Review: The Sun Below – That’s How the Light Gets In

Published by Dread Unicorn Games, LLC, © 2020

The third adventure from John W. S. Marvin of Dread Unicorn Games, The Sun Below: That’s How the Light Gets In, is based on the Numenera setting and requires a Numenera book to run it. Discovery and Destiny are recommended but not required as he has a short paragraph detailing how to run it if you don’t have them and either have only the first edition Numenera book, or only Discovery, on page six.

The setting, shared between all three titles, is a hollow-earth land. Relatively unknown to the people of the Ninth World, most contact between the world below and the Steadfast has come through the Aeon Priests. The bulk of the entrances to the world below have been discovered in the Black Riage mountains, to the East of the Steadfast. It is unknown if the world below encompasses the whole of the world or if it is simply some kind of massive localized pocket underground.

Production Quality

First, let us dispense with the production review. The layout of the adventure is clean, with standard two columns per page and margin notes with page cross-references in a similar style to the Numenera core books. The adventure includes a bestiary and NPC section for the new creatures introduced as well as the important NPCs encountered throughout the game. Additionally, there is a section with “handouts” for the players. While not necessarily “in-game” information or things they might see or find (typical artwork-style handouts), they do include important information about some of the goings on and things that the players will encounter, like one of the new races, the Vikron, for example. The adventure includes GM advice at the beginning on how to use the adventure and recommendations for using parts of the adventure in your own homebrew material.

The product could benefit from some editing for precision and clarity in the writing, but it is possible to get to the intended meanings with some small effort. While some of the cartography is rough, other portions are particularly good and look very crisp and clean. The artwork is a mix of what appear to be almost hand-sketches and more detailed digital art that ranges in aesthetic quality. As a recommendation, adding color to the key words that require referencing a margin note would be a useful aesthetic for the reader’s eye.

Content

I am not going to cover the actual storyline of the adventure here so as not to give spoilers for GMs or Players that wish to play it. What I will say, though, is that with this and the other two adventures in this group, John Marvin has done a decent job of crafting a section of the Ninth World that feels “weird” in the way that the rest of the Ninth World feels weird. The new creatures are indeed, odd. The feel of the geography and its ambiance is alien enough that it is easy to believe that you are talking about something both Earth and not-Earth.

Where I think this adventure really shines is in its offering of some rules that GM’s can use. I really like the way that creatures are set up to indicate different difficulty levels or quantities for different tiers of parties, thus freeing up some of the bandwidth of the GM from preparing combat encounters based on how advanced the characters are. Additionally, the section on “Mooks” is a surprisingly interesting simplification to low-level combat fights where it’s not logical based on the story to include higher level creatures simply because of the advanced tier of the PCs. The mechanic here greatly simplifies tracking for the GM, and anything that simplifies the GMs job is something I am in favor of.

Other offerings include a new Flavor for characters in the Dimension Walker. For those not familiar with Flavors from not having played the generic Cypher System, it allows you to swap type abilities with flavor abilities when you take that flavor. The adventure also includes a new playable race called a Vikron, a four-armed, orange humanoid from a high-energy dimension and the typical race-as-descriptor information needed to do so.

The adventure is told in five parts for a total of 78 pages. The format of the adventure attempts to cover what the PC’s could do if they attempted actions from three different generic perspectives: Fighting/Combat, Talking/Negotiation, or Avoidance/Stealth. It then tries to help the GM understand the possible outcomes of doing each of those, once again in an attempt to reduce the bandwidth the GM has to spend both understanding the forces at play. The adventure tries to hit a broad range of high notes, from site-exploration, to dimension hopping, using an interesting mix of mechanics (including the horror mode mechanic) to give players a variety of experiences. There is also some adult content and potential for such things that a group should be aware of. It would behoove the GM to read over the adventure ahead of time and consider using a safety tool like Monte Cook Games’ free supplement, Consent in Gaming.

Critique

For me personally, there were two big things I struggled with from this adventure. First, the jumping around from trying to detail out how encounters played out using different strategies made things more difficult for me rather than easier. While the PDF is hyperlinked in many places to make this easier (a fact for which I am extremely grateful), I can imagine that it would be more of a disruption/struggle for someone purchasing a print copy to do during a game session. Anything that takes the focus away from the collective telling of the story (fiddling with rules, searching for text to read in an adventure, etc…) detracts from the immersion I want my players to feel.

Second, I guess for me, if the adventure is so complex that it requires that level of detail and description of options, it might be useful to work on simplifying it more. I am not opposed to the fantastic, and the “bigness” of the scope of this adventure is certainly fantastic. I just personally have gotten used to what I like to refer to as “the Cypher System paradigm”. That is, letting the story evolve, particularly in the details, organically in such a way that the players don’t feel railroaded and the GM can embrace reduced preparation work and simply react in contribution to the player-led collaborative story being told. I think an adventure like this might benefit from a setup more like a series of the adventures described in Weird Discoveries or Explorer’s Keys. More free-form, potential for the story keys to be in multiple places, just enough description to let the GM get started (the adventures are shorter – only 6 pages – so what you end up is distilled down to be the bare necessities), and then let them be in charge of how the story plays out.

Summary

I feel like this adventure would be an especially excellent one for new players and Game Masters coming over from Dungeons & Dragons and for those that enjoy having the adventure laid out in a familiar type of adventure format, as many of those feel similar to this one. The adventure does require a fair bit of reading before you run it in order to understand the flow of the adventure. Further, I highly recommend running it as portions of a full campaign, probably as part of the series of adventures, rather than a one shot so that the players are tied more closely to the area, the potential relevant NPCs, and the fate of the World Below. Doing so will most likely increase your players’ immersion in the setting and hence, the adventure, in a positive way. For more information, the guys over at Cypher Unlimited did an interview with John that you can watch HERE. Happy gaming!

  • Joann Walles

Update 8/30/2020: Added link to interview with Cypher Unlimited that we had forgotten in the original post.

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