Thursday 3 September 2020

[REVIEW] Sunlands

Silvery finish not depicted
[REVIEW] Sunlands (2020)

by Chris Longhurst


Low to mid levels

Hello, and welcome to part three of **ZINEMASSACRE*2020**! This year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 2, their second zine writing promotion campaign. Despite my utter distaste for the idea of a major fundraising platform intruding on a publishing genre for people with more ideas than money, I have to admit Zinequest was successful in motivating a whole lot of gamers to launch their personal projects. While many of them were completely alien to my interests (“Five experiences about communicating with yourself, nature, and others” and “Dreamrs, we are such stuff as dreams are *Powered* on, and our little life is rounded *by the Apocalypse*.” are probably for other people), I pitched in for fifteen which looked interesting. Here are the results.


Since the ancient days of gaming when Judges Guild walked the Earth, few have tried to cram an entire hex-crawl setting into a thin, zine-sized pamphlet (honourable mention goes to the infamous Carcosa and the dreamlike Sea of Vipers). Sunlands has tried, and without further ado, succeeded at giving you an entire, functional fantasy region in all of 32 pages.

This is a 17x21 hex area describing a mostly hilly area scarred in a divine confrontation, but now populated by a collection of oddball cultures. Beyond scattered human settlements and their usual fantasyland allies, the Pale Elves (a wood-dwelling elven subgroup with an affinity for riding giant insects) and the Vespix (a wasp-based civilisation based in the southern swamps) have carved out their domains. Much of the area, however, is unclaimed land, where adventurers may encounter strange loners, philosophical monstrosities, and weird ruins. That is, it is a fine borderland setting for exploration- and other travel-based fantasy campaigns.

Hex key

Preceded by a brief introduction and a series of encounter tables for the different terrain types (featuring both general and more specific encounters you might face, from wildlife and general monsters to expeditions, and even some of the major inhabitants of the specific sub-regions), the bulk of the book is dedicated to the hex entries. Unlike the Wilderlands and other hex-based wilderness modules following in its steps, Sunland has a feature of interest keyed to every one of the map hexes. Also unlike the common method, where you tend to encounter whatever the hex hides if you pass through it, it divides hex entries into OBVIOUS and SUBTLE places, and MANDATORY or OPTIONAL encounters. The former will be automatically found and engaged with (and are marked with helpful pictograms in the text – this is a really nice idea), while the others only come up on a thorough search, specific conditions, or random chance (a flat 1:10 roll). Thus, the Sunlands, while very densely keyed, may not actually appear so for every group playing in it; and every group, or even every expedition would find and interact with something else. This is a workable way to build a hex-crawl setting, even if it comes with a hidden effort the players might never appreciate. At least here, most of the basic work is already done for the group. As another bow to usability, hexes reference associated hexes. Want to know where this NPC’s arch-enemy is located? The reference is right there. Want to know where this lost item should be returned to? The zine will tell you. In some cases, these links build small scenarios which may become full adventures. The members of an infamous halfling crime family are hiding out in the Sunlands. Want to catch them? You have your campaign premise.

What kind of place do the hexes describe? The Sunlands is a place of pure gameplay – most locations prompt the characters to action, or have something interesting to interact with. This sort of active engagement is a positive feature of the design. Individually, the hexes offer small encounters, described in short paragraphs, like this (selected at random; 0512 and 1502 are examples of obvious/mandatory encounters):

0312 Someone's still, mid-distillation. There's half a demijon of moonshine to be had, and the owner's nowhere to be seen.

0512 π The small village of PYRE pays lip-service fealty to Sophia of Partisan (0712) but really their only lord and master is the evil fire god XITOCOX. Anyone captured by them will be tossed into the crater (0612) in a secret ceremony.

0915 The medusa stonemason KRISTINA lairs here, in a cave surrounded by statuary. Among the dozens of statues are a stone golem bound to Kristina's command, 2d6 gargoyles, and sometimes Kristina herself covered with grey body paint and practising her 'human statue' routine.

1210 A small dungeon hidden beneath a hill holds some minor threat, and a dust-covered mirror. When someone is reflected in the mirror, it assesses their feelings of guilt and suggests actions of restitution or redemption in curling, silvery script.

1502 β ERIN is lounging about, dressed in mismatched clothes. She claims to have come from a distant planet to experience life here, which may or may not be true. She IS one of the best healers in the Sunlands though.

1609 Situated here, far from anywhere else, CORDELIA owns and operates a breeding stable for horses. Due to a divine curse handed down generations back, Cordelia only exists at night, so while her steeds are fine they also have a tendency to be nocturnal.

This is obviously fine as a springboard for improvisation (which it requires), and also highlights the style of the zine setting. Sunlands is filled with monsters and NPCs demonstrating oddball personalities. Where the Wilderlands is a place of weird ruins and belligerent fiefdoms, and the Sea of Vipers is poetic, this place is filled with jokes, ironic reversals, and anachronisms (from the necromancer who got into the trade because he couldn’t persuade anyone to join his band, to a halfling–dwarf duo trying to invent and test-drive ‘automatic carriages’). Even most of the potential antagonists are more like funny weirdos than typical evil-doers, and if something can be played for a laugh, it is played for a laugh. The style is perhaps best described as now slightly creaky mid-2000s Internet comedy, which, I suspect, would be a stumbling block for some. Comedy settings (as opposed to regular ones generating funny situations) are an acquired taste, and hell, people had the exact same problem with Verbosh, Judges Guild’s excellent mini-sandbox. Much like Verbosh, Sunlands is eminently usable. It is also very silly, underscored by the interior art, sourced from slightly modified Victorian stuff.

Also the Queen of Comedy

Sunlands is a refreshingly no-nonsense product. Beyond the disappointing limitations of the skeletal one-page dungeon genre, but free of the bloat that plagues many professional game settings, this is a zine focused on supporting actual play by providing you with a densely stocked game board. Its presentation and format innovations are small but worth looking into. The jokes can get tiresome, but altogether, this is solidly made, and would serve as a good campaign base.

No playtesters are credited in this publication. 

Rating: *** / *****