22 March 2021

First Impressions - Through Sunken Lands and Other Adventures RPG

Through Sunken Lands RPG
Through Sunken Lands and Other Adventures - Sword & Sorcery gaming

Through Sunken Lands was quietly released by Flatland Games at the end of 2020, and instantly caught my attention, because this was a development of the game methodology and system presented in Beyond the Wall. This is an evolution of D&D designed for one-shot use; players create characters using playbooks and the GM uses a scenario pack to create a game for a session, drawing upon the background that the players create to create hooks and interrelationships.

TL;DR: I really like Through Sunken Lands, but that's hardly surprising with my background of running Stormbringer. The game itself is a light version of D&D with a unique magic system. The playbooks and scenario pack bring a unique style to the game, ideally for one-shot or episodic games. Jundarr and the Sunken Lands are presented in a broad-brush approach with leaves you wanting to fill the spaces and explore. As I read through the game I wanted to dive in and set up a game, and I was torn between exploring the Hundred Seas and the Great City. This is one I hope to get to the table.

Beyond the Wall focused upon young adults coming of age and exploring the land around their homes. Through Sunken Lands embraces the swords and sorcery genre, particularly in the style of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion, Fritz Leiber's Fafhd & the Grey Mouser, and Robert E Howard's Conan.

The game is presented as a 212-page colour hardback book printed by DriveThruRPG using Lightning Source. The layout is a very clean two-column approach using blue as an accent colour. There are colour plates for the chapters and the line art is printed in a shade of blue. Although a similar approach has been taken to Beyond the Wall, it feels different in tone. The cover shows a battle between a sorcerer and a weird tentacled creature in a ruined city. It doesn't quite work for me, but it does nail the genre well.

The book is broken into six sections; 

  1. the core rules
  2. how-to-play
  3. spells and magic
  4. bestiary
  5. Jundarr & the Sunken Lands
  6. playbooks and scenario packs
The book opens with a short introduction that encapsulates the genre that it is seeking to emulate in a number of key principles.

  • The world feels young (there are civilised lands but much of the world is unexplored and unknown)
  • The world is old (numerous civilisations have risen and fallen, leaving ruins and artefacts behind)
  • The spaces beyond (the world exists as just one in a multiverse and is not significant)
  • Law and Chaos (these two forces are locked in an eternal struggle across the multiverse)
  • Magic is rare and dangerous (and probably corrupting)
  • Fortune and adventure (characters are restless and hungry for more)

The core rules are based on those in Beyond the Wall, and sidebars throughout the book suggest where the material from that game could be used to expand what is presented. The game is classic D&D inspired with classes, levels and hit-points. There are three character classes; warriors (the best at fighting), mages (magic wielders) and rogues (skilful and lucky). Multi-class options are given. 

Characters

Warriors have the largest hit dice, can wear any armour, have a weapon that they're specialised in and game knacks (effectively feats) as they increase in level. The knacks reflect the fighting style and training of the warrior and slightly amend combat-related bonuses. They can be stacked.

Rogues have a base d8 hit dice, higher initiative and can wear any armour lighter than plate. They have extra fortune points (more on those later). They get double the number of skills at first level (four) and gain or improve skills at every odd-numbered level.

Mages have the lowest hit dice, using d6, the lowest initiative and cannot wear armour. However, they can cast cantrips, spells and rituals. They can also sense magic if they concentrate. The game doesn't impose limits on the number of spell or ritual slots known.

Characters can be rolled up traditionally, or use a playbook.

The usual six abilities are used. If you don't use the playbook route to create characters, you roll 4d6 six times -  ignoring the lowest die roll in each case - and assign as you prefer. Each character starts with two skills, which are very like non-weapon proficiencies in older D&D games. Most skill or situational checks will be resolved by rolling under a characteristic (which is typically boosted by +2 if you have a relevant skill).

There is an option for character traits; typically something that sets the character out distinctly unique. These can relate to class, be more general, or be supernatural and alignment influenced. The game doesn't recommend using these for playbook generated characters as it will slow the game start but then gives a pair of suggested traits to choose from for each of the eight playbooks.

Not unexpectedly, the only choices for alignment are Law, Chaos or Neutrality. There is a route for characters to become committed to one of the primal forces. This would usually be after some kind of contact with an agent of one of the powers; a demon, an angel or a god of some sort. Becoming a champion locks you into the eternal power struggle; there's no easy way out once you become a plaything of the primal forces. Your allegiance does give you bonuses but expects commitment in return.

Rules are also presented for Hirelings and Allies. Hirelings are unlevelled and usually bring a specific skill, whereas Allies are NPC adventurers.

Initiative is based on level, Dexterity and a class bonus. Each class has a base attack bonus (think proficiency bonus in D&D 5e) which rises with level. Ranged attacks are modified by Dex, melee by Strength. Armour class is ascending from 10, modified by armour and the Dex bonus. You get the full hit points for your class at first level and then roll thereafter.

Saving throws are used rather than ability-based rolls. The standard set up is to have saving throws for poison, breath weapons, polymorph, spells and magic items. There is an optional rule to simplify this down to three saving throw types; fortitude, wits and reflex. Each class is stronger in one of these areas. My gut feel is that I'd prefer to use the optional rules, as the old school saves feel so alien to me these days.

Ability Score checks are a simple d20 roll under or equal to, modified by skill and situation. Characters can help if they have an appropriate skill (or by spending a fortune point). Contested rolls are made the same, with the lowest successful roll winning. If both parties fail, the contest is undecided. If the whole group is making a check, the character with the weakest ability makes the roll (but the others can help them using skills or fortune points). Active perception checks are made using Intelligence, whereas passive checks use Wisdom.

Saving rolls require you to roll equal to or above the target number. The targets for these saves start quite high, so I imagine that this is one of those mechanics that will encourage the use of Fortune Points. Fortune points allow a character to get a second chance and to reroll any failed check by spending a point. They also all you to help a friend when you don't have an appropriate skill for the task at hand. Finally, they allow you to cheat death, stabilising a character for 24 hours at 0 hit points.

Fortune points are regained between adventures; there's no mechanic for the GM to use them as Bennies or to recognise good roleplaying. I suspect I would house rule that in play if I was in campaign mode rather than a one-shot. 

Combat

Combat is carried out initiative order, and as mentioned before, your initiative score is fixed. You get a simple roll to hit, adjusted by your attack bonus, attribute and any modifiers, against the target's armour class. A roll of 20 is always a hit. A roll of 1 is always a failure. Damage is rolled normally - there is no critical rule - and it is based upon weapon rather than class. If you take a hit that drops you to zero hit points or below then you will start to bleed out, 1 hit point per round, until you hit -10 and you are dead. You can be stabilised by another person, or gain respite using a fortune point as mentioned earlier. Recovery is slow, at a rate of a single point per night; at a push, with bed rest and a healer in attendance, you can triple that. 

Mass Battles

Very much in line with the genre, there are mass battle rules. No, wait! Like you, I usually glaze over with this kind of mechanic, but these are both incredibly simple, give the characters real agency and evoke the right feel. There are three phases to a battle - preparation, the battle itself and the aftermath. If the battle isn't a surprise, each player may roleplay a short vignette to show how they are preparing their forces for the fight ahead. These are then resolved with skill rolls, the results of which will affect the 'Tide of Battle' modifier for the next stage. This is further modified by the forces which are available and the lay of the land (for example, are you behind fortifications, do you have the high ground). Once both sides have summed their modifiers, the NPC army value is taken from the player's to get the final modifier for their roll. There are notes on how to deal with battles with more than two sides. 

Once the battle commences, the general on each side makes a single roll based on appropriate mental characteristics and skills, plus the tide of battle modifier. After rolling, but before the result is resolved, each player may opt to take part in another vignette during the battle itself. This could be combat with an enemy champion, inspiring the troops or another action to affect the battle result. If the GM is happy that it's a success, then you'll get an extra +2 from each successful vignette, or a -2 (plus whatever consequences you suffered such as damage) for each failure. Each side takes its results and compares it to the Battle Roll table, gaining a number of successes, failures or both. The side with the most successes goes first and the impact is picked from a list of options. Thus the outcome is determined; finally, checks are made for key NPCs to see if they survived the battle, wrapping up the aftermath. I really like the way that they've done this; it feels appropriate to the genre. Characters can make a difference and help overturn odds that seem stacked against them. It's simple to use and effective.

Travel & True Names

There's a page on travel, which gives three options. Fast travel means you get there, and the travel itself is not that significant overall. The detailed travel option suggests using the hexploration mechanics from Further Afield. The option I like most is the montage; the captain or the navigator makes a skill check, and depending upon the length of the journey, you may encounter monsters, bad weather, rivals, the supernatural or hazards from the geography itself. Each will need to be overcome.

True names give you power over a creature; there are rules on how to use these in your game should you want to add them. They can give power over spirits and demons; humans whose true name has been determined can also be affected. They're a great idea to use for a quest; find the true name of the dangerous opponent that you face, and you can put them at a significant disadvantage.

Progression

Character development is through experience points, which cause you to gain levels. Monsters provide experience points (although you get it for defeating them, not for killing them). You also gain experience points from finishing stories and achieving goals. You can also gain experience by burning through your cash for no real material benefit. If you decide to go drinking, gambling and misbehaving across the Great City with the proceeds of your score, then you'll gain experience. If you turn the cash into something useful, then you get to have the useful thing instead. This keeps the characters hungry for more successes and gives them a reason to continue to adventure. It's also very genre-appropriate.

Magic

Magic falls into three areas; cantrips, spells and rituals. Cantrips are often the first magic that a mage learns but their nature means that a mage is unlikely to learn many of them. They are lower-powered and are cast by making an INT or WIS ability score check. A failure will either mean that the mage's magical energy is exhausted and they cannot cast any form of magic and any existing spells or rituals fail; it will take them a good night's sleep to recover. Alternatively, the player can choose to have the spell miscast. The GM then gets to decide how the magic has gone horribly wrong. Cantrips have the advantage that they can be cast at will until magically energy runs out.

Spells are powerful, codified magics learned by rote or from books. They are safer than cantrips and rituals, and much more reliable. A mage may cast as many spells as their level each day. Running out of these spell slots doesn't affect their ability to cast cantrips or rituals. These spells are very much like the traditional magic spells in D&D but they don't have a level; any spell can be accessed by any mage if they learn it.

Rituals are the most powerful sorceries; these are level limited. If you aren't high enough level you cannot successfully invoke a ritual. Each level of ritual mean takes an hour, and the correct trappings must be present. The mage must not be distracted during the ritual or things will most likely go horribly wrong. If everything is done right, the mage must succeed with the appropriate ability check. If they fail, the ritual will go wrong in a way determined by the GM. You can perform a ritual you haven't learned, but it puts you at significant risk of failing the spell. Rituals - although also present in Beyond the Wall - feel very genre-appropriate for the game. Elric of Melnibone cast them, and they're often things that heroes try to prevent going ahead. 

There's the expected large section of individual Cantrips, Spells and Rituals to chose from. This rounds out with a good selection of magic items, artifacts and ships, all of which support the flavour of the game.

Options

The section rounds out with a selection of optional rules. They start by offering a simplified set of saving throws (Fortitude, Reflex and Will). I prefer this approach to the standard B/X inspired saves. Each class has one good saving throw and two poor saves. I think that this is one I'd ask my players if they prefer to use.

There's an alternative way for making ability checks so they look for high rolls (like combat and saving throws). This does reduce the impact of the ability because modifier levels are grouped together so someone with an ability of 10 is no different to someone with a score of 12. 

There are a number of combat options about controlling space, fighting with two weapons, and stances. The latter is very like The One Ring; you can chose between normal, aggressive, defensive, protective and commanding stances. The aggressive and defensive stances affect your AC and to hit numbers. Protective stances mean you forfeit your attack, your AC improves and you can take a hit for someone you're protecting. The commanding stance makes you vulnerable (and probably a target) but if you succeed at a CHA check you can inspire your colleagues. Normal stance is the rules as written. On reflection, I would probably use all these.

The section round outs with some simple extras for using fortune points and then guidance on multi-classing. There are three playbooks that are multi-classed - giving warrior-rogues, rogue-mages and warrior-mages. The final example is the Eldritch Sorceror King; this introduces the concept of the Eldritch, very much like the races that Corum or Elric came from. They are the only non-human characters available.

Playbooks

One of the delightful elements of Through Sunken Lands is that it is built for one-shot improvised games. It does this through the use of playbooks to create characters, and then a scenario pack for the session.

There are nine playbooks, and I'm sure that you can see the inspirations as you read the headings.

  1. The Accomplished Sellsword (Warrior)
  2. The Barbaric Conqueror (Warrior)
  3. The Cosmic Champion (Warrior)
  4. The Eldritch Sorceror King (Warrior-Mage)
  5. The High Cabalist (Mage)
  6. The Licensed Rogue (Rogue)
  7. The Pirate Captain (Warrior-Rogue)
  8. The Spell Thief (Rogue-Mage)
  9. The Temple Keeper (Mage)
The playbooks have a set of tables that you work through rolling through to create your character. These usually start by detailing your childhood - both your family and how you distinguished yourself. They then move onto your career; the skills you have, events that you've been involved with, and contacts. There's then an adventure that ties you to another player, and an item that means something to you. The playbook rounds out with quick rules summaries and how to fill in the character sheet.

The concept is that you all sit around the table and fill these in together, creating an instantly linked party with backgrounds, contacts, enemies and shared experience. The GM takes the output from this and uses it to link into the scenario pack (more later).

Guidance

The book does a good job of explaining what the players and GM do during the creation stage. The Scenario Packs are designed to riff on the character backgrounds and build an outline for the game session. There is some guidance in using playbooks from Beyond the Wall with Through Sunken Lands and vice-versa. The two games do have tonal differences, but it should be quite possible.

The game comes with two maps; Jundarr, the Great City, and the Sunken Lands themselves. As the players work through the playbooks, they get to add locations and NPCs onto the maps, and also decide their favourite haunt. This creates a city that feels like somewhere that Fafhd and the Grey Mouser would happily visit.

The GM section rounds out with guidance on the style of the game and the difference in tone from normal D&D. The game will happily support a campaign, but could just as easily have episodes like those seen in the source fiction.

Bestiary

The Bestiary section firmly nails its colours to the Sword and Sorcery genre; much as there are no elves, dwarves and halflings, there are no orcs or goblins. There are Children of Chaos, Demons, Elementals, Dragons and their Eldritch keepers, Forces of the Balance, Spirits of Law, Krakens and the forces of Law. Classical Greek monsters like Minotaurs and Medusa make the cut. The bestiary also includes a selection of human NPCs which can be used to slot into encounters.

There's a short chapter on designing and using Spirits such as Demons, Elementals, Spirits of Law and the Forces of the Balance. This uses templates that can be modified and customised to be a unique threat.

Jundarr and the Sunken Lands

The setting provided in the book is written in broad-brush terms, evocative yet leaving spaces to make your own. For three thousand years, the Eldritch and the Demonic Servants ruled the world from Varendrys, working wonders and travelling across the planes of the multiverse. Eventually, they stretched too far, and the empire was destroyed in a single night of storm and wrath, and Varendrys sank below the waves. Humanity, the former slaves of the Eldritch, found itself scattered across the new lands and archipelagos left after the land sank. They began to build their own cities and empires, none of them with the longevity of the sunken lands. For the last five hundred years, the island nation of Jundarr has been the dominant power across the Hundred Seas. The Great City, ruled by the boy-emperor of Jundarr, is a cosmopolitan melting-pot, a corrupt place where everything has its price and honesty is rarely rewarded. It is the heart of the world, represented in the game by one of Dyson Logos' maps. It is Lankhmar sitting at the heart of the Young Kingdoms, visited by Conan in search of riches. Populated by three million people, it is the heart of a trading empire.

The City's districts are described in broad terms, with some key locations. As mentioned earlier, the players will add NPCs and locations within the Great City as they create their characters. Districts range from the expected (the Harbor, the Temple, and the Market Districts) through to the more exotic (like the High City, Forbidden Palace, the Necropolis and Haunted Ruins). Beyond the Island, the book describes the key nations and locations across the map, and then beyond the map into the planes of the multiverse. 

There is a short section on the Gods of the Sunken Lands, the most powerful of which are those of Law, Chaos or the Balance. There are also Elemental Gods and Beast Rulers, plus some minor deities.

The background material concludes with a section on the languages often encountered, with guidance on how to use them. 

Scenario Packs

The book presents three scenario packs; the Mysterious Island, the Treasure Hunt and The Wizard's Tower. Each pack has random tables of names (including those for streets, ships and the Wizard's Tower itself) for the GM to use to flesh out the people who they meet.

The Mysterious Island has the characters arriving at a remote and dangerous island after a long and dangerous sea voyage. Much like the playbooks for characters, the scenario pack uses random tables to create the Island (the environment, the inhabitants and the things that are affecting them) and then the purpose of their visits and the potential obstacles, enemies and rewards. There are hooks for future adventures. Finally, there's an event to start the game in media res. A suggested collection of monsters are listed to round out the pack.

The Treasure Hunt takes place in the Great City and finds the characters hunting down a treasure that everyone is talking about (and there's a rumour table to use). It opens with a description of the treasure's location and leaves space for the character's contacts to be linked in. There's a pressing reason, details about events, the treasure itself and the location that it's held. Future hooks and benefits are described. Again the section ends with suggested monsters. 

The Wizard's Tower finds the characters at the tower of a sorcerer, symbiotic with its master, with magic warping reality. The type of magic, mage and their peculiarities are fleshed out before six tables that build the description of the tower. The usual tables covering the rewards and future hooks are present, along with a table for an event that happened to the party on the way to the tower, before the pack concludes with recommended monsters.

Conclusion

I really like Through Sunken Lands, but that's hardly surprising with my background of running Stormbringer. The game itself is a light version of D&D with a unique magic system. The playbooks and scenario pack bring a unique style to the game, ideally for one-shot or episodic games. Jundarr and the Sunken Lands are presented in a broad-brush approach with leaves you wanting to fill the spaces and explore. As I read through the game I wanted to dive in and set up a game, and I was torn between exploring the Hundred Seas and the Great City. This is one I hope to get to the table.

22 March 2021
 

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