Cyclopean Deeps Volume II
The second tome of Matt Finch’s massive subterranean sandbox clocks in at 250 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 244 pages of content, so let’s take a look!
Well, before we do, let me reiterate for a second what this is and what it means: Well, on the obvious side, this is the second part of the massive Cyclopean Deeps-mega-adventure-sandbox, which, per default, is situated even below the dungeon of Rappan Athuk in the Lost Lands campaign setting – but, quite frankly, there is no place in any given campaign setting you conceivably couldn’t plug this into without any hassle whatsoever. Why? Simple: Cyclopean Deeps takes place in an area almost never explored in any given setting: In the unfathomable, lightless depths beyond even the civilizations of drow, duergar, etc.
You know, the place perpetually hinted at, where surface-dwellers are but intruders into a world so strange and different in morality, their minds might fracture; the place, where tentacled horrors abound and odd deities rest in uneasy slumber; a place so weird, it makes some outer planes look cozy and familiar by direct comparison. Here, demon lords and the forces of abyss and hell rank among the beings that still may be considered understandable…normal even. Beyond this deep horizon lies an endless cascade of the deadly and weird, one that rendered the first book in this two-part-saga a worthy part of my Top Ten of 2014…but can this remain on par with its predecessor?
Before we answer this question, let me explain something: While Part I could conceivably stand on its own, it did sport the city of Ques Querax, odd and wondrous beyond belief – and this book with its plots, quests and content does make ample note of said place. While the individual components of this book can be scavenged and taken apart, to properly get the full experience, you should definitely own the first Cyclopean Deeps book and run them in conjunction.
All right, finally, it should be noted, that this is a massive sandbox, complete with really big maps, hex-crawling through the dark and chapters upon chapters of wholly distinct environments that would make good individual mini-dungeons, should you prefer running this in bite-sized chunks as opposed to as a massive sandbox.
All right, and this is exactly as far as I can go into this adventure-review sans SPOILERS. So, please beware that from here on out, SPOILERS reign. Players should definitely jump to the conclusion.
All right, still here? Great! After we have established basic power-dynamics within and around Ques Querax, we now delve into the respective, unique environments and take a look at the more complex and possible endgame scenarios for excursions throughout the Cyclopean Deeps – but before I go into the details, let me emphasize something: The Cyclopean Deeps may be weird, but they are concise in an almost uncanny manner. Much like the best offerings of the Lost Lands, the Cyclopean Deeps breathe a sense of antiquity, with empires upon empires fallen by the wayside, ruins reappropriated throughout time…and not even the inhuman cyclopean deeps are exempt from the eternal waltz of revolution, war and rebirth – but unlike in quite a few modules with storied backgrounds (like a significant array of society scenarios…), there is no requirement for either captain exposition to throw a wall of text at the players, nor is there a strict requirement for the PCs to know it all – instead, much like in the exemplar Sword of Air mega-adventure, what we have here is, ultimately, indirect narrative.
If you’re like me, you will, for example, shudder as the PCs explore the narrows of Braath and find the remnants of a strange aberrant culture whose mantid servitors, created to embalm their master, took a disturbingly logical step towards “improving” the holiness of their masters – by cutting out unimportant things like living and turning their erstwhile gods into a species bred for death by embalming, fulfilling their task in the most gruesomely efficient manner imaginable – and yes, this and a wicked plan concocted by a demon prince can be unearthed as the PCs explore the mortuaries of the mantid priests – if the PCs avoid death as it lurks around every corner.
Speaking of which: The very utterance of a death god may summon the soul-consuming, fickle godling from its aqueous realm and power-struggles, degenerate things and worse abound and interlace perfectly with the narratives already established in Part I of this saga…just remember, don’t speak the name of CHOA-THOOM as you traverse these grottos…or he may take notice of your petty mortal existence…
As much as I utterly the adore this beautifully exhibited mastery of horrific tropes, though, as much as I love the wizard that seeks to recruit the PCs here, it is his devious arch-rival, legendary Jupiter Kwan and his hidden worlds that truly set my mind aglow with possibilities. You see, at one point, the PCs can find a strange artwork of rhizome-like strands that remind you of synapses or worse – turns out that this is the map for his hidden worlds, a kind of demiplane-conglomerate of chaos, stitches together from stillborn realities, crumbling demiplanes and the like – and exploration of this gruesome place within the endless void of Ginnungagap remains my absolute favorite environment in quite a while – not only due to tables upon tables of environmental peculiarities, but also due to the fact that Dark Souls-like mist gates with devious properties find a glorious rendition here, one I’m so going to steal the hell out of. In this chapter, Matt Finch’s massive imaginative potential seems to have peaked beyond its otherwise already utterly impressive level.
Now, admittedly, I have not been 100% honest in the beginning of this review: You see, there is a humanoid culture down here – a whole holdfast of duergar mines can be found within the pages of this tome and its concise depiction of a ruthless ideology and the hints towards the malachite city (city of brass for earth, if you need an analogue…) are tantalizing indeed…but there is so much more going on here…and yes, this ties together with the at this point nigh obligatory demon lord that is a part of this area’s power-dynamic, obviously constituting another exceedingly powerful evil to play against the vileness found herein…or simply try to vanquish or die trying.
This is ultimately me and my preferences, but surpassing even the grisly narrative shared before, the Orchard of Yiquooloome is, shudder-factor wise, very much the apex of the whole cyclopean deeps for me – a creature of primordial chaos that makes elder brains seem kind, it is here that PCs finally find out the truth behind elder ambergris…much like the origins of the fabled darkmist are explained in another chapter – but I’m not going to spoil that for you. Why? Because I could keep on babbling about the vast imaginative potential herein for ages without truly managing to depict how brilliant this one is.
For your information: We actually do get player-friendly versions of all maps herein and yes, there are ample new creatures, artifacts and the like to be found within these pages.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious issues in this massive book. Layout adheres to Frog God Games’ elegant b/w-standard and the pdf sports A LOT of great b/w-artworks that capture perfectly the weirdness and sheer jamais-vu-level of wonder the Cyclopean Deeps require. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience, though I’d very much recommend getting the absolutely stunning hardcover of the book – as always with FGG-books, it is made to last and features great production values.
Matt Finch, with assistance from Bill Webb, Skeeter Greene and Greg A. Vaughan has crafted a book that not only transcends book Vol. I in scope; in fact, the Cyclopean Deeps, as a collected entity, ranks among the best dungeon sandboxes I’ve ever read, regardless of the system. Book I was brilliant, Book II may actually be even more refined: There are less old-school-y relic in the rules-language here; the builds are more complex…in short, this is brilliant. I read this book back to back, while revisiting some of my sword and sorcery favorites….and if I’M honest, I found myself reading more CD. The prose of this book, its vast imaginative potential, bespeaks a mind that not only is capable of weaving disturbing and brilliant concepts with short hints, it also exemplifies a journey of exploration while reading it: As a GM, you explore the Deeps while reading this book, and I was not bored for a single second. Beyond being a milestone in imaginative potential, this book is sword and sorcery gold, perfect weird fantasy material for everyone with even a tiny soft spot for weird fantasy, for lovecraftiana, for fantasy that dares to deviate from the established concepts to provide something raw and gorgeous.
A word of warning – this book is very detailed and not for the faint of heart – when a sidebox explains in pretty grisly detail what happens when a PC’s body in gaseous form, spread over mile-long in millimeter-thick tunnels, meets a magic-dead field and has his body extend through the caverns, I found myself shuddering and remembering one of Junji Ito’s lesser-known, brilliant horror-manga. The Cyclopean Deeps are a place of eldritch beauty, but each and every part of its drives home that this is the place where “man was not meant to tread,” combining a superb sense of the exploration of the unknown with a constant, disturbing sense of uncanny displacement and existential wrongness.
That being said, as easy as all of this sounds or may sound to you, finding a final verdict for this book was nigh impossible to me: You see, I can’t really fathom and abstract my knowledge of Part I, separate it from Part II. Unlike other such sagas, they BELONG together…but Part I already received its accolades on my Top Ten of 2014 and I have a policy of not awarding spots to the same components twice (otherwise, you’d see Ultimate Charisma, for example, in my Top Ten of 2015 once that hits sites…). At the same time, this is a perfect example for my thesis that Frog God Games has surpassed the roots of 3.X Necromancer Games by leaps and bounds – no matter how you look at it, Cyclopean Deeps ranks among the best old-school modules/sandboxes out there. With intricate attention to details of not only formal criteria, but also regarding the prose, it ranks among the finest, most unique (and horrific!) sandboxes I have ever read.
How good is Cyclopean Deeps? The collective of both books is so good, even among FGG’s mega-adventures, I’d only consider it second to Sword of Air, which makes it one of the best mega-adventures out there – PERIOD. My final verdict will hence clock in at 5 stars + seal of approval…and, I will retroactively bestow the grace of the Top Ten spot of 2014 Part I scored also on this beast, since it is a crucial extension of the first volume.
If my ample gushing was not clue enough: I’d strongly recommend getting this masterpiece; in my humble opinion, the Cyclopean Deeps are absolutely mindbogglingly good and transcend Rappan Athuk, which kind of gave birth to these, in their superb environments by leaps and bounds.
You can get this awesome book in either Pathfinder or S&W here on Frog God Games’ homepage!
Alternatively, you can get this masterpiece on Paizo:
Before you go ahead, though:
Frog God Games, master of massive, glorious books, are currently kickstarting Richard Pett’s magnum opus THE BLIGHT, a book that may well surpass even these brilliant tomes! The KS has only 9 days left and already is the biggest book the Frogs ever made, so don’t miss out on that wonderful monstrosity! Here’s the link!