Sunday 22 September 2019

[REVIEW] Through Ultan’s Door: Issue 2

Through Ultan’s Door: Issue 2 (2019)
by Ben Laurence

Glgbghhhbghhh *flrp* glgg
This is the second issue of a fanzine dedicated to presenting materials from the author’s long-running campaign (that, as I understand, mostly took place on Google Plus with a rotating cast of characters). The first issue served as an introduction to the setting of “Zyan Below”, a set of dungeons below the floating dreamland city of Zyan, and the Inquisitors’ Theatre, a sub-level built by one of Zyan’s eccentric guilds, and now taken over by a carnival’s worth of bizarre rival factions.

The second instalment follows the structure of the premiere issue. Two introductory articles offer a primer on the setting’s lost souls, and guidelines for adventuring in Slumberland (combining genre authenticity with practical solutions for what happens when someone gets randomly disconnected from an online game). However, most of the text is dedicated to a self-contained dungeon along the Great Sewer River, apparently the main connecting thoroughfare in Zyan Below. Catacombs of the Fleischguild is the holy place and burial ground for Zyan’s butchers, who have taken their art to macabre heights. Unlike the Inquisitors’ Theatre, the catacombs are still in active use, making for a different play dynamic. While the location key is based on static locales of interest and an encounter table, the level’s defences are more systematic, strife among the inhabitants is harder to identify and exploit (although it is not impossible), and repeated incursions invite increasingly strong defensive measures. The interesting strategic choice here is found in the degree and means of engagement: the intruders can move relatively freely while they are sightseeing (this is almost a museum of sorts), but things become increasingly dangerous as they start messing with things.

A trick that already impressed me in the first issue – and which is repeated here – is using a straight 1d6 roll for random encounters, but dedicating one pip to a “sign”, a hint at the creature’s presence somewhere around you, which is logical, a source of good tension, and a hint for the players to get ready! I believe that good D&D is built on small quality-of-life innovations like this: simple, elegant, adds to the play experience.

The dungeon is more “thick” than expansive. It has a small footprint with only 31 locations (and no empty rooms), but each of the keyed parts have a great deal of both descriptive detail and interactive elements. There is a specific style to this campaign that’s best described as decadent. Everything is ornamented, everything has archaeological context, and it is all opulent and slightly rotten. It is a strong flavour and it is easy to find it too rich for your palate. For example, one room has “a head wearing a porcelain hawk mask (150 gp)… a head wearing a crystal ape mask (200 gp)… a bronze amulet with underwater scene of clustered fish set with cabochon sapphire bubbles (375 gp)… a jadite mantis mask (150 gp)… a golden armband of serpent with two heads that meet at the clasp, their eyes agates (200 gp)”. There is a great amount of creativity on display, and the treasures are not just lying around randomly (a weakness of many old-school modules), but as the room entries listed their procession of weird treasures, I found myself thinking there was some advantage to the “16*100 gp gems and 8 pieces of jewellery at 1000 gp each” approach.

The dungeon is themed to the limit. The Fleischguild’s master butchers have built themselves a wondrous and very disturbing abbatoir/sanctum where marbles resemble choice meats and fatty tissue; you can sacrifice to meat-loving deities (one altar is piled with “delicious cooked sausages of rare flavour” and a stack of “candied meats”, “dusted in powdered sugar like Turkish delights”); and you can encounter fat spirits, giant flies prowling for rotted meat, as well as a demon who is a disturbing, man-shaped mass of ambulatory veins. It even finds a use for M.A.R. Barker’s outrageous invention, the eye-spoon (you can find multiple ones among the treasures) – indeed, you could place this dungeon right under Jakallá, and nobody would bat an eye. This is a very specific and peculiar kind of fantasy, but it works – and it makes for an excellent dungeon crawl.

Through Ultan’s Door’s strength is not limited to its exotic backdrop setting; rather, it lies in combining setting details with D&D’s exploration-oriented gameplay. The fit is not 100% seamless, since the dazzling amount of detail does make the rooms slightly hard to “read”, which does have an effect on the action therein (“You forgot about the ceramic bowls on top of the pillars! Now you shall die!”). But this is a quibble, since in general, the writing is clear and effective. This mini-dungeon rewards careful exploration, inventive problem-solving and shrewd negotiation; its traps and challenges are inventive and require out-of-the-box thinking to best; and it is heavy on well-integrated, interesting secrets (more than a third of the level, and most of its interesting treasures are hidden from the casual observer). It is good D&D in an exotic setting the same way Empire of the Petal Throne is good D&D in an exotic setting. It is not “too weird to live.”

Through Ultan’s Door comes with a detachable cardboard cover, showing Russ Nicholson’s grotesque depiction of the catacombs’ entrance on the front cover, and Gus L’s dungeon map on the inside. This is a good map, combining visual appeal with practicality. I think there is also a “monster card” displaying the encounter table (a boon for table use), but I must have misplaced it – or was it all a dream?

No playtesters are credited in this publication. [Correction: The zine credits the playtesters right on its first page.]

Rating: **** / *****


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  3. Melan said, "but as the room entries listed their procession of weird treasures, I found myself thinking there was some advantage to the “16*100 gp gems and 8 pieces of jewellery at 1000 gp each” approach."

    I entirely agree. The problem with too much "weird" treasure is that eventually weird loses it's punch. Weird becomes normal and you start trying to out weird and one up your weird. I have no issue with +1 sword and 16, 100gp gems, etc as long as it's augmented with some more exotic, flavorful items.

    1. There is a good case for a balanced approach. The common wisdom these days is that +1 swords and 100 gp gems are boring. If that is all there is to treasure, I will readily agree (and in many modules, treasure is not just flat, it is placed in a boring way). But there is a role for establishing a baseline, and working up from that - a balance of general loot, precious mundane items (bolts of silk, pricy but heavy furniture, etc.), and standout finds.

      In this adventure, the presence of exotic valuables is justified - it is a bizarre, rich retreat for a decadent society. However, many of the loot items are not actually impressive when it comes to their gp value - lots of 75/100 gp pieces - and the combination of frequency/detail makes me feel some of it is overdetailed.

      Where I will praise the module further is where loot placement is concerned: it is not just lying around on the floor or basic containers, but it is part of the environment. This aspect is underused even in otherwise good adventures, but it is pulled off very well in this zine. And another one: magical treasure is sparse, well-hidden, but when you find them, they are all interesting items. (There is a very cool magical amulet that has long-term implications for an ongoing campaign.)

  4. I think if every D&D adventure followed lock-step in the mold of Through Ultan's Door the hobby might easily become a caricature of itself. However, at this moment in time, examples of this class of product are rare---making it a must-have in my opinion. Few settings are as fresh and evocative as this one. I wish Ben luck, and hope he can continue to publish his zine at this level.

    1. I am in agreement - I really do like the zine. I am usually more critical when it comes to stuff I find engaging and well-made.

      On a personal note, I find it interesting how Ben L's campaign seems to have absorbed a lot of the same influences that went into our City of Vultures campaigns: Kahré, EPT, strange cities with sinister underworlds, a strong grotesque element, etc. The results are recognisably similar (and probably compatible), yet filtering the ideas through our respective set of ideas has also created strong differences.

  5. My encounter card was missing as well, but I don’t mind so much

  6. Playtesters are on the first page, right under the table of contents.

    1. Oops. Thanks for the correction. It was right in front of me, but I simply didn't notice it.

  7. Thanks for the review. I agree that the treasures probably a bit much! Luckily that’s easy to tone down next time around. You’re spot on about my sources of inspiration. certainly Empire of the Petal Throne looms large. It’s no surprise that it feels like a museum too, since another source is my memories as a child of the Museum of Natural History (and the Met) in NYC. The third is Egyptian Revival design, architecture, and costumes from early 20th century.