Wednesday 20 February 2019

[REVIEW] Sailors on the Starless Sea

Happy to meet you on the Starless Sea

Sailors on the Starless Sea (2012)
by Harley Stroh
Published by Goodman Games
0th level funnel for 15-20 characters or so

The difficulty of writing good beginner adventurers is still underappreciated. A lot of people think they can do it, but don’t. The slightly wiser (including yours truly) know their limitations and don’t even try. For all their formative role, most published beginner scenarios lack an interesting kicker, intriguing variety, or the right level of challenge; while characters are fragile, resource-constrained, and often conceptually underdeveloped. Things pick up later, but on 1st level, dull goblin caverns and five-room towers proliferate. It is a rough ride.

The funnel is one solution to square the circle. Throw the lot of ‘em into the meat-grinder, and let the gods sort them out. You can turn on the heat more than you can in a “training wheels” scenario, and without the assumption of survival, success tastes sweet indeed. This is perhaps even a legitimate OD&D way, even though you don’t really need to go as low as zero-level to achieve the effect. However, DCC did, and a whole lot of DCC modules are funnels. This is apparently one of the most well-known of them.

Sailors on the Starless Sea is a bit like The Moathouse from The Village of Hommlet, but METAL!. You have a (thankfully undescribed) podunk village terrorised by beastmen from a cursed and mostly deserted ruin, from which the characters’ discoveries will eventually lead them underground into the hideout of a Chaotic Evil cult. Like DCC generally, it is turned up to 11, where a nice 8 or 9 would suffice: the imagery is saturated – chasms are bottomless, corpses are wrapped in thorny vines, Satanic imagery abound, and there are hundreds and thousands of skulls. This is a stylistic concern, and whether you like it or not will greatly influence the module’s utility. We also see the “actual old stuff” vs. “old-school” difference: where the Moathouse is relatively expansive even as a fairly linear, teensie mini-dungeon, the keep in Sailors is a non-linear opening followed by a straight-arrow progression of five or so rooms in toto (there is the odd shortcut, but they are outright deadly or hopelessly obscure). It is small, and firmly on rails.

And yet. This is not a hopeless module, and it is easy to recognise why so many people have enjoyed playing it. As a linear, limited funhouse ride, it is a damn good one. The encounters, even if there are few of them, are well designed from a gameplay perspective, with well-considered risks and rewards. At the beginning, you can choose from multiple approaches to the cursed ruin, all three of which offer distinct challenges and difficulties (and one, which is less innocuous than it appears, provides one of the module’s rare side-branches – this hidden place was the most delightful part of it). There are fewer direction choices later, but all the encounters have something going on which may be exploited by resourceful and lucky players, and turned into a hazard by foolhardy ones. There are choices and consequences, some of which come back at the end to give the characters and edge (or bite them in the ass). There are differences to make and horrid monsters to deal with. The treasures are good, and some come with interesting side-effects. Careful observation and snap judgement are rewarded; timidity is punished. The module cultivates good play, just not necessarily the dungeon-mapping-and-resource-management kind. (As a side-note, it is telling that the maps in this product, as well as other DCC offerings, are more illustrative than functional.)

While the ride is on rails, it is a well-coreographed one, and when (if) the characters survive the sheer butchery, they will have started the campaign with a bang. More than that, they will most likely come away from it with the best gifts a GM can give a party of adventurers, their own magical ship. Whether setting sail for underground realms, or the seas and rivers of the surface world, this setup screams “All aboard! Adventure awaits!” It is a good beginning, with all its flaws. It could have been better. If it were less overwritten, you could easily cram 150% the content into it, and all the nooks, side corridors, branches and dungeon navigation it really needs. It needed a little more room to breath, be less frantic between the ruined keep and the magical underground ship sailing through the Kraken towards a ziggurat human sacrifice beastman demigod inferno. It is almost very good – but even so, it is at least decent.

This publication credits its playtesters, and extensively so.

Rating: ***/*****


  1. I ran this adventure four times, and would gladly do it again. It's a lot of fun, especially seeing how the different parties get past the Leviathan, or siege the ziggurat at the end. While I usually prefer bigger dungeons with more branches and loops, it would undermine one of the module's virtues: it can be finished under 4-6 hours. That's enough for a funnel, and makes it ideal for cons. Unfortunately that's the timeframe other DCC RPG modules aim for too, with their mini-settings like The Chained Coffin and Purple Planet being the obvious exceptions. Unfortunately this also lead to the misconception that DCC RPG is a con game or one meant for episodic campaigns.

    I'm not too fond of the verbosity of Goodman Games adventures either. My biggest gripe isn't how it drains space from more content, rather how much harder it makes finding valuable information. Often the mechanics of a certain trap, room, or battle as presented seem more complicated than they actually are.

    Still, despite their problems I have a soft spot for the Goodman Games DCC RPG adventures. The early ones were a breath of fresh air, and inspired many to let the old-school conventions go and let the imagination run wild.

  2. I played through this (using AD&D rules), and while I haven't read it, I do wonder how much our DM added to the barebones scenario you describe, Gabor.

    It's also worth noting that as Goodman has reprinted many earlier modules, they've often added another 2-4 pages of new material to the new edition; so if your version doesn't include that, there may be a version published that has a little more meat on the bone, so to speak. I think the earlier printings without the newer content were 18 pages long.


  3. Sounds cool. I love 0-level winnowings.

  4. I have never actually played or DMed this one, but I have to admit I have a weakness for Harley Stroh's adventures. He sometimes writes a lot where less would suffice, also his short adventures tend to be linear (Tower of the Black Pearl and Jewels of the Carnifex come to mind), although I've seen him doing the exact opposite (e. g. one of my alltime favourites, Doom of the Savage Kings; Bride of the Black Manse was also a blast as a player). Then there is the Perils on the Purple Planet (sand)box, which is something absolutely awesome.

    I think Harley has a knack for creating atmosphere and engaging scenarios, has pulpy sources I also find inspiring, and the challanges he puts in his adventures are usually quite intriguing. I've also noticed that he likes to put the players into moral dilemmas, and their decisions - or ignorance - sometimes lead to disastrous consequences (like [SPOILER!!!] accidentaly killing off all lawful adventurers on global scale, or letting a certain dark goddess of torture loose from her prison). I think his adventures have soul.

    tl;dr: agree to what you said, i just felt the need to express how much of a Stroh fanboi I am ;)