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.