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Review: Through Ultan's Door

Reviews are not going to be a thing at the Blue Bard. Please don't send me your module.

I won't read it, let alone review it.

I'm too busy making things that I want.

Every once in a while, however, I do take notice of something that strikes my fancy, something new and splendid.

I first met Ben Laurence on a whim. I'd just returned to FRPs after years of busy life. I wanted to see what people were doing so I started making the rounds on the internet AND locally. Crashing all sorts of games and watching or participating as the occasion demanded.

Ben happened to be inviting people to his Google Hangouts game, which he told me featured a blah-blah-blah rule set (thanks to my hiatus from gaming I thought he was speaking in tongues).

Ben quelled my reservations by assuring me the system was standard and I made a character.

The place we went was Zyan. And it was spectacular. Gorgeous vistas, baroque chambers and creatures without name drooled from Ben's mouth.

This was a keeper.

I did not return to most games that I crashed in those initial days of exploration, but Ben's games contained such depth and wonder that I found myself coming back (as often as I could).

What makes my returns to his table even more surprising (even to myself) is that I found the mechanics and combat to be shallow and uninspiring. Let me explain. My personal preference is for fairly regular combat sessions filled with meaningful choices deeply rooted in tactics and resource management without relying on the brainless crutches of feats and skills.

Everyone has a system preference. Therefore, if you feel differently than I do about such things, the above is a non-issue. I call it out because:

  1. Despite my deep convictions about fun (combat and tactics being a primary component) I returned again and again to this adventure because of things system-agnostic.

  2. Saying such underscores the magnetism of the adventure. I didn't know Ben at the time and would have walked from any other table using that system.

The mood, atmosphere, creatures, vistas, treasures, NPCs, lore, puzzles, mysteries and so on were just so good that they overpowered my bias against the system and I played anyway.

Thus, when Through Ultan's Door became available, I snapped it up immediately.

The presentation in paper is as good as the oral presentation I got on the internet. Behold:

I set about reading it at once.

This is a thing of quality. It is also a thing I will actually use.

The only time I turn to external sources for content is when the the party strays from my setting into the great beyond. When other worlds are needed, other authors are also desirable. That's because what you want is something different, alien, and often what you yourself would NOT do. Your group feels the difference and it plays to your advantage.

My usual problem is that most "other" settings are only partially to my liking. Thus I can barely skim them, let alone become familiar enough to run them well. Greyhawk is an exception. The original Forgotten Realms is another. I enjoyed the early days of FR, before it turned into a pool of farmed-out vanilla sludge. Planescape was a disaster for me. Every sentence in those products I took as a personal affront.

What I like are things that are beautiful but not naive, honest instead of being caricatures, aware of the darkness but also aware that not everything is secretly dark.

Through Ultan's Door concerns itself with Zyan, the cursed city of the dreamlands, the flying pearl of Wishery and it is very much a place I like. Here are the reasons I like it:

  1. The booklet is small, easy to digest and concise.

  2. It is well-edited.

  3. It is a cinch to adapt to the AD&D system.

  4. It is a self-contained place with the hooks needed to reel players deeper and deeper into the dreamlands and offers the depth to make such an investment worth while.

  5. It offers creative fodder of the correct flavor, meaning that what you read will instantly bloom into larger substance that you then share with your players.

As with anything that markets itself as strange or unusual, you will need to prep accordingly. My advantage in having played in the campaign with the author is not lost on me. I suggest you do what I did: buy two copies. One to mark up with highlighter and notes and the other to keep nice.

Highlighter is necessary for some long entries but this is not a weakness of the text. Text must be as long as it must be. It is the job of the reader to highlight and take notes.

Your reward for doing so is a setting that I am happy to pay money for. Through Ultan's Door you will find the dreamlands as they should be, haunted by white swine, caterpillar beasts and oneiric pudding. Here, things make sense in exactly the wrong way, which is what you'd want and expect.

A new spell on offer? How about one that, when you cast it, forces you to tell the truth else a one-eyed ravenesque thing crawls from your throat, gagging you until it emerges, ready to attack you or anyone nearby. Hrm...why would you ever memorize that?

Such is the beauty. Only clerics of the dreamland's Archon Azmarane could or would cast a spell so isane.

Similarly damnable splendors await you when your copy of Through Ultan's Door arrives.

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