I know you were expecting part 2 of my ABIDE solo play. Unfortunately I’ve decided to re-design ABIDE…again. For the (checks notes) 42nd time. Maybe this one will stick.
However, luckily for you, I feel in love with the adventure itself, even if ABIDE was letting me down. So let’s dive into the Sun King’s Palace by Batts.
It’s Free? Just Read it?
The entire adventure is free right here! Feel free to skip this review and read it for yourself!
A case for the printed book:
I will say that the print copy is BEAUTIFUL and my preferred way to engage with the adventure. I started off reading the free version and fell in love enough to order the softcover.
It has a clean, beautiful layout that’s easy to navigate and digest. Each room takes up a page, each NPC and creature gets its own page, and there are lots of handy references. You WILL flip a lot of pages but you’ll never feel lost.
Definitely pick up a print copy if you enjoy the online version.
With the understanding that you can just read it for yourself, I’ll cover the basics:
- The Sun King’s Palace is a megadungeon set in the dreams of a giant.
- About 100 rooms each filled with unique characters, weird monsters, and powerful artifacts.
- Less traditional dungeon traps and more talky/diplomacy stuff. There is the occasional “bring this thing to another room to unlock the door” Legend of Zelda stuff. But you won’t be using a winch and pully to align statues or whatever.
- The entire adventure has a weird, surreal feeling. And occassionaly breaks the 4th wall or makes some pop-culture references. I enjoyed the blend of weirdness, but it’s not exactly a cohesive experience.
Because the dungeon has such a heavy reliance on engaging with NPCs (about 40 unique characters!) they will make or break your experience. I often find NPCs to be exhausting or difficult to portray in a game, especially on this scale!
However Batts has included a few things to make it easier for you:
- Most characters have clear and direct motivations.
- Each one includes a few quotes and mannerisms to aid in their portral.
- Most are simple and one-dimensional.
Wait…what?! Why would one-dimensional characters be a GOOD thing?
I’m glad you asked! That brings us to the main purpose of this review…
For some reason the term “gimmick” has a negative connotation. But I LOVE a good gimmick. Whether it’s a weird mini-game, a prop, or unique story hook, gimmicks help an adventure stand out. And the gimmick in Sun King’s Palace is a doozy!
The longer you are in the Palace, the more you devolve into a parody of your former self.
The NPCs in the Sun King’s Palace have been here so long that they’ve lost memories, skills, motivations, etc. They are all a shadow of their former selves, stuck in simple cycles with shallow motivations.
Even players are not immune from this effect. Over time players will accumulate “Stain” and begin crossing things off their character sheets. Name, Culture, History, Skills, Spells, Saves, are all slowly drained away until eventually the player just has a sheet of confusing scribbles.
As a gimmick, this is gold. It impacts the players and helps them experience first-hand what happened to this place. There is a fate worse than death here in the Sun King’s Palace: an empty character sheet.
And on the surface it has the added benefit of making all of the NPCs in the adventure much easier to portray.
- Did this person once experience a complex mixture of regret and appreciation after a difficult breakup? Well, now they just cry uncontrollably.
- Did the wizard struggle to overcome their limitations? Now they just live in insane denial of any limitations.
- How did the warrior find the strength to overcome so many difficult obstacles? Who cares? Now that warrior is just sleepy and bored all the time.
But the more I read through these NPCs the more something started to bother me.
Who is THIS guy?!
Imagine if you set out on an epic adventure to meet Zeus, the king of the gods. You grew up hearing story after story about his achievements and powers. You want to meet him face to face and request a boon!
After many trials and tribulations, you ascend Olympus. You approach the throne, and see a muscular man in a thong with a terrible spray-on tan. He’s in the middle of taking a dick pick with his phone when he turns and notices you for the first time.
“Bro…do you even lift?” He says with a sneer. His eyes crackle with lightning and he turns his attention back to his phone.
You are stunned. This…creature is a shadow of the deity you heard so much about. He has no wisdom to share, no power to bestow, and can’t help you. It’s a crushing realization.
That’s what it feels like as players explore the Sun King’s Palace.
Or, rather…this is what it SHOULD feel like.
My biggest gripe is that the players do NOT know about all of these NPCs before they enter the Palace. If you didn’t know all the stories of Zeus, than the weird guy on the throne is just a strange, random NPC.
As a GM, I’m intimidated by the task of communicating exactly how much was lost when the Palace sank into the Abyss. How can I prevent the Sun King’s Palace from just feeling like a bunch of weirdos trapped in a dark temple?
I actually reached out to Batts to ask him this very question:
That’s a good question and something that I’ve thought about and have an answer for, but that answer won’t become a physical thing for a long while. But it’s kind of two-fold:
- There are ways to remove stain. So there are ways for players to return a character to their former glory, allowing the GM to present a less-silly version of them.
- The King’s Crown at the end allows you to enter the dreams of whoever. My ideal version of Sun King includes basically a WHOLE NOTHER book that has maps/dungeons for every NPC that function as their dreams. Essentially doubling the size of the dungeon and giving you a reason to back track through the whole thing after “completing” it.
And upon reflection I discoverd that he actually includes this in the book itself; a list of published adventures that can act as the “mind dungeons” of those NPCs. This is an interesting stop-gap, but hardly a satisfying answer.
My feelings are mixed. I love the gimmick and I love how it simplifies NPCS. That makes my GM brain happy. The book is beautiful and the characters, even in their diminished state, are still interesting to engage with (especially as a group).
However, I also wish I had a book of legends or stories I could tell the players to inform them about how these NPCs used to be. I think that could drive home the setting a lot stronger.
I consider it high praise that my biggest criticism of this adventure is “I need more”!
You can read the free version on itch.io or grab a beautiful print copy on the NERVES store.
As for ABIDE, I hope to continue the solo play at some point. Bones Deep is coming out soon and is sapping most of my creative energy. Once it’s all wrapped up I hope to write a few more blog posts before the year is out.