Dungeon Crawl Classics: Sailors on the Starless Sea (DCC)
This adventure clocks in at 24 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 20 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was requested by my patreons, to be undertaken at my leisure.
Now, if you’re playing DCC, chances are that you will be familiar with this adventure, and it being a classic funnel, it has kicked off countless campaigns – it was the first stand-alone adventure released for the system, after all. This is a pretty well-known adventure, but is it still holding up? Does it make sense today, and could it work in other contexts? We’ll see. Now, this is a funnel – that means it’s intended for 0-level characters. A lot of them. 10 – 15 are suggested, noting that typically, about half of them will survive. The module could be run as a level 1 or 2 adventure as well, though compared to most such DCC modules, it may be a bit easy for those levels. It *may* be – or it may not. You see, this module does a surprisingly good job at blending rules-relevant aspects and player-skill. While your characters can and will probably suffer a few casualties, their survival will be more contingent on the skill of the player than on the roll of the dice. I will highlight a few examples for this design-philosophy, which I btw. thoroughly enjoy.
Now, on a formal level, as pretty much all adventures in this series released for the DCC-rules, this is a beautiful book: The b/w-artworks are really neat, and the cartography depicts the main-module in a top-down style that is slightly tilted. The map of the bonus complex (see SPOILERS below) is delivered in an isometric perspective. All maps come with artworks and style galore. Thing is, I really wished we got a player-friendly key-less version of the maps, as the letters break immersion for me. Having the maps layered would have been another easy way to ensure that more groups get to see these gorgeous pieces, handing them out, piece by piece as the PCs explore. The module does come with copious amounts of read-aloud text that show the author’s talent for descriptive prose: The atmosphere evoked by these is compelling and captivating. The adventure comes with a handy encounter table that codifies the base module’s encounters by type and provides a handy summary for the judge. The module also includes a list of 10 different rumors pertaining the adventure-locale.
All right, this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.
All right, only judges around? Great! So, in ages past, when the forces of Chaos (think of a more Warhammer-esque, nasty capital letters Chaos…) were more potent, they had champions – so-called Chaos Lords. Two particularly evil individuals, Felan and Molan, were such beings, but their wickedness did end, with one of them slain, and the other one retreating into Chaos itself, vowing to return once more. This foretold time has come, and the PCs are dumped right into it. As 0-level folks, they are assumed to be villagers and similarly unimpressive folks that respond to the recent abductions and raidings executed by beastmen from a nearby, ruined keep. This, thus is a combination of rescue mission and retribution, depending on your character’s motivations. These beastmen are btw. more versatile than the ones featured in the Warhammer universe: A table of 12 entries allow you to generate spontaneous and diverse looks for the beastmen, which may feature iridescent scales, weeping maggots, etc. – these are delightfully icky. Beastmen as a general notion, are assumed to have animal cunning, with only their leaders retaining a semblance of distinct personalities.
Now, while these beings constitute the primary antagonists of the module, they are not the only foes encountered, but I’m getting ahead of myself. The PCs may approach the keep from a variety of directions, which all carry their own dangers, and it is here that we already see the design paradigm I mentioned in action: Scaling a ruined wall’s slope can trigger an avalanche of rubble that can be lethal at this level, and that destroys equipment. Noticing that, well, scaling a steep slope of rubble may be dangerous can help here. The check is so low that succeeding it is all but guaranteed if the PCs just think. There also is a massive sinkhole, but approaching it may have the PCs tumble to a horrid fate – 500 ft. below, as the area seems to be hollow. The attention to detail here is impressive – the pdf even accounts for the unlikely case that PCs could have 500 ft. of rope! (Yeah, super-unlikely, but still – it’s nice to see this go above and beyond!) The extraction of PCs and approaching the sinkhole safely is noted as well as splaying out on the ground – mind you, this is not a dickish save or die: It does come with a creepy premonition warning the PCs!
In a way, this adventure, from the get-go, teaches by virtue of its design: PCs approaching the keep from the front will have to deal with rather dangerous vine horrors, basically corpses animated by corrupt vines; these things are actually more deadly than beastmen, so avoiding them, may be wise. In the best tradition of old-school modules, two threats are tied to curiosity and greed: Interacting with the Well of Souls can result in death or corruption, introducing the PCs to the potency of such decisions. The tomb of one of the Chaos Lords would be another such example: Lighted by an unearthly glow emitted from the ice covering all and exceedingly cold, the tomb offers treasure, yes. But the tomb is warded by 4 banes – which double as curses that the judge can later use for additional complications and as segues into other modules. Ideas regarding their use are provided. Still, this aspect of the module is completely optional, but that may not be evident.
This would be as well a chance as any to note how clever the adventure deals with magic: Exploring the charnel ruins, where the forces of Law locked in chaos cultists and had them burn. There is a darkened tar ooze that is a deadly foe, but with smart observations, the ooze may not need to be fought at all – smart players can find here an item that constitutes one of the solutions of the perhaps most deadly encounter herein. Placating the ooze is btw. something that smart players can extrapolate from the area and its description. Now, the regular “boss” of the keep level would be a beastman champion with some footsoldiers added, and, depending on how much you want the PCs to explore, you can disperse the villagers to be saved accordingly.
This ties in with the fully mapped “bonus content” additional dungeon included here. At the end of the module, there is an extra mini-dungeon, the “Summoning Pits.” This bonus module is rather creepy and slightly more deadly than the regular complex: These pits are the origin of the vine horrors noted before, and the place does contain a truly deadly and dangerous weapon – the Fiend Blade, which can provide power, but also corrupt and may even help casting some spells…but it does demand a price: It needs to be mentally battered into submission, requiring difficult Personality checks to use to its full capacity…or alternatively, a cost. Note that the danger this blade poses is clearly shown, and once more, the PC’s greed is what may be their undoing, for entering the circle that seals the blade may be rather deadly. Now, I mentioned the vine horrors – the PCs can find a rather twisted scene of these, seemingly locked in place, in the process of providing a human sacrifice. Serving the plant-entity known as the Slow God, they are executing a super-slow sacrifice, as the entity, curious about the concept of worship, dips its toes into the concepts. The Slow God can provide unique boons to brave adventurers, but it may also well lose themselves to its glacially-slow, alien thought-processes. Now, tinkering with the Slow God’s vine horrors may well be one of the most deadly encounters in the module, so once more, we have a sensible risk-reward ration here.
I really enjoy this bonus dungeon, and it may well work as a nice stand-alone scenario for conventions etc. Considering how challenging this one is, it is smart that it’s an optional sub-level, though one with massive benefits. You can completely ignore it – which is a plus or downside, depending on how you look at it. The main adventure’s text does not note the access points to the adventure, and as such, this is truly an optional bonus content. Now, personally, I think it would have been nice to see the main module text modified to acknowledge the existence of this content, but oh well.
Now, where was I? Oh, yes – having defeated the first beastman champion, the PCs can make their way into the bowels of the earth, where perceptive PCs will be able to notice two mosaics, which have been provided as a gorgeous handout. These handouts are important, for they contain clues that are potentially crucial for the PC’s survival. In these darkened halls, smart PCs that do a thorough job exploring may find a potent magical item, the band of fire, which can well spell the difference between life and death. The climax of the module deals with the subterranean shores of the eponymous starless sea: On it, the PCs can see a dragon boat awaiting, and clever characters may also deduce the magical means by which it may be called to the shore, for the waters are dangerous and home to an entity known as the Chaos Leviathan, a horrid, tentacle monstrosity far beyond the PC’s capabilities to best. The gigantic thing may be driven off by super lucky groups, but it also represents more of a puzzle than an actual combat challenge. If the players have been attentive, they may well have an idea on how to placate the leviathan – and while sacrifice is one possibility, it’s certainly not the only one. Tricking the leviathan is also an option, though one that can add further danger and a sense of frantic nature to the already challenging finale.
On an island in the starless sea, there lies a ziggurat, where beastmen are in the process of sacrificing villagers, throwing them into the magical forge crucible that is intended to reunite the body and mind of a vanquished chaos lord. Here, player smarts once more may make the difference between success and failure: Using robes of fallen chaos priests or sneaking are probably preferable, considering that there are quite a lot of beastmen attending the ceremony. This crowd of beastmen also acts as a unique terrain hazard of sorts, with PCs caught in their hands inexorably being moved towards the horrid fate of the sacrifice.
In order to come out on top here, the PCs will have to stop the shaman of the beast-men, and also get a chance to defeat the as of yet unstable form of the chaos lord – the skulls of challengers to the title of the chaos lord, which some PCs may have picked up, represent a potent weapon here, flaring with hatred. Defeating the as of yet weak form of the chaos lord with have pretty epic and cataclysmic repercussions, requiring that the PCs make haste to avoid annihilation, as the cave risks collapse. In the time-honored tradition of adventurers, they should run and get what they can – but tarrying may well see the PCs killed…once more, risk and reward.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no issues on a formal or rules-language level. The layout adheres to a 2-column b/w-standard and fits a surprising amount of content into its pages. The b/w-artworks are great, and the module’s cartography, as noted, is inspired, offering a top-down look of the keep and main complex, an isometric perspective for the bonus complex. The pdf comes with basic bookmarks for the headers, but not for individual rooms.
Harley Stroh’s “Sailors on the Starless Sea” is a fantastic adventure in the best sense. It is very dangerous, but never in an unfair way. The adventure manages to transport the notions of a thoroughly magical world without requiring the meta-concerns of RPG-systems: There is method and an internal logic to how magic works within the game; players that think are rewarded, whereas approaching this with solely a rollplaying attitude will result in pain galore. I love this, as the adventure teaches being methodical and consequently rewards players ability over that of the PCs, making this an all out fun module to play. Compared with MANY “first” adventures for systems out there, this is a phenomenal achievement and clearly highlights the strength of the aesthetics of both DCC and its aesthetics. Now yes, I could complain about the fact that integration of the second printing bonus dungeon could be smoother, but that may well be a feature for you. Similarly, the lack of player-friendly versions of the amazing maps DCC modules tend to have galls me to no end, but the atmosphere and epic climax of this complex, the expert prose and fantastic execution make it all but impossible to rate this any other way than 5 stars + seal of approval. This is a great adventure, and one that holds up very well to this date. Much like “Doom of the Savage Kings”, this is good enough to get it even if you’re not playing DCC. Yes, that good.
You can get this inspiring module here on OBS!