Monday, September 15, 2014

A short review of Slumbering Ursine Dunes draft.



THE SLUMBERING URSINE DUNES

Ursine Dunes Cover
Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a gaming product currently being polished and kickstarted by Chris K. from the Hill Cantons blog. Through various machinations and jesuitical maneuverings I have managed to obtain an alpha copy of Ursine Dunes and the permission to review it.
I’ve always enjoyed Hill Cantons, and have repeatedly tried to play a session or two, but been repeatedly stymied by scheduling conflicts.  With the production of Ursine Dunes I will finally have a chance to glimpse what Hill Cantons looks like from the GM’s side of the table and to delve into the world more.  Now Chris K has provided a lot of free PDF content before, and it’s generally high quality, so I have high hopes for Ursine Dunes, and he appears to be working with some others in the OSR community whose work I appreciate, so I have even higher hopes about the product and from what I've seen it doesn't disappoint.

Now some notes of caution. 

A) The copy I received is a bare bones draft, all the content is there, but it’s still getting edited (it has been edited a couple times by now I understand), is missing the final art and maps and thus may have changed substantially.  As such I make no representations about the quality of the final product’s editing, maps art or layout (though the art I’ve seen looks great - see above).

B) I like the author and his style of game, so to some extent there may be a promotional aspect to this review – after all the Kickstarter just Kickstarted.  However, other than some mutual internet admiration Chris and I aren’t in business together or otherwise connected in any way.  There’s no kickback scheme here, though the idea of an OSR kickback scheme would be funny as I envision envelopes stuffed with nickles exchanging hands in the shadowed corners of the night.

THE BASICS

The prospectus for this adventure is that it’s a mini wilderness sandbox with a pair of larger keyed locations and plenty of encounters within the wilderness.  The Ursine Dunes does this in a slightly non-traditional way, creating a point-crawl rather then the more common hex-crawl.  Personally I like this method as it reduces record keeping and is usually sufficient for travel overland as the players rarely just decide to wander about, but are going from one location to another.  It’s a bit odd in a small content rich region like the Dunes, but the module manages to use the geographic aspects of the adventure environment to create pathways and channels that keep the point-crawl from being improperly limiting.

Another large scale mechanic that makes the Dunes interesting is the “chaos index”, an “event subsystem” for large scale changes based on player actions and increasing naturally each session.  The Chaos Index is a neat element, as it keeps the adventure from being static, and adds a solid amount of evocative detail as the Dunes, a psychedelic wilderness dreamed by sleeping gods, that becomes stranger or more normal based on events and player action.  It’s great when player actions have a tangible effect on the game world, and can really create player satisfaction and a sense of purpose in an adventuring party.

The effects of the Chaos Index are mostly strange occurrences and atmospheric effects that have little mechanical effect, but this is good, because it creates scene and a sense of change without bogging the game down in minutia or being overly punitive.  Other effects (positive and negative) are more intense, but effect primarily magic use, and magic is supposed to be wondrous and strange.

Beyond these novel approaches to sandbox play, there are some new classes (war bear mercenaries, and cave-dwarfs - exactly what they sound like, proto-dwarf cavemen), a few new spells, and a number of excellent new monsters.

THE ADVENTURE

In ancient times some Northern Godling got in a fight with a deified bear at a spot along the coast.  The dunes thrown up in this fight are magical and strange, and both attract odd anomalies and behave as a mythical wilderness where everyday norms are off-kilter.  In the end they melded into a slightly more powerful Demigod and have been loitering about since, dreaming and accepting worship from Soldier Bear (militaristic, mercenary bears, walking upright), centaur and were-bear followers.  Recently other factions have intruded into the godling’s little domain, pirates led by some were-sharks, and worse strange, sadistic, science fantasy space elves.  The Tower of the bear god (who is lazy in a very bear like way) is under a siege of sorts, with weird elven infiltrators coming from above, and pirates coming from below.  The bear god doesn’t want to deal with either threat personally so the party has pretty much free reign to play the factions against each other and loot the tower.

The second location is evocative, strange and creepy - a living barge of space-elf (called Eld after Dwimmermount’s Martian elves) construction, lost out of time.  The Eld seek to recover it, skulking about and preparing ambushes, but the living barge’s self-defense and repair mechanisms are also active in the form of very orderly ghoul packs that protect the barge. The Golden Barge is a great science-fantasy location, and reminds me of my own fascination with fantastical wrecks as adventure locales.  The treasures and encounters within both these locations are interesting and different, even when they use classic monsters or simple treasures.  There does seem to be a bit of a lack of strange magic items, but there are plenty of mundane items that provide bonuses and interesting effects, so this appears to be more a conscious decision about the nature of magic in the Hill Cantons setting then a lack.

Outside the two largely self-contained keyed locations the Dunes also contain many intriguing encounters, toll collecting centaurs, a hermit in an ancient statute head and a field of murderous grain spirits. The encounters are good enough, some are excellent, but there could be more locales for exploring to really take advantage of the Dune's chaos index and strangeness. Some of these encounters border on absurd or silly, and in general Ursine Dunes has a ‘gonzo’ feel.  This aspect is brought to the surface by the writing, which while clear and concise is also peppered with colloquialisms and slang phrases, rather than the traditional Gygaxian bombast or vaguely Vancian pedantry that is common in game products.  Not to say this is bad, describing treasure as "baller" (not a real example) or describing it as "ensorcelled with a powerful dwenomer" are stylistic choices for the reader to sort out.

The final and key point here is that I’m interested in Ursine Dunes, and I’d like to play it, or even run it perhaps without re-skinning it into something completely different. There’s enough fun content within the Dunes that it’s worth reading even if it doesn’t fit in one’s current campaign.  I also don’t think it’s a location that needs to be used on its own, and it could easily be wedged into a Science Fantasy Campaign, especially something like ASE.  In fact it feels a bit like an ASE product with a slightly different stylistic focus.  As to it's completion? Sure it’s a Kickstarted project, but I have a feeling it will be done on time, given the record of the author at putting out free PDFs and the state of the Alpha.  I general I was pleasantly impressed with Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and especially like some of its mechanical aspects that make the larger Dune area feel like a living environment.  

2 comments:

  1. I kickstarted this before you review, but if I hadn't this review would have convinced me to do so. I'm curious where in ASE you would fit this locale. Maybe somewhere in the Worthless North? Would you retrofit the Eld into ASE's greyskinned elves, or have them be something other?

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    1. I'd stick it along the coast or perhaps near the Eater of Cities. If I was using Eld as aliens I'd go coast and if I was making the Eld Northern Elves (after replacing thier space stuff with proper man eating elf magic gear) I'd put it by the big lake. No where too far - it's really a wizard tower and the factions related to it.

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