[REVIEW] Cinderheim: The Land Under the Demon Sun (2018)
by Jack Shear
Published by Dolorous Exhumation Press
In the same years when the generic AD&D product line was filled with blah Renfaire pablum which surely wouldn’t upset your average soccer mom, Troy Denning, Timothy Brown and artist Gerald Brom struck gold, and designed a world of scorching deserts devastated by sorcery, brutal sorcerer kings lording over ancient city states, and super-powerful monsters roaming the remains of a dying world. Dark Sun remains the best campaign setting produced by early 1990s TSR, and easily stands its own against Tékumel, Glorantha and other original fantasy worlds. It is a miracle it happened, and no miracle it didn’t last, as later supplements and a terrible second edition brought it down. That initial fire, though, has burned brighter than any other: it is the one 2e product I would keep if I had to part with all the others. With that in mind, any product has huge shoes to fill when it tries to follow in Dark Sun’s mighty footsteps.
Cinderheim is not a full DS knockoff, but among its sources of inspiration (from Dying Earth stories to Weird West fiction), DS is the most prominent. The world guide is a system-neutral gazetteer; it was developed under 5th edition D&D, but contains almost no rules content beyond a few suggestions on running a campaign in one of the appendices. It is still a fairly slim booklet at 44 pages, particularly considering the generous font size and breezy layout.
Cinderheim is a blasted desert far from civilisation. The sun burns unnaturally strongly here, with an almost demonic intensity. The only major habitable areas are seven oases, each hosting a town ruled by an eccentric tyrant and his or her brutal band of warriors. In turn, each oasis is under the influence of a demon tied to the nature of the place, and usually the tyrant ruling over it. It is pretty much store-brand Dark Sun and its sorcerer kings on a smaller scale, but somehow, it never really starts to work.
Theoretically, you could take DS in different directions, but this specific one feels bowdlerised and lifeless. DS was a mishmash of cool stuff blended together, but in the end, it had a sense of cohesion, and it was united by the material’s intensity. Its oddities like mantis warrior characters, thieving elves, obsidian coins, psionics and cannibal halflings felt at home within the world, even if much was (very wisely) left as a mystery. Cinderheim does not have this intensity, even if it has its moments: Tenoch the Devourer, a mantis warrior ruler publicly feasting on the bodies his foes, living or dead, yet ever hungering, is a classical DS-style nightmare.
But some elements are missing. One of these is, indeed, size: Dark Sun was writ on a grandiose scale with massive ziggurats and armies of slaves; Cinderheim is of indeterminate scale (the map is particularly lazy, a few connected dots on a deserty background), but it never feels expansive. Perhaps there is simply a lack of information at play. You don’t get to learn too much from the world. The information in the booklet mainly consists of brief bullet point lists describing the basics about the oasis towns, the warlords ruling them, some of the local points of interests, and the seven demons. This approach makes things repetitive and just too “symmetrical” – all the towns, warlords, local temples and demon princes fit a specific pattern, without deviations and true variety. And again, it also feels small and fairly inconsequential, more like a containment zone for desert scum and exiles (like an elven war criminal, a half-orc revolutionary or a religious zealot) than a world literally devastated by sorcerous powers.
Perhaps it is just not crazy enough. Dark Sun went far with its ideas; it is a world with almost no metal; there are YUGE worms and insects used as beasts of burden; there are fountains of tar and burning plains of obsidian; and lots of casual brutality for its own sake. All outlandish, yet all fitting into the big picture. Those cannibal halflings were a shock, but they made a twisted sense. You don’t get that from this document. It is more tame, and it sorta just floats around without given context or connections. At its weakest, it almost comes across as a brutal multicultural utopia, where a diverse (but of course very brutal) menagerie of scorpionfolk, aasimar, catfolk, ogre magi and dragonborn live together in harmony and peace. I counted 28 different races living in the desert towns, and it may be a low estimate. I admit I laughed hysterically at the description of Daiyu, the favoured son of Niu Bo Wei (The Prince of Pleasure), who is a hobgoblin trans-weretiger “struggling to control his transformations”, but I am probably not a good person. The back cover promises “brutal scavengers [who] battle for survival against desperate raiders and monsters born of demonic corruption”, and “a blasted hellscape of barbarism, sandstorms, and unrelenting heat”, but that doesn’t really happen. The bits and pieces which directly support running a game in Cinderheim are decent but anaemic, amounting to a random adventure generator, a wilderness encounter table, a list of local names, a random chart for demonic corruption, and a table of random trinkets.
Needless to say, this did not do much for me. There is some good stuff scattered around the book (some of the warlords and demons have promise; you could get some value out of the tables), but it did not set my imagination on fire. It lacks the visionary appeal of a good setting pitch, and the direct usability of a solid utility product. Like most “I can’t believe it is not ___Famous Artist___” albums, Cinderheim does not scratch the itch it promises. Instead of carrying forward Dark Sun’s legacy and doing something interesting with it, it reads like an early, concept-stage pitch. And that’s it. The wastelands have no mercy. The weak should fear the strong, and in the blasted deserts of late 2018 gaming, Dark Sun is still as strong as ever, while Cinderheim stands no chance. Another lifeless body falls on the uncaring sands of the arena as the champion raises his arms and the crowds go wild at the sight of blood.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: ** / *****