I got Zzarchov Kowolski’s scenario, “Under the Waterless Sea,” as part of his buystarter effort. (The idea was, he made a rough version and sold that, using the proceeds to pay for art, maps, and layout; the initial buyers got the updated version.) I think that’s a useful idea, and I wanted to support his effort. Also, the core concept was intriguing, and I wanted a closer look.
I’m going to go into this from three perspectives; a reader, someone planning to run the game, and a play report of how actual play turned out. This review has mild spoilers.
WHAT WAS BEST?
This project has a lot of inspiration stemming from the core idea; a gate you can walk through so it feels like you are above the surface even when you’re walking underwater. Fire burns, no pressure from the deeps, no resistance to movement, none of that for you. Only for those who did not enter through the portal. Also, the portal is shrinking, so there is very little time left to loot and destroy the Deep One city.
Also, the setup is that Lovecraftian Deep Ones were making the standard deal with a Polynesian style settlement, but the local law got involved and flattened the town, and has taken the fight to the underwater city using this magical gate. That’s a fun notion.
The encounters open up many exciting possibilities and have a lot of neat flavor for undersea adventuring.
The treatment of the local economy may be useful beyond this scenario, a piece that could be lifted and used all along an island chain and beyond. An economy of tokens and carved pearls is fun.
WHAT WAS WORST?
To run this, I had to put in significant effort before starting, and I didn’t get all my prep done. This really hurt how the game unfolded. The kinds of things I had to spend time on were mostly the sort of things I expect the creator to do for me, if I’m going to pay over $9 for a scenario.
There are only a very few names provided in the scenario. I went to a baby name generator and selected Polynesian names to fill in the gaps. Players may ask who the king is, who is in charge of the military, the names of the two priests in a power struggle (common knowledge), the name of the settlement, the name of the capitol city, and maybe even a name for the island besides “Old Island.”
There is provision for hiring slingers or pikemen to help out on the expedition, but no names provided to quickly apply to them. The flavor of your Polynesian setting can be dented if they go with “Bob” and “Fisher” and “Big Nose.” I was going to make a list of names myself, and I named the background people of the scenario (like the noble in charge of the military effort to go through the gate) but I ran out of time before I got to the list of names to assign to minor NPCs as need arose. And believe me, need arose. I personally don’t have a lot of Polynesian names at the tip of my tongue.
Also, if players want to make local characters, then you better have some additional prep or go to a web site, because most players aren’t going to have lots of Polynesian names in mind. I don’t know about your players, but mine tend to drag out the naming process, really struggling with picking something, and a list can help.
I do not understand the mind set behind not providing names. If you play with players who don’t care what people are called, then names are easy to ignore. If you don’t like coming up with names, use one or more of the many name generators online for your NPCs, as you are taking your time writing up the scenario. But please don’t expect the person running the game to provide a ceaseless fountain of appropriate names off the cuff, AND remember who got what name as the game unfolds.
The maps are keyed in italicized lower case letters. While I would not have expected that to be a problem before I ran the scenario, I found it took me more time to match up the letter entries and the letter locations on the map. Especially since the location descriptions were identified with capitol letters. In the barracks, he runs out of letters, and instead of doubling letters up (AA) he uses an ampersand and dollar sign. I really don’t get the benefit of not just using numbers.
There is no map to show how the different modular areas of the underwater city connect. For example, in the title of the section, the book notes “The Barracks (Links to Labyrinth and to the Spire)” but there’s no clear indication on the map or in the location notes how they fit together.
A whole page is dedicated to showing how everything is laid out (47) but if it is supposed to help, I have no idea how. The picture gives no sense that there are three light zones (shallows, twilight, and deeps.) If the structures in that picture match up with the mapped locations, I can’t tell. Where is the wizard’s dome relative to the temple? Do you have to go through the barracks to reach the spire? What if you try to go around? The DM has to make a map to keep the individual interpretation consistent, or handwave all that away: the maps and art don’t clarify. Also, the picture makes the area look compact, when there are four encounters between the gate and the settlement underwater (so I assume characters have to cover quite a bit of ground.) From the beach to the city looks like a cliff, not like the long winding march to get to the city.
But I have to guess, because there is no indication that I could find how long it would take to manage the hike from the beach to the underwater city, or how far it is. The encounters are diverse enough to assume there are many ways to get there, which suggests more distance and less a single route.
When I was reading the scenario, this wasn’t bad. Reading scenarios is to get inspiration, absorb the flavor, get a sense of how this would work in a game. But preparing to actually run it, or sitting down to actual encounters after reading the scenario (but not making your own aids or interpretations ahead of time) you get pinched in a hurry.
There is a neat tally for how relatively powerful humans and Deep Ones are when the portal closes; who “wins.” But the way you get those points is scattered through the room key and encounter descriptions, and here and there elsewhere. I would want a big scorecard so I could track what points they got, and what they were worth; trying to track it on the fly out of various descriptions as the game goes on does not take into account the ones you never even see. Great idea, terrible execution. Love the descriptions based on the points, but need some help tracking those points.
- RANDOM ENCOUNTERS. The flavor and content of the encounters was excellent. However, they are designed so you generate 3-4 sections of information, some of which having randomizing within them, before you use them. There’s something for the surroundings of the encounter, what is encountered, and something weird that is also going on. I love this and think it is great! But that’s no good for rolling something and describing the outcome while at the game table, in the heat of the action. Too many results for the DM to keep in mind while keeping everything rolling. I adapted by generating a bunch of random encounters for each zone ahead of time, typing them into a point list, ready to check off as we went. That took prep time and effort, absorbing my finite time before running the game so I was not as focused on some of the other elements as I needed to be. It would have been useful to have some pages dedicated to encounters to check off, and the encounter generator behind them so you could make more as you wished.
- STAT BLOCKS. The OSR stat blocks were so sketchy that they might as well have been omitted. I make a page of things likely to be encountered, and refer to it as I play, rather than needing the stat blocks built into the text. It doesn’t matter that they were there taking up room–until you get in a situation where you’re flipping through multiple pages that all relate to one keyed map. Then the frustration with padding is higher.
- INTERPRETING THE PORTAL’S BRINY MAGIC. The basics of how the underwater magic works are there, but so many questions arise. I encouraged my players to try experimenting, rather than giving them answers. If they picked up a rock and threw it, the rock answered the laws of air (not water.) If they touched a shark, it continued answering the laws of water. I used an internal guide that living things did not cross back and forth between air law and water law when touched, but small objects did; anything they could lift. I made these rulings on the fly until I saw the internal logic that was driving them in my backbrain, and I could make that explicit. Making these adjustments on the fly, there is great potential to screw up how the whole scenario is going down by establishing precedent you don’t want to live with later. A bit more detail on corner cases would have helped. I feel my interpretations went well and were consistent, and I still had a player who was very frustrated by the whole inconsistency of air and water.
- DESPAIR. Your mileage may vary. There are several groups trapped underwater in moon pools, the portal magic broken, who are going to die. There isn’t much player characters can do to prevent that. The soldiers know they are going to die, and so do the characters, and that can make for some pretty wrenching moments. Maybe your players don’t give a damn about that, but if they might, it’s worth considering whether you want to provide a way for players to bring them real assistance (via spell or magical item) to help them escape, or if you’re cool with the pathos.
- CHAOS. My players expected a surface siege of the underwater city to have picket lines, reserve forces, siege equipment maybe, certainly people in charge down there with significant military numbers. I riffed off the setting and explained that there were morale problems because of the mental strain of reconciling the portal magic, so after the big push the injured military commander was jealously protecting the portal. Those who had the physical and mental toughness to go down and “fire at will” hunting down survivors were allowed to do so, their payment in loot. Still, the players felt that was a sketchy setup. If you are going to have an undersea siege, you’ll have to map it out and assign forces and figure out the commander’s strategy, none of that is in the scenario as it stands.
- REFUGEE SUBPLOT. There is a refugee subplot going on in the scenario. The names are missing, the meat of the refugee issue must be pieced together, and it wasn’t worth my bother. If you want to go with it, then that’s cool, you can piece it together on your own. I’m just mentioning it was there, but too murky and I didn’t have enough time to clarify it before game time, so I dropped it.
- STARGATE. One of the most important rooms in the scenario has five gates, one of which is hidden, that go to other Deep One settlements. This is cumbersome if you do not want to open up access to have your adventurers leaping into other oceans with minimal warning or prep. Instead I reduced it to a single portal that was a stargate, with dialing in coordinates to figure out where the other end opens. Turns out they didn’t make it far enough to find that, but I did not want to have to improvise so much so fast when it comes to multiple active magical gates.
My players were first level (the scenario has no indication what level characters it recommends) and they signed on with some military guys who were blowing off steam after a rough day. They heard some guys were stranded in the tower, and that it was ‘fire at will’ seek and destroy and loot time. The next morning they went down through the portal. They fended off a shark in a field of jellyfish, and got nearly killed by a couple crabs. Once they reached the city, they went through the wizard’s dome. They looted it some, and found the pathetic trapped man; the slingers put him out of his misery after the characters left the room, shaken. They killed some undead and retreated, through the residential labyrinth, over the barracks (and had a fracas with some Deep Ones, one of which rode a shark; they won decisively through superior ranged attacks). They climbed up and got some supplies to the plucky tower defenders, then pulled back and left. On the way out they ducked a giant shark, and had some other minor mishaps.
They were unanimous that they had no further interest in this island or its magical portal, so what could have been a number of targeted missions ended up being a one-shot. If asked whether they enjoyed it overall, I think the typical response would be a frown, and a grudging “I guess so.”
I have not yet mentioned the penis tower. The Deep One citadel looks just like a penis, it was built that way intentionally. I pointed out the culture’s obsession with virility, but the tower does put a dent in any effort to take the scenario seriously. There is very little art in the scenario, but somehow there are two pictures of the penis tower in addition to a vertical map of it.
Furthermore, there are a number of Spongebob Squarepants nods through the scenario that are a bit jarring when contrasted with some of the truly awful stuff going on. (The font on the cover, fire underwater, fields of jellyfish.) So, your mileage with those elements may vary too.
In case you are interested, here is the reference document I hastily threw together to run this scenario in Crumbling Epoch. The first half page is very useful, the second half page is how I thought they’d come in (but instead they all made new characters.) Then a page of encounters, and finally a page of monster stats and a stab at the city layout. (I was in a desperate rush by then.) Under the Waterless Sea Reference
In conclusion, I think this was an interesting effort with some really great things in it, but it was badly hampered by a few design decisions. Fun to read, lots and lots of work to prepare for use at the game table, and frustrating to run as written.