It is something of an unwritten rule in both video games and their tabletop cousins that underwater adventures are fucking terrible. In tabletop, the plethora of conditions and rules add a new cartload of conditions for the GM to keep track of and few if any adventures actually manage to utilize the advantages of the alien environment beneath the waves effectively (please visit the excellent Bryce Lynch’s tenfootpole.org website for several notable examples scattered thereabouts). In addition, 2e adventures have something of a bad rep all by themselves. Who but Bruce Cordell, the Brucemeister, the Kal-el named Corell and Faffhrd to Monte Cook’s Gray Mauser could prove us all so terribly wrong, bigoted and latently homosexual?
Evil Tide is the first adventure in a trilogy of Sahuagin-focused adventures written as companions to the Sea Devils Monstrous Arcana fluffsplat. Suitable for 4-8 characters of 5-7, Evil Tide pits our dashing do-gooders against a war party of Sahuagin led by the villainous four-armed Baron K’thstraam, who has staged raids against Angler Island as part of a fiendish plot to uncover the aeons-old Stone Which Abides for a nefarious plot.
This adventure is good. It is hard to articulate exactly why. It feels like Cordell, in writing, went through an imaginary checklist of THINGS A GOOD ADVENTURE MUST HAVE and somehow delivered an interesting take on ATTACK THE SAHUAGIN CAVERN. I will go through the steps of the adventure and point out where it went well. One thing that can absolutely go fuck itself is the recommendation to get the OF SHIPS AND THE SEA supplement for 2e, but this is so fucking unnecessary you need not be bothered by that overmuch. The adventure delivers all the water rules you need to know about in a terse sidebar no more then half a page.
The adventure begins with a series of hooks needed to get the PCs to Angler Island. Merchant vessel guards, ship is damaged and must land at Angler Island, message promising 500 gp for fighting off recent Sea Devil incursions etc. etc. Since a good part of this adventure is figuring out what the fuck is going on, these hooks are little more then perfunctory and thus serve little purpose beyond getting the PCs to Angler Island.
The good design begins almost immediately. Before the PCs come upon Angler Island they stumble upon an exhausted Sea Elf in need of rescue. She is exhausted and attacked by 3 sharks (of which only one is visible through its fin, a nasty surprise for idiots who jump in). Welcome to underwater rules unsuspecting players. It is up to the players to try and rescue the elf. In 1 round before the sharks reach her. Unless you jumped in. Did you remove your armour? Does anyone have a Use Rope proficiency? Oh you threw the rope at the elf so she can drag herself aboard. Did I not mention she was exhausted? I clearly did. Str (6) check. Bwahahaha! Better fucking hope you remembered to try to lasso her.
Unless the players are pretty savy and quick on their feet, this encounter is likely to end in disaster for the Sea Elf. If you rescue the elf you get hints of a nefarious purpose behind the Sea Devil Raids beyond the simple raiding for food and iron and then she probably dies of poison unless your pc’s are savy enough to pick up on the hints in the exposition in which case they can stop the poison and get themselves a temporary ally. Hope the cleric prepared Slow/Neutralize Poison, which he fucking did or you get a new cleric.
After that introduction, the PC’s arrive on Angler Island, there to witness/experience a fight between a band of Sahuagin and the Dock Guard. This encounter sets up the Sahuagin but also makes one underestimate them by introducing them outside of their element (i.e on land), where they are less dangerous, thus instilling within the PCs a false sense of confidence (as the adventure explains). Notes on what to do if the PCs capture or subdue Sahuagin and submit them to magical interrogation are provided, which is smart.
After this, the Adventure assumes the PCs will meet with the Potentate, a middle-aged woman who speaks in boxed text, who tells them about the raids and promises them great rewards if they succeed(2000 gp worth of pearls). While the Potentate is too stupid to connect the dots, clever PCs should become suspicious at the mentions of recent sea quakes, a recently opened chasm, a lost excavation team, a strange serpentine figure recovered from the site and the Sea Devil raids starting shortly after the sea quake. A map of the island is helpfully provided, as well as the possible help of the Potentate’s old friend Laurish Samprey, a level 10 wizard that dresses like a sailor who lives on the island and specializes in underwater adventures, who will help for a percentage of the treasure (HE IS LEVEL 10 IDIOTS SAY YES) or provide sufficient magical shit to handle the nontrivial challenge of underwater adventuring if not. The potentate’s daughter and captain of the dock guard also offers to join if you do not already have a sea elf buddy, but she is only level 2 and will probably be dead soon since this shit is way out of her league. The NPCs are not brilliant but are given enough description to give the GM SOMETHING and even Angler Island is described in sufficient detail to at least give it the appearance of versimilitude. It feels like an actual location rather then a mere formality for the adventure, unlike the Illithiad’s Stormhaven city.
And thus we are off. I am amazed how nonlinear this plot-heavy adventure is. Smart PCs investigate the collapsed excavation site and ask around town for one of the relatives of the lost excavation team (the rest of the guard are too busy making sure they are not murdered by Sahuagin) to get themselves an item that they really need to complete the adventure (though to be fair, the timing is irrelevant so you won’t get screwed that hard for missing this fairly obscure clue). If the PCs decide to do something about the raids (who serve only as a distraction) the adventure merrily provides Sahuagin troops strengths and tactics.
In addition to entry via the collapsed excavation site (do you have a Mining Proficiency or a Dig spell? If not, there is a possibility the shaft will collapse upon your face), clever PCs can deduce, by discovering a digger who was off duty when the Excavation collapsed, that sea-devil like raggamuffins were discovered inside and the tunnel was likely collapsed from inside. By using deduction, logic and knowledge of tropes, it is even possible to find a second hidden entrance BEHIND THE ONLY WATERFALL ON THE ISLAND I LOVE IT into the caverns proper. It goes without saying that figuring this out nets you XP (simply stumbling upon it as you try the waterfall gets you less xp).
The only point of criticism I can level is that the amount of magical items the Fathomer (i.e Water Wizard) lends to the party is perhaps too large to be credible, though I do not think it should unbalance the game terribly. 10 potions, scrolls of protection from water, a ring of swimming, a cloak of the manta ray, a helm of underwater action and a fucking Apparatus of Kwalish?!? Did Samprey raid Poseidon’s treasury or something?
The Sea Caves proper are very well done. The map assumes players will enter the caverns at low tide (if not, they are completely submerged always), and clearly differentiates between rooms that are dry, partially submerged or entirely submerged. Nowhere is there the scourge of linearity, instead we get a nice set of branching pathways, forks and so on. The odd narrow corridor and hidden passage under the water-level, as well as high ledges in partially submerged caverns adds both versimilitude and game-play (the ledges are so your wizard can cast lightning bolt on the stupid fishmen for the slow kids). Later on, strange membranous doors that can only be opened quickly with the plot device key serve as more then just a temporary impediment and can be used for temporary shelter from the Sahuagin by clever PCs.
Ah, but what then of the opposition and the contents of these Caverns Nautical? As one might readily imagine, most of the opposition consists of Sahuagin and the odd group of sharks. As can be expected from highly intelligent insanely war-like fishmen, they defend their territory extremely well, with notes on ambushes, traps, pincer movements using hidden passageways, bags of squid ink and sharkmen potions of heroism made from shark-stuff and hard to bypass sentry systems to add much needed spice to an otherwise somewhat homogenous dish. Fear not though, this is not merely a difficult game of EXTERMINATE THE FISHMEN.
An unexplored side-passageway leads to the lair of a sailor cursed with lycanthropy via an amulet! His room is full of carvings made from driftwood! The game says that if your GM thinks this is a good idea the Seawolfman is not immediately hostile and can even be befriended (the adventure suggests that complimenting him on his carvings is a good place to start) so as to team up with the CE wolfman to clear the caverns of Sahuagin. He will not neccesarily betray you. Fucking sign me up. A gigantic block of serpentine that is both too heavy and too large to easily remove from the caverns. A valuable treasure in the form of an ancient serpentine carving of a proto-sea-elf/drow (raising unrelated but important questions about the possible origins of the Drow) is located in a cavern only accessible through a tunnel a foot wide and high! A whirlpool is a good deathtrap for idiot PCs who think they might be able to reach the lower levels this way and do not test this or take precautions!
Nice nautical treasure too, although the nifty psionic items of the Illithiad are not given their Little Mermaid equivalents here. Pearls and creepy serpentine figurines, alongside the odd Triton-forged trident+1. Not mind-blowing but the effort is made and appreciated.
The second section of the caverns takes place entirely underwater in eerie cyclopean ruins from a vaguely eel-like species so ancient even the Sahuagin do not remember them. Two megalodons and a hideous death trap consisting of the insane remnant of the psionic/magical guardian entity originally created to operate the ruins. It is masterfully telegraphed in advance by eery singing and eventually a pile of hideously dessicated sahuagin corpses surrounding a 5 foot aperture from which radiates unearthly emerald witchlight. Are you an idiot and do you look in the aperture? Nice.
Two megalodons later, the final confrontation takes place in what I think might be the most bizarre set piece battle I have ever read. Well telegraphed in advance by a gradual increase in the temperature of the water, the PCs pass through several shattered membrane doors, only to find that the quake has opened a fault in the earth from which rushes magma, thus boiling the water surrounding the Stone which Abides room.
The sahuagin have made a bizarre airlock out of a whale’s gut to protect them from the boiling water. You face the Four-armed Sahuagin baron, if you have set off an alarm (almost inevitable), inside this whale-gut, where he will attack from ambush in the folds with his magical trident. Yes, using piercing weapons in the whale gut is incredibly dangerous. Neat. Grognards might mutter disparagingly at the recommendation that you keep the Baron alive by letting him use his sentient magical trident ability to teleport away if he reaches less then 20 hit points so he may fling his boxed text taunt at you and return to plague the PCs in the next chapter, where it is presumably discovered what the fuck the Stone Abides actually does. In the aftermath, the Potentate sensibly decides that if the Sahuagin want it, it needs to get the fuck off the Island. Cue the PCs for part two.
Pros: Challenging. Nice balance of playability, versimilitude, fantasy and concepts. Underwater adventures that do not suck are few and far between. Utilizes many aspects of both the underwater adventure and the cavern adventure to its benefit. Has many if not all aspects of what makes a solid adventure (exploration, interaction, novelty, unique treasure, opportunities for intelligent tactics etc.).
Cons: Too many free nautical magical items at the start of the adventure might strain credibility and remove something of the challenge and wonder. Low variety in enemies and relatively combat heavy. Book-keeping required.
Bottom line: Cordell shows the petty-scribes and would-be gurus how underwater adventures are done. A solid outing with a few delightfully fantastical hints through and through. 7 out of 10 tridents.