If you like the lore and style of Dungeons and Dragons’ fantasy, and not just the actual rules and play themselves, you’ll probably enjoy some of the DnD novels. The most famous are the Drizzt and Dragonlance series, which can be found at almost any library. But if you’re looking for something shorter, as we’ve mentioned before, the unnamed series under the "TH Lain" pseudonym are an excellent choice.
Oath of Nerull is one such novel. It tells the story of a small party of adventurers as they track down a monastic order dedicated to the god of death, take on a monastic tournament, and learn to trust each other along the way. Like Plague of Ice (which we reviewed a while ago here), it’s a quick read, packed with inspiration and ideas for your actual campaigns.
The Characters in Oath of Nerull
Like Plague of Ice, Oath of Nerull uses the ‘archetypal’ example characters found in the 3/3.5e sourcebooks. Here, it’s Ember, Brek Gorunn, Nebin, and Hennet (Human Monk, Dwarf Cleric, Gnome Wizard, and Human Sorcerer respectively). This gives a little more variety of the species available in Dungeons and Dragons than was found in the mostly human cast of Plague of Ice, and allows for a little more inclusion of the cultures and behavior associated with each of them.
These characters themselves are relatable and interesting, and make for a well-meshed team that bring out the personalities of each other. Not only do they serve their function as archetypal representatives of each of their species (being example characters, we must remember) but they each also have a personality of their own that stands out.
Ember, who is processing the loss of her monastic order, is grounded and wise as any monk, but kind and indulgent of her party. Brek is of course stalwart and gruff, but with a level of both piety and gentle heartedness that makes you care for him. Nebin, a laughing and clever gnome, has a layer of insecurity about his magical prowess. And Hennet, for all the mystery and inward reflection that he gives his magic as a sorcerer, gives glimpses of childlike excitement and eagerness for new puzzles and grand adventures.
If this sounds like a great adventuring party to read about, this is definitely a must-read for you! Ember, the main focus of the novel, gets the most in-depth explanation. And that doesn’t just mean her emotions! Her style of fighting, using a monk’s training and martial arts stances and actions, are so detailed as to make a fantastic reference to use if you’re playing a monk yourself.
The Plot of Oath of Nerull
Our story doesn’t start with a full party, but with Ember and Brek Gorunn as they are ambushed in an alley by a group of red/masked assailants. One carries a squirming sack which cries out for the death of the Enabled Palm, which is the name of Ember’s order. They defeat their enemies, but find that her entire monastic chapter has been slaughtered in their absence. Now, they must journey to the motherhouse of the order to warn them. Along the way, they meet Nebin and Hennet, two friends who are traveling to the same city, but the Arcane Duel. It’s an amateur mages’ tournament with a fantastical magical prize. When they arrive, they find that the head of the Enabled Palm is hiding something, the cult is gathering for some unknown purpose, and the tournament is going to heat up any moment now! They divide their time between the tournament and investigating the cult, finding new allies, old friends, and enemies along the way, until they conquer one or both!
This really feels like reading a DnD campaign, but in a really good way. Combat encounters are given good detail, interesting locations are laid out beautifully, and each of these characters interacts in the way you might expect an actual party to. Plus, when you get into the character’s heads, it’s fun to follow along and imagine the steps that you might take if you had a character among them.
Like Plague of Ice, this isn’t an epic, character-propelled tale with unexpected twists and a deep, relatable villain. The focus is on the small actions and decisions that are made to solve an immediate threat to the characters (and the world, of course, being that a death cult must have broader goals). It’s the kind of quick read that works to refresh your ideas on a small-scale. It makes you look at the trees, so you can see how the whole of the forest grows.
Adapting Oath of Nerull into a Tabletop Module
When I reviewed Plague of Ice, I mentioned that it might be a little bit hard to scale appropriately, given the breadth of enemy-levels they encountered. Luckily, Oath of Nerull does not have this problem.
The main enemies here are cultists, zombies, and various NPCs who can easily be scaled up or down. It’s a good module for a lower-level party at around levels 3-5. It might be a bit of a stretch that they’re taking on monastic elders and cult leaders who have decades of experience, but no more than most early level plots lead to.
This module also leads you from one fight and exploration to another. Your characters will be darting in and out of a couple of dungeons and locations as they balance the Arcane Tournament, the mysteries at the Monastic Motherhouse, and crawling through an Abandoned Temple in search of evidence. It’s not too roleplay heavy but does give each character their own time to shine with the different focuses, and would be great in either 3.5e or 5e campaigns.
If you decide you’d like to read and adapt this novel, here are a few plot hooks that you can use to get an all-new cast of characters into it:
- Members of the local chapter of the Order of the Enabled Hand hire the party to investigate the disappearances of several members. When they finally return with clues, they find the chapter massacred, a letter from a member of the motherhouse clutched in the hand of a dead monk.
- The party are traveling to the city to participate in the Duel Arcane. In a tavern along the way, they discover that someone has been mysteriously murdered, and a monk in another room is missing. In their investigations, they find Nerull cultists lurking in the basement – what is their broader goal? And why did they take the monk instead of killing her?
- One of the party members gets a letter from their friend, a monk in the Order of the Enabled Hand asking them to meet. But when they arrive at the monastery, they are told that they died several days before the letter was posted! Plus, there are other errors in the letter. Might it be a puzzle, or a cypher of some kind?
Have you read this novel? What did you think? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!