Come Sail Away
Vampire Cruise by Amanda lee Franck is a 40-page zine containing a site-based location (the Sea Star cruise ship) for a horror-comedy adventure that unfolds over the course of two days at sea. It acts as a referee’s creative partner in bringing to life an adventure with a unique premise that is simply summed up by the title. It is system-neutral but contains roughly B/X stats for its monsters, which makes it relatively easy to adapt to any vaguely “old-school” system.
This review is based on two sessions I ran online in February, which is described in more detail in a play report by one of the players on his blog, Benign Brown Beast. I ran the adventure using Into the Odd, which system I recommend pairing with this adventure for two reasons. First, the more modern equipment packages fit better in an adventure set on a vaguely modern cruise than the more medieval European fare you tend to find in other “OSR” rulesets. Second, Vampire Cruise is open to the players being passengers, crew members, or vampires, and Into the Odd provides a neat way to determine who is a vampire if you want a mixed party. In Into the Odd, some starting backgrounds come with an Arcanum, which is a magic item with a random power. Vampire Cruise states that “Vampire PCs have one extra ability (choose from the skills other vampires have or make up your own)”. I had the idea to reskin Arcanum as a vampiric ability. In my playtest, only one character was a vampire (a fact he kept hidden from the other players until he felt appropriate), and when he used his power, it was a nice, dramatic reveal.
Some Assembly Required
Vampire Cruise has everything to drive a couple fun sessions but leaves the work of putting those pieces together to you. If you, like me, thrive on improv when you are referee-ing, the adventure is more than enough to prompt seaboard shenanigans. If, however, you need everything to be more clearly and fulsomely laid out before you begin your session, this won’t be a pick-up-and-play adventure for you. Instead, you’ll need to do some level of prep to put the pieces together enough for your comfort level.
The map and itinerary are the two pillars of the adventure. As I said in a post on my own blog, an itinerary or other guidance for what happens over time during the course of an adventure is just as helpful as a map, although it is more often overlooked. There is some helpful scaffolding in the itinerary (which lists 11 things that likely happen over the course of the two day cruise) and the familiar keyed map, but the referee is mostly responsible for choosing when and where the 12 pages of NPCs fit in with respect to time and place. Some NPCs are tied to the lightly keyed locations on the ship (for instance, the 15-year-old unpublished diarist, Kate Kosciusko, is usually found in a far corner of the library or in the banquet hall, while the serial-romantic vampire, Svetlana, resides in a recreation of her ancestral tower. Most NPCs, however, are sort of floating ideas, for the referee to insert as they see fit. And this is, in fact, the best way to use them. It’s even the best way to use the NPCs who presumably have a place they frequently haunt. I had a heavily sunscreened Svetlana beneath a heavy parasol hit on one of the PCs who sat by the pool by themselves, which turned into an ongoing thread in our game, while Kate was seated with a couple of PCs during the talent show at the concert hall as a way to give the PCs the info that passengers (in this case, Kate’s aunt) were starting to go missing.
The map is an engaging and, more importantly, gameable piece of art. There is so much detail in the cutaway map that you get a good idea what the adventure entails just by looking at it. The additional top-down maps of the major decks are just an added bonus, helping you conceptualize exactly where everything is. If you are familiar with Amanda lee Franck’s previous adventure, You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge, then you have a good idea of what this map looks like. Vampire Cruise’s map key is terse and funny, perhaps a bit more terse than the map key descriptions in Garbage Barge. However, the descriptions are typically enough to give the referee a springboard to describe what the PCs encounter. Exceptions are things like the balloon launch, cannon, pools, and engine deck, while are labeled on the map but don’t have any accompanying key. Some stand-outs in the map keys are the The Broadway Experience Concert Hall, which comes with a d6 table of what stage show is happening, the rock-climbing wall that is a to-scale duplicate of the vampire’s castle elsewhere on deck, and the underwater viewing window: “Crew members lower a bag of entrails into the water every few hours to attract a dazzling shark show. More sharks every time! There are getting to be a worrying number of sharks.” Franck strikes a similarly comedic tone throughout, which makes Vampire Cruise a pleasant read (and occasionally tempts the referee to read a choice line or two aloud at the table). However, to earn the “pedantic” moniker in the title of my review series, I will note the slight nitpick that The Ruined Tower and The Box House appear to be switched in the map versus the map key. (These are the types of nits that are probably present in most, if not all, published adventures, and it is probably my anxiety about these type of errors appearing in own adventure, which as I write this post is out of my hands and into my printer’s, that make me more sensitive to it. This small error isn’t actually something that would slow or disorient any reader or referee.)
Because the itinerary and the map are the engines driving the adventure forward, I advise giving players a redacted itinerary and an unredacted map at the start of the cruise. The map encourages the players choose what to do next based on what parts of the map look most interesting, while the itinerary tends to anchor them. My players kept saying things like “okay, what should we do for the next couple of hours before the dinner at the banquet hall begins?” As an example of ways an enterprising referee can assemble the pieces in Vampire Cruise to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, I would recommend expanding the itinerary to three days and inserting the 20 “cruise activities” included as a random table toward the back of the book as new events on board the Sea Star. This would all be much more than the PCs would reasonably be able to do during the cruise, but making some events take place at the same time forces the players to make more decisions about the type of cruise they are on.
But of course, the Sea Star is no ordinary cruise. How does the central conceit of the adventure, that it is a cruise, but with vampires, manifest? Mostly on Deck 13, which houses luxurious cabins for vampiric passengers and fancy recreations of some of the most powerful vampires’ on-shore abodes. The list of vampires on the cruise are an engaging bunch–the aforementioned Svetlana, who I ran like Jennifer Coolidge’s character in The White Lotus, is my favorite, but there is also a pair of rich hipsters and a Dracula-esque count with his spouses (like Dracula, this Count Ratherius is a bisexual icon. Count Strahd, take notes). The best vampire, however, never appeared in my game. It is the vampire shark that can turn into a mist to get onboard ships.
The vampires are a bit of a red herring. Players who presume an adventure entitled “Vampire Cruise” would feature vampires as its primary antagonist are in for a shock. The real villains of the module turn out to be a cult run by sleazy motivational speakers and dedicated to a horrifying, twenty-foot-tall, 3000-year-old Egyptian deity. This cult will attempt to hypnotize the PCs, unleash multiple monsters on the cruise, and are responsible for the climactic presumed-ending of the cruise, where the deity breaks into the vampire ball and begins killing vampires first, then everything else on board. The vampires tend to be a bit comedic, even campy, so this bait-and-switch injects more horror into the adventure than had the cruise been populated entirely by vampires.
Some Notes on Genre
“I want them to feel the same marrow-level dread of the oceanic I’ve always felt, the intuition of the sea as primordial nada, bottomless depths inhabited by cackling tooth-studded things rising toward you at the rate of a feather falls.”
- Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise 
Vampire Cruise is neither fully comedy nor much of a horror. It may lean towards the comedic by subverting typical horror tropes associated with vampires, gothic and brooding monsters, on board a tropical cruise ship, it also heightens the real horrors present on even mundane cruises. The crew are an ever-present underclass on board cruise ships, and Vampire Cruise doesn’t elide this fact. For instance, when the PCs are passengers, they have the ability to call on crew members for “absolutely anything the players ask for.” There is a little sub-mechanic for these requests, which may result in crewmates “tearfully beg[ging] you not to complain” or “painstaking[ly] recounting” the efforts the crew has taken to satisfy the request, along with “details on how Room Service plans to move forward from the present impasse.” Class is built into the map too: there are 3rd, 2nd and First Class Cabins for the 3rd, 2nd and First Class Passengers. Vampires have luxury suites, if they don’t have their own castles on board. But the cultists sleep in a long hallway filled with bunk beds. Vampires have always been used as class commentary, and the choice to pair them with a location so suffused with class was an inspired one. The Sea Star is a tinderbox and it eventually explodes as the cult unleashes a monster that rises up through the floor to devour the upper class, literal aristocrats during their black-tie party. This was the moment for my group where the adventure finally morphed from slapstick comedy to horror as the PCs fled for their lives, sacrificed one of their own, and rescued the young Kate Kosciusko from meeting the same violent end that befell all the lost souls aboard the Sea Star.