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Sunday 18 July 2010

Add Depth To Your Shallows

Taking your average Dungeons & Dragons character and dropping him into the ocean and what you get is, well, for want of a better term, “a fish out of water.” The problems that arise when a character takes to the sea are threefold. First, his movement is restricted – he is no longer walking but swimming. Second, his weapons are no longer as effective – thrusting, piercing weapons work better than those that cut or bludgeon. Third, it is no longer the right atmosphere for him – few if any, player character races can breathe underwater. Although it is possible for a character to take feats and acquire magic items that allow him to take to a life in the deep, the problem with that is that it means that he is limited on both land and at sea. The option then is to take the whole campaign to sea, which is what Sunken Empires: Treasures and Terrors of the Deep, the latest supplement from Open Design for the Pathfinder RPG does, but rather than focus on a life on the ocean waves, it dives off the coast and into Dungeons & Dragons’ ancient past.

There is a very archaeological feel to this book, exploring as it does the upper reaches of the lost sunken city of Ankeshel and above it, the twin towns of Cassadega, the upper established by sages to study the undersea ruins, the lower by Merfolk to handle trade with the surface folk. Just eighty years ago, the opening of the tomb of priest-king Thalassos IV revealed incredible artefacts, pieces of technology long lost, including weapons such as spears, nets, and tridents powered by Vril Batteries. In the years since, Cassadega has become a haven for both sages and treasure seekers, the town growing to support both...

Although Ankeshel serves as an adventuring location and Cassadega as a base for those adventures, neither are never more than sketched out in Sunken Empires, but their inclusion serves as example of what the DM could create, and almost every element in the supplement easily supports this setting, not one of those elements is so tied to the setting that he not could use them in his own campaign. This shows a certain lightness of touch in both the intent of Sunken Empires and upon the part of authors.

All of this is underpinned by the Classics. The Classics in Dungeons & Dragons terms with not only a discussion of the ecology of the Aboleth, the Lawful Evil eel-like psionically capable Aberrations that first appeared in I1, Dwellers in the Forbidden City back in 1981 (which also introduced the Yuan-ti), but also “A History of the Aboleth.” This is written by the author of I1, Dwellers in the Forbidden City and the creator of the Aboleth, David “Zeb” Cook, and serves as the introduction to Sunken Empires. The Classics in terms of classic lost civilisations, as the supplement examines in turn, Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu with a nod to H.P. Lovecraft along the way, drawing elements and aspects from each to create Ankeshel.

In order for an adventurer to explore Ankeshel or other sunken locale, Sunken Empires introduces the Pelagic Class, each a variation upon the core classes – for whichever version of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, you are using – adapted to work and explore beneath the waves. For example, the Pelagic Barbarian is pearl diver or whaler from the islands, who can swim like a shark and grapple like a kraken, while the Sorcerer can be born with the bloodline of the Aboleth, the ocean itself, or Ankeshel’s Vril energy. These Pelagic Classes are supported with a range of aquatically themed Feats, plus oceanic Domains for the Cleric and Glyph schools – which let a Wizard store his magic into inscribed esoteric symbols – for the Wizard, while the new player character race, the Maeran or Half-Merfolk, is a perfect addition if the DM intends to take his campaign back and forth between Upper and Lower Cassadega, and then down into Ankeshel beyond.

The H.P. Lovecraft references continue with the inclusion of Shoggoth Polyps – grow your own Shoggoth, anyone? – in the various lists of aquatic equipment and lost technologies. Once a GM takes his game to the waters, the various devices and weapons here will get plenty of use. There are gaff hooks and sawfish swords, suits of sharkskin armour complete with a snapping shark jaw helmet, a deep compass which always points up, sea rot powder which will rust any iron or steel it touches, and the new Cassadegan electromagnetic coil and cryothermic guns – built upon Ankeshelian relics – that will have a player champing at the bit to own and use. Equally, the DM will enjoy outfitting his villains with the new items described in Sunken Empires, some of which do verge upon being quite pulpy in nature.

Magic has a chapter all its very own, providing new spells aplenty for all of the core classes and magic items for all. Both of these continue the marine theme, with detailed spells such as Defy Depth and Ink Cloud, but Wizard’s Glyph schools and the associated spells given here are just likely to find a home in land based campaigns as they are in ocean based ones. Of the magic items, many are enchanted versions of equipment already described, but many are quite specific. There are Sharktooth Daggers and Stingray Whips, Buoyant Chests and Everbreath Masks, Obscuring Sands and Octopus Bracers – instant tentacles! – but by far, one item stands out as it continues the book’s Cthulhu references. Actually the reference is more octopoid than Cthulhuesque, the Tentacled Shield possessing tentacles that can be commanded by the wielder to animate and attempt to disarm an opponent!

For the GM there is a chapter on running a Sunken Empires campaign, which guides him through the possibilities and dangers of running an underwater game level by level and describes the hazards to be found between the shore and the Underdeep. He also has a handful of new monsters to throw at his players, from the humble Goblin Shark to the Isonade, a gargantuan beast that delights in the destruction of seaside communities. There are new Familiars too, such as the Horseshoe Crab, the Blue-Ringed Octopus, and the Sea Horse, perfect for the Wizard who does not want to get his Weasel wet.

Physically, Sunken Empires is a fantastic looking book. The artwork, even though done by several artists, has a uniformly heavy style and a feel of foreboding throughout. The cartography is equally as good, but you just know that both the book’s maps and many of its illustrations would look even better in colour.

As an aside, Sunken Empires begins with an excerpt from a Derro A-B-C nursery rhyme, which begs the question, exactly where can I find the rest of it? Or is it being saved for a Derro sourcebook? My musings aside, what do I think of Sunken Empires? To begin with, not one of its eighty pages goes to waste, each and every one them being packed to the gills with useful information – information that the authors manage to keep in perfect balance between being setting specific and generic in nature. That the information builds nicely upon classic Dungeons & Dragons elements will be enjoyed by the long time fan of that game, that the information is developed into the basis for a campaign all of its very own will be appreciated by all.

With the potential to add new depths to the shallows of your campaign, Sunken Empires: Treasures and Terrors of the Deep literally the only thing that this supplement is missing is a full campaign of scenarios set in Cassadega and Ankeshel.


  1. I like the comments about a PC being a "fish out of water." Water adventures should always be risky. I grew up near the beach in Venice, some summers swimming everyday. To this day when I approach the water to go for a swim, I get a little reptilian cortex warning telling me "you do not belong in here."

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