Monday 24 July 2017

[REVIEW] The Tomb of the Sea Kings

[REVIEW] The Tomb of the Sea Kings
by Lawson “Blood Master” Bennett with Jimm Johnson
Published by The Scribes of Sparn

The Tomb of the Sea Kings
When the idea of self-published adventures started to get traction with the OGL, homemade PDFs, OSRIC, POD, and a lot of things which make our lives easier, this is how I imagined our bright future would be like. People with low budgets and big ideas putting out dodgy little booklets with questionable but lovingly made artwork and a heaping of sense of wonder. The true DIY spirit would recognise no boundaries, and creativity would triumph over commerce and production values. And a little bit of that happened, and some of it didn’t, and ten years later we are in a crazy world where Guy Fullerton’s Hoard and Horde list contains 1,530 entries, RPGNow’s OSR section contains 1,614, but you actually have to look carefully to find a supplement that fulfils that original promise and does it well. This is one of those supplements.

Tomb of the Sea Kings looks exactly like the weird little booklets you want to find at a convention or used book store, and it reads like a love letter to funhouse tournament modules like White Plume Mountain and Ghost Tower of Inverness. It wears its love for old school gaming on its sleeves. It is unapologetically homemade and strange. Nobody would ever run with this kind of art in a professional outfit, and no serious author would write a scenario where you get to fight stone skeleton archers in a room filled with lotus flowers whose pollen will turn you to stone in 4 rounds. Those serious people are wrong and Lawson “Blood Master” Bennett and Jimm Johnson are right.

Tomb of the Sea Kings is just about the right size for an adventure module with a total of 48 keyed areas – it has enough meat on it to last, but it doesn’t try to take over your campaign. I wish more modules were this size, and not those eternally disappointing anemic affairs which litter RPGNow and the general internet. It is presented as a tournament scenario, and it almost certainly won’t fit into an ongoing campaign (except perhaps a rather odd one), but it’d be a rather good one-off for an experienced group of players or at a convention. Like many TSR modules, it gets a lot less serious as you leave the straight initial premise and get deeper into it.

The two-level dungeon in Sea Kings is all about the strange ideas you have when you release your inner thirteen-years-old killer DM, but you are old and experienced enough to make those ideas work. Tomb of the Sea Kings has not much rhyme or reason (the eponymous Sea Kings are featured in only two or three encounters), but it has a lot of puzzles and puzzle-like things which are textbook Gygaxian D&D. It is good adversarial GMing, where you will routinely run into “screw you” situations if you try to play what’s on your character sheet, but you’ll have a good chance of pulling it off if you have the right combination of inquisitiveness, caution, and a penchant for thinking on your feet. It feels very unfair (particularly towards thieves), but if you look at it closely, following game logic and coming up with improvised solutions will mostly save you, or at least give you a fighting chance.

This Is Art
The encounters in the dungeon are silly and fantastic, and instead of thematic coherence, have a stream-of-consciousness associative feel to them. You have the Blood Freezer followed by the Vampire Room followed by the 3D Goggle Room followed by the Rotoscope Dragon Room (one of my favourites), then the Spriggan Room and the Anti-Vamp Room. There are gleefully evil rub-your-hands-while-cackling-maniacally traps, great setpiece puzzles, and about the right amount of combat with powerful enemies. You can die right in the first room, and you have to choose your battles to avoid getting worn down by the time you get close to the ultimate prize. The rooms are often illustrated with lovingly rendered scribbles which completely capture the module’s idiosyncratic style, and are quite helpful for the GM in rounding out the sparse but effective room descriptions. There is a pull-out sheet in the middle of the booklet with the dungeon maps and a helpful stat roster that’s a very good, utilitarian touch.

Now the module isn’t flawless. It is excessively linear (although with lots of red herrings along the way), probably as part of its tournament heritage. Some of the rooms are one-note, “here is a vampire”, “here is a room where there might be 1-2 Anti-Clerics”, a bit disappointing in comparison with the inspired craziness elsewhere. When you can come up with the “Anti-Cleric Hourglass Room” or the three-room Gold-Silver-Copper puzzle, it is easy for the reviewer to start having high expectations. While the monster stat blocks are generally helpful, they follow this annoying tendency of not assigning spells to the module’s generous range of spellcasting opponents; and you also have references to random, letter-coded treasure types. As much as campaigns vary, modules should at least give a general idea in these cases, and we will customise them to our hearts’ content if they don’t fit.

All in all, this module does what it sets out to do, and it is exactly the kind of thing I would like to see more of. It has a personal style, it doesn’t let decorum and publishing standards get in the way of having fun, and the DIY is with it. It is worth owning in print – the Lulu booklet is pretty damn nice, and it is an example of “trade dress porn” that feels just right.

No playtesters were credited in the adventure (but it was apparently run at multiple conventions with great success).

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


  1. I always enjoy picking up the latest offerings from Scribes of Sparn at NTRPGCon because they are very strong DMs in areas that don't come naturally to me.

    1. Yeah, that's one of the things I liked about this module. It has a style that's far from my own, and does it very well.

  2. I played in Jimm Johnson's Sparn game a few years ago and played with Lawson the first time he DM'd this adventure. I recall it being a real nail biter with a really exciting illusory monster trap. I know they'd published it though; that's awesome!