Wednesday, October 1, 2008

[Review] DCC The Golden Auroch/Tower of the Black Pearl

The Golden Auroch/Tower of the Black Pearl

Authors: Harley Stroh and Andrew Hind.
Contents: 24 saddle stitched black and white pages, 2 title pages, 20 pages of adventure, 1 page of handouts, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Goodman Games.
Product Code: GMGGC08-2.
Retail Price: £5.99 or $10.99.


Two distinct adventures for 4-6 characters of levels 1-2, each designed to potentially serve as the starting point for a longer campaign or be played as they are. The Golden Auroch and Tower of the Black Pearl were originally written and designed for third edition by Andrew Hind and Harley Stroh, respectively; both titles first appeared in Dungeon Crawl Classics #29 The Adventure Begins. They have been adapted for first edition by Jon Hershberger, who also did the conversion work for Iron Crypt of the Heretics and Saga of the Witch Queen.

Whilst both of these adventures are intended for use with any traditional swords & sorcery campaign setting, they each have a suggested location in the default Dungeon Crawl Classics world of √Āereth. The Golden Auroch takes place on the eastern edge of the Achsfel Wastes, in the shadow of the Kitezhan mountains; the Tower of the Black Pearl lies some thousand miles and more distant, in the Straits of Ymtal. However, if it were desired to play both these adventures one after the other with the same party, it would be no great stretch to move the tower to the coastline north of the wastes.

The module is presented as a “flip book”, which is to say that it is printed in such a way that there are two front covers, each reading forward, and no back cover. The maps are not printed on the inside of the covers, which I understand to be mainly on account of the expense involved. Instead these can be found in the middle of the booklet, where the two adventures meet. The internal art is mainly taken from the original versions, but the cover pieces are entirely new; both are by Brad McDevitt, and rendered in a neo traditional monochrome style that recalls the earliest first edition offerings.

Both the Golden Auroch and Tower of the Black Pearl have their own introduction, summary, background, suggested methods of getting the player characters involved, and advice for scaling the difficulty to accommodate larger and higher level parties; these take up a page and a half of each module. In each case, a short description of the adventure location is followed by the various keyed encounter areas, which make up the bulk of the text. Every encounter is divided into information to be immediately related to the players and details reserved for the game master. The text is clearly printed, and the margins set at three eighths of an inch, which is half the width of earlier Goodman Games conversions, and results in more words to the page.

The monster and non player character statistics are suitably brief, and no space is wasted with needless repetitions, which is very much appreciated. Task resolution has mainly been well handled, all evidence of the third edition skill system has been erased, and the game master left free to determine whether to leave things up to the dice, player interaction with the environment, or a combination thereof. Some tasks are described as “extremely difficult” or “easy” and that is about all the guidance that is needed.

The flip book format is undeniably a gimmick, hearkening back to venerable predecessors, but it is also perfectly practical. The two halves feel entirely distinct and there is no need to page through the booklet to reach the second module, as there would be if they were simply bound one after the other. Whilst in general I prefer the aesthetics of a module with a front and back cover, there is no denying the functionality of the design; it is a durable product with very good production values.

The Golden Auroch

This adventure takes place amidst the desert swallowed ruins of Ur, a cursed city destroyed at the behest of a vengeful deity. Beneath the shifting sands some structures remain partially intact, not least of which is the palace turned tomb of the sorceress queen Nicrotis, wherein the golden auroch lies, long undisturbed. The premise is straightforward enough; the city state of Akkad is in the grip of a drought, and the aforementioned relic is said to have the power to end it. The player characters have undertaken to find the auroch and their guide, a man named Nebu, has brought them to the ruined city. Of course, unbeknownst to anyone, Nicrotis still dwells in her palace and, what is more, she has need of brave mortals. So, when the adventurers find themselves hopelessly outmatched against the Scourge of Ninurta, a powerful guardian set to watch over the ruins, a nearby pair of doors inexplicably open and provide a convenient means of escape.

Unlike the introductions to many other Dungeon Crawl Classics, no space in the Golden Auroch is given over to an explicit list of plot hooks for getting the player characters involved. Rather, it is simply assumed that they are seeking the relic on behalf of the prince of Akkad. There are alternative explanations offered, but they are very brief. The adventure begins at the buried city, and any game master who wishes to deal with prior events is essentially left to his own devices. Starting the game in media res has the advantage of bringing the players straight into the action and is also good for tournament play, but it also robs them of the opportunity to gather information, plan their expedition, and equip themselves accordingly. Consequently, whatever knowledge the player characters have is entirely at the discretion of the game master. For my part, I tend to run modules independently of campaigns and do not want to spend a lot of time setting up the story, so I favour this approach; nonetheless, anyone used to having more elaborate plot hooks provided may feel the lack.

The opening encounter with the Scourge of Ninurta is problematic; it is scripted so that the adventurers quickly recognise they are outmatched and flee into the palace. If they choose to make a fight of it, or run in a different direction, they will almost certainly be slain, because the guardian is an eight hit dice monster with more than fifty hit points and a movement rate of twelve. Even if the game master uses Nebu to show the players the “right” course of action, there will almost certainly be casualties, and a party lacking hirelings is likely to suffer. However, the real problem with this encounter is that even once the adventurers acquire the golden auroch, which weighs five hundred pounds, the guardian has no reason to allow them to leave with it, short of a deus ex machina. Unfortunately, the prescribing does not end with the party being funnelled into the palace; poor Nebu is destined to dramatically die at the hands of a new monster, a dust para-elemental. Happily, this event is unimportant, easily ignored, and the only other scripted portion of the module.

Despite the rather heavy handed introduction, the dungeon itself is designed to be explored in a much more open and traditional manner. The player characters are presented with a number of directional choices, and could potentially locate the auroch with relatively little in the way of combat. The dust para-elemental will shadow the adventurers, moving between encounter areas to ambush them at opportune moments. However, once it is defeated they are relatively free to rest and recoup as their rations allow, as there are no other wandering monsters in the palace. Therefore, the way in which the game master handles the dust para-elemental has the potential to significantly affect the difficulty of the other encounters with regard to the renewable resources available, particularly spells. That said, with the Scourge of Ninurta awaiting them outside, other opportunities for rest are decidedly limited, making the eventual destruction of the dust para-elemental a virtual necessity for a successful outcome, its role as the guardian of the golden auroch not withstanding.

In addition to the Scourge of Ninurta and the dust para-elemental, adventurers may encounter a number of diverse monsters, including an animated iron maiden, a horde of carnivorous beetles, and an enraged magmin. The golden auroch itself is protected by a seething nest of vipers, whose venomous bite could easily confer an unpleasant death. However, the most dangerous foe in the dungeon is the sorceress Nicrotis, former queen of Ur. What remains of her mortal shell is almost entirely confined to her throne and slowly crumbling away, but as a sorceress she is still a potent threat. Nicrotis’ aim is to persuade the player characters, by means fair or foul, to complete the ritual that she failed to finish and fully open a portal to the para-elemental plane of dust. Of course, complying with her wishes is inadvisable, resulting in the restoration of her corporeal form amongst other misfortunes, but an unsuspecting party may well be fooled. In the original version of the Golden Auroch, players could defer to a character skill to determine Nicrotis’ true intentions, but under the first edition paradigm they must rely on their own intuition, a by far preferable situation.

Conceptually, this adventure is great. A divinely cursed and desert buried city serving as both the prison and the tomb of a desiccated sorceress queen is a premise almost guaranteed to fire the imagination. The ruins of Ur could easily be expanded and developed into a major adventure location by an enterprising game master. The conversion work is excellent, each encounter being a suitable challenge to a well organised party without being impossible for a group of new players. However, an unseasoned game master might find running the adventure difficult. Using the dust para-elemental as intended requires experience and skill, and the same could be said of the Scourge of Ninurta. Of course, dealing with challenges is the principal means by which such skills are acquired, and the text provides some pointers here and there, so there is little reason to dwell on that overlong. As written, the Golden Auroch is a good module, and my principle complaint is that it is not longer, as it seems to me that this is only the kernel of what it potentially could be.

Tower of the Black Pearl

The focus of this adventure is the exploration of an underwater tower that emerges from the ocean once a decade. Should the inherent mystery of such a place prove insufficient, rumours of a black pearl of unusual size and value may entice reluctant player characters. There are three potential plot hooks presented in the introductory material, each revealing the existence of the tower and a reason to seek it. These may prove useful starting points for a game master who desires to integrate the module into an ongoing campaign, whilst for those wishing to move directly to the dungeon proper they do good service as instant background. Although the introductory suggestions are principally methods of involving the adventurers, they also provide differing degrees of information about what they can expect to face. There are three salient details that the game master may reveal; that the black pearl is said to be cursed; that the tower will be accessible for only eight hours before the tides return; and that a notoriously vicious pirate named Savage Quenn is seeking the pearl for his own nefarious ends. Control of this information is significant, as each rumour has the potential to alter how the player characters initially perceive their expedition and its purpose.

There are twelve encounter areas described in the module; the first four correspond to the immediate upper levels of the tower, and are accessed one after the other. The whereabouts of the other eight is more ambiguous because they are accessed from area 1-4 by means of two magical portals. Judging from their size and the fact that they begin to flood if the black pearl is removed from its pedestal, they are most logically situated beneath the tower, but the text leaves this open to interpretation. As with the first four, the remaining eight areas follow one after the other in a linear fashion. A particularly quick thinking or daring party might manage to move directly from 1-6 to 1-10 or 1-11, but there are otherwise virtually no directional decisions for the players to make, which is a bit of a shame. On the other hand, it means that the adventure is very straightforward; the only real problem a prospective game master might face is if the players take a long time to solve some of the puzzles, as my group did. Deciding how to measure the passage of time and whether or when to give hints is crucial.

Savage Quenn and his pirate crew provide the main combat opposition, and are encountered in three groups. The first three stalwarts lie in a stupor atop the tower, having succumbed to the temptation of a cask of rum whilst supposedly guarding the long boat; a second party waits at area 1-5, ready to ambush anybody who steps through the portal; the last group have accompanied their captain as far as area 1-7, where they have been stopped by a great iron door. Additional pirates may also be encountered as a wandering monster result, though the confined quarters of the dungeon will sometimes mandate the use of discretion for the sake of internal consistency. The adventure is designed so that Savage Quenn and his companions have not managed to open the gate by the time the player characters arrive, a fact that prompts him to propose a short term alliance. The text indicates that the pirate captain will betray the party as soon as the door is breached, which I regard as a missed opportunity; far better to have Savage Quenn stretch out his treachery until the black pearl is within his reach, the tower flooding, and everybody scrambling to escape. I ran this encounter as the module suggested, and instantly knew I had made a mistake.

The conversion work for the pirates is good, and corrects an error in the original text whereby they lacked the bows mentioned in the first area description. As veteran fighters armed with short swords and short bows, they are dangerous, but their poor armour class means that they are also vulnerable. Savage Quenn is a somewhat better fighter, but similarly first level, making intimidation and deception his best weapons against the adventurers. In addition to the former crew of the Black Mariah, there are giant rats and animated statues to contend with, as well as a skeletal boatman who takes exception to being short changed. Of these, the statues are new monsters with first edition appropriate statistics.

At various points in the dungeon are puzzles that have to be solved in order to reach the next encounter area, and which have the potential to significantly slow the progress of the player characters. With only forty-eight turns to explore the tower before the tide returns, the speedy resolution of these obstacles is paramount to success. The first challenge is the entrance hatch, as it requires a specific action to unlock, and there are no prompts. It took my group a couple of turns to figure it out by trial and error, but they could have gotten the information from one of the pirates they captured, had they questioned them more insistently. The same party found activating the first portal in area 1-5 more difficult; ignoring the evidence of a recent blood sacrifice, they spent rather a lot of time rearranging the jewels in the hope of activating the portal, and a hint was eventually necessary to get things moving. The traps and tricks in areas 1-7 to 1-10 are fairly straightforward, and some lateral thinking allows the worst of their effects to be mitigated, though it seemed odd that the spear trap in area 1-10 had a reset mechanism that so readily revealed its presence. The final puzzle of the tower is how to reach the black pearl itself, which is separated from potential thieves by thirty feet of water broiling with poisonous sea snakes; if the players have not yet given any thought to the wisdom of stealing the black pearl, this should give them cause.

This adventure falls short in two principal regards; it is too linear, and the main opposition too static. If there was an event timeline, so that reaching the black pearl was a race against time, then linearity would not matter so much. Catching up with, or beating, Savage Quenn to his goal would be the main objective of the adventure, and the players would probably have to make some interesting choices along the way. As written, the pirate captain and his companions will be encountered at area 1-7 regardless of whether the adventurers arrive on turn ten or turn forty. The way that certain elements of the adventure interact with one another also seem a little inconsistent; for instance, how is the tower flooded by the removal of the black pearl, and why do the solars watching over the candles in the hall of mysteries allow them to be extinguished by the flood, but punish characters who maliciously extinguish them? Questions to be answered by the game master, no doubt, but the lack of ready solutions makes things feel a little haphazard. That said, this is not a bad module; the encounters are diverse and well balanced, the concept is interesting, the writing is engaging, and it makes for an entertaining evening of adventure gaming. A bit of work is needed to get the best out of it, but that can be said of a good many traditional modules, and the Tower of the Black Pearl is no different in that respect.

Technicalities and Errors

It is surprising how many editing errors can creep into even a short work, and conversions are prone to introducing new ones, even as they correct mistakes in the original. An example of an inconsistency that was not caught here is the illustration of the dust para-elemental armed with scimitar and round shield on page four of the Golden Auroch, which is faced by a short description indicating that it is “armed with tower shield and spear”. A newly introduced disparity can be found on the cover illustration of Savage Quenn; his scimitar has a guard in the shape of the head of a cat, but is described on page seven as having “a black steel blade” and a “pommel cast in the shape of a cat’s head”. I might also complain that the handout on page ten is somewhat misleading as to the distance separating the adventurers from the black pearl, at least as seems to be implied on the map. Moreover, the map for the Golden Auroch has a wall separating areas 1-12 to 1-15 from the rest of the complex, which is not mentioned in the key and can only be an oversight.

There are occasional inconsistencies in the monster statistic blocks. The animated figurines are listed as having “HD 1d4, HP 2”, whilst the giant rats are listed as “HD 1-4 HP” on the same page, which reads confusingly and should preferably be rendered “HD ½, HP 2 (or 1-4)”, and the same for the poisonous sea snakes and vipers. Similarly, it is superfluous to indicate that the pirates are “HD 1” when they are listed as first level fighters, a convention that is variably repeated with Savage Quenn as “HD 1d10” and Nicrotis as “HD 7”. The pirate captain is also listed as doing “1-8+1” damage with his scimitar and “1-3” damage with his dagger, which ought really to be “2-9” and “1-4” respectively. I suspect that the absence of a damage listing for the skeletons on page seven is a mistake, and in the same vein it is not clear why movement is listed for some monsters and not others.

Although on the whole vestiges of third edition have been excised from this product, they do occasionally crop up here and there. The two references to “chain mail shirts” on page seven of the Tower of the Black Pearl appear to be of that sort, as does the “tower shield” on page five of the Golden Auroch. On the other hand, the vast majority of new monsters read as first edition entries, though I thought the complete removal of damage reduction might have been a little overzealous. The one exception to this is Nicrotis herself, who seems to be partially presented as a seventh level magic-user and partially as a monster entry, which is reminiscent of the way third edition handles such things. A typical monster entry with the notation “casts spells as a seventh level magic user” would perhaps have been clearer, even bearing in mind that no statistics are provided for her “restored” form.


Although I am certainly not without complaints, both of these are good conversions for first edition, and either will provide for an entertaining session with minimal preparation; however they do feel too short, and when I compare the twenty four pages of the Golden Auroch / Tower of the Black Pearl to the sixteen pages of the Pod Caverns of the Sinister Shroom I am struck by how much more is packed into the latter compared to the former. I do not usually think it appropriate to criticise the use of boxed text, as it is as much a stylistic preference as a functional one, but I think in this case these adventures could have been much improved by the reduction of each entry and the inclusion of more areas. Of course, that is not really a reasonable criticism of a conversion, but it is of the complete product. There is a lot of potential here, and I would have liked to see it more fully realised.

Alternative Reviews: None