Salutations, nerds! Today I’m going to be reviewing Empire of Ghouls, which is a campaign module put out by Kobold Press and let me tell you this one was a real treat to read. For those of you who don’t already know this is a full sized book for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. This campaign goes from 1st to 13th level based around an empire of the undead currently occupying the underground. Like, to the point they’ve overtaken drow settlements. These guys are a serious threat and it’s clear from the very start. A concept like this could have easily gotten very samey and stale but not the case with this one. I want to say maybe half of it actually takes place underground (and I might be overshooting) but even the parts that don’t never lose sight of the tone and flavor of the module. So without further ado let’s get into the meat of Empire of Ghouls, shall we?
An undead campaign done right
Empire of Ghouls begins with an escort quest bodyguarding for a kobold, which is immediately interesting to me. It starts off strong, dropping you into the world and really hammering in the political intrigue undertones right from the beginning. There’s a lot of cultural information about the titular empire of ghouls in the beginning of the book with the potential to make for a fully fleshed out ride from start to finish if you read it all the way through.
They really give you enough information to go far off script if you want to, holding adventures in this setting that have nothing to do with the prewritten campaign. The NPCs are well fleshed out and the art is amazing. I felt like I was on an adventure myself while I was reading this and consistently sitting there thinking about what I would be doing if I were a character in this game.
Another point in its favor is the book is laid out with all of the worldbuilding up front for the Game Master and then the campaign itself is in chronological order with the monster stat blocks in the back of the book. Everything is very easy to find. In this, Kobold Press is outpacing all of the official material I’ve read by leaps and bounds. Something I’ve noticed about most gaming guides is you almost have to have a map just to read the book and find the things you’re looking for, and this is almost universal. Empire of Ghouls is set up so that if you are a GM you can just go through and read it as you’re running it and aren’t likely to lose your place or mess anything up because there was a footnote at the end of chapter 5 that changes how you were supposed to play things in chapter 1. As a GM I really, really appreciate this.
Ordinarily I would be breaking this down into the good and the bad but I honestly don’t have a lot to complain about here. It had good in world representation including female characters and people of color. It explicitly addresses the fact that the racial tensions present in the narrative early on are reflective of real world issues and advises care be taken for the mental health of your gaming group, and honestly it delights me to see this becoming more common in the industry.
There were a couple of moments in the beginning that made me chuckle to myself. One in particular had the statement, “It’s said a merchant of the Free City would sell his own mother to slavers for two coppers. That’s false of course; he’d need at least two gold.” The latter parts of the book seemed to lose the playful ribbing to an extent, but not entirely. This is one of those campaigns where the flavor is going to very much depend on how the players decide to come at it.
“It’s said a merchant of the Free City would sell his own mother to slavers for two coppers. That’s false of course; he’d need at least two gold.”
Curse of Strahd, for example, is hard to do without the entire thing being incredibly depressing but Empire of Ghouls could very much be run with a degree of levity and it seems very much on flavor. It could also be run completely serious. I could see it working both ways. At one point the objective is to crash a wedding and all I could think was how much fun the players at my home table would have with this.
Another point that bears mentioning is the NPCs are, on the whole, really excellent. I’ve already mentioned there being good representation but there are also good notes on how to roleplay these NPCs, what will curry favor with them and how to lose it. There’s enough for a good GM to bring them to life with ease. And on the topic of the NPCs, if you do manage to curry favor with some of them there’s a large scale battle at one point in the book and I think they handled the involvement of those NPCs in an elegant manner that really makes a difference in the combat without bogging everything down with having to roll initiative for a bunch of NPCs.
Not everything in the module is life or death. Some of the challenges are just fun ones. As in, fun for the characters with low stakes and a moment to take a breath between the harder encounters. I feel like this is important to mention because one of the big problems I had with CoS was the entire thing is just so oppressive the entire way through. It’s good to be able to come up for air in a situation like that and Empire of Ghouls does so with some regularity in a way I felt managed not to break the tone.
I don’t tend to run published material at my tables but there were a lot of moments where I was reading this book and glanced up and realized I’d just been reading it to read it and thinking about how I’d run it and not looking at it from the lens of intending to write a review of it later. I would seriously consider running this for my home table and I am one of those GMs who swears by homebrew until the cows come home.
It’s rare I come out of a product with nothing at all to complain about, but there you have it. Kobold Press is doing it right. Go check this one out if you’re looking for a good undead themed campaign to play, and if any of you have actually run this one, please, tell me about your experiences in the comments below. And as always, stay nerdy!