[Review] Under the Waterless Sea (NGR); Minor loss of fidelity

[Adventure]
Under the Waterless Sea (2014)

Zzarchov Kowolski
Low levels (2-4?)

Under the Waterless Sea” | Fictive Fantasies



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The Kowolski Omnibuscrawl continues. A laudably ambitious entry, hampered by some problems of organization and implementation. The customary Kowolski sandbox is expanded to involve the fate of an entire Island Kingdom, and it’s a predecessor to Kowolski’s best module, the spectacular Thulian Echoes!

Underwater adventures suck, states the cliche. There is no law stating they have to, but they very often do. As part of Kowolski’s Ashvameda, he has taken it upon himself to tackle this most elusive of module formats and kill it, as is only just and proper, with a cunning ruse. 

War! Between the forces of the vaguely Pelopenesean Island king and the city of monstrous deep ones that lives in a city near its beach. With a brilliant masterstroke that simultaneously tackles the problem of underwater adventures while simultaneously investing the whole already weird premise with a nitro-boost of MEGA-WEIRD, Kowolski reveals the method by which land can fight sea. A sorcerous gate, conjured up by some priest or sorcerer, allows characters to walk through it, into the ocean, and move under the ocean as if they were on land, taking with them all the physics of the upper world. They can light fires underwater, take falling damage, they are not buyant and experience no hindrance from the bizarre environment, Spongebob Squarepants style. Very important detail, if they put their heads through the surface of the water, the magic ends! The deep one city is set afire, but the citadel remains partially fortified by the survivors, and a siege situation has developed. Enter the PCs, who seek to use this situation to get rich!

Kowolski is firing on all cylinders with this one and it shows even in the starting location. The human side is led by a fanatical elder priest that has started offering deep-one hybrids as well as ‘those of impure blood’ to his savage god. His rival is his apprentice, who wants to free all the non-obvious hybrids. You can hire squads of soldiers, charter bizarre NPC henchmen, a new pearl and token based currency is introduced and there are looming threats of annexation by a rival island empire. There are good suggestions, a black market, bizarre, quirky additions like the ability to buy monster organs that might (very low chance) give the buyer magical powers or might just poison you. Its nuts. A sort of island Halfling witch, a hunter from a neighbouring island, a gigantic tattooed island savage with 18/00 str and max hp and a fucking island ogre. All great stuff.

This is also where you run into one of the problems I have with this module. You can immediately tell, unlike with many of his other NGR modules with OSR statistics, that this was conceived primarily as an NGR adventure and the conversion feels haphazard in places. The equipment list looks great, with coconut armor, wooden shields, a rusty dao from a black market etc. and is lovingly endowed with all manner of NGR attributes but for OSR purposes it often ends up feeling flat and the only attributes are damage. A rare whalebone club, what does it do…oh it does d6 damage. This rough conversion shows up in a few other areas too, where monsters are just given a Size score that has no corresponding value in OSR terms (I suspect HD, but I don’t really know), there are possibilities of learning magic spells or gaining xp in NGR that are entirely absent if you go by the OSR notation and as a result you come away with the feeling that you are playing an inferior copy. It is by no means dealbreaking and the adventure is perfectly playable without it but one feels a minor pang of loss.

The siege scenario uses victory points for both humans and deep ones and taking various structures, destroying certain creatures or objects can gain victory points for either side, because, again credit where it is due, it is fully possible to join the Deep Ones, and there are objectives like Destroying the Portal to the Waterless Sea which make a Deep One victory all but certain, although you might have to fuck some Fish People in order for them to trust you, a task for which Lotfp provides a readymade solution! One point of criticism is that these conditions are not displayed in one location in the document and they are latent, e.g. they will impact the final score whether the PCs interact with them or not, meaning the GM will have to parse through the text and make an overview for themselves. It’s not a dealbreaker, it’s just an annoyance.

The strength of this adventure lies in its combination of atmospheric scenery with a tactical scenario of suprising complexity. The journey across the ocean floor toward the city of the deep ones is abbreviated as three random encounter tables for the shallow, twilight and deep ocean floors, with the 25% possibility of a deep crevasse in the Twilight Zone meaning the PCs will have to backtrack and face additional encounters. The drawback to this method is that all the really interesting results (say, a pirate ship with a humanoid inside with weapons made of unbreakable glass) are folded into unlikely numbers (e.g. doubles or max scores), meaning that as written they are unlikely to turn up very often (I assume the PCs can just follow the same route to the city if they backtrack). Regardless, the encounters convey the alienness of the undersea floor, with coral reefs, deep sea creatures, barnacle-covered cyclopean masonry, branded giant crabs, obelisks and similar disturbing vistas. Most of the encounters are straightforward combat, although occasionally the PCs have the opportunity to rescue a fisherman or team up with some soldiers caught in a bad spot.

The meat and bones is the city proper, consisting of the Spire, a vast phallic fortress covered with hideous bas-reliefs, and the adjoining apartments, barracks, Dome and Temple, each a self-contained location. I would have appreciated an overview map to see how all of these structures fit together, as is it must be pieced from the general text and the individual encounters, as there are two methods of egress into the Citadel, via the Barracks and via the base of the Citadel. The overview map in the back of the adventure does a good job at giving, albeit scaleless, an impression of where the fortress is in relation to the mercenary camp and the shore, but I think an opportunity was missed to include the relationship visually.

Locations proper are…pretty good? Considering the main dish is ‘Deep One’ the variety is appreciated. Deep Ones will hide in ruins, seeking to ambush returning party members, stand guard, fight using domesticated giant crabs, sound the alarm etc. etc. There’s nobles, soldiers, civilians and a few remaining priests, the remnants of a once powerful and terrifying society. Considering mercenaries won’t agree to enter buildings, there are some pretty terrifying pitched battles here too, the barracks are swarming with the damn things, (one floor has 30 of them in one area) and they represent one of the few methods in which the Citadel can be reached. So, big fuckyou pitched fish-men battles with alarms and some tactics. Already good.

What makes it interesting is the various strategic objectives, and then the added complications within those objectives. It’s not enough that there is a portal room in the Citadel, held by a few forlorn human soldiers, besieged on both sides by Deep Ones in considerable numbers, that if recaptured will allow the Deep Ones to open a HIDDEN gateway to some remote city, BUT ALSO that there is a Deep One Hybrid among them. The temple of Dagon has incidental treasure, the level-draining 1 HD spirits of both men and Deep Ones haunting its weird gelatinous shrines, weird monoliths with cursed writing on them and a FUCKING 20 HD SHOGGOTH…but there is also an artifact hidden somewhere in the area, allowing you to control or at least rebuke the Shoggoth for extra victory points. Sorceries have turned the soldiers underneath the Dome into the walking dead, a few stragglers and then BAM 25 OF THEM. There’s the odd prisoners to free (very difficult), a way to get out of the Citadel, an idiot trap [1] or two, there’s JUST ENOUGH complications to the whole to give it weight.

Treasure is a wet variant of the materials we know and love. Pearls, odd dodecahedral stones, the Deep Ones make heavy use of gold etc. etc. A handful of new magic items, vials which give invisibility for a turn, a bizarre Shoggoth controlling charm that feels like its from CoC. Several new spells, some of which are useful and lovecraftian ‘Curse of Ib’, others allow you to store an extra spell in your poop and regain it if you eat it…okay.
Placement is… uncharacteristically good? Kowolski’s focus isn’t normally on these types of more dungeon-like environments so it is heartening to see him place valuable treasure in seemingly innocuous locations, make use of secret treasure vaults, place valuables behind a door that is wizard-locked etc. etc. The maps are not symmetrical but not your standard Jaquayd boxes fucked together on a gridmap either. The maps can be a bit compact and there is no scale but because of the multiple areas exploration should at least be interesting. There are no random encounters while in the city but there is a (rather generous) time limit until the Siege is over, after which the victory points are tallied. The trick of trapping the PCs inside the Citadel through use of the Moon Pools, with the only means of escape held by one of the heaviest forces of deep ones is a nice piece de resistance.

The amount of victory points do not just determine the outcome of the siege, but also the future of the region. If the Deep Ones win but they only achieve a few points, it is quite possible that it will take them decades to rebuild their power, while the human victory will determine the future of its status as a regional power, anything from co-option to alliance with another Island kingdom for mutual benefit is possible. It’s a nice touch, very conductive to campaign play.

Under the Waterless Sea has some rattling bits but underneath it all is a scenario with an engaging premise and a very good execution. I’m curious how much, as written, minor objectives like cleansing the appartments or tearing down a barricade will impact the scenario if any single major objective is lost but one supposes that all things being equal, it can come down to how many soldiers you lost versus how many Deep ones you failed to exterminate. It’s tail is a bit on the long side; almost half the module is mechanics, new spells, NPCs, black market etc. Still, for its length, the thing is brimming with good ideas and most of them are implemented well. One of his stronger outings. Check it out here.

****


[1] I should write something about this. It is my opinion that semi-obvious traps that cause certain death are a good way of rewarding baseline competence and should be included at least once. 


14 thoughts on “[Review] Under the Waterless Sea (NGR); Minor loss of fidelity

  1. Sounds interesting. Some suggested possible improvements:
    (i) Coconut armour, hide shields etc., degrade (by say a point) after each combat; melee weapons made from inferior materials break whenever they inflict maximum damage;
    (ii) A scorecard to keep track of all of the Victory Point objectives.
    Does the module do a good job of helping the referee adjudicate what happens when surface world rules interact with underwater rules? Are there helpful examples?
    This might be one of those rare modules that does a good job of integrating small group actions into a military conflict.

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    1. Something like the system you describe would have gone a long way. As written a lot of it the OSR equipment feels like an afterthought. I’d say the module sidesteps the problem more or less entirely. Anything the players do is supposed to be arbitrated under normal surface physics. Precise interaction is not discussed in immense detail, only a general guideline, followed by a condition (breaking the surface of the water) that causes the portal effect to dissipate.

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    2. Why not just use the same rules for armor degradation as leather and padded use? With weapons just use the rules for druid weapons.

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      1. If you don’t already use deterioration rules for leather, the most common armor in the game, why would you think you need them for the much more durable coconut armor? People over estimate how strong the actually very brittle dark ages steel was and underestimate how durable things like oiled hardwoods are.

        morgenstern were primarily made of wood for a reason.

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  2. A minor quibble: “Deep Ones make heavy use of gold” so they have metallurgy under water? I mean the gate allows fires underwater but I assumed that was a siege weapon by the surface dwellers.

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    1. It’s weird but its also a callback to The classic lovecraftian Deep Ones, who possessed a great supply of gold artifacts of unearthly design. Whether or not they were forged elsewhere, or they utilize some form of cold forging, make use of sealed compartments to make fire or something weirder (by tapping into volcanic tubes or something) is up to the GM I guess.

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      1. I always thought the treasures of the Lovecraftian Deep Ones was either the loot of sunken ships (scavenged from the ocean floor) or artifacts from when the creatures had (previously) been surface dwellers…they are, of course, amphibious.

        Depending on the quality of gold it can be worked by hand (hammered, etc.) without the need for fire. It is an ideal medium of exchange for an underwater species…if they have access to a ready supply of the stuff.

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  3. Gosh, it feels like just last week I was commenting on someone’s blog about the overall squickiness of fish-human sex as a concept. Lovecraft might have pioneered the idea, but it’s been carried out since the early days of D&D (see the Bullywug and Crabman entries in the FF for examples).

    *ahem* Anyway: quite interesting stuff. I love all sorts of underwater adventure myself, and don’t get enough of it in my games (that is, of course, on me…I could be creating such adventures, after all). This sounds more like “war gaming in the realm of Aquaman” (if Aquaman had a Lovecraftian-vibe) more than a true (D&D-style) exploration of the Deep Realm but it’s better than nothing. Which is kind of what we’ve got otherwise.

    That Zzarchov guy…he’s got some interesting ideas!
    : )

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    1. I have not yet acknowledged the nod of the beginning of T1-4 on Hell’s Own Temple. Mea Culpa, I am reading it now! Regardless, you are correct, UtWS is pretty wargamery, but there is still some exploration to be had, temples and dwellings to pick over and loot, mercenaries to hire, the undersea floor to cross, fish-men to butcher etc. etc.

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      1. Ha! I see how the background looks like a bit like T1-4, but remember my original concept was to have the adventure see the PCs as part of the “Blessed Fleet”…I just thought the idea was too big for the contest as presented leading to me scaling it down to a small dungeon crawl.

        Truthfully, the main inspiration for the adventure was Elric’s assault on Imrryr (Moorcock’s “The Dreaming City”). There aren’t enough (D&D) adventures with THAT type of focus…with PCs leading the siege for their own motivations. Though it sounds like UtWS makes a good stab at it.
        ; )

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