Originally published at: http://dieh-
Man it sure seems like Goodman games puts out Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures at the same pace White Wolf released V:TM supplements in the mid to late 90s, eh? Here I am again with another DCC adventure, the fourth since late July (including the Free RPG release). That’s a pretty hectic schedule.
If you’re familiar with DCC adventures then you know they are low on plot and dialogue, but high on hack and slash dungeon crawling. It’s easy to say some of them have more roll-playing than role-playing, but there’s a definite audience for that. With Beyond the Black Gate, this is still true, but there’s a lot more of a story here than in most DCC adventures. In fact you’ll be going through two very different locations, dealing with three dungeons and a story that can unfold in many different ways – most of them horrific. The player characters start off in a bad situation and things quickly get even worse. Their sailing vessel is destroyed by a terrible storm and those that survive are enlisted by a cantankerous crone to enter another dimension known as the Thrice-Tenth Kingdom. There the PCs will have to battle their way through an apocalyptic Iceland, do battle with triclops-style ice giants and retrieve the horned crown of the Horned King for the hag. Unfortunately it’s even harder than it sounds, but players will be richly rewarded for completing this quest, whether they betray the witch and merely set the Horned King free from his otherworldly trap, or they slay him and take the crown as their own.
I really enjoyed Beyond the Black Gate, but there are three issues I have with it. The first is that like most DCC adventures, this is made for WAY too many characters. Beyond the Black Gate is designed for between six and ten 5th Level characters. How often do you get a game of that size going? That’s way too many characters. I know Dungeon Crawl Classics wants people to play multiple characters, but even if you have an group of four players (which seems to be the most common game size of any system), that’s still 2.5 character PER PLAYER. When this happens, the personality of characters as well as their individual quirks can be lost and the party becomes a collective of bland murdering machines. Again, some people like that and it’s a trope of the system, but I like memorable characters and situations. My advice is to run Beyond the Black Gate for less characters but at a higher level as it will be far more rewarding. There are some great roleplaying opportunities here – from deciding what to do with the Horned King to how to deal with a certain mad dwarven fool.
Another issue I had with this particular adventure is it’s almost too lethal. DCC adventures tend to be written from the perspective of “Let’s get a TPK (total party kill)!” However, Beyond the Black Gate has several instances where it you are making a saving throw versus instant death. Whether it’s being drowned by a storm or buried by an avalanche, there will be some players that die before the first combat of the adventure and that’s…a little harah in my book. There’s also the fact that the adventure tells the DM that players simply won’t be able to hack and slash their way through this adventure and they’ll have to think their way through or be murdered by an ice giant onslaught. However…MINDLESS DUNGEON CRAWL STYLE SLAUGHTER IS WHAT DUNGEON CRAWL CLASSICS IS PRIMARILY ABOUT AS A SYSTEM! Arrrrgh! You can’t sit there and say, “Each adventure is 100% good, solid dungeon crawl” in the opening of this very adventure when the statement doesn’t actually ring true. This is more a “sneak, run and strike from behind” adventure than the dungeon hack. I’m fine with that, but don’t promote the adventure as something it actually ISN’T. Finally, the adventure just ends at the climax; at least in terms of laying out what happens. You’re there with the Horned King, you make your choice as what to do with him and then a horde of giants hits the throne room. Then…nothing. The adventure gives no advice or information as to how to run this combat or any idea of how the PCs can get out of it…especially since the adventure was designed up to this point with enemies they can’t be through pure brute strength. This is really bad and I can’t believe this aspect of the adventure made it through the editing process, especially as Goodman himself is usually very particular about this sort of thing. A good DM can deal with this poorly written climax, but those with less experience are going to have a lot of trouble running this thing.
Now that’s not to say the whole adventure is bad. It’s not. Far from it, in fact. Beyond the Black Gate has a truly memorable setup, a very cool plot, some great antagonists for the party to deal with and some truly big decisions to make. The adventure also boasts some incredible artwork by the always awesome Doug Kovacs. Like all DCC adventures, Beyond the Black Gate boasts some of the best maps in the history of the business and definitely the best out of any currently published system. Hell, sometimes I just want to recommend the adventures just for the quality of the maps! It’s just the adventure not only falls apart at the climax but it highlights the two biggest problems with a lot of Dungeon Crawl Classics adventures…and then exacerbates them. With the help of a good editor, this could have been a lot better. As it stands, it’s merely an okay affair; something that only gets a thumb’s in the middle. As I’ve said though, an enterprising and experienced DM can rewrite this thing so that it works a lot better from the climax on through and someone like that could really make Beyond the Black Gate a highlight of a DCC campaign.
[3 of 5 Stars!]