I’ve recently been reading through The Complete Book of Necromancers for my next Late Review. One section, covering necromancer organizations, called out a specific example from Dungeon magazine #27 as being a perfect example of the “necromancer group” concept.
As far as I can remember, I’ve never seen any published book mention one of the D&D magazines (Dragon or Dungeon) except as the source of a spell or item used in the published work. This is the first pure “recommended reading” mention, so I decided to look into it.
We’ll come back to The Complete Book of Necromancers next time – because right now, it’s time to talk about A++ adventure module, “The School of Nekros.”
A quick disclaimer – this is both my first magazine content review and my first Late Review to not cover something that I physically have in my house. I haven’t really bothered trying to collect either Dragon or Dungeon magazines because there are so many, but if I see Dungeon #27 lying around I might grab it just for this one module.
Back in the day, TSR had two separate periodicals for the D&D brand. The older of the two was Dragon magazine, which generally featured a variety of content for D&D alongside other articles on more unrelated topics. The Dungeon magazine was started later as a “adventure module-only” publication – each issue featured several short modules and no other articles.
This particular issue, #27, was published in early 1991 for the months of January and February (Dungeon only published once every two months). “The School of Nekros” appeared here alongside four other modules and also provided the issue’s cover image. My copy is just a PDF, uniquely for things I review here, but the module is so good that I didn’t want to leave it as just a footnote in a post about The Complete Book of Necromancers. Also, that book is phenomenal by itself so it really needs the whole article dedicated to just it.
The adventure is intended for 4 to 6 characters between 6th and 12th level, and cites a total party level count of 45 as ideal. So the “ideal” party here, at least in my opinion, would be five PCs at 9th level.
Before we begin, there’s one more thing I want to mention. While reading The Complete Book of Necromancers and “The School of Nekros,” a consistent theme in my notes related back to another book I’ve reviewed here: Lords of Darkness. My opinion of that book was rather negative, and it compares very unfavorably with both The Complete Book of Necromancers and “The School of Nekros.”
Lords of Darkness was published in 1988, roughly three years before “The School of Nekros” and seven years before the 1995 publication of The Complete Book of Necromancers. So both of the latter items definitely had a time and experience edge over Lords of Darkness, but even taking that into account there’s a significant difference in quality.
We’ll discuss that in more depth at the end of the post, however, because I’d like to start with comments on the merits of “The School of Nekros” itself.
Getting Narratively Schooled
Let’s begin by going over the module’s narrative.
Our background is fairly simple. A halfling village by the riverside has sent for help after their river became polluted. Normal mud came first, but now the river runs with old blood, flesh, and mangled corpses. The pollution is killing off the willow trees at the banks of the river, which the halflings rely on to make their chief export – woven baskets.
Upriver lies an old graveyard on a cliffside, underneath which runs the river. A pair of powerful necromancers have hollowed out the earth between the graveyard and underground river to build a school of necromancy. This location was chosen for something below the graveyard itself – a skeletal but still-living ancient red dragon.
A new spell introduced in the module, flesh to air, can remove a victim’s skin, flesh, muscles, etc. and strip them down to a mere skeleton. The victim remains “alive” (and thus can’t be turned as an undead) but lacks most of its normal capabilities, such as speech. The dragon made a deal with the two master necromancers, teaching them rare spells (including flesh to air), after which the necromancers have agreed to cast the reverse spell, air to flesh, and restore the dragon to her full capabilities.
And that’s it. That’s the background. It’s short, sweet, and very simple.
The main villains are twins that are 18th level necromancer specialist wizards. One of the twins is Lawful Evil, while his sister is Neutral Evil. While they don’t have any big conflict between themselves, the LE brother’s anger issues cause tension, as do his worries that his NE sister will betray her part of their deal with the dragon. Both are respected by the students, some of whom believe the pair to be vampires – a rumor that the module suggests passing onto the PCs somehow in order to confuse them.
One of the few flaws of the module, in my opinion at least, comes with the physical description of the twins. They were born “under a perfect half-moon on the fall equinox” and thus one is dark-skinned (the LE brother) and the other is pale (the NE sister). This is just overkill, if you ask me. The idea of twins born during a half-moon is fine, but having them literally be one dark and the other light is just a little too on-the-nose. But hey, that part’s easy to ignore.
Another thing that initially stood out to me was the fact that both necromancers have access to 9th level spells. The LE brother in particular is noted as having time stop, which would seem to make him functionally unbeatable for a party of PCs under 12th level. This isn’t a true issue, however, since casting rules were very different in 2e and time stop isn’t the “snap your fingers and win the encounter” spell that I had originally been visualizing.
The narrative progression of the module is also great. You start by learning of the halflings’ plight before going to explore the school. You learn more about the students and two masters while exploring, before finally confronting them each in separate encounters. The final encounter with the NE sister takes place in the same chamber as the skeletal dragon, who will dig her way to the surface and collapse the school if the necromancer dies.
In the end, everything wraps up neatly. You can destroy the school with or without killing both of the necromancers or the skeletal dragon. And while the reward from the halflings isn’t what I’d call “lavish,” the school itself includes a wide variety of magic items and other treasures that can form the main bulk of the party’s gains.
There’s also a lot of room for expansion. The module mentions a high-level death cleric in a faraway city who aids the necromancers by charging a ring of spell storing with raise dead spells – facilitating the school’s brutal “get killed and then raised by a professor to prove your worth” initiation ritual. That death cleric could easily become a recurring NPC of some type. And, depending on how you finish the module, you could end up with any number of angry necromancers and/or a skeletal dragon running around making problems.
Back to School Dangers
Next, let’s look at how the module actually plays out.
Progress through the dungeon itself is simple. After gaining entry (a weak point we’ll discuss in a moment), the school is set up as a very reasonable set of encounters. One major strength of this module is how sensible the school is as a building – there are no random empty rooms commonly found in many older 2e modules. Each room has a purpose, and the inclusion of a rough “school schedule” for the students helps make things feel realistic.
Actually getting into the school is a bit of a weak point, but it isn’t too bad. The school is set up so that the door is locked and must be opened by someone inside the school, meaning that PCs will have to either impersonate a student or pass themselves off as prospective new students. While the module provides a helpfully treasonous student outside the dungeon to help PCs pull off the first option, the module just doesn’t do anything to really address what would happen otherwise.
If PCs fail at passing as current or prospective students, it’s mentioned that the necromancers will marshal for an attack – what would that look like? I assume the PCs would just have to run for it, but I wish that was more clearly defined. And then there’s the prospective student problem – if the party successfully fakes being prospective students, wouldn’t that totally alter all of the encounters? Wouldn’t someone high up take them on a tour or something? Those possibilities are left unaddressed, but I assume that’s mainly for length reasons. This is something published in a magazine, after all. Space is at a premium.
Where the module truly shines is in its side characters and its atmosphere. There are a dozen students, each of which is unique. Despite the fact that this is a wizard school, you never end up feeling like you’re stuck in an endless loop of identical wizard battles. One uses weapons because of his weirdly high Strength stat, another focuses on poisons and pets, and so on.
Most of all, though, is that the school actually feels like a school. One student is encountered while dumping corpses into the river – he’s frequently bullied for having done poorly in the initiation ritual and so has been stuck with corpse-disposal duty by the other students. Another group of students are breaking the rules by basically playing a very dangerous game of chicken against one of the school’s traps. There’s even another student with an eyepatch specifically from failing at the game of chicken with the acid-shooting trap thing.
I mean… what says “college students” more than a group of people playing a forbidden game that involves potential bodily harm after a different student has already been injured by said game? If you told me the author based this off of an actual experience in college, I wouldn’t bat an eye.
All in all, the key takeaway is this – if you tell your players that they’ll be exploring a secret necromancers’ college and they get excited about it, this module will deliver exactly the experience they expect. The mechanics and atmosphere are both perfect for what this module claims to be.
As an added bonus, the module also seems to have been written with a very good understanding of what DMs want. One of the coolest parts of the background of the school is its initiation ritual. Prospective students are murdered by one of the two master necromancers, before then having raise dead cast on them (from the ring of spell storing mentioned earlier). If the individual survives this ordeal, they become a student at the school. If not, well… they’re dead. Problem solved.
This is a very interesting encounter to play out in-game. PCs witnessing this process could have a wide variety of responses – would they try to stop it and “save” the prospective student, or would they just watch? The atmosphere for this would also be killer. It’s a classic “evil cult chanting in a dark room” scenario, complete with a “sacrifice” being ritualistically murdered.
What a pity that you’d have to introduce an entirely new prospective student just to get this one encounter… oh wait, no, the module already does that for you. One of the “students” included in the module is actually not a student yet. The two head necromancers see him as being very promising, however, so you can easily have them perform the initiation while the characters watch.
I can’t stress how nice this is. This is a module which wants you to have fun and is willing, even eager, to do whatever it can to facilitate that fun.
Lording It Over Them
And now let’s look at the undead elephant in the room – Lords of Darkness. It’s been front-and-center in my mind ever since I started going through The Complete Book of Necromancers to prepare for a Late Review. And there’s a lot of good comparisons to make there, which we’ll address in that later Late Review.
But “The School of Nekros” offers the tantalizing chance to compare the modules in Lords of Darkness directly with a near-contemporary module with the same narrative theme (undead). And that comparison is not good for Lords of Darkness.
First, let’s run through basic facts.
I had a little trouble figuring the length of Lords of Darkness since I at first just relied on the Table of Contents page numbers. Turns out this was a mistake, since they apparently completely forgot to put the Zombies entry in the Table of Contents, leading to the Skeletons adventure appearing to be a baffling eleven pages long. Which would be shocking, given the Skeletons adventure was the absolute worst of the bunch. But no, it’s just an error in the Table of Contents.
The average Lords of Darkness module is eight pages. This is including the modules’ entries in the ill-considered “Night Gallery” section (the chapter way at the end of the book that nonetheless contains vital narrative and character details from each adventure). Out of ten modules, five have maps and images, one has just a map and one has just images. Most maps take up only half a page, and most images take up either half or a third of a page.
“The School of Nekros,” meanwhile, has sixteen pages. I’ve excluded one page from that total since it only includes spell descriptions. The module also includes three maps and four images. One map takes up half a page, while the other two maps, as well as most of the images, take up less than half a page each.
So “The School of Nekros” is basically double the length of the average Lords of Darkness module and over three times longer than the shortest module. But it also includes two things that none of the Lords of Darkness modules have – an encounter table and a monster location schedule. It also has three maps, two of which aren’t critical and could be removed.
Just doing that lowers the module down to a theoretical 13 pages. You could probably reduce it even further by trimming off various things, such as the detailed student room descriptions, and get to around 11 pages. Finally, if you remove the narrative about the halflings, you could get back another page and a half.
I’m not going to judge things by these numbers since they’re all theoretical, but just keep it in mind. “The School of Nekros” could be reduced down to around the same length as a long Lords of Darkness module by losing two supplemental maps, the encounter table, the school schedule, the individual student rooms, and the halfling backstory. And it would still be immensely better than any of the Lords of Darkness modules. But more on that in a second.
Let’s move forward with the plain modules without any adjustments. “The School of Nekros” is a 16-page module including 3 maps and 4 images. A Lords of Darkness module averages at 8 pages long; only 6 with maps and 6 with images (and 5 with both). None of the Lords of Darkness modules have more than a single map, and generally they cap out at two images.
So… the ultimate question is simple. Why is “The School of Nekros” so much better? I think there are a few reasons.
It’s the Map, It’s the Map, It’s the Map
When I was reviewing the book, I mentioned “maps” as being one of the largest flaws with Lords of Darkness. Only slightly over half of the modules had maps, and many of the ones that didn’t really could’ve used some.
The prime example of this was the Oriental Specters module. The majority of the module occurred within a classic oriental-style manor house. That’s really cool! Except that the lack of a map made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to visualize what was actually going on.
A few modules didn’t need maps, such as the Shadows module (alternate name: “Single Fight With Shadows on Abandoned Freeway”). The Ghosts module had a map but it was so bad that I almost wish it didn’t. Overall, envisioning a lot of these Lords of Darkness modules was… very difficult.
“The School of Nekros” has a map. In fact, it has three maps. One shows the graveyard above the school. Another shows the surface, school, dragon chamber, and river from the side – helping you visualize how things are arranged vertically and what depths different layers are at. And the final one shows the school itself.
I never felt lost in the school. When reading through the room descriptions, I had a clear idea of where I was in the dungeon at all times – even without flipping (alright, scrolling) back to the map. And I have ADHD. It’s a miracle if I can retain words for more than a few minutes, much less images.
Most importantly, because I could visualize where I was in the dungeon, I could also visualize the dungeon itself. In Lords of Darkness, everything sort of melted into a bunch of words. With no frame of reference, I had no way to understand what I was reading. I got “tomb” or “sewers” – in “The School of Nekros,” I essentially got a full picture of the school. I could see the walls and floors, hear noises from down the hall, and in general I just felt present.
Sure, a lot of the area descriptions in “The School of Nekros” were both longer and better written. That helped immensely. But being able to view the school as a whole allowed my mind to supply extra details that the module doesn’t list out.
Finally, there’s also the problem of content. Several of the Lords of Darkness maps were simply too big. The Vampires module took up both inside covers of the book – for the player and DM versions of a city map for that module’s adventure. Except that the adventure didn’t really detail anything outside of the sewers (which had their own map) and a single tavern (which had no map).
It’s just such a waste of space. There isn’t anything else described within the city that this module took place in… so why is it here? This is a common problem with older modules in general, honestly, but it was even more egregious in Lords of Darkness where you had modules literally failing entirely due to not having a map, while several of the ones that did have maps had too much map. Then there’s the Ghosts module, with its multiple empty rooms of no mechanical or narrative import, and just… you get the picture.
“The School of Nekros,” meanwhile, is closest to the Lich module from Lords of Darkness, which you’ll recall is the one I said was easily the best of the lot. Both adventures have maps which are easy to read and, most importantly, of a sensible size. Neither has rooms with no purpose, there just to pad the dungeon’s square footage when it gets put up for sale. But, at the same time, neither map feels contrived or forced – each room has a use, much like in a real building. After all, if there wasn’t a use, it wouldn’t have been built!
Stay Awhile and Listen
Another consistent problem with the Lords of Darkness modules was that their backstories and plots made no sense, were overly complicated, and occasionally weren’t featured in the module itself at all (instead being in the weird “Night Gallery” section at the end of the book).
This is one point that I wish I had taken a bit more time on during my review of Lords of Darkness. What I ended up with didn’t really cover all my feelings on the topic and it wasn’t as clear as it could’ve been (ironically enough). So let’s try again right now.
Modules in Lords of Darkness fall in two categories. Some are just “bare bones,” like the Skeletons module (pun intended). Others are “too complex,” like the Vampires or Zombies modules. But, for the most part, all modules arrive at these subpar narratives through the same error – prioritizing character over context. Essentially, whenever asked for story clarification all of these narratives choose “more character quirks” instead of actual context.
The “bare-bones” modules do this by essentially failing to describe anything but the main figure of the module. The Skeletons module spends so much time detailing the villain’s behaviors that it never gets to explain her motive. The Shadows module describes, in great detail, the mannerisms and characteristics of its shadow-studying wizard antagonist – and then essentially doesn’t mention where the encounter happens, why the encounter happens, or anything about how the encounter fits in with the villain’s schemes.
With the “too complex” modules… I can imagine them in a form where they had bare-bones set-ups too. Then the editor goes “you know you can make these stories a bit longer, right?” And the modules respond by using that extra length exclusively for uninteresting character exposition. The Vampires module has such a complicated set-up behind its identical twin vampires that it forgets to mention what they’re doing now or even how or why they’re doing it. The Ghosts module hides its entire exposition in the “Night Gallery” entry of its main antagonist, which ends up meaning that we get paragraphs of text on the villain’s various interpersonal relationships and no real answer as to how the future ghost died in the first place.
Each module seems to have had its own idea about how long its backstory and narrative could be. Some modules were made with the assumption that the narrative should be as short as possible. Others allowed for longer stories. But all of them failed because they inevitably spent the majority of their length “budget” on characterization rather than doing anything to establish the context in which the adventure takes place.
“The School of Nekros,” of course, has over double the amount of space in which to develop its story. Obviously it’ll be better. But the thing that makes it so much better is that it properly prioritizes story elements. The story about the halflings and their river is about twice the length of the backstory about the dragon and necromancers. That backstory is, in turn, about twice the length of the discussion of the two villains’ personalities. These are rough estimates, sure, but they make the point well enough.
The reason the players are here (the halflings) gets more space than the reason things are the way they are now (the backstory) which, in turn, gets more space than the character traits of the antagonists themselves. This is the correct prioritization. First, tell me why I care. Second, tell me why this happened. And third, tell me who I’m dealing with.
Ideally, you would do all three and then some. But if space is at a premium, you really need to start cutting at the bottom. Give me a vaguely outlined character with a decently summarized backstory undertaking a well-structured and comprehensive plan. It would never work in a book or movie or game, but in a TTRPG it works just fine – because the DM and players can fill out the villain’s character details during the game.
The Lords of Darkness modules instead start cutting at the top – so you end up with thoroughly described characters doing… something because of… reasons. That’s never good in any narrative, but in a TTRPG it’s near-fatal because it means that none of the story participants, not even the DM, really understand what’s happening.
Of course, it’s also a problem that none of the Lords of Darkness characters were, you know… well-written, but still. Even if all of the villains in the “Night Gallery” were absolute masterpiece-level works of literary characterization, the modules would still suck. Strong characters are good, but if you don’t have a plot then what you’re writing isn’t a story. It’s a character profile.
A Means to the End
The final difference between “The School of Nekros” and the Lords of Darkness modules is something that isn’t really any of the writers’ fault. The basic premise of Lords of Darkness is flawed, and as such all of its component parts are flawed. And that’s because while “The School of Nekros” exists to be a fun adventure, the Lords of Darkness modules were all structured as “ways to introduce and detail different kinds of undead.”
I initially thought about doing my own take on Lords of Darkness to show exactly what I meant when I was criticizing it. I would’ve created small encounters or modules based around different types of undead, but with a consistent style and scope. But after thinking about it, I just don’t believe a Lords of Darkness style work could ever be good.
And that’s because what Lords of Darkness has done is fundamentally misunderstand the central feature of these types of stories. It was never about the undead. It’s about the necromancer themselves.
We’ll get way more into this idea later when the Late Review for The Complete Book of Necromancers comes out. As you might expect from the title, the book focuses on necromancers quite heavily. Though it does also include death priests, so that’s nice. But the point is that it focuses on the necromancer, while Lords of Darkness focuses on the undead.
And, honestly speaking… skeletons are innately uninteresting. To use MMO terminology, they’re trash mobs – creatures which exist to “fill out” the location and which pose no serious threat to the players except in aggregate (and even then they aren’t that dangerous). Skeletons exist to be cleared while on your way to the real antagonist, which is the necromancer responsible for animating the skeletons in the first place.
So yeah, the Skeletons module from Lords of Darkness is terrible. It’s a railroaded encounter with little to no unique qualities. But isn’t that to be expected? It’s focused on and entirely revolves around the undead skeleton. The “baby’s first enemy” of any and every necromancy-related game. And unlike with goblins or orcs or kobolds, skeletons aren’t sentient creatures and thus don’t even have any interesting culture or behaviors to discuss. They are bones which do tasks. That’s it.
You could easily make an entire book of adventures themed around different types of necromancer. And, to a much lesser degree, that’s essentially what The Complete Book of Necromancers did. The end of the book includes an “adventure” which introduces and describes a couple different necromancer characters and how they might interact with PCs.
But a whole book with multiple modules each themed around individual types of undead? Not happening. The only types of undead who could conceivably support their own dedicated adventures are the vampires and liches… two groups of undead which are frequently also necromancers themselves.
Anyway, that’s my review of “The School of Nekros,” as well as my thoughts on what it says about Lords of Darkness. I worry that I may have spent a little too much time on the latter and thus failed to give “The School of Nekros” the praise it deserves, though.
So again, “The School of Nekros” is a great module. It’s worth reading and quite possibly worth the effort to update to a modern system in order to run it. If you can find Dungeon #27 somewhere, I highly recommend giving it a look. I’d link to a place where you can find it, but I honestly don’t know of any.
Hopefully the comparisons with Lords of Darkness have been more instructive than critical. Like I said at the end of my last review, which covered only the sha’ir kit from Al’Qadim: Arabian Adventures, I don’t want to be negative all the time. Looking at what something did right is usually more beneficial than looking at the things it did wrong.
This will probably end up seeming really ironic if my next Late Review is on The Complete Priest’s Handbook, which is likely to be the case. I actually went and bought that book specifically because it was supposedly terrible.
But maybe it’ll be fine, because The Complete Book of Necromancers is a great sourcebook. We’ll talk about it more next time, but I can promise that I have plenty to say – nearly all of it being excessively positive. I loved this book. Look forward to reading about it here very soon.
As always, let me know what you think!