Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 23 February 2018

To Be Mercenary About It...

Published by Colin & Ryan Pearson Games, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game is a card driven, deck building game of dungeon exploration and combat. It is set in the fantasy kingdom of Berelt, long after a war which has left a tradition of mercenary groups undertaking minor missions that the kingdom’s tiny army cannot or will not, such as clearing out an abandoned mansion of goblins or striking down an Orc champion and his demon dog. The members of these groups, the mercenaries, are exactly that, mercenary and sometimes of questionable morals, and if not exactly honourable, then they will at least get the job done and take the money. Nevertheless, mercenaries do live by a code—they cannot strike another, but they can use trickery, steal kills, steal weapons, distract or lie to others, or in fact, do anything that will put them ahead in the competition to be top mercenary! 

Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game can be played co-operatively or semi-co-operatively in competitive mode. The mercenaries fight through room after room, facing monster after monster, the aim being to defeat all of the monsters in an adventure and have at least one mercenary on zero or more Health. In a competitive game, the mercenary with the most ‘MVPs’—acquired from striking, and especially, killing monsters—is determined to be the ‘Most Valuable Player’ and thus wins the game. In a co-operative game, everyone either lives and wins or everyone dies and loses. Since the players are essentially playing against the game, Mercenaries can be played solo, much like the co-operative game and the rules do include alternative player set-ups, such as a two-player game with each player controlling two mercenaries and even a five-player game with four mercenaries and a Deck Master. The latter player gets to play all of the monsters and wins by defeating the mercenaries. 

Designed for between two and four players, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game takes between ninety and one-hundred-and-twenty minutes to play. The game does not suggest an age limit, but twelve plus would not be an unreasonable guide. 

Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game comes in a large, square, black box. Behind the engaging, almost children’s fantasy book-like cover can be found the ten-page Rule Book, twenty-four-page Adventure Book, four play mats and four score pads, one-hundred-and-forty condition tokens, thirty-six grid cards, one twenty-sided die, and some six hundred or more cards, divided into over eighty different types. The Rule Book contains the rules, using the first adventure in the Adventure Book as a guide and the Adventure Book contains four adventures, plus descriptions of the game’s cards. The play mats have spaces for a mercenary’s deck, discard pile, acquired cards, and so on, including the score pads for recording a mercenary’s current Health and Experience Points. (The score pads can easily be replaced by gaming tokens or counters, which may be easier for some groups to keep track of their mercenaries’ Health and Experience Points.) The various tokens are used to mark if a mercenary has acted, been poisoned or webbed, and so on as well as how many wounds a monster had taken. The grid cards are plain—even bland—and used to mark out the battle area which forms each counter. 

The cards in Mercenaries really fall into four categories. These are Area Feature cards, Skill cards, Ability cards, and Monster cards. The Area Feature cards describe the locations where the mercenaries will be fighting and any possible special effects. For example, the Dart Trap always attacks the First Player for damage and prevents their attacking that turn, whilst in the Dwarven Tavern, all Dwarven monsters have better Health and Melee Attack Values, but worse Defence Values. Skill cards provide the mercenaries’ actions. They start with Basic Melee Attack, Basic Ranged Attack, and Basic Blocking, which plus a Healing Potion, are what each mercenary’s starting deck consists of. Each of these basic cards inflict or stop a point of damage, but a mercenary can play multiple cards of the same type to inflict or stop more damage. In play, the basic Skill cards can be upgraded to advanced versions which inflict or stop more damage, the basic versions of the card being discarded in the process. Depending upon the adventure played, other Skill cards become available, such as Shield Bash or Chain Gauntlet. Ability cards provide other benefits, for example, a Healing Potion restores two Health, a Charge Attack provides extra movement and allows a mercenary to expend cards with Defence Value to increase the damage he does, and Search the Body lets a mercenary scavenge dead monsters to add cards to his deck. Both Skill and Ability cards have an Experience Point cost to purchase. 

The Monster cards range from Goblins and Orcs to Dwarf Gunners and Tiny Spiders. Each has a Health value (how much damage they can take), a Melee Attack Value (how much damage they inflict), a Defence Value (how much damage they stop), an Experience Point value (how much Experience Points they grant to whomever delivered the killing blow), and MVP value (how many MVP they award for being killed). Some also have special abilities, given on their cards and in the Adventure Book. For example, a Spider’s Melee Attack inflicts poison on a mercenary, whilst a Giant Spider’s attacks—both melee and ranged—immobilise a mercenary in a web.


To play the game, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game requires some set up. This require a player to build separate decks for the Area Feature and Acquisition cards as well as the Monster cards. Each adventure lists the requirements for all three. The Monster card deck requires careful attention as some monsters go into the top half and some into the bottom half. The number of monsters will also vary according to the number of players and the type of game—co-operative or competitive. Lastly, each player receives the same set of starting Skill cards. 

Play takes place on the six-by-six Battle Grid, which represents the battle space for each area. This grid does not vary in shape or size, except for the effects of one or two Area cards. The mercenaries will always start the fight at one end of the grid, the monsters at the other, the monsters with ranged attacks always behind those with melee attacks. At the start of each encounter, an Area Feature card is drawn and its effects applied to the encounter. Between three and five monsters—the number varying according to the number of players and the game type—are drawn and placed, and then the mercenaries are placed. Each player draws six cards from his deck. 

Beginning with the First Player—this changes from one encounter to the next—each player can act. Movement is fairly simple, but does not require cards, whereas attacks, healing, and so on, require the playing of cards. Basic skill cards do damage equal to the number of cards played and net a mercenary an Experience Point for a successful attack as well a retaliatory strike from the monster if it was a melee attack. Damage can be blocked using Blocking cards, again on a one-for-one basis. The advanced versions of these cards inflict or block more damage, whilst Ability cards provide other effects. Played cards go into a player’s discard pile and will be shuffled back into his deck once it has been emptied. Once all of the players have acted, the monsters can move towards the mercenaries and attack. Again, if a player has any Blocking cards, he can use those to reduce damage. After the players have acted, the monsters act. The turn then ends, each player discards any cards he has in his hand and draws six fresh cards. Play then resumes. 

As an encounter progresses and monsters are hit and killed, the mercenaries will acquire Experience Points. Once per turn, a player can use these to purchase a new card. This might be to gain an advanced version of a basic Skill card, in which case, the mercenary must have used the basic Skill to be able to purchase the advanced version. This restriction does not apply to the Ability cards, but it is a nice touch and will push a player to specialise his mercenary in a particular skill set. Play continues like this until all of the monsters have been defeated, all Experience Points have been collected, and a new encounter is prepared with a new Area Feature card. Play continues like this until all of the monsters in a deck have been defeated and the players are successful or the mercenaries are reduced to minus Health and lose the game. 

In play, from one turn to the next, there is no impetus for the players to push towards completing a room. What drives them is the question, “What is the best that I can get out of this round with the cards in my hand?” The players will need to think tactically to optimise their moves. Knowing when to attack, block, back up (out of damage range), or wait becomes an important issue. Should a mercenary simply rush in to strike a monster, but not kill him and so gain an Experience Point, knowing that the monster can retaliate against which the mercenary has little in the way of Blocking cards? Or should he hang back, use a Healing Potion, and wait for a better hand on his next turn? Or should take advantage of the damage already done to a monster by his fellow mercenaries to slip forward, deliver the killing blow, and reap the glory of ‘MVPs’ (and extra Experience Points)? 

Of course, letting a mercenary get ahead of his rivals in terms of ‘MVPs’ and Experience Points is problematic because it both allows the mercenary to improve himself and bring him closer to his being the Most Valuable Player. This is countered by the fact that just a single new card can be added to a player’s deck each turn, but nevertheless, rival mercenaries still may still want to grab as much Experience Points as they can from a monster before someone kills it and takes the prize. In co-operative mode though, play is slightly different since it is driven by the acquisition of Experience Points for all and the chance to upgrade mercenaries rather simply acquiring ‘MVPs’. Here the players will be wanting to balance their Experience Point acquisition rather than simply being mercenary about it. 

Another factor countering a runaway player is that killing monsters and collecting their Experience Points also means adding the monster cards to a player’s deck. As with other deck builders, for example, Waste in Trains, monster cards clog up a player’s deck and when drawn, reduce the number of actions his mercenary can take on a turn. On the one hand, this limits his actions and can act as a balancing mechanism to allow the other players to catch up, but on the other hand, it slows play down in general because there may be whole turns when a player cannot act. Unfortunately, there is no way to move a dead monster from a player’s deck into a victory pile, only the means to bypass it. In effect, as an adventure progresses and more monsters are killed, the game play will slow down, even stall on occasion. 

In terms of adventures, the four given adventures showcase how different adventures play and how they can be designed. Key to this are the Area Feature cards which essentially flavour and detail each encounter, but not sufficiently enough because this is countered by the abstract nature of the battle grid which sort of flattens the feel of the game. Although some Area Feature cards do possess terrain effects, the game never quite escapes the feel of playing on the grid. Another is that although the design of Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game lends itself to some flexibility and customisation beyond the four adventures—of which four is not quite enough, either in terms of replay value or long-term play—this is not addressed in the game. There is no advice on creating further adventures or indeed on customising mercenaries, so that one mercenary might start out as a ranged combat specialist with Advanced Range Attacks, another a defensive with Advanced Blocking, and so on. Plus, there are no rules for carrying over Experience Points or purchased cards from one adventure to the next. There is nothing to stop a player from doing this, but the rules do not say that you can either. 

In terms of production values, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game is nicely put together. The Rule Book and Adventure Book are plainly presented, but readable and the play mats, the tokens, and the battle area cards are all done in thick cardboard. The cards themselves are clear and simple and illustrated with some reasonable, if unspectacular artwork. Although the rules are generally well written—they look more complex than they are and anyway, a lot of specific elements of the game are on the cards—their presentation could have been better broken up with some examples of play. 

One obvious issue with the game before even the box is cracked open, is the lack of a blurb on the rear of the box. Without that, the potential player will have no idea what the game is about. Also, the score pads do feel superfluous and essentially could have been better replaced with some counters to put on the play mats. One thing that could have been included with the game is a quick reference guide for each player to what to do on his turn and when. 

Fundamentally, Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game is a game which has not realised its full potential. The obvious flexibility and customisation present in the game is left undeveloped and whilst experienced gamers will be able to design adventures and customise their mercenaries, anyone with less experience will find this a challenge given the lack of guidelines. The lack of roleplaying present in the game means that Mercenaries does not live up to its tag line of ‘RPG Deck Building Game’, essentially all four mercenaries feel the same, their abilities do not carry over from one adventure to the next, and the focus is on the battle grid rather than dungeon or location exploration, combat rather interaction, and so on. Perhaps some personality cards and associated special abilities would have fulfilled the RPG aspect of the game, as otherwise, ‘Tactical Deck Building Game’ would be a more apt tag line. What it feels like is as if the game is missing an extra book—the Advanced Rulebook—which would have covered all of this. 

Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game feels like it should offer something more, but there is sound game play at its core and as an introductory deck building game, it works well enough. Further development may well see Mercenaries – RPG Deck Building Game realise its full potential and become the game that the designers intended.

A Gloranthan Starter

Published in 2010 by D101 Games, Gloranthan Adventures 1: New Beginnings is a fanzine of adventures set in Glorantha for use with HeroQuest. That said, and despite it being inspired by the fanzine, RQ Adventures, it has the polish of a supplement, an anthology of adventures, rather than the rough and ready feel of a fanzine. It presents a quartet of adventures which can be used singly—on their own or as additions to a Narrator’s campaign or together to form a complete mini-campaign, ‘Weathering the Storm’. As the latter, Gloranthan Adventures 1: New Beginnings serves to introduce players to both HeroQuest and Glorantha, in particular, the conflict between the Sartarite tribes of Dragon Pass and the invading Lunar Empire, perhaps as a lead in to the events detailed in Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes. It is written for use with HeroQuest, Second Edition, but would work relatively easily with HeroQuest Glorantha and is designed to be played by up to six players.

Set in the year 1617, the players are rebels twice over. First, they are rebels fighting against the occupying Lunar Empire forces. Second, they are rebels against their clan, fighting when their clan prefers peace and negotiation to combat. Specifically, they are members of the Silverwind Clan, part of the Colymar tribe, which has the deserved reputation as a Peace Clan and thus few enemies and many friends. In some ways, the clan is feared for its persuasiveness, whether that is in mediation, forging trade routes, or defusing a combat! The player characters though, have eschewed the path of peace and chaffing under the traditions of the clan, have joined the Hidden Gale, a rebel band which has been harassing the local occupying Lunar forces with hit and run tactics. As the campaign opens, the Hidden Gale have been defeated and scattered at the hands of a Lunar regiment called the Silver Shields.

The ‘Weathering the Storm’ campaign begins with ‘Adventure 1: Fortress of Doors’. The player characters have returned home, looking for somewhere to hide after their defeat and conferring with the clan’s council, it is suggested that refuge might be sought in the nearby Fortress of Doors, a fortification dating from the time of the Empire of Wyrms Friends. The first scene gives a good opportunity for the player characters to introduce themselves, the second presents the first of the series of mythic challenges which if done correctly will reinforce both Sartar mythology and the player characters’ as reinforcers of that mythology. This will continue in the second scenario, ‘The Black Ziggurat’, in which the characters seek aid from the Long Ravens, a clan known for its skill in fighting the undead. The clan gains this from its worship of Lerin, a great hero who killed the god of vampirism, Nontraya. Unfortunately, the Long Ravens have fallen prey to an outbreak of undead. If the heroes are defeat this outbreak, then one of them at least must heroform and become Lerin himself to defeat Nontraya once again.

In ‘Fixing the Wrong’, the third scenario, the player characters are shown what might become of the Silverwind Clan if the Lunar Empire was to punish it for insurrection. A decade ago, scarlet-robed Comet Seers brought down the Starfall upon the lands of the Hazel Owl clan and all but obliterated it. The Lunar Empire was not without compassion and established a mission house to attend to the refugees who survived, including the then beautiful daughter of Hazel Owl chieftain, Jalhena the Gentle. Driven mad by the experience, in the years since, Jalhena the Gentle has become Jalhena the Hag and a Lunar convert, so when she approaches the neighbouring Birch Shaper clan in order to claim the hand of the chief’s son in marriage, mediators are required. Thus the player characters are sent as representatives of the Silverwind Clan. This scenario is a step up in terms of set-up and sophistication, involving  interaction, contests, a quest, and a battle. There are more NPCs to interact with, most notably the Lunar missionaries, who will attempt to persuade the Hazel Owl as their cause. This also strengthens another aspect of the scenarios in Gloranthan Adventures 1: New Beginnings in that they can be played using Lunar characters rather than the default Sartarites.

The fourth and last scenario, ‘The Hurt of the Land’, begins with a refugee problem for the Silverwind Clan. Members of the clan have been struck down with disease and the player characters need to decide whether or not to admit them to the clan’s main settlement lest it spread. As that happens, the clan chief is struck down and clues as to the identity of the assassin point to a Chaos blot on the landscape. Confronting this blot literally sees the player characters having to prove themselves in another retelling of an ancient myth.

Beyond the four scenarios themselves, Gloranthan Adventures 1: New Beginnings details Nontraya, Lord of Vampires and his associated cult and gives notes to possible sequels to ‘The Black Ziggurat’, though not the other three scenarios. Six pre-generated characters are provided to support the campaign, but perhaps the most interesting extra in Gloranthan Adventures 1: New Beginnings is ‘Writing Gloranthan Adventures’. This essay takes us step-by-step through the author’s process of writing and scenarios set in Glorantha, in particular, how to use myth as a tool to frame adventures and engage the players and their characters. It is not a definitive guide to the task, but it is a useful one, especially for anyone new to the setting. Of course, it is worth veteran Narrators reading it, if not for the tips and ideas, at least to see how someone else does it.

Physically, Gloranthan Adventures 1: New Beginnings is a slim book. It needs an edit here and there—this at least indicative of the author’s description of the book as being a fanzine—and certainly the Narrator will probably need to carefully unpack each of the NPCs’ various abilities. The artwork varies in quality with the more cartoon-like illustrations being particularly good and capturing the feel of Glorantha.

None of the four scenarios in Gloranthan Adventures 1: New Beginnings should take more than two sessions to complete and really, most of them should only take the one. Their short length makes them easier to bring to the table or to drop into an existing campaign, especially one based in Sartar. On the other hand, the Narrator will have a harder time adjusting to it run using Lunar characters. As an introductory campaign, a taster for the mythology of Sartar and the Orlanthi pantheon and how the heroes become involved in it, Gloranthan Adventures 1: New Beginnings is an excellent starting point for a HeroQuest Glorantha campaign (whether that is Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes or not).

Saturday, 17 February 2018

An Elemental Improvement

Since 2014, Wizards of the Coast has published just eight adventures for use with Dungeons & Dragons. This does not sound like much, but where in the past both Wizards of the Coast and TSR, Inc. before it published scenario after scenario, now Wizards of the Coast releases whole campaigns, all in one go, twice a year. The first campaign, ‘Lost Mines of Phandelver’, part of the most recent Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set, was really more of a scenario in the traditional sense, but what followed was Hoard of the Dragon Queen and The Rise of Tiamat, which together formed the Tyranny of Dragons campaign. Sadly, the underwhelming nature of the campaign not only delayed the review of The Rise of Tiamat after Hoard of the Dragon Queen, but also delayed any return to review titles published by Wizards of the Coast for Dungeons & Dragons. Yet there lingered a curiosity that wondered if the subsequent campaigns were any good, but to answer that, it was necessary to turn to the next one published, Princes of the Apocalypse.

Published in 2015, Princes of the Apocalypse is a campaign for characters of First Level through Fifteenth Level, which returns to the Forgotten Realms after the Tyranny of Dragons campaign. Given that it concerns the return of Elemental Evil to the world, it should be no surprise that Princes of the Apocalypse is a sequel of sorts to T1 Temple of Elemental Evil, the classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign written by E. Gary Gygax and Frank Mentzer and published in 1985. It is not a true sequel though, like Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, the campaign for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition published in 2001, but rather a thematic sequel, in that Elemental Evil can work from one world to another and this time it is Forgotten Realms as opposed to Greyhawk.

Specifically, Princes of the Apocalypse takes place in and around the Sumber Hills at the heart of the Dessarin Valley many days’ travel to the East of Waterdeep. The hills are not only dotted with ruins and towers, but also hide the sundered ruins of a Dwarven city below their surface. Of late, these ruins have been occupied by four cults—the Cult of the Howling Hatred, the Cult of the Black Earth, the Cult of the Eternal Flame, and the Cult of the Crushing Wave—the members of which serve a prophet dedicated to one of the Princes of Elemental Evil. These princes are Imix, the Prince of Evil Fire, Ogremoch, the Prince of Evil Earth, Olhydra, the Prince of Evil Water, and Yan-C-Bin, the Prince of Evil Air. These four cults have staked out their part of the ruins and now compete to spread terror and their influence across the region. Initially, this will be through deception and subterfuge, banditry and theft, but as the campaign progresses, they will unleash air, earth, fire, and water elementals upon the region as well as lightning storms, firestorms, earthquakes, and floods. Besides the obvious chaos this causes, in some cases it actually drives the inhabitants of the Dessarin Valley into the arms of the cults, seeking answers and solace when their gods seem to fail them. In this way, each cult aims to prove itself greater than its three rivals in its devotion to Elemental Evil and so be worthy of serving the Elder Elemental Eye when it is brought into the world.

For the player characters, Princes of the Apocalypse begins with the search for a missing delegation from the city of Mirabar which was passing through the Dessarin Valley. Pleasingly, hooks aplenty—probably too aplenty—both personal and with both the major and the minor factions of the Sword Coast are given to pull the adventurers into the region and the campaign. Primarily of course, this includes the Harpers, the Order of the Gauntlet, the Emerald Enclave, the Lord’s Alliance, and the Zhentarim. As well as motivating the player characters, their inclusion also works to establish some competing objectives within the party. One of the several things that the adventure does well is make use of the player characters’ allegiances to provide them with information and further hooks into the campaign’s various side treks.

Once in the Dessarin Valley, clues as to the fate of the missing point towards a monastery, a river keep, a spire, and a tower and more. The party though, is free to explore and go where it will in its search for the missing delegation, following up this clue and that is because is where the Tyranny of Dragons campaign was linear and all about the dragons, Princes of the Apocalypse is a sandbox and all about the dungeons. All of these lie beneath the Sumber Hills, below each of the outposts established by the four cults and each seemingly a legitimate front organisation. Gaining access to these and their secrets present the players with plenty of roleplaying challenges. In fact, together with several of the sidetreks, they make up the bulk of the opportunities for roleplaying in the campaign, there being less involved in the dungeon delves to be found later on.

It should no surprise that the dungeons occupied by the cults are heavily themed around the Princes of Elemental Evil they worship. So the dungeon occupied by the  Cult of the Howling Hatred is air-themed, the dungeon of the Cult of the Eternal Flame is fire themed, and so on. Each of these dungeons is self-contained, roughly thirty or so locations, and this is for story reasons as much as it is design. The four dungeons are connected, but the rivalries between the four cults means that in effect, each remains isolated from the other. This does not mean that incursions by the party will go unnoticed and once the player characters have confronted and killed the first of the prophets, the cult will respond, as will the other prophets, the latter seeing the death of the first as a sign of weakness. Of course, the party will have to go after them, first down to the Temple of the Elder Elemental Eye and then on to the elemental nodes that are each prophet’s stronghold where the challenge is as much physical as it is combative. Each of the steps, the cult dungeons, the temple, the nodes, and so on, represents a major stage of campaign, each ending with a confrontation with one of the prophets, essentially an ‘end of level (or stage)’ boss.

Structurally, the flow of the campaign will see the party first investigating sites of interest above ground across the Dessarin Valley before delving into the first of the cults’ dungeons and then coming back to the surface. The player characters will repeat this process again and again, each time plumbing the depths to explore a more challenging dungeon. In between times, the Dungeon Master is given a slew of side treks and other adventures—all presented in the chapter pleasingly entitled ‘Alarums and Excursions’—with which to draw the party further into the campaign and show how the cults react to the party’s incursions below.

Besides presenting the campaign itself, Princes of the Apocalypse gives the background to each of the cults and a full description of the Dessarin Valley, its environs, and several of its settlements. Besides the chapter of extra and beginning adventures, ‘Alarums and Excursions’, there are chapters and appendices providing details and stats for all of the campaign’s monsters, enemies, and other NPCs, magical items, new elementally themed spells, and a new race, the Genasi. The latter are planetouched humanoids infused with, and have an affinity for, the power of their elemental parent. Their inclusion is interesting, but not intrinsic to playing or meeting the campaign. In addition, there are notes to adapt the campaign to other official settings for Dungeons & Dragons—Dark Sun, Dragonlance, Greyhawk, and Eberron—as well as a Dungeon Master’s own campaign, and so bring Elemental Evil to them.

So far, so good, but Princes of the Apocalypse is not perfect. The most obvious and immediate problem with the campaign is that the starting Level for player characters is not First Level as the book suggests. It really begins at Third Level, so players and characters leaping straight into the mystery and the action of the campaign will quickly find themselves outclassed, if not facing the possibility of a Total Party Kill. Princes of the Apocalypse provides a means to avoid this problem with a series of introductory adventures in the ‘Alarums & Excursions’ chapter that allow the characters to attain Third Level. Yet, there are two issues with this. One is that these mini-scenarios are dull and unengaging. The other is that because the campaign starts at Third Level, it is too high a Level for player characters who have completed the ‘The Lost Mine of Phandelver’ from the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. If the players want to use their characters from ‘The Lost Mine of Phandelver’ in Princes of the Apocalypse, then the Dungeon Master will need to make some adjustments to the early parts of the campaign.

The second issue is the sheer amount of information that the Dungeon Master has to marshal in order to run Princes of the Apocalypse. The clues to be found throughout the campaign will lead the player characters hither and thither and the Dungeon Master will need to take notes to keep track of the clues the player characters have found and where they lead (likewise the players will probably need to keep notes too). This is exacerbated by the problem that although the campaign is designed as a sandbox, many of the various dungeons and side treks are designed to be played, if not in a set order, then at least, at certain Levels. Again, although this is described, it could have better presented and summarised for the Dungeon Master. 

Another issue might be the lack of magical items across the campaign and barring potions and scrolls, it does not feel as if the player characters are rewarded all that much. Lastly, some of the dungeons are not that interesting, in particular, the temples occupied by the cults. None of them are unplayable, but they look a little bland compared to some of the side trek adventures. In particular, an encounter between barbarians and a Halfling farmstead is very nicely done and presents some excellent opportunities for roleplaying by both the Dungeon Master and the players.

Physically, Princes of the Apocalypse is an attractive, full colour hardback. The writing is generally clear and the artwork is superb. The illustrations of the prophets—Aerisi Kalinoth, an Elf princess with a fascination for wings who leads the Cult of the Howling Hatred, Gar Shatterkeel, the mutilated sailor who leads the Cult of the Crushing Wave, Marlos Urnrayle, the male Medusa leader of the Cult of the Black Earth, and Vanifer, the Tielfling leader of the  Cult of the Eternal Flame—are excellent and it would have been fantastic if these and other illustrations had been better placed for the Dungeon Master to use them as illustrations as part of running the campaign.

The biggest omission though, is the index. The fact that book as dense and as information rich as Princes of the Apocalypse beggars belief.

Princes of the Apocalypse is a huge campaign and represents months and months of play. It really works hard to present the players with freedom of choice and their player characters with the freedom of movement and investigation. Likewise, and although the contents of the book could be better organised for ease of use, it presents the Dungeon Master with the means to nudge the player characters in the right direction and keep them away from encounters which will be too challenging for their Level as well reflect the reactions of the cults to the party’s actions. Above all, it is this combination of sandbox and cult reactions which ensures that the actions of the players and their adventurers matters in Princes of the Apocalypse.

The Zone Quartet (+1) III

Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! is the third supplement for Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, the post-apocalypse set RPG based on Mutant - År Noll, the Swedish RPG from Free League Publishing released in English by Modiphius Entertainment. As with the first, Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 1 – Lair of the Saurians, Mutant: Year Zero and the second, Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea, this is a slim supplement that presents various scenario set-ups and situations—though not new rules—which can be quickly and easily dropped into a Game Master’s campaign and the sectors of his Zone map. Where Mutant: Year Zero – Zone Compendium 2 – Dead Blue Sea took Mutant: Year Zero to sea, what Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! does is set up encounters with mutant animals in the post apocalyptic world of Mutant: Year Zero. However, it does not present four encounters in a thirty-two page supplement like those two previous supplements, but five encounters in a thirty-six page supplement, but this is only a minor difference.

What really sets Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! apart from the previous entries in the ‘Zone Compendium’ series is that it is a supplement to another supplement as well as the Mutant: Year Zero core rules. That supplement is Mutant: Genlab Alpha, the standalone roleplaying game and supplement which enabled the Game Master and his players to explore the place of mutant animals and their roles in the post apocalyptic future. Notably, it included the campaign, ‘Escape from Paradise’, which told of the various animal tribes coming together to discover who their robot overlords were and ultimately making an escape into the world beyond Paradise Valley. It is beyond this valley home where the encounters are to be had in Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! take place, in the Zone—or at least near it—where the player characters have their home in their tribe’s Ark.

Problematically, the title and cover of Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! are a bit of a giveaway for the first location. ‘New Kingdom of Deeproot’ presents a warren of lagomorphs, militantly paranoid in their fear and hatred of meat-eaters—as depicted on the front cover. The rabbits have also formed a workers’ protectorate and entrenched themselves against attack. In some ways this is the most challenging encounter in the book, the Rabbits being equally as entrenched in their opinions and beliefs, and getting to persuade them otherwise will take a lot of effort upon the part of player characters. Now the concept of gun-toting bunnies has been a mainstay of the gonzo post-apocalypse genre ever since Gamma World gave us the Hoops, so what we have with ‘New Kingdom of Deeproot’ is something of a cliche. Fortunately, this a decent treatment of a genre standby and whilst it might not be the easiest of location to use, there are good suggestions on how to use it.

Fortunately, ‘Blackhand’s Bar’ is much easier to use. It presents a former rest stop, an oasis of calm and rest amidst the tumult and the wreckage of the long past, somewhere where the player characters can stop, recover, and perhaps gather information. ‘Blackhand’s Bar’ is also the headquarters of the Zone Riders, messengers who traverse the Zone carrying missives and mapping out the Zone. A simple encounter with the Zone Riders will easily draw the player characters to ‘Blackhand’s Bar’ and from there they can establish relationships with the owners and the patrons, perhaps with the aim of also establishing a forward base. Another area of interest is ‘The Garbage Masters’, a mountain of garbage overseen by mutant toads! The place stinks, but the owners will trade for permission to root around in and around the great pile of refuse in search of artefacts. Of course, how long the batrachian owners can hold before someone else wants control of the trash piles and just what artefacts are there to be found in the miasmic mounds?

‘The Island of Doctor Life’ is home to a mysterious machine being as much a refugee from Genlab Alpha as the mutant animals are. As well as the secrets of who this machine is, this is an opportunity for the player characters to gain some much-needed healing, but at what price? There is potential here for a scenario which might take the player characters into—or back into—Paradise Valley, though it will be up to the Game Master to develop this. Lastly, ‘Squirrel Wars’ drops the player characters into the middle of a forest war between two packs, one of squirrels and one of dogs. The war has been running for as long as they can remember. The question is, will the player characters side with the Hounds or the Tail Runners, or perhaps find a way to mediate between the two?

Physically, Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! is as well presented as the other titles in the series. The artwork is excellent and the maps, both illustrated and cartographic, are nicely done. In fact, the artwork also serves as great illustrations to show the players when they encounter the various locations and NPCs. The book is also well written, with solid descriptions and a handful of events and scenario ideas for the Game Master to flesh out.

Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! also marks the growing co-operation between Free League Publishing and Modiphius Entertainment as its contents are a joint project, both in terms of writing and publishing. There is a great deal of flexibility in how a Game Master can use Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! The most obvious one is simply use it as sequel content to Mutant: Genlab Alpha, exploring what happens to the mutant animal player characters after the events of the ‘Escape from Paradise’ campaign out in the Zone. Alternatively, it could be dropped into an existing Mutant: Year Zero campaign and the content used to introduce mutant animals as characters and the mechanics of Mutant: Genlab Alpha. The mutant player characters of Mutant: Year Zero could even encounter the NPCs and locations of this supplement and then play out the events of Mutant: Genlab Alpha as a prequel, allowing the players to explore how the mutant animals got to the Zone. That said, the mutant animals do need time to establish themselves after escaping from Paradise Valley, so the Game Master needs to allow for this before the player characters—mutant or mutant animals—encounter each other and these scenario locations.

Ultimately, the Game Master does not need to have a copy of Mutant: Genlab Alpha to run the contents of Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die!, though having access to it may help. If he has Mutant: Genlab Alpha, then Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! will definitely be useful if he has run ‘Escape from Paradise’ as it provides information about what happens to some of its escaping NPCs and helps him bring mutant animals into the Zone. Overall, Mutant: Year Zero Zone Compendium 3: Die, Meat-Eater, Die! contains content that will freshen up a Game Master’s Mutant: Year Zero campaign.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

The Most Useless Dungeons & Dragons Supplement Ever?

In the space of four months, beginning in October, 2007 and ending in January, 2008, Wizards of the Coast published what were arguably the worst three books ever released for Dungeons & Dragons. The first was the Dungeon Survival Guide and it would be followed by Wizards Presents: Races and Classes in December 2007 and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters in January 2008. Now Wizards Presents: Races and Classes and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters were essentially previews of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, the new edition of the game to launched in June, 2008. They were essentially advertising that the reader paid for, because once read, neither added anything to the game. What then, of the Dungeon Survival Guide?

It is not anything akin to the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, which published in 1986, was one of the last supplements to be released for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. In fact, it was systems neutral, describing dungeons and the art of dungeoneering, but without game stats or mechanics. Indeed, Shannon Appelcline, writing in Designers & Dragons, noted that it was “pure fluff [...] with no stats at all”, noting that Wizards did not want to produce books that would be out of date within a year as they were preparing D&D 4th edition. Yet, even when it was published in 2007, the Dungeon Survival Guide could not have been considered be in any way, shape, or form, ‘in date’, and as we shall see, it would not be ‘in date’ for almost a decade.

As a product, the Dungeon Survival Guide can be divided into two parts. The first part is about dungeons in general and the second part is about specific dungeons. Of its sixty-four pages, roughly a third is devoted to the former and two thirds to the latter, each entry typically consisting of just a two-page spread. The first part, in seven sections, looks at dungeons, who would dare delve into them, what gear they carry with them, and what to find below. The latter covers everything from the types of dungeons to be found from one world to the next, what terrain and other features to be found below as well as hazards to be avoided and treasure—mundane, magical, and legendary. The coverage of these subjects gets off to an odd start in that the first section, ‘The Dungeon in Dungeons & Dragons’ is more about the dungeoneers, the adventurers who would brave the depths, than it is about dungeons. Even then it is a little odd in that it only really looks at the four core Classes—Fighter, Cleric, Rogue, and Wizard—and the four core Races—Humans, Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings—than it does at the wider selection available in Dungeons & Dragons, both in 2007 and now. Although several other Classes get mentioned, this overview feels as if it owes more to Basic Dungeons & Dragons than it does Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5, the edition available in 2007. In addition, the section introduces the five archetypal player characters—a Human Fighter, a Human Cleric, a Halfling Rogue, an Elf Wizard, and a Dwarf Fighter—who in turn provide advice and reminiscences about their time in the classic dungeons described in the book’s second part.

Once past the oddity of the subject matter of ‘The Dungeon in Dungeons & Dragons’, The Dungeon Survival Guide settles down and sticks to the subject matters suggested by the titles of the sections. ‘Dungeon Survival Gear’ is an all too brief at barely half a page of text and lots of art. It really is a missed opportunity to look what use adventurers can put their gear to whilst in a dungeon and it really would have been nice to hear what the five archetypal player characters carry and why. Really, both sections could have been better handled by being put under a ‘dungeon preparation’ or ‘adventuring preparation’ section before delving into what a dungeon actually is. 

‘Dungeon Environments’ and ‘Dungeon Hazards’ are really where the description of what dungeons are like begins in the Dungeon Survival Guide. At four pages in length each, both are the longest sections on the book and both complement each other. ‘Dungeon Environments’ examines the basic types of dungeon—ruined structures, occupied structures, safe storage facilities, and natural cavern complexes—and their common features. This includes walls, floors, doors, and rooms, whilst ‘Dungeon Hazards’ looks at dungeon denizens, traps, natural hazards, and so on. It is only here that the advice from the archetypal player characters begins. Much like the descriptions, the advice is informative and useful, but both descriptions and advice are useful. This continues with the ‘Dungeon Treasure’, including the types to be found, such as money, gems, arts, and mundane items, plus magic items. So far, so good, for the content of the Dungeon Survival Guide is useful, if basic, which all points to the book being an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons.

Yet in the ‘Dungeon Treasure’ section there is a single line which sticks out like a sore thumb. It is a line which will be familiar to every Dungeon Master and every player—a line which gives the exchange rates for the coins in the most famous roleplaying game in the world—copper pieces and silver pieces into gold pieces, and gold pieces into platinum pieces, but it comes without an explanation of what the terms ‘cp’, ‘sp’, ‘gp’, and ‘pp’ stand for. The problem is that they are so ubiquitous and so common that most Dungeon Masters and players will read that line and not raise an eyebrow, whereas anyone new to Dungeons & Dragons will not have a clue as to their meaning. Which raises the question, just who is this book at actually aimed at? Sadly, the answer to this question remains unclear…

Fortunately, the Dungeon Survival Guide gets back on track and gets more interesting with ‘Treasures of Legend’. This last section of the book’s first half is where it begins to get specific and get interesting. ‘Treasures of Legend’ describes seven of the signature treasures in Dungeons & Dragons, including the Book of Exalted Deeds, Deck of Many Things, Hammer of Thunderbolts, Sphere of Annihilation, Staff of the Magi, the Hand and Eye of Vecna,* and the Orbs of Dragonkind. Again, these are nice summations and if you are new to Dungeons & Dragons, then they more intriguing than what has come before, but they also serve as a taster for what comes next.

*Not the head though...


The second half—or rather the last two thirds—of the Dungeon Survival Guide is devoted to ‘Famous Dungeons’. Some nineteen are described, each accorded a short introduction, a description of just a few of its secrets, some advice from the archetypal player characters, some survival tips, plus a little bit about the scenario that the dungeon comes from—when it was published, the authors, its history, and so on. Some of the dungeon spreads also include a section devoted to the memories of the archetypal player characters, this in addition to the advice freely given out. Of the nineteen, there is just the one entry each from the era of Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. These are, respectively, The Caves of Chaos from B2 Keep on the Borderlands, and Firestorm Peak from The Gates of Firestorm Peak. The remaining entries are divided between Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition/Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5

So from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, they are the Dungeon of the Slave Lords from A4 In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords—recently reprinted as Against the Slave Lords, Ghost Tower of Inverness from C2 The Ghost Tower of Inverness, Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl from G2 Glacial Rift of the Frost Giant Jarl and Hall of the Fire Giant King from G3 Hall of the Fire Giant King, the Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan from C1 The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan, the Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth from S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, The Pyramid of Amun-Re from I3 Pharaoh, The Tomb of Horrors from S1 Tomb of Horrors, and White Plume Mountain from S2 White Plume Mountain. From Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition/Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5 they are Castle Greyhawk from Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, Castle Ravenloft from Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, The Demonweb Pits from Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, The Forge of Fury from The Forge of Fury, The Temple of Elemental Evil from Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Slaughtergarde from The Shattered Gates of Slaughtergarde, The Sunless Citadel from The Sunless Citadel, and Undermountain from Expedition to Undermountain.

Of the nineteen, just eight were published during the period of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition/Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5, but only three of them truly date from this era of the roleplaying game. The other five—Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, Expedition to the Ruins of Greyhawk, Expedition to Castle Ravenloft, Expedition to the Demonweb Pits, and Expedition to Undermountain—are all returns to old dungeons and all dungeons dating back to the era of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. Which only serves to highlight what a golden era that period was for the creation of dungeons and adventures for the game.

Physically, the Dungeon Survival Guide is a beautiful book. The slim—almost too slim!—black hardback is lavishly illustrated such that it almost overwhelms the relatively light text. The art is also very well used and it highlights some of the great colour artwork which graced the pages of Dungeons & Dragons some twenty years ago.

So back in 2007, the Dungeon Survival Guide was an odd product. It was sort of an introductory product, an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons, but what it did not do was introduce a specific edition of Dungeons & Dragons. There was no advice for the reader as to what to do next, what books to buy, and so on. So essentially, it never followed through on its introduction. The issue here was that the Dungeon Survival Guide was released at the fag end of Dungeons & Dragons, Edition 3.5 with the Wizards Presents: Races and Classes and Wizards Presents: Worlds and Monsters books waiting round the corner to herald the arrival of the Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition.

Worse, and this was the biggest flaw with the Dungeon Survival Guide, it described dungeons and adventures that were not available in 2007. In fact, the majority of the adventures and dungeons described in the Dungeon Survival Guide were not available and had not been in print, in some cases, for decades. Further, Wizards of the Coast was not supporting these dungeons and was not making them available via PDF. Although the publisher would revisit some of the adventures during the era of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, the approach was piecemeal and often through the instore gaming events rather than in actual physical products.

With no gaming support or real content, the Dungeon Survival Guide added nothing to Dungeons & Dragons and it did not support Dungeons & Dragons. It was part introduction, part nostalgia trip, without any specific audience, but if you were old enough to have owned or played the many adventures listed, then you could at least enjoy that nostalgia. If you had never played or owned those dungeons, then the Dungeon Survival Guide was all promise, but none of the fulfillment. It was was essentially a frippery. 

That though was in 2007.

A decade on and the Dungeon Survival Guide is a whole different beast. That is all thanks to the Dungeon Master’s Guild. All of the dungeons and adventures listed in the Dungeon Survival Guide are available once again as PDFs to purchase and download. Even the Dungeon Survival Guide is available (although the price is ridiculously high). Now it supports the nostalgia to be found in its pages with the dungeon descriptions because those dungeons are available and they recognised for what they are. In other words, although the Dungeon Survival Guide is still a frippery, in 2018, it has the purpose it should have had in 2007.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Magic of Now

Magic items have been a feature of roleplaying games since 1974 and the publication of Dungeons & Dragons and over the years they have been supported with supplement after supplement. For games set in the contemporary or modern era, such supplements are rare, and whilst there is nothing to stop a Game Master from updating items from the fantasy to the modern setting, the release of The Book of Contemporary Magical Things: A Collection of Mundane Items Imbued With Magical Power For Use In Contemporary Horror And Fantasy Roleplaying Games from Stygian Fox Publishing is more than welcome. The supplement presents almost one-hundred-and-twenty of varying power, from a Hot Spoon which always stirs your tea just right to Delgado’s Orrery which is capable of aligning the planets with many, many items in between, plus antagonists and rivals for their possession. What is important to know is that all of these items and personalities are presented in a systemless fashion, so a Game Master can take an item, write it up for the rules of his choice, and add it to his campaign as his wont.

The background to The Book of Contemporary Magical Things is simple. Since 1945, magical artefacts have begun to appear. Not the great artefacts of legends past, but common or garden items, like boxes of matches and boxes of nails, handbags, torches, stools, sunglasses, caps, trainers, rings, SIM cards, goop, cooking pots, fishing nets, watches, door handles, lamps, bookcases, laser pointers, snow globes, handkerchiefs, pistols, and on. As these have come to the attention and notice of collectors and those in the know, they have not only been sought after, but classified according to their power. The power scale runs from Mina or Cantrips up to Cosmica via Minora, Media, Majora, Maxima, Magisteria, Magnifica, and Miracula. An example Mina would be the Silver Cat Statue, which when dropped or knocked over, sends out dreams calling for kittens—it is marked with the word “Ulthar” on its base; The Senator’s Pastime are a sample Minora, an item of everyday power, cigarettes that grant the ability to sense the intent of others; and an example Media, an item of uncommon power, would be ‘Lucky’ Kowalski’s Luger, a hand built fully functional replica pistol which fires bullets that most of the time pass around cover. An example passion made corporeal or Majora, would be Grandmother Edith’s Rocking Chair which when sat in and rocked allows the rocker to see out of the nearest window and into the future or the past; an example of disaster or Maxima would Jimmy Walsh’s Flight-stick, a flight-sim joystick capable of flying any real world aerial vehicle; and The Underwater Porsche would be an example of a Magisteria or the height of mortal power. The Power Armour of Ebony Harris, a surprisingly powerful and capable cosplay suit is a sample of a Magnifica, an item with power of demi-gods, currently being used by a vigilante; the wrath of deities or Miraxula is wrapped up in something like The Bed of Ressurection; and of course, Delgado’s Orrery or ‘The Devil’s Instrument’ embodies Cosmica, both destruction and creation.

Throughout, the detailed descriptions of these items are colour coded: green for the beneficial effects of an artefact, red as a warning to its dangers, and blue for interesting facts. These are easy to spot by the reader, as is the number for each entry which keys to the maps at the back of the book marking where everything is. It is clear that the authors are having fun with the entries in The Book of Contemporary Magical Things. In some cases, they can be very specific about the details, such as Potter’s Dice, a set of polyhedrals with a twenty-sided die that can grant either good or very bad luck for a day, which can be found in the Birmingham games shop, Wayland’s Forge. Then there are some very knowing creations too, such as the Book of Laminated Dreams, a catalogue which provides the owner with the luxury goods they pick from its content, though where they come from is another matter, and Janie’s Magic Torch, which always shines brighter when pointed in the direction of what the owner is looking for.

Rounding out The Book of Contemporary Magical Things are notes on conjunctions—how certain devices work when brought together—and NPCs and organisations with an interest in the artefacts. Such persons are known as Curators, and on the rare occasions when they work together, as Guilds. They include the Gatecrashers, a trio operating out of a Paris hotel in the hunt for artefacts; Nur Allah, a radical terrorist organisation who use artefacts in its campaigns of terror; and Alice ‘Little Red Riding’ Hood, an orphaned young woman who hunts monsters using the White Flame Sword

Physically, The Book of Contemporary Magical Things is nicely presented. The layout is clean and the illustrations are excellent throughout. This is a good-looking book and yet… The Book of Contemporary Magical Things made this reviewer—and editor—want to cry. The problem is that the supplement is horribly overwritten and so much time is wasted saying very little. For example:
“In 1947 somewhere in Norfolk, England there was an old seaman’s chest. It passed down from an elderly man to his nephew when the old man died. The seaman’s chest had strict instructions left on it, in the man’s will, only his nephew could open it on his 20th Birthday. So in 1950 when Dan Hughes took possession of the chest, aged 20, he was able to see what all the fuss was about.
It was late one in the Hughes Estate when the young man, who could not sleep, opened the chest in his room and found it contained a letter from the old man. The letter was written in his usual cursive script, without a typewriter and using a beautiful calligraphy pen for the header.”
Alternatively,
“In 1947, in Norfolk, England, Dan Hughes inherited an old seaman’s chest from his uncle. According to the old man’s will, Dan was not allowed to open it until his 20th birthday. It would be another three years before the young man could open the chest and when he did, the first thing he discovered was a letter addressed to him, written in uncle’s familiar hand.”
Despite the disappointing quality of the writing, and indeed, the editing, The Book of Contemporary Magical Things is rife with interesting objects and intriguing artefacts. There is plenty here ready for the Game Master to bring to his campaign whether that is for an urban fantasy, horror, or superhero game. Thus, the supplement’s contents would work with campaigns similar to Supernatural, The Librarians, or The Lost Room, as well as roleplaying games like Evil Hat Productions’ The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, Catalyst Game Lab’s Shadowrun, Onyx Path Publishing’s World of Darkness, and so on. Overall though, appreciate the art, idolise the ideas, but weep for the writing and what the writers wanted The Book of Contemporary Magical Things: A Collection of Mundane Items Imbued With Magical Power For Use In Contemporary Horror And Fantasy Roleplaying Games to be, for it is just lacks polish.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

A Literal Sandbox

Taking its cue its title, if not its cue, from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a mini-sandbox style setting designed for characters of between Second and Fourth Level for use with Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord. Published by the Hydra Collective LLC following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is the first part of a trilogy of supplements which continue with Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Misty Isles of the Eld and set in the Hill Cantons, a setting described as, “A Slavic-myth inspired, acid fantasy world of Moorcockian extradimensional incursions and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats.” Much of this is true—Slumbering Ursine Dunes lacks the swindlers and the petty bureaucrats—but the setting is infused with Slavic myth and penetrated by Moorcockian Science Fantasy from beyond, and it is Vancian in its baroque feeling of age and the sometimes-retiring nature of the setting.

Although a sandbox setting which the player characters are free to wander where they will, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is not a hexcrawl, but a ‘pointcrawl’. This depicts a region as a series of connected nodes rather than hex grid of locations and wilderness spaced in between. This makes travel in a sense more direct and avoids the problem of having an adventuring party wandering endlessly in the wilderness trying to find specific locations. It turns the map of the region depicted in Slumbering Ursine Dunes into something representational rather than exact and topographical, much like the map of the London Underground. Cleverly though, the concept of nodes and distinct travel routes is supported by the topography of the setting itself. The Slumbering Ursine Dunes consists of a mass of huge dunes of scarlet sand, each dune all but insurmountable, so that the easiest way through the dunes is by the existing routes between and along their bases. That said, the number of points—and thus encounters—in this pointcrawl are quite small at just twenty-five and for any adventurers, getting across the Slumbering Ursine Dunes should take no more than a morning at most—in either direction.

The Slumbering Ursine Dunes are sudden plateau, some three-hundred-and-fifty feet high, that jut out of the landscape on the coast of the Persimmon Sea opposite the Misty Isles. They are known for the scarlet colour of their sand and for the annual pilgrimage of the soldier-bears who serve the hirsute and ursine godling, Medved, who rules over the plateau. The plateau is rumoured to be a place of great strangeness, whether it is the green pearls which carry the souls of evil men or the magical wheat fields where succour and sustenance is granted. The only access to the plateau is from the stairs that lead up from the settlement at Kugelberg—there is certainly none to be had from the coastal side. Two points of interest stand on the coastal side though: The Golden Barge and the Glittering Tower. To reach them, any adventurers will have to trek across the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, for the waters are not safe around the coast and there are no beaches.

Once atop the plateau, the player characters will encounter an array of the weird and the wonderful. There are War Bears and Centaur toll keepers, a hermit living in a Zardoz-like head, a magic rye field, and a reservoir which holds the remaining floodwaters of the last Great Deluge. This reservoir is home to a trio of crooning willow-like Rusalkas who like to drown their men and a band of Giant Beavers whose duty it is to maintain the dam, just as it has been for their forefathers before them. Their lair is in the dam and contains not just an aquarium, but also a gift shop! This is in addition to the encounters that the player characters are likely to have with the forces and representatives of the four factions vying for control of the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. They include Joromir the Old Smith, a tired warrior, who along with his family and friends wants little to change atop the plateau; Medved the Master, an old and tired god who commands War Bears, Centaurs, and Cave Dwarfs and who wants to be rid of the Eld and Ondrj; the Eld, extradimensional Melnibonéan-like elves wanting to reclaim the Golden Barge and who hate Medved the Master; and Ondrj the Reaver, cousin to Medved the Master and Wereshark who leads a band of pirates in a orgy of violence and hatred. Each of these NPCs is mapped onto the Alignment Lawful/Chaotic-Good/Evil axis, so that Joromir the Old Smith is Lawful Good, Medved the Master is Chaotic Good, the Eld are Lawful Evil, and Ondrj the Reaver is Chaotic Evil. Time is taken to describe how each of these NPCs talks and acts and will react to the player characters. For example, Ondrj the Reaver is described as being all politeness and sharp toothed smiles, but actually constraining his natural inclination to just kill the party, and even if the adventurers are working for him, there is a thirty percent chance that he will give in and try to kill them anyway. These are fantastic pointers and so helpful for the Dungeon Master.

The Golden Barge and the Glittering Tower serve as the dungeons for the Slumbering Ursine Dunes. The Golden Barge, long lost to the Eld, is more a space barge than a nautical barge and a strange combination of ancient alien and organic technology and mediaeval pleasure barge. The primary danger aboard the barge are the Ghul, organically grown servants and guards whose numbers will refresh over the course of a few days. The creepiest feature of the Golden Barge will be its furniture, human peasantry bent and shellacked into tables and chairs, but perhaps the most memorable will be the two-headed giant vulture with tumour-chest-tentacles atop a broken tower and the four-armed White Ape waiting at the top of the stairs to the control, complete with a supply of barrels…

In comparison, the Glittering Tower, home to Medved the Master, is not as interesting. It is more dungeon-like than the Golden Barge, but where that is quite sparse in its furnishings and fittings, the Glittering Tower is baroque, cluttered, and very much lived in. It is full of gewgaws and odds and ends and also of the Eld trying to oust Medved, who in turn would like to drive them out of his home. Unfortunately, the Glittering Tower is not functioning as well as it once did and so the demi-god needs help. Perhaps the player characters can help? As well as employment, there are plenty of opportunity to look the tower, even if that loot is just a little weird, and similarly, there is opportunity aplenty for the Dungeon Master to slip interesting items into all of this clutter.

The descriptions of the locations and the NPCs take up roughly two thirds of the book, the remainder consisting of an optional mechanic and various appendices. The optional mechanic is a ‘Chaos Event Index’, Like many a sandbox, the Slumbering Ursine Dunes exist more or less on a fulcrum, awaiting agents of change and of course, those agents of change are the player characters. Their influence, their actions, even their very presence are enough to upset the apple cart and throw the balance of the region into chaos. To that end, the ‘Chaos Event Index’ turns that up a notch or two, with the player characters’ mere presence combined with their actions and the actions of the factions serving to drive the index up and increase the chaos and the weirdness. Initially this might be for blood rain to fall, but monsters might attack, demi-gods appear, and so on. As this escalates, it pushes the setting further and further into the weird.

The appendices include a bestiary, a list of new spells, two new Classes, and a list of hirelings. The bestiary provides stats and write-ups for the new monsters—the Cave Dwarf, the War Bear, the Anti-Cantonal Eld, the Ghuls, and so on. Several monsters, such as the Grue and the Pelgrane are directly drawn from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, whilst the two new spells, Kazimir’s Resplendent Couture and Summon and Bind Sandestin, are utterly Vancian. The Cave Dwarf and the War Bear are also given as playable races, in the Race as Class format of Labyrinth Lord. The Cave Dwarf is essentially a Neanderthal Dwarf, whilst the War Bears are fighters with a love of polearms. What is interesting about both Classes is that neither are initially available to the players, instead available only as NPCs. The Dungeon Master has the option to ‘unlock’ them though, perhaps after a player character has died. Lastly, the lists of hirelings provide a fun set of NPCs for the Dungeon Master to roleplay as they accompany the player characters.

Physically, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is well written—certainly the author has a lot of fun getting obvious and not so obvious references into the setting and there is plenty of good descriptive content to help the Dungeon Master run the adventure. It is also very nicely illustrated. In fact, the artwork, if only in greyscale, is excellent. Yet the book is not well organised, with tables often spread over two pages making them awkward to use. The dungeon maps, those of the Golden Barge and the Glittering Tower, are placed too far away from their text descriptions for easy use. The maps of both locations are also bland and somewhat disappointing. As is the lack of an index, but the book is relatively short, so this is not as much of a problem as it could have been.

If there is a problem with Slumbering Ursine Dunes, it is the lack of a hook. There are no suggestions as to how or why the player characters should or want to come to the mini-region and quite possibly no reason for them to stay unless they ally themselves with one of the factions. There is plenty for them to do and explore once they do, but without this motivation…? The Dungeon Master will need to create some hooks and suggestions perhaps to provide this. If there is a second problem it is that the outcome of the player characters’ actions on the mini-region are not really explored. What happens if they do one action and not another is very much left up to the Dungeon Master to decide.

One of the big advantages of Slumbering Ursine Dunes is that it is so small and it is so self-contained that it can be dropped into many other settings. With its ancient Hyberborean links, one option would be North Wind Adventures’ Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Wierd Fantasy, but doubtless any Dungeon Master will be able to find a good home for this mini-region.

Overall, Slumbering Ursine Dunes packs a lot of adventure into its pages. The ‘pointcrawl’ works very well here as a means for handling wilderness travel and thus a means for handling a Dungeon Master’s first wilderness type adventure. Where it fails is in getting the adventurers onto the plateau—or at least in giving them a reason for getting on to it—and this lacking undermines the scenario’s design as a Dungeon Master’s first wilderness adventure. More experienced Dungeon Masters will doubtless be able to come up with motivations and reasons where a less experienced Dungeon Master may not be able to. Once there though and once they have reasons to be there, both the Dungeon Master and players will get to enjoy the weird and wonderful, evocatively described and detailed setting that is Slumbering Ursine Dunes, get involved in its politics, make some truly singular friends, and have some interesting encounters.