I already talked about Black Boar in in the first entry of this series. Since then I have gone through 10 or so adventures for DSA and it turns out my view on this module has evolved. Not evolved enough to properly change my evaluation of the scenario, but I did realize what Werner Fuchs was trying to do with it. And I think he put more thought into it than I gave him credit for.
The adventure is a beginner scenario in every sense of the word. People who have been playing longer sometimes forget that, especially when they come across this legendary adventure (it is after all the first for DSA) and then notice that it is kind of meh.
But that’s ok, because what the adventure tries to do is getting people with NO ROLEPLAYING EXPERIENCE WHATSOEVER into experiencing the hobby.
And that’s why this actually is better than I thought.
Yes, the dungeon is bad.
Yes, the heroes get railroaded into the dungeon.
Yes, there is a weird assortment of enemies to deal with.
But that’s not the point. The point is to teach both players and GMs how this whole game works.
You start with basically a read aloud story. Then you get to the Inn. Only here you actually make your characters. Don’t worry about equipment because you are going to lose it immediately. You just need the stats and DSA1 chargen was simple enough for elementary schoolers.
Imprisoned in the cellar you are given an escape route through a dungeon. The game properly starts in the first dungeon room. What is the situation like?
There’s no lights. You don’t have equipment. You can only use what they can find in the dark. How are You finding it? You have to narratively interrogate the environment with only touch, smell, and audio cues.
I don’t think this is an easy situation for the DM to deal with, after all instead of just presenting the situation as usual they are now forced to strip out all the visual cues. But it also might be good training for them.
That’s actually quite an interesting approach to the game. It makes this whole dungeon into a puzzle from the get go and allows people to learn how to deal with such a situation (a situation that might have been inspired by ADnD module A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords from 1981, which starts in a similar way).
Once You get some lights and weapons there are the usual dungeon encounters, and those introduce you to some of the fantastic core concepts of the game (what are orcs? what are lizardmen? etc.), but they present players with another decision: how do they want to escape? There are multiple paths that lead to the outside, and some are harder and more rewarding (e.g. through the tower on top of the hill), some are easier but don’t have other rewards (e.g. through a cave chimney with no opposition). Players are supposed to learn to strategize here based on the information they have.
Unfortunately this flew over my head the first few times I read and ran the module, and only came to me when trying to vocalize why exactly this module felt much better than B4 (which I loathe).
Does it make the module better? Marginally so. I have been thinking of that the last few months, so the tally I have been doing at the end of my retrospectives actually reflected that. It’s still not a good module, but it’s serviceable. I think I MIGHT use it if I was introducing kids into the hobby. But I still would have to put some more thought into it.
B9 was the first DSA module published in 1985. This is a year into the publishing history of the game. The Ausbau rules extension was around the corner, and so was the A-series of more advanced adventures. As that it actually is trying some groundbreaking things that are preparing the way for more involved roleplaying scenarios.
For one it tries to be Death on the Nile, but as a roleplaying scenario. With this we have the very first detective adventure for DSA. We also have the very first river journey for the game, if not for TTRPGs in general. Warhammer’s Death on the Reik came out in 1987, so this one might be an actual first. I am not aware of any Dungeons and Dragons scenarios with dedicated plotlines during river travel until Ravenloft comes along.
Death on the Reik might be the better scenario though. I didn’t say Strom des Verderbens was actually that good.
It does actively try to be a detective scenario, and introduces a new formatting tag for the ever more bewildering DSA format jungle: key information. (as bolded text)
This might be the only official scenario that ever used it though. It makes the already overloaded format key of DSA adventures even busier.
Unfortunately, despite big promises it fails in the detecting part of being a detective story. Instead it tries to offer the players the illusion of being in one: There is no real chance to capture the culprit(s) until they frame the party for the murders about two thirds through.
It does try new things with PC-NPC interactions though, and when looking at the previous publications that is quite significant: I think the highest amount of named NPCs to play might have been in B6 with the whole of 2 named NPCs (which also lead to a NPC/NPC battle they could not influence). In this scenario we have 12 named NPCs in a tight space, as well as multiple other unnamed ones, all of which are stuck together on a boat for multiple days. Of course it gets a bit easier as the NPCs start dropping like flies, and nobody wants to talk to the heroes anyway until the shit already hit the fan. Which is good because barely anyone gets worked out past a portrait in the props section.
Plot brief: the characters are in Ferdok (a city you might know from the Drakensang computer game) and get caught gambling.
They have to be gambling because they need to be caught doing that by the authorities who just have enacted a new law that forbids gambling. They need to be caught so they get into a fight with the guards who just entered in least secret undercover action ever. And they need to get into a fight to be saved by a river captain who was not gambling, just happened to be hanging out in the place where his lover leads her soldiers for a gambling raid, and convinces her to let him hire them as guards for his river ship.
Got all that?
May I point out that this is basically a list of potential failure points? Who wrote this?
Ah, Ulrich Kiesow. Yup. We are on a railroad again. Well, technically a river boat. Anyway.
I guess it wouldn’t be much of an issue for most groups. Getting into gambling (on toad fights) sounds just like something most players would have gotten into. Not all though.
So the captain of the guard leaves the heroes to her paramour river captain (and then gets murdered by morning). The river captain has important passengers: the family of a rich and deceased merchant from Havena is trying to get to the harbor city to inherit the sizeable fortune the old man left. And our characters are supposed to be the guards for that.
Oh. Well. Did we expect a meaningful choice from a Kiesow scenario?
So we go down the “Great River”. The name is of course an established part of the setting by now, but it still seems kind of odd. We meet river pirates, race a slave galley (it’s interesting how slavery in the Middenrealm still was part of the background back then, we are gonna get into that with adventure A3), and have to face goblin attacks at night.
The whole thing is of course hampered by us not actually being able to talk to the victims. And, well, being guards instead of detectives. you’re supposed to do guard things.
Luckily the murderers make some really basic mistakes that allow the characters to still make at least some headway. Like losing a family tree with every victim struck out. That is until they ice cold frame them for a murder and have them jailed.
Luckily after a successful jailbreak the authorities notice that we can’t be responsible (another victim) and so we are supposed to track down the culprits.
That is literally, the culprits have kidnapped the last few remainig members of the family and thrown them to the ogres. And you can hope that you read the clues you are presented right, because if you didn’t they end up in the stomachs of three hungry ogres and the culprits are untouchable because very rich.
Well, if you did read the clues right you get, what else, a dungeon.
Seems we couldn’t manage to finish even a detective scenario without one. This one is in a small wilderness area where we meet a dwarven druid for the first time (they would later become a defining part of DSA dwarves), and is quite stocked for what it effectively just a small cave.
Yes, it has a Krakenmolch again. Because every proper DSA adventure needs a Krakenmolch in one way or another.
So. This is one of these problematic adventures. If it works as the author intended you get a really nice and atmospheric story. If it doesn’t, then you don’t.
It’s a railroad though, and one with a lot of failure points: What if they don’t gamble? What if they just leave town at night? What if they don’t manage a jailbreak? What if they don’t turn themselves in after the jailbreak (seriously, what did Kiesow expect here? Why in the gods’ names would they turn themselves in immediately)
What if they don’t pick up on the quite obvious clues in the tracks in the forest and follow the wrong trail?
Now a lot of these failure points are of course very specific. In 90% of cases characters will behave in the right way to follow along the railroad. But once they don’t, what do you do then?
As much as Kiesow is heralded as one of the most important people in German ttrpg history, he also is infamous for his fondness of railroads. And I think this one and the previous one (B6 unter dem Nordlicht) are some of the main culprits for that view. No, I don’t want to say that his other stuff is so much better (although A1 and B13 are much better about player choice), but for some reason B9 and the earlier B6 were both republished under the DSA Klassiker sub-line, so these examples of bad design were some of the most widespread and replayed over the next 20 or so years, and this also was what people came to expect with roleplaying scenarios in general.
As mentioned this was republished under the DSA Klassiker line as A53. This was also the version I have. One improvement: the cover
No seriously, what are those guys on the B9 cover supposed to be? Are they orcs? Lizardmen? Something else? They don’t show up in the scenario, there the bandits are all human.
For some reason this adventure was one of the most revisited for the next few years, if only in the Aventurischer Bote, the newsletter for DSA. The canon ending is that the last victim survives and inherits the business (showing up as a patron in later scenarios) while the culprits were exiled to the islands of the Cyclopes (didn’t they just murder most of their family? Exile? And to an area under jurisdiction of a different polity?) from whence they fled and then turned pirate. Uhm. Yeah. But as this scenario was one of the few where named NPCs survived we also got to hear what they were doing afterwards. Especially as the last survivor also was used as a patron in multiple later scenarios.
One thing lots of people notice is the race against a slave galley on the river, as slavery has long been established as outlawed in that particular area (the Middenrealm), so this grates on a lot of peoples’ sensibilities. Only… that was not the case at that point. The Ausbau Set that would have come out around that time also highlights the fight against slavery as something Princess Emer and her father Cuino are deeply engaged in. And we later would see that again in adventure A3. But this whole plot thread was somehow forgotten in later years, and slavery was established as much more limited in scope than in these early publications. I think the Middenrealm was envisioned as much darker and more decadent than what it became later.
By the way all the scenarios so far, and up to the Orkland trilogy as while later had secondary titles as a sort of pseudo-intellectual affectation in the style of 19th ct. adventure novels. The only one notable so far was B1’s secondary title “The Tavern of Terror”. This one has “Todesfahrt nach Havena” and I really like the ring it has in English: “Death Ride to Havena”.
This module was also published in French, no Dutch or Italian versions it seems.
Hunter S. Thompson had this great quote at the beginning of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: “…once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.“
This reminded me of that quote, just with ttrpg rulebooks. There is absolutely no proper reason why I am having two of those. I had the one with the color cover before (version 1.4 from what I can see), but a recent trip to Amazon made me buy the black and white version as well (version 2 I think).
And I really haven’t found a reason to even play this yet, although the books are short and cheap enough for some ideas: they are full games based on the original white box rules (via Swords and Wizardry as a retroclone of that), they are a handy size (A5?), and they are cheap. I don’t remember what the left one cost, but I bought the right one for under 7 Euros. Technically, if you wanted a quick game with simple rules, you could just go on Amazon, buy a few copies of the book for all the players, print a few character sheets, and be done with it. Maybe throw in some cheap dice for everybody and you have yourself a game and all your players now have rulebooks and gear for less than the price of a single 5e book.
The rules are your standard Swords and Wizardry clone, just scaled back to emulate the White Box era of rules. They of course are subtly different from all the other OSR rules or the original, but they still work out well. The b/w version has better art and layout, but personally I love how dorky the left one looks.
It does have the single saving throw mechanism which I dislike, but I can live with that. That’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine. In my personal houserules I replaced the usual B/X rolls with the three-tiered system they came up with in third edition, but somehow reducing it to a single roll feels wrong.
I find it interesting that people like to recreate the roleplaying aspects of things, but somehow leave out all those wargaming aspects the rules were originally written for. The original rules were intended as campaign rules for wargames (specifically Chainmail), but most of that content has been stripped out, not only here, but in most retroclones.
Ah. The infamous one with the Science Fiction stuff.
I wish I could properly thrash it and make fun of it, or conversely just tell you that it’s one of the most amazing obscure titles in DSA history. I will tell you in advance that it’s not going to be like that. I don’t mind the SF stuff all that much, and the adventure has a few good, even great parts. The whole idea of the module has the exciting promise of a new direction that it completely fails to deliver on.
So, the background is two paragraphs: the PCs traverse the Khom desert to find an abandoned mountain monastery and raid the temple treasure. Now they have found it.
There’s a neat but crude illustration by Ina Kramer in there as well that really sets the mood nicely.
This is how you write a proper introduction, not 4-5 pages of nonsense. This is the best introduction of all the DSA modules so far.
The monastery is not as abandoned as hoped. There are robbers and cultists. The cultists have a blue square in a yellow circle as their cult symbol and they worship a giant demon statue they call Orcus (no relation, I presume). So the monastery is not as abandoned as the characters assumed.
I can’t really fault the cultists for reacting a bit badly. They were just chilling in the desert for the better part of 80 years doing their thing, and then the “heroes”stumble in and try to rob them.
To be fair, “their thing” turns out to be sacrificing anyone passing by to their dark idol, so there’s that.
So the heroes get sacrificed 7 rooms into the dungeon in one of the dorkiest illustrations of human sacrifice ever created.
I love it.
Only, it turns out this was the titular Gate of Worlds. The mountain caves once were a base for aliens that had to go back to their home galaxy and it still is connected to their transmitter network.
Now the heroes are stranded on an alien world called Ras Tabor.
(Or the other side of the world, on the far-western side of Myranor, if you follow the post-2000 retcon of the whole situation.)
In any case they can’t go back through that transmitter (for…reasons…) and now they are on top of a giant tree that contains a whole lot of monsters and a village of vaguely humanoid beings.
I have to assume Werner Fuchs had the idea for a dungeon that involved climbing down via various routes, but I find this second part of the adventure tedious. It’s basically a way to throw lots of vaguely alien beings at the characters as they somehow try to get down. It might play better than it reads because he gives various routes and you don’t have to play through all of them, but altogether this takes way too long.
There are two Aventurians at the village and on the bottom of the tree. Both previously were sacrificed and now are living among the locals. Neither of them know anything concrete about a way back.
And here’s the big problem I see with this scenario: The scenario assumes the first thing the heroes would do is to try and find a way back. But I don’t think this is necessarily a given, and it’s not even a given they would assume there is a way back unless the GM tells them. What if they don’t? What if they really are into exploring this whole new world? What if none of them pick up on the spurious hints towards the second transmitter in the mountains? (because yes there is one)
None of this is touched upon as we are presented with part three of the module: an actual hexcrawl.
Now hexes are not used that much in DSA. For some reason German-speaking audiences never seem to have gotten warm with them. The first map of Aventuria was hexed, and the wilderness map in here is, but I can’t think of any other immediate example. Even the later Orkland adventure trilogy used squares instead of hexes. But B8 one actually uses them, and tries to present itself as a sandbox. Unfortunately it’s not a very good one. There are 7 encounter areas over the whole area, one of which is the transmitter, and one of which is basically “roll on random encounter table”.
I think Fuchs at this point really ran out of time and space. This should have been the focus of the module, instead it’s a tiny bit that’s tagged on at the very end. With a bit of work this could work as a weird science fantasy sandbox. Maybe even one that would allow to return to it if the characters wanted.
The module does not allow that: returning via transmitter breaks the idol and seals it. The heroes can leave without being accosted and…
Sorry? Didn’t they get sacrificed? You think your generic murderhobo isn’t gonna track down and kill all the cultists responsible? Now would be a great time to have more than 7 rooms mapped out, hmmm?
I find this module wanting. The monastery section is all too short, the climb down the tree too long, the sandbox contents are too thin. This could have been a great adventure. As it is it feels bloodless. I guess one could properly work out the sandbox, maybe use it as a backdoor into Myranor from the west. Ras Tabor is being worked out in the pages of Myranor fanzine Memoria Myrana, and some of the ideas do work: a giant jungle setting with whole kingdoms on giant trees, a few city states of the imperial magocracy cut off from the rest of the Second Imperium, the ever present threat of the realm of the skull god beyond the sea. Also some of the cult from the monastery already have settled in Ras Tabor somewhere. There’s some nice ideas in there that could make for a weird fantasy kind of setting.
But as it is? A bit of a waste.
I do have to wonder if Orcus in this adventure is based on the DnD deity/demon. It is a generic name after all (based on an old Etruscan deity). And after all this isn’t even a proper deity, just a teleporter.
The temple and Ras Tabor were picked up again around the 2000s, when the western continent Myranor was opened up in setting material. The novel Erde und Eis (Earth and Ice) revisited the now really abandoned monastery, and transported it’s cast to the jungle continent of Ras Tabor. Far off from where any of the other released material for Myranor would end up for decades. And then this sub-series for the DSA-series of novels died on the vine, and no sequel was ever published. In any case, Ras Tabor in canon is on the same world as Aventuria.
This was the last published scenario of 1984. One has to wonder if they really needed to switch genres that badly just a year into the whole experiment. No further direct science fiction elements were introduced afterwards, so it seems this experiment was usuccessful. I so far only have looked at Gruppenabenteuer published in the B-line. But DSA also has a tradition of Solo adventures. I should look at those soon (specifically B5 and B7)
This originally also was published in French, Dutch, and Italian. I should maybe also point out that it has been republished as a retro edition in 2018, as have all other modules I already looked at.
You are standing at the edge of a frozen lake, in the middle of snowdrifts, and you are freezing to death. Your badger sleds were lost to wolves, and the rest of your equipment to yetis, and yet, you are staring over the frozen blue lake in the last evening light and wonder if your quest for the Polar Diamond still could go on. In the west, where your map says is the small town of Frigorn, is a weirdly crystalline structure like a shining beacon. But the people in the last town told you not to go there. Maybe you can cross the frozen lake and manage to reach your goal on foot? you think to yourself as the icy wind bites into you. But then you hear the rumbling, and across, on the other side of the lake you see hot lava erupting from one of the big mountains there, shockwaves ripping their way through the lake, cracking the unblemished ice sheet, barring your way across.
Back through the mountains full of yeti and wolves you dare not go. The only way possible to survive the encroaching night is that little town with that crystal palace you see in the distance…
I gotta give it to Ulrich Kiesow. When he decided to write a railroad, he wrote a grand old railroad. But in between he manages to evoke a sense like a schlocky 80s fantasy movie. Reading this FEELS like Krull or Legend, or maybe an feature length episode of the Gummi Bears.
The only problem is that he feels the need to make extra sure nobody can get off before he’s run through all the plot stations.
And it starts suspicious as well. Clearly this was written for children, because any modern gamer would see the problems come from a mile away: a famous alchemist is hiring the PCs for an expedition into the icy north. There, he is convinced, in a cave, there is the fabled Polar Diamond that every kid in Aventuria has heard of.
(You didn’t? Well, then let me read the fairy tale to you…)
He also is perfectly willing to leave them the diamond once he used it as a catalyst, and he will pay for every piece of equipment in the book to ensure their success.
Yes. He’s not tricking them. This is an earnest well-meaning madman really fixated on a single idea. Surely this expedition where they are decked out with everything they might need might not possibly go wrong?
It immediately goes wrong: They lose their badger sleds (sic!) to wolves, then get ambushed by a group of yeti that are perfectly willing to let them live, in their underwear, in a snow storm.
They had been told not to go to the little town of Frigorn, but when a convenient volcanic eruption makes the rest of their path impossible it’s the only place to turn to.
Unfortunately they get a very frosty reception there: nobody in this city is willing to open their door for them until they reach the last house, the only one built from wood instead of ice. The affable… scientist? Scholar? tells them they can stay the night, IF they perform a small task for him the next day.
But to be sure about their intentions, here, sign this document in blood, thank you very much.
Of course he’s an evil wizard, and he hates the local frost queen, a slightly less malign sorceress with ice powers.
Here the adventure does something weird. The heroes are tasked to infiltrate the very 80s palace of the frost queen (see the cover illustration: it’s made of giant ice cones), BUT they are in the wizard’s hut right now, so we have to describe that first. Of course his hut/dungeon also is where the end fight takes place, so we have to deal with that first, and with all kinds of entries that assume the presence of a specific NPC who is not yet there.
Spoiler: because it’s the frost queen Lysira, which we first have to steal stuff from.
Lysira is the magical frost being who rules over the town. Technically just a half-elf, she was given immortality by her parents, and lost her humanity with this. But she gained nifty ice powers that turn the whole region into a permanent ice box. So for the whole ice palace dungeon part of the scenario she is bad guy B, with her own NPC guards and agenda.She has yeti as guards, and a frostwyrm.
The yeti by the way are yeti, so they can’t distinguish human faces and will let err on the side of caution before accosting legitimate guests of the queen.
Room G5 has a frost giant who asks for the daily pass phrase. He does delight in hearing it though (it’s “Ifirn”, the daughter of the god of winter) and will aid anyone who might have mistakenly forgotten with generous hints.
Room G10 shows us that Lysira is indeed not a saint: she has kidnapped a young man and made him her master of ceremonies. She does not seem to be doing anything untoward to him though, as her touch alone causes painful frostburn. Well, more untoward than imprisoning him for two years that is.
His effect on the narrative is rather limited. In fact he is only there to provide a method against the huge monster in the next room, guarding Lysira’s room.
The main point happens once the heroes do what Zubaran has asked of them and melt the macguffin in the last room. In that case Lysira turns from frosty ice queen to rather human, and the palace (and by extension the surrounding town) start to melt. She also helpfully provides the info drop that the polar diamond does not exist (bummer!) and that they sold their souls to Zubaran with that document they signed in blood (double-bummer!)
So, what do I think of it?
Altogether it’s not bad. It is a terrible railroad in a lot of ways, the quantum ogre makes his appearance a few times, and all the branches are cut off to really only allow one path forward (stranded in the snow AND a volcano?). But it has a nice vibe going on that I might appreciate more nearly 40 years on. It feels 80s in a way few things can.
Now, this also is the first proper adventure after those first 4 the game started with. Those 4 were written at the same time as the box with the basic rules, and you often can tell. This one is an improvement, even with the glaring railroading involved. Mind you, in comparison to the previous ones that is.
when the heroes and the frost queen encounter Zubaran for the final fight he is just painting a still life of lemons and apples. When he dies those fruits become real and fall from the canvas. Why though?
one of Zubaran’s creations is a chimera that’s basically a hyena with ram horns. In a later publication it was established that hyenas do not exist on Aventuria, so the current DSA5 bestiary entry points out that people in general don’t even recognize these beings as unnatural, after all nearly nobody on the continent has seen hyenas without horns.
This scenario was republished in the A-line in 1994, under the DSA-Klassiker moniker (DSA Classics), which I suspect was simply a way to fill gaps in the schedule. The reprint was updated with the then-current DSA3 cover design and a new cover illustration where the ice palace…looks absolutely nothing like in the adventure itself
The scenario also was published in French, Italian, and Dutch
Hans Joachim Alpers sucked as a scenario author, and the reason I say this at the very beginning is because level 1 room 1 of the adventure has the following riddle:
Q: what do Robert Zimmermann’s nineteenth nervous breakdown and an avalanche have in common?
A: the Rolling Stones.
No. Seriously. That’s in there. A riddle that not only uses obscure real world pop culture references, but in the German text also only works if you translate between German and English in multiple places.
This is grade A condescending bullshit. This doesn’t belong in a roleplaying scenario. I bet he read that somewhere in English and decided to directly put that into his module because he’s oh so smart. It doesn’t even make sense as written.
Ok. So this was the first room.
Ok, deep breaths.
The scenario continues on from the last one. In fact, instead of writing a new intro we get most of the one from the previous scenario, then a short reference to what happened in there.
It turns out 6 of the magic goblets made from the legendary sword Siebenstreich (Sevenstroke?) are hidden in various places in H’Rabaal. 3 of them are beneficial when someone drinks from them, 3 are harmful. The bad guys want to reforge the sword Siebenstreich from them, but luckily they’d need a seventh goblet.
Which we just brought.
Why did we do that?
But we have to find them, and they are each hidden in a room in that temple complex.
And how do we know that? Wasn’t it the bad guys who stole them and brought them here? How do we have that much intel about their operation?
Beats me. But the intro says its like that.
Later on we get more information about that benefit/harm property they have, and it’s… stupid. It is is completely random which goblet does what, and once you drink from it it loses that property for the rest of the adventure. Which leads to a probability game that’s really an exercise in practical stochastics.
I like the setting of the lizardman temple in the jungle. I like the whole idea of the seven goblets who are actually a magic sword. I even like the basic ideas of a lot of the encounters. There’s a really old school feeling one where the characters have to get a goblet from a pedestal, but every step up shrinks them by half, until they come into conflict with the otherwise harmless ants crawling around here.
There is an encounter with a giant ape that with some good roleplay can be brought to the characters’ side and literally move obstacles out of the way later.
In another bit of condescending real world bullshit intruding into this fantasy world the ape also has a job offer from Dino de Laurentiis to play King Kong as long as he brings one of the goblets to supplement production costs.
So, pro: a giant ape who actually is a fleshed out NPC with his own motivations. Negative: it’s a stupid motivation.
Like the stupid riddle from the first room this both was excised from the second edition the same year, but the fact it was in there at all speaks for a disdain the author had for his audience.
In the end we have gathered all the goblets and we put them into the purple magic flame in the last room and they are all magically transported back to where they belong.
What sort of resolution is that supposed to be?
I have the suspicion that he really took too much inspiration from DnD’s tournament modules. This reeks of it. It’s such a gamey situation where you know all the stakes and goals, and you have to deal with a bunch of different puzzle rooms that all seem rather dangerous. RPG tournaments never really took off in Germany, and were a bemusing oddity about the American scene whenever they were brought up in the 90s. But of course some of the tournament scenarios made it over. This does have a certain thematic closeness to The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, so maybe that was what Alpers was working from.
TLDR: I do not like this scenario. There are a few good ideas in here, but making them work would mean scrapping a large part of the scenario and replacing them with my own. Which is a pity, because in later years some ideas that were introduced in here were made central parts of the metaplot. It would be nice to introduce them like this. I just really don’t know if I ever would want to play this.
Luckily this was Alpers’ second to last adventure scenario, and the last one is a solo, which uses different writing skills.
*Imagine dramatic cue here*
This scenario was published in French, Italian, and Dutch as well.
The DSA Wiki points out that nearly all illustrations in the scenario are either wrong, or depict things that do not happen in the scenario.
One of remarkable bits of exposition this adventure starts with is that a few guards were chasing some thieves over half the continent, from Notmark to H’Rabaal, just to get discouraged by a few lizardmen and turn back.
According to the map that’s easily 2500km/1500 real world miles.
Some determined guards.
Well, according to lore the Baron of Notmark is a piece of work, so I get it.
As far as I know the familiar map of Aventuria only came out after those few first adventures were written, so I can’t blame the author for that.
On the other hand I do blame the author… Hans Joachim Alpers by the way. writing here as Claus Lenthe… for rhyming Kelche (goblets) with Elche (elks) which feels like someone should be punished for.
It’s at least memorable.
Unlike his fellow DSA authors Fuchs and Kiesow Alpers was not that fond of the game or the hobby as such. And while his contributions have echoed through DSA-lore he never really seems to have warmed up to the setting. His adventures introduced science fiction elements that later had to be retconned, and even his later novels somehow always managed to take place in locations only peripherally connected with the established world. He also… was not actually that good an author to begin with. I alway found it a chore to get through his fiction.
Anyway… Schiff der Verlorenen Seelen (Ship of Losts Souls) is the first part of the very first campaign for DSA, one that concluded with the very next adventure Die Sieben Magischen Kelche (The seven magic goblets).
I somehow always had disregarded the opening narration as just fluff text on previous readthroughs. It’s not: After nearly 4 A4 sized pages that introduce characters we never hear about anymore (well ok, they are the pregenerated characters in the back of the book), an NPC that actually is important (the wizard Rakorium). the plot for the next module (there used to be a magic blade, that blade was made into 7 goblets, the bad guys just stole the second to last, now we are transporting the last one there for… reasons) and various characters, we are introduced to the actual plot of this module: big bad sorcerer King Mordor (sic!) tries to bring a crystal containing doomed souls somewhere ashore in Aventuria to corrupt the land. And this ship of lost souls is the means to that.
Except right now it’s floating somewhere in the middle of the ocean and nobody even seems to notice a few stray adventurers boarding and looting it.
Oh, by the way, speaking about adventurers: the focus character of the fluff has been shanghaied into the whole situation. He just wakes up after too much drink and talking to a pressgang and now is part of this venture to the lizard infested ruins of H’Rabaal.
Talk about railroading characters. Curiously enough the text makes it clear nobody is going to force any participation if he’s really against it. After all the leaders of the expedition are supposed to be good guys, you can’t just force a guy to participate. Even if you carried him off to the other side of the continent.
So… after that overly long introduction we start directly on board of the black ship. The first encounter is a sea serpent that just strolled on board to relax. Hmm.
The next is two undead pirates who just stand around until the sun goes down.
Which brings me to another interesting thing about this scenario: the crew of the ship is for a large part made out of undead pirates. Not zombies or skeletons, but actual self-interested pirates like out of Pirates of the Carribbean, except they can only move about during night, but when they do they… seem to be doing anything but performing their mission. A later encounter with a group of them has them partaking in heavy drinking. Drinking what? That’s not specified. But they also have normal foodstuff on board, so it seems they are undead and yet still need butter.
Considering this is a ship, the whole location sometimes seems annoyingly static. Wald ohne Wiederkehr had some implication that stuff was happening despite being set in a ruin, this one is set on a ship and yet everyone seems to stay in place until the characters come by. There’s an encounter with a Klabautermann (a water kobold, in the way of magical fairy tale kobolds not little lizardmen). And it’s specifically pointed out that after stealing the party’s treasure he can be re-encountered in the same area after a set number of rounds.
There also is a captured human who gives out magic potions but otherwise just likes to lay about drinking in only a loincloth. This is something that didn’t need an illustration, and yet here we are.
He also is mentioned specifically as an “Aventurian” in contrast to the crew of undead which, conversely, are implied to come from a different place.
Speaking about the illustrations: they range from kinda ugly, to quite nice old school art. They again have been done by Bryan Talbot, and I wonder how they came about because they clearly show stuff from the scenario, and yet they show up in weird places in the text. Both the encounters for the fishlike Zilits and the frog-like Krakonians have their illustrations switched.
Come to think of it, this already was an issue in the previous scenarios. Wirtshaus zum schwarzen Keiler also had some of the illustrations in weird places. I guess someone really didn’t care on the last leg to publication.
I… do not like this adventure. It’s not very good. I think it is clear that Hand Joachim Alpers did not really care about how roleplaying games are supposed to work, and just tried to tell his own story. A story he only told with disdain in the first place, considering he called the evil sorcerer Mordor, as if to say: who cares, in fantasy they are all called Mordor aren’t they?
I would not want to play this. I guess it could be saved with extensive rewrites, but then what’s the point?
One weird thing I notice a lot with both this and the other part of the campaign is that Alpers seems to have had ideas about how this world was supposed to work that do not fit with later descriptions of Aventuria and Dere. There is a Shadow Realm mentioned that seems to be implied to be some dark Mordor-like location full of dark and evil creatures. This is where the pirates are supposed to come from. The closest we got to that in DSA only came about in the 90s with the establishment of the Dark Lands. Something that harkened back to this campaign a lot and reframed a lot of things to work with the then-current view of the world. But the “Schattenreich” itself is mentioned a lot, but disappears after the next module.
The plans of the ship dungeon do not look very ship-like. This is brought up in text: the ship is implied to not have been built, but grown instead, with all the rooms hewn into the living wood afterwards. This also was one of the things which were intended to come back during the Borbarad metaplot campaign in the 90s. Unfortunately some editorial miscommunication caused the Demon Arks in that campaign to have legs for land assaults, which leaves the original Ship of Lost Souls as the only example of it’s kind. (although if I was mad enough to play it I would just make it into a demon ark as well, or just establish it as a younger version, or something)
The demons we are introduced to on the ship are clearly the inspiration of the later Heshtoth demons from DSA lore (dark robes with nothing but glowing eyes visible under it). They do not behave like them though: one of them just prepared himself a nice cup of camel dung tea that serves as a very low-key trap to curious adventurers. Later depictions of demons in DSA would present them as much more inimical beings with no worldly desires except their inherent demonic traits.
Unlike the previous modules this particular one does not seem to have been published in Italian.
“like Nostria and Andergast” has been a saying among DSA-fans for decades now. It’s the equivalent to “fighting like cats and dogs”. I think the rivalry between the two backwards nations of Nostria and Andergast is one of those well-treasured parts of game lore that just feel oh so right. It can stand in for so many things. I think it does echo a lot of local rivalries. The difference between Northern Germans and Southern Germans for example, or Germans and Austrians. Or just one German state to another. The names also are great: Nostria is latin for “ours” and Andergast translates as “other guest” (or maybe “other spirit”). That just evokes a sort of real worldness. You wouldn’t be surprised to learn those were actual names somewhere.
But that, of course, is the future. The whole rivalry first was mentioned in lore materials in 1985, in the first proper world sourcebook for Das Schwarze Auge, and cemented by lots of references afterwards.
Which makes this adventure a bit of a headache for anyone trying to adapt it while staying close to the lore:
“King Casimir of Nostria is in dire straits. His brother Wendolyn, lord of Andergast Castle, has disappeared and with him the parchment that legitimized Casimir’s kingship. Before a ceremony on which much, very much depends for the king and his kingdom, he must find the scroll. For this he needs you, you fearless heroes, and he is glad that you are ready to leave for Andergast. You still have no idea what dangers await you in the forest of no return and what sinister powers are up to mischief in Andergast Castle. But fame and fortune await you if you keep your guard up. However, if you let yourself be carried away by recklessness, a horrible end awaits you…”
So, yeah. The first mention of both Nostria and Andergast is in the second adventure module of the game, and it just won’t fit established lore at all.
But anyway, that’s, as I said, the future. So what about the adventure itself? There’s not much point in trying to determine any improvement over the previous one really, both were written by the same person concurrently. They were part of that very first push to have something to present on the SPIEL games fair 1984. Something that rivaled the translation of Dungeons and Dragons by the same authors at that.
What we have here is a small romp through a wilderness and a dungeon area. The mentioned Andergast castle is a ruin by now, and it lies beyond the Forest of no Return. An evil wizard has laid ruin to the castle and enchanted the forest to deter trespassers.
How he did that being a level 5 wizard, and why nobody from the area has bothered to check on the feudal lord for months now are different questions that are not being touched upon. This is fantasy after all. Lets just assume there are reasons beyond our comprehension.
The titular Forest with no Return is barely in the scenario by the way. There’s a map that makes this nothing but a smaller dungeon level, with possible encounters like charcoal burners, robbers, and a hermit. There’s a single actual monster/environmental danger in there (enchanted willows).
This shows a different sentiment that would come to define Das Schwarze Auge later on. People have been making a lot of hay about how the world is low fantasy, but it’s not really. It’s much more eager to show parts of the world that are not swordfodder for the murderhobos though. This is just a small element in this particular scenario. But I think it does set a trend.
The castle is a ruin by now. How exactly this is the case is not quite explained. I guess magic. Somehow the wizard managed to take over the castle, ruin it completely (including corroding various metal parts), and now is living in the rubble basically.
I mean, it makes total sense. He’s obviously dabbling in dark magic. He totally seems the person who would take the easy way and rather live like a slob in some dank swamp castle than put some proper work in.
You know, evil wizard in his lair in the swamp ruins sounds much more impressive until you think about what person would willingly live like that. Fantasy worlds also give chances for incredibly stupid life decisions.
There is a werewolf hiding behind a curtain. The text gives the impression he was startled by the heroes and only after hiding realized “wait, I’m a werewolf now”.
There’s a wine cellar where all the good wine is so good the characters might drink too much of it and then stumble around like fratboys on a Friday night.
There’s a hint where to find the main MacGuffin that the local alchemist wrote down just before getting caught by the bad guys. Wrote it down in verse, because of course he did.
There’s giant cockroaches, a gargoyle, a doppelganger (it had completely forgotten they were a thing in DSA), giant amoebas (DSA’s equivalent of slime), zombies and skeletons. There’s also a tentacled Krakenmoloch hiding in a well. This one might be the height of innovation in terms of monsters here, I don’t think there’s a direct DnD equivalent. All of them are given stats in the appendix, even things like owls.
Ok, this might sound like it’s a bad scenario. It isn’t. It was not even really superfluous. This was after all one of the scenarios that were supposed to teach people who were not already playing RPGs how to play them. So you have to have all those things in there.
Keep on the Borderlands had lots of rule explanations. This one also tries to make sure you know what you are doing. There’s a list of “allowed spells”. Sure, you might have more spells, but these are the only ones that are “allowed”. There’s also just three equipment packs that are allowed. But that’s also helpful for a complete beginner GM: you don’t have to deal with anything more. This is a framework you can use for the adventure and you don’t have to deal with someone springing a surprise on you.
And I think this actually does a better job of actually presenting a more reasonable adventure environment than Wirtshaus did before. Wirtshaus was very much on the rails: you get caught by the guards, you escape into the tunnels, you have to learn to interrogate the environment narratively just to be able to explore further (get some light for example). Choices matter, and depending on what exit you chose you got a higher or lower difficulty and more or less experience.
I reread Wirtshaus zum Schwarzen Keiler lately and I think I understand what he tried to do with a lot of the choices there, especially for first time players. I don’t say it’s a great adventure, but I see where he came from. I do admire that Fuchs tried to give a proper newbie experience despite only having a month to write two different scenarios. Wald ohne Wiederkehr is I think the better adventure of the two. It has a wilderness area, it has a much larger amount of choices to make. You have to plan your approach and properly explore the castle and dungeon. It has some glaring issues in the logic of the situation. And it’s not necessarily the epitome of dungeon design, but I think this could give a nice one or two sessions of play for beginner players.
Oh, and I think I will try to play this with my kids once they are old enough for it. It might work out.
Wald ohne Wiederkehr was published in German, of course, but it was also one of those that were published in French, Italian, and Dutch. Curiously the French and Italian versions keep the name snappy, while the Dutch goes with the title Het Woud, waaruit geen Terugkeer mogelijk is (The forest from whence no return is possible). I mean, it does mean the same. I just think brevity might have been better there.
Thirsty Sword Lesbians by April Kit Walsh, Dominique Dickey, Jonaya Kemper, Alexis Sara, Rae Nedjadi, and Whitney Delaglio (Published by Evil Hat Productions) Winner, Best Game Writing in 2021
Also Nominated Wildermyth by Nate Austin, Anne Austin, and Douglas Austin, published by Worldwalker Games, LLC Wanderhome by Jay Dragon, published by Possum Creek Games Granma’s Hand by Balogun Ojetade, published by Balogun Ojetade and Roaring Lion Productions Coyote & Crow by Connor Alexander, William McKay, Weyodi Oldbear, Derek Pounds, Nico Albert, Riana Elliott, Diogo Nogueira, and William Thompson, published by Coyote & Crow, LLC.
By the way the Nebula site is charmingly out of date. It doesn’t seem to know if it’s 2020, 2021, or 2022. Depending on which link you click you end up on articles for different years.
I find this interesting. The last few years definitely saw a rise in the popularity of roleplaying games as an art form. It’s not quite my favorite style of roleplaying (I am talking about those PbtA-inspired games where you have playbooks and specific moves which I never can wrap my head around), but if it helps the hobby grow, who am I to complain?
This is an interesting purchase I made on Amazon lately. It’s available on there as a POD title. It’s a late 70s/early 80s Age of Sail RPG/wargame.
Basically a Hornblower RPG, but the author of the game wrote a few books in abou It has been in lists about this kind of genre for decades, mostly because nobody else published a game for the same setting/time period. It’s structured as a wargame (the naval wargame Heart of Oak) and two other books with information on the RPG system and campaigning. Originally this seems to have been a boxed set published in 1982, and the blurp on Amazon still talks about three books and a box.
I find this game fascinating because it is so… limited. You have the choice of playing both sides: you can be a white, male Royal Navy officer, or you can be a white, male American Navy officer. If you feel fancy you also could play a privateer from any other nation (but the navies of those nations are not worked out). To be fair, it does at least talk about playing other genders and races, but goes into detail of how difficult that would be.
The whole game is focused on being a Naval officer in a way that almost seems odd. The world outside of at most a port city might as well not exist. It does give you the option to buy a rotten borough though and become a member of the house of Lords, so there’s that.
There is an encounter table for portside encounters that includes eligible ladies (25% widowed) in case one wanted to dally or marry one. Shipboard doctors always are drunk and you can only determine how much when you need one. The actual character creation rules are spurious, but unlike DnD they forego alignment for party affiliation. It’s all… laser-focused on playing a very specific kind of character. Way more than even DnD ever was.
What it does not though is information on how to run this game. I know, I mentioned campaign rules, but that’s just it. They are campaign rules. There is nothing like a scenario, or play examples, or an overview of the world outside of ships here. This is literally a game like White Box DnD, which basically just was an extension of a wargame on an individual level. And I guess like oDnD you would need someone who already played to even get into the game. I assume this was done via conventions or similar ways, or people just hunkered down and tried to make sense of the game on their own.
This game never was really that successful from what I have seen. There are three supplements/modules for it, all available on drivethrurpg, but the game has been in publication since the 1980s from what I have seen. That is, the company still exists and at one point might have dusted off the books and scanned them in.
Will I play it? Most likely not. I don’t think it’s worth it, especially as I am not really a fan of the genre. But it is a rather interesting artifact of TTRPG history.