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Friday 16 July 2021

Friday Fantasy: The Undying Sands

The classic hex crawl is an open-ended sandbox-style adventure in which the players and their characters explore a large geographical area, containing various Points of Interest, each of which can be explored individually or perhaps in a sequence determined from clues found at each location. Typically, the Player Characters will have a good reason to explore the area, such as being tasked to find a specific location or person, but instead of knowing where the location or person might be, only know that they are somewhere in that region. Armed with limited knowledge, the Player Characters will enter the area and travel from one hex to the next, perhaps merely running into a random encounter or nothing at all, but perhaps finding a Point of Interest. Such a Point of Interest might be connected to the specific location or person they are looking for, and so might contain clues as to its location, then again it might not. In which case it is just a simple Point of Interest. Initially free to explore in whatever direction they want, as the Player Characters discover more clues, their direction of travel will typically gain more focus until the point when they finally locate their objective. Classic hex crawls include X1 Isle of Dread for Expert Dungeons & Dragons and Slavers for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, whilst more recent examples have been Barrowmaze and What Ho, Frog Demons!.

The Undying Sands is a hex crawl—or sand crawl (sandbox?)—from Games Omnivorous dotted with crumbling ruins, antiquated temples, lost technology, and pristine natural wonders beyond the reach of most. It combines numerous influences and genres, can involve the Player Characters in the factions squabbling for control of the desert, and it leaves plenty of scope for the Game Master to add her own content.

The Undying Sands is however, a hex crawl of a different stripe. First, it is systemless; second, it is improvisational; third, it is random; and fourth, it is physical. The Undying Sands consists of four elements. These are thirty hex tiles, Game Master Screen, a double-sided poster, and a cloth bag. The hexes, done in sturdy cardboard and full colour, measure six-and-a-half centimetres across. Their backs are either blank or numbered. The former show simple sand dunes on their front, whilst those have locations on their front. There are fourteen such locations. Twelve of them have three locations, for example, ‘The Eye!’, a spiral of maelstrom of coloured sand long regarded as sacred by both the living and dead, the Bottomless Pit at the heart of the Eye!, and The Dual Inns, establishments which flank the Eye!, one catering to the living, one to the undead. All of which is to be found on hex number two. The thirteenth hex is the location of the Forgotten Pyramids, a tomb and dungeon complex, and the fourteenth hex is the location of The Grand City of Sand, a former seat of civilisation which has long begun to crumble and let the sand drift along its boulevards and alleys… The style of the artwork on the hexes is busy and cartoonish, but eye-catching and gives
The Undying Sands a singular look which sets it apart from both other gaming accessories and neighbouring regions.

The Game Master Screen is a horizontal, three panel affair. The front depicts an adventuring party about to flee from a sandstorm after having discovered a strange vehicle and a mechanical man. The back is the meat of the supplement. Here, from left to right, it explains what
The Undying Sands is, how to use and the best way to use it; tables of rumours, loot from the body, treasure, encounters, dangers of the land, and curses; details of each the numbered hexes; and of The Grand City of Sand—its history, what the Player Characters can do within its walls, its factions and jobs available, and the Many Shops of the Grand Bazaar. The A4-sized double-sided poster shows the Forgotten Pyramids on the one side, and The Grand City of Sand on the other. Both are easy to read and refer to. Lastly, the cloth bag is big enough to hold all of the hex tiles. One issue with the strong physical presence of The Undying Sands is that there is not really a means of storage for all it, apart from cloth bag for the hex tiles. It does leave you wishing that there was a box for it and your Game Master’s notes.

So that is the physicality of
The Undying Sands. What of the random nature of The Undying Sands? Simply, the hexes are placed in the cloth bag and drawn one-by-one, as the Player Characters cross or explore one hex and then move onto the next, creating the region hex-by-hex. If the hex is simple sand dunes, the Game Master might roll on the ‘Encounters in the Sands’ or ‘Dangers of the Lands’ tables to create random encounters. When the Player Characters reach a numbered location, they can explore one or more of individual places there, the Game Master improvising what will be encountered there based on the sentence or two description given for each. There is more detail for both the Forgotten Pyramids and The Grand City of Sand, especially the latter, and thus more for the Game Master to base her improvisation upon. This randomness means that playing The Undying Sands will be different from one gaming group to the next, more so than with other hex crawls or scenarios.

So that is the random nature of
The Undying Sands and the improvisational nature of The Undying Sands? What of the systemless aspect of The Undying Sands? No gaming system is referenced anywhere on The Undying Sands, yet there is an assumed genre within its details. So it is weird. There are Necrocamelmancers, raising undead camels, Alligator Ghouls, the undead camel races of the city are easy money, curses are suffered under the irregular Blood Moon Eclipses, spells can be learned from studying a thrumming blacklight monolith (but curses suffered too), and more. Its obvious genre is fantasy, but it is really Science Fantasy. Ancient robots can be encountered, tech-marvels and ancient sand-buggies found, and more. Which lends itself to roleplaying games better than others. Numenera would be an obvious choice, as would Electric Bastionland: Deeper into the Odd, Hypertellurians: Fantastic Thrills Through the Ultracosm, Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, and Troika!. It could even be run using Rifts if the Game Master wanted to! A more generic rules system would also work too, as would any number of Old School Renaissance retroclones. Whatever the choice of rules, the Game Master will need to know them very well in order to improvise.

As suggested by the range of roleplaying games which
The Undying Sands would be a natural fit for, its influences are equally as diverse. These begin with the Ancient World—Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Greco-Roman world, and these are joined by Mad Max and Jodorowsky’s Dune. The resulting combination depicts a lost, even fallen technological civilisation, its once glorious past infused with a Pulp sensibility. This lends it the possibility that The Undying Sands could be shifted from a fantasy to a planetary Sci-Fi setting, playing up the fantasy elements as weird, technology sufficiently advanced to appear as magic.

In terms of play,
The Undying Sands sort of traps the Player Characters within its confines. It keeps them within its limits until the last hex is drawn from the bag and they can find their way out. By that time, the Player Characters will probably have visited every hex and encountered multiple threats and dangers, and if they have engaged with any of the four factions to be found in The Grand City of Sand, they are likely to have found employment too, and that will drive them back out into The Undying Sands again. How or when that will happen all depends upon when the city location is drawn during play. What this means is that The Undying Sands is a mini-campaign in its own right.

The Undying Sands is fantastically thematic and fantastically presented. A Game Master could grab this, set-up the Game Master’s Screen, pull the first tile, and start running a mini-campaign. However, that would take a lot of improvisation and improvisational skill upon the part of the Game Master, who also has to know the game system she is running The Undying Sands with very well to run it easily. All of which is needed because the textual content of The Undying Sands really consists of prompts and hooks with little in the way of detail—if any. Perhaps a better way of approaching The Undying Sands—especially if the Game Master is not as confident about her ability to improvise—is to work through the locations, especially The Grand City of Sand, and prepare, prepare, prepare. Some Game Masters may relish the prospect, but others may wish that there had been more information given in The Undying Sands—even ‘The Undying Sands Companion’ which made the task easier for them.

Ultimately, The Undying Sands gives a Game Master the means to improvise and run a fantastically pulpy campaign in a range of genres against a weird Science Fantasy, lost worlds background. How much improvisation and how much preparation is required, will very much be down to the individual Game Master.

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