Sunday, October 2, 2016

Review - Dungeon Crawl Classics #91: Journey to the Center of Aereth

When I read about the appearance of this adventure at this year's Gencon, I was very intrigued.  Right off the bat, the bullet points for Journey to the Center of Aereth sound like a checklist for a no-fail Appendix N extravaganza.  Just check out the blurb:

The stories have reached you: A world beneath our own, lit by a brilliant sun and ruled by sages beyond reproach, where magic has replaced the spoken word, the weakest slave is like unto a superman, and the domes gleam with hammered gold.

You’ve spilled enough blood to know better.

Your trek to discover the truth will take you through endless caverns, ancient causeways and along unknown rivers. An expedition worthy of true explorers, Journey to the Center of Áereth offers characters the adventure of a lifetime – or the means to a quick doom. The Journey awaits!

Did I mention that it's a level four adventure written by Harley Stroh?  I think that last bit is pretty important.  The consensus is that Mr. Stroh's contributions to the latest generation of DCC adventures are brilliant, and the consensus is right on this one.

But what about Journey?  Does it meet these lofty expectations?

Yes it does.  Be aware that I haven't had a chance to run this one yet, and there's no way that I'll be able to do so for a while (level four is pretty high in DCC, and my current group is just starting out).  Full disclosure: at the time I'm writing this, I've barely had it for two days.  

So I can understand anyone who thinks that I might be speaking prematurely.  I am.  I haven't had time to fully absorb and understand Journey to the Center of Aereth's virtues.  But I still feel comfortable recommending it to a prospective DCC GM (of a fourth-level party), because I feel that my opinion of it can only grow as I spend more time with it.

With these qualifications in mind, I'll just proceed to discuss what I like about this adventure, and what I consider to be its (very modest) shortcomings.   In my usual fashion, I'll start by avoiding spoilers, and let you know when I'm transitioning to a more open discussion.

The idea of weird and alien underground civilizations are a staple of Appendix N fiction, as well as fantasy role-playing.  It's a very evocative setting.  There's something very mysterious and strange about the underground environment, a literal darkness so powerful that it becomes figurative, which invites the most lurid imaginings.  This is related to the OSR concept of the Mythic Underworld, although they are not exactly the same thing.

Journey is exploding with wonderful atmosphere, with tons of memorable encounters.  The adventure is long and very dangerous, with plenty of ways that a character can be instantly killed (lethal falls are probably the most common way this can happen).  

There are also all kinds of great loot that the party can pick up.  Thankfully, treasure in Journey to the Center of Aereth is highly individualized, in terms of rewards both magical and financial.  I spotted a negligible number of "Item +X's," but this is heavily counterbalanced by all the cool loot that adventurers can get their mitts on.

As with most DCC adventures, possible hooks are listed in a pretty half-hearted way.  I think that this is entirely acceptable since, as a GM, I am going to want to find a way to fit the adventure into my campaign.  A few suggestions are fine, but it's probably not even necessary in most cases.  

For Journey to the Center of Aereth, the story is basically that there are legends of an advanced underground civilization of great wealth and wisdom.  Do you need much more than that?  Presumably, the adventurers learn that this underworld can be entered via a certain ruins stranded out in the wilderness.  Or maybe they just run across it while trekking through the wilderness, if the GM knows his or her players are the curious types.

Anyway, as one might expect, things are more complicated than the rumors, and most of the adventure is about just getting to the outposts of the Aghartans (i.e. the underground civilization).  The titular journey plays out mostly as a pointcrawl through underground passages and caves.  There are multiple routes, and plenty of dangers and wonders along the way.

One thing that I'd like to stress is that these encounters are really well-designed.  Although, as I've mentioned, there's a lot of lethal stuff in Journey, there are also a lot of situations with potential for interesting less-than-lethal interactions between parties.  Not all NPCs will want to outright kill or eat the PCs, and some could even prove to be valuable allies.  These encounters present varied challenges and dilemmas, and combined with the danger and the bizarre environment, players will be kept on their toes throughout the entirety of Journey to the Center of Aereth.

I'm not quite done with the non-spoiler section; I promised that I'd mention Journey's small but extant flaws.  It's probably the best kind of shortcoming that a work like this could have: I really wish there was more.  The map is full of locations where the GM will need to fill in the blanks.  The text is quite explicit about this.  That's in and of itself is fine and perhaps unavoidable for a work of this scope...except for two things.

First of all, this isn't really a singular adventure; it's a setting.  And a damn great one, but it's not just an adventure.  Journey to the Center of Aereth alone, if the players happen to stick to the script, is a pretty long adventure, easily taking a dozen sessions to complete.  When you consider how easy it is for PCs to stray off this path and require a lot of blanks to be filled in, then you realize that "adventure" just doesn't cut it.

So the labeling is a little misleading.  And while there's always going to be spots the GM will need to fill in for any setting, if Journey had gotten the same treatment as , say, Purple Planet or Chained Coffin, then I'd be a little happier.  

Of course, we already know that more material is coming for this mini-setting; The Lost City of Barako has already been announced (and the hardcopy is in fact available for mail order).  So my hunger may soon be sated.  Again, this is probably the criticism that you want to hear.

Summary: Another classic by Stroh for DCC!

OK, that's it with the spoil-free section.  Those of you who expect to potentially play through this adventure, or folks who just like to be really surprised, should stop reading here.

Still with me?  Great.  Now that I can speak candidly, I want to give examples of some of the things that were particularly atmospheric, and some of the encounters that were just well-crafted set-pieces.


  • In the ruins on the surface where the PCs find the entrance to the underworld, degenerate descendants of the slaves from beneath the earth have sealed a hall that ends in a small altar.  The seals aren't chains or doors; instead, making use of the fact that these ruins are in a arctic wasteland, they are hides, stiffened with ice, and warded with barbaric runes.
  • An imprisoned demon is charged with barring the way against trespassers. It has the power to animate the stone gargoyle statues in its vicinity.  It doesn't actually enjoy its assignment, craving freedom more than anything, and it will do what it can within the restrictions of its binding to help the party free it.  If freed, it will actually secretly follow the adventurers to help them, focusing on Lawful characters, so as to put them in its debt.
  • There's a wonderful little "lost world crevasse" that can be crossed by wrangling pteranodons, or facing the raging tyrannosaurs in crossing of the jungle valley.  Sure it's a cliche, but it's the right kind of cliche, executed the right way.
  • The cities of Agharta are ruled by bloated elephant-men who use their potent psychic powers to command armies of slave giants.  These cities are situated on the coast of a great black underground ocean, full of monstrous leviathans.
  • The sealed altar in the ruined city, mentioned above, is a great example. The traps are tough but avoidable, and if they all trigger in sequence, the result is amplified: a blast of cold will freeze the character in-place in ankle-deep water, making it impossible for them to evade the next blast. And the treasure itself is well-conceived: a super-sharp blade that originates from the Aghartan cities below.  Instead of some boring +X mechanic, Aghartan blades do +1d damage.  That's a great change of pace.  Removing the sword risks collapsing the ceiling in the hallway, forcing the players to come up with an innovative solution (or running down a collapsing hallway Indiana Jones style).
  • The gate to the underworld is guarded by titans of flame and wave.  That in itself is not so unusual, but when defeated, each titan drops a gem.  These gems can be incorporated into a wizard's staff to provide additional bonuses for fire and water spells.  That's another clever idea for a treasure. In another location, the party may discover barrels of fine wine; a valuable treasure, but exceptionally hard to carry.  However, the underground introduces an interesting mechanic, where characters are effectively stronger the deeper they go (supposedly due to the weakening pull of gravity).  This makes it tempting to try to loot even more treasure from the underground, but as one leaves the underworld, such treasure becomes progressively harder to haul.  What a wonderfully frustrating mechanic!
  • Another great treasure: throughout an underground lake, one may encounter enormous rune-covered pillars that stretch from the bottom of the lake to the cave ceiling far above.  Upon close inspection, its turns out that the runes comprise the instructions on how to cast a spell, one per pillar.  It would take innumerable days for a man to fully decode the runes on a single pillar, but this is exactly the thing that could motivate return trips for the party wizard.
  • One of the wandering encounters on the way to the lost cities has the party being harassed by a band of Man Bats.  These creatures won't try to kill them so much as kidnap one character, and use him to ransom some "shiny objects" from the rest of the party.  If the PCs pay the ransom, they will face continual harassment of this sort.  That's a great example of a not-strictly-lethal encounter that has a lot of interesting role-playing and tactical considerations.
I could go on and on, but even in the pro-spoiler section, there's such a thing as too much.  I think these paint a pretty representative picture; Journey to the Center of Aereth dives deep into the gonzo territory of Appendix N such that it freely indulges in cliche.  This is not a shortcoming, however, because it does so knowingly and highly capably, crafting excellent encounters and considerations for any PC who accepts the challenge.

Really, if you're a GM for DCC, there's no reason not to pick this up when you get a chance.  Even if your PCs aren't high enough level, with stuff like this, it's not a bad idea to start your foreshadowing ahead of time.  It will make it all the more epic when your players finally take that Journey to the Center of Aereth.

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