Rob Kuntz’s Old-School Effort a Hit
Written by Joe Bingaman
Black Blade Publishing made a sweet deal with the legendary Rob Kuntz, creator of classics such as Maure Castle and Garden of the Plantmaster, to work on his Lake Geneva Castle and Campaign line of products. CAS-1, Cairn of the Skeleton King, fits right into this line, as it takes players through two scenarios, which leads into another adventure (CAS-2, Tower of Blood).
Cairn of the Skeleton King is designed for 4 to 8 adventurers of levels 4 to 7. This is by no means an easy adventure, as Kuntz does not make it easy in any of his adventures. Right off the rip, the dungeon master is warned that there are encounters that a seventh-level character may find difficult, and that a strong priest, as well as a good thief, are highly recommended. That right there should tell any dungeon master familiar with Kuntz’s previous works that this adventure will be full of tough monsters and many traps.
The backstory of Part One, which deals with the titled Skeleton King, involves the player characters being hired by the local rulers to deal with a past ruler, who was raised by a necromancer, and after much time ruling over undead, wishes to end his undeath. Sounds easy enough, and the offer to the player characters is a high sum for killing an undead that wishes to die. Of course, as with many of Kuntz’s adventures, not everything is as it seems.
It doesn’t take long for the characters to run into many undead, except that these are simple skeletons that happen to be resistant to turning or banishing. So much for that cleric’s assistance here, as the players will have to fight through the hoard of 24 total skeletons. After that, the players will arrive at one of Kuntz’s classic trap and puzzle rooms, this one to unlock a door that leads to, you guessed it, more skeletons. Along with the trap and puzzle, this room also has a succubus and a few evil cupids in the room, so by the time the player’s finish this room, they may need a rest to rejuvenate some of those lost hit points from the skeleton hoard and this room.
After a few discoveries of a magical nature, the characters will discover a few spectral creatures, but these will yield some awesome loot if defeated. Soon after, Kuntz decides to bring in the “Am I going crazy?” factor on the characters, as they start hearing voices. There are various outcomes to this, depending on how long the players stay in the area of the voices. A few encounters and potentially deadly traps later, the player characters will discover a massive hoard of loot, just in time to encounter the Skeleton King, along with a few wights. The wights are simple enough, however, here comes the twist: the Skeleton King asks the characters to seek out the necromancer that created him first, and slay him, to weaken him, as he wishes to die in combat, but does not wish to kill the characters.
With this decision, the characters are forced into a bind, though most will certainly choose to chase the necromancer, which in itself has a twist. Fortunately, the party does not need to travel far, as the necromancer is literally down a corridor across a main room from the Skeleton King. However, there is a false and true necromancer, with the true only slightly stronger than the fake. In this area, there is a map that leads to the necromancer’s treasure hoard; however, this is left as guidelines for an enterprising dungeon master to fill in, possibly as a side trek after this adventure.
After disposing of the necromancer, the characters can then travel back and easily dispose of the weakened Skeleton King, and loot his treasure as well. The haul from this part of the adventure is fairly high, so quite a bit of experience will be gained from the gold piece value of the treasure found. How the dungeon master goes about this is up to them.
Back near the necromancer’s lair was a secret door which leads on to the second part of this adventure, the Warren of the Ghools. This part of the adventure is meant to tie into a few future adventures that were promised, such as the Monastery of Evil and Gates of Hades, two items that never saw the light of day (at least under Black Blade Publishing). It also served as an introduction to the Underworld that Kuntz created for this setting.
Part Two takes us into the Warren of the Ghools, a subterranean area with no less than 120 of the generic version of this new monster within its confines. Player characters will run into 30 generic versions at a time, but there are also mages and lords as well, that are an even bigger threat to the well-being of the party. There also lies a few more undead, as well as a demon of Orcus in the warren, which also has quite a bit of treasure, but deservedly so, as the encounters here always outnumber the party. Also in the warren is a tributary of the river Styx, which can be instantly fatal, along with other effects.
After going through all of that, the characters will come to a fork in the path. This area marks the end of the warrens, as right leads out. Left, however, was designed to lead to CAS-2 Tower of Blood, and should be used if the dungeon master is following up this adventure with that one.
The Appendix follows, detailing the three new monsters in this adventure, the Barrow Wight, the Ghool, and the Tomb Skeleton. Of these, the ghoul is the most interesting, and is very detailed, taking up 3 and a half pages on its own.
The cover artwork is classic style, with a classic look and feel to it, while the interior cover holds the maps, in classic blue scale design. The interior artwork by Jim Holloway and Jason Braun is fluid, and very reminiscent of many classic AD&D modules.
Overall, the adventure is well put together, though the second part involving the warrens was not necessary. Both could stand-alone, as it states in the introduction, and both could have been expanded to be separate adventures. The warrens feels a little out of place, unless a dungeon master plans on using Tower of Blood as a follow-up adventure. The Skeleton King section is very fluid, but the lack of instant resolution before the warrens leaves one to wonder about the thoughts of those who hired the characters initially. Would they find another party to resolve the issue, as there is no real split between the sections, unless the characters elect to return first?
Regardless of the above grievances, Rob Kuntz once again did a fantastic job weaving a tale that seems simple, but can become lethal if characters are not careful. The man is a master at his craft, and one should always trust that if there is a product with his name on it, that product will be 1) high-quality, and 2) potentially lethal. His time spent around Gary Gygax shows in every adventure, and his dedication to old-school gaming, even with all the flashy new graphics and rules since, is both honorable and commendable.