Thursday, October 2, 2008

[Review] DCC The Saga of the Rat King

The Saga of the Rat King

Authors: Jeffery Quinn, Harley Stroh, and Jon Hershberger.
Contents: 64 soft bound black and white pages, 1 title page, 56 pages of adventure, 4 pages of handouts, 2 pages of advertisements, and 1 open game license page.
Publisher: Goodman Games.
Product Code: GMGGC08.
Retail Price: £8.99 or $15.99.


A compilation of three thematically linked adventures for 4-6 characters of levels 1-6, each instalment being intended for a shorter and progressively higher power range. The first and last of these are conversions of Dungeon Crawl Classics #1 Idylls of the Rat King and #27 Revenge of the Rat King, designed and written for third edition by Jeffery Quinn and Harley Stroh, respectively. The module that now bridges these two, Scourge of Silverton, was authored specially for this compilation by Jon Hershberger, who also did the first edition conversion work.

As is the case with all of the adventures in the Dungeon Crawl Classics line, the Saga of the Rat King is nominally set in the world of Áereth, but is intended to be easily adapted to any conventional swords & sorcery campaign milieu. Parts one and two take place near to the small mining settlement of Silverton, which receives around a page of exposition in the first appendix; part three takes place in, or rather beneath, the free city of Soulgrave, which is left undescribed beyond a few brief details. The adventures are tied together by the intrigues of the vengeful scions of the Gannu family; disinherited and cursed to live as wererats, their purpose is both revenge and redress.

The physical presentation of the compilation is very familiar and intentionally recalls the classic first edition aesthetic. The artwork is mostly reproduced from the original modules, the exceptions being three new pieces for Scourge of Silverton and the cover illustration, which is by Jeff Dee. The original cover art by Jim Holloway for Idylls of the Rat King and the original and alternative cover for Revenge of the Rat King also feature as interior illustrations. I particularly like the drawing of the great rat idol being despoiled by adventurers, a laudable homage.

Each part of the saga is provided with an introduction, summary, and background, as well as advice for the game master regarding scaling the difficulty, involving the player characters and dealing with their possible defeat and death. These individually take up two to three pages of text and clearly relate all the intended material. They are followed by the various encounter area descriptions, each of which contains information to be immediately conveyed to the players and a separate section for the game master. All handouts and maps are found at the end of the module, except the map for Revenge of the Rat King, which is attractively printed in black and white on the inside covers. The text is easy to read and I was pleased to see that the wide margins evident in previous first edition conversions have been reduced from three quarters of an inch to three eighths.

I was also gratified to note that the tendency to fully repeat monster statistics whenever and wherever they appear has almost entirely vanished. In some cases they could have been shorter still, as with the triple identical listings for the wererats in Idylls of the Rat King, and in others the necessity of listing variant possessions is sometimes overlooked, as with the crossbow armed goblins in area 1-5 of the same adventure. However, these are fairly minor editorial quibbles and do not detract very much from the intended brevity and functionality of the compilation.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of converting third edition adventures to first edition is how to approach task resolution. In the case of Saga of the Rat King, this has for the most part been left open; secret doors and hidden items are noted, but the method of their discovery is not specified. This is an excellent approach for experienced game masters, who may assign a reasonable probability to the finding of such things as a result of a general and abstracted search, or allow the player characters to discover them by interacting directly with their imagined surroundings. It might be more daunting for less seasoned game masters, but the same answers are available in the rulebooks. However, towards the end of the compilation, some of the encounter areas begin to suggest or call for attribute checks on 1d20, generally in order to maintain balance, jump or swim. Whilst these are reasonable task resolution methods, I think their inclusion was unnecessary.

Idylls of the Rat King

The first adventure in the compilation is a four level dungeon crawl through what was once an abandoned mine, but now serves as a bandit lair. There are two pages of handouts, two pages of maps, and twenty-three pages of text that detail sixty encounter areas. In the original version, the bandits were a goblin clan that Lawrence Gannu had subverted to his purposes by means of his curse. The conversion takes the time to briefly explain that, since only humans are susceptible to becoming wererats under first edition rules, it was necessary to diversify the bandits to include half-orcs and humans. At the behest of the eldest son of the Gannu family, these have been attacking caravans and seizing silver shipments, which is what draws the interest of the player characters.

As might be expected of the first adventure in the Dungeon Crawl Classics line, this is a very traditional and straightforward affair. The dungeon rooms are uniformly rectangular or square, and the passageways are all ten feet wide and turn at ninety degree angles. There are numerous traps and secret doors, plenty of directional choices and the constant threat of wandering monsters. The first two levels of the mine are principally defended by goblins, half-orcs and men, though a few wererats are present on the second level; giant rats may be encountered, as might some stray zombies or a small group of skeletons. In the original version there were also several groups of goblin women and children, which have been replaced in the conversion with slaves and half-orc taskmasters. I was glad of this, as my feeling is that the inclusion of such dependents only serves to pointlessly humanise and undermine the monstrous perception of goblins.

I think some of the encounters rung a little false, such as the secret vault that contains an empty locked and trapped chest, whilst the true treasure, a silver long sword +1, is hidden beneath a loose flagstone. According to the area description, the blade was left behind by a mortally wounded fighter for others to find, which is reasonable enough, but the chest seems like a lot of unnecessary trouble for a dying man to go to. Some other encounter areas feel a little disconnected, such as the secret chamber that conceals an amulet of protection from evil; the area description tells us that Narzy Hilspek suspects the existence of such a chamber and would pay handsomely to know of it, but there is no hint of a reason as to why he would. An imaginative game master can come up with solutions to these oddities, and they can be construed positively as challenges to his creativity, but I think they could have been presented in a more inspirational manner.

The presence of undead on the wandering monster tables for the upper levels and the amusingly labelled “zombie closet” are explained by an undead mining operation on the third level of the dungeon. A human necromancer temporarily in league with the rat king is using zombies to extract silver ore. In the original version he was an evil gnome, and two of his minions were zombie badgers; the conversion has replaced these last with more conventional dwarf zombies, which makes better sense to me. The area is quite maze like, which means there is plenty of potential for wandering undead, such as skeletal ogres, to harass a slow moving party, but there are relatively few encounter areas. The necromancer is the most significant keyed hazard; the text indicates that he will attempt to bargain with the adventurers, but only with a view towards immediately betraying them. I suspect that an earlier draft presented him in a less uncompromising manner, since this is the very Narzy Hilspek who would pay to know the location of the secret chamber on the second level of the dungeon. Depending on how the player characters approached him, I would probably be inclined to have him bide his time before betraying them.

The final level of the dungeon is the abode of the rat king and his wererat minions, but unknown to them it is also the secret prison of a powerful vampire. It is quite possible that the player characters will defeat the rat king without ever discovering this additional terror, which makes for an interesting potential future plot hook. Indeed, even if released by over covetous adventurers, the vampire may become anything from a temporary ally against the wererats to a recurring villain, neither of which are mutually exclusive. Lawrence Gannu himself is a reasonably challenging foe, and since he is not inclined to flee or surrender, the adventure will either end with his death or those of the player characters.

This is a good conversion of an entertaining dungeon crawl; most of my criticisms are relatively minor and rarely detract from the functionality of the module. The dungeon maps are a bit artificial and some of the encounters a little forced, but the content is very playable and interesting. Almost all of the design choices made for the conversion have made for a better adventure and, combined with the inclusion of details such as the spies amongst the slaves, makes me wonder whether a heavier hand might have further improved upon the original. My one real complaint is that the body of the father of the rat king, Aaron Gannu, is entombed at area 4-13, as it is in the original. In the context of this compilation such a consistency question makes little sense, since Aaron Gannu is the primary villain for the remainder of the saga.

Scourge of Silverton

The adventure that links Idylls of the Rat King to Revenge of the Rat King is a fairly short affair, taking up only eight pages of text. Whilst it is intended as to form a bridge between them, it can be used independently of either with only a few minor changes. The premise of the default plot is that Marcus Gannu, half brother of Lawrence Gannu, has come to Silverton seeking revenge on the slayers of his sibling. To this end, he has taken prisoner a number of the local villagers and is purportedly holding them for ransom in the abandoned Deveraux silver mine. However, this is merely a pretext to lure the player characters into his trap; the unfortunate prisoners have already been taken to Soulgrave to be sold into slavery.

Assuming that the adventurers take the bait, they are told to deliver the ransom money to the nearby mine, where Marcus and his men await them. Whether they pay the ransom or not, it quickly becomes apparent that the hostages will not be relinquished easily. Arrayed against them are some thirty or so adversaries, mainly low level assassins and bandits, though there are also some dire wolves, a third level fighter and a dual classed cleric/magician, in addition to Marcus himself. All are lightly armoured, which allows them to effectively employ hit and fade tactics, the aim being to draw the party deep into the mine, through prepared defences and into a final killing ground.

This sort of dynamic scenario can prove quite deadly to an incautious or overconfident group of player characters, especially if a party of assassins manages to achieve surprise. Unless they manage to take out their opponents quickly at each stage, the party may find the last encounter too difficult to overcome, and their fast moving enemies will likely catch any fleeing adventurers in short order. The text indicates that any player characters captured are conveyed to the dungeons of the elder rat king, and any who are slain are resurrected and treated to the same fate, which leads directly to the third instalment of the saga.

The dungeon itself is laid out so that players have a number of directional choices, and good tactical use can be made of the environment. Particularly cunning adventurers may even manage to cut off the escape route that Marcus has planned. There is also plenty of room left explicitly for expansion, should the game master be inclined. The suggestions for wandering monsters serve as good inspiration for what might dwell in an expanded mine; a giant frog spawning ground was my first thought.

Whilst relatively brief, this is a well put together adventure that provides an interesting and extendable dungeon environment, sets up a compelling villain, and demonstrates a confident familiarity with the flexibility and potential of the first edition rules and design philosophy. A good example of this understanding in practice is the mix of class levels and hit die advancement used to effectively represent the capabilities of the villains. Producing a bridging adventure of this sort cannot have been altogether easy, but this module both serves that purpose and stands well on its own merits.

Revenge of the Rat King

The final part of the rat king saga takes up twenty-two pages all told, including two pages of handouts. There are thirty encounter areas divided into three stages, most of which are quite unavoidable and must be completed to reach the next. The central premise of this adventure is that the player characters are captured by the rat king in area 1-14, the remainder of the module being concerned with their escape from his prison. This event is considered to be so critical to the progression of the plot that the game master is advised to increase the number of wererats in the planned ambush from more than a score to as many as needed, should it look as though there are not enough to prevail.

Having read through the original, I had hoped that the conversion would dispense with the importance attached to the capture of the adventurers, and so I was disappointed to find it was still so strongly urged. A predetermined event of this sort constrains both players and game master in a way that undermines the fundamental “choices and consequences” nature of traditional adventure gaming. It would have been more aesthetically appealing to have provided the rat king with alternative courses of action, each depending on the outcome of his primary plan; if the wand of stone and earth were placed in the possession of Azrod the Dying and the capture of the player characters turned into a possible outcome, rather than a mandatory event, this adventure would have been much improved.

Whilst in terms of overall design concept I thought this was definitely the weakest instalment in the compilation, by contrast it also boasts some of the strongest set pieces. From the zombie infested collapsible cages of the slave pits to the failed clones in the workshop of the Dying One, the dungeons of the rat king are full of evocative and deadly encounters. I particularly like the rat filled swarming hole; the numerous additional rats that rain down on adventurers as they try to cross over, by means of a narrow and slippery beam, creates quite the visceral mental image. I thought it a bit of a pity that the curse of the spinner encounter area was not included in the conversion, as that was also rather good. I would quite like to see it converted as a web supplement at some point.

Although most of the dungeon runs fairly linearly, areas 2-6 to 2-8 form an adjunct, and are deliberately left open ended for the game master to expand upon. They can be reached from the main sewer by means of a large drain, and comprise a small part of an ancient and ruined necropolis; the accessible part leads to the tomb of a fallen paladin who bargained away his soul to a demon prince in return for worldly power. The strange writing and whispering demonic voices that begin if anybody reads the words aloud are well used here, creating a sense of otherworldly danger and apprehension. There is just enough information about this area to get the reader thinking about how to develop it, a solid element of first edition adventure design.

Apart from the plotted event structure, which a skilled game master should be more than capable of overcoming, this is actually rather an interesting dungeon. It is diverse and has plenty to offer by way of challenges, only really lacking a dynamic and adaptable outlook to get the best out of. A significant shortcoming by any stretch of the imagination, but hardly an insurmountable one. Whether the rat king escapes or is defeated, there are many potential plot strands left intentionally unresolved for future development, and which can be used to tie the series into the larger campaign milieu, such as Áereth or some other suitable swords & sorcery setting.

Technicalities and Errors

Conversion work is a double edged sword; editing errors in the original are usually spotted and removed, but substantial changes always run the risk of introducing new mistakes into the text. I did not spot a great many of these, but there are some, such as the notation “Ftr5/Th6/Brd3” appearing at location 2-3 on the Encounter Table on page three, or the assertion on pages twelve and forty-two that some of the wererats have a “giant fat form”, which gave me a chuckle. A less obvious error is the accidental conflating of Silverton with Soulgrave on page twenty seven, the former of which is unlikely to have much of a slave market for its own citizens. In keeping with a great many other modules, terms such as “long sword” are treated inconsistently, occasionally being rendered as “longsword”. There is also a noticeable tendency for repeat words to crop up in the writing here and there, which is a little disconcerting, and could have probably used another editorial pass.

Some of the background material was rewritten to improve cohesiveness, which is by and large an improvement on the original. However, some strangeness has resulted from some of the changes, such as the mention of a goblin shaman on page five, who no longer features in the adventure, all the goblin clerics having been converted to humans. Similarly, the half-orcs in area 2-2 fight with “suicidal devotion” because their slaves are at stake, which made more sense in the original when it was their dependents at stake. There is also the illustration on page sixteen, which depicts the original bespectacled goblin wizard in area 2-21, rather than the human magician of the conversion. More annoyingly, the title page illustration shows a crowned wererat sat upon a wooden throne, flanked by two vicious looking goblin types bearing spears; this can only be the bandit chief from area 2-18, whose goblin bodyguards have been replaced with humans. It would have been no trouble at all to have made these half-orcs, not even their hit dice would needed to have been changed.

With regards to the technical rendering of statistics, I found the notation for hit dice less than one to be unnecessarily baroque. For instance, goblin and giant rat hit die are presented in the form “HD 1-7 Hit Points” and “HD 1-4 Hit Points” respectively, which contrasts with the more concise “HD ¼, HP 1-2” used for normal rats. These would have been better rendered as “HD 1-1, HP 1-7” and “HD ½, HP 1-4” for the sake of consistency. In a similar vein, when class level is indicated, providing hit die type and number is redundant, as class type and level supersede this notation for the purposes of determining saving throws, to hit numbers, and life energy levels.

I also thought that the wererat and rat king statistics could have been briefer, more along the lines of those used for Marcus Gannu in fact, and that the ogre zombie and skeleton statistics could have done with another edit, but it is hard to say for sure as they are listed as new monsters. For the most part, excellent use is made of hit die advancement as an alternative to advancement by level and class for non player characters and monsters, but there are also occasional lapses. Most of these appear to be simple editing errors, such as the hobgoblin slavers on pages forty-three and fifty, who are listed as “Ftr1” and having “HD 1+1”, or the notable villagers of Silverton, who are variously listed as “Expert5” or “Commoner2”. The half-orc slavers in Revenge of the Rat King are a different matter, as their hit die notation shows that they were intended to be first level fighters; my complaint with regard to this is that it actually makes them weaker in terms of offensive strength than the half-orc bandits in Idylls of the Rat King, which I do not think was intended.

In terms of further minutia, the notations used for damage are often inconsistent. For instance, on pages thirty-one and thirty-two, Cedric the cleric/magician has the damage notation “2-5+1”, which should more reasonably read as “3-6” or if complete clarity is desired “1d4+2”, whilst Marcus Gannu and the bandit leader have their damage ranges listed as though using normal weapons, though both bear magical blades that should show the notations “2-9 and 2-7” or “1d8+1 and 1d6+1” respectively. It is also worth noting that whilst the rat king is listed with a rapier +2 and his minions with mundane equivalents, the weapon does not appear in the first edition rulebooks and so lacks any extant weapon versus armour modifiers; they could have been replaced with scimitars, as was done with the Tower of the Black Pearl, but this would have contradicted the cover art.


There is a lot to like about Saga of the Rat King; the production values are high, the aesthetic appealing, and the writing is good. The content is a bit variable in places, but generally strong, especially with regard to the individual set pieces; I particularly liked the encounter with the demon summoning cleric at the start of the sewers of the slavers, for instance. The conversion work has been handled skilfully and with obvious practical and theoretical knowledge of how to get the best out of first edition. I very much appreciated the open approach taken toward task resolution and willingness to present variations on the default statistics for characters and monsters.

Where I felt the compilation was at its weakest was in some of the things it carried over from the original adventures. I would have liked to have seen a greater degree of the text reworked in a way that facilitated more dynamic and less static activity on the parts of the monsters and characters arrayed against the adventurers. However, I also recognise that there is only so much that can be done with this sort of project before the adventure ceases to be recognisable as a conversion.

This is a solid first edition conversion that will make for several entertaining sessions of play, either as part of a longer campaign or within their own context. The additional material that has been included is all to the good of the whole, and the presentation is both functional and pleasing. I think I would have preferred as the cover illustration the despoiled rat idol to the rapier wielding rat king, but that is no doubt a subjective preference. The conversion work is a significant improvement over the offerings of previous years, and the content is comparable in terms of quality. Overall, I was very satisfied with this product.

Alternative Reviews: None