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Sunday 1 October 2023

Double OU

Far to the north stands Fort Enterprise, the northernmost outpost of the Murian Empire in Stonespear Province, on the edge of ‘Upper Mastodonia’, a region only revealed decades ago when the giant glaciers that covered the area retreated. Here was the last sighting of the gallant Prince Eyraen, brave warrior son of Syantides, Sorcerer-King of Mur, who departed with his men to descend via nearby entrance into the Underworld and there below, take revenge upon a minor chaos godling known as Shaggath-Ka. Sadly, 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. Descending down a thousand feet long ladder, the Player Characters will follow in the prince’s wake, discovering fantastic locations such as the ‘Beetletown Welcome Centre and Dwellings’ and ‘Local Franchise Temple of Nul’, regional church of the Cult of the Mindless God and some truly fantastic encounters on the ‘Encounters & Other Random Weirdness’ event table, like being engulfed in a ‘Mutagenic Cloud’ and have their lips gain tentacles, getting to trade with a Slugman on a business trip, or engage in a metaphysical debate with a Woolly Neanderthal on a spirit quest.

This is the set-up for Operation Unfathomable, a high-level dungeon designed to be played by First Level Player Character. Developed from a convention scenario published in Knockspell #5 and published by the Hydra Cooperative, LLC for use with Swords & Wizardry rather than the usual Labyrinth Lord of other Hydra Cooperative, LLC titles, Operation Unfathomable would be a Judges’ Spotlight Winner in the 2018 Ennie awards and as one of the best dungeon adventures of 2018 made the Reviews from R’lyeh Post-Christmas Dozen 2018. Now Operation Unfathomable has returned and once again, you can explore the Jack Kirby-style weird and gonzo Underworld in the company of Blue or Grey Dwarves, Underworld Otters, Citizen Liches, Woolly Neanderthals, and Underworld Rangers, but this time for use with Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. Plus, the world up above the Underworld of Operation Unfathomable—the Upper Mastodonia or the Odious Uplands—has been developed to provide a sandcrawl that the Player Characters can explore after their excursion below. All of which has been combined into one volume, Completely Unfathomable.

On one level, the Judge could take Completely Unfathomable and just run Operation Unfathomable. However, Completely Unfathomable includes everything in the original version of the scenario and the Operation Unfathomable Players’ Guide. This includes the new Classes—the Blue Dwarf, which specialises in surveying and repairing the tunnels and ancient machinery of the Underworld; the Grey Dwarf, whose hatred of Chaos godlings has transformed him into an explosives-laying anarchist; the Underworld Otter, a magically-uplifted species whose sense of frivolity and fun often gets him into trouble, including picking locks and pockets; the Woolly Neanderthal, from Mastodonia, who can summon the strength to kill giants and carry out great feats and can survive in the wilderness; the Citizen Lich, really, really hard to kill, unrecognised by any god, enthralls the undead, and capable of only learning the spells they knew in life; and the Underworld Ranger, trained and equipped to fight the Primal Chaos found in the Underworld. There is guidance too if the scenario is to be run as a Character Funnel and the complete ‘Operation Unfathomable’ comic strip. There are details as well, where Completely Unfathomable differs from standard Dungeon Crawl Classics. Fortunately, there are only two. One is that many of the campaign’s arcane spellcasters have magics of their own, necessitating a simple table of effects for all of their spells rather than the Judge having to referring to the multiple spell tables in the Dungeon Crawl Classics rulebook. The other, perhaps more of a fundamental change, is its treatment of Law and Chaos, and the arcane and the divine. It differs from Dungeon Crawl Classics in that Chaos is an intrinsic part of the world rather than an outlook or attitude and that there are no gods. Instead, Clerics are arcane spellcasters who use religious practices and beliefs to cast their spells. This is not say that there are no Patrons in the setting of Completely Unfathomable, as there are, but they are not necessarily divine. The Judge is, of course, entirely free to ignore this.

Of course, the other way to use Completely Unfathomable is have the Player Characters travel to Upper Mastodonia via the massive caravanserais drawn by moustachioed yaks to Fort Enterprise, the heart of government in Stonespear Province. Along the way, they will see herds of mammoths and mastodons, fortified polebarges travelling down river, sabre-toothed apes watching from the forest, and the Chaos Aurora—a scintillating ribbon of light—flickering around Mount Impossible with its doughnut-shaped top. Fort Enterprise, built and governed by a former barbarian-adventurer suffering from middle-age spread, is home to a Wizard’s dormitory, a Tree of Jobs, a beer garden, and docks as well as the all-important Monster Alert Sign which indicates whether Koloko, a giant monster Man-Ape is in the vicinity and whether or not he will attack. It is updated regularly. The Player Characters may find work from the Tree of Jobs, such as putting a stop to Sephilax, the newly appeared Chaos godling before it becomes a real threat or culling the nearby lake of its dangerous kraken population. Of course, once at Fort Enterprise, the Player Characters are likely to find themselves pressganged into going after to Prince Eyraen, an effort fully detailed in Operation Unfathomable. When they return, then they can explore the wilderness spread before Fort Enterprise, that is, if the imperial authorities let them…

Fort Enterprise itself is full of details, NPCs, jobs, and rumours, all of which can be used to nudge the Player Characters to travel and explore. Once they do, they will discover a province pockmarked with generic locations—sites of dead adventurers, fossil sites, fungal blooms, and sabre-toothed ape nests—and named areas. The generic locations are supported with tables used to randomly generate what might be found there, such as the state of the bodies, what killed them, and what might be found there at sites of the dead adventurers or the simple ‘We Search the Fungal Bloom Table’ of the fungal bloom sites. The process is fast and simple, but the Judge may want to develop content of her own here as there are a lot of these sites and the content could easily be exhausted. The named areas of interest, range from the Crab Forest, the Frost Giant Forest, and the Fossil Forest to the Dominion of the Mammoth King, the Underworld Incursion, and the aforementioned Mount Impossible. All begin with a table of encounters—all very nicely detailed—before going on to describe in detail the actual individual areas of interest. Individual areas of interest are relatively small, there being no big dungeon or similarly large location in Upper Mastodonia—only under it—and none amounting to more than ten described rooms.

There are some truly memorable and utterly odd encounters to be had in the Odious Uplands. In the wetlands, the Player Characters might encounter Athohta, the cat-fish god who will talk via the face at the end of her tentacle-tongue and perhaps give aid in the search for and defeat of Sephilax; a tower of enlightenment which was partially buried under stoney debris by the movement of the glaciers, being explored by a rival outfit, which happens to be home to Old man Dinosaur, the ghost of a very old tyrannosaurus rex; Crook-Ah-Ah, Man-Ape Immortal Oracle and Tattooist, who will provide help in defeating Sephilax, but only in the form of tattoos drawn on the Player Characters’ backs; a secret joint invasion by the Science Fungoids and the Nul Cult in a link to the encounters to be had underground in Operation Unfathomable; and the Inn Invisible, an out of time guest house from 1973, Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, which has been turned into a retreat for the nobility and the wizards of the Murian Empire. Throughout, every location and every NPC, encountered is described in succinct, bullet point fashion, engaging presenting descriptions and details in easy to find on the page and easy to digest fashion. For the NPCs, this includes possible motivations and some samples of what they might say when encountered. These in particular, really help the Judge to portray these NPCs.

In addition to Operation Unfathomable and the Operation Unfathomable Players’ Guide, the campaign includes several thorough appendices. These provide the Judge with background information on chaos, the Underworld, and the Beetle Empire, the Temple of Nul and its cult which encourages members to replace their heads with an aerial-like implant that makes them unsurprisingly easy to control, fully detailed hirelings, and ways of replacing the Player Characters should they die. Full stats and details are given for all of the monsters that appear in the Operation Unfathomable and Odious Uplands halves of the campaign, from the Two-Headed Ape Mummy, Sabre-Toothed Ape, and the Giant Bardolph (if you were to think William Shakespeare’s Bardolph* cloned using Science Fungoid technology, then you would be weird, but right) to Vat Goons, Moustachioed Yaks, and Worm Soldiers. Numerous items of equipment, devices, and treasures are detailed, starting with the Anti-Chaos Pills the Player characters need to take to survive the Underworld, whilst new spells include Send and Receive Magic Missive, Create Newt-Man, and Hell’s Mandibles. Finally, Athohta the Catfish God, the Mammoth King, Nul the Mindless God, Sephilax, Shaggath-Ka the Worm Sultan, and others are given as Patrons, should the Player Characters want to pledge themselves to these strange, and not always benign beings…

* Bardolph the Beer Hound, Underworld Ranger, provides an ongoing commentary in Operation Unfathomable on his adventures in the Underworld. He has less or little to say about the Odious Uplands.

Physically, Completely Unfathomable is very well presented. The writing never lets up on being engaging and intriguing, constantly pulling the reader further into the setting and bringing to life the fantastic artwork which appears through the book. It is cartoonish, but heavy and imposing, adding a weight to the world described in Completely Unfathomable.

Operation Unfathomable is a great adventure, constantly veering between the weird and the baroque, never letting its weirdness tip over into silliness and always presenting the Player Characters with an Underworld that is both lived in and strange, but perfectly normal to those that live and work there. With Completely Unfathomable though, it brings the baroque Science Fantasy of Operation Unfathomable to the surface of the Odious Uplands, which have the rough primal feel of a land that has never felt the touch or influence of mankind, waiting to be explored and its secrets revealed even as explorers from below have begun their operations. The Judge is given a wealth of detail, NPCs, hooks, and more to help get started and then she had everything she needs to run a player driven campaign.

Completely Unfathomable is a very good sandcrawl campaign. It has a primeval brilliance that combines the Science Fantasy of Saturday morning cartoons with the sybaritic loucheness of the Melnibonéan empire in a wild, untamed frontier and supports its with plots, hooks, NPCs, monsters, and more aplenty. For the Dungeon Crawl Classics Judge, Completely Unfathomable is great campaign setting that will provide months and months of memorable Appendix N Swords & Sorcery & Science gaming.

1 comment:

  1. I was Bardolph in the original campaign, I had no idea that Jason had kept the Giant Bardolphs in the published version, but yeah, Science Fungoids, arseholes of the first order, duxelle the lot of them.