This is the first regular module for Dungeon Crawl Classics that I owned, as it came with the core rulebook I pre-ordered. It was attached to the core rulebook with those little gummy bits that publishers sometimes used. Sometimes this gummy stuff is hard to remove, or it stains the pages it was attached to. In this case, the publisher used the right amount of the right gummy stuff to avoid both of these problems.
Doom of the Savage Kings is a 1st level adventure by Harley Stroh. If you’ve been reading my blog, you will hopefully have noticed that I am a big fan of Harley Stroh’s work. Doom of the Savage Kings is an exceptional module, but it is no exception to the general quality of Harley’s work. From here on in, there be spoilers, so you have been warned. If you are going to be a player in this module, I urge you not to read any further. This is a great module, and you will only damage your own enjoyment of it.
The basic scenario of Doom of the Savage Kings models the epic poem, Beowulf. A monster has arisen in the moorlands, and it threatens the doomed village of Hirot. Beyond the general structure, though, the module goes in unexpected directions. The monster is an enormous demonic Hound, which should recall The Hound of the Baskervilles – so much so that I chose not to use the cover illustration to define the Hound’s appearance to my players.
Unlike Beowulf, the local noble-in-charge, the Jarl, doesn’t want the PCs to interfere, and he is ready to go to great lengths to prevent their involvement. Harley Stroh seems to have a good idea of what is going to happen at the average game table, and to have a good grasp of how players think. He uses the potential rumours in the module to sow misinformation in a way that makes play more entertaining, because some of the rumours build on common rpg tropes. For instance, many groups come to believe that the Jarl, or his sorcerer, is responsible for the Hound. Misdirection keeps the Hound mysterious until a final showdown.
For those who have read Beowulf, there are three other strong echoes to the epic poem.
The first is the strong sense of Christianity impinging on the pagan world that infuses Beowulf. In Doom of the Savage Kings, there is a strong clerical presence that harkens to the self-abasement and mortification of early Christendom. As with the epic poem, it can be used to contrast with the pagan elements of the relatively primitive village (including a witch, the Jarl’s sorcerer, and the monolithic stones at which sacrifices are left for the Hound).
The second is the Serpent Mound, which is also strongly pagan, and is both contrasted to and comparative with the village of Hirot in many ways. The Serpent Mound, of course, echoes the dragon in Beowulf, and does so successfully with several strong thematic elements, such as a water serpent, some truly nasty (and fun!) tomb ghouls, and thousands of shed snakeskins covering the floor of one chamber. The Serpent Mound also has one of the best trap encounters that I’ve ever read.
Finally, the moor where the Hound makes its home is strongly reminiscent of the lair of Grendel and his Mother in the epic poem. The Black Pool is an excellent location that fits very well with the magic system of the game, and the mood of the module.
In the past, I had suggested that DCC really needs a semi-sandbox module to demonstrate what the game is capable of. I feel that Harley Stroh has managed this very well with Doom of the Savage Kings. If you didn’t pre-order the Dungeon Crawl Classics rpg, and you cannot find a pre-ordered copy in your friendly neighbourhood gaming store, it is worth your while to seek this one out on ebay or elsewhere.
I’m going to talk a bit about my own experiences with this module.
In my home game, this was run for a group of players as a follow-up to Sailors on the Starless Sea. The characters were drawn to Hirot specifically to seek out the witch Ymae, as one player was told that she might help him discover the properties of a ring found in Sailors. I had the party travel a few days up into the mountains, and had them deal with wolves – not so much as combat encounters, but to make sure that they felt that the wilderness was dangerous, and to reinforce the themes of the upcoming module. Joseph Goodman makes a good case for making inns and other waystops desirable in campaign play, and I wanted to make sure that the players were not wholly complacent about camping out. I also made sure to mention their being followed by croaking ravens.
The players arrived near Hirot just in time to witness a sacrifice being led to the standing stones, as per the module. My players are still somewhat used to games where they can successfully challenge anything they encounter, and it took them a few moments to realize that the Jarl and his Thegns were capable of simply riding them down. Needless to say, antagonism was created almost instantly.
(In a module of this type, one of the first questions to arise is “Why don’t we just go to the authorities for extra provisions/aid/money…or even let them take care of it?” Harley Stroh wisely answers this question right from the first encounter. It didn’t stop my players from trying, but at least the Jarl’s rebuffs were consistent with their expectations.)
That first encounter with the Hound was actually resolved pretty easily by the PCs. There was an OSR (Oh Shit, Run!) moment where one PC fled, but the other PCs then resolved the encounter, and made a bit of light sport over the runner. This was something I enjoyed.
The runner, played by my son, noted that the Hound was not dead. The group had experience with vampires in a different game, and he was quick to note that if it turns into gas and boils away, it is going to come back later. He was, of course, right.
This group is pretty proactive, so after realizing that no help is coming from the Jarl, they explore the town a bit. They hear some rumours, and discover the flophouse, wherein they get an idea of where to find the Serpent Mound. The one PC has a chat with the Mad Widow Ymae, and goes out very impressed. They head out for the Serpent Mound.
The Serpent Mound is a very cool mini-dungeon, that rewards thought over blundering in. I don’t want to talk too much about the individual encounters, but the players had fun with it. The one death that occurred was due to the aforementioned trap, and, because the area was sealed off, the PCs were able to express some pity when the dead character began scratching at the stones. At least they had little to fear from him! The players missed some cool magic items because they used detect magic instead of investigation, and their spell was blocked by stone.
Leaving the Serpent Mound, they were ambushed by Iraco and his huntsmen. The players were very casual about leaving, so I just decided that they were surprised. The arrows flew swiftly, and with deadly force. Players complained that they weren’t allowed to roll to see if they were surprised. I shrugged and said “Too Bad”. Then, when battle was joined, one of the PC warriors used a Mighty Deed to knock Iraco prone, and the party was able to slay him. Two huntsmen rode off to warn the Jarl, and the others surrendered.
Now, having read other people’s play-throughs of Doom of the Savage Kings, I decided to let the Hound use hit-and-run tactics on the PCs. The players actually thought camping out near the river was a good idea, and it was there that the Hound found them. Creating magical darkness, the Hound attacked, wounding a few, and being wounded in return, and then left the PCs for Hirot, where it killed a few folk. Meanwhile, blundering about in the darkness, one of the PCs rode down one of the captured huntsmen, another fell into the river, and yet a third fumbled Ekim’s Mystical Mask and her face disappeared! She failed her save, and passed out, only to be found when the darkness passed.
Of course, the PCs expect that they are going to confront the Jarl, when instead the Jarl confronts them. They have brought this doom to Hirot by interfering with the sacrifices, and there must be another tonight. He brushes aside their accusations, and warns them that if they continue their slander he will deal with them harshly. They hold a lottery to see who the next victim will be – and it is the mouthy Wizard who first urged the party to come to Hirot to seek out the witch. He is allowed no weapons, and his companions are prevented from going to his aid.
Now, the funny thing is, this Chaotic Wizard is played by my son. He’s the one who had the OSR moment, who rode down the NPC, and who has generally been trying to move behind the scenes to his own benefit. He manages to hide a dagger in his sleeve, and is able to cut his bonds, but he is otherwise alone when the Hound comes.
Imagine the scene – the misty land. The standing stones. The Hound appearing out of the darkness with lambent green eyes. The Wizard, alone, knowing full well that this is a foe beyond him. At this point, too, the others still have some back-up characters from their 0-level funnel, but this is my son’s last character, and, if he should fall, he is back down to starting anew. Because he knows I will make him start anew. And because he knows I will roll the dice in the open and let them fall where they may.
Now, I have rolled 1d5 to see how many rounds the Hound spends with the Wizard before going back to Hirot to kill some villagers. Specifically, the Hound will end up killing the surviving huntsmen and the leatherworker. Why? Because they were close to the PCs in some way. Earlier, I had the Hound kill three of the thieves at the flophouse for the same reason. So, I know that the Wizard needs to survive three rounds (unlikely!) and the players do not.
Initiative is rolled. The Wizard gets to go first! In desperation, he attempts to cast Magic Shield, because his mercurial magic causes the spell to harm the nearest living thing, and he hopes (1) it will protect him, and (2) it will harm the Hound. He rolled well on his Initiative, but, when it comes to the spell check, a natural “1” is rolled. The table groans, knowing that the Wizard is doomed.
But, following through with the magic system, a roll is made. Misfire. Another roll is made. “Caster completely encases himself in a shield that blocks all attacks, damage, spells, and physical contact between him and the rest of the world, such that he is completely encased in a transparent bubble which renders him invulnerable to attack but also unable to move or communicate outside the bubble for 1d4 rounds.” How many rounds? 3.
Then my son: “Luckiest. Misfire. Ever.”
Is that more of an endorsement for the system or for the module? I honestly cannot say. But I do know this: Doom of the Savage Kings is one of the best modules I’ve ever had the joy of running. I sincerely hope you will have a chance to get your hands on a copy, if you haven’t done so already.