Publisher: Dreaming Merchant Press
Review Dated: 14th, May 2003
Reviewer’s Rating: 6/10 [ On the ball ]
Total Score: 6
Average Score: 6.00
Tombs! bills itself as “the definitive tomb adventure design guide”. We could start to debate the minutia of definitive here; dictionary.com lists four options, two of which are “Supplying or being a final settlement or decision; conclusive.” and “Authoritative and complete: a definitive biography.” I don’t think Tombs! has the final word on tombs but it is certainly authoritative. Let’s say that Tombs! is _a_ definitive tomb adventure design guide.
I’m not going to lambaste Tombs! for encouraging the dungeon crawl. Sure, the infamous dungeon crawl can be fun at times and banal at times… but we don’t even get into that debate with Tombs! This 128-paged product works on two simple premises; some cultures will build and protect elaborate tombs for religious reasons and there will always people who want to break into the and haul out any treasure. There’s no ethical debate, no discussion on whether it’s evil or simply cultural to burry you’re Queen with you or if it is wrong to break into tombs and steal the grave goods. The people who designed the tomb aren’t necessarily evil simply because it is defended by undead guardians.
We’ve covered the key features of Tombs! already. The construction of the tomb, the treasure (or grave goods if you watch too many archaeology programs on Discovery) and the guardians are the three critical elements of tomb adventure design. Chapter one looks at the nature of tombs – places to put dead people, chapter two looks at types of tombs – everything from a simple crypt to a godsmourn, chapter three examines traps and guardians and chapter four reveals the rewards for tomb raiders. It isn’t these four chapters that make up the bulk of the download though, there are numerous and sizeable appendixes. It’s a rare day to find a d20 supplement without new feats and spells and you’ll find them safe and sound here in the first appendix, then there are rules for customising your undead – and these alone could be worth buying the supplement for – and then the same for golems, lists of treasure and a sample setting.
One of Tombs! successes is that it does fairly well at being all things to all people, rather like a politician of the d20 supplement world, it finds the middle ground and then offers crunch and intelligent flavour out to the wings from there. As you start to read Tombs! you’ll quickly discover that it’s not all about lists of traps and treasure. The supplement has something of an anthropologist air to it at times as it discusses different burial practises, ideologies and provides academic terminology for it. For example, I’ve discovered that statues buried alongside the body and which are supposed to be the spirit’s servants in the afterlife are known as Shabits, a building used to house bones when there is no room in the burial site is an Ossuary, and slabs of stone or wood inscribed with religious markings are called Stele. There’s a brief attempt to provide alternatives to getting the treasure as a reason to be in a tomb but the struggle is clear, especially when one of the so-called alternatives is getting the treasure before anyone else does.
Types of tombs, a chapter all to itself, starts with simple catacombs and then gets more detailed. A few of the possible tombs are clearly high fantasy – such as the cryptplane (an entire plane that serves as a crypt) or planar tombs (tombs that straddle more than one plane) and other types of tombs threaten to take on new (and scary) meanings – such as the godsmourn (a tomb built for a dead god) or Necropolis (city of the dead). In fact, the basic types of tombs are first mentioned in the chapter before but it’s here that they’re more fully explained and fleshed out, it’s common to find simple square grid maps examples of possible tomb layouts and designs here. The spiritstone sepulchre is a plot device in the waiting – a tomb wherein spiritstones soak up souls in order to use them to resurrect whoever is buried in the centre. This chapter finishes with a rundown of common fantasy races and what sort of tombs they might build if they build any at all. Although features like this are really campaign world-specific I did appreciate the effort made here and it certainly was food for thought.
The Guardians and Trap section gets into a bestiary mode soon enough. The guardians are well picked, those creatures that could feasibly be used to protect tombs throughout generations. You won’t end up with your players asking questions like “Just did how that did that troll get down here anyway?” and that’s a good thing to avoid. Undead, constructs and outsiders are the way forward – combinations of which are even better, the undead are carefully constructed or specially summoned from outside. It’s the more off the wall creatures that capture my interest here, guardians like the Ickahar, the combined remains of the humanoid skull and the beak and wings of large carrion bird or the Raivoshi, “one who returns” or even the large Snurakan skeletal snake. The Snurakan and Ickahar both appear on the front cover image for the download so I must be sharing some of the same thoughts with the supplement’s illustrator. It’s worth noting that Tombs! isn’t one of those long and cheap (Tombs! is only $6 currently) PDFs without illustration – and it’s worth noting that the Guardians and Trap section is decently illustrated.
Sentient Traps, oh, they’re just a small part of the Guardians and Traps section, but they’ve managed to capture my imagination. I think they also rather expose a weakness in the whole Challenge Rating system. I suspect some of these ideas might be rather more well known to veteran dungeon crawlers but concepts such as the Flying Pit are just wicked. This animated portable hole can flap around the tomb, disguise itself with illusions as it lays in wait and as someone falls through the hole it can then lift itself up off the floor, sealing the portable hole’s opening and leaving the thankless tomb raider stuck on the wrong side and running out of air. Similar animation tricks are done with glyphs and skulls.
The last official chapter (before the bulky appendixes) looks at the riches you’ll expect (or want) to find in a tomb. It describes a host of gems, precious metals and magical items. It’s here that the first of the meaty random item tables appear and it’s a huge, three-barred (min, medium, max columns) random generator for spellstones.
Deep inside the appendixes, appendix C no less, you’ll find a long (in tiny text) chart to help you customise your undead horrors. The principle is simple; if you’re willing to add some components deal with the extra cost to your necromancy then you can build a better undead. Add 3gp of ruby dust to your spell and your undead will have fire resistance 10. Fire resistance 10 adds 1/8th to the creature’s Challenge Rating. Several pages of such examples later, I discover that by spending 25gp on herbs, oil and incense I can increase my undead minion’s Turn Resistance and this adds a whole +1 to its Challenge Rating. Appendix D contains rules for customising Golems but they’re not quite handled in the same way, there’s no quick’n’easy list and instead, there are bite-sized paragraphs for each enhancement. The thing with Golems is that in addition to the gold cost there’s an experience point cost and sometimes requirements for the basic construction to make before it can be enhanced. You can’t add an extra limb to your Golem if it isn’t already strong enough to perform a slam attack. We’re back to the huge tables for appendix E though and they return with a vengeance. It’s here you’ll find pages and pages of treasure, grouped by type, for random selection and even if you’re a stickler for story-driven plot tables like these can be genuinely useful.
The supplement finishes with a sample setting, an example of three tomb-building civilizations, the types of tombs they built, what you might find in them and the character levels an adventuring party should have before attempting to explore one. Back in the first chapter, the concept of tomb markers is introduced, sigils on the outside of the tomb which indicate who might be buried inside – a chief, shaman, king, etc. It’s here in the last chapter that the concept is given flesh and blood. Tombs! includes sets of nicely illustrated tomb marker sigils for each of the sample civilizations and you can really see players debating the details, “Hmm, that looks like a shaman maker but with extra detail – and we nearly died in that last shaman’s tomb. I vote we leave this place alone.” In fact, I’m a sucker for anything that encourages world-building from the inside out.
Tombs! works for me, there is enough in it to warrant opening up the PDF or checking the printed copy if I was planning on designing a tomb adventure. I think I’d have to use it in conjunction with an on-going campaign though and use it when I already had some scenes in mind for the game. Tombs! doesn’t offer up enough for tomb ecology, certainly not for catacombs. I’d be interested in the sort of natural hazards of mould and fungus, gas or even areas of tainted magic that might be found in a deep tomb. There is a quick look at possible sci-fi tombs but the product would have scored points if it had managed to squeeze in more along those lines, not just sci-fi but historical or contemporary tombs too. With the possible exception of the godsmourn tombs are just places to put bodies too, I would have been pleased to see tombs for dead ideas or dead magic. In high fantasy worlds where the dead come back to life it might even make more sense for a culture to use tombs as a place to keep the undead locked away.
The PDF has internal hyperlinks – you can click on signposted areas to jump straight to appendixes but there are no bookmarks. Tombs! opens up so that the full length of the page fits on your screen, I always prefer the full width of the page to fit in the screen instead so I can read the text. Normally it’s just the simple matter of re-selecting “Fit to Width” in Acrobat but there’s a page near the start of Tombs! that overrides your selection whenever you scroll too it and you’ll have the misfortune of having the document shrink away from you whenever you trip this tripwire. Even if you manage to avoid this booby-trapped page you’ll find Tombs! is hard to fully fit in your screen because its pages are of different width. Appendix C, with the useful custom undead rules, is in landscape format and the rest of the download is in portrait. You don’t have to worry about this when it comes to printing the product off since the printer (or mine anyway) will automatically detect the change and alter its printing style accordingly. I think given the re-size tripwire, the lack of bookmarks and then different orientation of pages and despite the 128 page length that Tombs! is a PDF to print off and only attempt to read on screen if you’re determined.
I’m going to waive the normally crucial “Does it do what it says on the tin” test for Tombs! because of the debate over the word definitive. I do think Tombs! has support for the claim. Tombs! is good enough for me, I’ll use it, it gave me some nice ideas (even if they’re the sort of trick shot idea that gets used one) and I found parts of it informative. On the other hand, Tombs! doesn’t score any run away successes or provoke wow-factor ideas. If you’re looking for a nice and solid tomb (or dungeon, say) supplement then a measly $6 or $7 for Tombs! is an investment your likely to be pleased with.
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