Requiem: The Grim Harvest
Authors: William W. Connors with Lisa Smedman (Requiem), Lisa Smedman (Death Triumphant)
Other notes:Level: 6-10 This boxed set is the final part of the Grim Harvest series of adventures, after Death Unchained, and Death Ascendant. Oddity: the map of Il Aluk provided in the boxed set does not resemble the map of Il Aluk included in the Realm of Terror boxed set, even if the Vuchar River follow the same curves.
David "Jester" Gibson
The Grim Harvest brought about one of the largest changes for Ravenloft and the Land of the Mists. It ended the (un)life of one of the oldest, most loved and most powerful darklords as well as renaming his Domain and dividing it up among a handful of less powerful (and less-interesting) demilords. Now change is inevitable but after reading this product it seemed as if the change brought about in this adventure and the preceding two adventures Death Unchained and Death Ascendant was all designed to bring some new rules into the game. Azalin blew himself up for the sole reason that a few PCs could be killed and turning into undead.
So let us start by discussing these new rules first. They are presented in one of the three books in this set, Requiem, the largest of the three included books at 96 pages (although of the last three two are a character sheet and the final one is an advertisement for the Ravenloft line. And while it is a very cool ad they hardly need to plug the products to people who bought this Boxed Set). The rules are a complete change from anything seen about undead to this point. Both new and converted characters keep their race as some abilities transfer over, this is nice as there is a long relationship between racial undead variants. But all character classes are gone, converted to the new undead classes. In the new rules a character takes classes in the undead such as being a level four skeleton. After third edition with its emphasis on multi-classing this rigid structure forcing someone into a single class seems restrictive, especially when multi-class and dual-class characters did exist. And the undead ‘classes’ are more like kits with only the smallest advantages and disadvantages bestowed by them. Instead what separates them is an arbitrary system of which ‘class’ advances using which experience table from the Player’s Handbook. This is paired with the proficiency system as each class gains a different number of weapon and non-weapon proficiencies.
The proficiency system is the heart of the undead now with all class and special undead abilities being proficiencies. Climb walls? Proficiency. Pick Locks? Proficiency. Turn Undead. That’s a proficiency too. This allows any character to mix and match any abilities allowing for some highly customisable undead and powers. Most of the typical undead abilities are featured although there is not nearly enough of the salient powers from the various Van Richten Guides. To allow for the most customisation is a system of weakness that can be adopted for bonus proficiency slots. This system is quite frankly a munchkin/Min-Maxer’s wet dream. With a couple obscure or easily by-passed weaknesses a character can become invulnerable to all but magic weapons and gain other equally fantastic powers all the while being an undead creature automatically immune to many spells and abilities. There are some surprising exceptions, such as vampiric shape changing, which have been left out. No turning to bats for Requiem undead. Given the extraneous pages uselessly used in the book these omissions are just shoddy work. This is especially true with the magic system that requires a single proficiency to gain access to magic, but there are no further rules. As it stands a L20 Ghast could gain the ability at level 16 and spontaneously develop all the powers of a L16 wizard instead of starting from scratch. These rules also take many special powers, reserved for one or two undead, and make them available for all. What makes a vampire special and different from a lowly skeleton? The vampire must feed on blood (or other fluid) and has many powers. With these new rules so can the skeleton, it just takes him a bit longer to gain all the abilities. While many unique and deadly foes can be made through these rules it feels like a step backwards.
In the original adventure that inspired the setting and the line, I-6: Raveloft, Strahd was a vampire. There had been many before. But what made him special was that he was also a wizard and a necromancer in addition to being a vampire. Before then all vampires had exactly the same hit dice and weaknesses. Now with Requiem he would just be another undead with the vampire class using the magic-use proficiency. And in Van Richten’s Guide to Ghosts incorporeal undead were all united as one so all that separated wraiths, spectres, banshees and ghosts. Now they are all separate classes with the most superficial of different abilities. Even the Required Proficiencies feed into this with the ghost being required to take Aging Touch. Why they even required certain proficiencies to be taken is beyond me when it would have been just as easy to decrease the number of initial slots and give the abilities free.
There are other flaws in the system. Certain undead classes have ability requirements that goes with the 2nd Edition rules that states not every character can be every class. But given that undead are not normal classes this seems odd. Why is it required that every single vampire have a strength score of 18 or higher? Even with possible (undead) racial bonuses this seems a bit high. What happens if a vampire tries to make another of their kind? Does that only work if the subject has Herculean might? What about the old system of Ranks and power based on age? These are just thrown away. While a Requiem Vampire will improve over time it as it ages a PC vampire with a lot of luck placed in many combat situations will quickly become more powerful than a vampire made with the old rules that is many centuries in age. Also the rules suggest that undead need to replenish their necrotic negative energies in some way, such as by the ghoul’s feeding or vampire’s blood drinking, however no negative consequences are given for not doing this. Are they unable to heal or does it have the effect of starvation? Even odder is the alignment rule that has all characters slowly descend into Chaotic Evil as the Negative Material Plane pulls them into darkness. After they become evil the character instantly becomes an NPC. It says some DMs can allow a player to use a lawful or neutral evil character but chaotic evil is good only for villains. This makes it impossible to have a long-term campaign with an evil party. They will slowly descend into darkness. There is no system for redemption or removing this evil in play, which does not seem to fit with the atmosphere of Ravenloft. Even if they do only good they will become evil, it is not a struggle against darkness but a forced descent. However the system fails to take into account so many canon undead that are neutral or lawful evil, not chaotic. Both Strahd and Azalin are lawful and Jander Sunstar has staved off being evil for centuries!
The rest of the book merely offers character creation rules; much common sense and much cribbed from the PHB. Also included is a short history of Ravenloft needlessly included. This timeline is also woefully missing many relevant dates, the entire period between the Grand Conjunction and the Grim Harvest’s beginning is an empty span making it appear the timeline was needlessly advanced nearly a decade. Likewise does someone playing the adventure need to know when Forlorn was founded? Also included is advice on making a character such as cause of death, appearance and the like as well as many rules for being restored to life. Very little is said about role-playing the undead and only the briefest notes are given to how players are to act the part. Almost nothing in fact. Instead the curious are referred to other books such as the Van Richten Guides as well as several fiction books such as the literary and psychological Sherlock Holmes vs. Dracula, The Dracula Tape and The Holmes/Dracula File. Interesting choices. Nothing says quality book like ripping off a famous character or two. It does give a one-line reference to Anne Rice but stops short of mentioning her books by name. Not enough Counts maybe? It also suggests other role-playing games for suggestions and brings up Mosnters! Monsters! and mentions there are other systems out there but stops short of plugging others. I guess telling people to look up Wraith and Vampire would be a poor marketing move, especially after they finished this winner of a product. "Here’s a poor product you just dropped $30 US for, now let us tell you about our competition…"
Now onto the adventure itself, Death Triumphant. Not much can be said about this. The plot is thin and simply railroads the players around without actually giving them the chance to change anything. At the very beginning they are all but forced into a confrontation with the Kargat just so they can be saved by an important NPC. This NPC confesses a dream she had and the PCs are meant to simply believe this magical crone and invade the massive prison there. This brings in the most useful part of the adventure, a complete map and key of the Grim Fastness, which is of even greater importance now that it is the lair of Death. Azalin must have done some remodelling in preparation because the Black Vault is nowhere to be found. From there the adventure turns into a series of small encounters as the players are expected to flee for their lives and attempt to escape Il Aluk. A map of the city is provided for this although it looks nothing like the previous map. It has been stated that the river follows the same curves, which is true if you straighten it out and turn sharp swerves into small bends. Also the small key shows the locations of various important buildings, but these seem to have been placed randomly as there are often no buildings by the letter of the appropriate size. This is especially true for the massive Grim Fastness (and why a prison was built in the middle of town is also sloppy). The players have to escape from town because they are the only undead in the city that can resist Death. Why? Good question. Especially since it is apparent they can be controlled by Death if they fail a saving throw.
The adventure features several magical items placed liberally through the city despite their being illegal in Il Aluk. This includes an Iron Flask containing a Fire Elemental that can apparently leave Ravenloft at will! Other oddities include the fact undead can apparently drain the levels of other undead. That’s right the energy drain of undead that sucks the life from heroes also affects walking corpses. A brief section ends the book describing the change in the city since everyone was slain but much of this applies to the city before the Requiem. Oddly, right in the middle of the adventure, are the quick conversion rules for slain characters. Opposed to being in the rulebook. This just slows down the reading of the adventure and was unnecessary for other characters may need conversion other than just the PCs in the story. My favourite part of the adventure is when it says that if Goya, a recently zombified ‘kid’ cannot be convinced not to run Grandmother Nichai casts sleep or hold person on him. On an undead!! After reading and thinking of undead and transferring characters to undeath for most of a book one would figure the writer would know what would and would not work!
The final and shortest book, Necropolis, describes the re-christened and altered domain after all the people got together and voted to change the land’s name. That is about the best explanation I could come up with as no other reason is given here. This books is the most useful for a non-undead campaign as it describes all the regions, as well as the major cities, and their changes since the Requiem. For those pre-established cities they definitely become far creepier and darker since the recent events. It even makes some of the areas seem pleasant and peacefully beforehand, a very odd decision. However this is a very short section and fills less than half the book. The rest is dedicated to the various demilords of the land (save Death who gets the focus at the end of Death Triumphant). Most of these NPCs are new and have been referenced in later books (such as Gazetteer II) but they receive the most information ever here. Full statistics and histories. However several of these NPCs are undead, at least three, so it would seem the perfect place to demonstrate the new rules and churn out some speciality classed undead. But no, we receive standard cookie-cutter ghosts, vamps and ghoul lords instead. This is followed by a series of small adventure hooks for players after they have completed Death Triumphant, most involving these various demilords. Once again this would be a good place to offer advice for writing and running undead adventures but again the opportunity is squandered. The book ends with four unremarkable new monsters: The Dream Stalker (with no reference to the Nightmare Lands or its many dream monsters), the disturbing Maggot Golem, the unremarkable Bog Mummy (that is just a regular mummy immune to fire and vulnerable to cold, another missed opportunity to show the proficiencies) and the Ravenloft Siren (that is really more of an undead mermaid with charm abilities and once again no proficiencies or new classes).
One further note, two of the books (the Requiem rulebook and the Death Triumphant adventure) both feature the magic item the Hourglass of Souls on the cover. Supposedly one of the earlier adventures also featured this. Given the prevalence of crystal skulls in both the Doomsday Device, its prototype and the Hourglass they seem to be related but there is not a single reference to this hourglass in the actual box. Not-a-one! Likewise the cover of Death Triumphant features a Death with some oddly fleshy hands given he is consistently and thoroughly described as having skeletal forearms. The art in all three-books is sub-par often being sloppy and crude or more befitting a late 80s Conan the Barbarian comic book than a Ravenloft product. The double-sided poster map features a map of the domain on one side and the Grim Fastness on the other. I have mixed feeling regarding the map as it makes the Domain look overly small as you can see the top of every tree and hill. But this is a minor quibble as it also colours the Sea of Sorrows a sickly green making it look more like the Swamp of Sorrows and colours the mists blue making for some odd confusion at first glance. Other than that it is an oddly readable and useful map, one of the better ones the setting has seen. Even with the small death’s heads to mark cities.
So the rules have severe omissions and fail to take advantage of the rich history of Ravenloft (even going so far as to miss one of the key points that made Stahd so interesting). And the campaign is limited as there is only one real example or expected course, to be restored to life. The adventure is linear and will probably leave the players wondering what exactly happened. And the one heavily useful and descriptive book is far too short. When it was new this product was an excellent example of poor judgement, sloppy editing and missed opportunities. While 2nd Edition was still around it would have been useful for the occasional dead PC or toughening up foes with the undead classes it is even less useful now with the far better 3rd Edition rules. This box is all but useless with the modern edition. Both Darkon and Necropolis receive far better treatment in Gazetteer II and the rules are out of date, replaced with the ECL and multi-class systems. The only reason to buy it now is if maps to the Grim Fastness are required or if Trillen Mistwalker really, really floats your boat and the blurbs in Gaz2 and Domains of Dread simply are not enough.
When new it would have garnered a full one and a half drops of blood (2 to 2 1/2 for those needed an undead hero) but now it only rates half a drop.
One word for the Ravenloft accessory Requiem: The Grim Harvest, BAD! I have rarely seen such a sorry product come out of TSR's doors. Lets start from the most anticipated part for the boxed set the rules for undead characters which are hideous, the way they handled each undead creature was manhandling to say the least. ( Skeletons and zombies as PC's what were they thinking?) Also the fact that being undead was considered a class. Ugh! Personally if I did the rules the undead status of a character would fit into more of a kit type adjustment to a character. Also there was not very much in the way of in suggestions for campaigns, become alive again, that was pretty much it. Finally the way that alignment was handled left far much to be desired.
Next the adventure Death Triumphant the third in the Grim Harvest series (Preceded by Death Unchained and Death Ascendant) It was extremely contrived and I can see no way that I as a DM could ever get away with doing something that transparent to my PC's .
Lastly the Necropolis book which details the domain of Darkon after the destruction of Il Aluk, It was okay but it kinda fell flat in details. I wanted a lot more info that I just didn't seem to get. Oh final notes on the poster maps, I liked them they were probably one of the few useful things in the set.
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