This week, I am continuing my March Madness Theme by taking a look at Perilous Places: TheKing's Mercy. This twenty page PDF is another offering from the Dungeon Master's Guild, written by Paul Baalham, and featuring another take on emulating the progression of madness (or in this case despair) in the minds of hapless adventurers. The supplement is laid out nicely, is done in full color, and there are good illustrations throughout, including an image of each new monster and unique item presented, which I truly appreciate. Let's take a closer look, and I'll let you know what I think about this supplement and the “Despair Track” that it introduces.
First, I want to stress that "Perilous Places: The King's Mercy" is not a fully-realized adventure; rather, it's a location template for a part insane asylum part torture chamber with a set of rules to help you track the effects of such a place on a character's psyche. To make proper use of this supplement, you will need to provide your own dungeon map and stock it at as you see fit (or apply the rules presented here to an existing dungeon). I really like this concept, as it affords the game master a lot of flexibility in terms of the adventure's size, scope, and challenge rating. This approach also makes it easy for game masters to add The King's Mercy to any campaign world without reworking anything. I'll go ahead and say this up front: there are a lot of good ideas and inspirations here if you're thinking about including a dungeon with a torture and/or insane asylum theme in your game, and you should go ahead and spend the $2.00 to pick this up. Also, all of the proceeds from this adventure go to The Alzheimer's Society, so you'll be doing yourself a favor while supporting a worthy cause.
In addition to the Despair Track, which we'll discuss in a minute, you also get a brief history of the location, some plot hooks, new creatures, new items, a table of "dungeon dressings," a random encounter table, and random loot table. All of these elements fit together well, and server to present a cohesive vision of The King's Mercy that is dripping with theme. Right now though you're probably still saying: “Sure, all of this is great – but what is the theme, and what is the King's Mercy, and why is this a Perilous Place?”
According to the background information provided, The King's Mercy used to be a sort of asylum for the criminally insane who couldn't be put to death on account of the fact that there was this evil necromancer about who would animate their corpses and add them to his undead armies. Oh, and there were more criminally insane folk than usual running around because a powerful wizard thought it would be a good idea to fight the necromancer with demons, and lots of people got infected with some sort of demonic-madness-plague. It was a whole big thing.
Ok, so the backstory doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but that honestly doesn't matter. Whether you use the supplied backstory or not, the rest of the information provided in the supplement does a good job of conveying the ambiance of The King's Mercy, describing it as an insane asylum where the patients/prisoners were tortured and kept alive as long as possible. It's an awful place, where awful things happened, and it's full of lingering psychic energy and anguish. This is where the Despair Track comes in: it provides a way to track the effects of this lingering energy as it erodes the sanity of your adventurers.
The Despair Track is basically a scale that goes from 1 to 5, with zero being normal and five being bat-shit insane. Upon entering The King's Mercy each person's Despair Track is set to one, and after each hour each character is required to make a DC 13 Wisdom check, with failure increasing the position on the track by one and success decreasing it by one. The supplement states that you can never fall below one on the Despair Track while adventuring in the dungeon. Each level of despair that a character gains adds an additional die (d4, d6, d8, d10, or d12) to any psychic damage suffered by the character, charisma checks (other than intimidation) become increasingly harder, and at later stages of despair intelligence and wisdom checks are impaired. Conversely, intimidation checks always get easier the more levels of despair a character has.
I like this a lot thematically, this idea that a character's ability to reason and perceive reality goes down while her ability to intimidate goes up as she moves further along the Despair Track. It reminds me of Stephen King's “The Shining,” so I think it hits the mark. However, I worry that a DC 13 Wisdom check every hour may be too much, and I'm not crazy about the stipulation that characters can never fall below one on the Despair Track, since even level one is pretty severe, and the size of the dungeon and length of the adventure are left up to the game master. For longer adventures or larger dungeons, I might instead call for despair checks after short rests, long rests, or after especially traumatic events.
Aside from mechanical effects, each stage of despair is also accompanied by a d10 table full of horrible effects that a person might suffer from at that stage. These range from psychological traumas, like hearing voices, to experiencing weird itches, odd temperature sensations, and gory hallucinations. There is a good mix of each type of effect, and I love that there are so many of them, but the tables don't do a great job of separating these effects by levels of intensity. For instance, at stage five you might have a hallucination that your skin is being peeled off by a rusty blade, or you might just hear a gruff voice singing a lullaby. At stage one you might hear a parent whispering their disappointment in your ear or you might feel a hand piercing your chest and crushing your heart. Because of this wild variation I doubt I would ever roll randomly for these effects, but rather I'd just pick and choose what I liked from all fifty results without regard for what stage of despair it was associated with.
Moving on from the Despair Track, let's talk a little bit about the new monsters.
My favorite new monster is the headless zombie. These creatures came about as the king sought to deplete the undead armies of the necromancer by decapitating criminals. They had underestimated the necromancer however, and soon these new, headless zombies joined the ranks of his armies. I love this monster because it is in turns both horrifying and comical, depending on how you play it. These zombies have a preternatural ability to detect the living, represented by a passive perception score of 7, but they are not very good at hitting their targets once they locate them. If I used nothing else from this supplement I would still use these monsters somehow, somewhere.
The next monster is “Animated Ashes.” After the headless zombie debacle, the king decreed that the dead would henceforth be cremated. Surely this would thin the ranks of the necromancer's armies, right? Wrong! Animated Ashes are formed from the ashes of several cremated creatures, forming what the book describes as “a weird cross between a powdery golem and a zombie.” Weird indeed! I like this creature less than the headless zombie, but it still works thematically and it has some interesting abilities, like being able to slip through most cracks and crevices, that could make designing encounters fun.
The final new monster provided is the Despair Hunter, and it's kind of a mixed bag for me. It looks like a sort of slug with a mouthful of tentacles, and it is attracted to suffering, gaining a bonus to hit creatures depending on how far along they are on the Despair Track. Interestingly, once it has a victim grappled, it begins to feed off of its victim's despair, actually lowering his or her level on the despair track with each successful attack. I think this is a clever bit of design that could lead to some interesting situations where a character might actually want this thing to lick his brain for awhile, to wipe out some despair levels. However, I think an opportunity was missed to give this creature an attack that deals psychic damage and thus tie it to the despair track that way, rather than giving the creature “to hit” bonuses that increase as the target progresses on the Despair Track.
I don't want to spend much time on the unique items, the dungeon dressing table, or the dungeon loot table, but I will say that each of these elements compliments the Despair Track well and, as I said before, everything fits together cohesively and thematically.
I've already said as much, but I'll summarize it again here: if you're willing to put in the work to make your own adventure site and stock your own dungeon, Perilous Places: The King's Mercy is a great way to drape a compelling theme over that location, leaving you with more time to worry about drawing maps and building encounters. There are a lot of little details here that help spark the imagination, and it's worth mining this supplement for ideas even if you decide not use anything presented here whole-cloth. In fact, I wasn't even considering an insane asylum adventure location before reading this, but I have to admit I am now!