As one of the playtesters of Shane Ivey’s awesome adventure I don’t think I’m the best person to offer a review. You don’t know what ‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’ is? It is a 1st level dungeoncrawl for D&D 5E, offering a brief glimpse in the author’s Broken Empires setting (more info here). In this adventure, you play raiders tasked with exploring a disturbingly organic temple (with lots of Yog-Sothothery) in a godforsaken island.
I’m obviously giving some SPOILERS from now on, so don’t read if you want to play this adventure later!
Here is basically what I liked or did with ‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’:
- It is a 1st-level adventure that fulfills what a campaign starter should do in my opinion (i.e. leaving a few loose ends for the DM to explore, like a possible warlock pact with the Sea Demon herself) but it is also perfect for a one-shot game (because it offers everything that a good game night needs in one package). Usually, when someone asks me to run for them a “traditional dungeoncrawl” – i.e. Old School style - I use the ‘Tower of the Stargazer”. Now, when someone who already plays D&D (or d20 Fantasy in general) asks me to start a new game, I use “The Sea Demon’s Gold” right away.
- It has a strong theme (Lovecrafthian horror + dungeoncrawl, without going into cliché territory) and it throws you directly into the chaos (the first combat encounter is one of the best I’ve read in a long long time).
- It is an interesting read, giving you lots of ideas (the Sea Demon herself is a good new deity/demon lord/kraken to use as a villain or evil patron and the Sea Folk is a nice addition to any campaign setting).
- Like the DCC RPG adventures, it uses its own monsters and breaks some conceptions of what dungeoncrawling is at low levels. I had a player asking me to start a game at 3rd level, because he wasn’t much interested in “killing goblins and kobolds that were sacking farms”. What I did? I started a 1st-level game using ‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’ as an answer.
- Although written as a 1st-level adventure, the entire thing is easily adapted to higher levels. With a minimum fuss you can run it on the spot for 2nd or even 3rd level parties. In fact, because its implied setting is indeed ‘semi-historical’, it has a really strong S&S vibe and uses Cthulhian-style adversaries, I’ve already hacked versions of “The Sea Demon’s Gold” for other RPGs (it is that easy). One for Modiphius’ Conan 2d20 RPG, using only monsters stats from the Corebook (you can also use it on Mongoose’s excellent Conan d20). The other version is for a Call of Cthulhu/BRP game where the party plays 9th century vikings raiding a lone Orkney island. The adaptations required were minimal because the dungeon itself is quite somber and avoids goofy or “gamey” elements (c’mon, even the gelatinous cube is basically a shoggoth when you see what it does in the setting… it is there as a horror element).
OK, here are a few things I added when running the adventure for D&D 5E. I hope it can also help your table.
The Heart of Iron crew
As you know, the first part of the adventure is all about surviving a merciless encounter with the Sea Folk. The basic idea is that the party has established some connections with the crew of the ship, the Heart of Iron, and they will try to save those NPCs during combat. Those relationships depend on your style as a DM and on how much time you want to spend roleplaying things before they get messy. At one of my tables, we spend one entire session just roleplaying with the crew, while at another I felt that the players would appreciate just rolling dice to see with whom they have created bonds. In both cases, I created small secrets and weird stuff about the crew - enough to draw the players in and make them remember the NPC that I was going to try to kill in the first encounter (a fun commentary: at one table, the roleplaying created rivalries between PC and NPC, so that the players actually tried to use the first encounter to toss the rival NPC in the seas).
The adventure provides us with 2 named NPCs (captain Helia Lin Haerrean and sailor Pitaja, and invites you to create more). Here’s the crew that I use:
- Captain Helia Lin Haerrean is a no-nonsense leader and a fearless woman (from an exotic land of your home setting). Her best friend (and fellow adventurer) is Riala (see Alahir below). The first time I run ‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’, Helia was actually the only survivor of the first expedition to the island and only escaped because she made a pact with the kraken. She was ashamed of her past but also needed to offer more sacrifices to the Sea Demon in one year or she would begin to transform in some kind of monstrosity (a deep one/sahuagin). In another run of the adventure, she owned a priest money because of a raise dead spell and her time was running out.
- Sailor Pitaja is a carefree young ex-pirate. I portray him as a friendly NPC that loves to gain (or lose) money by gambling. There’s always a player who likes the idea of carousing.
- First Mate Alahir is the weird NPC. He’s a brute man, always drunk and menacing. The entire crew is afraid of him and bizarrely he has the trust of Captain Helia. He has a temptress as his mistress, the fair lady Riala. Riala can only be seen at night, while has husband is passed out at his cabin. Alahir is the NPC that I created to be hated, but inquisitive players will find his relationship with Riala weird and possibly investigate it. Actually, Alahir and Riala are the same person and the woman is the true face of this NPC. A curse acquired in Riala’s adventure days with Captain Helia forces her to become an ugly and brute man during the day. Riala is so disgusted with her state that she spends most daylight hours drunk, channeling her hate against the lazy crew. One party at my table had his PC fall in love with Riala (and he was quite shocked when the truth came out) while other party actually managed to kill Riala while searching for Alahir.
- Sailing Master Hasfullihatrandy a.k.a. Master Nose is a gnome born on sea and fated to die if he ever touches land. He is a strange creature, all tattooed that goes almost naked, but with an almost supernatural scent, particularly useful to find good winds, avoid storms and direct the ship to land. In my campaigns gnomes are usually creatures defined by obsession, so this is my “sea gnome”. You can easily change him to a human, also tattooed, and regarded with awe by the crew due to his “magic nose”.
- Master Shoufa is the comic relief. He is the ship’s cook and an open promoter of cannibalism as a way to “steal your enemies’ strength”. He won’t eat any of the crew or the party, only enemies (actually, if he’s a true cannibal or not is up to the DM, because the Captain uses him as way to keep the crew in check). At one table, Soufa was a half-orc, because it fits nicely, but you can use him as a human.
The rest of the ship was just a series of names and small traits, which I used most for flavor:
Rusa (ugly as sin, possibly Hagborn), Jadikira (claims to come from another world with 3 Moons), Kitana (woman, amazing sailor, Shoufa’s girlfriend), Redrik (one eye, one hand, one ear), Bal’zahar (tattooed, no hair), Haddan (wants to be captain), Frog (jumps at everything, Gollum-like), Monkey (a kid, good at the riggings), Luha (another kid, runner), Shafik (strong) and Eyes (curious, want to be adventurer, stupid but lucky).
A Random Encounter Table
‘The Sea Demon’s Gold’ is a static dungeon. Except for the gelatinous cube, each encounter is fixed in place. Clever parties that notice this detail might be able to face each encounter and then retreat for a short or long rest at the ship. There is nothing stopping a DM from making the dungeon reacts once the party gets in, but I particularly likes surprises. Thus, I came up with a random encounter table that I used everytime the party attempted a long rest (or after 2-3 short rests).
Please, bear in mind that the adventure as written already had a deadly trigger for parties attempting a long rest: the aforementioned gelatinous cube. What I intended with the encounters below was to add dynamism and more flavor, just that:
Roll a 1d6:
1 - 1d4+1 Sea Folk. These are “holy champions” sent by the Sea Folk to try to kill the temple’s ghostly priest. The Sea Folk deeply fear the kraken (their goddess), but also want to defeat its priest. A decadent and barbaric civilization, they only approach the dungeon through religion (where a group of “chosen ones” is selected to face the Sea Demon in ritualistic combat). All end eventually killed by the gelatinous cube, which is actually the point of the entire thing (the Sea Folk leaders knows that, and use the champions as “cannon fodder” to keep the Sea Demon placated). This encounter only happens once during the adventure. If you roll it a second time, nothing happens.
2 - 1d4-1 Giant Crabs (a ‘0’ result is just a dead crab).
3 - 1 Darkmantle.
4 - 1d4 traitorous pirates from the ship, converted to the Sea Demon through dreams.
5 - The Mud Mephit, carrying loot to his lair. Only use it once, after meeting the creature for the first time. Otherwise nothing happens.
6 - Water level raises, making all rooms difficult terrain for the next 1d4 hours.