Night of the Shark (1997)
Bruce Cordell (TSR)
Levels 6 – 8
2e has something of a reputation problem among neckbeards and other disgusting nerds. Neither old enough to warrant veneration from the crusty old catpissmen nor new enough to enjoy the patronage of world of warcraft-playing buck-toothed girly-boys and the fake-gamer girls that prey on them, 2e was always something of a middle child. Entirely undeserved imho. For all its decadence, bloated catalog, wretched power creep and dubious leadership, 2e created campaign-settings that are beloved to this day, fixed up a lot of the rules horseshit of 1e so you could actually play it as written and now, with my delve into Monstrous Arcana, it may be said not all of its adventures were the rail-roadery horseshit with fake gameplay it is notorious for.
Cordell takes on that beloved classic of adventure locations, the Ghost Ship, and manages to pull it off with flying colors and a dynamic energy that few OSR-adepts today have come close to emulating. The second part, yet another Search-and-Destroy operation into an underwater cavern complex, albeit in 3D! is less spectacular.
After thwarting the Sahuagin attempts to obtain the Stone Which Abides, our noble heroes have been either chartered to get it the fuck away from the Island and dump it into the ocean, seek to get it the fuck away from the Sahuagin and thus on the mainland or else are seeking to pawn it off, which is only possible on the mainland. If your heroes have not participated in the first part of the trilogy the adventure courteously offers you two hooks to get you in but really you should just go fuck yourself if you cannot conceive a reason for your characters to be on a boat.
The game courteously gives you two rounds to prepare when you see the great sorcerous storm approaching that allays your vessel. You are clearly meant to sink, but for some reason the game gets all uppity and wants to give the appearance of not being a railroad. First your ship makes a Seaworthiness check at -3 (+/- 30% chance to succeed) or it sinks. If that fails, your old pal K’thstraam emerges from the waves with two megalodons and 20 of his warriors to sink your ass and steal the stone in the distraction. Hmn. Get your ship sunk by a storm of have a fight with a GIANT SHARK smashing the front while Sahuagin warriors flood the decks while a second GIANT SHARK bites below the waterline and K’thstraam steals the rock. At the very least, the battle is not automatically survivable, takes place under horrible conditions (giant storm +waves) and allows the PCs to earn some XP by killing at least one of the GIANT SHARKS and some unfortunate Sahuagin. I know what I would pick to start my next adventure.
Anyway, your ship is now sunk and you are adrift at sea, wildly off course, with only your abundant supply of nautical magical items to increase your survivability. To drive home the point of how fucked you are, you get 2 days of exposure to sun, cold, dehydration (unless you got yourself that decanter of endless water, in which case you are fine) and dwindling rations (which, again, would probably be ruined by the seawater but this is not mentioned). Several random encounter rolls later (shitty results include 2d4 7-8 HD sharks or a DRAGON TURTLE), your PCs are probably the worse for wear, and help arrives in the form of a ship, seemingly abandoned, and seaworthy despite its tattered, rotten sails and timbers. A ghost ship! Classic.
Classic premises are the meat and bone of DnD adventures, but the devil is, as always, in the details, and Cordell delivers with flying colors. Let us examine why. The map is, well, of a ship and looks like a ship, nothing more need be said. A great hole provides access to multiple decks. Two secret doors conceal huge treasures but good mapping-practices by the PCs will reveal them. Goody.
Beyond the classically creepy atmosphere (three skeletons of sailors in the crow’s nest with a diary of ominous last entries that seemed to have died from his exposure rather then set foot upon the deck, weird creepy mold, signs of widespread destruction, bloody finger nail marks as though something were dragged from the room etc.) this segment is nice because it has a proper build-up before you encounter the horrors that plague the ship, especially if you explore the upper deck first, which is entirely abandoned. A collapsing stairway that crashes your PC through the floor and directly into a pile of monsters on the lower deck completes it (and has a pretty good chance of killing the unfortunate guy to be first).
The encounters are rad. Obviously the Fortunate Son is, among other things, plagued by the undead, but Cordell gives us some customization and throws us some curveballs. Suddenly animating zombies coated with a strange oily black fungus that infects its prey with a rotting disease, A skeleton hanging from a metal rod in a surgeons lab that animates and tries to grab PCs, and what is easily the most brilliant encounter in the ship, A FUNGUS-INFECTED ZOMBIE SHARK KEPT IN A SHARK TANK FOR DISSECTION THAT BREAKS OUT IF YOU FUCK WITH IT AND SLITHERS ACROSS THE FLOOR TO EAT THE PCS. Meanwhile, investigation of the ship reveals most of the story. The Fathomer in charge of the ship teamed up with a surgical buddy after finding herself some arcane knowledge and seeking to fuse men with necromantically animated shark tissue for some nautical related purpose (An endeavor worthy of any wizard). The progeny of the hideous abomination still plagues the ship, in the form of “tight coils that look like wasp nests formed from by a single coiled snake.” They drop from the ceiling and try to bite and burrow for the spinal column. Fucking nightmare fuel. I love it.
Another part I appreciate in this segment is the treasure. Beyond the usual coins, we get silver plated sextants, a pair of bone dice with ruby pips, a bundle of soft wool of golden hue worth 75 gp to the right buyer, a collection of valuable pipes from different cultures and 300 gp worth of packets of chipotle that somehow managed to survive the decay. Also some nice unique magical treasure sprinkled here and there amidst the more common DMG stuff we know and love. A Scalpel of dissection that functions as a sword of sharpness but will amputate a limb of the wielder on a natural 1. The magical tome containing the research of the dead fathomer that can be useful, yet tricks the reader into thinking the research on fusing man and re-animating shark tissue is viable and has a high chance of working. The odd common magical item but at least given a cosmetic makeover (monocle that acts as an eye of minute seeing etc.). There is enough magical shit to make the adventure more then a death trap but not enough that it feels like a monty haul (though more frugal GM’s might balk at the amount of magical treasure).
As soon as the PCs board, the ship sets out for an unknown destination and arrives in two days. Should the PCs survive and locate the secret room holding the ghost of the Fathomer before that, you get yourself the gib. Sharone the fathomer has been necromantically bound to the ship in ghost form and needs YOU! to help her hunt down the Apodalypse! that she unleashed upon the world so she may be put to rest. In return she tells you the location of the City of Abiding Hunger where the stone was taken. Amusingly, the adventure actually has the balls to make this not a railroad, and covers the possibility you simply murder the ghost (again), who will attempt to possess one of the players if they refuse (though you will have to find the City of Abiding Hunger by yourself if you choose to do so). As a less brutal incentive, the Apodalypse had enough humanity left to make away with the ship’s strongbox, including a magic sword! Zing! All you have to do is go underwater and penetrate its lair and not die like a chump! Sign me up.
The second part of the adventure is a more classic underwater lair assault. 24 hours after you first board the ship the Fortunate Son reaches the lair of the Apodalypse. A group of Sahuagin have constructed a temple atop of its lair and feed it sacrifices, thinking it an avatar of their weird shark god because of course they do. The temple proper is nothing spectacular, 5 linked domes with a single entrance and an underground tunnel system linking the bunch, but at least it feels like an underwater temple made by fish men with its netting, captured sea elves and pit ringed by a giant shark mouthbone to give it that nautical twist. Yet another powerful Sahuagin prince in disguise with magical shit appears and is meant to escape to appear later on in the third adventure. He does little but attack so I don’t really know or see why he should be foreshadowed at all. This section is not bad but it is not great either. At least all the Sahuagin have been given a game plan in case of attack. One of the priestesses has a conch shell that actually calls forth the Apodalypse from its lair and will use it if the battle goes against the Sahuagin, so the chance is pretty high our heroes will face the Apodalypse in the temple complex.
The Lair of the Apodalypse proper is strange and the first cavern is filled to the brim with progeny. There is a way to bypass these by smearing some strange goo on your party but there is no way you would know to do that so the most likely course of action (unless you get captured, which the game does take into account to its credit) is to murder all of them and just take the casualties.
Uh sorry, I should start at the beginning and give an overview. The cavern complex proper has an interesting feature. It is a 3-D map displayed as a cross section rather then a top-down view. So it is still 2-D, just different 2-D. Most cavern have a percentage chance of containing either Progeny, Sahuagin pentinents (i.e crippled Sahuagin who believe they deserve death), captive sea elves or traps. The actual numbered encounters are way better. Two are evil Npcs that interact with the party, an Ixitxachil (evil manta ray cleric) who has managed to survive for some time and will backstab the party and a malenti (Sahaugin that looks like a Sea Elf) that is meant to lead the characters into a trap. Having your plot depend on a sea elf the PCs might not meet who might not survive is a risky gambit but okay. The animated skeletal tail of a purple worm. The dreaded Apodalypse itself, a hideous 30 foot amalgamation of dead sea-creatures and screaming humanoids, is nicely done (and fucking deadly as shit), and its lair, so clogged with the cast-off skins of sea creatures vision extends to only 10 feet, should make for an appropriately nightmarish battleground. Should the PCs survive, some decent loot and an overpowered magical sword may be had.
With the Apodalypse destroyed and a helpful new Sea-elf friend to lead our heroes into the City of Abiding Hunger, the adventure is now over. Go You!
Pros: Splendid treasure, both magical and mundane. Bitchin’ monster encounters. Atmospheric and fantastical in the manner of weird horror, a thing DnD needs more of. Solid design all around.
Cons: More railroadery tossfiddle. Combat-heavy.
Bottom line: Night of the Shark continues the underwater excitement with another solid outing. If your players enjoyed the first part I can see no reason why they would not also enjoy the second outing, which is stronger then the first part but not as good as say…Masters of Eternal Night or as bang for your buck as Hammers of the God. The monsters are neat but you are going to spend a fair share of time chopping away at them. I always feel like a faggot whenever I give half a point and this is no exception. 7.5 out of 10 Tridents.