Welcome to yet another very late review – today we’ll be looking at Lords of Darkness, a compilation set of undead-themed content introduced by Ed Greenwood. Some may recognize him as the original creator of the Forgotten Realms setting that now serves as D&D’s “default” world, while others probably just recognize his name from the absurd number of old D&D products that bear it.
Prolific doesn’t even begin to cut it.
However, that star-studded title can be a bit misleading… after all, Greenwood only “introduces” the book – an introduction that forms one of the book’s two real high points. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Click below to get grave-robbing!
Just as a forward I’ll note that Lords of Darkness has actually been on my wishlist for quite some time. It’s about undead, firstly, a topic that is almost inevitably in every campaign I do, but it also was mentioned as being a bit… uneven in quality.
That intrigued me, since I haven’t read many “bad” AD&D books. There are issues, sure, and I often poke fun at them. But this book, I hoped, would offer a curious look into the difference between a “good” AD&D adventure and a “bad” one all within a single book.
I got my wish, but not really until the end of the book did I truly understand the gulf between the worst of the lot and the best.
And, as per usual – I actually have all of the books I review here. Yes I know it’s an odd thing to collect, but it’s cheaper than collecting baseball cards and/or NFTs of sneakers or whatever.
Ed Greenwood, Professional Introducer
Lords of Darkness was published in 1988 (only 34 years late, I’m sure that’s just fine), but there isn’t much to say about the publication facts. It was one of a myriad of supplements for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. It also later got an update in 2001, like many old AD&D supplements.
So instead of discussing dry dates and figures, let’s talk about one of the best sections of the book instead. The introduction by Ed Greenwood really drove home to me that this guy gets it at a fundamental level that not many people do. I don’t agree with him on everything, but the sheer level of understanding is clear.
The key theme of the intro is quite simple – tell a story. All of it is aimed at trying to make undead monsters into something a little more than just statblocks. Brilliant liches who can actually use those insane Intelligence scores! Cunning vampires who actually seem like they’d be able to survive centuries without being staked! It’s just a pity that the rest of the book’s follow-through on this angle is so weak.
And to be honest, this intro is the high point of the book for the first several sections. Sad but true.
One aside before we move on – I found it funny that not only does the intro make many of the same points about level-drain that I did, but that in addition to me and (presumably) the author agreeing about the issues… so did the previous owner of my book. Scribbled notes can be fun!
In my opinion the book doesn’t give very good alternatives to the original level-drain system, but at least it tries. The first option – no saving throw temporary paralysis – is the best in my (and the original book owner’s) opinion. The others are all either too harsh (unconsciousness, damage, hit point reduction, loss of memorized spells all at once) or too undefined (permanent “withering” of the touched limb).
There’s also a suggestion of “permanent alignment shift” to which I thought “oh hell no” about at the exact time as I noticed a large NO scribbled next to the option.
A Note on Organization
Just one more note before we begin in earnest, and I promise it’s important. See, this book contains more than just encounters and statblocks – it also has bonus info on each featured type of undead. These sections, which come right after the encounters and are presumably written by the same people, are wildly inconsistent. And not just in quality, like the rest of the book.
I came to the conclusion very early on that the theoretically “correct” set up of segments following each adventure was this: a section titled “Ecology of the…” which was an in-universe accounting of the creature’s abilities and backstory, followed by a “Creature Notes” section with additional miscellaneous details. The book followed this “correct” setup exactly zero times. I can only guess at it because it’s the only combination that seems likely to produce all the various incorrect versions found in the book.
Each type of undead and corresponding adventure formatted these details differently. Some had the narrative, in-universe discussions labeled “Creature Notes” while most called them “Ecology” segments. Some flat-out lacked one or the other section. Some used bullet points, some didn’t. All in all it was a very disorganized experience.
The in-universe ecology sections also weren’t terribly good. Most were very basic pieces where the characters only talk in large blocks of explanatory text. The worst one, attached to the section about ghosts, was literally just a textbook-style discussion of the creature with random speaker tags inserted.
One of the two characters in that “scene” existed for the sole purpose of prompting the other character to spit out blocks of text. It was not a narrative, it was a transcription of someone reading a textbook or Wikipedia article. Oh, and this section was also two entire pages long. Most of the others took up, at most, a thin page and a half.
A Grave State of Affairs
One of the things that drew me to this book in the first place was its supposed inconsistency. I was expecting some of the included sections to be bad. I wish I could talk about them all in depth, but to make my points I’m going to look at just four out of the included ten adventures – the Skeletons, the Zombies, the Vampires, and the Lich. Those will be covered in a moment, but I still do want to at least acknowledge the other six entries.
Ghouls and Ghasts
While many adventures in this book don’t include maps (much to their detriment), luckily this one does. It isn’t complex, it isn’t particularly notable, but it is good. It has a solid grasp on what a “Ghouls & Ghasts” adventure should be. It has a small oddity with its recommended party size (see below) but is otherwise solid.
Oh, and its “final boss” (the ghast) is a bit odd seeing as he’s a former tax collector who inexplicably has a portal to hell in his room, but that’s a minor complaint.
So here’s another trend in this book – absolutely insane party sizes. Each adventure includes a “recommended average level” and a recommended “total party level” where you add up all the characters’ levels. This adventure’s recommended average level is 3rd or 4th. Its recommended total party level is between 36 and 48.
That is a group of nine players. At minimum. What kind of madman would have a party that big? Well, me for one (my usual party size is six to eight), but still. I swear, a world in which ten person D&D groups are normal is a Domain in Ravenloft with me as its tormented Darklord.
As far as the actual adventure goes… it’s alright. The set up is simple and the execution isn’t anything special, but it works. It also has a map:
Again, the presence of a map should be an expectation, but alas.
Now here’s a disappointment. The setup for this one involves a sketchy wizard needing to test his experimental elemental shadow device, which seems like the start to a fantastically dark adventure to me.
Instead, you get a single fight with a few shadows while in the middle of a road in a ruined city. And there’s no map, not that an encounter this basic needs one. It’s tragic, really.
Humorously enough, this one has an average recommended level of 5th to 6th and then a recommended total party level of 360. Luckily, I think this one is likely a typo. Which is good, because the thought of a 72-person D&D party is literally giving me chills.
This adventure lacks much of a narrative focus within the dungeon, which is a bit surprising given the subject matter – mummy stories are usually at least slightly concerned with backstories. It also deals with lizardman mummies, which is interesting, but ultimately it’s just another “dungeon with traps or something I guess” sort of thing. A well-made one, but still.
For one, the main villain in this is named Hieronymous Bosco, which I misread as Hieronymus Bosch literally every single time. Which is unfortunate given that a ghost-themed adventure about haunted Hieronymus Bosch paintings sounds killer.
The adventure we actually get, though? Not so great. For one, the story behind this adventure is nigh-incomprehensible. It never does fully explain the plot, leaving you to just sort of assemble what was likely intended from a swath of details scattered throughout the entire section.
Another notable thing here is the map. Many of these adventures don’t have one, which is near fatal to their usability. This one does have a map… and I almost wish it didn’t. The map is difficult to parse visually, makes little architectural sense, and also includes the family chapel and tomb (area #32, see below) on the third floor of the house.
Clearly this place was haunted from the start, and not just after a poorly-characterized wizard killed everyone for no reason and then immediately died himself.
(My criticism of it as a map is that the wall line thicknesses are all the same. Even though area #4 is an outside garden, the wall between it and area #3, the exterior grounds of the house, uses the same line thickness as every other wall… which totally confuses things. And area #5 is the entryway but with the door to the house proper on the side… it just doesn’t work for me.)
It’s specters. I don’t actually know why this one is randomly Eastern flavored, but it is. And, to be honest? Its theming isn’t bad! The setup is interesting and engaging, and unlike the ghosts adventure the text actually gives you the plot, which is handy.
Unfortunately where this one falls apart is in its actual encounters. Many of the other adventures are pretty blatant in their inclusion of undead, and while this one tries not to be at first… it ends up as a series of specter encounters throughout random locations in a vaguely Eastern-style manor house.
Which has no map.
A Narrative Skeleton Crew
Before we talk about the skeletons adventure, let’s get something straight right from the start. I do not like this adventure. Not only is it a railroading nightmare, it’s also extremely uninteresting and illogical. But the reason I’m pulling it out to focus on isn’t to just repeatedly slam it – no, it’s to use this adventure as an example of pretty much everything wrong with the other lackluster adventures in this book.
Alright, here’s our setup. A psychotic half-elf woman who inexplicably has the power to reanimate the dead is roaming around creating skeletons for no adequately explored reason. She also has a ring of invisibility for railroading purposes we’ll explore in a moment.
This adventure’s most basic problem is that it doesn’t make sense. In addition to the fact that this random crazy woman can animate dead as an innate ability, there really isn’t any reason for her to do so besides “she’s crazy or something.” And that’s not even getting to how dull and cliched the description of her “craziness” is.
This is a consistent problem with many of these adventures. Most give more explanation than this one does, but often still lack a believable reason for why things happen. Put simply, many of these adventures have narratives that exist for the sole purpose of putting the given type of undead in front of the players – nothing more.
Another issue here is with railroading. This entire encounter is clearly meant to play out in exactly one way, and the adventure pulls no punches in forcing the story to follow its plans. Your party is intended to stake out the graveyard, be surprised by our skeleton-raising madwoman, and then fight skeletons.
“But,” you ask, “what if the party spots her early?”
Well, that’s where our railroading comes in! Even though the madwoman is described as “constantly muttering and humming” (real original), luckily there’s a convenient wind that’s just loud enough to cover up the sound. But wait, there’s more! Because it’s also the night of a new moon! And it’s overcast! And she has a ring of invisibility! To translate – the answer to “what if they spot her first” is… book says no. And yet, even if the party somehow manages to see her before she gets her skeleton-raising move off, the book specifically takes the time to state that the result is the exact same encounter with no changes.
And there’s the other consistent problem with many of these adventures. I understand that they’re meant to be short and that they don’t have much space in which to elaborate on things, but even accounting for that these adventures are very railroaded.
Now, there’s one last point to make. This is a real problem for every adventure in this book – even the good ones – but it’s most obvious here. On my first read-through, I noted that in addition to her inexplicable ability to animate dead and her unexplained motives, our villainous madwoman also had darkvision for no discernible reason.
That question is cleared up once you get to the “Night Gallery” section at the end of the book, which collects all the antagonists from each adventure. Her entry states that she is a half-elf, thus explaining the darkvision. It also explains her backstory and why she can animate dead. It isn’t a good explanation, but still. And ultimately, this is an issue because you have to flip through the entire book just to find that out.
I had originally assumed the Night Gallery was just expanded statblocks for the various villains – it isn’t. Instead, the Night Gallery is, for many adventures, the only explanation you’ll get of the main antagonist. Some give you backstory in the adventure, but even then there are details that can only be found at the back of the book.
This is, needless to say, a horrible design choice.
Night of the Living(?) Dead
Immediately after the skeletons section is the book’s take on zombies. It’s actually pretty good. The atmosphere is well written and thematic, the adventure is much more narrative focused (even though zombies are where I’d almost expect a lack of narrative) and the main villain is interesting and well developed.
This is a solid adventure. It seems fun to run, and even its lack of a map doesn’t harm it too much. Unfortunately, it isn’t really an adventure about zombies. We’ll get to that wrinkle in a moment, but first – a note on campaign setting integration.
A recurring issue with this adventure is its heavy integration with the Forgotten Realms setting (despite Lords of Darkness itself being a supposedly “setting agnostic” book). This is primarily a problem due to the way that the entire plot revolves around a character named Nuris Elfward.
I have no idea who this man is.
Yet the adventure seems to assume that I do, and thus doesn’t ever really explain why I should care about him. Again, I’m expecting that this might be different if I was a huge Forgotten Realms fan who had read all of the books and content. I have not. Thus I have no idea who this guy is, and all of the adventure’s best narrative moments fell completely flat because I don’t know who the hell they’re talking about.
Was Nuris created for this adventure? And if so, why does he have so little backstory established? Why is this adventure so intent on mentioning and name dropping as many Forgotten Realms-specific concepts, places, and people as possible if the adventures in this book are supposed to be usable in any campaign world?
The other problem is that this isn’t really an adventure about zombies. It’s about “living zombies” – a concept which is left infuriatingly undefined until the inevitable Creature Notes section. Much like with good ol’ Nuris, this might be a recognizable concept to Forgotten Realms fans. However you can’t just assume things like that about your audience – what if this was the first book that a new DM picked up?
But still, I can’t stress this enough. This adventure is not about zombies because the “living zombies” are not undead. It’s a bit disappointing, really, because if you just removed all references to these “living zombies” it becomes a really solid and enjoyable zombie adventure.
I also should note that I couldn’t really find much on “living zombies” when I looked online, so I don’t even know if these were a common concept or not. But even if it was, and even if “living zombies” are strictly the work of necromancers… they aren’t zombies. They come back to life if you remove the thing allowing the necromancer to control them. They’re capable of speech, to a degree (shown in the narrative Creature Notes). They can use tactics and complex maneuvers.
Shambling corpses these are not, thus they are not zombies.
Just Buy Ravenloft
Now, on to the vampires. To be honest, this entire section should’ve been replaced by a single, full-page advertisement for the original Ravenloft module. If you want a “classic vampire adventure” in D&D, Ravenloft is it. This adventure? Very much not it.
This has the most convoluted setup of any adventure in this book. The plot revolves around a pair of twin brothers who were both coincidentally turned into vampires by separate incidents who then happened to meet up later. Then, during their initial reign of terror, one found a convenient helm of reverse alignment that turned him Lawful Good. The brothers went their separate ways, with the LG brother running an inn until his twin came back for revenge or something.
Now, one thing to note about our lovable Lawful Good vampire – he is specifically outright stated to use his vampiric charm on fighters in the PC party in order to force them to take up the quest to defeat his evil brother. So he literally mind controls people and is somehow still Lawful Good. Doesn’t make much sense, but maybe that’s just me. (His Night Gallery entry also specifies that he charms female thieves – only females – and forces them to work as servers at his bar out of some weird belief that this will somehow make them “turn good.” Just… no, that is not how Lawful Good works. And it’s creepy beyond all reason.)
The narrative of the adventure clearly wants players to meet this friendly bartender (who may attempt to subtly mind control them, no biggie) and then later on run into the hideous vampire before realizing the two have the exact same face. Oh no!
But, luckily, the bartender has a rock-solid alibi with a dozen people stating he was at the inn at the time. Not only is that suspiciously convenient on its own, but it’s also very easy to interpret as “vampire charms his own alibi squad” – especially seeing as the bartender has actually attempted to mind control people in the past. Even if the party wasn’t sure of the specifics, the DM still has to explain to the charmed fighter that they feel a supernatural need to do this quest. The party is going to get suspicious.
And, when they act on their suspicions, they will easily discover that… yes, the bartender is, in fact, a vampire! He has a magic mirror that’s been enchanted to show his image as normal, but there are so many other ways to check for vampires that it should be trivial for the party to discover this.
Finally, the party will face off against the real murderous vampire and… they’re twins! What an amazing, unprecedented and stunning twist!
I can almost guarantee that most D&D parties, upon playing this adventure, will assume that the original plan was for the bartender to be the culprit. But, after they guessed that in minute one, the DM got mad and made it the bartender’s twin brother just to spite them.
Beyond the narrative issues, this adventure just doesn’t really play out as a classic vampire encounter. It’s set in a sewer, not a gothic manor, and the vampire is just a murderous bastard, not a potentially affable host. I really think this adventure was trying so hard not to be Ravenloft that it ended up without much cohesion.
The bonus notes at the end also play havoc with established vampire facts like nobody’s business. It just casually states that vampires aren’t hurt by running water, then just as easily adds a completely new type of “greater” vampire which is unharmed by sunlight, can summon demons for some reason, and is made from the kiss of a succubus. Sure, why not.
This adventure demonstrates the one thing that the skeletons one couldn’t, due to its extreme simplicity: Many of these adventures have very complex setups which don’t make a whole lot of sense. The ghost and “Oriental spirit” adventures are other culprits in this. Even the “zombie” (not really) adventure has this issue to a degree.
Backstory is fine, and I know I was criticizing the skeletons adventure for not having one. The problem is that these adventures really can’t afford to have such complicated backstories. There isn’t space! Some sort of justification is necessary, but it seems the only choice for most of these adventures is between “too complex” and “too nonsensical.”
The vampire adventure just happens to be the main one to choose both.
Within the Lich’s Lair
I consider myself something of a connoisseur of liches. They’re my favorite high-CR “dungeon boss” enemy. So when I started reading this adventure, my expectations were high. Luckily, though… this is the good one. And it is very good. To summarize, this is a fairly typical lich’s lair of traps and dangers that has been executed so precisely that it becomes the perfect representation of what liches’ lairs should be.
But let’s examine it a bit further, shall we?
When you begin looking through this dungeon it actually seems rather lackluster. The map is pretty much just one path of rooms leading from one to the next – no mazes here, folks. And the traps are fine, but all very standard. The first hint of the true power of this dungeon comes when you meet the gargoyle magic item thieves. Not super impressive, I know, but the critical part is in what their orders are – namely to steal magic items. Not kill, not drive away.
Because that is the purpose of this lair. Every room is built the way it is to facilitate the lich stealing magic items from unwary adventurers. And this is perfect for a lich! In addition to the normal need for souls, clearly this lich also desires magic items to research, and so he’s designed this place as a filter of sorts. Clueless adventurers come in, the dungeon filters out all their magic items, and then the lich dumps their corpses in the gorge.
And it works perfectly for that purpose. The first half of the dungeon is simplistic because it’s there to weed out the weaklings. But in the latter half of the dungeon the lich physically watches you the whole time. The lair is warded against divination and rather than go the typical route of “oh, the caster’s own spells are exempt,” the dungeon has instead built around this.
The latter half of the dungeon is bordered on each side by hidden hallways. One allows the lich to physically move through his lair, spying on intruders from peepholes hidden behind false, illusory walls – scouting both the party’s skills and what enticing magic items they may have. The other hall holds undead servitors who can be triggered to emerge from their one-way doors and into the room to clean up gore and pick out magic items for the master.
This part of the dungeon is also dynamic! If the players do well in the first room of the latter half, the lich will release a stone golem from a hidden room in order to further challenge them. If they don’t seem to be doing too well, though, he’ll wait on the golem until after the party leaves the room – having the golem enter and form a living obstacle to prevent the players’ escape.
I just love it. There may not be much backstory on the lich and his lair (though there is some, just hidden away in the Night Gallery section like usual), but there really doesn’t have to be. All that the adventure is concerned with is explaining the lich’s actions here and now. And those reasons make sense, while not being so convoluted that they take up all the available space.
My only critique of this dungeon is about one of its cooler encounters. Down the middle of the dungeon, between the “weed them out” easy beginning and the “study and destroy” trap of the latter dungeon, is a large underground gorge. The lich has enchanted rocks in the gorge to constantly fly about, making it a treacherous place to even look in on.
The intended path for players to take across this gorge is for them to grab hold of one of the flying rocks and use it to cross the gap – they respond to the mental will of those touching them. But there are also gargoyle servants of the lich here as well, who will try to kill anyone attempting to cross. If everything goes well, you can expect a hectic encounter of high-octane action and fun.
The only issue is that there really isn’t anything that would lead the players to try this. When I walk into an underground gorge full of enchanted rocks flying around smashing into walls, I really don’t think “ride one!” as my first plan. Someone in the party will, inevitably, come up with it but even so it isn’t a very obvious answer.
Luckily this is easy to fix. My method would be to add stone statues of various flying creatures on the ledge the players start on – they can then ride those across. More statues of flying creatures could rest on other ledges, including a few gargoyles… with some of them being the real gargoyles, who can then get the jump on the party.
The section on liches ends with what is quite possibly the most in-depth, detailed, and complete account of the lich creation process that I’ve ever seen. And it’s good! I think I’ve seen these rules somewhere else as well (The Complete Book of Necromancers, perhaps?) but even if they’re imported they make for a very welcome addition to this book.
This also isn’t a process that would ever be used on a player character. Rather than establishing rules for a player to become a lich, the book focuses on describing the lich process in terms of what can go wrong – and thus what enterprising “heroes” might be capable of doing to put a stop to it.
It’s prime campaign creation material, and it’s definitely the absolute most useful Creature Notes and/or Ecology section in the entire book. Which is fitting, given this is the best adventure in the book too.
Before the Dawn
And there’s Lords of Darkness. It’s… really inconsistent. And while it does include good content, that really isn’t enough to carry a whole book. If the only good parts of a book are its intro and a single chapter near the very end, that means the book isn’t very good.
I’d be interested in looking into which adventures were seen as “bad” back in the day and which ones were “good.” It seems the lich adventure is acknowledged as good (as it should be), and I feel like I remember the skeleton adventure being mentioned as bad. But what about these others?
Overall, I’d say that only three of these adventures are worth using – the lich, the (not actually) zombies, and the ghouls & ghasts. There’s also a bit of content here besides the adventures, of course. There’s a section on “mundane wards” that basically goes over various folklore defenses against undead. It was a bit too dense for my tastes, but some of it could be interesting.
Then there’s the necromancy spells… but you can get them from the Wizard’s Spell Compendium. Also it’s kind of weird that there’s so many spells listed in the back of the book and yet none of them are actually used in any of the adventures. I think the lich’s lair might use like one, but the rest are just not present.
I honestly couldn’t recommend Lords of Darkness. I certainly had fun reading it, but half of that came from joking around with my wife about various oddities in it (like the dread 72-person D&D group). It just doesn’t offer anything irreplaceable. The concept of the book – a collection of small set pieces based around the most popular forms of undead – is great! But this execution leaves much to be desired.
Next up we should be moving back to the Complete [Class] Handbook series. Which one? No idea because I basically have all of them at this point. Maybe the Complete Book of Necromancers to keep up the undead theme.
Or maybe not, we’ll see.
Let me know what you think!