(They Came From) Under the Waterless Sea (NGR/OSR) (Priority Review)
This module/setting/event book clocks in at 50 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page credits, and one page is almost blank save for a single sentence, so we get around 46 pages of content here.
This supplement was moved up in my reviewing queue as a patreon request to cover this and a few other modules and moved further up in the queue due to a direct donation requesting faster coverage of it and the other old modules released by the author.
So, what is “Under the Waterless Sea”? Well, first of all, it’s a somewhat quasi-Polynesian setting/module (inspired by Hawaii or a similar place), situated on the Old Island, complete with its unique monetary system (food tokens, pearls, etc., with coin-conversion noted). A marketplace section of weapons and trade goods for sale is included, and there is a 6-entry expanded table of black market goods/adventure hooks. The main backdrop would be the place, which, in an illusion of grandeur, is called “city”, and 4 cool types of hired help are provided – including a warrior with a Kiwi. There, that’s it, 5 stars + seal of approval.
But I do love kiwis to death. So yeah, cool. Puzzling, however: While these cool NPCs for hire come with names, the same doesn’t hold true for the remainder of the individuals; indeed, the surface world/setting; indeed, a name-generator is curiously absent from the book, so you’ll need to do some digging for proper names…an unnecessary comfort-detriment.
A pretty huge plus, and not unsurprising if you’re familiar with the author’s previous offerings: This does contain not one, not two, but three of his amazing encounter tables, where you roll a d8 to determine “Where”, a d6 to determine “What”, a d4 to determine “Weird”, and get additional entries for triples, doubles and the maximum score. The regions covered are shallow water, twilight zone and midnight zone – bingo, this module primarily happens under water.
As many of the author’s modules, it is written with two systems in mind – NGR (Neoclassical Geek Revival) and OSR, with the latter not adhering to a specific rules system, something that I am not particularly fond of per se. AC is given with and in very general terms, e.g. “Level 4 warrior, very strong (18 or 18/00 if used), low charisma (6), maximum hit points”; critters get hit dice and note armor and damage in equivalents like “as leather” and sport a general idea of morale– you get the drift, you’ll have to hack this into shape.
If you have the luxury of choice, I’d suggest running this in NGR, as it’s clearly the smoother choice: There are plenty of items from which new spells can be learned, and disassembling some weapons can net sages or wizards 4 new spells that have no equivalent in the OSR-rules provided. That being said, that does not hold true for the majority of other spells; then again, the NGR rules, well, are better. The Branding of Hydra, for example, can increase power levels of unarmed attacks of up to a d30, while the OSR-version…nets a 1d6 touch attack for 1 round/level. A particularly icky spell lets you store a spell in your excrement, with the duration somehow tied to bowel movement, which also somehow can be passed to other characters? I’ve read and reread this spell numerous times, and it still makes zero sense to me. Either way I read it, it’s broken, though – I strongly suggest not allowing that version. The NGR-version, while still just as icky, is mechanically precise. In a way, this is one of the aspects that we’ll return to again in this review.
The module and premise is pretty dark in a nuanced kind of way, and certainly is not a module ‘d run for kids; while it can be run as a hack-and-slash, the adventure ultimately is based somewhat on shades of gray morality and can be run almost as a fantastic version of a Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now-ish manner. If the excrement spell example noted above was no indicator – this module does have a few components that can be considered to be mature: For example, there is an edifice that is shaped like a penis. So yeah, if the like bothers you, you’ve hereby been warned.
Similarly, I can only recommend this module to pretty experienced GMs, mainly due to one important structural aspect to which I’ll come in the SPOILER-section below. The module sports no read-aloud text, and as far as level-range is concerned, this works best in the 1-8 level-range, depending on how murderhobo-y your players tend to be, and on how you run your game, the power-levels of your OSR-game of choice, and how you want to play out the whole scenario.
The module comes with a stunning, isometric map in b/w of the region, and several maps of specific adventure locales in the classic top-down manner. Utterly puzzling to me: The pdf is a layered pdf, and yet, there is no way to turn off the annoying, immersion-breaking letters and similar indicators on the maps. Oh, and while there *is* a layer called “Guides and Grids” that’s turned off as a default, guess what doesn’t materialize when you click it? Bingo, a grid on the map. The result of these shortcomings, alas, is that the individual locales and relation between the mapped places, kinda remains abstract and hard to grasp – and the isometric map doesn’t help much there either.
This module exists in print, by the way – it is part of Zzarchov Kowolski’s Adventure Omnibus Vol.1, a limited edition book, which I do own – and in said book, there is an additional map, an absolutely STUNNING top-down b/w-map of the main adventure location – but like the other maps, it also lacks a scale, so while it helps picturing the area in a concise manner and makes running this in VTT easier, the map hasn’t been included in the pdf-version.
Okay, I’ve stalled for long enough, so let’s dive into the SPOILER-section. As always, I’d ask prospective players to steer clear and jump ahead to the conclusion.
Okay, only GMs around? Great! So, beyond the “fun” aspects like a brewing religious war among the human populace, the big kerfuffle of the module actually has already happened. You see, recently, a new priest has taken controls of the local religion, and he’s a hardliner – a hardliner who didn’t take kindly to learning about locals consorting with the Deep Ones, whose cities lies on the slopes of the surface of the volcanic island where this module takes place. As such, the usual purges and unpleasantries resulted – and then, something else happened: Somebody, somehow, opened a portal in the ocean. When saltwater falls on the portal, it shrinks. It’s fortified. But when you go through it, well, then you’re operating under a different set of physics and restrictions until you once more touch the ocean’s surface. You can act, fight, etc. as if on land. And all effects originating from you ALSO behave that way.
This section needs to be read VERY closely imho, because it is crucial to running the module. Essentially, the humans went through the portal, and brought bloody slaughter to a city of Deep Ones that was woefully ill-prepared to withstand the assault of such an army – and who proceeded to had to watch their underwater city BURN. The GM should think very carefully about how physics work in their game, because the module doesn’t really draw a clear dividing line. So, you could throw a fireball, okay. The targets would take fire damage. Okay. But the fire that springs from the fireball technically is no longer directly sourced from the aberrant set of physics employed by the land-dwelling invaders…and what about a target that operates under regular water physics grappling and dragging along someone who is operating under the aberrant, magical physics?
Don’t get me wrong, the module does a solid job defining how things operate, but a clear and more pronounced set of guidelines would still have been very much appreciated for the corner cases. Think I’m exaggerating? Well, in the Deep One city, there are pockets of air, such as e.g. in a sorcerer’s workshop. These become pretty deadly traps RAW, as the module states that breaching the surface of the water here will, well, end the effects of the portal. Okay, got it. But the portal states that it’s the ocean’s surface that counts, and a bubble of air beneath the waves? Is that *really* the ocean’s surface? Same goes for the human holding cells that can be found. An argument could be made that any surface of the ocean would do, but then again, this would theoretically render air bubbles of mammals or divers pretty damn potentially lethal.
Because this structural aspect regarding the basic premise of the module and the somewhat opaque spatial relation between adventuring locales, the module has another weak spot, but we’ll come to that pretty soon.
You see, the module is all about squashing the last traces of deep one resistance, taking their mighty, penis-shaped tower (which does make sense for deep ones…) – there are victory points that are tallied for the human aggressors and the deep ones, with a variety of outcomes – and yes, the module does account for the eventuality of the party switching sides, which I most assuredly appreciated.
The city has the spire, the labyrinthine apartments, the temple, the barracks, and the sorcerer’s dome as adventure locations, all mapped and keyed and suffering from the map issues mentioned above. There is a lot of adventuring to be had here, including the option to run afoul of a shoggoth, but all of them feel uncommonly sterile for the author. There isn’t that much going on regarding details here, and quite a few of the rooms are simply about mass. To give you an idea:
“K.) a horde of 25 zombies sit in agitation, just waiting for their chance to eat the flesh of the living. Most are armed with stone maces, but a few have pikes and there are some with leiomanos as well.”
That’s…not particularly interesting. Indeed, I was surprised to see how positively mundane the entire city feels; this sense of wonder one associates with an undersea city, the option of verticality in architecture, an evocative dressing table – anything. There are a few instances where a sense of the weird manages to suffuse the scenery, but if you want my opinion, then don’t bank on the module managing to elicit a sense of wonder here.
Then again, that’s not the focus. The focus is WAR. And the horrors of war, even when executed against frickin’ deep ones; instead of a juxtaposition of the horror of civilization and nature, as in Heart of Darkness, we have a juxtaposition of humans committing the non-euclidean atrocities to the ones usually perpetrating them. That’s interesting. And the notion of burning a city beneath the waves is pure GOLD. A capable GM can weave a yarn here that will be remembered for years to come.
The premise is absolutely genius. But the actual execution of the deep one city is not. This is particularly surprising, considering that the author is a master at wringing unique magic out of pretty mundane setups. Here, we have a magical setup that couldn’t be more exciting, and instead, mundanity is wrought from it, at least for the most part.
Is this intentional? I can’t tell. I mean…it’s essentially Futurama/SpongeBob-logic, the war-module. It has a penis-tower. I genuinely don’t know.
I can say, however, that this is one of the weakest sunken cities I’ve had in all of my years as a reviewer; without the genius premise and context, I’d be trashing this to smithereens. With it? With it, this mundanity serves to humanize the deep ones, and de-humanize the humans.
…call me a philistine, but I’d rather have had wonder here. Unique dressing. Glimpses at a strange culture.
Structurally, it’d also have been nice to get a series of missions for both sides of the war, some if/then-conflicts and gambles, some strategy. You know, “If the party takes the barracks, the shoggoth will be unleashed by desperate priests in x days…” – that sort of thing. Some events to spice up the free-form siege. I read the start and was thoroughly pumped – then I got to the actual city, and by the end, I was bored by the city itself. In play, the war scenario adds the tension, but quite a lot of that rests on the shoulders of the GM. The premise makes this work. But it requires work.
Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-langauge level, but not as tight as usual for the author. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard with a couple of nice b/w-artworks thrown in. The cartography deserves special mention for featuring the awesome b/w isometric piece (and the awesome top-down map in the print version!), but the maps of the actual adventure sites are pretty barebones and their lack of player-friendly versions and grids limits their utility. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, and the pdf is layered as well, which makes printing easier – I just wished the layers let you customize the maps as well.
Zzarchov Kowolski’s “Under the Waterless Sea” is at once a genius piece of adventure that can run REALLY well, and a disappointment. How well this performs depends very much on how well the GM is able to depict either an outrageous war beneath the waves or a somber story about the horrors of war; the backdrop of the action, which should be suffused with wonder, is anything but; instead, the module relies almost entirely on its brilliant premise to carry it. And it does carry it – to a degree.
In many ways, this should have been my favorite Zzarchov Kowolski module; it started off that way when I first read it. But then, it feels like it runs out of steam a bit; like the details never being able to live up to the level of excitement that the premise fostered. A good GM can make this a legend of a module; but I can only rate what’s here, and what’s here are a couple of unnecessary comfort-detriments, some oversights in dressing, and a general sense of lost interest in seeing the premise through to the end.
If you are willing to put in the time to add unique cultural tidbits and dressing, then get this! If not, then I’d suggest getting one of the author’s other adventures instead. My final verdict will be 3.5 stars, rounded down.
You can get this module here on OBS!
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