Stuck in the Dunes

I’ve been DMing a game of Moldvay/Cook B/X Dungeons & Dragons with Robbie and Sean using the module Slumbering Ursine Dunes by Chris Kutalik.

We’re 10 sessions in: the main party has just walked into an ambush, and so the next session may prove critical in answering the question of how much longer we’ll be playing it. I thought about waiting until we had finished to write up anything about the game, but I’m at the point where I’ve found myself talking about the game a lot and so I wanted to talk about it in a more structured way.

Slumbering Ursine Dunes was one of the first modules I bought after returning from a couple-year-long hiatus from playing RPGs. I had wanted to play some Dungeons & Dragons with people from work and when I poked around for recommendations, Slumbering Ursine Dunes was a module that was frequently cited as being one of the best to come out of the OSR. However, the game with people from work kept getting pushed off (eventually we ended up playing Call of Cthulhu instead of D&D), but I had enjoyed reading the module and still wanted to run it at some point. The module presents a location – the dunes of the title – within a larger setting (“the Hill Cantons”) that is described in other modules and on the author’s blog. The dunes are an enchanted place (within a world that is already filled with lots of wondrous, magical elements) where there is now a struggle among three factions: Medved, a hedonistic but mostly benevolent Were-Bear demigod (on his way to potentially becoming a full god) and his followers; his cousin Ondrej, an evil, rapacious Were-Shark demigod and his band of pirates; and a group of extradimensional elf-type creatures called the Eld (who seem to be parodies of Michael Morcock’s Melniboneans).

The area is laid out as a “point crawl” and the module is often cited as a great example of this format. Which is to say, instead of a hex map with various interesting locations seeded over it, we just have the locations connected by paths. People seem to make a big deal about the difference, but I was skeptical in theory (and skepticism has remained in practice) that there is any substantial difference between the two ways of presenting the information. In both cases, we’re just trying to get across how characters can navigate between the different areas of interest.

There are also two dungeon areas: the Golden Barge – an interdimensional vessel of the Eld that has crashed on the shores – and the Glittering Palace – the Were-Bear’s home (parts of which have been invaded by both of the other factions). 10 sessions into the game (playing about 90-120 minutes per session), the group has explored about ⅔ of outdoor locations; half of the one of the dungeons; and they’ve only managed to pop their heads into the other dungeon. Sean and Robbie started with two PCs a piece, and they’ve each lost one so far. After losing the first PC, they returned with some retainers and henchmen, and the beefed up party has been a little more robust.

I don’t have the exact numbers with me right now, but in terms of loot they’ve probably recovered less than 1000xp worth of treasure.

Here are a couple of reflections/observations I’ve had while DMing the game:

One of the things that made reading the module compelling was that it was clear that Chris Kutalik has a very clear, idiosyncratic vision of this world. It’s partly a pastiche, with pieces pulled in from classic fantastic fiction (I mentioned already the references to Morcock – there are also nods to Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance as well) but put together in a unique way – it’s its own thing. There’s a lot of humor, too, though the motivations of the characters are grounded in real (if cartoonishly exaggerated) psychology. And there are also a number of pop culture in-jokes woven throughout, mostly in the background. It does come together, though: it doesn’t feel like a kitchen-sink setting and though it is idiosyncratic, it doesn’t have the feel of one of those Tunnels & Trolls dungeons where the jokes are right out front and foregrounded, and where each room might have a completely different theme.

Having said all that – and again noting that this was compelling to read and was inspirational in me wanting to play it – it’s taken relatively constant effort to try to do justice to the author’s voice, because it turns out that it is really different from my own. It’s clearest with the in-jokes, which I’m not able to present except to point out to Robbie and Sean that “hey, I guess this thing I just said is supposed to be a kind of joke.” It turns out that while I can appreciate Chris’ humor as a reader, I haven’t been able to internalize it in a way that allows me to bring it into play except in the most ham-handed way.

Similarly, something that has been somewhat hard to navigate is how to present both the baseline imaginative and idiosyncratic (i.e., weird) features of the overall setting (“the Hill Cantons”) and the instances of even weirder things happening within the enchanted realm of the Dunes. Presumably, Chris developed this location through his own play, and so this probably wouldn’t have been an issue for him or players in an ongoing campaign, but picking up this module and trying to play it out of context led to a fair amount of orientation in the early sessions differentiating between was weird-to-us but normal-to–PCs and what was weird-to-us and weird-to-PCs both.

Another issue: The module is written in such a way as to presume that the player characters will be adventurers of some kind, wandering into the dunes, and getting involved in some way with the different factions competing with each other. But the factions, despite being detailed in terms of their aesthetics and ethos (both of which come across clearly), are pointed at each other in a fairly straightforward way: they all want to kill each other. And, while this point is harder to articulate, the concerns of the factions are not ones that are, in my opinion, interesting on a human level (which wasn’t clear to me on reading, but became apparent when I got to the point of having to play them as characters).

For example, based on what we know about Medved the Were-bear Demigod’s personality, it doesn’t exactly follow that his main desire would be to wage war on the other factions – but that’s all he wants. As a comparison, let’s take a look at factions from another module that made an appearance. Part of the weirdness of the module is that there’s a room in one of the dungeons where there’s a portal to “someplace else” where the instructions are if the PCs go through it to put them in a room in another dungeon from another module. Two of the characters split off to go through this portal, and as a callback to an earlier game I played with Robbie and Sean, I had them go into a version of Tom Moldvay’s The Lost City (specifically Simon Carryer’s revision Pyramid of the Undying). They encounter members of one of the factions living in the Lost City (the magic-using Order of Hermes), and I had no trouble at all playing those characters and getting invested in what motivated them. As written, what Carryer gives us is pretty basic: they like magical things and want to amass magical knowledge. To the extent they are in conflict with the other factions, its in part because their pursuit of magical power and knowledge rubs up against the concerns of those other factions. But that basic thing (“these are the magic-seeking guys”) was enough to spark a clear vision of how they would react to meeting the player characters. Whereas despite much more detailed descriptions of the NPCs in Kutalik’s module, the guidance given to the DM to play them ended up being not inspiring to me as it boils down to “try to get the PCs to go attack my enemies”.

It seems like there was a lot left on the table in terms of weaving in the metaphysical weirdness of the setting into the goals and desires of the factions. But part of the problem with that is that the PCs are assumed to be outsiders, wandering into the middle of this, which means at best they’re going to end up as mercenaries allied with one side or the other. (I’m not against this kind of set-up: I used it, more or less, in the Forge: Out of Chaos game I played with Robbie and Sean, but there I at least tried to make the conflict between the different sides at least somewhat morally/ethically interesting, and also tried to keep room for some other resolution than “join one side and help them kill the other.” Rather – I approached that more in Trollbabe fashion as offering up a situation with overlapping ethical concerns.)

What seems to be missing, from the module as published at least, is the idea that probably the best way to use the material would be to have the PCs already enmeshed and aligned in some way with the factions: or at least to make sure the PCs had some kind of attitude or opinion on the metaphysical/religious elements scattered throughout the text. (We’ve kind of tried to do this with how Robbie has been playing his cleric character, but this was something we came up with and wasn’t encouraged by or even brought up as a possibility in the text). While it’s an open question about how that might play out, the default assumption is that the PCs will ally with one of the factions and try to help fight against the other two. But the PCs’ status as outsiders wandering into this means that they may end up as mercenaries, they’re not really enmeshed in what’s going on.

Anyway, those are some of my reflections on the game. The experience does lead me to believe that I think I’m better served by having: (a) material that has vivid literary or aesthetic inspirational value to me, but leaves things open for us to develop our own situations for play or (b) material that has a the framework for a situation (i.e., a dungeon and some NPCs/monsters), but leaves room open for us to develop our own aesthetic take on the game. It strikes me that the two amazing and memorable games of Lamentations of the Flame Princess that I played (with Sam and then Noah GMing) took the first approach, and the way I made use of the Khosura module from Fight On! for the Forge: Out of Chaos game I ran took the second.

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6 responses to “Stuck in the Dunes”

  1. I’m not really the bad guy

    … but I play one on TV. It's probably simply villainous to ask some of what follows.

    Why bother using a module for any of this OSR stuff you guys do at the server? I get that one or another might be desirable in a straightforward way – "I like it, I want to play it" – but at this point, I'm so crass as to say, c'mon, get off the tit already. Isn't it easier to play Game A with your own inspiration from its own features and content, as opposed to this Game A + Module B sudoku puzzle which requires so much effort to line them up and figure out some kind of compatibility of concept?

    Does anyone play B/X with entirely original locations, characters, concepts, maps, and situational uncertainties? I'm beginning to think not.

    … maybe it'd be good to finish this comment with something encouraging or more appreciative. (thinking) OK – yes, I am in fact interested in how the B/X itself is going. Are the fights exciting? I'd really like to know how the IIEE/ordering rules work for this group. Have characters leveled up? What are they like as people? 

    • We did “roll our own” when

      We did "roll our own" when playing Lamentations. I think there was some conversation about specific LotFP adventures, but in the end the situations Sam, Noah, and I came up with certainly fit the themes of the game well enough. 

      I think the fights are exciting. Hits are meaningful when 0 is death. Even losing a few hit points is a big deal, especially with characters of mixed levels. Especially with very limited magic and healing resources. 

      My three characters:

      Timo, human fighter. Timo barely qualifies as a character and I maybe should have taken advantage of the hopeless character options, but decided to play her anyway. She has no ability score over 10 except Charisma, which is an astonishing 17. When she is around I try and make good impressions with the NPC we run into. I play her as a plump, happy-go-lucky, likable simple soul, who figured it was easier to swing a sword than climb walls or read spells. Also, what even is an immortal let alone the idea of turning undead? Timo is currently just returned with one Robbie's characters from being on a magical, mystery tour.

      Narris, a standard haughty elf. I had not gotten much of a feel for Narris before he bit the dust fighting some skeletons (Newhon Ghouls). 

      Jaella, a standard haughty elf just with better stats than Narris. Jaella also does not have quite the personality yet that Timo does. Currently Jaella is with the main group and things are looking rough. 

    • Why use the modules? Apart

      Why use the modules? Apart from the straightforward answer, there's an extra element of detachment between me as a GM and someone else's module vs. my as a GM with my own material that opens up the possibility that I'll be suprised in a way that I wouldn't where I've both come up with the opposition and am playing the opposition. It also generally hasn't been a problem with what I've used in the past (multiple good experiences running The Darkness Beneath from Fight On! with B/X), and I do think the issue (for me at least) is that many of these mid-period OSR modules (especially the highly-regarded ones by people participating in various OSR-discussion spaces) are overly determined. The modules are close to being complete works from a literary/aesthetic perspective to begin with, and so playing them starts to feel almost superfluous.

      In your private comment to me, you made the apt comparison between these kinds of OSR modules and the material TSR was putting out for AD&D 2nd Edition. I think that's a great observation: a lot of these modules read to me like literary adaptations of the author's home campaigns, rather than inspirational material for someone else to pick up and play with. That's very much in line with AD&D 2e module writing, even if the OSR-versions are nominally more open-ended. The open-endedness is somewhat of a put-on: they're very closed-in as far as many of the creative choices go. 

      Regarding contemporary B/X play culture generally, I think playing modules is a huge part of it (at least as far as I can tell from internet discussions — that may be coloring my impression, though). There's a lot of discussion on which modules are best and emphasis put on trying to "do" all the big ones. 

      Moving on to the more encouraging questions…

      I think the fights have been pretty exciting. We have been doing a couple of things that have brought this out: (1) while we aren't using battlemaps, we are paying pretty close attention to the specifics of where everyone is relative to each other; (2) based on that positioning, we have a better sense of what happens on a failed roll to hit. Which is to say, it's rarely a case of the combatants standing still taking swipes at each other like they're taking turns hitting a pinata; rather a failed roll usually means that some kind of jockeying for position happened that changes the status quo and successful rolls are often opportunities to shore up your side's positioning. Plus, even at third level, with a certain amount of HP cushioning, PCs still can't just wade in and expect to trade blows with equally matched foes without putting themselves at severe risk.

      We've been using the ordering rules from the text as written, which is a simplification of the rules presented in Holmes. While being functional, I think they're not especially good or interesting: they are straightforward one side goes and then the other, without much else to add any dynamism to the ordering of actions. (Notably, Old School Essentials, which purports to be a faithful restatement of B/X does not follow these ordering rules and instead makes a very meaningful change that opens up the possibility of dynamic ordering).

      Finally, the characters have not leveled up: they all started around 3rd level, so that accounts for some of it, but also they haven't really found much treasure. They've been run out of the location holding the most treasure twice so far, with nothing to show for it but a bunch of dead PCs and henchmen.

      One last thing…

      The day after I wrote the original post, we played our next session, which started with the party being ambushed by the Eld. It turned into a great session, in part because after they ran away from the Eld, I kept rolling 1's on the wandering monster check, and all of a sudden they were acting under a lot of pressure. There was a great opportunity when they encountered some mountain lions, and Robbie's character used his ring of animal control to send the mountain lions back towards the Eld that they had been running from. They then tried to penetrate the Golden Barge again, but again ran into the ghuls guarding it: more characters were slain and once again they were on the retreat. It was exciting to watch them try to keep pushing their luck, though!

      The lesson I took away from this was that B/X works best when the basic dynamics of the delve are put front and center, and starts to falter (for me at least) when I'm trying to use it as a framework to present someone else's literary/aesthetic ideas.

    • ” (Notably, Old School

      " (Notably, Old School Essentials, which purports to be a faithful restatement of B/X does not follow these ordering rules and instead makes a very meaningful change that opens up the possibility of dynamic ordering)."

      Interesting. I thought that OSE was BX/Moldvay 1:1, with no changes watsoever.

    • Interesting. I thought that

      Interesting. I thought that OSE was BX/Moldvay 1:1, with no changes watsoever.

      @Pedro, my impression / opinion on OSE is similar to the one I had with Blueholme: yes, the new version of these systems is 98% like the old, but what they mostly are is cleaned up and with some changes thrown in. On the plus side, in both OSE and Blueholme I think it clears up some of the language around Initiative. But also like Blueholme, OSE takes some of the art and texture out of the rules presentation that I think draws us to Holmes/Moldvay, and to a lesser or different extent, Mentzer's version of these rules. 

      I think there might be some subtle changes in other places as well. 

      The difference between Holmes and Moldvay are greater than folks think. Its not just mere presentation, but real change. They are different games. The step to Mentzer is one of style, but also the scope of situations. Even though the rules are the same (I am almost 100% sure they are), they are still different games. 

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