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Saturday, 7 January 2017

A Desert Diversion

Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is an adventure for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, the Old School Renaissance emulation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that mixes ‘Swords, Sorcery, and Weird Fantasy’ published by North Wind Adventures. It is designed for four to six players of between Second Level and Fourth Level. Set in the game’s default world of Hyperborea, it concerns the fate of Ymir’s Serpent, a legendary Viking longship commanded by Sigtrygg Forkbeard that sailed up the River Æolus where its crew is said to have discovered a mine rich in green diamonds. Before the Ymir’s Serpent and her crew could return with their riches, the river dried up and the ship and her crew were never seen again. In the years since, tales have grown of a shimmering Viking ghost ship gliding across the dunes… This is a popular and well-known legend, one that continues to attract the interest of thieves, prospectors, treasure hunters, and others, so it should be no surprise to the player characters when they learn of a wizard with flowing coffers claiming to have the means to locate both the wreck of the lost ship and its cargo of green diamonds. Not only that, but he is also hiring expedition members to help him prove his claims. Thus there is a chance for the adventurers to be rich, very rich…

The adventure begins in the City-State of Khromarium where the heroes are hired by Vul Kovtu, a wizened, peg-legged wizard who has the knowledge, but wants to the help of able-bodied men. They are to sail with him to Cape Calencia and from there to the mouth of the extinct River Æolus where they will disembark and make their way up its dried up course to locate the wreck of the Viking ship and its treasure hoard. Throughout they are to provide Vul Kovtu with both aid and protection. The adventure is divided into two parts,the first ‘The Cursed Amphora’ is suitable for characters of Second and Third Level, the second part, ‘Diamond Desert’ suitable for characters of Third and Fourth Level.

The first stop in the adventure is ‘The Cursed Amphora’, set on Cape Calencia and in and around Calencia Village, built on stilts at the rear of Lith Fjord’. The village is known for the high quality of its canoes; the Brotherhood of Khalk-Xu, the monks devoted to the octopus-like ‘The Dimensional Dweller’; and the witches of Calencia’s Peculiar, one of whom is a noted oracle. What Vul Kovtu wants do here to investigate the story of a man who went mad, supposedly as a result of being in contact with ‘green glowing glassware’. After they disembark, there is plenty for the player characters to do here—eating and drinking, shopping (of course), visiting the Oracle, and more. There are though, plenty of rumours to learn and follow up on, as well of course, the tale of the ‘The Cursed Amphora’. Following up on both these rumours and the tale is where the adventure really begins to come alive, drawing the players and their characters deeper into village life and rivalries and then out onto the cape itself. The area around the village is a thickly wooded wilderness, mostly known for being the source of the wood for the village’s canoes and home to the ape-men that occasionally attack the village. It is also home to an abandoned temple complex and dungeon, actually quite small, but it makes for a solid payoff to the player characters’ efforts in Calencia Village.

The second stop takes the adventurers to the mouth of the River Æolus and from there a trek inland and across the desert. Here the scenario not only plays up its pulp roots, but also harks back to the B Movies of the fifties too in its monster selection as well as some standard Dungeons & Dragons monsters. Besides wandering monsters there are some fun encounters with a hermit and a band of hyaena-men riding giant chameleons and this together with the radioactive ants sends the adventure veering awfully close to Gamma World in tone and feel, though it still retains a ‘sand, swords, & sorcery’ feel.

The last stop of course takes the player characters and their patron to not only the wreck of the lost ship and its cargo of green diamonds, but also the source of the diamonds—a mine! Just like the lost ship, this mine has long been abandoned, but this does not mean that it is no longer occupied or worked out. This is a nicely detailed mine, full of weirdness and creepy touches.. The villain in this last part is particularly pulpy in nature and it is perhaps a pity that his backstory is never given space for the player characters to explore it. At end of it, of course, there is treasure to be found. Not just green diamonds, but oddities like a +2 boomerang and a string of knots that when activated, will cause the wind to fill the sails of a ship. There is also a fantastic treasure to found, one that will greatly benefit the player characters, in the long term adding to their legend as ‘great heroes’, but one that will also make them the targets of attempts by kings and queens, let alone other adventurers, to take it from them.

What is pleasing about the adventure is the way in which the main NPC, Vul Kovtu, is handled. Typically in such scenarios, the adventurers’ patron—in this case, Vul Kovtu—inevitably turns on them and betrays them. Now Vul Kovtu is portrayed as a driven and ambitious wizard and during the course of the adventure, the consequences of his ambitions may well be revealed, but at no point is he intending to betray the player characters. That said, as written, he is likely to be driven mad by the end of the adventure, but the GM is given pointers as to how handle him and this need not involve betrayal or turning on the player characters.

Physically Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is very nicely presented. Although it needs a close read through in order to grasp all of the details—especially with regard to the relationships between the inhabitants of Calencia Village in ‘The Cursed Amphora’—the scenario is well written. Whilst the front cover is excellent, the internal artwork does vary somewhat in quality. The cartography is consistently good throughout, though the map of Calencia Village and Lith Fjord is reminiscent of Blackwater Cove and Booty Bay from World of Warcraft. That said, a map of Cape Calencia would have been a welcome inclusion.

Now although Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is written for a retroneclone and a retroclone based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons at that, it is does not overly feel like a typical Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure. Then again it does not quite feel quite like a Swords & Sorcery adventure either. Yet as a combination of the two, Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is an effective and well crafted adventure. Although its final encounters are very much a mystery until the player characters come to them, getting there, the process of the journey that makes up the first two thirds of Ghost Ship of the Desert Dunes is well handled with the party being given plenty to do and involve itself in.