Saturday 19 March 2022

[REVIEW] Reckoning of the Gods / Into the Shadow Realm

Reckoning of the Gods /
Into the Shadow Realm
Reckoning of the Gods / Into the Shadow Realm (2019)

by C. Aaron Kreader

Published by Studio 9 Games

Level 3

Dungeon Crawl Classics is its own little world in old-school gaming with its own adventure design standards. Open-ended campaign play is the established ideal of old-school gaming; a polished tournament experience seems to be what DCC fans like most. These are inevitably generalisations, but they are true enough to form a pattern. DCC’ success is partly rooted in its heavy convention presence, and this is also this experience that the modules tend to champion. Just like TSR’s tourney modules had a profound effect on how AD&D was seen and played in the 1980s, so have tournaments tempered our image of DCC: a large emphasis on funnels and lethality, high-concept settings drawing from pulp fantasy turned up to eleven, a degree of linearity (where maps serve more as illustrations rather than a depiction of territory), and a focus on inventive set piece encounters instead of, say, exploration procedures. Many of these assumptions carry over to Reckoning of the Gods / Into the Shadow Realm, a double module released as a third-party product.

Reckoning of the Gods is a personal project, since it was not only written, but extensively and professionally illustrated by C. Aaron Kreader. These production values, while not the subject of this review, would be lavish even for an official Goodman Games release; and if you own the PDF version, you can easily use the illustrative materials to create a whole illustration booklet for your game. There are three illustration-maps, all of custom make. Impressive stuff.

Dare you enter my magic realm?
The module itself is split into two sections. In the first, the characters have been sent to brave the home of an insane and powerful magic-user who has offended the gods, and must therefore be righteously punished (the adventure hook involves a divine “or else” quest). The home of Moxicotl the Great is a trans-dimensional puzzle dungeon / gauntlet where physics, realism, and, indeed, the very laws of interior decoration are mere toys for a deranged sorcerer. We see the principles of DCC’s design in play: no effort is wasted on empty space, or even side tracks.  Every encounter is a meaningful “special” room (setpiece encounter), and everything is in the realm of high fantasy (both in the “powerful magic” and the “bong wizard” sense). It follows in the tradition of White Plume Mountain and The Ghost Tower of Inverness by cranking up the heat and never relenting; quick, decisive action and puzzle-solving are required to get through successfully. The adventure starts with the characters getting dropped into a deadly field of poisonous flowers, followed by magical platforming, a hothouse with living plants, a reverse-gravity room with a floor pattern puzzle and an upside-down treasure chest, a waiting room with more than meets the eye, and a timed confrontation with a devil in a room that’s on FIRE while your characters are probably trapped in a hanging CAGE. All in a day’s work – and that’s just the first stage of a third-level adventure. High energy or high calories? Depends on how you like your poison – but it is strongly oriented towards concentrated action and high stakes.

The second adventure, Into the Shadow Realm, is the section where things become even more interesting. Having been transported to the volcanic peak known as Mount Karkaroc in pursuit of the dragon’s hoard Moxicotl was looking for, the characters must navigate two parallel dimensions to reach their destination. The Maker’s glove, a magic item obtained in the sorcerer’s workshop, allows the party to shift from plane to plane, between the active volcano and its dark simulacrum in the Shadow Realm. Where they find their progress blocked or hazardous in the real world, they can try their luck on the other side… if they can learn the other plane’s peculiar laws and hazards. This second adventure is still quite linear, and does not fully exploit the potential of the wondrous glove, but there is a good effort being made to make the ride interesting, and open up things a little. Here, the fiery realm of the active volcano is contrasted with a dead night-world; both sides containing the ruins of a dwarven outpost with the lair of their respective dragon – the fiery and treacherous Woetalon on one side, and his projection, Wurmshade, on the other. The encounter areas are written in duplicate with different challenges on both planes – a handful if we add it up, but making for a relatively small, although dense dungeon if plane-switching is kept limited. Fighting the dragons is a sucker’s bet, but there are good options for just making off with part of the hoard… with severe consequences for those who get caught.

That Guy, Again!
This double module embodies both the good and the bad of DCC. It dares to be fantastic and play with high magic. The encounters are well planned out, with room for puzzle-solving, environmental challenges, plus a whole lot of meticulously choreographed combat. The multiplanar expedition is inspired, especially once Into the Shadow Realm gets into the wild combinations and plane jump hijinks you can come up with. There is no point of the adventure where it really lags. The flaws are also typical for DCC. It is very linear, and while creative problem-solving is involved, there are strong rails keeping you on track. I hate to break it, but if your map works as an illustration, it is probably not a very large or complex map (that’s beyond “Wow Loops Non Liner!!!”). One comes away with the idea that the module is stronger on the individual encounter level than the structural level where the pieces come together. But that’s also a common DCC problem.

The premise itself is a railroad, and at the end of the adventure, your plane-hopping item is snatched away by the jealous gods before you can plan those sweet heists you just wanted to pull off, while even your memory is wiped of the preceding events. That’s disappointing. Perhaps a charged item would be less obtrusive than divine dickery? Finally, it is a bit too much at once. Fantasy and verisimilitude have a tricky balance, and while I usually advise people to err on the side on the side of the former, this is an adventure where a little less could have been more. This adventure is about excess, not restraint. If you like tournament-style gaming that’s heavy on the magical puzzles and energetic combat, it will definitely be “a polished tournament experience”. Altogether, decent and functional.

This publication credits several playtesters, as well as multiple GMs and editors. Indeed, the resulting text is polished, and the editing is conspicuous by the lack of obtrusive segments. This module should be easy to use at the table, without any weird layout wizardry.

Rating: *** / *****


  1. Yep, sounds like your typical DCC RPG adventure. Somehow this flew under my radar despite the publisher being pretty productive.

  2. I've always been... uneasy with DCC. I really love the game, it's freaking great, but the game manual presents the game as a game suitable for campaigns: patron allegiances, some spell effects (which last weeks, months or even years!) and divine punishments... But then the adventures are all episodic and tournament inspired. Great adventures, but not suitable for a campaign. It's a very strange dichotomy that I don't really like, but at the same time I love the game and I love the adventures.

    1. Maybe these adventures are to drop on your own campaign.

  3. DCC was always one of those game systems that looked interesting from afar, that I never read. But, if this is what its adventures are like...I no longer need to read it. Thank you!

    1. This is the way most DCC adventures are structured, and the standard seems to be much stronger than in the "OSR". I have not played the game enough to decide whether this is a feature stemming from play culture, or inherent to the rules. I wonder if you could play campaign-style DCC. Probably yes.

    2. We did, for some 25 sessions. It was mostly a Lankhmar/CSIO-like urban crawl with some sidetreks that involved a vampire castle on an island, trips to hell, and an adventure in outer space. The "quest for it" mentality Goodman pushes in the Judge's advice section and the long-term effects of mercurial magic, spell effects, criticals are great for campaign play, which makes the community's focus on one shots feel a wasted opportunity. Goodman Games at least tries with Purple Planet, Chained Coffin, Lankhmar, and the forthcoming Dying Earth boxed set. Fingers crossed they don't mess up the latter.