Beyond the Black Gate (DCC)
This module clocks in at 36 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 31 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was requested by one of my patreon supporters, to be undertaken at my convenience.
All right, so this adventure is intended for 6 – 10 level 5+ characters, and it is a tough one; this module can be very punishing for groups accustomed to hack-and-slash, and player skill can be rather crucial in determining success or failure. As always, we have proper read-aloud text for the respective environments, and the module sports a couple of different hooks to get the PCs going. Nice: We get different rumors/things PCs may have heard about, depending on their classes, which makes sense at level 5, when the PCs are bound to have picked up quite a bit of lore. The pdf offers up a new patron, who comes with full invoke patron information, as well as a new first level spell, slaying strike, which represents a damage buff to the caster’s next strike against the designated quarry, including the chance to send that target into a coma or slay the caster – but failing to strike the target can have dire repercussions on the caster. The module also contains a basically artifact-level item, a mighty spear and shield, and an interesting set of throwing axes that grows in power the more are held – but they don’t return to the wielder, so with each throw, the attacks become a bit weaker until they’ve been picked up again. This last item in particular struck my fancy – it feels very DCC-ish and mechanically distinct to me.
As for the structure, if the page-count wasn’t ample clue, this review is based on the 2nd printing, which contains a bonus adventure penned by Terry Olson, the “Clash of the Sky People.” This bonus module has got nothing to do with the main module, and is intended for 4 – 8 level 3 PCs. It is deeply steeped in science-fantasy, whereas the main module draws primarily from real world fiction and myth. As for “Beyond the Black Gate” – it should be noted that the first part of the adventure could easily be divorced from the main meat of the module, and, indeed, might work better that way.
All right, this is far as I can go without diving into serious SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
Only judges around? Great! So, we begin with a plot-contrivance, namely that the PCs are aboard a ship that is en route to the north, but the hooks do make that plausible and pretty easy to sell. Somewhat unforgiving, but plausible: You *really* don’t want to be wearing metal armor at the start of this adventure. You see, after a few Strength checks and the like, a ginormous wave will destroy the PC’s ship, and if you’re wearing metal armor, you pretty much begin the module only to die, no save. Sure, PCs may be saved by allies, but not in metal armor. I’m ambivalent about this. On one hand, it makes sense; on the other, at level 5+, a mighty deed or the like should be able to save a PC unlucky enough to be wearing a metal armor. I’m not penalizing the module for that mainly due to DCC’s emphasis on player over PC skill, and due to the fact that, at level 5, the player should really know to look for that stuff…but yeah. If you’ve been handling that differently, or have a wizard with a sea-related patron, this may need a bit of finagling. Also, due to the fact that this intended scarcity is responsible for the rather impressive difficulty of the module – RAW, there is a DC 13 luck check to gain a single piece of equipment that the PCs didn’t bring along when going above deck. Other than that, it’s back to basics, as they explore the sea-side caverns into which they’ve been flushed.
This first component of the module could, as noted before, stand on its own – the PCs have the means to scale the cliffs or explore the complex, finding rather grisly remnants of torture, and sooner or later face strange animals – familiars in fact, for they have happened upon a witch’s Black Sabbath. Minor nitpick: 13 witches (11+one+ the mistress – nice nod towards occultism) are involved, we get 5 different familiar stats and the note that not all familiars are combat relevant…and no indication of which familiar would be aligned with which witch. This is insofar annoying, as slaying the familiars would greatly weaken the witches. (And seriously, you’ll want them dead…)
The mistresses of black magic, under the command of “Baba Iaga” (*GROAN* – she is btw. a ridiculously weak adversary…) have taken some NPCs captive and task the PCs to venture through the eponymous black gate to the Thrice-Tenth Kingdom and undertake a quest: Find the Horned King, depose of him and take his antlered crown. The Horned King? Master of the Wild Hunt, and the witches. Or rather, erstwhile master. You see, the Horned King (who doubles as aforementioned new patron) is currently pretty impotent, lying in a stupor, his magics and powers subverted by the ice giant’s daughter. Okay, first of all: Nice nod towards Howard’s classic. Secondly: I like that the giants are smart, have three eyes, and that they ostensibly stole the third eye from Cyclops giants. I also like how the Thrice-Tenth kingdom is presented: No gods or patrons may be directly invoked, and cold magic is enhanced, while fire magic is penalized. It’s a small thing, but global rules like this do help rendering the environment feasible. Random encounters are presented, and upon arrival, the PCs may well meet a traitorous madman. There is one factor, though: If you already have the whole Wild Hunt and Baba Yaga-concept in your game, you’ll have to do some reskinning. Personally, I’d strongly suggest it, as both Baba and the Horned King are pretty pitiful as far as I’m concerned, but your mileage may vary there.
Here, the module becomes genuinely hard: Ginats are tough, have a high Act die, and if they had combat training, crit more often. (As an aside: The pdf does include rules for handling giant-sized weaponry). Also: They are not dumb. Careless PCs will easily bite off more than they can chew, and trying to hack and slash through this will not be an endeavor that’ll be easy to do. The module is clearly balanced around the notion that combat with more than one giant will be a highly risky endeavor. In a way, this reminded me of “Against the Giants” or Pyromaniac Press’ underappreciated “Seeking Silver”-adventure – just that this is, aesthetically, the DCC-iteration. Where “Seeking Silver” is vast in ambition and scope and feels like an epic “Infiltrate and Sabotage Isengard” –quest, including deposing off of key players, this one is more focused on trickery. Due to the sheer power of the amassed giants, PCs will fare much better when actually infiltrating the place and trying to bypass the opposition. Indeed, there is a secret corridor and a whole dungeon level below the citadel that have the dual purpose of allowing PCs, via more than one option, to get in and get out without being crushed by the potent opposition that the giants pose. This is an infiltration, pure and simple, and this notion is further emphasized due to the shipwreck that is bound to cost the PCs some important resources.
Now, as for the finale – it’s not exactly a showdown versus Azazel, and indeed, the Horned King may be taken down rather easily, should the PCs choose to do that. The giantess and her salamander-shaped allay make for a dangerous boss, as her kiss means instant death, as her dance transfixes PCs, but as a whole, this is surprisingly manageable. If the PCs don’t kill the king, he’ll bestow luck upon them, before leaving them to their tender fates as the remaining giants rush in – which is a pretty likely TPK. On the other hand, bringing the crown to Baba Iaga will net a reward, but also unveil that the captives are actually dead. Puzzling to me: Where is the option to become the new Horned King? The witches pretty much stated that they’d need a new sovereign; and killing their patron? That ought to cost them power, so where is the blowback for them, the instance where they become easier to vanquish for smart PCs?
In a way, the module tries to have its cake and eat it, too. It evokes classics of mythology, contextualizes them in a comparably weak manner, and then fails to let the PCs properly take advantage of the relative weakness of said entities, by locking them into a series of choices that doesn’t fully account for the vulnerability of said major NPCs. Particularly in a game like DCC, particularly with the “death of a patron”-angle that this represents, this rendered the climax and aftermath less than satisfying for me.
The bonus adventure, “Crash of the Sky People” is straightforward – the ship of the metal-winged humanoid sky pirates has fallen! The PCs get to best guardian robots, enter the ship, deal with the strange machines and tinker with subjective gravity…and participate in a sky-joust over the ownership of the wrecked vessel! And yes, we do get concise rules for sky-jousting with laser lances, on skycycles! There even is a 5-entry mighty deed-table to supplement this combat-based mini-game! (Oh, and yes, PCs that botch the module might inadvertently cause a massive nuclear explosion. There even is a nice and logical little puzzle included, one that also features a Flash Gordon reference! Yep, this made me smile! This bonus module may be brief and humble, it may not have anything to do with the main-adventure, but it certainly entertained me well! Did I mention that yes, bots have an off-switch that players may use? Did I mention that the PCs can get mechanical wings implanted? (Yeah, sure, the procedure could kill them – but no pain, no gain, right?)
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to Goodman games’ two-column b/w-standard, and the pdf sports quite a bunch of really nice b/w-artworks, with the boss fight of the main module and a stunning vista of the bonus adventure represented as one-page handouts. The cartography for both adventure is b/w and very good, but we do not get a proper player-friendly keyless version, which is particularly odd for the main module, where an NPC would make for an organic source of a more or less accurate map of the Thrice-Tenth Kingdom’s fortress. Much to my chagrin, the pdf version of the module lacks any bookmarks, which constitutes an unnecessary comfort-detriment.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a bad module, not by a long shot. It is challenging, brutal and rewarding. It’s surprisingly non-linear in its environments, and it rewards player-skill over just rolling high. That being said, when compared to Harley Stroh’s previous contributions to the main-line of DCC-modules, it feels weaker. “Beyond the Black Gate” doesn’t reach the grandeur and nigh-perfection of “Jewels of the Carnifex”; it is too bogged down in quoting classic concepts from mythology and appendix N, things that most judges will have implemented themselves in their game, and are bound to have diverging takes on. I don’t object to those mind you – just their implementation. The mythology-backdrop that made “Doom of the Savage Kings” work so exceedingly well? That had been subtle and divorced from the big myth, being clearly a riff on Beowulf without actually stating as much. Here, the module flat-out tells you what the mythological figures are. And it kinda doesn’t earn them or do them much justice. It may even contradict established lore in your games. Granted, this may be a minor issue, but it is one that, for me, colored the whole experience of the adventure. Particularly since the module begins with the “easy come, easy go”-mentality we often see in Sword & Sorcery literature. It’s totally valid to cut PCs back to size, but first doing that, then throwing mythological beings at the PCs, creates this odd juxtaposition, where a level 5 group at the top of their game would have crushed those legends without being previously nerfed. Heck, that’s still very much within the realm of possibility here. This, as a whole, made the myth/Appendix N-aspect feel a bit like pandering to me; something the module seriously did not require.
None of the aspects, from the use of legendary figures, to the nerfing of PCs, would have been required by the module; the former is a cheap shot at getting an “Oh, damn!”-reaction out of the players, the latter an attempt to let judges eliminate problematic items to enforce an intended playstyle, when the like isn’t necessary. The skeleton of the module, its structure, wouldn’t have required this. Granted, this is better than using the “XYZ doesn’t work, because magic”-angle that many sucky OSR-modules use, but it still is a somewhat arbitrary incision into PC-capabilities that the players have earned with blood, sweat and tears. This is still a very good module – it’s just not as brilliant as the author’s previous offerings.
That being said, the bonus module penned by Terry Olson? It rocks. It is unpretentious, wholly cognizant of what it is, and gleefully embraces its aesthetics with a cheeky smile on its face. It is fun, fast-paced, and if you’re looking for a perfect fit for the Purple Planet boxed set (review forthcoming) or for a cool convention game, this delivers. Is it strange that it’s in this adventure’s booklet? Yep. It’d have made more sense in a more science-fantasy/sword & planet-centric book…but who cares? It’s a fun addition to the DCC-canon.
All in all, I consider this module to be a good offering worth owning; not the best DCC-module ever, but also one that is certainly worth having in your library. As such, my final verdict will clock in at 4.5 stars, rounded down.
You can get this neat module here on OBS!