Tagline: A solid D20 module from an industry newcomer. A couple of crucial flaws undermine what would otherwise be a strong product. Cautiously recommended.
When I first heard the plans emanating from Wizards of the Cost regarding the Open Gaming License and D20 Trademark License I was somewhat skeptical… but there was also a glimmer of excitement and a dash of hope in my emotional make-up.
And its specifically because of products like NeMoren’s Vault that I felt this way.
If NeMoren’s Vault had been produced this same time last year, it would have been preceded by a mammoth tome called something like The Fiery Dragon Fantasy Roleplaying System. And we would have been treated to mind-numbing artwork. And screeching purple prose. And vast claims about how the FDFRP was going to revolutionize gaming as we know it.
And we would have opened this book up and found exactly what we knew we were going to find all along: Dungeons & Dragons with the serial numbers filed off.
In the process, a solid adventure module like NeMoren’s Vault would have been irrevocably lost under the detritus of the hulking monstrosity which would have been the FDFRP: $30 for the rulebook; the time it takes to learn the new system; the effort it takes to start a new campaign. There is far too much investment to be made before you get down to the $10 it actually costs to pick up the module. At the end of the day, something like NeMoren’s Vault is not worth a massive investment of time, energy, and money.
It’s worth $10.
Which, handily enough, is exactly what it costs.
Warning: This review will contain spoilers for NeMoren’s Vault. Players who may end up playing in this module are encouraged to stop reading now. Proceed at your own risk.
Three hundred years ago a man by the name of Kragor NeMoren played a key role in the formation and success of the Grand Alliance between humanity and the elvish folk as they repelled the goblin hordes. In return for his service, he was granted ownership of a vast tract of rich forest land by the elvish king and, in turn, a royal title as Baron of the West Wood by the human king. Before he died, Kragor built a mansion – complete with a massive vault for protecting the riches he had accumulated, housing the family’s dead, and storing wine.
Fast forward 250 years: Baron Paytro NeMoren, the last of the NeMoren line, takes a wife. One week after the wedding, however, Amelia NeMoren is kidnapped by Paytro’s ex-love – Lisette – and her two brothers. Lisette comes to the manor and demands that the baron proclaim her the rightful baroness – otherwise she will kill his new wife. Paytro, afraid of the truth coming out, drugs Lisette and her brothers and seals them within the family’s vault.
Tortured with grief and guilt, Paytro goes into seclusion for the rest of his life – and dies apparently without heir. Lisette and her brothers would have starved to death, except for the fact that Lisette used her mystic black arts to transform all of them into undead ghouls – eagerly awaiting their chance to wreak vengeance upon the NeMoren line.
Enter the PCs, who have (by one way or another) come into possession of the silver keys (one per PC) which denote them as heirs of Baron Paytro. As you can easily guess, they are to enter the NeMoren family vault – which only their keys can access – and discover what their inheritance consists of.
Other stuff that’s been happening: A creature known as an Undrathur – a large, humanoid carnivore which burrows through the earth – has taken up residence in the area around the Vault. As a result of his burrowing, the lair of a hobgoblin tribe has been connected to the Vault. The hobgoblins were periodically raiding the Vault, but have been driven back by the ghouls and other undead Lisette has created. The hobgoblins periodically venture out to claim sacrifices in order to appease the ghouls, and their sacrificial chamber has – unbeknownst to the townspeople – befouled the local water supply and created a strange plague. The combination of mysterious disappearances (the kidnapped sacrifices) and the plague have been labeled “NeMoren’s Curse”.
This is something that NeMoren’s Vault does very well: Any one of these elements (a dead noble house leaving behind a subterranean vault; Poe’s Cask of Amontillado by way of a fantasy dungeon; the underground lair of a hobgoblin tribe; a massive, man-eating predator leaving behind underground tunnels) would suffice to explain your average dungeon crawl. But by taking all them in concert with one another, NeMoren’s Vault gets a whole larger than the sum of its parts.
This strength is re-emphasized in the fact that the design of the Vault consistently integrates these background elements in the particulars of the dungeon’s construction – although there are several elements of the Vault which would otherwise be cliché, the fact that they have been made to arise naturally from the Vault’s history and construction gives them a sense of realism and believability
The author has also done a nice job of not only considering a plethora of possible endings to the scenario, but examining a variety of different ways in which each thread plays out. Ideas ranging from placing the PCs in the middle of a civil war arising from the true inheritor of NeMoren’s title and lands to the discovery that Amelia NeMoren is still alive and held in magical stasis to the various fall-outs of breaking the balance of power between the ghouls and the hobgoblins.
A PROBLEM WITH TREASURE
Unfortunately, despite some of its glimmering strengths, NeMoren’s Vault is possessed of one crucial flaw:
There is more than 100,000 gp worth of treasure lying around this Vault.
And that’s just the stuff that’s easily accessible. If you count the stuff they’ve made difficult to access (by collapsing all of the entrances into a treasure room, for example; or requiring one of the PCs to chop off a finger to access the magical vault) there is an additional 225,000 gp worth of treasure I’m not counting (including one of the six legendary Runeblades – mystic blades which “have the power to conquer entire nations”).
That’s 325,000 gp worth of treasure!
Assuming you use the suggested party size of four characters, that’s roughly 25,000 gp of treasure per PC (81,250 gp if they get all the treasure in the complex). To put that in perspective:
1. According to Table 5-1 in the DMG (pg. 145), that’s the amount of treasure that a 7th level character should have accumulated (12th level for the higher number).
2. Using Table 7-2 in the DMG (pg. 170) and the Encounter Level/Challenge Rating for NeMoren’s Vault, the amount of treasure which should be present in an adventure of this type is only 10,000 gp (and that’s only if they defeat the monster which the module tells the DM they probably shouldn’t have to defeat).
Did I also mention that, at the end of the adventure, they also end up with a legal writ granting them possession of one of the richest baronies in the kingdom?
Even when you realize that they neglected to give Challenge Ratings to the various traps and puzzles found throughout the Vault, you’re going to end up with seriously overpowered PCs at the end of this adventure. I seriously suggest going through NeMoren’s Vault and vigorously thinning the treasure hordes out before letting your players go through it. (Or, alternatively, buff up the challenge ratings throughout and run your PCs through at a higher level. Changing the ghouls to ghasts, the medium-size skeletons and zombies to huge skeletons and zombies, and the hobgoblins to bugbears should do the trick – although you’ll still need to cut down the treasure a little bit.)
Actually, the problem is even greater than it appears at first glance because, in fact, they have overstated the Challenge Ratings on several of the encounters (for example, listing Ghouls as having a CR of 2 when, in fact, they only have a CR 1). This is a problem quite a few of these inaugural D20 products are bound to have (because they were working from preview documents or guesswork, rather than the final versions of books like the Monster Manual). Keep an eye open for it and make the necessary adjustments.
(On a related note: I would have liked to see a summary of treasure available in this scenario. A tool like this would not only make it easier to adjust the overall treasure size for parties of different sizes, but in its construction would have immediately alerted the author to the fact that he had vastly overfilled this dungeon.)
WORKING WITH THE WEB
One interesting feature of the Fiery Dragon product line is the on-line support the company is offering. Although still in its nascent infancy (and therefore still rife with the possibility of going heinously awry), there are some interesting ideas under development:
1. Additional support material for the various Fiery Dragon products available on-line (such as complications and secret areas for published modules).
2. An on-line tavern in which players can “Roll for Rumors”. This isn’t particularly impressive at the moment, but conceptually the idea of sending your players to an on-line tavern to pick up the rumors which may (or may not) feed into next week’s adventure is interesting.
3. Perhaps the best feature, at the moment, though is the provision of “private campaign areas” – featuring a number of tools (including the hosting of up to 1.25 gigabytes of game-related files, message boards, etc.) for creating an on-line center for your on- or off-line campaigns.
NeMoren’s Vault is a solid product.
It is not an exceptional one — the treasure imbalance, mediocre-to-subpar artwork, a few unfortunate lay-out choices, and the generally traditional set-up prevents it from being one. But it is not a poor one, either.
It is worth $10. And that’s what you pay for it.
It serves its purpose. And that’s why you’ll pay for it.
What excites me about NeMoren’s Vault, though, is that – when you look beyond the weaknesses which pull it down – the strengths which remain are in all the right places. There is an underlying foundation of creative thought and gaming sensibility which, if given the chance to grow, has a chance of becoming something truly impressive.
NeMoren’s Vault is a good product. But Fiery Dragon Productions bears watching for the potential greatness which lies ahead.
This is a review of a complimentary pre-production copy, distributed by Fiery Dragon Productions for publicity purposes.
Author: James Bell
Company/Publisher: Fiery Dragon Productions
Page Count: 32
Originally Posted: 2000/11/02
James Bell replied to this review by noting the systemic errors that had been made (particularly in the amount of available treasure) and issued extensive errata to correct the problem. (Two huge thumbs up to him for that.) Fiery Dragon would, in fact, go on to produce a number of really nice D20 products. NeMoren’s Vault would be revised into both a 3.5 Edition and a Pathfinder Edition. I have not personally looked at the updated versions, but I’m guessing they’re still pretty nifty. You can grab the Pathfinder edition here.
Re-reading this review a decade and a half later, I’m actually strongly tempted to use the original version of the module unaltered to launch a campaign: Yup, you’re 1st level characters who have just ransacked 325,000 gp of treasure out of the ground, including a legendary blade with all kinds of prophecies attached to it. Plus, you’ve got a legal writ granting you the richest barony in the kingdom. So… now what? Instead of fetishizing balance, let’s see what happens if we deliberately invert expectations.
For an explanation of where these reviews came from and why you can no longer find them at RPGNet, click here.