[Review] Slumbering Ursine Dunes; Incomprehensible Vancian brilliance

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.


17 thoughts on “[Review] Slumbering Ursine Dunes; Incomprehensible Vancian brilliance

  1. That shit in Cologne should result in mass deportations, preferably prefaced by a beating administered by a lady hammer thrower. As a New Yorker, I am fully committed to the idea of multiculturalism, but it only works when there’s buy in from people immigrating. These Maghreb marauders need to be shown the door because they don’t respect the rights of others to be free from harassment and assault. Funny, they don’t pull this shit in the ‘States, probably because they know they’d get their asses handed to them, or shot off. I’m still a major lefty, and the problem is a hidebound religious fundamentalism that oppresses women… I swear that if this trend happens in the U.S., I’ll build a throne for Anita Sarkeesian out of the skulls of sexual criminals.

    Now, onto the review. SUD is an interesting setting, especially the whole ‘weird effects’ table, never before have I seen a setting in which player agency is so important. Even the powerful NPCs are nerfed in some way, no DMPC Elminsters here. I also love the crashed Zardoz head housing the hermit. The Moorcockian elfses were in part inspired by JMal’s evil space elves, so there’s one positive thing that Jimmy the Scam bequeathed to the hobby.

    The best thing about this product is how the ‘weirdness’ seems effortless, there’s no forced ‘hey, aren’t I the clever gozo DM?’ tomfoolery to it. It’s as sincere as it is bizarre.


    1. [Immigration]

      It should, but it won’t, and sadly for leftists (that is to say, sane, liberal leftists forced to share a label with progressive troglodytes) it is leftists (mostly the batty hyper-progressive kind) that are responsible for the abhorrent response or the lack thereof to this Taharrush, a cultural phenomenon that is well-documented in the Middle East. The categorical fundemental denial of the problem, the covering up of immigrant crime statistics (by fucking police or at the very least impostors that wear the uniforms of the police) and the down-right treasonous voices that seek to blame either the victims or paint justifiably concerned anti-migrantion voices as racist right-wing extremists that are supossedly the real problem.

      So too, I have yet to see many feminist/SJW outlets react with outrage at our rapefugee friends. After all, these people are not white and therefore they are opressed etc. etc. The conditioning of the 70s is so strong many are simply running on outdated heuristics and seem categorically unable to change their outdated viewpoints, probably as a result of the echo-chambers they reside in. In Europe the tide is starting to turn (and will probably overshoot to the right, hopefully not massively) but reading some of the progressivist shit coming out of Sweden is enough to make me physically ill.
      I’d add Sarkeesians skull to your throne of skulls, along with Merkel. Ugh.

      It’s a product of rare genius and subtlety, well-worth the praise. Apparently the author mentioned my review on his google + (hence delicious traffic spike) but sadly I cannot access it. It’s bizarre how a single adventure can have so many good things thrown in. Its a veritable fountain of good game design. Its great.


      1. I’d add Sarkeesians skull to your throne of skulls, along with Merkel.

        Don’t talk about my flannel goddess like that!


      2. Well it was a hella amusing review (and I’ve been lurking on your reviews for a while). The G+ meta-commentary was pretty amusing in its own right. You know though, I am still in that phase where I can’t look at SUD with any kind of objectivity. I just see all the things I got lazy on and didn’t do (or just said fuck it). Anywho thanks for the fair shake.


      3. [The honourable Chris Kutalik Speaks]

        Thank YOU for making a great adventure, and I’m glad you enjoyed the review. Evaluating your own shit is always hard, its why i started this blog. And welcome to Age of Dusk.


  2. Just out of curiosity, have you ever read any of Karl Edward Wagner’s ‘Kane’ books? They are sword-and-sorcery set on a planet littered with the remnants of alien spacecraft, the sort of stories in which the antihero wields a sword forged out of spaceship hull metal, or channels energy bolts from a sentient alien monolith to zap his foes. The only problem is the the title character really comes across as a terrible Mary Sue/Gary Stu.


    1. I have not, but I have heard of them and heard they were pretty cool. The only problem is that I’ve never seen a bookstore that carried Wagner’s work, and that includes the myriad dingy second hand bookstores I prowl relentlessly in search of bargains to line my tomb with.


      1. Even grotty cheeto-and jizz-stained paperbacks command a ridiculous price these days. It’s a pity that the crushing commercial rents in NYC have driven the dingy second hand bookstores into extinction here.


      2. [Marketfagging]
        Fortunately in Holland a few markets and stores are still doggedly sticking dirty fingers in the second hand book market, and a few of the larger chains tend to indulge in a bit of 2nd hand book trading every now and then, but i recognize the problem with the fucking prices. I had a bit of a culture shock when I visited Britain and discovered how cheap second hand books are there. In Holland you are generally lucky if you can buy them at 50% of the original (monstrously inflated) price, but maybe the price goes up as a result of diminishing book sales overall as it competes with the ebook market. Fuck if i know. I know the English Bookstore manages to offer 1st hand books with nary a cumstain in sight for outrageously cheap prices and I shall ask the forty-something overweight cashier if she is willing to part with their trade secrets in exchange for a little something something.

        I am tragically unfamiliar with the concept of a Byronic hero but when you say Nietzschean epoch, do you refer to a story wherein the protagonist comes from a set of values, destroys those values, and then reinvents himself and creates newer, stronger values in their place? Or is it any adventure involving the escapades of a syphilitic german philosopher-protagonist?


    2. I second reading the Kane novels and short stories. There is definitely more than a whiff of Nietszchean (or is it Byronic?) wish fulfillment but they have some great turns.


  3. This was quite good. i wouldn’t call it 9.5/10 good, but pehaps a 9 [and it cost $9.00, so perhaps that’s a way to price authors’ works.] Reminds me of Matt Finch’s older work, but with more ebullient tone and creative ideas.

    Although varied and quite interesting, the dune region is a bit small (which can be a feature, as it may be unobtrusively added to most campaigns.) Also, most of the big bads are clustered in Medved’s tower; not quite logical.

    Overall, it has a good mixture of monsters and creatures to interact with, but altogether too many centaurs and Eld. Those encounters would probably get a bit stale.

    Although it can be ignored easily enough, and is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, the background isn’t inspiring and is the weakest part of the work.


    1. [9.5]

      I allow myself some leeway for personal bias. I am a huge fan of Jack Vance’s the Dying Earth and anything that manages to evoke his work and even style, something which I have seldom seem, is meritorious in and of itself to me. I haven’t checked out Matt Finch (for shame).


      Better a small but pitch-perfect region then something that has about 20 times more encounters then creative drive is what I always say. There is something to be said for the Eld and Ondrej being in the same region as Medved but I don’t think it would break immersion.


      I don’t mind repetition in adversaries as long as the adversaries are provided with different reactions, identifying features, personalties, tacitcs or are otherwise doing something in service of gameplay, versimilitude and so on. It’s kind of a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don’t situation. You want varied encounters but you also want to avoid having to grab a ouija board and opening the monster manual at the appropriate letter.


      I agree, it serves little purpose beyond setting the “tone” of the place, but as you said, it’s a page of fluff that can be easily ignored.


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