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Wednesday 7 February 2018

A Literal Sandbox

Taking its cue its title, if not its cue, from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a mini-sandbox style setting designed for characters of between Second and Fourth Level for use with Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord. Published by the Hydra Collective LLC following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is the first part of a trilogy of supplements which continue with Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Misty Isles of the Eld and set in the Hill Cantons, a setting described as, “A Slavic-myth inspired, acid fantasy world of Moorcockian extradimensional incursions and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats.” Much of this is true—Slumbering Ursine Dunes lacks the swindlers and the petty bureaucrats—but the setting is infused with Slavic myth and penetrated by Moorcockian Science Fantasy from beyond, and it is Vancian in its baroque feeling of age and the sometimes-retiring nature of the setting.

Although a sandbox setting which the player characters are free to wander where they will, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is not a hexcrawl, but a ‘pointcrawl’. This depicts a region as a series of connected nodes rather than hex grid of locations and wilderness spaced in between. This makes travel in a sense more direct and avoids the problem of having an adventuring party wandering endlessly in the wilderness trying to find specific locations. It turns the map of the region depicted in Slumbering Ursine Dunes into something representational rather than exact and topographical, much like the map of the London Underground. Cleverly though, the concept of nodes and distinct travel routes is supported by the topography of the setting itself. The Slumbering Ursine Dunes consists of a mass of huge dunes of scarlet sand, each dune all but insurmountable, so that the easiest way through the dunes is by the existing routes between and along their bases. That said, the number of points—and thus encounters—in this pointcrawl are quite small at just twenty-five and for any adventurers, getting across the Slumbering Ursine Dunes should take no more than a morning at most—in either direction.

The Slumbering Ursine Dunes are sudden plateau, some three-hundred-and-fifty feet high, that jut out of the landscape on the coast of the Persimmon Sea opposite the Misty Isles. They are known for the scarlet colour of their sand and for the annual pilgrimage of the soldier-bears who serve the hirsute and ursine godling, Medved, who rules over the plateau. The plateau is rumoured to be a place of great strangeness, whether it is the green pearls which carry the souls of evil men or the magical wheat fields where succour and sustenance is granted. The only access to the plateau is from the stairs that lead up from the settlement at Kugelberg—there is certainly none to be had from the coastal side. Two points of interest stand on the coastal side though: The Golden Barge and the Glittering Tower. To reach them, any adventurers will have to trek across the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, for the waters are not safe around the coast and there are no beaches.

Once atop the plateau, the player characters will encounter an array of the weird and the wonderful. There are War Bears and Centaur toll keepers, a hermit living in a Zardoz-like head, a magic rye field, and a reservoir which holds the remaining floodwaters of the last Great Deluge. This reservoir is home to a trio of crooning willow-like Rusalkas who like to drown their men and a band of Giant Beavers whose duty it is to maintain the dam, just as it has been for their forefathers before them. Their lair is in the dam and contains not just an aquarium, but also a gift shop! This is in addition to the encounters that the player characters are likely to have with the forces and representatives of the four factions vying for control of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. They include Joromir the Old Smith, a tired warrior, who along with his family and friends wants little to change atop the plateau; Medved the Master, an old and tired god who commands War Bears, Centaurs, and Cave Dwarfs and who wants to be rid of the Eld and Ondrj; the Eld, extradimensional Melnibonéan-like elves wanting to reclaim the Golden Barge and who hate Medved the Master; and Ondrj the Reaver, cousin to Medved the Master and Wereshark who leads a band of pirates in a orgy of violence and hatred. Each of these NPCs is mapped onto the Alignment Lawful/Chaotic-Good/Evil axis, so that Joromir the Old Smith is Lawful Good, Medved the Master is Chaotic Good, the Eld are Lawful Evil, and Ondrj the Reaver is Chaotic Evil. Time is taken to describe how each of these NPCs talks and acts and will react to the player characters. For example, Ondrj the Reaver is described as being all politeness and sharp toothed smiles, but actually constraining his natural inclination to just kill the party, and even if the adventurers are working for him, there is a thirty percent chance that he will give in and try to kill them anyway. These are fantastic pointers and so helpful for the Dungeon Master.

The Golden Barge and the Glittering Tower serve as the dungeons for the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. The Golden Barge, long lost to the Eld, is more a space barge than a nautical barge and a strange combination of ancient alien and organic technology and mediaeval pleasure barge. The primary danger aboard the barge are the Ghul, organically grown servants and guards whose numbers will refresh over the course of a few days. The creepiest feature of the Golden Barge will be its furniture, human peasantry bent and shellacked into tables and chairs, but perhaps the most memorable will be the two-headed giant vulture with tumour-chest-tentacles atop a broken tower and the four-armed White Ape waiting at the top of the stairs to the control, complete with a supply of barrels…

In comparison, the Glittering Tower, home to Medved the Master, is not as interesting. It is more dungeon-like than the Golden Barge, but where that is quite sparse in its furnishings and fittings, the Glittering Tower is baroque, cluttered, and very much lived in. It is full of gewgaws and odds and ends and also of the Eld trying to oust Medved, who in turn would like to drive them out of his home. Unfortunately, the Glittering Tower is not functioning as well as it once did and so the demi-god needs help. Perhaps the player characters can help? As well as employment, there are plenty of opportunity to look the tower, even if that loot is just a little weird, and similarly, there is opportunity aplenty for the Dungeon Master to slip interesting items into all of this clutter.

The descriptions of the locations and the NPCs take up roughly two thirds of the book, the remainder consisting of an optional mechanic and various appendices. The optional mechanic is a ‘Chaos Event Index’, Like many a sandbox, the Slumbering Ursine Dunes exist more or less on a fulcrum, awaiting agents of change and of course, those agents of change are the player characters. Their influence, their actions, even their very presence are enough to upset the apple cart and throw the balance of the region into chaos. To that end, the ‘Chaos Event Index’ turns that up a notch or two, with the player characters’ mere presence combined with their actions and the actions of the factions serving to drive the index up and increase the chaos and the weirdness. Initially this might be for blood rain to fall, but monsters might attack, demi-gods appear, and so on. As this escalates, it pushes the setting further and further into the weird.

The appendices include a bestiary, a list of new spells, two new Classes, and a list of hirelings. The bestiary provides stats and write-ups for the new monsters—the Cave Dwarf, the War Bear, the Anti-Cantonal Eld, the Ghuls, and so on. Several monsters, such as the Grue and the Pelgrane are directly drawn from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, whilst the two new spells, Kazimir’s Resplendent Couture and Summon and Bind Sandestin, are utterly Vancian. The Cave Dwarf and the War Bear are also given as playable races, in the Race as Class format of Labyrinth Lord. The Cave Dwarf is essentially a Neanderthal Dwarf, whilst the War Bears are fighters with a love of polearms. What is interesting about both Classes is that neither are initially available to the players, instead available only as NPCs. The Dungeon Master has the option to ‘unlock’ them though, perhaps after a player character has died. Lastly, the lists of hirelings provide a fun set of NPCs for the Dungeon Master to roleplay as they accompany the player characters.

Physically, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is well written—certainly the author has a lot of fun getting obvious and not so obvious references into the setting and there is plenty of good descriptive content to help the Dungeon Master run the adventure. It is also very nicely illustrated. In fact, the artwork, if only in greyscale, is excellent. Yet the book is not well organised, with tables often spread over two pages making them awkward to use. The dungeon maps, those of the Golden Barge and the Glittering Tower, are placed too far away from their text descriptions for easy use. The maps of both locations are also bland and somewhat disappointing. As is the lack of an index, but the book is relatively short, so this is not as much of a problem as it could have been.

If there is a problem with Slumbering Ursine Dunes, it is the lack of a hook. There are no suggestions as to how or why the player characters should or want to come to the mini-region and quite possibly no reason for them to stay unless they ally themselves with one of the factions. There is plenty for them to do and explore once they do, but without this motivation…? The Dungeon Master will need to create some hooks and suggestions perhaps to provide this. If there is a second problem it is that the outcome of the player characters’ actions on the mini-region are not really explored. What happens if they do one action and not another is very much left up to the Dungeon Master to decide.

One of the big advantages of Slumbering Ursine Dunes is that it is so small and it is so self-contained that it can be dropped into many other settings. With its ancient Hyberborean links, one option would be North Wind Adventures’ Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Wierd Fantasy, but doubtless any Dungeon Master will be able to find a good home for this mini-region.

Overall, Slumbering Ursine Dunes packs a lot of adventure into its pages. The ‘pointcrawl’ works very well here as a means for handling wilderness travel and thus a means for handling a Dungeon Master’s first wilderness type adventure. Where it fails is in getting the adventurers onto the plateau—or at least in giving them a reason for getting on to it—and this lacking undermines the scenario’s design as a Dungeon Master’s first wilderness adventure. More experienced Dungeon Masters will doubtless be able to come up with motivations and reasons where a less experienced Dungeon Master may not be able to. Once there though and once they have reasons to be there, both the Dungeon Master and players will get to enjoy the weird and wonderful, evocatively described and detailed setting that is Slumbering Ursine Dunes, get involved in its politics, make some truly singular friends, and have some interesting encounters.

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