Writer: Chris Kutalik with contributions from Anne Hunter, Humza Kazmi, and Doyle Tavener
Art: David Lewis Johnson
Design: Mike Davison
Editor: Anthony Picaro, Robert Parker
Publisher: Hydra Cooperative
Length: Approx. 66pp
First Edition, First Printing 2014
Slumbering Ursine Dunes was one of the first publications by Hydra Cooperative and represents the first of four (so far) major releases by Chris Kutalik set in his Slavic-inspired acid fantasy Hill Cantons setting. It is a fairly short book, but do not let its brevity fool you – the sandbox presented is much larger than it appears at first glance, with more than enough content to keep dedicated explorers of the Hill Cantons busy for quite some time. The brilliant setting – which manages to hew a careful line between hilarious and serious – and Chris Kutalik’s clever design and authorial voice made this book a success and set the groundwork for a series of highly-regarded supplements to follow. Let’s jump in.
As is my wont, first comes art and graphic design: The cartography, cover, and interior art were all handled by a single artist, David Lewis Johnson. That’s a tall order! The cover is excellent, featuring a lovely bear with a halberd (easy points from me) in front of an incredible temple topped with sweeping peaked domes and amazing Slavic sculpture. Talk about setting a tone! Great color palette for a book about endless dunes, as well. Inside, several art pieces are memorable, moody, and downright cool. Ondrj the Wereshark on p. 6 is particularly excellent. While I tend to prefer sharper pen-and-ink artwork over the softer lines present in digital painting, Johnson’s work in this book is so thematically appropriate and well-done that I can’t help but appreciate it. The pieces in this book readily reinforce the mythic weirdness of the setting, and are great accompaniment to Chris Kutalik’s descriptions. The maps are clean and to-the-point. They’re clear and easy to run, which are first and foremost the key qualities of a map in a module.
On layout, well, Slumbering Ursine Dunes probably isn’t the world’s most innovative book. It is single-column, full-width text. It is functional at the table, but not as efficient as the spread model used by many of the best layouts nowadays. Concepts often run off a page and onto the next one. Art is placed carefully (usually full-page, or close to it, too!) throughout the book to break up the text. To the book’s credit, it is extremely readable and core concepts and important items are given boldface type to stand out to the eye, making it fast to reference at the table. There’s no page in this book where you’re straining to weed out poorly presented information or struggling to pick out a valuable detail in a wall of text. It is safe to describe the graphic design present in Slumbering Ursine Dunes as simple, basic, or maybe even perfunctory, but it is not challenging or annoying at any point, and so it is hard to dock it too many points here.
Chris Kutalik’s Hill Cantons are well-known to many in the OSR community. His blog has been a hot spot of creativity for a very long time. People took note of his setting for good reason. While most fantasy media is influenced by European stories and myths, the default setting for European fantasy is western Europe. Much revolves around the shared fantasy of a knight of the middle ages, which are staunchly couched in sanitized English, French, German, and occasionally Italian aesthetics. The classical wizard resembles Gandalf and Merlin. These basic assumptions run deep in the majority of fantasy media, and D&D is no different; it is easy to point it out in any edition of the game. Chris wrote a Euro-centric setting, too, but he wrote his from a far more easterly perspective, taking inspiration from the Slavic cultures of the central, southern, and eastern European lands often overlooked as a footnote or afterthought in fantasy. The region owes much to its location, its position as the transit and trade centerpiece of overland movement between Asia and Europe. The fantastic elements of their mythos stretch in both directions, and Chris captures and capitalizes on his rich understanding of what makes this tick. It is approachable, but foreign. It is familiar, but alien. It is no surprise, then, that it caught the attention and imagination of many gamers who had not been exposed to such an interesting setting.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes is a pointcrawl. This is a type of mapping style that does away with the strict hex grid usually found in outdoor maps and replaces it with a series of connected points of interest using abstracted paths to and from each other. Some are end nodes, others are hubs able to direct traffic to numerous other locations. Each point of interest is listed in a key much like a hex map would have. Some keyed locations are simple sites with few mechanical specifics attached; others are complex with numerous NPCs, statistics, rumors, surprises, and so on. Each is interesting – or else it wouldn’t be a point on the map at all. This cuts out a lot of cruft that older hexcrawls are known for, and ensures a density of interest that keeps the setting very exciting and immersive.
The book contains 25 points of interest and two full adventure sites, one of which is a fairly extensive dungeon. This is more than enough sandbox for many sessions of play, and the variety of the points on the map ensures that there is a great variety of play at the table. Some locations lean towards the social but carry possible mechanical ramifications depending on how the PCs interact with it – one location, for example, contains a former soldier and his mercenary sons tending to a farm and welcoming travelers very kindly; your table might chat and be on their way, but stats are provided so that a table so inclined could perhaps recruit or even fight them. Some other points are suited to the classic tenets of killing things and taking their stuff, even before the adventure site dungeons are considered. Altogether, these points and their trappings weave a wonderfully cohesive, interesting, weird locale. The Slumbering Ursine Dunes are filled with bipedal bear soldiers, the delightfully evil and alien Eld, and elements of various Slavic myths and ghost stories. The result is a place which feels utterly new and demands attention.
The big mechanic of Slumbering Ursine Dunes is the Chaos Index. While optional, it is extremely cool and great at ensuring the players are immersed in the bizarre LSD of The Weird, the strange otherworldly magical state that hangs over the dunes. It’s a fabulous mechanic that increases the weirdness as players spend time in the dunes and act on the world around them. This gives the area a feeling of being alive and active, and quite strange. Mechanically, it suits the fiction very well, and so it is really quite great. You’d be a fool to run Slumbering Ursine Dunes and forsake it!
At the back of the book a full and quite extensive bestiary is included, as well as two new classes for B/X D&D (and its clones). The classes include the Cave Dwarf and the Soldier Bear, the latter of which has been a favorite of mine since I first laid eyes on Slumbering Ursine Dunes. Beyond this, Chris also includes a batch of pregenerated hirelings to fill out the party. All of these sections, foe and friend, include lovely snippets of fiction and supporting ephemera (the soldier bear marching song!) to fill out the world of the Hill Cantons and bring the creatures to life.
And that brings me to my last point on the contents of Slumbering Ursine Dunes: the star of the Hill Cantons is Chris Kutalik’s authorial voice. He is a man of many facets behind a keyboard; his prose is rich and interesting like a Russian fairy tale or a translation of Cu Chulainn, but his technical writing is direct and succinct, never overstaying its welcome or muddying the key facts or mechanics behind superfluous words. There is a delicate balance between these two qualities in Slumbering Ursine Dunes. Additionally, Chris is gifted with a sense of humor, and so Slumbering Ursine Dunes (and, at the risk of getting ahead of myself, its sequels) never takes itself 100% seriously. Though the book is clearly serious and sincere, it has enough levity that a certain wry tone emerges that reminds me of great times at the table with friends sharing jokes only we would get. Often, reading Slumbering Ursine Dunes (and, again, the later books) feels as though you’re sharing a tiny inside joke amidst a lot of deadly serious stuff. That’s a difficult line to trace, but Chris manages to do so with what appears to be a casual ease.
Rating System Changes:
Update 20 Mar 2019: A new n/10 rating system has been instituted to more clearly express my feelings. The legacy n/5 system was always supposed to represent the top half of the n/10 system as I really only review books I really enjoyed in the first place (so they’d all be 6/10 or better) but under that n/5 system, a 1/5 is actually still a very good book, but this is not clear to casual observers. For this reason, the new n/10 system is being used going forward, and is being ported backwards to old reviews. The corrected n/10 value for this review is immediately below this update text. Following that, the original review text is unaltered. A detailed post on this subject is forthcoming.
SLUMBERING URSINE DUNES: 9/10
End New Rating; Original Rating Text Follows:
Slumbering Ursine Dunes gets four soldier possums with halberds out of five. What holds it back is the simplistic layout, which just doesn’t hold up. It’s not that the book is obnoxious to use (it’s not!), but it just isn’t as amazing as perhaps it deserves to be. In a perfect world, we’d get a Hill Cantons Box Set and this would be revisited using lessons we’ve learned about layout in the intervening years. Regardless, though, Slumbering Ursine Dunes is supremely cool, very easy to run and have a great time in, and far more interesting than most things out there. It is topped off by solid artwork and the outstanding writing of Chris Kutalik. It’s an easy, permanent fixture on my recommendation list.
The Hill Cantons series of books is terrific. This is only the first of four reviews I’ll be posting over the next little while. If you have thoughts about Slumbering Ursine Dunes, hit me with them in the comments below or over on Twitter where I can be found @dungeonspossums. I love this book and I’d love to chat about it with you!