An Endzeitgeist.com review
This adventure clocks in at 32 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page advertisement, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 28 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue, as one of my patreon supports asked me to cover the DCC modules at my convenience.
So, as always, this Dungeon Crawl Classics module does come with a list of encounters; as (almost) always, we have exceedingly well-written read-aloud prose, and, on the less amazing side of things, the cartography provided is awesome, but lacks player-friendly versions, which means that only the judge ever gets to see them – unless you enjoy immersion-breaking numbers and secret doors plainly displayed to your players – and in this module, the latter would deprive them of one of the most brutal challenges within. This would usually suffice to cost the adventure a whole star, but on the plus-side, we get 7 (!!) handouts – 4 of them are one drawing, with shattered tablets against a ruined city backdrop depicting them. This has a certain Ozymandias vibe I enjoyed – but it’s not the coolest of the handouts.
Now, while having a cursory link to Punjar, the module requires just some kind of wasteland in the vicinity, so adapting it to your game shouldn’t be tough. Oh, and while we’re at it: WE NEED A PUNJAR BOXED SET. Adventure hooks are provided, including suggestions to bring deities and patrons into the fray.
…sorry for that, needed to get this out of my system. Anyhow, this adventure is intended for a party of 8th level, which, in DCC, is damn high-level. At this level, we’re talking about warlords, arch-mages and the like – and, if the players managed to get their PCs this high up on the level range, also, hopefully, a corresponding player skill.
You see, thematically, this adventure deals with the notion of the cyclical ages of mankind as a leitmotif, and is infused with a healthy dose of occult cosmology; this is very much a high-impact, unique and potentially campaign-changing module. Oh, and it is HARD. The module explicitly tells the judge not to fudge dice-rolls, invoking a kind of curse, which made me snicker for a second, but I get the notion – you see, the best of DCC-modules stand apart for being brutal, but fair, for grounding their challenge in how they challenge the PLAYERS and not just the PCs. No DCC-adventure I’ve covered so far exemplifies this better than Colossus, Arise!
Have your players by now learned to think carefully whether something makes sense in a dungeon from the purpose of its creators? Have the players learned that not everything can easily be murder-hobo’d? That they need to use the terrain? That they need to think quickly, and that brains beats brawns, that roleplaying beats rollplaying? Well, if not, then they will TPK faster than you can ask them to roll up new gongfarmers. Dumb or careless actions will result in save-or-die-scenarios, so your players should better bring their A-game to the table.
We begin with a random encounter-table for the desert, as the PCs set forth towards the lost city of Stylos…but why?
Well, in order to get into the details, I will need to venture deeply into the SPOILER-territory. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion. Seriously, you don’t want to spoil this one.
All right, only judges around? Great! Untold aeons ago, the champion of chaos Cadixtat was vanquished by the tyrant Teleus, thus establishing a dominance of law over chaos. Much later, when the proto-sub-continent of Lirea sank beneath the waves, a cadre of the mighty Übermneschen back then, the Ur-Lireans, split – some would venture north to become the apocryphal hyperboreans, while other discovered the temple cities that once venerated the mighty titans; when the sands swallowed these cities, the ur-lireans entered the eternal dreams of the black lotus, sleeping the ages away; after an endless slumber, the cities had fallen into ruin, with but the House of Cadixtat remaining.
Where the Ur-Lireans, 12 to 16 feet tall superior beings, were but a shadow of the titans, so had the third age of man, the age of the PCs, spawned a race that might well seem like a degenerate caricature to them – and thus, it is decided. The world would need cleansing. Lacking the strength of numbers required to enact all out genocide, the Ur-Lireans set out on a horrible two-pronged trajectory: For one, they would take people from the third age to generate a slave caste – the “Sons of the Second Age” – 10-foot tall humans “elevated” to being the soldier/slave caste for the Daughters of Cadixtat and their prophetess. Secondly, they would hasten the arrival of the new age, incubating the men of the fourth age – horrible worm-man things; degenerate, sans reason – a flood to cleanse the land in a cataclysm of blood and frothing rage.
Oh, and the old adage applies – that is not dead…they have another ace in the hole.
The PCs are literally the only thing standing between the Ur-Lireans and an age-ending cataclysm. Stakes high enough yet? These cosmic stakes also are represented in the adventure – former PCs, NPC allies that have fallen – in the dungeon, these beings will have one final chance to warn the PCs, help them, etc.
The module drives home the threat-level faced in this module in a fast and furious manner. Exploring the ruins of Stylos not only comes with random encounters – it also pretty much presents the first challenge -. 300 Sons of the Second Age. Yep, the first task is to get past a frickin’ army. The slave masters, with animal-headed masks bolted to their skull, making for a truly wicked caste of henchmen. Indeed, the temple of Cadixtat is brutal and focuses on indirect storytelling – the trauma of apotheosis, the horror of the salve masters and sacrifices – all are things that the PCs get to experience, and PCs not up to their A-game might well be trapped in a deadly trap. Particularly chaotic characters and those casters likely to suffer corruptions should take heed in some regions, and indeed, clerics should be very careful when it comes to their deities’ favor…
And at this point, we have barely gotten past the antechamber sub-level. Did I mention the Vitruvian-man-like door that has a regular version (one handout) and a horribly twisted one (another handout) that the PCs may get to see? Though the latter only briefly, as it’s shown in a vision? Love it! In the House of Cadixtat, the PCs can meet the ageless, but not immortal prophetess of the Ur-Lireans, shielded by living and hungry blue flame. Indeed, as in the best of DCC-modules, the players are rewarded for being smart – there is a scene where 4 gates represent different rewards for world-weary scions of the second age, ostensibly leading to an afterlife. This scene is also represented by a massive handout, with strange glyphs to be potentially deciphered…and it’s a trap. A truly deadly one. Here’s to hoping the PCs learned from a certain jewel-heist in Punjar…
Time and again as the heroes explore the alien horrors of ancient Ur-Lirean making, they will find Hel-Ooze – the horrible ichors of Cadixtat, growing ever more “alive” as the PCs progress – later building walls and crashing towards them in devastating waves – for example, when the PCs happen upon the massive pod-chamber where the men of the fourth age incubate – almost 500 of them! And no, the PCs don’t want to fight these all by hand – particularly since those slain by the degenerate worm-men indeed do return as similar monstrosities…one of these monsters could start an epidemic…
The final sections of the dungeon have the PCs literally move through regions that represent the 4 ages, allowing you to fill in the blanks – or rather, have the players fill in the blanks! That being said, ultimately, the PCs arrive to witness the final sacrifice: The daughters of Cadixtat martyr themselves with the help of the Handmaiden, their leader, to bring back Cadixtat! Between PCs and victory stands the chaos champion – a mighty warrior (Act 4d24, HD 17d10, AC 25, +24 atk…), and the willing martyrs and handmaiden. Ultimately, with a shudder, huge canopic jar leaking Hel-Ooze will shatter, revealing a titan’s brain – and the blackened, tar-like ooze will start taking up rusted weapons for the thing. Which btw. has Act 12d20, and it can dominate PCs. And then, bloodied and by the skin of their teeth, the PCs will have won. Right?
Wrong. The ground trembles. The PCs are hoisted up, as the temple breaks and they are ejected to the surface. And there, it looms. Colossal. Headless. Undead. Infused with pure, primordial fury. Thus, Cadixtat’s headless, undead corpse lurches forward, to bring death to an age.
The PCs stand, alone, between the titan and civilization, with even the Sons of the Second Age falling like wheat before the scythe. Each attack of the titan is devastating, more a force of nature than anything that the PCs can kill, their swords but gnat-bites, their magics but tiny flecks of impotent light. Cadixtat looms, and the undead titan may only be bested if the PCs and players truly understood what they’ve seen – there area couple of ways that the titan may be defeated – all have in common that they are predicated on the players being smart and using the artifact level magics that they’ve witnessed to their best of abilities. Much like when they were 0-level funnel-fodder, they stand before something that they can’t hope to defeat without a combination of wits, luck, and, perhaps, noble sacrifice. FRICKIN’ EPIC.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to Goodman games’ two-column b/w-standard, and the module comes with plenty of amazing b/w-artworks and great handouts, which, as mentioned before, help make up for the lack of player-friendly versions of the map. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience.
Subtle, this is not. If you want gritty and grimy sword & sorcery, this isn’t that; and yet, it is a perfect example of how you do a high-level sword & sorcery adventure in the best of ways. Like Conan and Red Sonja battling Shuma-Gorath, this manages to blend epic stakes that couldn’t be higher with a sense of groundedness that is hard to achieve – the PCs are mighty, yes, but their opposition is truly epic, and just because your fighter might make Conan or Fafhrd look like a wimps, just because the thief would make the Gray Mouser look like a novice, doesn’t mean that the PCs are now superheroes – unlike traditional D&D-aesthetics, this retains, courtesy of the rules, a plausible baseline. At the same time, this only works, because the epic adventure has writing that is not only a joy to read, but that is intelligent and exceedingly well-designed. The module consequently rewards smart players and engaging with the adventure – it is brutal and deadly, yes. But not once did I consider it to be unfair.
This is a true master-piece.
Very few adventures have blown me away to this extent, particularly since the cover made me expect something…goofy? Gonzo? Instead, I got an epic that shows how an excellent writer can make just about any concept, even ones that would be utterly cheesy, work perfectly – to the degree where I guarantee that there will be high-fives, goosebumps and the cheers at the table; that the players will talk about this for years. 5 stars + seal of approval, oh, and this gets my “Best of…”-tag as one of the best adventures I know. It’s so good, I’d genuinely consider it even more of a system-seller than e.g. “Jewels of the Carnifex”, “Blades Against Death” or similar gems. Seriously, if you even remotely like epic sword & sorcery, get this.