Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: Sailors of the Starless Sea

Sailors of the Starless Sea is the first adventure module available for purchase after the release of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. Starless Sea is meant to be an introductory adventure (for zero to 1st level characters), which showcases the different style of play promoted by DCC RPG.

The actual printed booklet is thin; only 18 pages, 13 of which comprise the actual text of the adventure (2 more pages are maps, 1 page of handouts, 1 page of full illustration and a 1 page flyer in the back for promoting the game). Noteably, only six of the thirteen pages of the adventure are full text, with the other two thirds of the book being rather lavishly illustrated in the moody style of Stefan Poag, Doug Kovacs, Jim Holloway and Russ Nicholson. This is good for inspiring the Judge and greatly adds to the art-value of the book, but a few of the pictures will be difficult to share with players as they share space with text.

The adventure itself is meant for 10-15 zero level characters, or a slightly smaller number of 1st level characters. For the uninitiatied, Dungeon Crawl Classics campaigns can optionally begin at zero level, where each player rolls up three to four poorly armed and equipped peasants. In a manner reminiscent of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, these would-be adventurers face a steep curve of natural selection, leaving only the strongest to advance on to first level after completing the first adventure. Although this method is optional, providing each player with multiple characters does a great job of achieving a number of things. First, it provides a learning curve for new players. Second, it allows you to get multiple chances to roll a great set of Ability Scores without compromising the "3d6 in order" mantra. Third, it adds a little bit of dark humour to the first game, which helps ease players into the campaign before there is a truly meaty plot for the players to sink their teeth into.

Without spoiling the story, the module launches the adventurers right into the action from the start. There is no detailed home base, and the adventure begins at the entrance of the dungeon with the presumption that the adventures will conquer it in a single expedition. Although there are parts that are indeed very deadly, there is a clever way to gain reinforcements during the crawl, and defeating the module in one go is certainly feasible for clever players. This last part is key, as there are monsters in the adventure that are almost certainly unbeatable and must be approached intelligently. There are enough clues on how to handle these "puzzle monsters," but overly brash parties will likely receive little more than a TPK for their trouble. These monsters are obvious and clearly horrifying enough, however, to not allow even the most jaded players to entertain the slightest hope of conventional victory.

The dungeon, an ancient Chaos Fortress, is detailed with intricate, three-dimensional maps that really come to life. Although there are relatively few rooms left in the crumbling pile, they are all varied enough to provide a really robust adventure. This seems to go directly against the OSR megadungeon mantra of "half of the rooms should be empty." Indeed, there is no grid of hallways and square chambers, and each encounter section of the fortress is its own mini-adventure, with excellent ambience, a unique story to tell and different challenges for the players. Its hard to esteem the maps enough, and Doug Kovacs has done an excellent job interplaying art and cartography to paint a vivid terrain in the reader's mind.

Like the encounter environs, each lurking monster is unique, with no recognizable enemies to be seen (I believe this may be one of Joseph Goodman's design goals with DCC RPG). The treasure is also novel and original, with no +1 short swords to be found. Each artefact comes with a history of who owned it previously and a description of what dangers lie in possessing such a powerful relic. Some treasure will be evident to the players, but inaccessible until they advance in power, meaning that the party may have to return to the fortress later on to secure these prizes (which is a nice touch, suggesting a "Return to the Starless Sea" session down the road).

The action in the module can only be described as high-octane. Unlike a normal low-level adventure where the players are stuck rescuing the local merchant from goblins, Starless Sea throws beginning adventurers into what feel like major events. Instead of relying on their ability (indeed, zero level characters have little), players must defeat high-level challenges with their wits (the puzzle monsters mentioned earlier being just one example of this). The end of the adventure leaves the players feeling that they have achieved larger than life things, although at a terrible cost, and creates an exciting opening for further adventure as the heroes are born away on perhaps the greatest prize and namesake of the module. There is also plenty of opportunites to draw long-term villains from the adventure, making the module a decent foundation for a larger plot.

For a dusty shelf price of $9.99 for the dead tree version ($6.99 for the PDF), and considering the amount of art in this module, it is hard to pass this by. The stats are generic enough to run the adventure with any OSR game, and (with a little editting for gore) Sailors of the Starless Sea would be an exciting introductory adventure for new players of any age. It is best used, however, to introduce players to DCC RPG, as (much like that tome) the contents are a very evocative old-school primer on how to bring that 1970's heavy metal ballad feel back to your gaming table.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice review! I just finished reading the module in preparation of running it with my local group.

    I love your blog background! Where is the map from?