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Monday 16 December 2019

The DCC Standardbearer

Since the publication of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition in 2000, Goodman Games has published over one hundred adventure modules for its Dungeon Crawl Classics line and since 2012, these have been for its own Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Derived from the d20 System, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game sits somewhere between Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in terms of its complexity. The most radical step in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is the starting point. Players begin by playing not one, but several Zero Level characters, each a serf or peasant looking beyond a life tied to the fields and the seasons or the forge and the hammer to prove themselves and perhaps progress enough to become a skilled adventurer and eventually make a name for themselves. In other words, to advance from Zero Level to First Level. Unfortunately, delving into tombs and the lairs of both men and beasts is a risky venture and death is all but a certainty for the lone delver… In numbers, there is the chance that one or more will survive long enough to go onto greater things! This is what the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game terms a ‘Character Creation Funnel’.

And right from the outset, Goodman Games supported this feature with the very first scenario released for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. This is Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea and since 2012 it has gone through six printings. Even further, Goodman Games has marked that sixth printing with a Limited Foil Edition’, a lovely hardback edition with a foil cover which not only reprints the module, but also includes new artwork, a retrospective, sketches, a discussion of the art process, and even discussion of lead artist’s—not the author’s—variant of the module, ‘Reverse Sailors on the Starless Sea’!

The adventure in Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea is designed for Zero Level characters, roughly between ten and fifteen with three characters per player. Alternatively, it can be played using characters of First Level and Second Level, but either way, it is expected that roughly half of these characters will survive. That though, is quite possibly a generous assessment as this module has the potential to kill player characters, even cause a Total Party Kill. Nevertheless, it has some great set scenes and really has a grim and perilous feel that echoes Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.

The setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea takes place in and below a ruined keep that was once the lair of Molan and Felan, brothers who were great chaos lords at the head of great armies of beastial mutants before the forces of good led a campaign against them and sacked their foul castle. Ages have passed and its vile reputation is barely remembered, but now villagers have gone missing, beastmen howl in the night, and it is up to other villagers—the player characters—to go into the keep and hopefully find the missing villagers as well as put an end to the chaos that threatens to surge up and sweep over the land once again…

The adventure consists of two levels, each with just a few locations. The first of these is the courtyard of the keep itself, a bramble-filled ruin of tumble-down towers and walls. From the outset even getting into this area is dangerous, one route threatening a rock slide, another an encounter with vine-infested villagers, and a third with via sinkhole which appears to go straight to hell! Once inside there are tombs to discover, charnel chaos-infested ruins to explore, and dread Beastmen to face, and whilst these are single locations, they are big in terms of story and atmosphere. For example, in the charnel ruins, there are charred skeletons still hot to the touch, a frog fountain with red gemstone eyes and jewelled maw, and a black ichor which drips from the fountain and forms deadly pseudopods. But there is also a means to counter them in the ruins and clues to that too, waiting for the players to have their characters work out exactly how…

However fun these locations are, they cannot beat the big set piece on the shores of the starless shore. Here the player characters are faced with puzzle which looks like a combat encounter and asks them how they get past a leviathan which they have almost no chance of defeating. In some ways, the scenario’s end encounter with the Beastmen shaman and his acolytes atop the ziggurat which stands in the starless sea is almost an anticlimax, but it is nevertheless a thrilling end to the scenario.

With its fifth printing, Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea included a bonus dungeon, ‘The Summoning Pits’. This is an adjunct to the main dungeon, one that explore the origins of a particular monster which appears at the start of the scenario. It is a change of tone in comparison to the rest of the scenario, weird and creepy rather than obviously grim and perilous. 

This being a scenario for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, it should be no surprise that there is a pleasing degree of detail to Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea. This includes not only each and every location as you would expect, but also elements such as a table of mutations for the Beastmen—a table whose content foreshadows those for Manimals in the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, what to do if the player characters actually have five hundred feet of rope with which to lower themselves into the sinkhole, the list of curses which will befall the characters should one of their number take a certain magical item. One aspect of the scenario is the preponderance of magical items that the player characters can find and wield, but nearly all of them with some kind of cost—even when that magical item might actually help the player characters. Well, that should be no surprise given that the scenario takes place in the former lair of a pair of chaos lords!

Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea barely takes up twenty-four of the fifty-eight pages of the sixth printing and its ‘Limited Foil Edition’. The other thirty or so pages include ‘Sailors Retrospective’, an interview with Harley Stroh about the development and writing of the scenario along with his original map sketches. Doug Kovacs’ cover is accorded a similar treatment as well as a series of tribute covers by the stable of artists who illustrate for Goodman Games. The section highlights just how much of an influence his art and cartography has on the whole of the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game line. Rounding the book is a look at the artist’s ‘Reverse Sailors on the Starless Sea’ in which the players take the roles of not the villagers but the Beastmen fighting their out of the complex. It is simply bonkers… Lastly, there is a photo gallery of the early years of Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Now these extras are not as extensive as that in Metamorphosis Alpha: Fantastic Role-Playing Game of Science Fiction Adventures on a Lost Starship and Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands, but then Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea is just seven years old and does not have the same history, and obviously, it is much, much shorter than either. Nevertheless, this is lovely way in which to acknowledge the success and impact of Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea.

Physically, Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea is superbly presented, The artwork is excellent, the editing solid, and the cartography atmospheric with some lovely little details, such as the nod to the cutaway dungeon that appeared in Basic Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea is never less than deadly and dangerous, but always ready to reward good play. It feels like a big scenario, rich in grim and perilous flavour and detail, not a dungeon to be attacked, but to be explored, its secrets to winkled out and perhaps put to use in saving the villagers—and possibly the world. It set a standard for the Dungeon Crawl Classics scenarios which followed and the Dungeon Crawl Classics #67: Sailors on the Starless Sea – Limited Edition Foil Cover gives us the opportunity to go back to reexamine that standard.


  1. Great review. I have the original version but am interested in picking this up for the bonus dungeon and extra content...do they include a PDF code, too?

  2. Not that I am aware of. You should check with the publisher.