Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/08/15/tabletop-review-dungeon-crawl-classics-71-the-13th-skull/
I’ve been a big fan of Dungeon Crawl Classics since it was using Wizards of the Coast’s Open Game license for Dungeons and Dragons 3.0/3.5. Since Goodman Games turned DCC into its own system, I’ve found I love it even more. The DCC system IS pretty prolific though as in the past month I’ve reviewed three other DCC adventures The Emerald Enchanter, Jewels of the Carnifax and the Free RPG Day release, and that doesn’t include adventures for the system put out by other publishers! I have no idea how they can churn so many of these out so quickly.
The 13th Skull especially caught my eye as the adventure bears the same name as a pretty popular point and click adventure/hidden object video game put out by Big Fish Games that I reviewed back in December of 2010. I thought that was a pretty odd coincidence and was curious to see what the two had in common besides the name. Aside from that, there really is nothing in common. The video game is set in modern times and involves a kidnapping and ghost pirates while Goodman Games’ adventure involves a kidnapping and a generation curse that condemns an entire family line to the 417th level of Hell. Ouch.
The gist of the The 13th Skull is that the progenitor of the Magnussen line, Magnussen I, has cheated death after a fashion thanks to a deal with a devil. Thirteen generations later, Madnussen I returns disguised as a hooded executioner and steals away the current Duke’s daughter in order to finally finish his pact with the devil. The player characters, after being offered a reward by the Duke, chase after the Duke, now known as The Silver Skull since well…that’s all he is –a silver plated skull. The adventure leads them into the Magnussen family crypt where horrors and adventure await.
The 13th Skull is a short adventure and is designed to be played in a single evening. That does not mean it is an EASY adventure however. In fact, it’s actually quite hard to achieve the adventure’s goal, which is to save the Duke’s daughter for a horrific fate. The adventure even states in its introduction that only one playtesting party ever managed to save her and that the mortality rate of characters widely varied. Now I’m fine with the amount of PC death in The 13th Skull. It is after all a Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure and like Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Call of Cthulhu, there is MEANT to be an extreme amount of player characters meeting grisly ends. It’s an inherent part of the system as well as part of the fun to be honest. Where I do have a problem is that only one playtesting party was able to save the damsel in distress and that the adventure proudly states that. To me, this means one of two things and neither of them are good. The first is that the adventure was playtested by some pretty poor gamers, which I really hope isn’t the case. The second is that the adventure is extremely unbalanced and should have been retooled. In all honestly, after reading through and fiddling with the adventure, a case can be made for either…or even both.
A good adventure doesn’t have the GM gleefully punishing PCs and making it all but impossible to accomplish their primary goal. Even with something like the aforementioned Call of Cthulhu where your character is guaranteed to die horribly or go insane at some point while playing them, being able to achieve the core mission of an adventure is always within the realm of possibility…even if the characters are then raped and eaten by Deep Ones or sucked into a horrible dimension of chaos and dementia. Not so with The 13th Skull. Players are stuck trying to save a 0th Level Human with a randomly rolled 1d4 Hit Points in a situation where everyone loses 1 HP per round. So with a bad roll, if you actually want to go that route, there isn’t even a chance to save her. The text also encourages the GM to outright kill her if the PCs are screwing around or are simply too slow/dense to properly protect their meal ticket. If it was up to me, I would run this encounter very different from how it was written in order to give PCs a chance to save the duke’s daughter. Honestly though, my first instinct would have been to rush up and prevent her sacrifice or, if playing a character with spells, give her some sort of protection to buy the other characters time to kill the devil trying to ritually disembowel her. Either way, this part of the adventure set off several red flags for me and, if I was the one publishing it, I would have either reworked this section, or questioned the quality of my playtesters.
Overall, The 13th Skull isn’t a bad adventure. It’s a very memorable one with an especially creepy antagonist and players get to not just go through a dungeon crawl, but they get to go to hell and back to boot! The penultimate encounter could have been done a lot better, but the actually final battle against The Silver Skull is a fun one. Even if the PCs meet defeat in their primary goal, they can still accomplish the secondary one and that’s something at least
But Wait –there’s more!
Sorry for the Ron Popeil impression, but you’re actually getting two adventures for the price of one with this Dungeon Crawl Classics release! The second adventure in this collection is called The Balance Blade and it’s meant to be a one-shot or convention piece as it eventually boils down to inter party fighting with either one character dying or everyone else dying. It just depends on how the dice roll. Usually I abhor the idea of any adventure where the sole purpose is to get characters to kill each other as it can often lead to hurt feelings, especially when younger gamers are involved. The best adventures are those where players work together instead of sniping at each other with plans of betrayal. The only exception I’ve ever seen to this is in a large scale Vampire: The Masquerade campaign. Unfortunately, The Balance Blade is no exception and the entire affair hinges on forcing an unsuspecting PC to turn on his or her teammates and futily try and kill them all (which they should fail at miserably due to the numbers against them). Because this IS a one-shot however, it’s a little more palatable as it’s not like any of the characters involved would ever be played again.
The adventure itself is a typical dungeon crawl where players proceed through an exceptionally linear dungeon, avoiding traps and solving puzzles along the way until the climax where the one of the PCs tries to kill the others. It’s a pretty straightforward and unimpressive affair. Most of the puzzles revolve around alignment or finding some hidden traps. It wasn’t a terrible adventure by any means, but I can definitely see why it was included as extra padding for The 13th Skull. On its own, it’s not something I could recommend for purchase, but as a two for one deal, it’s a decent little add-on that you can play provided you have enough prep time to put this together because it requires a few extras…props shall we say.
Basically the two adventures contained in Dungeon Crawl Classics #71 aren’t the best. They’re decent but flawed adventures that would probably leave a gamer feel unsatisfied had they paid full retail price for one or the other. As a two for one offer, you’re getting a pretty good deal. Think of it as two decent, but not great adventures for three to five bucks each. That’s definitely something I can live with. The 13th Skull is by far the better and more memorable of the two, but there is fun to be had with both. It’d be a thumbs in the middle for either adventure, but getting two for the price in one lets me give this a mild recommendation – albeit with the stipulation that there are many better DCC adventures out there that you can purchase instead.