Thursday, May 28, 2015

REVIEW - DCC 67 - Sailors of the Starless Sea


CONFLICTED ABOUT ZIGGURATS

DCC has pretty sweet cover art.
I have a conflicted relationship with Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC) ... I've never really played it, except for a couple funnel games that felt like B/X D&D, and trying to deal with its absurd magic system in a couple of Google+ games.  While DCC seems like a darling of the OSR community for good reasons, I did not have a pleasant experience with my exposure to it, at best it felt like a decent retro-clone that Morgan Ironwolf would be at home in, but at worst it seemed like it had too many finicky and overly complex magic rules and relied on some of my least favorite skill mechanics borrowed from 3e.  Now as regular readers of this blog know I myself am a purveyor of overly complex house rules, and perhaps because of that truism about always hating the things that remind one of one's worst self, I have stayed clear of DCC.  Yet I just keep hearing such good things about it, and really the art, the ideas and the feel of the products seems like it would fit with my personal ethos about table top game play.

In the likely case that I am wrong about being DCC shy I've decided to pick up one of the DCC adventures and read it.  Sailors of the Sunless Sea comes highly recommended, lets see if it makes me as cranky as taking fifteen minutes to figure out how some PC's magic missile works while they hold up the rest of the players flipping through some kind of tome of magic tables. I should mention that I've also played in a couple of games of Perils of the Purple Planet which seems fairly a straightforward Sword and Planet style romp tinged with Carcosa.  I've enjoyed these games, but they have so far been funnel games with little of DCC's complexity involved.

The adventure I purchased is a twenty page PDF that promises "100% good, solid dungeon crawl, with the monsters you know, the traps you remember, and the secret doors you know are there somewhere."  Now I both like and hate this sentiment - a lack of long winded speeches and NPCs that aren't some kind of indestructible Dragonlance Mary-Sue GM pawn sound good, but "no weird settings ... with monsters you know, traps you remember" sounds a bit pedestrian.  The question then becomes, what part of this opening rhetoric is overblown if any?  Will this be an "Orcs in a Hole" pastiche of early D&D adventures for the sack of nostalgia?  Thankfully the answer to that question is no - despite feeling like an old school style dungeon crawl (Really it's short and linear) from ruined keep to underground temple (a small one) Sailors on the Starless Sea does take some effort to distinguish itself by having unique monsters and interesting content.

THE ADVENTURE
The local village has been losing citizens to nighttime abductions and correctly blames these tragedies on a nearby ancient and abandoned keep.  The keep is home to a cult of chaos aligned beastmen and vegetable zombie horrors.  Worse, beneath the keep is an underground lake with temple of chaos at the center, where the beast cult is reviving their ancient patron.

The keep itself is only  a few areas, most of which contain a deadly puzzle.  The design here is clearly in the vein of "the only way to win is not to play" as there are no rewards for negotiating the chaos sinkhole or messing with the chaos well.  The three entrance aspect of the ruined keep is an excellent effort to provide variety and enable player agency, though given the size of the keep these entrances represent about half the content.  The major enemy within the keep are beastmen - yes these are orcs, but they are well done and a table provides a great deal of varied disturbing appearances for the small number of beastmen within the ruined keep.

After rescuing some captives and recovering a small bit of treasure the adventurers - likely fewer and wiser. Can descend into the depths of the keep and quickly find themselves on the shores of a huge underground lake.  A boat floats offshore to cross, but the lake is haunted by some kind of terrible chaos squid with lovely evocative texture.  There are several ways to get to the boat, suborn the chaos leviathan or otherwise interact with the lake, but the adventure still only goes one way - across the lake, up a beast-man invested ziggurat and to a lava pit to fight a reborn chaos champion. The fight over the party gets some chaos armor and flees the collapsing cavern.


THE GOOD

There is plenty to like in Sailors of the Starless Sea.  It's written in an amusing, but evocative style, and while the adventure is a collection of Swords and Sorcery tropes with a Warhammer Fantasy gloss, this isn't a bad thing.  The art within the module keeps within the theme and is quite nice.  I especially like the maps which have some great scenic map fill, and manage to cram an extra elevation map into a standard map page.  They are well drawn, even if the dungeon is simple.

These clue filled player handouts of mosaics are a really neat touch
The monsters are also well done, there aren't many, but for a classically plotted adventure of bearding unsophisticated bestial humanoids in a ruined fort/cave/hole the monsters themselves are well done.  While the vine zombies make little sense in context (There's nothing horticultural about the chaos god involved, and these vines sound like a naturally occurring menace) they are cool monsters, and they lead to the beastmen, who as the main foe in Sailors are also very well done.
Creating multiple skins for the same sort (mechanically) of monster is a great trick, especially for humanoids.  It allows more descriptive play (Do you go after the guy with the snake head or the one leaking pus from twelve extra mouths?) and it makes a mundane (orcs really) monster more compelling.  The chaos Leviathan is a nice monster as well, and the idea that its victims become faces pressing against the beasts elastic skin from within is (though not uncommon) a lovely visual touch. Personally I wouldn't stat the Leviathan up as something with an actual HP (and not really that many when surrounded by ten or twelve characters and peppered with arrows) total that can be driven off, rather a puzzle to be solved.

A final aspect of Sailors of the Sunless Sea that appeals to me, and one that is a sort of hallmark of its funnel adventures, is the scope: the mob of zero level wainwrights, fortunetellers, rent boys, goat herders and farmers that ventures to the Sunless Sea will be grappling with cosmic forces, overcoming a larva god of ruin and battling scabrous hordes of man-beasts.  It's pretty heroic stuff, and the way the adventure looks stuff that is likely to leave few survivors, who will have earned their first level.  Sunless Sea’s scope is a nice reminder that just because the party is low level, it doesn't mean they should fight giant rats (and really a giant rat sounds like a very scary thing if you visualize it).

THE BAD

While the scope of Sailors of the Sunless Sea is nicely grand, the size of the actual adventure is not, and unfortunately it doesn't even seem big enough to contain the ideas within.  There are sixish areas above ground, and four below.  That's it - ten locations.  Now these locations have some meat to them individually, and the three entrances of the keep are all lethal in ways that should help set a no fooling around tone and clear out the unwary from a funnel group, but really the entire adventure is very small.

Besides being small Sailors of the Sunless Sea is a linear path, very linear once the party actually enters the keep.  There's a few cool optional areas in the keep itself, but they are both well hidden and unnecessary to the adventure (not that they should be necessary, but I think the party will miss both the hidden tomb and destroyed chapel).  Also unnecessary are the read aloud box text atop many of the keyed areas.  The text is fine, occasionally evocative and doesn't do a bad job of describing the complex areas in the adventure, but it also obscures some details at a quick read, and the text below doesn't really help.  I much prefer a one sentence summary or 'stat-box' atop my room descriptions with organized sections below.

More than these stylistic gripes though, the aspect that kept me from embracing the 'awesome' of Sailor's of the Sunless Sea (and clearly it aims for a sort of cranking up Thin Lizzy's Emerald while driving an electric blue Corvette kind of Awesome) was an overall unfocused feeling.  It's as if the adventure couldn't decide if it wanted to be a heavy metal album cover sort of thing, battling the sinister goat priest atop his twisted ziggurat in the mists of a heroic age or stock fantasy Northern European medievalism. The jarring transition from the stones of ruined Blarney Castle to a magical viking ship and the cover of Powerslave is exaggerated by the short length and railroad nature of the adventure and risks pushing Sailors of the Sunless Sea into 'funhouse dungeon' territory.  I increasingly think that tone and consistency are important in adventure design, especially for designers departing from the dull standards of typical fantasy.  The less the game-world relies on received tropes and stock imagery, the more it needs to have internal coherence to give the players reference points.

HOW TO IMPROVE

If I was running Sailors of the Starless Sea I would first reskin the outdoor areas.  As of now they are sort of a generic euro-fantasy castle with a few weird fantasy by way of Warhammer Fantasy touches.  These touches are the best part, but for me the module needs to fully embrace it's pulpy potential.  Reskin the keep (really it's too small even to be a keep), as some sort of ziggurat/temple/tower. Throw out the entire European gloss and replace it with some kind of Epic of Gilgamesh feeling.  The players are villagers in a mud-brick town, there's a haunted oasis with an ancient ruined holy site to the 'old gods'.   The water is bad, no one goes there.  Perhaps this is orientalist fantasy and exotification - but heck, it feels less derivative.  The beastmen still work as aspects of these ancient beast headed old gods or simply something awful that lurks in the poisoned oasis.

The outer area can remain, turning the vine zombies into battered guardian statues of some kind of awful armored demon (looking the same and marked with signs of the larva god below).  The history of the place can be shown this way, rather than narrated earlier or lost to all but the GM.

This reskin doesn't solve the real problems however - the problems that Sailors is a linear march from a three entrance keep to a straight puzzle and combat path culminating in a decisive battle below.  Below ground I would add areas - obvious, but optional areas.  A warren to serve as home for the beastmen, likely near the 'beach'. Most of the beastmen would be at the temple, leaving only a few cripples to cower in their shacks along with whatever horrors they keep as pets (giant rats, or table generated giant rat stated things).  I would also expand the temple areas to make for an empty, though possibly trapped, sort of antechamber for the Starless Sea, it's vastness visible, illuminated by the glowing underground life within, through windows cut to look out from the cliff side halls that formerly housed chaos acolytes.

CONCLUSION

Just as DCC seems to be a system with a quirky old-school aesthetic and evocative craftsmanship that is encumbered and lessened by various later edition rules (All those perception checks...) and somewhat vainglorious idiosyncrasies (funny dice, excessive magic system) Sailors of the Sunless Sea is a likable starting adventure that asks players to start their adventuring careers in a big dramatic way with some really solid ideas and imagery, but is hampered and held back by problems I associate with later edition (or late TSR) adventure design - fun-house excess, linear design and adventures focused on creating a narrative flow towards a climactic battle. Yet, the core of the adventure is almost big and expansive enough for me to forgive these problems and recommend it less guardedly - almost.

I haven't given up on DCC or embraced it yet, I'm exactly where I started before reading Sailors of the Sunless Sea - wanting to like DCC and it's aesthetic but confused and a bit wary of its mechanics and structure.  There’s also a good possibility that Sailor’s of the Sunless Sea is a DCC module written before the setting really found it’s style and flair – it clearly takes steps in the right direction, just without the confidence needed to make them look good.

3 comments:

  1. Rom, SpaceknightMay 30, 2015 at 2:58 AM

    I think your next step should be to check out a latter-day DCC adventure to contrast. I might suggest something like Intrigue at the Courts of Chaos, Bride of the Black Manse or Fate's Fell Hand.

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    1. I may very well, but reviews are going to be back-burnered for a while I think.

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    2. I just ran this adventure yesterday and your comments are spot on. There's a ton of good material in this adventure, but the way it's organized with too much boxed text, a linear format, and a sharp transition from the castle to the epic ziggurat underground just didn't work. It played as too much of railroad.

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