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Saturday 13 July 2019

Lovecraftian Dungeons & Dragons

Arc Dream Publishing is best known as the publisher of the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, the roleplaying game of conspiratorial and Lovecraftian investigative horror, but now it has published its first release for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. This is The Sea Demon’s Gold, a scenario designed for a party of five First Level adventurers, the first in the publisher’s ‘Swords & Sorceries’ adventure line and the first release for its ‘Broken Empire’ setting. The scenario is quite short and should be playable in a session or two, comes with notes to adjust the difficulty up or down depending upon the number of players, and is primarily focused on exploration and combat, although there are some nice roleplaying opportunities along the way.

The setting for the line and the ‘Broken Empire’ are the remnants of the Zyirran Empire, which once conquered and enslaved all of the lands around the Sea of Storms, ruling over a long, uneasy peace. Once enthralled to its patron and god-king, Surkat the Conqueror, Father of Furies, devil-god of water and the underworld, patron of sailors, traders, and soldiers, a century ago, the paladins and priests of the sky-gods of the eastern Samarran kingdoms overthrew the empire, supplanting temples dedicated to devils with those to the  sky-gods. The empire disintegrated and was so replaced by petty kingdoms and city-states, separated by long stretches of dangerous wilderness that are home to chaos, monsters, and ancient ruins. None of this is given in The Sea Demon’s Gold, but the feel of both this background and the scenario itself is of the northern Mediterranean, of Greece and a fallen Byzantium-like empire, placed of course, in the Swords & Sorcery genre. Although the scenario can be easily slotted into another setting, the scenario, its setting, and its genre are fully supported by a set of pre-generated player characters ready to be downloaded and the scenario played.

As the scenario begins with the player characters aboard the Heart of Iron, heading for a long-lost island said to be home to an abandoned temple of the Sea Demon. The extinct people of the island are rumoured to have appeased the Sea Demon with sacrifices of wealth and their own criminals, and with the temple having been abandoned, then that wealth is just lying there, ready to be plundered. They have been hired by the ship’s captain to go ashore and delve into the temple in return for half of the wealth they find. As the scenario opens though, the Heart of Iron is caught in a violent storm and being attacked by raiders from the depths, just as the ship is about to be driven onto the shore…

The set-up gets the adventurers and their players nicely involved in the action and it is nicely counterpointed by a roleplaying encounter which hints at the dangers to be found within the temple itself, that leaving may require a greater sacrifice than they are willing to make. This is only the first hint of the dangers to come, the other hints coming whenever the player characters take long rests to heal and recover spells. This includes presenting another roleplaying hook which is likely to have long term consequences to both character and the adventuring party in general.

The temple of the Sea Demon consists of just ten locations, much of it warped coral covered in fleshy slime and interrupted by chitin. Lit by algae and dripping with water, it feels almost alive as air seems to pass through it, and for the most part, the danger to the player characters really comes in their meddling and being greedy, the temple seeming to respond to their actions, although they may encounter an NPC who definitely wants to help their progress. Overall, the player characters will need to work for the treasure and will probably need to be wary to of the dangers within its slime encrusted walls.

Physically, The Sea Demon’s Gold is well presented in full colour with some decent illustrations—starting with the excellent front cover, which really reaches out and grabs you. The deckplan of the Heart of Iron feels superfluous, whilst the map of the dungeon perhaps could have done with a little more detail and it would have been nice if some descriptive text had been given for each location. The writing feels a little brief in places, but that is down to the brevity of the scenario itself at just eighteen pages.

The Sea Demon’s Gold nicely models the Swords & Sorcery genre in offering  more dangers than rewards, doing so in a weird, dank, and squelchy environment. There is a pleasing sense of corruption to both location and the scenario’s storyline, one that should be fun to roleplay out should both the Dungeon Master and her players embrace it. Overall, The Sea Demon’s Gold feels grimmer than most scenarios for Dungeons & Dragons, with a strong undercurrent of the Lovecraftian that has been mapped onto traditional Dungeons & Dragons stylings. 

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