Friday, 15 May 2015

"...Painting Dwarven Penis Runes On His Barn", Or More Politely "Slumbering Ursine Dunes: A Review"

Slumbering Ursine Dunes Review - Corey Ryan Walden
Author: Chris Kutalik
Price: $9.00/$16.00 (Drivethrurpg)
Format: PDF/Print
Page count: 66
System: Hydra Cooperative (Labyrinth Lord)

Year: 2014

If the title of my review doesn't grab your attention, you won't like this module. It might seem like a debased attempt to get you to read this, and okay, maybe it was a little, but the quoted excerpt actually appears in this adventure. If on the other hand, the idea of a centaur enacting such immature pranks makes you chuckle a little, then you will probably gravitate towards this adventure. 

Some of you will remember I reviewed Hydra Collective's Hill Cantons Compendium II slightly over a month ago. In my review I discussed the overall humour of Chris Kutalik's writing, and my general attitude of propensity towards this work. Cantons has a very homely feel, and the compendium has recently been released in a print format, that personally I think looks Gorgeous

Needless to say, when +Chris Kutalik was kind enough to provide me with a review copy of Slumbering Ursine Dunes I was immediately excited. Why? Before I had read or even heard about Hill Cantons Compendium II, I had already had my gaze set on this adventure. I lavished the immediately evoking cover artwork, and plotted how I might be able to justify its purchase. Clearly, when the opportunity arose to delve into the content, I was game.

The Good
Slumbering Ursine Dunes presents itself as "a Labyrinth Lord adventure for levels 2-4". Like most products at least loosely affiliated with the OSR, or with old school gaming more broadly, there is an enjoyable cross-compatibility between many systems. Slumbering Ursine Dunes - or SUD as I will now refer to it is no exception. The stat blocks and mechanical considerations are not the exclusive domain of Labyrinth Lord, but can be enjoyed with more or less any retro-clone or pre-2000 edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Even a 5th edition conversion would present scant difficulty. While this will be obvious to some, I do not wish to presume my readership possesses this knowledge or ability (though these types of conversions seem simian in execution), and some gamers expect exacting compatibility with their system of choice. Be advised this thing is easy to work with, but will require some work if you're not using Labyrinth Lord, OD&D or B/X. 

The layout of SUD reminds me of Hill Cantons, in fact I'm almost certain the type-font of the title and some of the interior is identical. Generally speaking the fonts are easy to read and the layout is solid. It didn't boggle the mind with its awesomeness but neither did I have any particular distaste for it. The tables have a nice shading, and are pleasant to read and interpret. Little grappling is required which is perfect for the gaming table. The cartography is reasonable, being functional and clear. Personally I found the visual highlight to be the artwork. There is an off-beat consistency to the pieces which drew me into the adventure immediately. The front and back cover have an unnameable reminiscence. It's not 'old school' per se, but it begs the viewer to immerse themselves within the setting, and alludes to old tales found in dusty books. The pieces range from mysterious, weird, and terrifying. Like good RPG artwork it transports the reader to another place, and stimulates the imagination in useful ways. The artwork alone sold me on this product. I'm very picky when it comes to this, so that is high praise. Artwork is incredibly important to me in determining the feel of a product, in digesting it, and relating to it on a visceral level. SUD does this well. Any money Kutalik (and co?) spent commissioning artwork was well worth it. Because the illustrations depart from some of the artistic boringness associated with other OSR offerings I feel this product (and probably the rest of Kutalik's work) has made some important headway within the 'scene'. Like Hill Cantons it requires you to leave your notions at the door. That's important, because rather than rehashing the same old tropes, this one will leave you guessing. 

Okay, enough blabbering about artwork. You want to know about the content don't you?

Alright, alright... 

Slumbering Ursine Dunes put simply, is an "open-ended mini-sandbox adventure". When I read something that forces me to break out a dictionary (albeit online) I'm happy. This work forced me to do so on at least two occasions (that I'm willing to admit anyway). First, curious about the title, I had to look up what "ursine" means. For those interested it means "bear-like". This is suitable as one of the major features within this work is the yearly pilgrimage of "soldier-bears" within the dunes. The second word beyond my literacy was "Sisyphean" which means "endlessly laborious or futile". This word was used to describe the consistent insurmountability of mounting the dunes without the aid of magic. It's possible but takes a damn-long time. Already we get a sense of the place. The environment is harsh, and hey, there's bear-dudes. 

Kutalik's typically facetious and largely parodic prose surfaces in this work. I imagine he's the type of man who doesn't take himself too seriously. I can't decide whether I'd want to play in his games or not: on the one hand I imagine spending most of a session in varying states of laugher, whether that would be a small giggle or an outright ROFLMAO I can't be certain; or else he would be laughing at the party's attempts to adventure in his strange worlds. Comments like "the imaginatively-named Misty Isles.." or "Kůň is a greedy fuck" made me laugh. This is someone I can relate to. Whether Kutalik's intention or not, I could see myself within this narrative being the DM: "I need a name for this place...hmm...there are islands and there's a mist. I know! 'The Misty Isles'. It's slightly prosaic, but it will do".

It's funny, bordering on ridiculous, at times. Even if you never run this you'll probably laugh a few times. Discoverable items like the silver ball that induces an orgasmic sensation upon the wielder are the types of tongue-in-cheek, stupid but funny type of things you may expect within this package...

The text begins with the background and lore of the Dunes, going further to detail a few major players in the dunes. A table of rumours is provided - following the true/false dichotomy of older-era modules. A 'Wandering Critter Encounter' table follows with some usual and not-so-usual creatures. What I especially enjoy about the first part is the distinct flavour of the factions and creatures that inhabit the dunes.  

SUD uses a point-crawl system. Rather than providing a traditional hex-based map with adjoining hexes in every direction, the map provides a road map of sorts to the notable points of interest. Getting between each node may be a mini-adventure itself, though it's somewhat presumed these travels will be largely arduous. This is a logical choice for an adventure of this sort, and is probably easier to describe than a hex-based map may have been.

The dunes' locales are generally distinct and interesting. Any mention of a half-mad priestly hermit type will have me instantly interested, so it should be no surprise I was happy to read about one among the nodes. It was accompanied by one of my favourite illustrations within the book too, only rivalling the cover image for best piece. There is a strange hermit in an adventure I've personally been writing this year, so it's good to see a kindred adventure-writer. There are two points of interest particularly detailed: that of the Golden Barge and Glittering Tower. The Golden Barge has creatures called 'ghuls' aboard, some of whom attack with meat skewers and use their faeces to fuel the barge.Conversely the Glittering Tower is guarded by bear soldiers. The whole area oozes oddities and reeks of the bizarre. Centaurs charge travellers a toll, while the 'Chaos Index', aka the 'shit gets weird' table, ensures all sorts of strange events will occur within the dunes. In other words this place is unpredictable at best, and utterly deadly on a bad day. A bestiary outlines new monsters and creatures, while there are two new playable classes (for Labyrinth Lord, but obviously adaptable for OD&D, B/X, etc). The back end of the book contains pre-gens so you can whip a henchperson up in a jiffy, or use them as PCs for your lazy players. The other stuff was cool too, but I don't want to spoil the surprises it if you're planning on playing or buying this.

The Bad
I have a similar critique with Slumbering Ursine Dunes that I did with Hill Cantons: there were times where I felt somewhat external to the text. Because this work is surely based on Kutalik's own campaigns there appeared to be a level of insider knowledge I felt I was missing, but did not necessarily need. Let me be clear: the work in itself is complete and comprehensive, but at times I wished I had been part of the play tests. In a backhanded way perhaps I'm complimenting Kutalik, because his campaigns seem imaginative and like a lot of fun. But I do feel future works would benefit from an outside perspective to make it as digestible and understandable as possible. At times I became confused, especially around some of the mythologies, factions and key NPCs. This was due in part to the writing style and layout, but generally a bit of cross-referencing here and there clarified most ambiguity. In the spirit of transparency and fairness I was reading this on two occasions while very tired, so that undoubtedly contributed. 

Final Thoughts
I like Chris Kutalik's creations. Primarily they are imaginative, quirky and interesting. You truly never know what to expect; a genuine breath of fresh breath air in a sometimes stale scene. His work breaks outside of the boring fantasy tropes that have become associated with D&D. His work is important because it offers something fresh and different. It refuses to oblige with tradition or convention, and is brave enough to try something new. Please, do yourself a favour, and at least check out Hill Cantons Compendium II. While Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a very different piece for a number of reasons, the former will provide you with a sense of Kutalik's style. If it's to your liking I imagine you'll gravitate towards Slumbering Ursine Dunges. I'm looking forward to inflicting this on my players in my Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea Campaign, and if you've enjoyed what I've written, you should too.

Now I need to buy myself a damned print copy!

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