EDITORS NOTE: Decided to give a guest writer a shot at taking care of one of the products I have had sitting in my review queue for a long while, and here it is! Thanks DM Doc 🙂
Donald “The DM Doctor” is a Paizo Season 9 Top 32 RPG Superstar. He has DM’d for over 25 years and turned to game design and writing in 2013. He is currently working on developing the Forevermore RPG system which he wishes to make available for free to all TTRPG gamers. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes reads and feels like an Old School RPG. Almost. The Old School Revival (OSR) is strong in this adventure. And so is the homebrew, DM side-notes, and phallic-jokes (in abundance). Good? Bad? Really depends on the GM and the groups’ play style.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a sandbox adventure for a party of levels 2-4 using the Old School Revival system. This adventure is complete with two full-scale dungeons, over a dozen new monsters/races, and a couple of new unique spells.
Pulling up other reviews, I see two common comments: phallic jokes and suggestion to start the PCs at a higher level.
Review and Scores
If you are not familiar with my style of reviews, here is a quick run-down.
- Cost vs Value — Cost of product versus the value of the content. (20 points)
- Art — Does the art match up to the content or product? (10 points)
- Readability — Is the product easy to read and understand? (20 points)
- Mechanics — Are the mechanics solid? Is there a needed tweak? (15 points)
- Stand-alone-ability — Excluding core game materials, how many other materials are required to used this product? (15 Points)
- Originality — How original is the spin and design of the product? (20 points)
- Overall Score — Out of 100 possible points.
- Review Notes — My comments and ramblings about the product. I will try to keep to a designer notes review because I know that everyone has different preferences in the way they choose to play their games.
Cost vs Value
Slumbering Ursine Dunes is listed as a “sandbox” OSR adventure. Sandbox adventures are almost always a good buy because there is often enough extra material for a GM to expand upon the adventure (or take elements for an entirely new adventure).
A GM will happily note the TWO full-scale dungeon areas for the party to explore. There is plenty of extra information for running encounters and side-quests outside of both dungeon areas. Outside of the dungeons, over a dozen new monsters await in the appendices along with a couple of unique spells, new races/classes, and tables for just about anything you think you would need (including pre-gen Hirelings). One good thing I can say about this module is it is packed full of resources to use with this and other adventures. Even if you choose to purchase this module strictly for the resources and not to run the adventure, you will get a great deal of content for the modest price.
20 points/ 20 points
I have mentioned how I am not a fan of digital art. So, if I do not like digital art, what do I like? Old school black/white line art. Gritty and heroic. And that is exactly the kind of art you get with Slumbering Ursine Dunes.
This adventure looks and feels (and pretty much tells you in writing) that it pays homage to the old school RPGs. And not only are you playing an adventure with OSR mechanics, but you have the artwork to back it up. I love David Lewis Johnson’s art style and artistic choices. The pieces bring to life many of the most important scenes in the adventure.
And not only is the art great, but it is well placed. I hate it when I get some really awesome artwork, but there is no context. I mean. Cool, but why is it there? Not the case here. Iconic features and memorable battles have the matching artwork for the enjoyment of GM and player alike. Everything fits so perfectly together.
10 points/ 10 points
Okay, what can I say about readability? Let’s see, there are good page references listed and you get some important notes/details in relevant areas. The book is well-organized in terms of what information is grouped together.
So what’s the problem?
Well… Before I get on my soapbox, let me just say what I am about to complain about I am very, very guilty of these same writing sins. I point them out strictly because they are present and I have found a plethora of these sins in my own writing. The erudite author dazzles with some choice words and rarely seen (at least by me) references and metaphors. Chris Kutalik’s passages exude sophistication and… Okay. Sorry. That was a big hint, but…
While reading through Slumbering Ursine Dunes, I felt like someone kept hitting the pause button. What happened was normal RPG technical writing here, a creative writing excerpt there. Fine. That’s what one expects. But then every now and then I would get a paragraph or section where I felt someone was either showboating or pulling out a thesaurus to paint over poor writing. There were references and words that I honestly had to look up and google (mind you, I don’t admit to having the greatest vocabulary). Obscure references and showy words are great in creative pieces, especially when you need just the perfect word with the right meaning and the right sound to evoke the emotion you are trying to instill in your reader. But in a technical section, a writer needs to stick to normal wording and commonplace jargon for the target audience.
At least in my opinion.
While this was only a minor setback at first, there was no real rhyme or reason to when it would happen throughout the entirety of the adventure. I was almost halfway in when I had to go back and make sure there was only one author on this piece. Now, I cannot say if this is an issue with an author trying to spice up his writing to make it more lively, or if this is two editors (causing mixed voices and writing styles) and taking what might have been a very sound and great piece and just spilling their word salad all over the pages to justify their pay. I know. I’m being harsh, but this was a constant annoyance for me while reading through this.
The second (and final) problem I found in the writing again had to do with “Creative writing” techniques (is that the right word?) in a “technical writing” portion of the adventure. There are fart/phallic jokes (spoilers, sorry). And I mean, sure, my group has those, I’ve had those in my notes for home games. Whatever. However, these glimpses of what could comedic gold meant as comic relief in an otherwise trudging battle of endurance, fall flat as DM details. So centaurs like to draw warden penises. I’m thinking as a DM, “WTF?” Rather than just tell the DM these facts, insert a descriptive box for the DM to tell the players when there is such an occurrence. No need to point it out to the DM. Just put it down on the first opportunity it should happen and then you can note to the DM to continue with this motif. Done.
Typically, mechanics for an adventure module has to do with the feasibility of events to happen. On occasion (such as with this module), there are some conflicts with the module and the system used. For Slumbering Ursine Dunes, I ran into an issue that is quite common with OSR games: lack of statistics. Anytime I do not have attribute statistics, I become an unhappy GM. I buy modules when I want less prep-work. Generally, I make a read-through, make a few notes and bookmark referenced pages for quick access. OSR modules tend to add prep work in the form of a GM finding/creating missing statistics. Because this is a common issue, I tried not to penalize this module as much as one from another system.
However, the issue did not end there. Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a trudging, endurance-based adventure. Now, this can be a great tool for GMs to raise the difficulty— WHEN used sparingly. Reading through this module a few times, I find that just starting with the first dungeon, a party with all resources already spent/allocated is going to feel as if they are part of one of the many phallic-jokes in this module. And someone forgot the lube. The party isn’t met with just one obstacle, not just two, but easily three or MORE ways to slow their progress and cost them resources before even arriving at the first location. And this is before expecting any battles of which there is an increased wandering encounter incidence (a 33% EVERY 30 minutes, and slowed movement).
Slumbering Ursine Dunes is meant for a party around level 2-4, and I would highly recommend leaning toward the 3-4 range. Start at this range ensures the party has the additional resources needed to not bring the adventure to a grinding halt while they try to find new ways to make money.
8 points/ 15 points
Being able to stand-alone without additional products is always a plus for a busy GM. Beyond the core books for a system (OSR in this case), I prefer to need just the module itself to run the adventure. Because Slumbering Ursine Dunes adds unique monsters and spells (found in the appendices), this makes it easy for a GM to prioritize their resource space. Any time I can go without opening another book, the easier it is for me to run the module.
Having unique monsters found as part of the module is normally awesome, but one thing I find as a recurring problem with OSR books is lack of statistics. While this is more of a mechanical issue, for a newer GM, not having statistics (such as attribute stats) can be a big issue. If a spell or effect raises or lowers a stat, the GM needs to quickly find a similar monster with a full stat block. This takes away precious time (in a battle sequence of all things) AND may require additional books outside of core if unable to find a close enough match.
12 Points/ 15 points
Well, I can say that I haven’t run across modules written quite like this. There are plenty of new(ish) monsters to throw at the party and some new race/class choices for PCs to try out. The main story/plot is typical for a fantastical setting, but getting a post-apocalyptic/cyborg-type monster and similar elements give it a slightly different feel in places.
Reading through this module was a bit of a turnoff for me. There was quite a lack of professionalism. I felt like I was reading a GM’s personal notes annotated in the margins of a purchased module. For some people, this may work because it makes the technical side not so dry-cut. If you find normal modules to be a snooze-fest, you may enjoy the change of pace.
18 points/20 points
What this sandbox gets right, it scores big. Sadly, where things went wrong, they went really wrong. I love the artwork and there are tons of tables, bonus materials, and other resources worth the modest price. Overall Score: 70 points/100 points
Side note Ramblings
If I had managed to find a copy at my local game store and thumbed through the pages, I am not sure what would happen. There is a lot of resources I could work with and the two-dungeon/sandbox adventure makes it a great buy. My only concern is that depending on what pages I read, I was either impressed or disgusted (mostly with the loss of professionalism). I know in saying such, I am not doing much better. Personally, if I were to run this, I would need to put in a little prep work to finish a few things to my liking. I would also remove the phallic jokes and replace them with whatever comic relief best fits the group I’m GMing. Regardless, if you enjoy Old School Revival RPGs, Slumbering Ursine Dunes has plenty to offer your group.
Image source: Cover for Slumbering Ursine Dunes.