I recently read the 2nd edition AD&D module Vecna Reborn, written by Monte Cook during the end-days of TSR. Long-time Comma, Blank_ readers may recall that one of my earliest posts detailed my thoughts on another AD&D module themed around my favorite villain: Vecna Lives!. Vecna Reborn is a kind of loose sequel to Vecna Lives!, insofar as it doesn't contradict its predecessor. There's little continuity between the two, aside from the appearance of Citadel Cavitius, and Vecna himself. But, given that the last adventure ended with Vecna being pushed through a portal into another world--which turns out to be Ravenloft--it's understandable that there's not much to connect this to the previous quest. There is a third module which I haven't read yet, entitled Die Vecna, Die!, which ties these two together. I very much look forward to reading it, but that's for another day.
Vecna Reborn is only about half the length of Vecna Lives!, at 63 pages. But that's still twice the length of a standard adventure module, so there's no lack of peril to explore. And the adventure is exciting! I was so engaged I actually put down the novel I've been reading for a week. And, as with any well written module, there's a lot to be learned about game mastery by dissecting the author's work. The author of an adventure module, after all, essentially a professional game master. Who better to try and learn from? Take what works about the adventure, figure out how it was accomplished, and steal it.
The most memorable element of this adventure is the constant sense that the PCs are in danger. And not just from wandering monsters and surprise encounters. In fact there are very few of either to be found here. Vecna Reborn is set between two oppressive autocracies, one ruled by Vecna, and one ruled by Kas the Destroyer (Vecna's former lieutenant, and current mortal foe). Neither civilization requires the players to necessarily keep themselves hidden, but nor do they want the authorities to notice them. The "Daggers" of Kas' domain will arrest, interrogate, and imprison people on a whim. And the "Reavers" of Vecna's domain are undead sentinels who would sooner kill a mortal than deal with any unrest within their lord's domain. Even the relatively few times when the players will likely find themselves outside of either city, wandering patrols, invisible stalkers, virulent plagues, and a life-draining desert serve to keep the players on edge.
And that's something I've never been good at. Creating atmosphere in general terms is a struggle for me, but I think I do alright. This adventure, though, would have me actually looking over my shoulder and clasping my hands. I would love to be able to achieve that level of tension and immersion with my players, and I think Vecna Reborn comes with a good toolkit. Kas' city of Tor Gorak is ruled with a hauntingly chronic injustice, which breeds obsequiousness in its populace. People stay off the streets for fear of getting picked up by the Daggers. The boldest act of defiance in the entire town is the madhouse founded by an old man, where he keeps the insane safe from execution for being 'worthless.' There's only small handful of people there who wouldn't turn on the players instantly to save themselves from the attention of the authorities, and the players are shown early on that they don't want that kind of attention. Shortly after the players arrive in the city, they're (likely) picked up by the Daggers, and taken to their headquarters for interrogation. The players are only released when some good fortune falls into their lap, and if they do anything to warrant getting picked up again, they know they won't be so lucky.
Vecna's Citadel Cavitius is less overtly totalitarian, but is somehow even more demeaning and oppressive. Horrifying undead guard every entrance to the citadel, allowing any individual to enter, but allowing no one to leave. Vecna, the undead god, rules the city, his undead lords and ladies handle its various affairs, and undead Reavers maintain order. The unholy citizenry ignore the affairs of mortals the same way one might ignore a dog walking through the streets. So while the PCs can go about their business unmolested, their lives are less than meaningless to those around them. It's just as likely that they'll complete their quest as it is for a vampire to pick them off the streets for a gory meal.
Imminent danger can take many forms. As I mentioned above, later in the adventure there is a virulent plague killing everyone around the players, leaving them to wonder whether they might catch it themselves. And even on the road, two invisible demons follow the players and cause mischief, letting them know that an unknown danger still lurks somewhere about them. Vecna Reborn is a litany of very visible, very deadly dangers which the players can do nothing about. Their only hope is to keep their heads down and try to stop Vecna's plot to be reborn without drawing any attention.
Another element of the game which caught my attention is The Shadowed Room. During the course of the adventure, the party must travel there to learn how to thwart Vecna's plans. When they find it, they discover that the shadowed room is, in fact, a library. I. Love. Fantasy Libraries. As a bibliophile and a lover of fantasy, they're a combination of two locations which excite and comfort me. I often design such libraries just for the fun of it, and The Shadowed Room is a good one.
During the height of Vecna's empire in the realm of Oerth, he ruled over a massive city. And in one of the city's many spires, he filled a library with secret both arcane and powerful. The knowledge gathered in this room was so profound, and so remarkable, that the library left a permanent imprint on the multiverse. When the city was destroyed, millennia ago, this imprint remained, as a memory of creation itself. Vecna learned that he could access this memory, and constructed a magical portal to allow himself to access this "Shadowed Room." The knowledge which was once gathered there, knowledge which has otherwise been lost, can be read here. But nothing can be taken from the room, for it is only a shadow of something which once was.
Lastly, I want to make note of the fantastic hooks this adventure leaves you with. In my opinion, the best adventure modules leave a group wanting to do more. With the most pressing goal accomplished, a myriad of other possibilities should call to the players, giving the game master a number of avenues to pursue for further games in the same local. And that's precisely what Vecna Reborn does. Immediately upon reaching the period at the end of the last sentence, I instinctively started constructing follow up adventures in my mind. There's so much more the players could accomplish! Freeing Tor Gorak of Kas' rule could last sessions! The headquarters of the Daggers and Kas's own castle would both make excellent settings for dungeon crawls, and after the way the adventure encourages the players to engage with the town's populace, I think they'll feel enough sympathy for them to want to help. Perhaps even form a rebellion for an extended campaign against Kas.
Oh! By the way, this is the 100th RPG post on Comma, Blank_. Yay.