Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Review - Dungeon Crawl Classics #86: The Hole In The Sky

I decided to write up a review of this adventure, because I recently got into a forum conversation about it, and more shockingly, I actually had a chance to run it from start to finish.  How often does that happen?  Anyway, I'll spoil the review from the outset: it was a blast.  

I'll break the review into two sections: a spoil-free recommendation, and GM recommendations.  This way, if you just want to know if you'll like it, without ruining anything, just read the first section.  If you want to know enough to make an informed decision as a GM without regard for spoilers, read the second.  

Preamble complete!

Part the First - Spoil-Free Recommendation

The Hole In The Sky is a zero-level adventure written by Brendan LaSalle, and published by Goodman Games, the publisher of DCC itself.  In case DCC is new to you, one of the many things that sets it apart from its other FRPG kin is the idea of 'The Funnel'.  

The Funnel embodies the notion that PCs don't start at level one - they start at level zero!  Players get to control up to four characters in a funnel adventure, which is good, because level-zero characters die like flies even under the best of conditions.  The Funnel is so named because it enforces natural selection, culling inadequate or unlucky characters before the player develops an attachment.

Anyway, like I said, The Hole In The Sky is a funnel adventure, and this was my first time game-mastering this kind of experience.  In retrospect, not only do I think that this is a terrific adventure, but I'm sold on the concept of The Funnel.  Perhaps better than anything, it prepares players for the idea that life is cheap in a good game of DCC.

The Hole In The Sky doesn't disappoint in this regard.  We saw five players with twenty characters answer the calling, but only about half of them returned.  One player was completely wiped out, while another player managed to keep all his characters alive through acts of heroic cowardice.  For what I was trying to achieve, that felt like a good balance.

What about the adventure itself?  Well, in this section, I don't want to give too much away.  I'll first say that it's gonzo in the best of the OSR tradition, like many other recent works by Goodman Games.  Like a lot of the other DCC adventures, it doesn't take place on a huge and complicated map.  Instead, it consists of a few big set pieces set in a pretty simple architecture.

Still, that didn't stop the players from really exploring the space.  DCC adventures have shown me that it's far more important to pack ten super-memorable encounters across twelve rooms, rather than twenty fairly-memorable encounters across forty rooms.

The adventure has a lot of great color, and the resolution offers PCs a prize which is well-conceived for a zero-level adventure like this one.  My players all enjoyed the absolute mayhem that a good DCC experience brings to the table.  Even the guy who was wiped out was a good spirit about it.  He didn't roll up any good characters, anyway, so it will turn out to be a boon.

Still with me?  Read on if you want to know more details, so you can decide if you want to run this for your group.

Part the Second - GM Recommendation

There several things that make The Hole In The Sky a great introduction to a DCC campaign.  First of all, like I said, the difficulty level is about right for a zero-level DCC adventure (i.e. Funnel).  Most players should end the game with at least one surviving character.

And that's a great thing, because of the second thing that I love about The Hole In The Sky, which is the ending.  At the end of this adventure, if the party succeeded in their quest, each surviving character gets a spin on the Wheel of Fate.  The game effect of this is that it allows the player to re-roll or straight-up change certain aspects of his or her character.  This addresses some of the concerns the players may ordinarily have about starting characters in DCC, who are very much at the mercy of the dice.

As for the adventure itself, it's a cracker.  The hook's a bit arbitrary, but why not?  Let's get the ball rolling, this adventure seems to say.  Basically, all the characters have been having dreams that they are destined for something bigger, and in Close Encounters of the Third Kind fashion, they are drawn to a wind-swept cliff by dreams of a beautiful woman in blue.  Once there, this Lady in Blue (with the stone head of a statue and a handful of severed heads) charges the characters with retrieving her ally from a prison in a pocket dimension.  And off they go.

Right off the bat, LaSalle has a group of peasants walking for days across an invisible bridge, to jump through a portal into pocket universe.  DCC doesn't hold back.  There is at least one combat encounter en route, and the possibility of a few wandering monsters, on the way to the prison itself.  Without going into detail, the prison itself is a large single set-piece, although there are some separate areas.

The design of the prison is just about perfect.  The players are immediately hit with the problem of getting past two different monsters, one of which could wipe out half of them in one big melee, the other of which could easily kill them all.  Without going into detail, there's enough going on in one interconnected space that unpredictable mayhem is pretty much guaranteed to ensue.

In addition to being a finely paced and balanced set of encounters, this adventure is also chock with atmosphere.  The Lady in Blue and her imprisoned compatriot are creepy and worrisome without being actively antagonistic.  The invisible bridge and pocket dimension are weird and alien, the kinds of locations that make players realize that the rules are out the window and they're going to have to learn to get a feel for the new order.  

That's similar to what the OSR community talks about with the idea of the Mythical Underworld.  It's that kind of experience where the players feel a clean break from the mundane world and the normal rules that govern existence, and they are thrust into a situation where the unreal is possible.  The Hole In The Sky shows that this line doesn't have to be drawn specifically between the subterranean and the above-ground worlds - an invisible bridge can do very nicely, thank you.

Anyway, if you can't guess, I highly recommend The Hole In The Sky as a starting adventure for your DCC campaign.  It's pretty compact, but it's got all the elements of what you'd want out of an introduction to Appendix N adventuring.  But The Hole In The Sky isn't just a pretty face - it's also a finely balanced machine, that does a great job of keeping things moving, and bringing that high-grade chaos that you can only get from tabletop role-playing.

My group of five players was able to complete it in about eight hours of play, so it's a little long for a tournament - probably 1-2 game sessions, depending on your stamina.  I'd say that it's well-suited not just to inexperienced players, but also inexperienced judges.  Thus, I say to you with no reservations: go buy this and have fun!

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