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Sunday, 21 October 2018

Weirdness and Wonder

The Hydra Cooperative, LLC is best known for its artfully curated and themed trilogy of scenarios set in the Hill Cantons, a world of Slavic myth, Moorcockian extradimensional intrusions, and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats. They are Fever-Dreaming Marlinko: A City Adventure Supplement for Labyrinth Lord, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and Misty Isles of the Eld. Although set in the same world, each of a quite singular nature and very different to each other in tone and feel. The latest release from The Hydra Cooperative, LLC is yet again, another scenario of a singular nature. Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Operation Unfathomable is an adventure unlike any other, in an underworld unlike any other, and unlike any other adventure, it is one-part sandbox, one-part high Level scenario for First Level characters.

Developed from a convention scenario published in Knockspell #5 and designed for use with Swords & Wizardry rather than the usual Labyrinth Lord of other Hydra Cooperative, LLC titles, the set-up for Operation Unfathomable is quite simple. The player characters are at Fort Enterprise in Stonespear Province, the northernmost outpost of the Murian Empire where they are conscripted by the local government for a mission of the utmost importance. Recently, the gallant Prince Eyraen, brave warrior son of Syantides, Sorcerer-King of Mur, led a band of men through a nearby entrance to the Underworld and descended into its depths to find and take revenge upon a minor chaos godling known as Shaggath-Ka. He has not returned and is presumed lost. Soldiers under the command of Fort Enterprise’s captain went after the prince, but they too failed to return and are presumed lost. Now it is the turn of the adventurers, for it is hoped that a smaller party, one better suited to stealth (or even diplomacy!), might succeed where the troops failed. Not necessarily to find the probably fallen prince, but to return a great magical artefact that he stole from his father’s treasury before he left for the north.

So that is that, then. On a mission they cannot refuse and equipped with the odd magical item or two, and forewarned by a map of the prince’s progress recovered from the depth, the player characters have to descend—quite literally down a thousand foot ladder—into the Underworld and go chasing after a McGuffin. And to be fair, as far as the plot is concerned, that really is all there is to Operation Unfathomable. Yet there is a whole lot more to the scenario than this all too simple plot and it all comes down to one simple idea: the journey is better than the destination.

This journey is built around two, rich, meaty strands. The most obvious of the two consists of the Underworld’s encounter areas. There are barely more than twenty of these, such as a ‘Beetletown Welcome Centre and Dwellings’, long abandoned outpost of the extinct Beetle Empire with its wheezing beetle statue and strange hamster ghosts; ‘Science Fungoid Experimental’, manned by the joyfully happy Science Fungoids; and ‘Local Franchise Temple of Nul’, regional church of the Cult of the Mindless God, whose priests transform its most willing worshippers into loyal, headless antenna-necked soldiers. Each one of these locations is detailed and interesting, but where Operation Unfathomable really comes alive is with the other strand—the ‘Encounters & Other Random Weirdness’ on the ‘Master Event Table’. From this one table, a total of some forty-four entries are further divided into three sub-categories/tables, ‘Underworld Phenomena’, ‘Competing Parties & Underworld Travellers’, and ‘Wandering Horrors’. So for example, a party of adventurers might have to run lest they be engulfed in ‘Mutagenic Cloud’ and have their lips gain tentacles, they grow a Moustache of Chaos, or their blood becomes flammable; get to trade with a Slugman on a business trip, or engage in a metaphysical debate with a Woolly Neanderthal on a spirit quest; and take pity on Flaming Hounds or be boggled by the rope tricks of the Cave Swallows. The Game Master is expected to throw these encounters at her players and their characters with some regularity in order to drive the story of their Underworld excursion onwards.

Intrinsic to the setting is the fight between Law and Chaos, this being more apparent in the Underworld as it is closer to the seething mass of mindless Chaos to be found at the centre of the planet. One of the new Classes, the Underworld Ranger, is tightly involved with the ongoing conflict between the two. Similarly, the need for player and player character maturity is also intrinsic to the scenario. The set-up for Operation Unfathomable is that the low level party is following in the wake of a high level party, and although the latter is still missing, presumed lost, it has cleared many of the more dangerous threats along the route marked on the players’ map. This does not mean that the player characters can wander along in the wake of the previous party’s progress, heedless of all possible danger. They will face both high-level and low-level threats, the author making no effort to create a dungeon full of balanced encounters. This gives the limited section of the Underworld described in Operation Unfathomable a naturalistic feel and consequently, the adventurers will need to know what fights to pick and what fights to avoid. This is offset though, by the number of encounters in which the monsters and persons encountered will want to engage in and encourage conversation with them. Not all of them to the player characters’ advantage, of course, but whatever their intentions, this is supported by some great NPCs for the Game Master to portray.

Rounding out Operation Unfathomable is a set of seven appendices. In turn, these describe the Chaos at the heart of the world and short histories of both the Underworld and the Beetle Empire; give a description of the Cult of the Mindless God, a quartet of hirelings, and the means to bring new player characters into play; a whole new Class in the form of the Underworld Ranger, descriptions of monsters, treasures, and spells; and a set of ten pre-generated adventurers (or alternatively, a rival adventuring party). The Underworld Ranger is a member of an organisation dedicated to fighting Chaos in the Underworld who equips him with light-intensifying goggles, an anti-Chaos shortsword, and eventually a Zaracanth Industries ZR-1 ‘Dissuader’ sidearm which shoots a ball of electricity and which must be wound up between shots! The monsters range from the Two-Headed Ape Mummy and the Firebomb Beetle to the Worm Soldier and Worm Surgeon, and include the Blind Antler Man, Chaos Flies, and Bat-Winged Dwarves. Items like the Zaracanth Industries ZR-1 ‘Dissuader’ sidearm and the Science Fungoid’s Death-Ray Revolver have a Science Fantasy feel to them, but most of the Underworld’s treasures simply have a weird feel to them, like the Potion of Advantageous Decapitation which grants the imbiber’s head the ability to separate and float of on its own or the Fizzy Drink of Ocular Autonomy which lets the imbiber’s eyeballs to float off for a while… For the most part, the spells have a fairly workmanlike aspect suited to casting in the Underworld.

Now it should be pointed out that some of the content from the appendices is included in a separate book, the Operation Unfathomable Player’s Guide. This gives the Underworld Ranger Class and its associated equipment as well as the various spells from Operation Unfathomable. It also includes some background for Operation Unfathomable along with the party map and some facts and tips, which are of course, thoroughly useful. It opens with an entertaining cartoon strip which depicts just a little of the oddness to the be found in the Underworld, but its primary new content consists of three new Classes not to be found in the pages of Operation Unfathomable. These Classes are the Underworld Otter, a Fighter or Thief with limited weapon use, oily fur which protects them against oozes, jellies, and the like, and an embarrassing sense of frivolity; the Woolly Neandertal, hairy Fighters with great Strength, but limited vocabulary; and the Citizen Lich, a Wizard who attempted to transform himself in a full Lich, but failed and instead became a minor Lich who is still undead and so is hard to kill, but can be Turned by a Cleric. Raise himself to high enough a Level once again and a Citizen Lich can eventually become a full Lich.

It seems odd not to have three of the Classes from the Operation Unfathomable Player’s Guide in Operation Unfathomable. Nevertheless, these four Classes all suit the setting, the Underworld Ranger Class adding a Science Fantasy element, the Underworld Otter and the Woolly Neandertal adding a primal element, and the Citizen Lich adding a baroque, civilised feel.

Outside of the map of the route taken by the Prince and his entourage, Operation Unfathomable is relatively limited sandbox. There are few places that a wandering party of player characters might actually go, but they are included on the Game Master’s map, even if descriptions of them are not. This is the problem if the adventurers go off piste as it leaves the Game Master to develop these locations on her own. There is certainly the feel that more needs to be written about this region of the Underworld, though the next supplement in the series will be Odious Uplands, which details the region above the Underworld.

Physically, Operation Unfathomable is a striking volume. The writing is engaging—particularly the colourful commentary from Bardolph the Beer Hound, Underworld Ranger, which runs throughout the book, but also each the many encounters and the various locations. The map of the Underworld is both fantastic and fussy, perhaps a bit too fiddley to handle easily at the table. What strikes the reader first about Operation Unfathomble though, is its artwork, somewhat cartoonish, but heavy and imposing, capturing the grandeur of this section of the Underworld.

Operation Unfathomable does a superb job of describing a fantastical environment of the world below as various factions attempt to take control of the area. At times it feels baroque, at times simply natural, but never, ever far from the weird, whether that is in the descriptions of the locations or of the many encounters. And although the scenario’s tone threatens to tip into out and out silliness, it never quite does. The scenario’s plot feels fresh and clever, which when combined with an underground environment detailed as never before, serves to give Operation Unfathomable a singular feel. Imagine Quentin Tarantino got together with Ralph Bakshi to make a Saturday morning cartoon in which the dirty half dozen were sent down a dungeon on a McGuffin hunt and the network refused to broadcast it because it was too weird, and that captures the feel of Operation Unfathomable.