Through Ultan’s Door #1


By Ben Laurence
Through Ultan’s Door
OSR

Go through Ultan’s door in this inaugural issue into the Ruins of the Inquisitor’s Theater, a 30 room dungeon replete with oneiric puddings, delicate shadow puppets, giggling white swine, and much more. This 36 page zine contains everything you need to launch a D&D campaign in the Zyan, flying city of the dreamlands.

This forty page “zine” contains a thirty page dungeon and the supporting monsters, spells, etc. Lush, rich prose, the ruins of a decadent empire, and heavy opium clouds bring the OD&D HARD. Digest format is as digest format does. It’s good. I’m also predisposed to this kind of shit.

I didn’t think people still used opium in the US. This adventure proves me wrongs. Yes, that’s a compliment. It’s important, I think, that I communicate the vibe of this adventure. There’s this thing that some of the Psychedelic Fantasy adventures fell in to, and some of the Calithena/Bowman Darkness Beneath adventure briefly hit upon. It’s also present in in some of the pointcrawl work of Slumbering Ursine and those world weary decadent elves of that setting. From the Vats, Operation Unfathomable, Blue Medusa and some other Patrick shit, the city from ASE1, a touch of Tekumel, and Lapis Observatory. There’s this lush, sometimes lurid, velvety decadance … sometimes in the writing, sometimes in the environment, sometimes in the imagination behind the encounters. There’s this intro to a Frankie Goes to Hollywood mix, cribbed from Nietzsche I think, that gives me a certain feeling when I listen to it and this adventure reminds me of that feeling.

A part of this is the OD&D thing it’s got going. By that I mean, in part, the monsters are new. You don’t know what a new monsters will do. It’s powers are unknown. That creates apprehension in the players and that’s usually a great thing for an adventure to do. Not only are the monsters new, the descriptions focus entirely on the actual play of the creatures. Descriptions are: Sinuous white swine, with children’s hands, and mischievous human eyes, or Each is a tangle of raven’s wings with no body or head, flitting erratically like a quick moving bat. In the center of the conjoined wings is a single staring eye that gives baleful glares like cutting knives or worse. That’s what the characters encounter so that’s what the description says. The only addition to that description is their spoor (hints to come) and the monster stats. No bullshit history or crap to clog up the adventure … just pure impact for the players. Fucking. Perfect.

There’s another part of the OD&D vibe that tends to concentrate on the non-standard encounter. I’m not saying it well, but there tends to be this de rigeur way of writing encounters. It almost seems like there’s this hidden formula that people follow to create a boring encounter thats the same as every other boring encounter. Tolkien genericism. I’m not bitching about orcs, I’m bitching that they always appear the same way, as do pit traps, etc. There’s this emphasis on mechanics, as if they come first “a 100’ pit trap”, and then the rest follows. When I talk about OD&D encounters/imagination I’m then I’m talking about that being flipped There’s some weird ass scene imagined … that’s the focus, and then some mechanics are are lightly bolted on. There’s this room, smelling of decay, with a straw floor, and a balcony up above, and three bodies hanging from it with hoods over their heads … and a bear trap in straw under each body. Balcony with hanging bodies and bear trap … just a little twist that keeps it fresh. And this adventure does that over and over again.

The descriptions are lush and rich with great imagery. A door of cerulean blue and gold leaf glittering in the candlelight. Or, to directly quote: “The statue at the end of the room is made of basalt. It depicts a robed figure, with a long beaked mask. She pulls apart her robes, and dozens of small- er beaked masks peer forth form the darkness beneath, pressing out. Lapis Lazuli borders her robes, and the eyes of the masks sparkle with polished carnelians and peridots.” That’s a pretty cool thing that I’m DYING to run! Which is exactly what I’m looking for. I want to be excited. Ben jabbed an idea in to my head and I can fill in the rest effortlessly because of his ability to communicate the seed to me, the DM. WHich I can them have a much better chance of doing the same for my players … and communicate my enthusiasm to them. Nd, as an aside, much of the treasure is great also. A necklace of bismuth stones strung on a chain of platinum, each stone a miniature rainbow labyrinth. Fuck Yeah I want that thing man! If you have treasure that the players want to keep, wear, and use, instead of just abstracting away in to gp, then you’ve done a good job and this is a good job.

Twenty-ish rooms means the map isn’t too large, but it’s good enough, and it appears that the next “issue” will be the next level of the dungeon. My only major complaint is that the room numbering is not as trivially legible as I would prefer.

Ben’s got an overview of the game world this comes from, a kind of Dreamlands-ish thing, on his blog. That should give you an idea of what you are getting yourself in to. These days Dreamlands makes me think “arbitrary”, but that’s not the case here. This is a concrete, real adventure.
http://maziriansgarden.blogspot.com/2017/09/two-years-through-ultans-door-zyan.html

Another great example of a “going to a freaky place” adventure … with the door signaling that the rules are all wrong and every perversion is justified in the mythic underworld … communicated via the door transition.

This is $5 at DriveThru. The preview is ok. Showing some of the rooms, or wandering table, would have been better. The general fluff stuff is ok, amd gives you a view in to the writing style, but the actual rooms and wanders give you and better view in to the FOCUS that the actual rooms give, and encounter types. As is, what’s previewed seems to imply a longer writing style than is actually encountered and not as much of the OD&D style. It’s more setting than adventure in the preview.
https://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/254659/Through-Ultans-Door-Issue-1

It is, of course, Frankie, and Frankie only …

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17 Responses to Through Ultan’s Door #1

  1. YouDontMessWithTheJeff says:

    This sounds intriguing but I wish these “OSR” adventure designers would assign suggested levels and a suggested rule set to their modules, even if it’s simply saying that’s it’s compatible with Labyrinth Lord and/or Basic Fantasy RPG, S&W, B/X, 1e, etc. Throw us a freakin’ bone here

    • Authors who fail to include PC levels are a gripe of mine. If the Author can’t be bothered to scale their adventure, why should the DM?

      *grump*
      *grump*

    • Ben L. says:

      It’s an introductory adventure for the beginning of a campaign. So it was written (and play-tested) with 1-2 level characters in mind. I ran it with, and wrote the rules for Labyrinth Lord with the Advanced Edition Companion, so basically AD&D light. It should work as is for B/X or any of the B/X derived clones, including LoTFP and with minimal modification for by the book AD&D or AD&D derived clones like OSRIC. It could be run as OD&D or an OD&D derived clone with modifications as well.

  2. Gus L says:

    It’s a setting and megadungeon introduction – it’s level 1. It’s also B/X not OD&D – though that’s easy enough to fix.

    I believe that the relatively flat power curve of older D&D and the focus on puzzle, secret and exploration are the main reason that level is far less important in adventures like this.

  3. squeen says:

    After Bryce’s review of Murder Knights of Corvendark (http://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?p=4492) I bought a copy despite the fact that the review was not terribly positive. I was curious—I love Moneyblood’s maps they are almost my platonic ideal, so I wanted to know what had gone wrong.

    Byrce had trouble putting his finger on it in the review, and challenged some of his readers to suss out the missing element. He’s my take:

    Murder Knights is written like a tourist’s guidebook. All the locations are faithful labelled, and the author does not over indulge with the descriptions. What it lacks, is potential energy. There is nothing in the workman-like vanilla descriptions that makes you say “Cool! I wanna run that!”, or even “I never would have thought of that. Heck! I’m gonna steal that for my campaign.” It’s not because he doesn’t have decent ideas, it just that they lack suspense.

    I haven’t bought Through Ultan’s Door (yet), but just by visiting the author’s website, I knew immediately he was a truly creative soul. Some people have just “got it”. Patrick Stuart is one that first and foremost comes to mind. Jason Sholtiz is another (in a completely different way). Our own Gus L (above) has got the gift too—you should check out some of his free on-line publications. A creative mind that helps you see the world a bit differently—it’s just damn INTERESTING. True artists. They envision a locale first and foremost, and then (as Bryce says) lightly add the mechanics as an after-thought. Playing D&D should be like walking through the landscape of a novel or beautiful movie. Setting only—your players make the plot.

    The style of Ultan’s Door/Dreamland reminds me of a section in one of my favourite novels, “A Lonesome Night in October” by Roger Zelazny. A one point, the main characters fall through a portal and are astral travelling over a dream-world in which a disembodied voice narrates the gazetteer. The world descriptions are very, very, strange and completely disconnected from the plot—I think it is suppose to be Lovecraftian, but I didn’t realize it when I first read the novel in my teens—but each and every dollop of description of locales that zoom past just SCREAMS with potential energy. You think, “Wait, what? Slow down, I want to go THERE!”

    When looking at Stuart’s work (Maze of the Blue Medusa comes to mind), Patrick paints a very adult/urbane world with a minimal set of brush-stroke and dares you to run with it. For me though, I am more an engineer than artist, and am not sure I (as DM) have the swagger/style to pull off the characters and personas he creates. I fear I may need something a bit less sophisticated.

    In my own work, I fear I am more Murder Knights than Ultan’s Door. I tend to paint a very face-value picture of the world and then expect/hope my players to inject some action. Perhaps a saving grace is that I do have a “thing” for buried secrets — things lost and totally orthogonal to the “main plot”. I think this comes from being a Tolkien fan from the mid-70’s, I adore the web of mystery and convoluted history that lay behind his work. What is hinted at is so often better than what is revealed. Peter Jackson’s LotR movies were viewed (by me) as fairly lack-luster effort for exactly that reason. Everything was hauled out into the light for everyone to see. “Director: Hey everyone! There’s Sauron. Have a look. He’s a bad-ass. (aside to graphic artists)…render me some more fill-lights in that battle scene so everyone can see the details of his awesome CG armor.” Not even a hint of a Hitchcock-ian shadows. No dread. Nothing to fear. Plain as the nose on your face. Zero mystery. Yet is was hugely popular (for which I was quite grateful, it could have been a laughingstock, and I never wanted THAT for my most favourite story).

    I once saw Kurt Vonnegurt speak at my University and give some advise to budding authors. He said not to bother explaining why your central villain is so awful and evil. Don’t tell people about his sad childhood, etc. Throw that in the trash. They will just be delighted that he IS evil.

    (By the way, that’s exactly what went wrong with Kylo Ren in the latest series of Star Wars movies. Unfortunately, Kurt Vonnegurt was dead, so no one told them they were barking up the wrong tree. Silly Disney executives—they thought they were artists.)

    Back to the point.

    MUDER KNIGHTS: beautifully produced, but workmanlike setting—everything at the surface. Not enough hidden depth. Things need to inspire without rambling on. Ignite your imagination, not just rattle-off a laundry list of details or places. Oh yeah, and your villains—man, you have *got* to hate and/or fear them. The product falls down a bit there too.

    ULTAN”S DOOR: Gonna buy it. Looks like a fever dream. Can’t wait. I love the idea that the whole campaign world can only be access by a small door under the stairs in a merchant’s shop. Pitch perfect!

    (Sorry, another aside: When I was a young player (middle/high school). My iconoclastic college-aged DM had a thing for classy villains. Moriarty, The Master. The original Star Trek Klingons, etc. But he also had a rather silly twist to his personality. One of his chief antagonists was simply called (by us players) The Illusionist. After years of playing and us seldom getting the up-hand against this reoccurring nuisance, our DM finally revealed that the Illusionist gained his experience points by making a fool out of you. That was his sole motivation. It was great! We HATED that mother-f**ker.)

    Agree or disagree? Discuss….

  4. squeen says:

    Hmm…ate my post. I’ll wait a bit an then try again.

  5. squeen says:

    After Bryce’s review of Murder Knights of Corvendark (http://tenfootpole.org/ironspike/?p=4492) I bought a copy despite the fact that the review was not terribly positive. I was curious—I love Moneyblood’s maps they are almost my platonic ideal, so I wanted to know what had gone wrong.

    Byrce had trouble putting his finger on it in the review, and challenged some of his readers to suss out the missing element. He’s my take:

    Murder Knights is written like a tourist’s guidebook. All the locations are faithful labelled, and the author does not over indulge with the descriptions. What it lacks, is potential energy. There is nothing in the workman-like vanilla descriptions that makes you say “Cool! I wanna run that!”, or even “I never would have thought of that. Heck! I’m gonna steal that for my campaign.” It’s not because he doesn’t have decent ideas, it just that they lack suspense. We all know exactly why they exist in the setting—utilitarian.

    I haven’t bought Through Ultan’s Door (yet), but just by visiting the author’s website, I knew immediately he was a truly creative soul. Some people have just “got it”. Patrick Stuart is one that first and foremost comes to mind. Jason Sholtiz is another (in a completely different way). Our own Gus L (above) has got the gift too—you should check out some of his free on-line publications. A creative mind that helps you see the world a bit differently—it’s just damn INTERESTING. True artists. They envision a locale first and foremost, and then (as Bryce says) lightly add the mechanics as an after-thought. Playing D&D should be like walking through the landscape of a novel or beautiful movie. Setting only—your characters make the plot.

    The style of Ultan’s Door/Dreamland reminds me of a section in one of my favourite novels, “A Lonesome Night in October” by Roger Zelazny. A one point, the main characters fall through a portal and are astral travelling over a dream-world in which a disembodied voice narrates the gazetteer. The world descriptions are very, very, strange and completely disconnected from the plot—I think it is suppose to be Lovecraftian, but I didn’t realize it when I first read the novel in my teens—but each and every dollop of description of locales that zoom past just SCREAMS with potential energy. You think, “Wait, what? Slow down, I want to go THERE!”

    When looking at Stuart’s work (Maze of the Blue Medusa comes to mind), Patrick paints a very adult/urbane world with a minimal set of brush-stroke and dares you to run with it. For me though, I am more an engineer than artist, and am not sure I (as DM) have the swagger/style to pull off the characters and persona he creates.

    In my own work, I fear I am more Murder Knights than Ultan’s Door. I tend to paint a very face-value picture of the world and then expect/hope my players to inject some action. Perhaps a saving grace is that I do have a “thing” for buried secrets — things lost and totally orthogonal to the “main plot”. I think this comes from being a Tolkien fan from the mid-70’s, I adore the web of mystery and convoluted history that lay behind his work. What is hinted at is so often better than what is revealed. Peter Jackson’s LotR movies were viewed (by me) as fairly lack-luster effort for exactly that reason. Everything was hauled out into the light for everyone to see. “Director: Hey everyone! There’s Sauron. Have a look. He’s a bad-ass. (aside to graphic artists)…render me some more fill-lights in that battle scene so everyone can see the details of his awesome CG armor.” Not even a hint of a Hitchcock-ian shadows. No dread. Nothing to fear. Plain as the nose on your face. Zero mystery. Yet is was hugely popular (for which I was quite grateful, it could have been a laughingstock, and I never wanted THAT for my most favourite story).

    I once saw Kurt Vonnegurt speak at my University and give some advise to budding authors. He said not to bother explaining why your central villain is so awful and evil. Don’t tell people about his sad childhood, etc. Throw that in the trash. They will just be delighted that he IS evil.

    (By the way, that’s exactly what went wrong with Kylo Ren in the latest series of Star Wars movies. Unfortunately, Kurt Vonnegurt was dead, so no one told them they were barking up the wrong tree. Silly Disney executives—they thought they were artists.)

    Back to the point.

    MURDER KNIGHTS: beautifully produced, but workmanlike setting—everything at the surface. Not enough hidden depth. Things need to inspire without rambling on. Ignite your imagination, be a little weird, not just rattle-off a laundry list of details or places. Oh yeah, and your villains—man, you have *got* to hate and/or fear them. The product falls down a bit there too.

    ULTAN”S DOOR: Gonna buy it. Looks like a fever dream. Can’t wait. I love the idea that the whole campaign world can only be access by a small door under the stairs in a merchant’s shop. Pitch perfect!

    (Sorry, another aside: When I was a young player (middle/high school). My iconoclastic college-aged DM had a thing for classy villains. Moriarty, The Master. The original Star Trek Klingons, etc. But he also had a rather silly twist to his personality. One of his chief antagonists was simply called (by us players) The Illusionist. After years of playing and us seldom getting the upper-hand against this reoccurring nuisance, our DM finally revealed that the Illusionist gained his experience points by making a fool out of you. That was his sole motivation. It was great! We HATED that mother-f**ker.)

    Agree or disagree? Discuss….

  6. squeen says:

    Damn. Now there’s two. Well, the second one’s edited better.

  7. squeen says:

    I’d like to say something clever about technology, but the only thing I can think of is putting my foot through the monitor.

    Probably best if I don’t.

    Probably.

  8. Handy Haversack says:

    I have followed Ben’s blog and game for years and am super excited to order this in print. Instabuy!

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