Wednesday 16 August 2023

[REVIEW] Ship of Fate

Ship of Fate (2023)

by Jonathan Becker


Levels 10–14 “plus assorted henchmen”

Hello, and welcome to part FIVE of **THE RECONQUISTA**, wherein entries of the scandalous No Artpunk Contest II (banned on Reddit but the top seller in the artpunk category on are subjected to RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT. As previously, the contest focuses on excellence in old-school gaming: creativity, craft, and table utility. It also returns to the original old school movement in that it assumes good practices can be learned, practiced and mastered; and there are, in fact, good and bad ways of playing. Like last year, these reviews will assume the participants have achieved a basic level competence, and are striving to go forward from that point. One adventure, No Art Punks by Peter Mullen, shall be excluded since Peter is contributing cover and interior art for my various publications. With that said and solemnly declared, Deus Vult! Let Destiny prevail!

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Michael Moorcock’s psychedelic fantasies are the essential fodder for high-level D&D: cosmic struggles, godlike villains, heroes wielding magic beyond comprehension, and completely out-there set-pieces where the conventions of your usual fantasy world no longer apply. People have been adapting Moorcock’s stories ever since the beginning (Blackrazor is just one of the examples), and Ship of Fate follows in the footsteps of this tradition. The call of adventure reaches the greatest heroes of the realm to sail to another world and stop a pair of sorcerers messing with the very fabric of the multiverse. Are they up for the challenge? Find out in this high-level, tournament-style adventure.

Contrary to what you might expect from the premise, the titular Ship of Fate is not the focus; it is the vehicle that takes you there – sort of an extended briefing, although one with charismatic NPCs and a really swanky cosmic ship that can get you from anywhere to anywhere. Perhaps a longer, non-contest module could have something for the journey (a few encounters and locations on the otherworldly Dunkle Zee, no doubt populated by the perfidious windmill-men by the sound of it?), but here, you are brought right to the shores of the island where the actual target, a bizarre structure combining mechanical and living parts, serves as the site of a dungeon with 36 key locations. It is a clear Agak and Gagak homage from The Sailor on the Seas of Fate, while also drawing on the AD&D classics: the hub-and-spokes setup of The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, and the funfair ride aspects of White Plume Mountain.

This is definitely high-stakes, high-skill AD&D which throws formidable challenges at a pack of powerful PCs and their henchmen (three per each character). Encountering 96 stirges, 3 ropers or 7 shadow demons, or finding a chamber whose walls are just studded with gemstones (total value 62,500 gp) is just the beginning. It is not just a room with a mirror of opposition; it is a hallway with several dozen mirrors with ten mirrors of opposition, for the ultimate mirror maze battle (very Elric). The wealth of magic items is staggering, probably exceeding the total bounty of your usual modern “OSR” campaign. But this is a sort of cosmic piggy bank – you are contending with the forces of the multiverse, and you are sharing in the goods (all beyond the modest baseline reward of 50,000 gp per character). These are the standard encounters before things are ratcheted up for the finale. As a nice touch, the module lets you use your stuff. There are restrictions on spell recovery and a loosely set time limit, but no bullshit “magical detection and passwall will not work here for reasons” nerfing. The contest of powers is not rigged.

The dungeon wears the heavy Tsojcanth / White Plume Mountain influences on its sleeve. It follows a structure where multiple entrances lead through gauntlet-like sequences of setpiece rooms into the central area. The simple trick of sloping corridors crossing above or below each other jazzes up the otherwise simple layout. It is peak funhouse; there is little connection between individual encounter setups, and you are sort of moving from clever bubble to clever bubble. The encounters are often “monster in a room” style, almost Monty Haul in the original sense. The effect is disjointed, which is not inappropriate for a weird extraplanar funhouse.

However, the true skill lies in the way these encounters are constructed (once again, the strong points of S2 and S4). No two encounters are alike, and the variety of challenges you face is very pleasing. In fact, there are no two rooms with the same monsters in them, and the combat situations are highly different, supplied with strong, straightforward tactical notes which put them to very good use. There are strong elements of deception: something that looks like a particular monster if you don’t pay good attention, cursed items mixed in with the treasure, valuable but unreliable allies. The encounters often require quick thinking and the judicious use of those high-level capabilities (there are no recovery options, so resource conservation is also a concern). And it is plain wahoo fun: a planar gateway nexus can take you anywhere from John Carter’s Mars to Kyrinn Eis’s World of Urutsk, or you can overload the control matrix by inputting more high-value gems than it can bear, and trigger an explosion for 3d6*10 Hp. You can’t do that in a copper piece-standard rat dungeon.

Unlike the surrounding dungeon texture, the central hub, the lair of the two otherworldy sorcerers (Giz-Kala and Giz-Aga), is interconnected, and that will be the players’ problem: two powerful antagonists with high control over their environment, and the ability to draw in reinforcements hitting characters’ sensitive spots from multiple directions (going from single monster type encounters to a multi-monster combined arms affair) is going to be a brutal test of skill and luck. They also have the best of the best in magic – a staff of power, high-level spells used for both defence, crowd control and destruction, and a selection of defensive items to round out the collection. Even more than the rest of the adventure, this will require strong GMing skills to run right.

There are some presentation issues with the module. The text is clearly and effectively written – this is how it should be done. However, for such a complex thing drawing on a myriad monsters from several disparate sources, the lack of a stat roster, and (if we may be impertinent, pretty please) a Hp sheet is a major omission. With the amount of mnstrs, and particularly the final battle, you need to keep track of this because your attention will be otherwise occupied. There is an appendix dedicated to lovingly detailed tournament characters (Sunstarr, King of Coins; Alejandro the dwarf, Lucius “Lucky” Drago, King of Wands; Bladehawk, Queen of Swords, and so on), but this is not supplied? The Scribes of Sparn – another fine purveyor of high-enery funhouse modules – did this well. How hard would it be if you wrote the thing and presumably already did the work? Some of the combat notes towards the end are also scattered a little, which could be improved on. Nothing major, but you can see it.

To sum up, Ship of Fate is a worthy tribute to its source material. It is very specific in what it does, and what it doesn’t do. For example, it doesn’t do connectedness very well – it is a grab-bag of wild stuff thrown together willy-nilly. It is also not a particularly non-linear module; for all the alternate entrances, it is mostly a beeline through various setpieces to a climactic finale. The fascinating planar ship setup is not explored at all. But as a funhouse ride, it is really good. If you are something like thirteen (which I think was the case with the playtesters, who seem to be the author’s kids and perhaps a few more guests), this will be the coolest module you have played. In the often dour, misery-addicted, dirt-filtered “OSR” scene, it sure stands out, and does what it sets out with enthusiasm, imagination, and skill.

This module credits its playtesters, too.

Rating: **** / *****

Agak sucks, but this module does not.

1 comment:

  1. My four play-testers (only two of whom are related to me) ranged from ages 9-12 actually. And, yes, they had a blast.
    : )

    A fair review. The document I submitted for the contest was, more-or-less, the same as I used to run the adventure in testing. Were I to self-publish the thing as an actual product I would likely have "tarted it up" a bit, including a back-end roster monster, role-playing notes for the pregens, etc.

    In play, I did not find the adventure to be quite linear...much back-tracking occurred (when PCs came upon encounters they didn't want to tackle), and while there isn't much possibility of getting lost, all wasted efforts lead to a diminishment of resources that makes the final battle (and ultimate objective) that much more difficult.

    The "funhouse" disconnectedness of encounters is less about aping S2 and S4, and more attributable to the Moorcock story that served as its foundation (many encounters are taken directly from the story, as best as I could model them within the contest parameters given). But, serves to heighten the weirdness for sure.

    Thank you for taking the time to do this review. Great choice for pix, by the way...I worked closely with the SotSoF graphic novel while writing the adventure, and Craig Russell's illustrations were endlessly inspiring...most of the description in the adventure was just my poor attempt to describe what I found on the pages.