complete lack of treatment. Isatemkhebet attacks the city, but the adventure in no way gives any indication as to how the city responds, not even a few guidelines. The first two adventures of Mummy's Mask, particularly the second, Empty Graves, put a lot of effort into developing Wati, presumably so the PCs will care enough to want to protect it now. During those early adventures, the PCs met a lot of NPCs and presumably formed relationships and alliances with many of them. Yet here, none of that comes into play. The only previous NPC mentioned is Ptemenib, who contacts the PCs to let them know what is happening and request their help. The adventure then plunks the PCs at the entrance to Isatemkhebet's flying pyramid and completely forgets about Wati. We get no information whatsoever on the effect the attack has on the city as a whole.

Now, at this late point in an adventure path, it's impossible to know exactly how things have developed in individual campaigns and which NPCs the PCs have long-term relationships with. The adventure also has a limited amount of space and can't possibly provide the GM with everything. However, a few guidelines on how the city reacts would go a long way. Still, this adventure could have been so much better and so much more interesting if it had focused on the ramifications of the attack on Wati rather than treating that as nothing more than a background hook to get the PCs to the dungeon. There could be some factions in the city that immediately want to turn the PCs over, while other factions wish to fight it out. There would be huge roleplaying potential. Instead, we get a succession of combats that could take place in any adventure.

Once the PCs defeat Isatemkhebet, they can continue on to the Slave Trenches and call down Hakotep's pyramid. From Chisisek's body, they can learn the steps they need to take to accomplish this: First, awaken the magic of the Slave Trenches and 11 Sekrephere monuments by activating the great receptacle. Then focus the monuments on Hakotep's tomb by activating them in the proper order. Then use an item called the pharaoh's key to activate the Sun Disk and bring down the tomb. Each of these steps is accomplished in a different one of several dungeons found throughout the Slave Trenches (which cover a huge area). In each of these dungeons, the PCs face undead, constructs, and traps before reaching their current objective. There's very little difference between these dungeons, so I won't go into a lot of detail about them here. None of them contain any noteworthy NPCs to interact with and none of them really have an interesting story or history to uncover. Considering how old the Slave Trenches are (literally thousands of years old), surprisingly little has ever actually happened there.

There is one thing, however, that makes the Slave Trenches a little more dynamic, and that's the presence of the shaitan genie Tef-Naju. His presence helps to redeem the adventure somewhat, even if his role is fairly small. Tef-Naju is the guardian of the Slave Trenches, bound here in service by Hakotep thousands of years ago. Unlike everything else in this adventure, Tef-Naju doesn't sit still and wait for the PCs. As soon as he learns of their presence, he takes active measure to find them and learn what they are up to. The PCs are actually unlikely to encounter him for the first time in his home (or keyed location on the map). He will move about to take what steps he deems necessary to protects his interests, and he'll base those steps on what he can learn about the PCs.

But Tef-Naju is a far more interesting character than just this. Even though he is the principal antagonist of the adventure, the PCs don't necessarily have to fight and kill. They can, in fact, turn him into an ally. The terms of his service to Hakotep require that he remain guardian of the Slave Trenches until the first time they are used to call down a flying object from above. In his youth, Tef-Naju eagerly agreed to the terms out of greed for the riches he was promised. He (and presumably Hakotep as well) never expected the service to last so long, as Hakotep died and the Trenches were abandoned before they were ever used. The PCs can make him realize that calling down Hakotep's tomb will satisfy the terms of service and set him free. In this way, as long as they aren't trying to destroy the Trenches (which he is bound to protect), they can convince him to help them achieve their goals. Tef-Naju is an example of a well-developed and complex NPC with believable motivations and goals and is, without doubt, the best part of this adventure.

It's unfortunate that the rest of the adventure is so static. Completing all the dungeons in the Slave Trenches will likely become increasingly tedious. If I ever run this adventure, I'll likely remove at least a couple of the dungeons in the Slave Trenches and simply group the different steps to calling down Hakotep's pyramid closer together. It really doesn't need to be as long as it is—except, I suppose, to provide enough experience points for the PCs to reach the appropriate level for the next adventure, but more time spent on the ramifications of the attack on Wati can help to fill in that gap.

Following the adventure, “The Rise and Fall of the Shory Empire” by Neil Spicer gives a great overview of this ancient empire. It covers the history of the Shory Empire and its culture, and examines why the empire eventually fell (in this case, somewhat literally fell). Although the Shory Empire no longer exists (and thus, campaigns aren't likely to be set there), the article provides excellent colour for GMs to inject into their games. Background information like this helps to truly bring a game alive, and this particular article is both informative and entertaining to read.

The next article, “Lost Treasures of Ancient Osirion” by Tim Hitchcock looks at five unique artifacts from Ancient Osirion. The artifact write-ups are similar in style to those in Artifacts & Legends, providing not just a list of powers, but also a history of each item. I sometimes wish all magic items in the game were treated in this way. It makes them far more interesting than just a +1 sword.

Finally, this volume's Bestiary contains four new creatures, two of which play significant roles in the adventure. A hanshepsu is a construct created from the sacrifice of a willing human soul. It looks like a human with the head of some other animal, such as a cat, hawk, or even a scarab beetle. A hanshepsu can change the form of its head and each kind of head gives it different abilities. Ossumentals are undead infused with elemental power. They are in many ways like a combination of undead and elemental.

As I both read the adventure and planned this review of it, I couldn't help but think of the adventure it could have been—an adventure where the PCs return to Wati and actually defend the city from attack, rather than just go on yet another dungeon crawl. The Slave Trenches themselves would be smaller and occupied by a group of immortal guardians (of which Tef-Naju would be just one), each with his/her own goals and motivations, and the PCs would need to interact and deal with them either individually or as a group in order to successfully call down Hakotep's tomb. Instead, The Slave Trenches of Hakotep is a very static adventure, one that just seems to go on and on from one dungeon room to the next. There are certainly worse adventures out there, but as it is, there is very little about this adventure that compels me in any way to run it. The support articles, however, are very useful.

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