DCC Hole In The Sky by Brendan LaSalle Review
Good evening, everybody!
This is Aaron the Pedantic and today I am reviewing Brendan LaSalle's Hole in the Sky for DCC. This is a 0-level funnel, which means lots and lots of stabbity death.
This was actually the first product I have ever run that was written by Brendan, so I didn't really have any expectations set, other than the general overall quality that most Goodman Games products have.
The art is fantastic, the maps are fantastic, and the layout is fantastic. The module is incredibly easy to pick up and run. I read the module about 4 hours before game time and spent about an hour studying it. With as little prep time as I took, the game ran smoothly with very few hitches. Any questions I had were easily answered in the appropriate section.
The module does a fantastic job of providing a solid hook for the players to bite into. Each of the player characters are peasants who feel like they were always destined for something greater, and they begin having dreams of a Lady in Blue who tells them that their proper destinies have been stolen.
As is standard for DCC, the exposition here is delivered through block text and monologue. Block text has always been a hit or miss with me, often lending itself to misses more than anything. In this case, the block text matches exactly with the maps and the artwork, which is a rare but brilliant asset.
On the other hand, the introduction is very lengthy. With a funnel, I often feel inclined to "just get to the good stuff." Hole in the Sky has setpiece after setpiece laying down the tone and introducing their employer. The initial info-dump can cause players to tune out. Which is unfortunate, since the module severely punishes those who do not listen to the clues the info-dumps provide.
Speaking of the block text, it's exquisitely written from a prose standpoint. The descriptions are not only consistent with the rest of the materials, but they're also vivid. The players never have a question of whether or not they can see, if there are any strange smells, or what their surroundings look like for the most part. It's all covered in the block text.
Back to the set pieces. These set pieces are primarily epic in tone. Even as little level-0 nobodies, these characters are taking part of incredible things. You have this mysterious but clearly godlike figure that puts them on a mission to walk along an invisible bridge, jump into a hole in the sky that takes them to another world, navigate a horrible prison full of cannibals, aberrations, and creatures far beyond anything they can handle, all to free a person whose name cannot even be spoken aloud.
Now for the encounter design. I told the players going into the module that I was running it as by-the-book as possible and for the purposes of reviews, so I would be getting their absolute honest feedback at the end to contribute to the review. The big gripe, and truly only gripe I received from the players was that the module was exceptionally linear. It can best be described as a railroad, where the players' biggest decisions are truly whether they go forward, back, or maybe investigate some minor detail that usually doesn't amount to anything.
If you are wanting a Jacquaysian module with branching paths, this is not it. There are hidden things to find, but generally speaking, you must find the hidden feature in order to move forward. There is one enormous treasure haul that the players can find if they're persistent in exploring (which my players nearly skipped and were damn glad they didn't), but aside from that, the players have only one path forward throughout the entire thing.
The invisible bridge that I spoke of before requires 3 days of traveling straight forward, then they come to a halt when the bridge suddenly ends and the bridge behind them is gone. The players wracked their brains for some time for a solution and had many excellent ideas, but unfortunately the only way forward was to wait for 2 more days. While they didn't seem to be terribly frustrated by this, we certainly used more time than we needed to. A Judge may be inclined to simply tell the party at that point "two days pass" and simply let them see the hole in the sky moving toward them for them to jump through. I wouldn't blame you for doing so.
Once they're inside, they're in an enormous open environment, but there is only one place to go. Any other location simply raises the opportunities for random encounter rolls. My players went straight toward the structure, but thorough players may have exercises in frustration by only finding death, an insane person to talk to, and a rare opportunity for a cache of equipment. If you wish to develop this area more, I'd highly encourage it, so that it will give the players a reward for exploring.
Speaking of the random encounters, there are five options that come up by default, but they're not likely to occur. It takes four hours to get to the destination if you go straight for it, and you only do a 1-in-6 check for every two hours of travel. Simply put, we had no random encounters. The ones that are written do seem interesting, though.
The rest of the encounters are scripted, or NPCs just waiting to be met. One of the enemies that is probably not going to leave my players' memory anytime soon is Cur Maxima, the chariot-sized jack-o-lantern. It picks them off one-by-one throughout the module while taunting them with its polite whispered apologies. The players desperately, desperately wanted to kill that thing. I'll have to give kudos to Brendan LaSalle in that he has absolutely zero boring NPCs in this entire adventure. That's a feat.
The Titan that guards the cage of the person the players are sent to rescue is constantly dreaming of the pleasures of conquest. He's addicted to it. Waking him only pisses him off and makes him want to return to sleeping after he deals with the threat. The players had some hilarious hijinks with the Titan, as they knocked as loudly on the door as they could, and left only a duck behind to see what the Titan would do. By the way, two ducks died in this adventure.
The Titan was propped up sleeping against a wall, which led the players to think perhaps there was something under him or behind him. Once they learned they could annoy him into walking away from his spot, they went on and checked it out. I'm just going to say this: you may want to put something interesting behind or under where the Titan sleeps. Unfortunately, the area only had a secret passageway that's the only way forward.
There are some very deadly fights in this thing. Everything in the module has 1d8 hit points or more. I started with 9 players and 27 characters total (which was over the recommended limit). One player had to leave mid-session for real-life needs, so his characters disappeared. By the time the players encountered 12 1 hit die creatures and a level1 Dwarf that wanted to kill them, they were desperately close to being outnumbered. Several players had to bring in a fourth character or they would have been wiped out of the module completely. This is without them fighting the Titan (and losing) or having random encounters occur.
Not everything in the place wants to kill them, though. There are several NPCs who are being slowly corrupted by the demiplane. There are some opposing factions in the module, which I do appreciate. Unfortunately, the ones that don't want to kill you aren't long for this world anyway.
The magic items that can be found in this adventure are very, very cool. There's a magic whetstone that can give blades a purple flame, and there's a spear that was created expressly for the purpose of slaying the Titan. It'll do so in one hit, but the spear becomes mundane and the person who slew the Titan will be haunted by those dreams of conquest. What that does to them is up to the Judge.
The players climb their way up through some tunnels that have holes in the walls, and they're constantly on edge due to the big pumpkin busting through like the Kool-Aid man and killing them every so often. The players feel his presence throughout the adventure and they often talked about how they were worried he may pop through at any moment.
Once they climb to the top, the players have to leap onto a giant branch that's holding the enormous bird cage containing the prisoner they're supposed to rescue. At this point, it's up to the judge whether or not the jack-o-lantern strikes. Of course, I said yes to that question. Due to their vantage point, I ruled that they spotted him from afar this time. I recommend this highly, as it provides a tense moment where one person is clambering down to open the cage while the rest of the group is fending off the creature.
The players should, by this point, know that there's something really wrong with their mission, as they see the person they're freeing is very obviously a foul creature. There's a cool mechanic where opening the cage requires that the PC stick their hand in the lock and lose blood. Losing blood means they may pass out and fall down to their deaths. Being level-0, a loss of 1 HP may kill them anyway.
Regardless, if they do decide to free the creature, and they have to.. or else they're stuck forever.. she immediately destroys the Jack-o-lantern and the place comes crumbling down. The players race off, and then it's time for their grand reward.
From the very beginning, the Judge has to take account of some very specific actions that the characters may do. The module features a truly ingenious concept, the Wheel of Fate. Survivors have the opportunity to spin the wheel at the end of the module, and spinning the wheel has random results that are modified by how much they pleased the Lady in Blue. What the players loved about this is that DCC is very much a "roll in order and you get what you get" kind of game, yet this wheel has a ton of different outcomes. The worst case scenario is that the character who rolled is replaced by another character who died in the adventure, meaning you can bring back a prized level-0 that you may have had your eye on making your level-1 PC. And then they can roll again as they encounter the wheel for their first time. The best case scenario gives +2 permanent luck points and allows the player to reroll an ability score, their lucky roll, and even choose their starting occupation. They can essentially rewrite their entire character's history.
The fact that they earned this by surviving the adventure somewhat negates the breach of oracular character creation, somewhat. Purists may not like this and may opt for another way to handle it.
All in all, I think this module is fantastically written. When I plan on running it again in the future, I will be striving to remove the linearity as much as I can and make exploring and experimentation a little more rewarding. If you tend to buy modules for map-mining and scalping monsters and treasure, the maps are beautiful but they are again quite linear. The monsters and treasure are definitely cool, though, and there's some great encounter design you can use for inspiration. If you just like reading fantasy modules, this is a big hit.
That's all for this review. Coming up next will be The Queen of Elfland's Son. If you're interested in participating in the public game, join my discord and be prepared to sign up. I'll be running it on June 25th at 7:00 PM, and it will be streamed, so be sure to have a microphone. Cameras will not be used.