An Endzeitgeist.com review
NOTE: This review mainly pertains to the PFRPG version. The S&W version, with its smaller statblocks, clocks in at fewer pages, but also does not sport the issue of conversion relics - it can be considered a full-blown recommendation for S&W.
The first book of the two-part Cyclopean Deeps-Saga clocks in at 198 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page ToC, 2 pages of SRD, 1 page back cover, leaving us with a massive 192 pages of content, so let's check this out, shall we?
So, let's, for now, process as spoiler-free as possible: Do you remember the Dungeoneer's Survival Guide released for 2nd edition (1e AD&D, if you count that way...)? It's a timeless classic indeed and showcases a significant component of what I consider flawed with most modern underdark/underworld modules. Let me describe it from this venue - have you ever been spelunking? There is an appeal to the hobby that is hard to describe, but I'll try - at the same time, you feel like you have entered a new world, a place where your civilization and all of its comforts do not stretch to. You enter a place wondrous that differs significantly, via all of your senses, from the tactile to the olfactory, from what we are used to - reaching the surface once again can feel a bit like a shock after some time - loud, bright...all those smells. However, accompanying this general sensation, one is (or at least I am!) constantly and keenly aware of insane amounts of solid rock, balancing precariously above one's head - whether as a sense of foreboding or respect, caves and caverns elicit a different perspective. Now, recently AAW Games has captured the proper sense of wonder rather perfectly with their Rise of the Drow saga.
In Rise of the Drow, we saw an unprecedented sense of realism applied to the section of the underdark that is kind of akin to the surface world, if not in environment, then in its social structures - we have dangerous animals, humanoid cultures (most evil) vying for dominance - it's the surface world on crack and the RotD-saga can be counted among the few that managed to instill this sense of wonder in the vivid pictures painted. However, there is another underdark - a place where neither light, nor surface-dwellers usually tread. If you're familiar with the Dark Souls games, think of this as the place that would have come below the lowest, blackest gulch. A place, where even the underworld-denizens fear to tread, a place forlorn and forsaken by the light. Below even Rappan Athuk, thus extends this place, one that can easily be transplanted to any setting - courtesy of there simply being no comparable supplement or module that goes quite that deep - usually, places like this are hinted at in the equivalent of telling the PCs "Don't go there!" So there the fools go - here dwell the things no man has ever laid eyes on, here is the Deep Horizon, here are the Cyclopean Deeps.
If the hex-sporting map is not ample clue - this constitutes a sandbox in the truest sense - that is, this a player-driven, old-school module with ample sample random encounters. Also: Know how old-school sometimes is used as a buzzword? Well, not so here. Indeed, this place is defiantly old-school and LETHAL. Even when compared to Rappan Athuk, the Cyclopean Deeps are deadly - very deadly. So yeah, if your group is looking for a challenge, a module worth winning - this is what you want. How nasty can this place be? Brutal enough to actually require no work on my part to make the module more challenging.
Want an example? All right, but to provide you with one, I'll have to go into SPOILERS. Players should jump to the conclusion.
Still here? All right! If you were one of the lucky ones, Rappan Athuk's KS back in the day provided two teasers of this massive module - and one detailed Ques Querax, gateway to the Cyclopean Deeps, wherein strange minotaur golems guard the premises. The local temple sports 3 priests, always in the same position, unmoving, catering to the whims of a strange head - only if you resist the unearthly fear of this place do you receive healing - but you never actually see it cast - upon leaving the temple, the effects suddenly...happen. Curiosity, alas, much like in CoC, may kill the cat, though - and like in the old truism, turn it into a multidimensional horror with puckered tentacles that is coming right for YOU! (Yes, actually trying to find out how these guys cast spells may shatter your sanity and provide a neat new career choice as a terrible servant of the mythos. A tavern owned by a denizen of Leng, an intelligent giant slug slaver, a dog-headed perfume-creating alchemist - not only are plenty of these folk EVIL, they also are WEIRD in a rather uncanny, horrific way. And the interesting thing is - this is civilization in these parts. It literally does not become better than this, so the PCs better figure out means of making this place work for them - a dangerous, but moderately secure base is better than none! Have I btw. mentioned the living eye of Gaaros-Uaazath, arguably one of the most powerful and odd entities herein, secretly creating a mind-bending, centipede-like war-machine?
But beyond the gates of Ques Querax, beautiful and precious wonders await - finding e.g. gems worth thousands of gold may be a reason for joy - until you read the entry of said random treasure - it reads "kidney stone." I am not kidding. The book brims with these little tidbits - and each and every one is tailor-made to come together in a vista exceedingly tantalizing and disturbing. From chain-bound jack-in-irons giants to mists of concealing, detection-blocking darkmist and the dark stalker/creeper enclave of Izanne, there are politics to be found, and yes, civilization - however, each veneer is distorted and odd, a threat underlying just about every step, every interaction - while never losing the evoked, profound sense of wonder that oozes from each and every encounter - and yes, some purists may scoff at decisions to smack down truly wondrous effects that lie beyond the capacity of spells here and there - but as for me, I love this decision - it drives home the need for care, the sense of magic...well, being truly magical. What level of detail am I referring to? well, what about a whole array of options, should the PCs elect to run across the rooftops of the fully-mapped Izanne? Or perhaps the PC's friendly nigh-ghoul guide wants to sell them some slaves and palanquins from his third cousin - the resounding themes of civilization can be found herein, though they are twisted in a grotesque way - a fact that also is reflected by the copious missions provided - and in the messages, that partially are traps, partially are odd - but ultimately, are different. Unique aberrations and strange folk abound, demons trod the streets and even here, a sense of decrepitude, of civilizations most vile, fallen to magics even worse, suffuses the paragraphs, with details upon details drawing a picture of a world that could be another, a place so wildly different, yet familiar, that it could be considered an escalation of the concept of the uncanny.
What about spellbooks that have been folded into the fourth dimension, pods that may transmit memories, odd, singing crystals - there is a lot of wonderful, enigmatic stuff to be found; and if your players prefer making an impact, the nasty and inscrutable people, from serpentfolk to aboleths, are all actually playing their own games, with subquests, goals and the like handily organized for your convenience. Now if you're not familiar with some old-school rules, you might be surprised to see e.g. a reference to percentile rolls and chances to decipher a lost language - this is a remnant of old-school gaming and should have been updated to PFRPG using the Linguistics-skill. And yes, some remnants like this can be found herein. However, in which other supplement are the players tasked (on an optional basis, of course!) to awaken a death god? Eat energy-bars of strange fungus or find out that the nice magic items they found are powered by energy infusions generated by constant sacrifice of sentient beings? It should also be noted that the NPC-builds, while sporting some straightforward ones, also feature some more complex ones.
But honestly, I don't love this book for its mechanics - but where else can you find human-faced, giant ants, unearthly flowers and air, spatial distortions and ways of thinking (properly explained for the DM) that may seem starkly in contrast to our logic...and have I mentioned the importance of the Leng rubies?
Now if the nomenclature and overall array of options seemed confusing to you, a massive glossary should help. The new monsters herein are copious and weird, as are the short, fluff-only write-ups of the elder things. The appendices also contain the numerous unique items - though, much like in the crunch, there are some examples of old-school mechanics to be found herein - e.g. an artifact that requires you to roll multiple d6s and score below your attribute score. The pdf contains various, cool maps, all of which receive player-friendly versions - and there are hand-outs.
Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no significant glitches. Layout adheres to FGG's printer-friendly, two-column b/w-standard and the module comes with A LOT of awesome, unique original b/w-art. The book comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and the cartography in b/w is neat.
Author Matthew J. Finch delivers quite frankly one of the most imaginative, awesome books in the whole Frog God/Necromancer Games-canon; much like the stellar Dunes of Desolation, this book constitutes a prime example of why I want to see as many new FGG modules as possible. I own all Necromancer Games modules, even the boxed sets, and yes, even the rarities. That being said, I do think that FGG's modules surpass those of NG. Cyclopean Deeps Volume I is such a monument - this book reached a level of imaginative detail, of sheer creativity, that one only finds perhaps once in a blue moon. The literally only comparisons I could draw in that regard would be to the best of FGG-modules or to the 4 Dollar Dungeons-modules by Richard Develyn - and you probably by now realize how much I adore them. That being said, this book is far from perfect; the remnants of the conversion not being carried out properly in all cases do stick out like sore thumbs to me and formally, constitute a blemish that you should be aware of.
Then again, this massive book is intended for experienced DMs and experienced groups - beyond the lethality of the module, the sheer amount of sandboxing, of entwined things going on, means that A DM has to have some experience under the belt to run this. But know what? The complexity doesn't faze me and neither do the conversion relics matter to me - for one, in some cases, one could chalk them up to mechanics simply working differently here as well. On the other, capable DMs can easily fix these minor problems. And none of those minor hiccups matter to me in this case - what would singularly break the neck of lesser books just falls under the rag here - the writing is THIS good. Beyond a level of detail that can only be described as excruciating, there simply is no other module, no other environmental supplement tackling anything like this; the only other underworld sandboxes that approach this in terms of complexity would be the second Act of RotD or the classic Open Design "Empire of Ghouls" and both have a wildly different focus, completely different themes.
This manages to elicit a sense of cultural wonder akin to the writings of the classic titans like Gygax, a breath of the magical and uncanny, while also breathing the spirit of the mythos and classic pulp fiction akin to Howard or Haggard. Cyclopean Deeps managed to evoke something I almost never feel anymore these days - a sense of jamais-vu. This is not yet another rendition of some tired old, much rehearsed tropes - this is the antithesis of exceedingly tired level 1 module with goblins and an ogre or shadow as the final boss. This massive tome breathes more unique ideas in a chapter than some whole series of books. Even when compared to Rappan Athuk et al., this tome dabbles in themes and topics far beyond the focus on demonic entities, creates a sense of wonder and, paradoxically, realism. As odd and alien the vistas portrayed herein are, they still feel uncannily organic, realistic and alive - which drives further home the point of this book being not only unique, but inspired in the very best way.
The formal hiccups here and there might annoy you, but if you are missing out on this monumentally inspired world/setting-building due to them, you are depriving yourself of perhaps one of the most captivating reads I've had in any iteration of a d20-based system. And if you don't mind some old-school remnants or perhaps even enjoy them, then this should be considered a true milestone. I've been struggling with myself for quite a long time on how to rate this book, but as far as I'm concerned, the vast imaginative potential this book offers trumps just about any minor blemish or criticism you could field against it; to the point, where complaining would seem disingenuous and downright petty-minded. There are few books of this size that have managed to captivate me to this extent during the whole lecture of them and this massive sandbox should be considered a must-have addition to any DM looking for the deep below - even as disparate encounters and for the purposes of scavenging elements, this book is well worth the asking price. I thus remain with a final verdict of 5 stars + seal of approval, a nomination for the Top Ten of 2014, a longing for Vol. 2 and the regret that I am too poor to get this glorious tome in print.