Monday, September 4, 2017

Review: Hole in the Sky (DCC RPG)

A long-running campaign session set for the weekend was cancelled, so once again it was Dungeon Crawl Classics to the rescue. I had purchased the module Hole in the Sky a number of weeks ago and read through it for just this moment. For the uninitiated, Dungeon Crawl Classics is a tabletop roleplaying game designed in the OSR (old school revival) tradition, intended to evoke the feeling of tabletop gaming as it was in its origin back in the 1970s.

Hole in the Sky is a level-0 funnel. What this means is the players roll up between 16 to 24 level-0 characters, farmers and commonfolk, who are called to action in an attempt to earn fame and fortune. Chance of success is minimal and the death toll is high.

The adventure starts as the players receive messages in their dreams from an entity known as the Lady in Blue. She summons them to a feast she has prepared for them overlooking the ocean. Not the most appealing patron, as she holds a number of severed heads which do the talking for her and her welcome dinner appears to be maggot-ridden and spoiled. Her request of the players is to rescue an ally of hers from its extradimensional prison, and in doing so she will grant the commonfolk a chance to "change their stars" by spinning the Wheel of Destiny (it would definitely be appropriate to have one of the severed heads be Pat Sajak).

The introduction is very box-text heavy, which normally I would not be a fan of but for the purposes of this adventure it is fine. Level-0 funnels require some suspension of disbelief for the players to buy-in to its conceit, and the intro sort helps facilitate that there is no alternative. This lady clearly isn't right, and the characters should recognize pretty quickly that if they don't do as she says they might find themselves added to the decapitated head bouquet. One suggestion to any GMs looking to run this adventure would be to perhaps have the Lady in Blue to foreshadow some of the threats that the players might face (such as Cur Maxima). Little tips or hints from the Lady in Blue may provide reassurance that she can be trusted since the welcome dinner doesn't exactly inspire such confidence.

"Peter Pumpkinhead came to town..."

To get to the extradimensional prison, the players must cross an invisible bridge that spans over the ocean. I think it is a very interesting element included as the players must begin this adventure by electing someone to be the one to check the Blue Lady's sincerity about the existence of an invisible road. Since there's already an expectation of a heavy death toll, everyone is anticipating that there is a catch. After discovering how to get onto the bridge, they must make a three day journey over the sea. Also of entertainment value are all of the dangers that the players came up with that I, as a GM, had not even considered. With no landmarks to assist with navigation, how can they be assured which way is straight? How will they find their way back after the adventure is over? Such is the power of the players to add details to the narrative.

Once they reach the end of the bridge, they find the hole in the sky which takes them to the prison. The entire prison-lair is absolutely linear. Unlike the Portal Under the Stars, there is not a mini-dungeon of multiple paths to take, so it basically ends up as an adventure on the rails. The positive of this is that it helps the GM to regulate the death-count a bit more predictably so that there is a good chance of survivors at the end. For instance, if the players suffer a lot of casualties on the way to the prison its easy enough to remove some of the threats along the way to keep the adventure alive. The addition of a homicidal pumpkin-monster named Cur Maxima also assists with the alternative problem of potentially not enough challenge (who am I kidding? That NEVER happens!). The negative of all of this is it may create a feeling for the players that the whole thing is kind of contrived and that they don't have enough choices to create a conclusion of their own making.

One of the tough things about the funnel adventures for me has been that I rarely have more than four players, and its a bit unwieldy to have them control 24 characters at a time. In this case it becomes a balance of trying to bring replacement characters into the adventure to replace the fallen without it being too contrived. The players need to have enough characters in play to ensure they can confront challenges, but you also don't want them to possess too many that it is overwhelming or unmanageable. Fortunately, the module is built under the premise that the Lady in Blue has sent many would-be adventurers to the prison in the past, so it is very easy to have a new level-0 character pop up during the course of the adventure to replace the fallen. This worked quite nicely in our play through, and in the end everyone had a single character that survived.

One of my favorite things about the DCC modules is the visually evocative maps they include. Many roleplaying game modules have scenarios or locations that go a little over-the-top with their method of written description, which can be frustrating for players and GMs alike. The inclusion of these maps helps the GM to feel confidence in the accuracy of the descriptions they are communicating to players.

These maps stand on their own as art in the zany DCC-style.

When the heroes achieve their objective and return to the Lady in Blue, they are indeed rewarded with a chance to change their stars. They are presented with the Wheel of Destiny and are able to roll to potentially change aspects of their character. This could be ability score changes, new birth signs, new race, new profession, etc. - an exciting end to a level-0 funnel where the characters were generated by completely random means. It is especially welcomed with excitement from the character that realizes they survived with a dwarf who has a strength score of 4. As the heroes begin to understand that actions they took during the adventure modify their spin on the wheel, it helps to lessen the feeling that their choices didn't matter and ends the adventure on a positive note.

Final Thoughts

The pacing of the adventure is very well-done and there is not a dull moment. They get the hook right up-front, go on a multi-day journey and find themselves crawling through a linear dungeon towards their end goal with a huge reward at the end. The incentive at the conclusion will likely make this a level-0 funnel I will go to often for new players. It is easily run in less than 4 hours. For players who have never experienced DCC before, Hole in the Sky is going to be a memorable trip to an exotic environment and quirky opponents that are both terrifying and humorous. If you want to get your players to beg for more DCC, Hole in the Sky is a great way to lay the bread crumbs to make that happen.

Feel free to check out our actual play on YouTube HERE!

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