Slumering Ursine Dunes (2014)
Chris Kutalik (Hydra Cooperative)
Levels 2 – 4
As the first month passes of what promises to be a very exciting year for Europe, if you consider mass deportation, complete and total breakdown of social order and mass rioting and violence to be particularly exciting, it is important, now, more then ever, that we ignore those niggling feelings of uncertainty, submit to the EU Moloch and drink the
KooilAid sweet sweet nectar of multiculturalism and diversity, learn to live with constant migrant aggression and a diet of shoarma and halal frikandels, download a sharia-friendly Tinder app and focus instead on the only fucking place that those wacky cultural marxists cannot reach. You guessed it my main man. Elfgames.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes by the enigmatic Chris Kutalik is really fucking weird and I love it to bits. It describes a mini-sandbox 25-point area centered around the titular Ursine Dunes and provides 2 dungeons and many wacky NPCs to explore and interact with, provided you are not so terrible a GM that your players drop out before they hit character level 2-4. It is based on an unidentifiable hodgepodge of slavic influences and 50s sci-fi and it is very strange. Veeeeeery Strange. Also it is for Labyrinth Lord so if you were planning on running it for OSRIC you can FUCK OFF AND KILL YOURSELF.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes is based on a home campaign and if it were not for the OSR it is unlikely it would have seen the light of day, for which we can bow down to St. Gaxyg the Gray and sing a full-hearted hallelujah. The layout is damn fine and the art is very good for an amateur product, nice and evocative. Important design decision; objects of paramount importance in a room are bolded so you can immediately see what is the most relevant feature, thereby improving your cross-referencing capabilities by 33%.
The Slumbering Ursine Dunes are a WEIRD bunch of giant (100-150m or 300-450 feet for luddite barbarians that cling to antiquated systems of measurement) dunes periodically invaded by antropomorphic bear-soldiers, ruled over by petty god and all-round weirdo Medved and suffering from extraplanar invasion by the bizarre Eld (think elves crossed with 30s androids/David Bowie) and the depredations of the were-shark pirate king Ondrj. It is rooted in nonsensical creation myths that are as baffling as the rest of the thing, stopping just short of outright farce into a sort of half faerie-tale-from-some-weird-tribe-of-cave-dwelling-inbred-eastern-european-folk-you-have-never-heard-off half adolescent shitposting.
SLU begins by introducing the dunes and then immediately lays out the most important NPCs, their goals, how they interact with the players and their relationships with other NPCs. This is very well done and Kutalik provides excellent guidelines on how to roleplay the factions. In keeping with the theme, everyone acts really fucking strange. Think not the occasionally humorous ironic detachment ah la Smith’s RaPl, think more along the lines of Monty Python or the works of Jack Vance at his silliest. The Old inkeeper acts like grandpa simpson, Medved mainly trades extremely outdated gossip and vaguely homoerotic inqueries, Oldrich the mad hermit communicates solely in ridiculous religious rants (e.g “It is better to suffer the eye of a rich man’s horned camel than let heresy eat halushky [a traditional dumpling dish] another morn.”) and the Eld talk like Emperor Ming (or perhaps Chaotica from Star Trek Voyager).
What comes after the setup? A rumor table! Possibly the best rumor table I have ever seen. In ye olden Days of Dungeon Magazine and the B-series rumors tended to be either true or false but in Slumbering Ursine Dunes they run the whole gamut from entirely nonsense to somewhat true, true but with a single detail being false, mostly false with a hint of truth, true but useless and pedantic etc. etc. They feel like rumors, albeit absurd rumors given to you by a mad inkeep (perhaps not overly surprising, that is exactly what they are). The Wandering Monster table is kind of dull on its own but the previously or subsequently provided hints for roleplaying some of the monsters (Ghuls, Eld, Centaur Toll Collectors) should keep things sufficiently fresh for the course of the adventure. Speaking of which, on to the adventure proper.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes is what is known as a Point-crawl, that is to say, a series of hubs connected to each other via a fixed number of paths, the rationale being that actually crossing 350 foot dunes is going to take very fucking long, an appropriate invocation of natural barriers to rationalize the design. I like it.
The proof in the pudding is found in the adventure locations themselves. They are diverse and there are enough so every hub feels interesting and different. One or two sentences of evocative description lend each hub a distinctive, atmospheric feel. A strange, mythical fairyland of giant dunes, purple forests, grues, giant sloth-balors and an astonishing variety of phallic treasures. Some of the locations really feel magical and otherworldly. My point is that Chris knows that less is more.
The trail broadens out and cuts through a 50-foot-long ironwood grove to a central four-way intersection. Fine delicate human bones are tied with silk ribbons on a tree just off the intersection.
This section has nothing else, but that tiny detail adds atmosphere, something that is prevalent throughout almost each encounter in Slumbering Ursine Dunes.
The encounters with Npcs are terrific, striking a balance between whimsy, farce and horror. Most of them interact with the party, allowing room for some role-playing alongside the usual hacking and the stabbing and thereby adding to the overall fairy-taley feel of the place. All the treasure tends to be unique and interesting, ignoring the 500 gp worth of gems bullshit that robs Players of the joy of victory and turns roleplaying games into a bookkeeping or video game. No one cares about 250 gp worth of gold. But I Will care if I find a tea set made of depleted uranium! That’s exciting. In fact by merely reading this shit I am reminded somewhat of my laziness in describing mundane treasure when I run Carcosa. Usually I get it right, but sometimes I get lazy. Everything in Slumbering Ursine Dunes is dripping with atmosphere, albeit it very strange atmosphere for weirdos.
Within the mini sandbox there are two dungeons to explore. One is the Golden Barge, held by the Eld and reminiscent of the great barges of the Melnibonéans from Moorcock’s Elric, at least outwardly. The inside is an unnerving mix between a medieval palace and an alien hive, complete with organic components that can be destroyed (which has an actual effect on the dungeon proper).
On par with the rest of the adventure so far, it is both strange, atmospheric and very well designed. Furniture composed of shellacked human peasantry, the incomprehensible antics of the Barge’s blister-grown Ghul guardians, a two headed giant vulture with tumor-chest-tentacles, unique treasures, secret doors and nonlinear exploration and of course, a possibility to take control of the barge and use its weapons to turn it into a basecamp. Very nice, and done with an effortless humility and brevity that is kind of marvelous. Even single encounters are pulled off with a flair that I have rarely seen. A four armed white ape at the top of the stairs throws barrels to any not particularly silent intruders. FUCKING. AWESOME. I have nothing bad to say about this.
The second adventure is the Glittering tower, the sanctum of Slumbering Ursine Dune’s demigod ruler (and his gender-ambivalent werebear lover whaaaat?). Unfortunately for ole’ Medved the glyphs in the tower prevent him from ousting the inhabitants of the dungeons and upper towers, which happen to take the form of Eld invaders and Wereshark pirates. Sounds like a job for our noble heroes! Even the ground floor may be looted with a humorous chance of attracting an annoyed Medved on a 1 in 6! Awesome and great that the heroes have a chance to steal shit. Of course they will try. Once again, there is tonnes of stuff to interact with, loot, explore and murder. Even if the only adversaries are simple Eld Soldiers, something is usually included in the room, some action or tactic is described, or some twist is added to make it all feel exciting and memorable. Flashes of brilliance (Continual Darkness masked pit containing zombie mastodon) permeate this dungeon as they do the prior ones.
If you are getting tired of bog standard DnD and you are in search of something that feels both entirely fresh yet undeniably like DnD, this is it. You have reached Nirvana. This is the best OSR/DnD adventure I have seen in a long time, possibly evar and I vow to join the cult of the rainbow hair if you ever hear me utter those very same words ever again (and to make things interesting I am checking out Deep Carbon Observatory soon).
The first 40 pages are already more then enough to justify a purchase but we are not done yet. Kutalik adds a Weird table replete with strange environmental effects that either decrease or increase based on factional infighting and the actions of the players. Events escalate from minor supernatural weather effects to events like assaults upon hamlets or planar incursions. Why is this adventure not famous yet? This thing is great.
The monster section is sparse but diverting, offering a host of original takes on old tropes as well as a take on the Vancian monstrosities I had already detected a whiff of. Pelgranes and Grues and cybernetic beetles and bear soldiers and all manner of strange spirits. I love it. Some entries are even provided with their own little paragraphs of mythical origins, each equally whimsical and silly and delivered with a droll flair that I have not seen elsewhere.
It is said that Kostej the Deathless himself had a hand in the base sorcery that first revivificated the lifeless corpses of the wooly elephantine pack animals so very much beloved by the northern rump-states of the Hyperboreans in the long glacial age that ended their civilization.
The spell section is so obviously Vancian you can almost taste it. Summon and Bind Minor Sandestin and Kazimir’s Resplendent Couture. The game ends with a few optional classes, suitable for henchman or new Pc´s, provide delight and wonder. The cave dwarf class left me sort of lukewarm, but the opportunity to play a Warbear should titillate and excite in equal measure. That is correct, Slumbering Ursine Dunes lets you play as a fucking BEAR SOLDIER. Important detail; War bears get +1 with polearms but if they are ever seperated from their weapon “sickens with dejection and beyond a constant audible and dramatic sighing also loses 3 points of Wisdom until he or she grasps it again.” At 6th level he may invent his own polearm that gives a +2 to hit and damage but only for him.
We end with a war bear marching song and two tables of random henchmen, each beautifully fleshed out in but a single sentence.
Mohac the Wanderer, Hp: 3, studded leather (AC: 7), quarterstaff, elaborate great helm. Has never left town.
I am sold. Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a masterpiece of whimsical weird fantasy DnD and a triumph of both the OSR and the human race. Ole Gygax would nod approvingly and then lose TSR to the Williamses. A joy to read and a probable delight to run. Great job on this one.
Final Verdict: 9.5 out of 10.