Sea of Blood (1997)
Bruce Cordell (TSR)
Levels 7 – 9
A belated merry Christmas and a belated Happy Newyears to all my readers, fans, adherents and enemies on this joyous day, which marks the end of my delve into Cordell’s underwater adventure series, ending with the 3rd and most ambitious installment; Sea of Blood. And what an installment it is.
In keeping with the format of monstrous adventure trilogies Cordell has so far attempted (see the Illithid adventure trilogy, which ended with an escape from an exploding astral ring construct whilst being chased by the Avatar of Illensine), part III goes completely off the rails in a 66-page double-length orgy of weirdness, exposition, high-concept ideas, nautical terror and overall wackiness. I have no idea if this adventure is survivable, bring your fucking A-game and see where the dice may fall is what I am saying. Let us jump in.
Overall notes on the adventure: This is not a simple adventure and the information one needs to run it properly is often presented in an unintuitive sequence and thus the entire adventure needs to be read, section by section, before it can be understood properly. In addition, my policy on art is usually not to comment on it but this art is fucking amazing and atmospheric as shit and therefore it needs to be mentioned again and again and again until our eyes burst like overripe fruit from our sockets and black bile seeps from our pores.
What strikes me is that this adventure has a lot of railroadery elements to it but at the same time is willing to give you all the information to run it properly even if it goes completely off the rails. I admire that dedication and Cordell’s willingness to avoid the loathsome Quantum Ogre and its vile adherents no matter the difficulty or the cost.
The adventure gives you some hooks to allow you to jump-start the game even if you have not played Part 1 and Part 2 (one of them skips the impossible battle wherein you get captured and instead starts you off in Sahuagin jail from the get-go) but soon we are well and proper off.
When last we departed our noble heroes they were tasked with locating the mysterious STONE WHICH ABIDES after it had been snatched from their ship by the evil Sahuagin baron K’stupid-name. Also captured humans from episode 1 have been brought to the City of Abiding Hunger and you must save them! After a SIDE-QUEST against an unrelated nautical nightmare unrelated to the plot, our heroes discover a friendly sea-elf who knows the location of the City of Abiding Hunger and is willing to lead our heroes into the city via a secret passage out of the kindness of his heart. TRAP. THIS IS A TRAP. DETECT EVIL. WHY ARE YOU EVIL MR SEA ELF? DID YOU NOT KNOW I WAS AWARE THAT FOR SOME REASON ONE IN ONE HUNDRED SAHUAGIN JUST HAPPEN TO LOOK LIKE SEA-ELVES (no seriously, it is true, they are called Malenti, look it up). NO MR SEA ELF, I HEAR THE WORDS THAT YOU ARE SAYING BUT I FEEL I COULD ONLY TRULY UNDERSTAND YOU IF I HEAR YOU SCREAM THOSE WORDS. Etc. Etc. Etc.
I am amazed at how much alternative scenario’s Cordell has come up with in order to ensure that the idiot PCs still blunder into the ambush. This section is impressive if only for the amount of bets being hedged (and counter-intuitively hedged at the end of the section). PCs want to go to the mainland? No problem, your buddy Quoise the Sea-Elf knows a friendly city of sea-elves nearby where they can get supplies and shit. Has Quoise died or did the PCs arrange an accident? It just so happens that that vile monster was carrying a map of a “secret entrance” to the City of Abiding Hunger with notes in Sea-elf language on it. If he is driven off, he returns with an ambushing force to bitch-slap your PCs into custody. Like some hideous nautical version of Inspector Javert, he will not rest until the PCs are brought to Sahuagin jail.
Full credit where its due. If your players are just too damned smart or you are too damned stupid to capture them with overwhelming numerical superiority, probable ambush, barbed nets, effect removal and tridents coated with paralyzing poisons, the adventure gives you an alternative way to get them back into the scenario by letting a Sahuagin priestess NPC (who normally assists with the jailbreak as I shall explain later on), assist them in breaking INTO the jail in an attempt to free the captive humans and thus get the scenario back on track. Awesome.
The adventure opens with a 150 mile swim to the City of Abiding Hunger (but it is cool since you have underwater magic items presumably). On the way they are treated to many exciting random encounters three times a day including such gems as; deadly whirlpool that appears 1d10 * 10 yards away and must be escaped via either something clever or really good saving throws. 2d4 8 HD sharks that prefer to concentrate on one opponent at a time. Harmless coral reef. Fun pirate ship that needed more color and flavor but that at least has the benefit of allowing for some interaction before the inevitable betrayal happens. Friendly dolphins that may provide a hint that Quoise is a dick (good addition). 1-2 12 HD Killer whales. And 12 HD Dragon Turtle with a 20d6 breath weapon (save vs half). After your party dutifully takes the 40% casualties that are par for the course when travelling underwater to save your friends, they finally get to the city where they can get ambushed like idiots!
The ambush itself is handled as classily as one can with these things. The odds are overwhelming but you get full xp for killing Sahuagin so its all good (provided the GM adjudicates properly and gives you xp based on how well you resist and not some all or nothing bullshit that just wastes charges and more importantly, time).
We then get a description of the City proper, and it is as colorful and wondrous as one can reasonably expect an underwater city built from coral in the caldera of a dormant volcano to be. Everything you need to run the city should the scenario go off the rails is described, from guard schedules to various areas and the loot they have, even areas the PCs are unlikely to visit! The open-endedness of this railroad is amazing! More on that later.
Once the players get captured, they get stripped of all equipment and must each compete in one gladiatorial game (though the game offers possibilities for jailbreaks before that, with a very low chance of survival) before the plot rescue kicks in. Unless your players remembered to hide water-breathing rings in their underpants or your wizard prepared exactly the right spells, no one is getting out of there on their own) that is probably the way it will go.
The arena itself is fucking classic, reminiscent of John Carter and other pulp goodness. Each player and NPC buddy gets a random event (roll 1d6, annoyingly mentioned much later in the adventure, after the prison maps, fuck!). One on one combat against young Sahuagin where the blood and silt-clouded water causes increasing difficulty for the players over time. A match in an air bubble against a fellow prisoner (or even another PC, though refusal to fight will not mean death but combat against 4 Sahuagin). A battle with a Sea-Ogre NPC prisoner that is usually treacherous but will consider whomever fights with him against a pack of Locatah (also prisoners) an ally from thereon out. A gauntlet of a hollow tube and spears. For NPCs (which means henchmen the PCs have befriended up to this point) there are two other possible competitions. Combat against a Kraken with a small dagger whilst chained to a pillar or a race-till-death on a circular course with giant sharks, both, in all probability, lethal.
Provided your players survive the Arena combats, they are contacted by a Sahuagin priestess who smells something fishy (dur hur hur) is going on with the Sahuagin King and the High priestess and thus provides the players with a means of escape: An extra-strength dose of Sahuagin elixir that transforms the players into Sahuagin for 24 hours, giving them time and a small chance to escape! Fish-men politics!
I think part of the genius of this adventure is to be found in this section and the way it facilitates roleplaying and forces characters to think on their feet. Not merely the concept is praiseworthy, but the execution! Different Sahuagin classes respond differently to breeches of decorum! Sahuagin characters that seem off are challenged by their peers to a Sahuagin version of Simon-says (the game offers dice mechanics but recommends you play it out with roleplaying!). Priestesses will quiz characters on Sahuagin lore, Princes or soldiers will expect deference and will challenge an offending character to single combat if it is not given etc. I like it that a single slip-up does not have to result in a game-over in most of this section.
But on to the jailbreak proper. The priestess gives you a vague hint, unlocks the cells and everyone gets an extra strength dose of Sahuagin potion and off we go! The characters have to pass guard-checkpoints, navigate a maze that has counter-measures (gelatinous cubes and traps) and fellow prisoners that can be freed (Oafish gladiator convinced he will retain his freedom if he is victorious in the arena, tortured and insane merman, sirens and so on), recover their equipment, locate the secret exit and what prison would be complete without an underwater torture dungeon and its four armed scalpel wielding interrogator (Verukuun the Asker!)? Additional XP rewards for getting some of the prisoners out of the prison and the city safely function as nice bonus objectives (though Sea of Blood is challenging enough as it is). In a welcome nod to underwater adventures since time immemorial, Cordell actually manages to incorporate a Morkoth into this section, making him the first and last person in the history of DnD to have ever used this monster.
During the equipment recovery section, Cordell recommends you have the Sahuagin steal any magic items the party has that would make them too powerful, a sensible if dick move. Well played Cordell. Don’t forget that Sahuagin wearing plate mail or unconventional weapons draw immediate attention in the City of Abiding Hunger!
The second section involves a visit to the Throne of Teeth, the creepy inverted vertical palace of the High Priestess and the Sahuagin King. Why not simply escape you ask? Several hundred sharks and Sahuagin warriors are a pretty good reason (though inventive players could probably find a way around that). Great job on the description of the palace by the way. A 180 ft. spire of cyclopean masonry, coated with mother of pearl and sorcerous glow globes. You enter at the top and visit the king in the bottom.
Like the previous section, the best way to infiltrate the palace is through trickery and deception. Also like the previous section, failure does not necessarily mean instant defeat (though it means the enmity of powerful royal guards and, probably, a general alarm). Things are not well in the City of Abiding Hunger. The High Priestess has lost access to her spells because of her devotion to a new deity (covered later) but has compensated for this with her horrifying flesh-warping experimentation that has rendered her part electric eel (THIS is the stuff Sea Devils needed more of). The king has stopped giving audiences and is under a geas by a race of hideous eel-men from the blackest depths of the Sea! The geas makes him more eel-like! Even here it is possible to make an NPC Sahuagin buddy (prince Maantikuk *Sigh* red-pill yourself already Cordell, he will never love you if you keep fawning over him), who will gleefully join in on the red-handed undersea regicide in exchange for the throne, no pressure.
All the rooms are really cool and well-described and feel like the palace of hideous martial race of underwater cannibal fish-spartans. Naturally fighting the Sahuagin King is likely to bring the alarm, and soon, the entire enraged city down upon the characters, so they had better gtfo asap and do their looting before that.
In yet another great conceit/Dick Move, Cordell throws in a fake treasury and the real treasury hidden under a boulder in the king’s preserve (1 encounter every 3 rounds, Scrags, giant sharks, Sea Lions etc. etc.). A secret door under the throne (WHERE ELSE?!?) leads the characters to the final section of the adventure, presumably with several hundred Sahuagin thirsting for their blood if they are stupid enough to leave the secret door open).
The tunnel ends deep in the wall of an unfathomably deep ocean trench, where the water is black as night and everything sucks. First we get several pages of backstory/exposition on the hideous Anguilians (Eel-like precursors of the Sahuagin), their history and the nefarious plot of the Deep Mother, a millenia-old Eel-creature to re-awaken her slumbering god from its egg (the Stone which Abides!). The Sahuagin were to be a convenient instrument of his rebirth. In the 2e style, I feel too much is spelled out that will never be used, but as a GM I guess it helps so subtle hints may be woven into the game at the appropriate time. As far as flavor text goes, its tolerable and suitably DnDish to pass muster, with some nice S&S trappings. A degenerate race of ancient Eel-men who once had mastery over organic technology seeking to re-awaken their hideous Eel-god.
Since the players are likely to be considerably depleted by now, the game does not fuck around too much. A climax needs momentum. The players exit the secret tunnel, probably slaughter about half a tribe of Eel-men as move down towards the objective, a GIGANTIC BIO-LUMINESCENT FLOATING BIO-FORTRESS. Great. You encounter at least one hunting party tasked with bringing food towards the ever-hungry citadel. One last possible instant death (Being an idiot by entering the stomach instead of the heart-chamber), and we arrive at the final showdown. It is the Deep Mother, millennia-old queen and would-be sire to the Eel-god Anguilius! Also the prisoners that you were looking for are here too and may be freed to join in the fight or rescued for delicious XP (their survival is not necessary for the adventure to conclude). Your pal Baron K’hstraahn shows up with his magical trident. Interrupt the Deep Mother before she finishes the ritual and hatches the Demi-god Anguilius from his egg! (although the god is disoriented for a few rounds, his very birth has a chance of killing the party, and the chance of victory is very slim if the ritual is allowed to succeed). The Deep Mother is intelligent and thus will attempt escape if shit hits the fan!
Uh shit. I made an error. The Stone Which Abides is actually the petrified Husband of the Deep Mother and the Seed of Tempest is the Egg from which it hatches, but whatever. Smash the egg before it hatches! In true Cordell fashion, multiple ways are given to resolve the scenario if the players fail and a hideous newly born Deep God now plagues the depths and many of the implications are resolved. Should the players succeed, they will now have access to some kick-ass loot particularly (and ironically) useful in nautical adventures that will likely not occur that much afterward (seriously how are you going to top this? A quest to the Elemental Plane of Water seems the best bet). An anchor with a bound intelligent water elemental that allows one all manner of control over the seas. An amulet that contains a portal to a library-fortress on the Quasi-elemental Plane of Salt, occupied by the Doomguard (a Planescape faction), kicking off an even more awesome Quest and incentivizing YOU to buy Planescape(tm)! A blade that looks like a narwhall horn that functions like a +3 two-handed sword and ignores penalties underwater! A fortune worth of pearls! YEAH!
Cons: Confusing layout. High deadliness means it is not suitable for little girls. Social component might frighten away the more autistic members of your group. Combat heavy nature means pacifists and story-gamers won’t be able to resolve the scenario without slaughtering some of the last remnants of a once great civilization.
Final Verdict: I reviewed Deep Carbon Observatory a while ago and I was gushing over that but adventures like this one show all too well in what giant footsteps these would be kings and conquerors of the OSR must tread in order to make the grade. Stop the pressess and cancel your plans. The Cordell-meister is in town. Underwater Adventures are cool again!
9.5 out of 10.