Recommended: Death Unchained is a fun module with a great story for the players, and at the end of the day that's the important part. It presents a challenge to almost any party level, including higher levels than it's designed for, due to the level drain dangers. There are some issues on the DM side, but a creative DM can make adjustments on the fly, or ahead of time, to keep players having fun. The mystery is good enough to keep players guessing, and everything fits well into the Ravenloft theme, which can be great fun, or great fear for players and PCs. The story is interesting to run as a DM but there are parts where I had to get creative to keep players on track without making things feel linear. There needed to be a little more incentive to follow the plot in some areas. If you can pick this up with the rest of the Requiem: The Grim Harvest material for a good price I'd say grab it up.
Death Unchained is an Advanced Dungeons and Dragons adventure module printed for the Ravenloft setting in 1996 by TSR. It is designed for characters of level 5-7, but as most DMs know it's easy to modify for just about any level with some creative changes. The module is the first of a three-part adventure that culminates in the Requiem: The Grim Harvest boxed set which covers the events that form Necrolopis under the machinations of Azalin the Lich Lord. In this installment the party is transported to the city of Lekar by the fabled mists of Ravenloft, unless they are native (but what fun is that right?). When the heroes are dropped into the city the land is in turmoil, under the iron thumb of Vlad Drakov, who is currently at war and has a penchant for impaling people, much like his real-world namesake. Beneath it all a secret society known as the Ebon Hand is hunting visitors to Lekar and killing them to steal their life force to be used in an infernal ritual to cheat death.
While the module is designed for AD&D, we currently use Pathfinder in my campaign, but conversion is not all that difficult as long as you can make calls on the fly and have access to the Pathfinder creature manuals and NPC charts from the Game Master Guide. The module is heavy on story rather than stats, which is great when trying to convert on the fly. I didn't have to do a lot of math, or search for obscure rules and changes to see how to handle anything too specific to the older game system. With a module like this, heavy on story, I think a creative GM could insert it into just about any game system with relative ease. The module is designed by author Lisa Smedmen with cover art by Fred Fields and Interiors by John Dollar.
Stitching it all Together
The adventure book itself is organized and laid out quite well, with detailed maps and lots of macabre artwork. A large poster map covers the meat of the adventure, when the characters descend into the depths of the city to uncover the secret cult, and the book has a card stock cover detached from the interior so smaller maps are easy to access. There are some drawbacks to the layout to cover first though. The biggest challenge I had was with the poster map. Most DMs that I know of use a screen, and have a small section of the game table already taken up by their notebook, dice, pencil, source books, adventure book, and sometimes more, and then you also have this large poster-sized map you're trying to keep out of view of the players but also fold and maneuver so that you can read it yourself. I would have preferred the map been individual pages, card stock, or fold-ins stapled into the book itself. As it was the beautifully illustrated poster map was a nightmare to deal with. The other design aspect I would have preferred a change on was the listing of creatures the party faces. The design of older modules like this one puts the creatures in the first encounter entry, but newer modules from a lot of publishers have started putting a second entry in an appendix at the back of the book. It makes it so much easier for the DM to be able to flip to the back to find what they're looking for rather than have to search each page trying to remember where they last saw the giant spider because the players now want to know how much the poison gland sells for. I would have also liked the player handouts, four sheets that include three nicely written letters, to have been on separate pages or cards that I could hand out. I like props for my games, but I got around this by making a copy of the page in the book and cutting it into four sections.
The parts of the design I did like make this series one of my favorites. The entries that the DM is supposed to read to players, flavor text, descriptions, and dialogue is easy to differentiate from the rest of the material, being in red print rather than black. The maps inside the cover of the module, and throughout the pages are clear and very detailed, and beautifully drawn. The story timeline is also fairly well done and easy to follow from one scene to the next without a lot of jumping around in the book, which helps a DM who already has a lot to worry about without having to skip all over a book to see where to go next. The art throughout is nice and, in Ravenloft style, dark and macabre. The writers even begin each chapter with a quote from dark poetry and stories, also in the Ravenloft theme that makes the source books unique. Overall it's a lovely book, in a morbid sort of way, with only a few hangups in design.
The layout of the adventure path is pretty good, but there are some concerns with challenge. I had to cut back quite a lot to make things doable for a party just below the intended level, but even if they had fallen within the 5-7 range I think they would have had a lot of trouble. Level drain abilities are present in most of the encounters, and this can quickly reduce a party to uselessness, especially in a low magic campaign without a lot of disposable money to purchase items to restore levels. That said, it wasn't hard to make adjustments accordingly. Taking out some of the special attack features, like the level drain, didn't break the plot and I'd be surprised if the players were even aware that it was something that was taken out.
Tales to Chill and Fright
The story behind Death Unchained is really quite good, but there are a few flaws that make it a little difficult to run as a DM. The beginning places the party firmly in a grisly scene right out of a nightmare, people impaled on stakes all around them as the mist clears. A dying old woman on a post begs them to find her daughter, who is already dead on another stake nearby. It's a grisly introduction to a world infamous for making players' and PCs' lives difficult. It's not long before the party learns just how awful Lekar is with a strict curfew, human-only laws, arms and armor restrictions, slave gangs, and one pointed sentence for just about every crime, impalement. While they get their bearings in the city they bump into other strangers who will put them on the path, and into the sights of the Ebon Fold, a cult of assassins stealing the life force from people all over Lekar.
Something the writers did well, with the assistance of Ravenloft's reputation, is turn some of the most innocuous events into things truly sinister. Crumbling masonry falling from a tower is believed to be people casting stones at passersby in attempts to kill them. Red eyes in the dark are imagined to be nightmarish undead rather than just curious rats. At one point the players even speculated that the meal served in the school might actually be the missing child they'd heard about moments before, rather than just regular food. It's one of the aspects of Ravenloft that makes it so fun to DM, and when writers tap into the setting's reputation it allows player's minds to create all manner of new and twisted nightmares that aren't actually there. Nothing makes a DM's job easier than players running away with all the various possibilities their minds create.
The heroes are given enough clues to lead them to the cult's lair, but I found that some areas lacked enough incentive to move the players along the story. I had to get creative, and make up a few clues to keep the players from giving up all together and pursuing something completely unrelated to the plot. I do my best to avoid rail-roading the PCs but sometimes the writing in the module just doesn't offer enough to keep them moving along. My best advice to other DMs that pick up this book, give them nudges and hints along the way, give them some options outside a single path, but find ways to keep them relatively close to the central plot. Especially in a Ravenloft adventure, getting home tends to become a major motivation for the party, despite whatever events they might run into as they go. It's easy for this to become the primary plot rather than the adventure you have planned so it takes some creativity for the DM to keep it a side quest so to speak.