The Winners of the Return to the Starless Sea
by Terry Olson
This year that shall not be named has assailed us with challenges and hardship, but briefly, over one hundred players left it all behind to Return to the Starless Sea! This fourth annual DCC RPG Team Tournament was unlike its three predecessors in many ways: it featured a funnel; it had only two rounds; different round 1 flights had different content; the final round had six teams competing; teams couldn’t pre-select PCs; and IT HAD A WIZARD VAN! The design team had intended the tournament to be run for over 500 players at Gen Con, and we even had space reserved in Lucas Oil Stadium! Gen Con was canceled, but that didn’t stop the reavers of DCC.
Round 1 began with five players, each with four zero-level PCs, in a possible future that occurs after Sailors on the Starless Sea. A peasant army surrounded the new chaos keep, trying desperately to enter. The keep’s walls churned and melted, with spectral faces screaming from the living chaos stone and magic portals flashing open and closed. Almost one-third of the peasants died trying to enter the keep (282 in total!), but the survivors used guile and a whole lot of Luck to triumph and enter the keep.
After conquering a four-armed vine horror, the survivors descended a beastman-guarded crater. At the bottom was a pulsing crimson ziggurat! Here, our poor damaged gongfarmers battled past a swarm of waxy meltmen to confront a pulsing crystal at the ziggurat’s zenith. Judge Stefan Flickinger’s team had less than a minute of play time remaining when Mat Sauers’ PC hit the crystal with a sling bullet and his teammates yelled, “YOU CAN BURN LUCK FOR DAMAGE!” With 11 points of Luck burned, he triumphed! When teams shattered the crystal, however, things went from bad to worse. The pyramid shuddered, pitched, and rose as a huge body bulged underneath. It was a cyclopean soul-eating leviathan! But before the leviathan could destroy the characters, the impossible happened: a WIZARD VAN teleported out of the blue to save them! Piloted by none other than the Purple Sorcerer himself! “Come with me if you want to live,” he told the PCs, “The only way to end this is to stop it from beginning!”
Thus ended round 1 of Return to the Starless Sea, which set new records for Luck burn. On average, the first flight teams each burned 78 points of Luck! There were six teams moving on the final round: Impending Doom, Gong in 60 Seconds, Surfers in the Dark, Aquabats, The Dump Stats, and Peon Knights.
Round 2 commenced with the PCs warping through space and time within the very wizard van that saved them in Round 1. However, this was not a funnel; it was a level one adventure. Every team of five players had to choose from the same five PCs, unlike previous tournaments where there were 8-10 PCs for five players. Then the encounter began with the van emerging into the distant past, before the keep of the original Sailors on the Starless Sea was built. The party’s mission was simple: kill the Chaos Lords Molan and Felan before they could create the Well of Souls (which ultimately spawned the cyclopean soul-eating leviathan in round 1’s finale). Unfortunately, just as the Purple Sorcerer finished his exposition, a dragon attacked the van. The party’s patron quickly left to help others whose chances “suddenly looked better” than theirs.
This wizard van vs. dragon encounter was a highlight of the tournament. It was also a design challenge. How do you (fairly) pit five level 1 PCs against a dragon? Our solution was to have the dragon fight the van, but the PCs could help (and also take a bit of damage). The wizard van had plenty of items to aid the fight. Players received an interior handout showing a lava lamp, a phlogiston cannon, a mirrored disco ball, and even a shag rug. The coolest thing about the van, however, was the boon-granting music. PCs who unlocked the glovebox found seven rectangular cartridges with toe-tapping tunes like “Wiggy Fardust,” “Smoke on the Slaughter,” and more. Even better, we had filled the Roll20 jukebox with the real songs these titles parodied (you know the ones), so players got to hear music! After the tournament, people exclaimed how much they loved the wizard van, saying, “possibly my most favorite RPG scene of all time, very unexpected and so appropriate,” “I’ll never forget that opening encounter as long as I live,” and “I would have ridden out that first encounter all night!”
The deadliest challenges of the round were the final two, and they were back to back. The first was a younger, though still deadly, leviathan in a growing aquatic cavern that would eventually become the Starless Sea, and after that, chaos soldiers, priests, peasants (Oh my!) and the two Choas Lords Molan and Felan. One team, the soon-to-be championed Peon Knights, managed to trick the leviathan to attack the soldiers instead of the party! This ruse saved them from TPK’ing before round’s end and was instrumental in their taking first place.
Speaking of TPKs, our bronze medal winners, Impending Doom, probably had the most amazing TPK we’ve witnessed. The leviathan had killed a PC and split the party, so that only two PCs, a wizard and warrior, advanced to the shore to meet the Chaos Lords. The wizard was downed by soldiers when Judge Tim Deschene decided to add some flavor and have Felan challenge the warrior to one-on-one combat. The warrior won initiative but instead of attacking, he rolled over the wizard’s body… who lived! The wizard spellburned to cast a superpowered magic missile at Felan, but then Molan countered it with a crit! Spellduel with phlogiston disturbance! The wizard and Molan were whisked away to a pocket dimension where Molan was victorious, while the wizard’s companions fell to Felan and his soldiers. Most. Epic. TPK. Ever.
Congratulations to our gold winners The Peon Knights, our silver winners The Dump Stats, and our bronze winners Impending Doom. You all rocked!
Return to the Starless Sea was our deadliest tournament so far, killing 63% of PCs (492 out of 775), just squeaking past 2018’s Riders of the Phlogiston (which killed 62%). Nonetheless, it was a blast! Most parties reached the final encounters of both rounds, though the pressure of time was always there. However, no party completed the finale of round 2, so you’ll have to read it yourself to see how it ends!
We’d like to thank all of our players, tireless judges, writers, and artists who made Return to the Starless Sea possible. Our only regret is not being able to bring the fun to more of you; we’ll work on fixing that next year. So, keep your dice hot and your skills sharp for our next tournament, and never ask for whom the gong tolls!