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Saturday 24 September 2022

Sullen Structure

The continent of Zyl-Kaduun—also known as Kaduun or ‘the Sullenlands’ after its once-beloved king, Redgold Sullen is broken not once, but twice! Zyl-Kaduun is broken because King Redgold, who unified the lands of Zyl-Kaduun, is dead and his heir, a daughter, is missing, and the only king is King Ravianwhurst, whose rule from the City of Eldercliff in the far southwest of the continent barely reaches the borders of his own province. Thus, much of Zyl-Kaduun remain broken and ungoverned. Zyl-Kaduun is broken because a once in seven generations conjunction of the thirteen moons has occurred and the God Mist has descended upon the land. No longer can the gods see their worshippers, no longer can worshippers reach out to their gods for guidance and succour. No longer can priests and wizards cast their magics with any degree of predictability or safety—if they ever could. Even heathens who do worship the gods or have the wherewithal to practise magic may be beset by the unpredictability of the God Mist. Worse, with the separation of the gods from Zyl-Kaduun, the Dark Chorus—Kreathorne the Boiler of Souls, Vlox of Between Things, and the carrion crow goddess Malotoch—all seek to take advantage of the situation, grow their followers, and gain in power and influence such that they can become more than mere minor gods! This is the situation across the continent of Zyl-Kaduun, although few if any, realise quite why of Zyl-Kaduun is broken, and on which the Player Characters will explore and discover in The Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus & Guide.

The Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus & Guide is a mini-campaign and guide for use with the Dungeon Crawl Classics RolePlaying Game from Goodman Games. Published by Purple Sorcerer Games, it collates three scenarios by the same author, provides background details of the Sullenlands, the setting for all three scenarios, as well as adding a fourth, new, mini-scenario. The three scenarios, ‘Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry’, ‘The Frost Fang Expedition’, and ‘The Crypt in Cadaver Canyon’, take the Player Characters from Zero Level to Second Level in a campaign which will take them across the Sullenlands and reveal a little of the setting’s secrets. These are only the key scenarios though, for the map given in 
The Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus & Guide has plenty of bank spots where the Judge can insert adventures of her own design or prewritten. If she plans to continue her Sullenlands campaign beyond the three core scenarios, this is something she will need to do.

After a foreword explaining both the author’s introduction and reintroduction to roleplaying games, 
The Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus & Guide opens with ‘Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry’. Set in the village of Bitterweed Barrow, this is a Character Funnel, in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In the scenario, a local, well-to-do halfling, known for his excellent hat, has not been seen for a few days and so the villagers—the Player Character—assemble to investigate his house. When they do, they discover a tunnel leading deep into the ground. Amounting to just twelve locations, the scenario and dungeon complex are fairly linear, with just the occasional side passage or room. This perfectly suits a Character Funnel, which designed to have Zero Level Player Characters dropped in at one end, and a mix of corpses and First Level Player Characters squirted out at the other.

The various rooms and locations are nicely detailed and not all of them involve deadly encounters, but the mix of monsters will whittle down the would-be adventurers until they face the first of two confrontations in the dungeon. There is one which solves the mystery that triggers the adventure and one that solves the mystery that becomes apparent as the dungeon is explored. Along the way, the Player Characters will find some interesting equipment and magical items that will help them, as well as the ability to cast a spell or two. The survivors will have found Nebin Pendlebrook, learned a secret or two about the complex beneath the village of Bitterweed Barrow, and hints about the greater situation in the Sullenlands. It is designed to be played in a number of different ways. It could of course be played by a standard party of First Level characters, but the Judge might want to add a monster or two to each encounter because as written they do not represent too much of a challenge. Alternatively, it can be run as a ‘Character Funnel’ in one of two ways. The first is as an ‘Instant Action Adventure’, one that can be run in a single four-hour session, including character creation, making it suitable for play at a convention or a demonstration game in a hobby store. The second is as standard scenario, allowing the players to take a bit of time creating their characters and establishing themselves in the Bitterweed Barrow and their relationships with each other, checking for rumours, buying equipment, and so on. Then it is off into the depths of the missing Halfling’s pantry… There is good staging advice for the Judge to round the adventure off.

The Frost Fang Expedition’ is the second adventure and is designed for four to eight First Level adventurers. It takes the Player Characters to Village of Neverthawes in the shadow of the Frost Fang Mountains. The village is famous for the enormous chunk of earth hovering above it, upon which stands the castle of the wizard, Dagon the Doleful. In recent days, the castle’s lights have grown dark, and chunks of earth have reined down upon the village, and it is feared that the island and its castle will crash down upon Neverthawes and crush everyone in the village. As villager after villager prepares themselves to flee, the local priest and the last Dwarven descendant of the head of the now abandoned Ardokk mines are preparing to lead an expedition up the mountain and across the bridge to Dagon the Doleful’s castle.

Unfortunately, neither of the expedition’s leaders can agree upon their eventual aim once they get to the castle, the Dwarf believing that the only good wizard is a dead wizard… Either way, the expedition’s aim is to determine if the old wizard inside the castle is still alive, and if anything can be done to keep the castle afloat.

Like ‘Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry’ before it, ‘The Frost Fang Expedition’ is a linear adventure. The expedition and the Player Characters climb up Frost Fang Mountain, following the steep path which winds it way around and through the mountain. The path does split, so the Player Characters do have a choice, both routes offering entertaining encounters—either a cow-medusa hybrid thing called a Moodusa or a talking goat looking to extort passers-by… These are not the only weird encounters to be had up the mountain, two of them involving ambulatory buildings! There are plenty of smaller encounters two before the Player Characters have to scramble across the rope to the castle not unlike Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. There is even a table to roll on if they fall or are shot off the bridge by the strange humanoids who live up the mountain.

As the Player Characters travel up the mountain, the two expedition leaders will be bickering with other and there is scope for the Judge to play the two off against each other and the Player Characters. In addition, the Player Characters will suffer visions that give hints as to the situation on Frost Fang Mountain. As to what is going on in the castle, it is fairly complex, and the Judge will need to read through the background and possible outcomes with care as there is no easy solution to the situation. Appendices detail the expedition leaders, provide simplified rules for spell duelling, the situation, a possible patron for the Player Characters, and a guide to linking the scenario to ‘Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry’. It is a surprisingly big adventure and whilst like ‘Nebin Pendlebrook’s Perilous Pantry’, it is designed to be used as an ‘Instant Action Adventure’, a great deal has to be excised from the content for it be run within a four-hour session at a convention. Otherwise, ‘The Frost Fang Expedition’ is an entertaining affair and should actually provide several sessions’ worth of play.

The Crypt in Cadaver Canyon’ is the third scenario and shifts the action far to the south of the Sullenlands in the Bleaklands Desert. This does mean that there is a bit of a physical distance between its location and that of the previous two scenarios. Here there is plenty of space for the Judge to insert content of her own and potentially, the Judge may also want to bump up the Level requirements for the scenario, which is designed for four to six Second Level Player Characters, if she adds content in-between. The scenario begins in the partially hidden City in the Cliffs, built into the side of the Crimson Canyon on the Deep Scratch River. The city has a ritual it must enact every thirteen years. This is that a birth-marked chosen one must be sacrificed to a desert god known as Bulda­katak the Burning Warthog, so that he will not destroy the city along with its two-thousand inhabitants. Unfortunately, the last known birth-marked candidate was acciden­tally executed as a thief by the city’s ruling Council of Thirteen and her body uncer­emoniously sent floating down the Deep Scratch River to the Crypt in Cadaver Canyon. The Council intends to resurrect the thief long enough to sacrifice her to Buldakatak and save the city, but first, the body must be retrieved. Which is where the Player Characters come in.

The scenario can either start with the Player Characters arriving in the city and exploring it, earning more about what is going on, or it can leap straight into the action on a boat travelling down the Deep Scratch River. Again, ‘The Crypt in Cadaver Canyon’ is a linear adventure, this one down a river rather than up a mountain. There are fewer deviations, and the scenario makes a great deal of its desert setting, giving it something of Swords & Sorcery feel as the Player Character sail down the river to lands of the dead in the nearby cavern. There is course, a twist or two at the end, which make the scenario not as straightforward as it first seems, and the scenario is supported with several appendices detailing various desert encounters and giving solid staging advice for the Judge. If there is an issue here it is that although the notes do suggest links to get to ‘The Crypt in Cadaver Canyon’ from the previous two scenarios, there are none on what to do in-between. There is advice too on how to make the scenario a four-hour or convention game, but ‘The Crypt in Cadaver Canyon’ really needs more than the single session to play through.

Roughly a third of 
The Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus & Guide is devoted to the setting’s background. This includes a map with empty spots and name tags for the Judge to add her own content, a history of the region and description of its current situation, a discussion of its themes, a gazetteer—paying particular attention to the Sullenlands capital of Eldercliff and adding more detail to the City in the Cliff, and more. Bar the inclusion of the gods who play a role in the scenarios and the Dwarven gods, the Judge and her players are left to decide what other gods are worshipped, but there are tables for how the God Mist affects spellcasters and non-spellcasters. The Dwarven Cleric is added as a new Class to accompany the description of the Dwarven gods, and for the Judge, there is a toolbox of extra details including festivals, thieves’ guilds, herbs, treasures (such as a Holy Hornet’s Nest and a fire-resistant Weeping Cloak), and a list of random place names for when the players decide their characters go exploring. There is also a ‘Character Death Table’ which give a Player Character one last hurrah, a short bestiary complete with encounter suggestions for each entry, various encounter tables, and even a set of tables entitled ‘The Judge’s Retort!’ to make misses in combat a bit more interesting. Here at last is ‘Tips on Tying the Adventures Together’, a useful section which could have been placed much earlier in the book and made more obvious given how there are notes earlier on linking the scenarios, if only loosely, together.

Rounding out 
The Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus & Guide is the fourth adventure in the supplement. ‘The Bellows of Bromforge’ is a mini-adventure designed for four to eight Second Level Player Characters which takes in place in the great dwarven fortress of Bromforge, where something has affected the great furnaces in the city of Glimmervault. It is again short and linear, and has more the feel of a traditional dungeon adventure than the other adventures in the supplement. It is decent little adventure, nicely illustrated, which brings the Player Characters into contact with a new interpretation of a traditional Dungeons & Dragons foe.

The Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus & Guide is solid, digest-sized hardback. Although it needs a slight edit in places, the cartography and artwork are decent. The main problem though, is the organisation. Having the background information and advice on running the three scenarios in the supplement at the back of the book is unhelpful and counterintuitive, making the content not as easy to prepare or even run as it should be.

The Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus & Guide has the makings of a good mini-campaign for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, but needs no little effort upon the part of the Judge. The individual scenarios are relatively easy to prepare and run, but linking the four scenarios in the supplement and then running them will take extra effort. All down to the poor organisation and the extra content which such a campaign would need to flesh it out. This fleshing out is necessary because the scenarios never get as far as fully exploring the background to the Sullenlands and further linking scenarios would help with that—as would further scenarios designed for Player Characters of higher Levels. Hopefully, there will be an anthology of further scenarios to help flesh out the campaign.

The Sullenlands Adventure Omnibus & Guide is full of entertaining, playable content, but it just lacks the organisation and development to really help the Judge to prepare it and bring it to the table for her players.

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