Kingdom of the Ghouls

A Walk Through the Planes – Part 135: Kingdom of the Ghouls




The decision to include Sigil as a “major” part of Fourth Edition D&D always struck me as odd, but now that I’ve delved deeper into its cosmology and mythology I see it as completely nuts. Planescape was cosmopolitan, with Sigil and its accompanying multiverse connecting all mythologies and all campaigns. It was crossover heaven, and you could conceivably end up anywhere, with genres and ideas colliding however you want. But Fourth Edition’s Sigil is just the opposite, in fact it is nowhere at all. There’s no Outlands to look up at it from, with an impossibly tall spire in its center, and there’s no other worlds to connect. There are no competing deities, instead there’s just one straightforward and inarguable history for the universe, with its Dawn War and primordials and all that nonsense providing a definitive yet limiting boundary for all adventures to take place within. Within this miniature scope, Sigil can never feel quite right, and so while its inclusion is understandable given the edition’s constant focus on other planes of existence, I rather wish they’d come up with some other base for planar adventures that makes more sense within this new cosmology. 

Why does any of this matter, you might ask? Well that’s because we’ve come upon the first (and only?) adventure in Fourth Edition that spends a great chunk of time within Sigil. Published in June of 2009 and written by Bruce R. Cordell and Chris Tulach, Kingdom of the Ghouls spends its first half or so within Sigil’s curving boulevards. That many of the city’s cardinal rules are broken in order to situate things there doesn’t erase the fact that for once we get to spend time in the ringed city, and even try another pseudo-investigation with interplanar stakes. You’d think that an old Planescape head like myself would feel invigorated by what’s in store here, as this stop into Sigil is a signal that this is a very different and vastly improved adventure than its predecessor, but nonetheless I’m left sad because of just how hollow the city feels at this juncture. 

Sigil’s back! … and more basic-looking than ever.

Unlike most previous parts of this adventure path, the epic series are extremely connected (with all three are co-written by Cordell), and as such this one begins just moments after Death’s Reach concludes. Elder Arantham may or may not have just gotten away through a portal that leads straight to Sigil, though players can’t follow him because it only transfers the undead… which is not something portals to/from Sigil ever did before, and both makes little sense and feels extremely contrived. Regardless, players will use their fancy high level magic or investigatory skills to determine that he headed to Sigil, following in the wake of  something else that shouldn’t be possible within the rules of the city: the remains of the Primordial Timesus. These were smuggled away from his Reliquary by chopping Timesus up into parts and then shipping him through Sigil. 


Now, that shouldn’t be possible, right? Timesus is essentially a god, and the Lady of Pain keeps them out. That’s, like, half the goddamn point of Sigil. There are two loopholes to this which I considered when trying to figure out how this might be explained.

  • Primordials aren’t gods.  – Technically this is true, though only because the edition is stupid. However, it’s not just literal gods the Lady keeps from entering the Cage, and this is spelled out directly in this book: “Her presence is said to prevent deities, demon princes, primordials, and beings of similar power from entering the City of Doors.” So this loophole fails. 
  • While Timesus is in stasis/chopped into little parts, that rule doesn’t apply to him – Presumably this is the loophole the writers considered functional, and it does make some sense if we consider Harbinger House and Die, Vecna, Die! canonical. In both of these adventures, Powers snuck into the city through not being fully, uhh, powered, and then, umm, powering up once within the city (I’m sorry). Timesus, however, is still a full primordial, he’s just in stasis, and even aside from this I would’ve hoped that following the Vecna debacle the Lady would be more stringent and careful about who she lets in. The implication to me is that if a god took a nap they could be pulled into Sigil with little effort, which is beyond stupid, but is almost literally what happens within this adventure.

In any case, none of how this is possible ever gets addressed. The book simply says that Timesus’ body makes it through without giving any real consideration into why this isn’t something Sigil can be used for, so I suppose it’s time to move on from this point. Back to the story at hand, because characters likely had to figure out where this portal even led to on their own, once they arrive in Sigil it’s too late, and they’re left figuring out where Timesus’ body has been shipped next. 

We can also see a bit of Sigil here in this picture of what used to be Sehanine’s temple.

This investigation should be exciting, as investigations are perhaps my favorite way of structure D&D plots, but Fourth Edition just doesn’t care that much about this side of things, even if the authors clearly like the concept. While wandering Sigil’s streets in the hunt for some news about this smuggling should be open-ended and left to the players, how it’s written here there’s pretty much one, linear solution. Players consult with Vocar from the Fourth Edition Manual of the Planes and learn from him about a slavery ring running from beneath a false temple to Sehanine. The group running this was also transferring Timesus’ body, and so players will go into this building and wreck the joint en route to their ultimate location in the Abyss. 

I was wrong when I said in that earlier article that Vocar was new to the Manual, though in my defense he was new to Sigil. Vocar previously appeared in Vecna Reborn as a cult leader trying to bring Vecna back from the dead. Ultimately, Vocar fails in his mission (Vecna returns through other methods), and goes into hiding. That he ultimately needs to stay in Sigil once Vecna becomes a true Power makes sense given the sporadically-enforced prohibition on gods, and this is a fun bit of lore for the handful of people who realize the linkage.


How do players go about this investigation? Well they probably use some sort of divination, which causes an attack from a group of mercenary maruts called the Balance Keepers. That’s right, even trying to use the game’s small number of non-combat spells are going to just cause more fights for the players. Welcome to Fourth Edition, where there’s no situation that isn’t best solved through indiscriminate punching. 

Vocar completely failing to hide his past allegiance to Vecna.

Vocar is a rambling, weird man who hangs out near an ambush by Vecna’s minions, who likely have to be fought. If players then go to his lair, they’ll then have to fight his guardians. It’s a lot of fighting all around, and it’s all very linear despite the setting of a huge hub of a city. In fact, if players want to figure out a way to avoid this seemingly random information source (it’s not like Vocar is a huge chant dealer, or involved with Orcus in any way), the book advises that “Other than Vocar, there really isn’t a lot of direct aid the adventurers can count on in the City of Doors. Sure, they can find merchants to keep them supplied and an inn or two where they can rest and recuperate. But active help against the forces of Doresain and Orcus? Not likely.” This huge limitation grates and as usual is vastly unlike what we know of Sigil from the past, where any and everything is usually available for a certain price. I don’t hate Vocar, but the way he’s shoehorned into this adventure is unnatural and turns what should be a fun investigation into a series of fights with maybe a couple skill checks sprinkled in out of sheer embarrassment. 

Beneath the temple of Sehanine lies The Embassy of Ghouls, which feels like it should be another fun, open scenario for players to tackle creatively. It’s not. Once the PCs learn that they need to head downstairs, it’s a simple dungeon romp, one that even the book notes “includes encounters for every room.” What’s more, this miniature dungeon’s existence requires another contortion of Sigil’s rules (I swear there aren’t many rules, either, basically just these two!), in that the the slavers here “also corrupted an existing portal to the Feywild, and it now leads to the White Kingdom instead.” But no one in Sigil can control where portals go except for the Lady, so this feels nonsensical—no one has the power to corrupt portals except for her. It’s not important to the adventure in any way how this happened, and almost certainly won’t come up in actual play, but still annoys me because of the reliance on erasing the rules of Sigil in order to make this adventure function. 

Before moving on from Sigil, I also want to touch on the weirdness of everything within the city scaling to character level. This is an adventure intended for PCs from levels 24-26, which means that your random cultists in the first encounter are going to be level 21 while doomguard mercs a few pages later are each level 24 brutes whose statline reads STR 27, DEX 25, CON 23, INT 19, WIS 18, CHA 13. The problems intrinsic with scaling aren’t quite as bad as those of Union in Third Edition, but they’re nearly there, and this vision of Sigil filled with superhuman soldiers is the opposite of what we saw in Planescape. 

This map of the White Kingdom is my favorite piece of art from the book. Incidentally, it’s by Vincent Dutrait, who board game fans will probably recognize. He illustrated 2022’s breakout hit Heat, plus other well-known titles like Robinson Crusoe, Roll Player, and Detective: City of Angels. One day I’ll get back to writing more about board games for this site, one day….

I actually find Kingdom much more interesting once it arrives at the titular kingdom itself, which is a weird realm that’s nominally part of Thanatos but also essentially its own layer of the Abyss completely unconnected from Orcus’ realm. Doresain was originally featured in an open-ended adventure of the same name by Wolfgang Baur in the September/October 1998 issue of Dungeon (#70). Oddly, the story of this original adventure was linked with the Negative Energy Plane that doesn’t exist in Fourth Edition, which I suppose is fitting considering that this is also a world with Sigil but no Outlands. Doresain’s White Kingdom was a subterranean realm on Oerth where under their ruler’s guidance ghouls kicked the butts of drow, mind flayers, kuo-toas and everyone else they ran across—surviving this adventure likely requires banding various underdark groups together to get revenge against Doresain. Many consider it one of the best, if not the pinnacle, of Baur’s work for Second Edition AD&D, and it’s a striking contrast to what’s on display here, as nearly every encounter is open to talk or other methods of resolution than battle. In fact, I can’t imagine a hack and slash approach possibly getting through it, which is to Baur’s credit. 

Another stunning work by Dutrait. It’s cool enough that it halfway convinces you Doresain’s an interesting individual.

Doresain reappeared in Edition 3.5’s Libris Mortis as a demigod. This seems to be the lore that the adventure really builds upon, as we learned there that “Though the King of the Ghouls is a powerful entity himself and controls his own layer of the Abyss, he was once a vassal of Orcus. Later, Yeenoghu’s gnoll host invaded, and the King of the Ghouls was forced to swear fealty and pay homage to Yeenoghu. Yeenoghu subsequently lost control of the King’s layer, and more recently, Yeenoghu has lost the ability to command the King.” Perhaps this adventure is set during the period when he was still a vassal to Orcus? This event is mentioned again in Fiendish Codex I, which states:


One of Yeenoghu’s greatest and earliest triumphs was the subjugation of Doresain, the King of the Ghouls. Once a vassal of Orcus, the King of the Ghouls controlled his own layer of the Abyss until Yeenoghu’s army invaded and conquered the layer and its undead ruler. The King swore fealty to Yeenoghu and continues to pay him homage to this day. Doresain still rules the White Kingdom today, but as a sworn ally of the more powerful Prince of Gnolls. Orcus’s attention has been elsewhere, and so far, he has not acted against the Prince of Gnolls for the theft of one of his subjects.

A gate to the White Kingdom is noted in Yeenoghu’s Realm, and the White Kingdom is also listed as its own layer (#421) in the appendix at the back of the book. Given that in all manners it’s treated as its own layer even in Fourth Edition, the decision to label it part of Thanatos feels extremely off. As a final note about this villain, who neither here nor elsewhere is going to receive much characterization, Doresain reappears in the Neverwinter Campaign Setting Fourth Edition book from 2011, thereby moving him from Greyhawk to Forgotten Realms. For such a generally dull villain, he sure gets around a lot. 


Anyhow, the White Kingdom, whatever its provenance regarding Abyssal layers, is a fun new location. While not fleshed out quite as much as I would like, that’s typical for the Abyss, and what’s here feels unique and horrifying. There’s a city of ghouls, of course, but also a mountain that “both contains and is part of a vast undead entity known as Gorgimrith.” Vast feeding pits for ghouls dot the landscape and Doresain’s palace is located at the edge of the layer surrounded by a lake of black blood. Actually getting to the palace and finding Timesus’ body, and perhaps some slaves along with it, is left to the players, as it should be. A lot of the book’s writing is spent upon taking a particular route through Gorgimrith, but considering the level of PCs that’s far from the only way of getting across the plane.

Black bloodspawn hunters are legitimately horrible and the best new monster from this book.

Once actually at the palace, things of course bog down into another dungeon crawl. In order to keep high level PCs from skipping right to the end, the interior of Doresain’s palace is actually set within another plane entirely, which feels kinda lame but I guess does what’s intended. Even here there’s some creativity, though, with the macabre Theater of the Fleshless in which the undead wear humanoid skins as costumes being a particular highlight. While much of the Sigil material is forgettable, the White Kingdom and its weird horrors is a fun new location, and fighting Doresain on a room whose floor consists of nothing but jam-packed ghouls at least differentiates this from all the many, many fights before. 

Kingdom of the Ghouls feels like it could’ve been much more. There’s a ton of potential here, but the requirement to include so, so, so many encounters means that there’s little time for investigation or exploration. Both Sigil and the White Kingdom feel like they’ve been given short shrift, and while a good DM can solve this problem, as written it’s only the battles that feel detailed. Other aspects of the module are also hampered, as per usual, by the Delve adventure format, and flipping back and forth between books in confusion is completely unavoidable. Kingdom is a much better work than its predecessor, but manages to still be a letdown, and not something Planescape fans will want to seek out despite its prominent use of Sigil. 

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