Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Review - Bloodsoaked Boudoir of Velkis the Vile

Why am I reviewing this tiny module, lacking in slick art and a name brand pedigree? 

I am reviewing it for a couple of reasons, the first is that I know and like the author, but more importantly, The Bloodsoaked Boudoir of Velkis the Vile is the sort of hobby product that I have come to appreciate the most about DIY tabletop - it's produced out of a joy in playing tabletop games and with creativity and an esoteric view of the game rather then as part of a product line for sale and consumption.  Even the DIY products I like are often fairly expensive today, and I see egos growing behind the success of these more ambitious products, a success that seems to fuel greed and cattiness among other would be creators. RPGnow is filled with short, derivative and generally awful vanilla fantasy  blather that has the audacity to ask for money.  One of the key joys of tabletop has always been that it asks the consumer to create - from the empty 1/2 of B4 Lost City on the best tabletop RPG products have encouraged GMs and players to build their own fantasy worlds.  As such any published product will always be ancillary, and when a creator asks consumers to use their setting materials and modules they are asking them to do more then hand over a few dollars, they are asking to hand over a chunk of their creativity and imagination as well, which is not something one should do with arrogance.  Bloodsoaked Boudoir is not an arrogant product, it's small and can fit into another game with some ease, while still being interesting enough to give an evocative sense of it's authors sort of game and game world that is different enough from the standard 'orcs in a hole' fantasy adventure to provide interesting ideas, and leave a reader with the sense that maybe they wouldn't have thought of it themselves. With all these advantages the author is happy enough to simply publish his work as a pay what you want PDF, rather then promote it and clamber for your cash.

Manifesto done, on to the review.  I've played with Nick Whelan a bunch of times, and rather enjoyed his Dungeon Moon setting of which the Boudoir of Velkis was a part - Velkis was one of the two sub-deities that the Dungeon Moon party managed to eliminate during a year or so of games.  I will say it was a fun game when run by Nick, and would likely be a fun setting run by anyone. The party encountered Velkis (the titular villain) numerous times, and thought of him as an annoying random encounter that was far less dangerous than most. Only the warnings of a friendly kobald tribe revealed the true danger of Velkis and the adventurers decided to assassinate him - leading to one of the more psychedelic sessions of D&D that I have played.

The Bloodsoaked Boudoir of Velkis the Vile is a ten page PDF using Lamentations of the Flame Princess stat lines (essentially any OSR/retro-clone system should work) published as a pay what you want adventure on RPGnow.  It's a small five area dungeon with a few functional pieces of art that fits well on a more gonzo random encounter table - drop in Velkis and place his extra-dimensional grave/lair somewhere nearby, and you've laid a potential one session adventure that's pretty good and plenty bizarre. 

Velkis is described as Cato the Elder ...
A short romp through a pocket dimension inhabited by a rather benign seeming lich/wizard named
Velkis.  Velkis is rather insane and utterly lacking in the skeletal majesty of most liches, passing himself as a doddering grandfatherly figure rather then a puissant undead immortal.  Yet, Velkis is dangerous and perverse despite his appearance - perverse in the manner of an 70's shlock horror movie, and this is what makes him fun. The module bills itself as "horror-comedy" and that's how I'd run it.

Velkis is a creep who lurks at the bottom of the random encounter table and has the power of persuasion.  He's a good villain because it's unlikely that he can kill or injure party members on the first encounter, he really seems pretty harmless - but he's effectively immortal and he's damn inconvenient.  He's also terrifying, effectively designed with powers that could be very, very dangerous but which are badly used. Velkis can steal away and murder a party member or two and if he's ignored and laughed at (exactly what he wants I think) he may become a real nemesis for the party.

Discovering Velkis's lair is when things get strange, as befits a quasi-immortal, lunatic warlock.  There's a gravity trap, strange statues, an evil tree and Velkis' rejuvenating bath of blood.  Each of this locations is a trick location, meaning that despite being only five rooms there's plenty of content within the Boudoir for a couple hours of interesting play.

This (Vincent Price in 1956's House of Wax) is also Velkis
The Bloodsoaker Boudoir is tightly designed and written - it is not part of a classic, resource depletion dungeon crawl but an effectively written lair that emphasizes it's inhabitant's odd nature and brand of villainy.  Each of the five rooms represents a trap and provided in a well written style.  I am especially impressed by the way the gravity trap in the first room is described, gravity traps are always hard to visualize and the description here helps a lot.

Velkis himself is also a well designed villain, a bit goofy, but comprehensibly so in any gonzo or high magic setting - a mad wizard who has found a way toward immortality other than lichdom, but has become a slave of his own mechanism to immortality. Velkis seems like a lot of fun to run, and he manages to seem comical until the moment his unnatural vitality becomes rather scary.  The module gives a bunch of advice on running Velkis, which is a good bonus, acknowledging the potentially instant TPK nature of his powers, but explaining how to use the villain's lunatic nature to soften it.   Providing tactics and motivations for monsters is always good practice, and here it really pays off, as Velkis is such a strange antagonist.

Another element that makes Velkis a good villain is that he is fairly level agnositic, a 1st level gang of dungeon trash can overcome him, yet he might be able to challenge even a party of heroes.  This is good as Velkis can set a theme and reappear as an enigma until destroyed (and he's hard to destroy) if the GM likes running him.

In general the descriptions of rooms and treasure are fairly good, without being too densely written - jeweled daggers are in the shape of birds, and 100 GP rubies faceted like droplets.  Velkis also has a tattered books of mad ramblings including at least one spell.  The rooms themselves all contain objects or strange occurrences that demand interaction by the players, which is necessary in such a small dungeon (well a sub-level).

It's short, terribly so, and there's so random elements that don't really add that much. 

This is effectively a two room lair with a few other spaces attached that provide somewhat unrelated puzzles or encounters.  Mostly though there's a couple of very strange, very good ideas about what happens when wizards go mad and then some filler.  It's good filler, and works well with the rest of the adventure, but it slides away from the central theme of immortality through blood sacrifice in an adventure that is so small that maintaining a needle point focus on a few plot elements would help to reinforce theme.  For example - Velkis (presumably before he went completely insane) had a cloak of gaseous form (well something much like it) that the players can discover, yet it's just a red velvet cloak that has ghostly powers unrelated to Velkis's blood magic in any way.  I would much rather see a magic item that only an immortal blood wizard could make - even if it had the same powers, having the item and unused portions of the dungeons themed to relate to Velkis's ultimate fate would be a good way to provide clues and link the disparate rooms of the dungeon together.  The underused/abandoned areas could provide a clue to destroying Velkis (hard as he will constantly wake up in his pool of blood when killed) or elaborating on his nature and descent into madness rather than simply a couple more strange areas to explore.

A few more rooms would also be a nice addition, and while I can respect the five-room lair, Velkis is a good enough villain that he could have a larger space, and given that he enslaves those he encounters more space in the lair could easily be filled with these thralls.

FINAL THOUGHTSI rather enjoy this module/lair/adventure locale because of its central theme, strong NPC characterization and general odd feeling of Swords and Sorcery.  It is firmly in the horror comedy vein that it claims to be and written in an engaging manner that makes it fairly easy to use at the table.  There's nothing special about the presentation, but it's functional and doesn't get in the way of the interesting adventure within.  I would have no compunction about dropping Velkis the Vile into ASE - indeed he feels right at home in the Land of 1,000 Towers, but I could use him in almost any setting depending on which elements of his character I emphasized while running the adventure. 


  1. Good review. I've never really used adventures, partially for the reasons of exercising my own creative that you mention. Some have tempted me of late though (Slumbering Ursine Dunes; your The Pretenders Dread Machine), though. I would still likely heavily alter them. I suppose if one plays more frequently, published adventures might become more necessary.

    Like you, I'm not particularly fond of vanilla fantasy (particularly not of paying for it), though if somebody likes it, more power to them.

    As to the success of DIY projects fueling greed, that may well be the case, though having done a couple of DIY projects, I don't think anybody is getting rich off them and the ones even being reasonably compensated for their labor are few. The cattiness has been there since the heyday of the blogosphere, though.

    1. Oh I don't think the top flight creators are in it for the money, but like everything fools rush in thinking that somehow there's 'fame' and 'money' to be had as soon as someone else manages to make something worthwhile. The wave of terrible, derivative stuff (which is fine - just don't ask me to pay for it) from DIY publishers is growing, and I can only assume this is the result of fools trying to produce adventures quickly and in mass to sell.

      If I wanted to pay money for boring fantasy retread modules I'd buy WOTC and Pathfinder stuff.

    2. You're probably right about that. Their has been something of a boom.

    3. It's an oft-neglected path to Lichdom

      I'm in the midst of a midlife crisis, also.

    4. Noah and Arnold, you guys aren't clogging up RPGnow with crap - so I think you're on the side of the angels. How is that working btw Arnold?

    5. I like your manefesto. No surprise, there, I'm sure.
      I also like Dread Machine, but I don't think I've mentioned it.

    6. Thanks Aos - good to see you around, and I think my manifesto may be partially/mostly stolen from your ideas about DIY gaming.

  2. This is a great review, thanks for taking a crack at the module. Your criticisms are good. Given how much alteration I did between my game notes and the published module, I could have easily added some more rooms, and amped the "blood wizard" theme up a little bit.

    That's something I'll have to keep in mind once the Manor of the Eight Sisters comes on the docket.

  3. Sounds like an intriguing little adventure. I can see why you like it. Thanks for bringing Velkis the Vile to my attention.