So I’ve run my holiday-themed re-skinning of Sailors on the Starless Sea twice so far… the most recent time, last Friday, ended in a TPK. Everybody had fun, and wanted to play some more DCC, but I think it pointed out a gotcha in the scenario that I’d want to address before I ran it again for some other group. Spoilers ahead if you haven’t played it.
Specifically, if the players skip the Charnel Ruins… and both my groups wanted to because of how foreboding it was, though the first reconsidered after a bit… then when it comes time to meet the Leviathan, they’re screwed. Unless they’re willing to make a human sacrifice (fat chance, at least with my typical players), even if they chum the waters to distract it, they need to spend at least 2 rounds in the water (if they can even swim) both coming and going from the ship with the Leviathan getting 6 attacks per round… what actually happened Friday is they ended up fighting the Leviathan on the deck of the ship and losing. Which is fine: fighting the Leviathan straight up should be a losing proposition. But that means that there need to be either more ways around it or the single way that’s there needs to be on the main path.
Sailors on the Starless Sea is a very linear adventure: after the choice of the initial approach there are a couple of side areas, but no real branches. That’s not necessarily bad for something that’s supposed to be a short adventure, but it means sticking the key to completing the adventure in one of the few skippable side areas is a problem. That’s compounded because once they meet the Leviathan there’s no retreating and regrouping or exploring what they might have missed: it’s deliberately set up so if they don’t have the censer they’re stuck either halfway across or 50′ from the far shore if they come up with the chum-the-waters trick. IMO, that’s pretty mean, and not really in keeping with the best Old School principles of letting the players pick their fights and routes. I also think the set up gives perhaps unfortunate psychological pressure on the players to hurry along to rescue the villagers instead of poking their noses into everything the way a more “let’s loot the ruins” party would.
Having said all this, I think there’s a pretty simple fix: since the Leviathan basically acts like a gate that requires a key, make it so you can’t open the gate without the key. Take away the candle at the top of the menhir, and make it so that lighting the censer (or sacrificing a victim) both summons the ship and placates the Leviathan. That way if they make it that far without getting the censer, they can figure out they’re missing something… and if they don’t immediately, then if they swim out to the ship the Leviathan can attack the swimmers while they still have a chance of retreating. It also makes the mosaic a better clue, since the action depicted in the mosaic of using the censer while standing on the menhir now matches how you’re supposed to deal with the Leviathan.
A more radical fix would be to have the Leviathan’s blood-lust be sated as soon as each tentacle seized and dragged somebody off; then even if the party just bulls through they won’t lose more than 7 characters. It’ll hurt, but at least it might be enough to finish the module, particularly if you have a lot of players.