Empire of the Ghouls is the latest offering from Kobold Press and their first hardcover 5th Edition adventure. It’s a tour de force, over three hundred fifty pages of setting guide, spells, creatures, NPCs, magic items, and an epic quest that takes players from 1st to 13th level. It’s been released alongside two related books, Underworld Lairs and Underworld Player’s Guide, that compliment and expand the experience, though there is plenty in the main volume. I was fortunate to be able to chat with Empire of the Ghouls lead designer Richard Green about how this amazing project came about and just what ghoulish goodies lurk inside.
Lou Anders: How did Empire of the Ghouls come about initially? I’m aware of the Pathfinder/4th Edition Imperial Gazetteer, but this is a significantly larger project. At what point did the Kobolds say, “Let’s do the Ghoul Empire!” and how did it come to be your baby? (Looking at that expression, maybe I should say your Rosemary’s Baby.)
Richard Green: It was just over two years ago at the end of March 2018. I was working on the Southlands Warlock Lairs I did at the time, and Wolfgang emailed me saying, “Hey Richard, I’m rounding up some people to do a new version of Empire of the Ghouls.”
I asked him for some more info on the project, was it an update of the original Open Design 3.5 adventure and sourcebook or something brand new? A few emails later, I’d agreed to write the outline for the whole adventure path.
LA: Did it start out then as an adventure path or did it grow in the telling (in those early conversations)?
LA: So how much of the story of each chapter is the outline and how much do the individual designers bring in? I love, by the way, the “meet the designer” sidebar at the end of each piece. That’s a wonderful way to give some love to the other folks who made this book happen.
RG: I think it was always intended to be a big adventure path, starting in Zobeck and ending in the Underworld. Wolfgang had a rough overarching plot in mind with some key beats to include, but our discussions led to a whole extra chapter in Siwal. I loved Al-Qadim, and Six Arabian Nights, which was set in Siwal, included my first (miniscule) Kobold credit. It wasn’t even called Kobold Press then; it was Open Design.
Anyway, I was very keen to have the Gravebinders in the adventure and the Arabian-style ghouls.
LA: I love that detour myself. (I have a soft spot for the Southlands, which was the area of Midgard I first gamed in.) I was also surprised what a great “intro to Midgard” this adventure book is, how many of the seven wonders of this world it hits, before it ever goes underground.
On that too, apart from the considerable information on the Underworld and the Imperium, inside the adventure itself there’s a wealth of usable information for any Midgard campaign—city maps, encounter tables, NPCs… I’m going to use this book before and after I actually get to run it’s (awesome) story.
RG: I haven’t answered the question about the outline. Each designer had a start point, three or four key scenes or plot points to include, and an endpoint. So it was quite detailed, but there was a lot of freedom for them to come up with stuff. I wrote Chapter 2, “The Holy Robes of Sister Adelind,” quite early on so Jeff and Kelly were able to include characters that appeared in that adventure in theirs.
When I came to write Chapter 6, Mike Welham had already written most of Chapter 5, so I was able to check in with him on what the ship the characters were using to sail across the Sulphur Sea was like.
LA: That ship is amazing! Also, there’s a 3D printable “Necromancer’s Ship” I now have an excuse to print out, so thank you and Mike for that!
RG: (I do like putting player characters in boats.) After I finished Chapter 6, I had a lot of fun revisiting the original gazetteer and coming up with new locations. You could easily run a campaign in the Underworld using the book without using the main story at all.
LA: Yes. Also, I was impressed with how the Underworld Lairs accompanying book was organized. Several of those individual adventures intentionally string together to form a mini-campaign, and the whole book could be a sister-campaign to Empire.
There’s not a lead designer on that. Does it fall under your purview heading Ghouls or did you not input into that one?
RG: Yep, I didn’t work on the lairs, and only read some of them for the first time this week. They’re very cool. I’m thinking about sneaking at least one of them into my campaign.
LA: I especially liked how two of them are suggested as possible follow ups to extend the campaign. The whole book felt integrated in a way that I’ve not seen before.
RG: Yes, Meagan Maricle added that bit in. I worked really closely with Meagan—she oversaw the whole project with Wolfgang and Marc Radle. The three books dovetail really well.
LA: Speaking of the side books, let’s talk about the Underworld Players Guide from Shawn Merwin and Kelly Pawlik. A lot of these races, most of these races—darakhul, dark trollkin, the awesome mushroomfolk—are for characters that hail from, live in, and are familiar with the Underworld. Empire presupposes the characters are from (above ground) Midgard, most likely the Crossroads region. We start in Zobeck and we travel above ground for a while before entering the subterranean realms, which are probably best experienced as something new and strange. The Underworld Players Guide seems a perfect fit for Underworld Lairs and an “all Underworld” campaign. But how would you incorporate the subterranean races into an Empire of the Ghouls campaign?
RG: That’s a good question. Firstly, I think maybe one Underworld character early is fine—Zobeck isn’t too far from the Underworld. The tunnels of the Cartways connect to Lillefor, the kobold city, so that could work well. Then, later on in the campaign, really from Grisal onward, there are opportunities to introduce an Underworld character if a new player joins or—ahem—if a PC meets an untimely death.
If you want an all Underworld party though, you’re best off using the Gazetteer and the Lairs to come up with your own story.
LA: In my own games, I didn’t let anyone play an elf in our initial campaigns. I wanted to keep them mysterious, otherworldly, fey. Once my players “grokked” how Midgard elves are different, I opened the doors and our newest campaign has both an Arbonesse elf of the River Court and a Shadow Fey. I’d suggest something similar with Empire… no undead PCs in the campaign but then throw the doors wide afterward (or as you suggest, deeper in as a “replacement” character).
RG: Fair enough! I’ve got two shadow fey, a kobold, a tiefling and one human in our group. They just got a pair of goggles of shade (from the latest Warlock)—three of them were keen to get them! I keep forgetting to roll a d6 to decide if it’s sunny or not.
LA: Back on Empire, the chapter “The Blood Marriage” offers an opportunity to impress some trollkin at a feast in honor of a fallen companion. The chapter introduces the system of “grace points” to track how well or how poorly characters ingratiate themselves with their hosts, and the grace points can be exchange for favors later. That is brilliant.
RG: That was all Jeff Lee—very clever.
LA: So useful! One of my favorite things in the book. So what’s your favorite bit from Empire.
RG: I’m obviously biased, but I love the Pure City of Vandekhul. I had a lot of fun writing a load of gross stuff to go in that chapter. There are a lot of entertaining NPCs for the characters to meet and plenty of ways for them to get into deadly peril.
LA: Yes, that’s got to be one of the best setting locales ever. Also, it’s marvelous how nuanced and fractioned the ghoul society is with rival religions, political factions, kings chomping at the bit to go against the emperor…
RG: Wolfgang has loved the idea of “civilized” ghouls for years—since he wrote “Kingdom of the Ghouls” in Dungeon #70. I think some of that has definitely rubbed off on me.
LA: This is a very grisly campaign in places, but it’s also one with some wonderful opportunities for roleplaying. Sort of if I, Claudius was entirely about Nero.
RG: Yes, agreed! My players had a lot of fun in Zobeck with Mr. Underhill—I ran “Everyone Lies” from Streets of Zobeck as a prequel. One of the characters (the paladin) still thinks he’s an affable halfling as the others didn’t tell him they’d been chatting to a ghoul.
LA: Wonderful! There’s so much good in Streets of Zobeck. I’m deeply gratified Skirtal the kobold chef made the jump from Streets to Empire.
RG: I think the Kobold Ghetto is such an iconic Zobeck location and the Rampant Roach is really fun, so I was very keen to include it.
LA: And that’s it. Thank you for chatting with me. I can think of no better place to end than with a kobold!
Richard Green has been in love with tabletop roleplaying games since 1980. An early contributor to Open Design, he’s been writing for Kobold Press for over ten years: design credits include the Midgard Worldbook, Midgard Heroes Handbook, and Midgard Bestiary. Five years ago, he wrote and published Parsantium: City at the Crossroads, a fantasy city sourcebook based on his long-running campaign. He has also designed for Raging Swan Press and the DMs Guild. Richard lives in London with his wife Kate and two cats.
Lou Anders is the author of the novel Once Upon a Unicorn, as well as the Thrones & Bones trilogy of fantasy adventure novels (Frostborn, Nightborn, and Skyborn), and the novel Star Wars: Pirate’s Price. He has also done role playing game design for Kobold Press, River Horse, and 3D Printed Tabletop. In 2016, he was named a Thurber House Writer-in-Residence and spent a month in Columbus, Ohio teaching, writing, and living in a haunted house. When not writing, he enjoys playing role playing games, 3D printing, and watching movies. He lives with his wife, children, and two golden doodles in Birmingham, Alabama. You can visit Anders online at louanders.com, on Facebook, Instagram, and on Twitter at @Louanders.