Like it or not, a large part of being a fan of Ravenloft seems to be apologetics for parts of canon that you find...awkward. While some folks just toss the stuff they don't like, a lot of us like the challenge of re-envisioning cringe-y canon by applying one or more coats of interpretive "fanon."
The Grim Harvest series got mixed reviews from fans, what with parts of it ignoring previous established material (Falkovnia awash with wizards and magic? A male Vistani reading the Tarokka?) and adding more stuff that some found cringe-worthy (Azalin's clones? The Eternal Order call to prayer?). While subsequent material has made this all a little more palatable, the part that many DM's and players have struggled with the most is the end result of the Requiem: a massive Shroud of negative energy over the entire city of Il Aluk, now known as Necropolis for the simple fact that anyone who crosses the border dies and reanimates as some kind of undead monster.
Seriously, it's not hard to understand the frustration DM's face at incorporating Necropolis into any campaign that does not have an all-undead party. If the Shroud has sucked all the positive energy out of your storytelling, here are some suggestions on how to use it in a game which doesn’t start with a TPK. Note: These are in order by approximate power level of the party, and can build on each other, but these suggestions are not intended to build a campaign around the Shroud, only to make Necropolis more accessible in an existing campaign.
1. "Near at Hand" -
If you have a low level party and want to do some foreshadowing for later expeditions to Il Aluk, consider this encounter from the Forgotten Children netbook (available for free at http://www.kargatane.com/). The crawling claw monster is appropriate for a low-level party, and hearing about how Dunkel Kralle lost his hand to the Shroud will do wonders for setting the mood for the future. That expository conversation is not written in the adventure, but it's easy to add regardless of how it ends, as long as at least one of the original witnesses survives to tell the tale. Best of all, you can relocate this mini-adventure almost anywhere with just a little adaptation, because it doesn't require the PC's to go near Necropolis at all. If you think a particular location is too far away to place the adventure, just imagine how far Dunkel might go to get away from what is chasing him....
2. Racing the Dead -
Once it's time for PC's to see the Shroud on the horizon, consider pitting them against a monster that would take refuge from them in the Necropolis. Make sure the stakes are high enough that the PC's must give chase: a fledgling vampire or golem kidnapping a beloved NPC should do the trick. The PC's know that once the creature reaches Il Aluk, the prisoner will perish and the creature will be forever beyond their reach. If the chase has the right amount of stop-and-go action, it should end with the creature duking it out with the PC's a few yards from the Shroud, with dark shapes watching from the shadows on the other side. Regardless of the result, the Shroud will live on forever in thoughts of what "might have happened."
3. Scrying -
Various divination spells can be useful for probing the other side of the Shroud safely. Some spells cannot reach across domain borders (Find the Path, Locate Object), so those won't help unless you can find a place where the Shroud does not extend as far as the Darkonese border. Others (Clairaudience/Clairvoyance and Scrying), work within any Mist-bound region--which in this case means the entire Core. These spells usually create a visible sensor that resembles a ghostly eye or ear, and opens the caster up to attacks, such as the domination gaze of a vampire. While it's true that Necropolis has more than its share of vampires, it also probably has more than its share of disembodied ghostly bits floating around, such that the vampires might not even bother investigating. For the rest of the party, a 3D map of the target areas can be made using simple illusion magic. Between this and maps of Pre-Requiem Il Aluk, a party could plan a daring coup as the target of their scrying comes near the edge of the Shroud. This is also an excellent way to learn about the different means of circumventing the Shroud, such as Necropolitan Amaranth (see below).
4. Eyes of the Undead -
This spell from Gazetteer 2 deserves special attention because it allows someone to see through the eyes of an undead creature. The caster gets a few hours of spying around the interior of the city while safely outside the Shroud, up to a distance of one mile. As a Necromancy spell, it cannot be cast without a powers check unless the DM waives or reduces this when cast with good intentions. Nor does it allow the caster to control the undead, but a neutral or evil caster may have other means to do this. A good caster, on the other hand, would want to take full advantage of the fact that the spell can be cast from medium range at an unwilling creature who gets a single save to resist. With luck and planning, an unwitting enemy can become an excellent guide to the City of the Dead.
5. Milk Run -
The undead of Necropolis are generally listless… but there are exceptions. Vampires, in particular, hunger for blood, and the blood of corpses will not sustain them for long, even among those who would deign to drink it. While this might drive many bloodsuckers to seek better feeding grounds, others might try to make the best of it, "dining out" at feeding houses just outside the border, "ordering in" through lackeys who deliver living victims protected by amaranth (see below), or coming up with other ways to satisfy their needs. This blackest of black markets could lead to some very creative solutions by those with the means to deliver the goods, many of which could be exploited by PC's. Cities far removed from Il Aluk, even other domains, might receive a traveler who lures the gullible into private settings, then pulls out a Ring Gate, through which billows a strange white vapor....
6. Necropolitan Amaranth -
Once the situation calls for PC's to actually enter, this simple grain from Gazetteer 2 is the obvious choice to protect them. As the only plant that grows in Necropolis, it ought to stand out when PC's notice it while spying and scrying, although it may take them a while to understand its significance. PC's should have developed a healthy respect for the Shroud by now, and might be reluctant to trust a few curious seeds with keeping them from death and undying damnation. If that's the case, allow them to discover that they are not the only ones investigating amaranth. Rival adventurer groups, unsavory mercenaries, or vampires seeking to keep their food "fresh" might demonstrate to fearful PC's the power within amaranth: it’s ability to protect mortals--and that the PC's need to use that power if they seek to stay in the game.
7. Strange Bedfellows -
Not all the creatures who pass the Shroud are evil, and even among the evil there are those who can be...enterprising. If the PC's need help while in Necropolis, they might find themselves rescued by undead heroes such as Jander Sunstar or Andres Duvall. If they are less lucky, their saviors might be more along the lines of Kazandra or Ratik Ubel. Other creatures of the night might approach them with an offer to penetrate deeper than PC's can safely go using amaranth alone. Merilee Markuza, Lucre the Goin Colem, former Kargat leader Kristobal del Diego, or many other mercenary-minded monsters could easily make such a deal. While the PC's may not take the offer, or may come to regret it if they do, the treasures and secrets behind the Shroud will linger in their minds long after the individual offering them has departed.
8. Tempting Transformation -
Once something within the City of the Dead has hold on a PC's heart, that character gets a delivery of two boxes and a set of detailed instructions on how to lock themselves in a sealed room, drink the sleeping draught in the smaller box, then open the other box to reveal a little puppet holding a half-dozen silver needles.... As constructs, carrionettes can enter the Shroud unharmed, and their ability to switch bodies with a PC grants a rare opportunity to explore Necropolis with impunity. Of course, staying in the form of a carrionette for too long has its own dangers, and they ought to wonder which of their grim sponsors (see #7) sent them the little horror in the first place.
9. Alchemical Allies -
A PC with access to the alchemical feats of Van Richen’s Arsenal can make various forms of alchemical life that could penetrate the Shroud. Alchemical homunculi could be achieved at low-to-mid levels, creating a kind of “familiar” that would make an excellent companion to any carrionette PC’s (see above). At slightly higher levels, the PC could create alchemical duplicates of the entire party, albeit with none of their class levels. It might even be possible to transfer the psychic link from the creator to the original donor, allowing the entire party to direct their duplicates into Necropolis via active psychic link, leave them there wandering about in passive mode for days, then resuming active psychic link when needed. Of course, constructs fueled by positive “quintessence” might not be as immune to the Shroud as ordinary golems, but that’s up to the DM.
10. Shadow, Spirit and Shroud -
It's unclear in canon whether or not the Shroud extends very far underground, into the Ether, or into the Plane of Shadow. The first option is available for low-level parties seeking to infiltrate the city from underneath, but higher level magic allows access to the other two. With so much death in the wake of the Requiem, it's expected that these border planes will be awash with powerful resonance--possibly distorted by the waves of positive and negative energy that created the Shroud--and disembodied spirits of all kinds may take refuge in them. Traveling through either of these border planes will allow PC's to penetrate deep within Necropolis and even engage with some of the inhabitants who walk in two worlds, such as Jadis Ranhertd, the former heir apparent to the baron, now an ambitious undead shadow....
11. 'Mostly' Dead -
The carrionette trick from #8 is hardly the only way to transform a PC into a monster. It's a time-honored tradition in Ravenloft to temporarily turn PC's into headless automatons (Roots of Evil), flesh golems (Adam's Wrath), ancient dead (Neither Man Nor Beast) or other things that might pass into Necropolis. For an especially reversible option, the Revenant spell from Dragon Magazine #252 can temporarily turn a living person into a powerful undead revenant. Obviously the spell and/or some of its required actions (cutting a person's beating heart out and replacing it with a lump of clay, squeezing it to cause the revenant pain) may require a powers check, but if the PC's are desperate enough, or are at the mercy of some awful mastermind, they just might make take that leap.
12. Wrinkles in the Land -
Some reality wrinkles might actually subvert the constants of a domain, at the DM's discretion. A truly epic adventure might allow the PC's to enter Necropolis while the Shroud is compromised by the arrival of a powerful fiend. The basic rule for size is 2000' per hit die, which is enough space for a 10HD fiend to compromise the entire Shroud if it reaches the center of the city. The mysterious Carnival travels under the protection of such a reality wrinkle, and the serendipity that directs its movements has taken the Carnival into dangerous places before. Isolde of the Carnival stalks the mysterious Gentleman Caller, another fiend of truly epic scale, and don't forget that the darklord of Necropolis would certainly be roused to investigate any such disruption to his unholy order. Of course, a party capable of engaging with such titans might have a member with a small reality wrinkle--monks of 20th level or higher, or other classes who transform into some other kind of native outsider at high levels.
13. A Rift in the Shroud -
Finally, special mention has to be given to one such outsider: Styrix the Night Hag, whose Rift Spanner is the one thing stated in Ravenloft canon that could undo the Shroud. Styrix has sworn that Azalin will witness her escape using the Rift Spanner, an oath which might make her reckless enough to avoid using the fully-charged device until she can get close enough to Avernus, which is is only a short distance due south of Necropolis. In a strange juxtaposition of suggestion #2, an enterprising group of powerful adventurers might seize the device and race to get to the City of the Dead, a frantic Night Hag on their heels. The PC's ambitions pit them against not only Styrix, but also Death and his Unholy Order, while the lich lord of Darkon could easily end up an ally, if only to spite Styrix and Death. Styrix's reality wrinkle may or may not be large enough to cover the entire domain of Necropolis, but it could easily extend a few miles ahead of her as she pursued them, causing her to unwittingly ease their passage into the heart of the City to detonate her device and destroy the Shroud forever.
Matthew Barrett has been playing and writing for Ravenloft for over twenty years, starting with the Kargatane's Book of S series (as Leyshon Campbell). He married his wife on Friday the 13th after proposing to her on Halloween. By tradition, the first story read at birth to each of their three children was The Barker’s Tour, from Ravenloft’s “Carnival” supplement.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.