Warning: This post contains spoilers for Sailors on the Starless Sea
So, I gathered a group of players together to help me prep for Free RPG Day (using Harley Stroh’s impressive The Jeweller Who Dealt in Stardust, part of Goodman Games’ Free RPG Day module for 2012). From there, I convinced them to try a 0-level funnel adventure (Sailors on the Starless Sea, also by Harley Stroh). My love for the DCC game waxing strongly, I had to convince these guys that Joseph Goodman & crew are better game designers than I am; to wit, to switch to DCC from the Savage Tide arc I was running using my own fantasy heartbreaker, RCFG.
Of some value in this endeavour was that I had previously played The Portal Under the Stars using the Beta Playtest with my older daughter and son, and they had enjoyed it. My daughter hadn’t played the more complex-running RCFG campaign, and didn’t care for any of the other games (including retroclones) that I had convinced her to try. However, she was willing to play DCC again, and, moreover, she invited one of her friends to join in. In my books, that is a massive win for DCC.
So, the game began with five players, each of whom was allowed to generate four characters. Of the players, only my son was really “in the know” about how to create 0-lvl characters in DCC, my daughter had relatively little RPG experience, and her friend had none whatsoever. Character creation, however, was fun, and didn’t seem to take all that long. It is really fun to hear players excited over high stats, and groan over low stats, again. The synthesis of random elements also generates characters that seem to be individuals. Non-human characters, being less common, and not being there simply for the choosing, become interesting again. Also, as most characters are human, players learn to fear the dark once more. Torches and lanterns become important.
Following the module text, I passed out five rumours, one known to each group of four characters. I gave them their background, and then set them at the south end of the map, facing the keep. I created a sort of sketch map to give them an idea what they faced.
Naturally, they went up the causeway toward the front gate, and were disconcerted when the shuffling corpses of the blacksmith’s sons, animated by vile tendrils, dislodged themselves from where they hung, and attacked them. The first casualties occurred right there. But two creatures vs. 20 characters, however ill-trained and ill-equipped they might be, are odds that favour the mob. Losses were minimal. I was lucky enough to have a blacksmith in my group, so the blacksmith’s sons detail was appreciated.
One of the things I really like about DCC is the emphasis on cool effects that can happen when creatures die – in this case, an explosion of seeds that can infect nearby corpses. You can do this with other games, of course, but the DCC book actually calls out including effects rather than just a simple death as being a good idea. And it really is. The PCs actually tried to clear the seeds off the causeway, dumping them to either side (coincidently, where they deposited their own dead!) and proceeded up the causeway to the gate.
As per the module, the beastmen above try to catch PCs when they pass under the portcullis. In fact, only one PC initially does so, but he manages to evade the falling gate, and is trapped on the wrong side. A gong is sounded, and he hears footfalls running above to the ruined tower where the beastmen are set to make their stand. The group is therefore given time to pass through the portal, and gets into the interior of the keep, a grassy expanse with a gigantic sinkhole, an ominous well, a tower, and sinister-looking building that is barred from the outside and has the word “repent” scrawled across it.
For some reason, the players are oddly attracted to the well. Gazing down to see how deep it is, a character almost falls in, because perspectives shift. One of the farmers has a duck, and, tying the duck to a rope, they repeatedly put it down the well. It comes back up more and more changed. As they repeatedly do so, I call for several saves to see if the perspective shift drops a would-be duck-dunker into the well, but no luck. Or too much luck. No one falls in. The duck is horribly mutated, but luckily also asleep with its lidless eyes open in its featherless spiny black skin. They have to carry the now corpulently obese 50+ lb. duck with them, or leave it here, and they choose to carry it.
Nobody wants to breach the door that is barred from their side – the building seems like a bad idea – so they turn to the tower. There are the tracks of many beastmen heading into it and out. But, despite very minimal losses thus far, they are hesitant to try the door, and this is where we leave it that night.
Our average game session runs between 2-4 hours, with a 3 hour game being about average. There were a lot of rules questions the first time out, especially with character creation. Although there were few actual “happenings” in the first session, there was a lot of discussion, a lot of joking, and a lot of tension. That the players felt their characters were frail, despite their relatively few losses, was quite clear. The well, as I mentioned above, also ate up more session time than expected.
At this time, the characters are all named, but I don’t require alignments be chosen until the character is ready for 1st level. Prior to that, the characters are simply too insignificant to matter much to the greater powers of Law and Chaos.
I was very happy to have my older daughter now choosing to play on a regular basis, in part because her friend was very enthusiastic about the game (she was the duck farmer!). At this point, the players seemed to feel that their characters were very insignificant in the world. Certainly, they were hesitant about what to do next. There was no clear indication (yet) who our “band” would be. Our mass of peasants, yeomen, and ne-er-do-wells was largely an undifferentiated mob.
But that would change in the next session.