Lead Designer: John Harmston
Year Published: Currently a Kickstart campaign, expected to deliver this year
Role Playing System: 5e D&D
Find more info on the Dawn of the Necromancer Kickstarter page
Something is rotten in the town of Darwich. A mysterious creature has moved into the cemetery and murders anyone who dares enter its new hunting grounds. Eyewitness reports say the monster looks like some sort of golem crafted from tombstones and mossy grave markers. A party of confident adventurers have been hired to rid the town of this dangerous pest, a task that should be wrapped up by the afternoon, with a heavy pouch of gold awaiting its completion. Yet, could this be merely a harbinger of greater evils that infest the land? What darksome power might be lurking that threatens the whole of the Northern Kingdoms?
When choosing a new campaign to run, I am always drawn to good plot and interesting situations and settings. I really enjoy large sweeping stories and deep mysteries. But in all honesty, what I normally talk about when I talk about gaming memories were the encounters. A good and memorable encounter will make its way into stories way more often.
This is why I think John Harmston has it right when his Kickstarter for Dawn of the Necromancer draws attention to “the bonkers encounters.”
And it isn’t that the plot isn’t there. It is, and it’s really good. The setting is solid. And the villainess herself is quite interesting. The things that normally draw me to an adventure are the things that drew me to this particular Kickstarter in the first place. But there is a care in this adventure for the smaller details, those small quests, the battles along the way, and it is this care that sets it apart. This is where the variety and creativity are found, and these encounters alone are probably worth supporting the project. You will find plenty of ideas that could very easily be inserted into another campaign. But the interesting side effect of this approach – the focus on the encounter – is how the encounters work together and even overlap into a larger and much better story.
Dawn of the Necromancer is a 5e campaign that takes players from level 1 to level 20. It is a current Kickstarter that ends on June 5, 2021. For this review I was provided a preview edition that covers the first act of the game, or the first four player levels.
There are a number of encounters, split into target player levels, though as I will discuss later, the open world nature of the game could easily mix up the order these are actually encountered. There are one or two of these short quests or missions per level that will advance the overall plot and then some optional ones thrown in for the party who isn’t in a hurry to reach the end.
The book sets expectations at the beginning of the adventure only to subvert them right away. When your party takes a job from a stranger in an inn and then their first battles is with zombies attacking a manor, they will feel like they are in familiar territory. But that feeling will fade quickly enough as one of those zombies attempts to use its own entrails as a garrote. Following that the players might turn to a ghost story, but it is one where the ghost will react to the adventurers with compassion if they approach her in the same way, or in anger and violence if they come to her in that manner. What we might see next is a wagon chase as they pursue grave robbers down the street, a hunt for dark forces in the countryside, or the original reason the characters came in the first place – the golem made out of gravestones.
The individual quests and encounters are unique and memorable, and there is a wealth of good ideas available here. But it is the second great strength of this campaign that makes it all the more special – the way these encounters weave together and overlap into a whole that is going to keep the players moving forward to figure out the next piece in the puzzle.
The open world approach of the adventure does something really interesting here – it’s not open world in that you wander around and happen upon something happening and then you deal with it. It’s open world in that things are happening around the area all the time and the player picks what to investigate next.
The party is hired to deal with a golem desecrating the local cemetery, but the opportunities then spiral outward way before they ever finish that mission (which they will likely finish at level 3 even though they are hired at level 1, so this is not something they are going to complete right away). My encouragement to the dungeon master is to let these opportunities breathe. All of it is happening at the same time, and if you let it all happen at the same time then your players are going to be able to follow the threads that interest them, and those are likely going to loop back around to the ones they didn’t pick up at first.
There is a good amount of overlap that can happen, and in so doing your players will see the individual encounters as part of the greater whole. When I ran the adventure, the party was listening to the pleas of the father of a missing woman when the alarm rang out about the manor being attacked. They were waylaid from that adventure to tend to the manor, but they were distracted from it again later when leads for that missing woman led them to the graveyard. Remembering why they had come in the first place, they engaged the golem at that very moment. The game’s structure is perfect for allowing the adventurers space to pick their own leads, what they are going to explore next. They will set their own priorities, probably with more than one quest being followed at once, and if they sequence break too drastically (and I do think most parties will try to engage the golem before they should) – a good DM will be able to give enough hints that they are drifting into territory fit for another time.
Of note, the way I solved that particular problem was that the golem grabbed a tombstone and pelted the party’s rogue from 60 feet away and knocked her unconscious and about to make death saves. The party took the hint and left the graveyard right away, but even these encounters are going to ratchet up the tension quite nicely and also hinted at several things still to come.
It’s also something you won’t have to worry about too much. The game is very open and it’s designed to take your party to level 20, but the first town’s quests are built for the first four levels, so it’s not going to be the situation where your second level party wanders into a battle designed for level 15 heroes. The structure of the campaign allows for a great amount of freedom with amble constraints along the way to keep the player from getting too far afield.
The fascinating side effect of arranging things in this way is that the players will mostly pull themselves into the campaign based on interest, mystery, and curiosity, rather than the traditional and straightforward “stranger in a tavern hires you to do a job.” Which is a strange thing to write since the adventure does begin with a stranger in a tavern hiring the characters, but that one job – destroy the golem – is going to weave the characters into the larger tapestry that they are going to want to explore and see through to the end.
Which is, we would assume, the Necromancer herself.
The eponymous Necromancer as a character is intriguing. Her story is compelling, her bitterness and anger overwhelming but understandable. As the players progress they have the opportunity to really get to know her as a person and as a villainess and probably be even tempted by her goals.
And she is not a villainess who is waiting in the final dungeon for the heroes to reach her. She is very active in the plot, so much so that she also gains levels as time goes on. Her watchful eye is everything in this adventure, and you feel her presence constantly.
Her story is (optionally) told through the dreams of the heroes, wordless events that give insight into what has happened to this woman that has set her on a path to dominate those who did her wrong. The more you get to know her the more compelling she is as a character, and the more terrifying, because you realize that a young and helpless woman who once pleaded for her father to be saved has turned into something far more dark and dangerous. She isn’t a lich guarding a dungeon. She is a person who believes she is doing what is right and just.
This gives the players a chance to feel bad for her and also want to fight her at the same time, which is the real goal of a really good villainess.
As mentioned above, the material I was given for this review were the quests for the first four levels as well as some hints as to later missions. I find myself anxious to go through that further material based on the strength of our first town. And I’m not the only one. When I ran a group through it to playtest the material, they unanimously requested to continue the campaign and were excited to see what happened next.
So either as a collection of good encounter and monster ideas or as a campaign, Rise of the Necromancer is definitely something that sparks the imagination, that draws the player in, and is very fun to run. The setting and characters are good, the world is teeming with interesting situations and adventure leads, and the monsters are memorable and unique. I believe the Kickstarter is a solid one to support and will be well received by your players when you run it, and it is one that I am going to continue to play with my party.
If you are interested in seeing the recording of my party’s adventures, the video has been preserved for posterity here.
TechnoFunkBoy is a podcaster, musician, and author. Both he and his music can be heard on the actual play podcasts Dice & Dreary, Order of Podcasters, and Tales from the Rusty Speeder. His music is available on Bandcamp, Amazon, Apple, and Spotify, and ranges from electronic video game covers to soundtracks. His latest album is called The Wolves and is an energetic collection of synthwave instrumentals.