It was almost a month ago that I ran Dungeon crawl Classics as a part of Free RPG day, but I’ve been totally unable to post about it due to two family vacations, two jobs and (finally) being hired and having to prepare for a full time, proper job that starts in August. I’ve finally found a free moment, however, and so here’s the skinny on what was an extremely fun day out.
CAUTION: While I am not going to go into a blow by blow account of the entire session (more of a greatest hits compilation of the death and mayhem that ensued), this is SPOILER HEAVY territory, so if you haven’t played Sailors on the Starless Sea before, and would like to attempt this adventure as a player at some point in the future, stop reading here and skip down to the bit on music for DCC.
I had 4 players for Sailors on the Starless Sea at 10am and a pile of 40 villagers from the nearby village, which the participants named ‘Murica’ (as in “Let’s do this for Murica!”, an actual quote). As is always the case when I run this adventure, I gave each participant 4 level-0 villagers each to start, with the rest held in reserve to be parceled out as the others died and were replaced by freed prisoners or reinforcements gathered from the village. After a brief, but dramatic, recitation filling them in on the sorry plight of Murica, we got underway.
Now, I modify the intro a bit. I start with the small random disappearances, but then for dramatic effect, I add a massive raid, in which most of the village is emptied by the forces of the fort the night before, complete with descriptions of misshapen shadows flitting between the flames of the burning buildings and chaotic gibbering mixing with the screams of terrified villagers being dragged into the night. This, along with an emphasis on how isolated they are from outside assistance, tends to add some gravitas to the villagers predicament and force action in a way that avoids any hesitation or doubt about the direction the characters need to take, and what might possibly await them when they take it. I find that this puts a more heroic edge on the grinding fatalism of this deadly level-0 funnel.
I always give the players the option of choosing their approach to the hill fort, between the three offered in the scenario: the southern path to the front gate (C), the rock slide up to the ruined wall in the west (B), and sinkhole to the east (G). This particular group decided to scout out the rock slide first, with a small handful going around to check out the sinkhole. Fortunately, they brought a couple of dwarven brothers with them, one of whom managed to get to the top of the rock slide without undo difficulty. Unfortunately, the second dwarf rolled abysmally and loosed a landslide which instantly crushed 10 villagers below, and seriously injured several others.
Five minutes into the game and half the starting characters were dead.
Feeling uncharacteristically benevolent (for a DCC Funnel, but hey, it was Free RPG Day) I made it much easier for the survivors to climb the (now stable), pile, and half way up, they discovered a hidden tunnel revealed by the landslide. The dwarf brothers decided to explore it together, while two other villagers climbed to the top to explore the fort, and the rest hung outside to see what might become of the two other parties. The dwarves found, at the base of the tunnel, a small room with a mysterious, round portal inside. Reading the glyphs along its edge, which they determined to be the work of Chaos Dwarves, they suspected a trap and hooked a 10′ chain with which to open the door from a safe distance. The whole room was engulfed in flame, leaving two smoldering (but miraculously unharmed) dwarves and a newly revealed an icy tomb in which three greedy villagers slipped, slid and, eventually, froze to death, while trying to retrieve the weapons of a frozen chaos warrior.
30 minutes in, 13 dead.
Cut to the fort and our two curious villagers have ascended to the top and are exploring the courtyard. They see the short tunnel leading to the open gate and go to ascertain whether that might offer a safer point of ingress into the structure. Just as they get into the tunnel, however, the portcullis slams shut, nearly on top of one of them! They test the bars but lack the strength to lift the gate. Deciding to go back, they find the exit to the tunnel blocked by two horrid beastmen, one with the head of a cockroach and the other, the head of a wolf.
The screams and howls are heard by the remaining villagers, who abandon their efforts in the icy tomb to climb to the rescue of their companions. They used the well in the courtyard for cover (whose insidious whispering almost claimed a number of their party) and observed dark inhuman shapes wetly ripping and tearing at something inside the darkened tunnel entrance. They attacked, prevailed, and found the grisly remains of their comrades.
40 minutes, 15 dead. At this point, the few remaining villagers decided to head back to town for reinforcements.
Upon their return, they decided to give a large scorched. interior building (barred from the outside and with the word REPENT, painted in large, unfriendly red letters on the doors) a wide berth and gave their attention, instead, to the lone standing tower. Barred from the inside, they crow-barred it open only to be rushed by a horde of animalistic monstrosities. A ram’s-headed creature with plates sized eyes led the charge, a raven headed and winged one flew above their heads, diving in an out with a spear, a bull headed one charged violently through their midst, and a pigmen squealed insanely as he impaled several adventures like a morbid kebab. After a great deal of fighting and a number of casualties, the villagers cut them down and charged into the tower, only to be ambushed by a great bull of a beastman with a large axe, who barely missed slicing a dwarf in half.
One of the villagers threw holy water in the bull’s face (which just made him angrier), while another jumped onto his axe, attempting to hang on for dear life and keep the great weapon from being lifted again (only to have his head knocked off for his troubles) while the rest charged the remaining beatsmen in the tower. When the dust cleared, 7 villagers lie dead in the courtyard and tower, including the doughty dwarf warrior who had been leading from the front the whole time.
75 minutes in, 22 dead.
The villagers found several of their comrades chained up inside the tower and set about to free them (replenishing their numbers in the process). One lost an arm to a rot grub as he dug through the rancid belongings of the beastmen. The remaining dwarf smelt gold, and following the scent down a set of stairs, found a hidden chamber with looted treasure chests. He noticed, however, that one had a false bottom and, reaching to open it, got his hand caught in a scything blade.
85 minutes in, 22 dead, one less arm and 4 lost fingers.
Finding and binding the dwarf’s wounds, the villagers descended the many winding stairs under the fort. They found a strange pool in a weird, temple sort of room lower in, but only one of the peasants was beguiled into taking one of the many skulls floating in the pool as a souvenir. The rest helped themselves to moldy old robes hanging about the chamber, thinking (rightly) that they might serve as a disguise should they meet cultists later
Descending further, the victi… villagers find themselves staring at the eponymous ‘Starless Sea,’ a massive cavern underneath the fort which contains a vast underground lake bordered by black sand. Trackers in the party identify the footprints of villagers being herded towards the sea by beastmen, while the elves study the ancient runic carvings on a giant menhir. Unbeknownst to the party, the words ensorcelled one of the elves, who surreptitiously led his brother up the stairs winding up the side of the giant stone. When they got to the top, they found an altar with a strange bowl shaped depression and the enspelled elf turned on his brother and attempted to offer him as sacrifice! His brother prevailed, however, and the poor possessed creature ended up with his own blood spilled upon the altar, and his body claimed by several gigantic tentacles that burst forth from the water to take him.
110 minutes in, 23 dead, and a potential future TPK by Kraken averted. So, a net positive, really.
A mysterious boat with carved sigils in it’s side appeared at the edge of the water and the surviving villagers hop in. The trip across the sea is slow (and uneventful as the Kraken snacks deep below on elf), and as they proceed into the darkness, the glowing shape of a ziggurat appears at the edge of sight, the shadowy images of cavorting figures becoming clearer and bestial howls drifting across the water as they get nearer. Eventually the boat bumps up against the edge of the massive structure and the villagers can see their fellow citizens being ushered up its slopes to the top by horrid creatures. They don the robes they found and make their way up.
At the top a scene of horror awaits them: a great goat headed shaman flanked by even more horrible creatures, leads a great sacrifice in which baskets of gold are dumped into a great pit of lava and flame at the center of the ziggurat, followed by a few captured villagers, then more gold, etc. in an alternating pattern as the shaman brays dark incantations to an effigy hanging above the pit. The PCs can take no more and act, several of them targeting the shaman, several trying to interrupt the sacrifices and the rest trying to free and rally their fellow villagers.
The bodygaurd of the shaman is quickly subdued in the surprise attack, and one of the more martial villagers throws a knife right at the shaman’s head. It catches the knife deftly and throws it right back! Miraculously, the villager catches it back and throws it again, this time catching the foul beastman right between the eyes (a series of rolls and actions that are the kind of unexpected but truly epic activity that makes running an RPG so fun). It falls bleating into the flame.
Many villagers die, but are quickly replaced by those freed from captivity, and the beastman horde is slowly overcome, but a new threat emerges from the volcanic cauldron of the ziggurat, as the bodies of the slain and the gold dumped summons forth the demonic form of a long dead chaos hero. It emerges, it’s cyclopean eye scanning the remaining villagers, and throws itself into battle. And dies rather quickly, as the villagers, now mentally abused to the point where no sight seems to hold any terror for them, fall upon it and pierce its giant eye with multiple spear points (again, due to a series of unexpected actions and rolls that really show how the players embraced the old school ethos of quick and imaginative thought over simply chucking dice at a problem).
150 minutes, 30 dead, and an army of deviant beastman and 1 resurrected chaos lord sent back to whatever hell spawned them.
The death of the chaos lord starts the pyramid to quaking, balls of lava spewing above the villagers heads. Despite the temptation of unclaimed gold lying in piles near the edge of the pit, they all immediately flee to the boat below. Waves, caused by the crumbling stone of the sinking ziggurat, push the boat down a tunnel and a wild ride ensues, in which everyone miraculously fails to fall overboard. The ride ends with the boat shooting out of the side of the hill and splashing down in a lake near the village of Murica.
In the end, the village of Murica was reduced to a mere handful of villagers. Those who fought and persevered had their names recorded for posterity:
Stinky, the Cheesemaker; Granite, Dwarven Stonemason; Legoless, the Elf Forester; Madame Tousaud, the Fortune Teller; Gax, the Soldier; Halves, the Halfling Haberdasher; Idiotota, the Wizard’s Apprentice; Domean, the Dwarf Herder; Brak Beaverlicker, the (last) Trapper; and last, but not least, Joe the Jeweler, the only villager to live through the whole experience from start to finish!
During the 3 hours of carnage, a fun time was had by all, and the players really embraced the old school attitude necessary to make the most out of DCC. About the only thing that didn’t go off as planned was the music…
MUSIC & DCC
I find that DCC, above all other games, really benefits from a good soundtrack. And as DCC is old school fantasy gaming turned up to 11, the soundtrack should reflect that with music that is hard and heavy. For example, here is my soundtrack for Sailors on the Starless Sea (sorted by encounter area):
A: Revelation (Mother Earth), Children of the Grave
B: No Quarter
B-1: Trapped Under Ice
D: Bark at the Moon
D-1: I left this one silent for effect.
E: Fight Fire with Fire (Pause between intro and main)
H: The Number of the Beast
1-1: Clockwork Orange
1-1a: Evil Eye (Pause 30)
1-3: Time Steps (Pause)
1-4: Black Star, Children of the Damned
1-4b: Call of Ktulu, The Thing That Should Not Be
1-5: Black Sabbath, Enter Sandman, Repent
1-5a: 100,00 Years, God of Thunder, The Mob Rules
1-6: Run to the Hills, The Immigrant Song
Now, some of you might think that the lyrics would interfere with communication between you and your players, but there are two ways around this. The first and most basic method is to keep the music low and in the background. But for those with a little more ambition, and the help of any number of free audio editing programs available on the internet, you can (mostly) eliminate the voice channels, leaving the music intact to manipulate your players emotions aurally.
Now, this is only as effective as the quality of your system vs. the noise of the space in which you are playing. For Free RPG Day, I was in a very small space, with several other games going on around us so that my own words were sometimes lost in the din,and music would have only made that more problematic. So my list went unused this time. But for situations where there is less competition, sound wise, you will find that a good soundtrack can amplify the players emotive response to the game. For example, in SotSS, Beastman and Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast go hand in hand, the subtle menace of a Kraken is amplified by Metallica’s The Thing that Should Not Be, and nothing quite signifies the mad rush to escape the Ziggurat like Black Sabbath’s The Mob Rules.
And if you don’t have an entirely Black Sabbath inspired soundtrack for Hole in the Sky, you really are missing the whole point of Adventuring Like It’s 1974.