This group of PCs are part of a campaign that started as zero level nobodies in a funnel and have all leveled up to 3rd level. This wasn't a one-shot or a tournament where PCs may burn themselves down to the nub to get off a big spell cast. I feel this is worth pointing out as campaign games seem to be played more conservatively than one-shot or tournament games; or even Road Crew games!
Additionally, this party was made up of 3rd level characters including: 2 warriors, 2 wizards, 1 cleric, 1 halfling, 1 fighting man retainer.
I felt the party could handle the 4th level adventure because the halfling has 18 Luck which he burns liberally to help the wizards get off extremely powerful spell casts.
***THIS REVIEW WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS***
From the Adventure Introduction:
"Nearly three centuries ago the wizard Edward Magnussen
made a deal with a devil. That devil gave
him precognitive powers and uncanny good luck,
which Edward parlayed into a royal title and his own duchy,
becoming the first Duke Magnussen. The devil also promised
him immortal life. In exchange for all this, Edward had to deliver
his own soul, as a deposit of sorts, and then twelve additional
souls—those of his next eleven male heirs, and finally,
the first daughter to follow. When all thirteen souls were delivered,
so said the devil, Edward would come back to life, revivified
with pieces and parts from his descendants, and they
would go on to an afterlife in hell.
Now, twelve generations later, a daughter has been born to
Duke Magnussen XIII. Father and daughter have lived in terror
for years, afraid that the prophecy of the Magnussen clan
would someday come true."
The adventure began when the party was present for the execution of a prophet who was essentially telling the truth about the above introduction. He was trying to warn the city of Punjar that the Duke was in league with a demon. For this, he was scheduled to be beheaded.
As the executioner came down with his axe the face of the prophet became that of the Duke, who himself looked on in shock. This is great imagery that appears to come from the Robert E. Howard Conan story "The Hour of The Dragon" or "Conan the Destroyer" wherein Conan kills an executioner and steals his hood, shocking all of his enemies who assumed he was dead in an earlier chapter.
After this wild moment, a pterodactyl shows up and plucks the Duke's daughter from the parapet overlooking the execution. She's then spirited away into a crypt in the side of a cliff with a waterfall just under the Duke's keep.
I'll mention that this scene is fun and interesting but, with 3rd or 4th level characters on the scene for this moment, they'd have a million options on how to destroy the tension immediately. One of the Wizards, for instance, had a max level spell casting of Invisible Companion; which gave her an invisible companion with 24 ability scores, across the board. The Companion was named "Super Steve" and he could fly at 120 feet of movement per round. Super Steve could have easily grabbed the princess from the talons of the Pterodactyl if I hadn't Judge Ruled that it was impossible. I regret ruling in such a biased manner but it was done at the end of the previous session late into the night; it honestly hadn't occurred to me that the hook could have been ruined so easily.
As a form of apology to the players, I made the princess somewhat easier to save later in the adventurer. Advice to other judges: let your players save the princess at this moment if they can and allow them to investigate the Silver Skull if they wish.
One of my players said that this adventure was "extremely challenging but overall a lot of fun". It sure seemed that way to me. No other adventure has pushed my home group of DCC RPG players so close to the breaking point. By the end of it all the Halfling was down to 2 Luck and 2 Strength and was being carried on the back of one of the Warriors.
Thanks to the Halfling with extremely high luck, this party has rarely been pushed to the edge of difficulty in their DCC RPG party. Oh sure they complain alot about how they wish they were more powerful, or how their dice don't roll in their favor, but I've yet to kill even one of them in 9 sessions since they acquired first level.
Some of the imagery was great in this adventure by Joseph Goodman.
I also liked the concept of the roaring river beneath the royal family crypt. In the center of the river is a massive stone pillar (30 feet in diameter) jutting from the waves. It's slowly degrading from the river's movement for the last 13 generations of the Duke's clan. Sitting atop it is the powerful Silver Skull.
Also, in the center of the river is a portal directly into Hell itself which vomits out demons. My players barely investigated this anomaly so they had Worm Demons, Toadstool Demons, and Eyestalk Demons waylay them from behind for much of the delve.
One of my players said to "add more demons with 4 eyeballs", making humor of the fact that these monsters were the ones that finally gave the party an extreme challenge.
"This top-heavy creature has four small
legs, a narrow body, and a tall, stout neck. Set into the neck are four
eyes facing forward. Each eye glows a different color…then begin
shooting beams at you!"
The imagery is great and my players were freaked out!
The beams were to paralyze or burn alive (I rolled them randomly based on the charts in the book). I had the demons play smart and target the low Armor Class (AC) characters with Flaming Beams but the Paralyze Beams targeted the Warriors and heavy armored characters since it didn't require an attack roll. Demons are smart, I ruled as a Judge, they'd know who to hit with which beam.
They avoided attacking the Cleric since he had a mirror shield that reflects beams from the One Who Watches From Below. What demon wants to get hit with his own reflected beam?
This battle with eyestalk demons (the 3rd battle with demons of the evening) happened AFTER the battle with the penultimate "Silver Skull" so the party was already depleted in resources.
The wizards both died, one dying twice. But in each case they were healed without the time frame necessary to keep them from tasting oblivion. In DCC RPG you have 1 round for each level of the character to heal them before they are actually dead.
Also good was the battle with the Silver Skull itself. There is imagery of a massive 30 foot diameter stone pillar in the center of the dungeon jutting out of an underground river. Sitting at its top is the Silver Skull; which is a 6th level Wizard artifact...thing.
Being able to toss Lightning Bolt and Sleep spells at the player characters was pretty rewarding, considering they have spent the last 9 session throwing them at my monsters.
One of the PC warriors was able to golf club the skull off the side of the pillar after some of the party (the perfidious halfling!) made some unlikely saving throws versus the Sleep spell.
The magic items in the adventure were outstanding, as well. There is a massive book made of bronze pages that teleport you to other dimensions as you flip through it. It took them to the Plane of Water before depositing them in a level of Hell itself where the princess was being sacrificed in an unholy ritual.
The worst part of this adventurer, I think, is probably the cliche nature of many of the concepts. Crypts, zombies, shadows, coffins, etc. These are all basic images that have been seen by most RPG players a hundred times before.
Even so, I think Goodman gave them all some nice twists that made them acceptable if not inspiring.
The difficulty level of these adventure, itself, could be considered "The Bad". One thing to keep in mind as a Judge is that the party is allowed very little in the way of respite from the monsters attacking them.
The Shadows attack immediately and come back after a Turn Unholy right in the middle of the fight with the Silver Skull. The zombies come in around the same time. The Pterodactyl flies up from the middle of the stone pillar to engage the party during the Boss Fight. The Stinking Pit to Hell spews out demons the whole time every 30 minutes or less, as well.
Don't toss your players into this adventure if you're not ready to give them a serious challenge! This was great for my party since they've strolled through most of what I've thrown at them this campaign but may be bad for Judge's with weaker groups.
The halfling's player said that "if you spend the entire session feeling like you're going to die but you squeak out and survive, it was a good session!"
My biggest issue with DCC RPG is probably its saving throw system. This doesn't relate to The 13th Skull in particular but the system in general.
If a wizard rolls a 25 as their spell check, for instance, the enemy has to roll a DC 25 Will, Reflex, or Fortitude save. That's all well and good considering that, if the wizard doesn't do this, some of the melee focused PCs will likely die. But what happens when the monsters, such as the Silver Skull, toss spells?
A DC 25ish Willpower save for a Sleep spell from the Silver Skull may end up as a TPK (total party kill). Luckily enough, my players had two of their number roll natural 20s and save so it all worked out. I know DCC RPG was playtested ALOT so I assume this is "working as intended". I just wonder if this intention works for my table.
I may house rule some things to make the Difficult Class (DCs) of saving throws a bit more realistic to roll and save against.
This is a great adventure with powerful imagery that will challenge your player characters. Be sure you want them to engage in an extreme challenge if you toss out hooks for this adventure. Additionally, be sure they can't destroy the opening scene of the Duke's daughter being captured unless you are prepared to improvise the rest of your session.
I'd give this adventure a 4.5 out of 5 primarily because of the way the writer understands the give and take of the DCC RPG system. It keeps the players on edge and uncertain when to spend their limited resources of Luck etc.
I would recommend this adventure for any Judge running DCC RPG but I wouldn't recommend trying to convert this adventure to another D&D style system. The imagery isn't strong enough and the adventure's strength is the writer understanding his own game system.