This adventure/location-supplement clocks in at 68 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page back cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of SRD, leaving us with 63 pages of content. It should be noted that the Cave Dwarf race/class and War Bear race/class take up 3.5 of these pages (including a nice war bear marching song) – both are also featured in the PWYW Hill Cantons Compendiums and I have covered them in my reviews of these files.
This review was moved up in my reviewing queue as requested by my patreons.
This module/location is written for the Labyrinth Lord rules and takes place in the world of Zĕm, which is inspired by Slavic folk tales and full-blown weirdness…at least partially. You see, a leitmotif here is that civilization and the Law it engenders is anathema to magic, while magic and the chaotic forces create strange areas in constant flux – it is in the frontier between these two forces that the Hill Cantons can be found – a proper and interesting area for adventurers to explore, as its stable enough, yet wondrous and suffused with magic. These dichotomous forces and their influence on the lands are responsible for a rather unique feeling: On one side, the influence of Law and vivilizations is reflected in a social structure and general underlying theme that seems closer to medieval times than the early modern period usually assumed by adventures; on the other hand, the influence of chaos and wonder is responsible for a pronounced and irreverent, creative and almost psychedelic punk aesthetic that prevents. The former prevents the latter from becoming too random; the latter prevents the former from being boring. It is in this interesting tension that we’re introduced.
If that sounded too theoretical for you, never mind – that is just my analysis and how I explained the appeal of the setting for myself. Sooo, what is this? Structure-wise, this adventure represents a so-called point-crawl, or, alternatively, a location-based adventure. We have a stretch of wilderness that is explored by the PCs, as they travel from hotspot to hotspot. The geography of the eponymous dunes creates organic pathways and while notes are presented for PCs to scale them, this is tiresome, to say the least. Beyond this aspect, the adventure also sports two different dungeons that may be found and explored. Officially, this is a level 2 – 4 adventure, and let me tell you, it is not for the faint of heart – so yeah, PCs can die, but when they do, it is not due to arbitrary decisions, but due to PC actions. In short: I consider this to be a hard, but fair adventure.
Theme-wise, this represents what I’d call, analogue to the term coined in literary studies, a weird geography. We have gigantic, majestic, red dunes rising from the landscape, including a hilariously irreverent origin myth for them. Unlike the more abstract weird geographies that can be found in e.g. the writings of China Miéville, the slumbering ursine dunes remain pretty down-to-earth, though: There is no complex academic concept of spatial overlapping or representation-congruence here, which, in less academic terms, means that old-school veterans who consider some of the newer books in the OSR movement to be too experimental, should have no issue with this…unless you have issues with Planescape etc. This is very much usable as written and can make for a weird place that could exist in most campaign worlds. While Zĕm-specific lore and “godlings” are contained herein, their power and specialized portfolio ultimately means that this can be plugged into most worlds sans any issues. Particularly DCC-judges will probably enjoy the blend of weird and grit featured here.
All right, so, structure-wise, we do get a random encounter table for the dunes and the respective dungeons; we get a 20-entry-strong rumor table as well as tables for 10 men-at-arms for hier and 12 other hirelings. Two new spells are included: Kazimir’s resplendent couture makes your dressing all the talk of the area, while summon and bind minor sandestin nets you a semi-permanent, if lazy and potentially hilarious variant of unseen servant. The module also sports an extensive bestiary section, which notes the rank-and-file soldiers of the factions of the dunes, two-headed vultures, weresharks as well as stats for vodniks or were-ocelots…and weirder creatures, thugh I will mention there in the spoiler-section below.
There is also a really nice randomization element that emphasizes player-agenda beyond what you get to see in most adventures, one that ties into the overall theme of the Hill Cantons – that tool would be the Chaos Index. The actions of the PCs have consequences: While there is fluctuation f the chaos rating, certain actions of the PCs, the elimination of certain NPCs, etc. all can raise or lower the chaos-index: The higher it rises, the more volatile the dunes becomes…and vice versa. As soon as players realize this, they can use it…to a degree. It also is a great tool for the referee to slowly amp up the pressure as the PCs explore the dunes. It should also be noted that the book does note and provide example of how the respective major characters talk and sports even a handy pronunciation guideline.
All right, this is as far as I can go regarding the formal criteria and supplemental material without going into MAJOR SPOILERS. If you plan to play in this module, stop reading now and skip ahead to the conclusion. Believe me, you don’t want this one spoiled.
All right, only referees around? Great!, So, beyond the PCs, there are multiple factions vying for control over the dunes to one degree or another, and these faction can be considered to be a great way to further structure the exploration. There would be Jaromir, the Old Smith – a surprisingly ambitionless and high-level retired hero come smith, who may be a nice trump-card if the PCs colossally botch everything; he and his place right before the dunes also makes for a nice base camp. Within the dunes, there is Medved the Master, ostensibly the godling of war bears, werebears, etc., the benignly neglectful master of the dunes. On the more dangerous side of things, there would be the Eld. The eld are basically extra-planar, lawful evil space-elves with a thing for David Bowie/80s-aesthetics and an unhealthy obsession with biomancy. (As an aside: If you run a game with the eld, get Necrotic Gnome Production’s stellar Complete Vivimancer right now!) Finally, there would be the disgusting wereshark-lord Ondrj the Reaver –he has not only collected a band of nasty folks and enjoys his symbiotic remora-“lovers” (they hang on his chest in the fantastic b/w-artwork), he is also on the cusp of achieving some sort of divinity, being related to Medved and all. While overtly somewhat civilized, he is a horrid brute, violence simmering beneath the surface. Oh, and he and his corsairs *really* hate the pirate-clichés. All of these factions have goals and notes on how they relate to the other factions, but they are far from all that can be found within the dunes.
Unless the PCs explore after the burned forest before the dunes and find the “local folks entry”, they’ll run afoul of local centaurs, collecting a tourist-like toll for admission to the place, which, on its own, felt so surreal and weird, I couldn’t help but smile. Beyond the small tribe of these local centaurs, the dunes hide for example the remnant of a gigantic iron statue, inhabited by a probably mad ascetic; rainbow sandstone, grues, a petrified grove and a bearling holy site can be found. More lethal would be the magic rye field inhabited by bloodthirsty poleviks (once again, rendered beautifully in b/w) and the other,d eadly fey creatures from Slavic lore that can be found. If the PCs find a cairn and interrupt it, they’ll be in for a brutal battle that will have them both sweat for the lives of their characters and laugh: Sealed beneath is the dread…Slothrog! Yep. A Balrog-y sloth. The idea is glorious. Have I mentioned the damn, faithfully maintained by giant beaver engineers? This region is both wondrous and funny, but feels, surprisingly, pretty concise and plausible if you can accept the premise of its weirdness. The fact that it manages to work sans copious pop-culture references is also a huge plus, as it strengthens the unique flavor of the region. Another monster that made me smile from ear to ear: Zombastodon. Come on. That is all kinds of cool!
Now, I mentioned two dungeons: Much like the dunes themselves, they are fully mapped in b/w, but, alas, we do not get player-friendly, key-less versions of any of the maps herein, which constitutes a comfort detriment. The first of the dungeons would be the Golden Barge, basically a plane/dimension-jumping, crashed ship of the eld that they try to salvage…which is btw. also why they try to tear asunder the fabric of reality here…basically, they try to “widen the road” for an equivalent of a tow truck. The casual disregard for life in the dunes ties in perfectly with that.
Anyway, the Golden Barge, while mostly deserted, is anything but simple to clear: For one, there is a powerful eld commander still here. The vessel also, being somewhat “alive” n the broadest application of the term, also creates a sort of antibody – Ghuls. These creatures have nearly translucent flesh and, instead of knowing of their actual fuction, they believe themselves to be practitioners of the Illuminated Doctrine of the Septuagint Anthropophagite. Women are beyond salvation, but by consuming the flesh of demi-humans and humans, they believe to make the environment spiritually more uplifting, which you can play up for maximum fun, make disturbing or anything in between. It’s a great way to illustrate the non-intrusive aspects of the module that can be played straight or with a comical bent. Have I mentioned the 4-armed, white ape-monstrosity throwing barrels? And yes, PCs can *theoretically* assume control of the barge. Granted, the device will drill a hole in their heads, potentially killing them. Granted, they need to be *really* clever and wise to have a chance…but the chance is there. No risk, no gain, right? Right?? So yeah, an amazing dungeon. Oh, but be careful when handling those weirdly warm (radiated) pieces of treasure…
The second dungeon would be the glittering tower, seat of Medved. It is, structurally, the weakest segment of the adventure, as Medved only controls one level of the tower: The upper floors have been taken over by the eld, while the lower, dungeon-floor is the domain of Ondrj – the godling is pretty evasive when it comes to why he doesn’t deal with these threats himself, but oh well. Both explorations make for pretty challenging undertakings and generally are interesting; in another adventure, these would be the highlights, but compared to barge and overall dune experience, these sections feel a bit more common and down to earth.
Editing and formatting are top-notch, I noticed no serious accumulation of formal or aesthetic hiccups – spells are properly italicized, rules-relevant components are bolded, etc. Layout adheres to a nice and easy to read 1.column b/w-standard without any major frills. The b/w-artworks used throughout the module by David Lewis Johnson adhere to a uniform style (same one you see on the cover), lending a sense of aesthetic integrity to the supplement/adventure. The map for the dunes is nice, with those of the dungeon falling closer to the side of functional than aesthetically-pleasing. The lack of player-friendly maps is a comfort-detriment for referees like yours truly that really hate drawing maps. Key-less maps can be printed, cut-up and handed out to the players, speeding exploration along, so yeah – pity we don’t get those. In an utterly puzzling move, the pdf version lacks any bookmarks, making it annoying as heck to run the module in its electronic version. I strongly suggest you get the PoD softcover instead. While it does not note its name on the spine (in spite of sufficient space), it’s an adventure worth owning.
Chris Kutalik’s “Slumbering Ursine Dunes” is one of those very, very rare adventures. You see, when you have read and continue to read as many modules and supplements as I do, a sense of fatigue, of “been there, done that” often creeps in and smothers excitement. The palate becomes more refined, if you will. This adventure managed to scratch that itch for wonder; that desire to once more explore, wild-eyed, a strange and fabulous place where you don’t know that a skeleton has x HD, that ghouls cause paralysis and attack with claws and bite. Even the creatures from mythology, which serve as a grounding agent of sorts, are creative and belong to the lesser quoted beings. The exploration of fantastic, titanic red dunes makes for a great backdrop, even before the unique denizens and locales of the dunes enter the fray. Design-wise, the chaos-index adds a sense of further dynamics to the exploration. In short: This is not only a thoroughly captivating, inspiring reading experience; it does not forget that it’s supposed to be a gaming supplement and is a joy to play.
How much do I like this module? I honestly believe that, even if you do not play in an OSR-system, this is worth every cent of its asking price as well as the time conversion to your system of choice, whatever that may be, may take – this is worth converting to 5e, PFRPG, DCC, 13th Age, etc.pp. Yes, even worth converting for systems that literally drown in excellent modules. Why? Because this is playful and strange without being too whacked out; because it is unique and littered with creative jamais-vu-events. In short: Because it is inspiring. Apart from the slightly less impressive final dungeon, this blew me away. The print version has a permanent place among my RPG-books and should be considered a little masterpiece at 4.5 stars, rounded up for the purpose of most platforms + seal of approval. That being said, the absence of player-friendly maps in both versions is annoying; more jarringly, the lack of bookmarks for the pdf, is pretty much an insult that severely compromises the usefulness of the pdf. For the electronic version, you should detract both my seal of approval and a whole star. At this length, we need bookmarks. In short: Get this, get it in print, read it, and smile, as you once more feel a sense of wonder and elation suffuse your imagination.
You can get this glorious environment/adventure here on OBS!
While you#re at it, get tools for the eld – the amazing Complete Vivimancer can be found here on OBS!