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Retrospective: The Portal Under The Stars

In the end, they dipped the horn they’d taken from Ssisssuraaaaggg the demon-snake, dipped it in venom from his venom sac and strapped it to the head of one of the character’s ponies. Smacking the pony on the arse with a shovel, they sent it bolting headlong into the clay war-wizard where it pierced his midriff with the horn and sent him dying, into the pit.

A home made poisonous unicorn.

That could be the most Dungeon Crawl Classics thing I’ve ever witnessed as a GM (or Judge in DCC parlance).

Last night, I ran The Portal Under The Stars as part of Con of Champions. Portal is a well known and respected “funnel” adventure. I had five players who each had four characters. Not fully fledged characters like you would have in a 5th Edition game. No, these were a rag tag bunch of expendable peasants, armed with pitchforks, clubs, sticks and in one case a pony which later became a poisonous unicorn.

Along the way, their number was whittled down to about thirteen characters. Not a huge death toll by the standards of the DCC funnel but this party were pretty imaginative when it came to solutions. They also bypassed an entire room full of Living Bones.

On their way to defeating the clay war-wizard they were zapped by lightning from a trapped door, had spears thrown at them by mechanical guardians and were burned alive by a fireball throwing statue. All of this was before they deliberately collapsed a huge ritual pool into the room below to wash away seventy clay warriors.

I’ve run funnels before, but this was the first time I’d done so for complete strangers and the first time I’d done so online. Running an online game for strangers is often a quite stilted experience at the start of the session anyway but this was definitely more challenging as they struggled to come to terms with running four characters at once.

Running a funnel can also be daunting for the GM (Judge). Trying to remember where everyone is at all times, as well as balancing out character deaths across five players is not easy, not least because you can have twenty or more character names to remember.

Only one of these players had played DCC before – it was a convention table after all – so when Smuggy the smuggler expired in the first corridor after trying to prise some jewelled stars out of a trapped door there was an audible, sharp intake of breath.

The second room didn’t get any better as two more characters met their maker at the hands of spear throwing automatons. Half an hour in and three deaths.

Thankfully they started to realise at this point that they may not survive this dungeon using their combat skills alone and began to get inventive. A creaking of rusted metal, the whoosh of a spear being thrown and a loud, pained “moo” indicated that they were catching on, as they opted to send one of the characters cows ahead instead (I’ll wager you’ve never had a PC in 5e who came fully equipped with their own cow).

From there on in, it was a masterclass in inventive play from the party. It actually made me realise how rarely that kind of play is in evidence in modern day RPG sessions. More mainstream RPG systems are designed in such a way that combat is a viable option in every situation. Characters in the modern, big hitter RPGs can be relatively powerful out of the box, even at first level, with a string of powers available to them to help overcome their foes.

Also, opponents (in published adventures at least) tend to be level appropriate. Not so in DCC. DCC is set up to be deadly and so it causes players to be way more inventive in how they approach situations. As a GM, that ingenuity can be challenging but you should always encourage and reward it. Once everyone leaves the table, they’re going to remember that poisoned unicorn way more than they remember a flurry of arrows from a bow.

After further shenanigans including jamming a fireball throwing statue’s mechanism with a miner’s pick axe and luring some creepy crystal guardians away from the party using a ten foot pole with a lantern tied on the end, the final scene came into view complete with it’s seventy clay warriors and an even bigger clay warrior. There was water, mud, a Dwarf flailing through the air with a hastily fashioned club and an Elf left dangling on the end of a precipice.

However, even I couldn’t have predicted that it would end with a makeshift, poisonous “unicorn” charging the length of the final chamber and impaling the boss on it’s “horn”.

The peasants returned to their village as heroes, with one hell of a story to tell while the Judge retired to his blog to tell his.

Return of the DM View All

I am a 40 something DM/GM located in Scotland. In 2016, I rediscovered the joys of tabletop role-playing games. This blog documents my journey back into the fold.

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