Ever since college when I actually started having the extra money to do so, I've been drawn to game stores and hunting for unique supplements. Adventures, gazettes, simple collections of maps — each has its own attraction for me. As such, I have ended up with a wide variety of books, pamphlets, and PDFs each of which holds a particular fascination.
Open Design's recent release of Sunken Empires: Treasures and Terrors of the Deep encompasses the perfect storm of history, art, and implementation that makes a supplement not only a useful tool for gamemasters to terrorize their players from time to time but a great read as well. From the forward by David "Zeb" Cook to the chapters on dealing with the deep and its denizens, the book held my attention to the very end, which is a rarity in any supplement.
Beginning with Cook's introduction, "A History of the Aboleth," I felt I was being let into a tomb of previously unknown horrors. I honestly can't recall if I'd heard of the Aboleth as a creature prior to reading Sunken Empires, but now I know it has a place in the occasional nightmare realms players may find born of my own freakishly random firing neurons. The story of how the creature came about provided crucial clues to crafting hooks and monsters without filling in absolutely all the details — leaving the rest to the players encountering such vile critters.
Brandon Hodge takes things from there, weaving a storyteller's spell upon the reader and introducing them to the aspects of Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu from tales both ancient (Plato's tales of at Atlantis) and relatively recent (H.P. Lovecraft adapting Mu into the Cthulhu mythos). Hodge then takes it a step further to create the lost city of Ankeshel and the modern cities of Upper and Lower Cassadega exploring the submerged ruins and learning a few of Ankeshel's mysteries.
After that, he provides all an enterprising GM would need to
torture entertain his or her players with hints of powerful artifacts and spells from the distant past just waiting to be discovered by an enterprising band of adventurers. We have the half-merfolk Maerean peoples working both above and below the waters as well as new paths for other races and classes. I was particularly fascinated by the description of how Monks are entranced by undersea ruins –"drawn by the promise of lost knowledge and paths of enlightenment cultivated by ancient civilizations." I'd not considered monks in that light before and yet I may start doing so now
Chapter three provides not only equipment for adventurers daring to explore the sunken ruins, but what they may find as well. The lure of lost technology provides not only interesting magic items, but the place contains almost Steampunk-influenced weapons of a much more advanced race. And the weapons don't disappoint… rifles that fire magically-created ice slivers, methods of crowd control, and even a magical/mechanical method of duplicating a Dispel Magic spell. Very creative items indeed.
Spellcasters aren't forgotten either, with new spells provided for Bards, Clerics, Druids, Sorcerers, Wizards, and even Rangers. The Druid spells provide water-related magical effects such as Barnacle Armor, Wall of Water, and Calm the Waves. I was a bit disappointed by the small number of Ranger spells (there are only two) and wondered if as a GM I might consider creating additional powers for those adventurers used to prowling the underwater wilderness. Of course the Sorcerer/Wizard list was the most impressive, including more than 30 new spells for those classes.
The list of new magic items was definitely fun to peruse, though I felt like I needed a much bigger bankroll to be wandering the aisles for many of the items costing 10,000 gold pieces or more. Even so, as a fighter who wouldn't want a heavy steel shield shaped as a writhing squid that 3x a day could try to disarm your enemies!
If you plan on running any adventures in the split city of Cassadega, Chapter five is a must read. It provides much needed guidance on how to handle different levels of parties adventuring in or near the sunken ruins. Though that discussion is little more than a page, it provides answers to many of the problems parties may encounter if they are outmatched by the environment they find themselves in. Hodge goes so far as to provide random encounter tables for the coast and the underdeep that would scare the heck out of me as a player. Everything from plant life trying to kill you to a Shoggoth waiting to devour you and your party as an hors d'oeuvre.
Lastly, Chapter six provides a description of the many critters you may encounter above or below the waves in these areas. Everything from a Bone Crab to a Wharfling Swarm (described as a huge number of hairless underwater raccoons with needle-like teeth) and aquatic variants of other creatures such as a Needlefish Swarm (a variant of Bat Swarm), a Slick (a Black Pudding variant), or a Giant Trilobite (variant of a Giant Centipede). And then of course there's the Aboleth. I certainly wouldn't want to encounter one in a dark, submerged alley.
Honestly, I was very impressed by Sunken Empires. It provides enough "crunch" for an enterprising GM to take it and merge it into his or her own game world quite easily. And if done right, a GM would have potentially years of gaming to explore all the dark corners of the Ankeshel ruins. I did find a few typos here and there, but nothing earth shattering that prevented my understanding of the content. And the artwork for the book, from Malcolm McClinton (awesome cover art), Thomas Cole, Hodge himself, Pat Loboyko, and Hugo Solis was amazing.
If you're looking for a new supplement and you think you want your players to get wet, scared, or both — I'd encourage you to check out Sunken Empires from Open Design and Brandon Hodge.