I have said a few times that I like to focus on the works of people in the smaller press, and the people who are the self-publishers, because the big companies generate plenty of press on their own by being the big companies. Designer Chris Kutalik, through publishing collective The Hydra Collective, has published a trilogy of adventure/setting books that I am loosely calling the Slumbering Ursine Dunes trilogy (after the first book in the set). These books utilize an old school design sensibility to create a setting through implicit and explicit methods. While the rules that the books are designed for is Daniel Proctor's B/X inspired retroclone Labyrinth Lord, they can easily be adapted to any of the many D&Dish games that are currently available in the world.
The books of Kutalik's trilogy that we'll be looking at are Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Misty Isles of the Eld. All three share a setting and are, more or less, continuations of the adventure. The three adventure/setting books also share a few thematic elements as well.
Implicit world building for old school fantasy games typically means that rather than explicitly spelling out the adventure's setting through a dedicated setting section, they instead reveal the world through things like the flavor text of the mechanics sections, choices of spells and character options, and choices like new character classes. For example, in Slumbering Ursine Dunes there is a War Bear character class that tells us a couple of things about the setting: the first is that, outside of the "standard" humanoid fantasy races of traditional games, there are human-like intelligent bear creatures in the world, and the second is that they have a society that values martial organizations. Without having to explicitly write out the setting, we already know some things that separate the Ursine Dunes from other fantasy game settings.
Slumbering Ursine Dunes also introduce Kutalik's Chaos Event Index table, something that appears in all three books. All three of the books of Kutalik's world draw upon the works of Michael Moorcock as an inspiration, which in and of itself isn't unusual for a fantasy game setting, but instead of the Eternal Champion material of Moorcockian characters like Elric, he instead draws upon the more obscure, and baroque, elements of stories like The Golden Barge. As fans of fantasy literature know, however, the encroachment of Chaos can be important to Moorcock's stories, and this is where the Chaos Event Index comes in. Basically, each book has a set of random tables that can cause short and longer term weird effects within the setting, and even impact the magic used by characters and NPCs. Which tables are rolled upon are determined by events within your games, such as killing certain protagonists in the adventures. As the Chaos Event Index increases, stranger and stranger things being happening in the world.
I think that this is a great idea that helps to enforce the dream-like fantasy that Kutalik is trying to create with his world. These elements can give the world a touch of a Jorge Luis Borges quality, a South American fantasist whose works aren't seen often enough as an inspiration for fantasy games.
Each book has its own Index that highlights the part of the world in which that book is set. This concept is one that can be reskinned for a number of different things in individual campaigns. For example, I am in the planning stages of an apocalyptic fantasy campaign that would take place during a series of extradimensional demonic incursions. A modified Chaos Event Index would be a great tool to demonstrate the escalation of things within the world.
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is the middle book of these supplements, and where the other two books are focused on adventures this one is more focused on the city setting of Marlinko. There is a long tradition of city setting books in fantasy games, going back to the early days of fantasy gaming and the works of Judges Guild and supplements like Midkemia Press' seminal city book Runequest Cities, up through more current works like Vornheim. Like Vornheim, Marlinko relies on random tables to fill out the city, although it is nowhere near as random as Vornheim can be. The model for the city of Marlinko is the walled medieval cities of Eastern Europe. Kutalik managed to resist the what you see in a lot of fantasy gaming city supplements: the need to write up and explain every building in the city and its inhabitants.
In Misty Isles of the Eld, the final book of what I am calling a trilogy, the inhuman race of the Eldur, who have been antagonists in the other two books, step to the forefront, as their homelands are explored. While it would be easy to call these creatures reskinned elves, I think that they are also pulled from the inspiration of Moorcock's writings. To me they seem to, like the Golden Barge from Slumbering Ursine Dunes, an echo of the Eldren, Moorcock's ur-race of inhuman beings that would be responsible in his fiction for both the Melniboneans of the Elric stories and the Vadhagh people that birthed the title character of the Corum stories. These creatures are extradimensional in nature, which makes this adventure a good plug in for existing campaigns, because this means that they can be introduced into a variety of different settings and campaigns.
The art in all three books is black and white, and helps to set the tone for Kutalik's unusual world. There is a Eastern European/Slavic influence on the world that is reflected in the art. Misty Isles of the Eld cover has an added Glam Rock sensibility to it, which was one of the factors that lead me to picking up the book.
Small press fantasy games and supplements tend to be more idiosyncratic than the work produced by more mainstream publishers. Rather than being reflective of a desire to make things that are startlingly different from what is done by publishers like Wizards of the Coast (although that urge does exist, and is demonstrated in the work of designers like Zak Smith), I think that the strangeness of fantasy settings like that in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes trilogy is more reflective of the games that these designers run. When the work that is being produced is rooted in play it is going to develop a different aesthetic than something that is created and then played out. This is what makes the works of Kutalik interesting to me, because I know that using these elements and adventures will work in my games, because they worked in his games.
I like offbeat and non-traditional fantasy tropes, so what is a selling point for me in regards to these books might not be for everyone else. Also, it is a plus that Kutalik isn't just rehashing some old school module or adventure. While I like old school systems like Labyrinth Lord and Swords & Wizardry for their simplicity, I like to see people using them for new and interesting things rather than just using them out of nostalgia.
A major flaw with Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko are the lacks of functional tables of contents or indexes. While neither book is large, Ursine Dunes is 60-some pages while Marlinko is 70-some, finding individual thinks (like the Chaos Event Indexes) would be easier with a working table of contents. While Misty Isles of the Eld is better than the other two, with a useful table of contents, none of them have indexes.
Whether you are an old school or new school fantasy GM, I recommend checking out Kutalik's work. You're getting game design that is unique and personal, while getting to fill in some blank space in your own campaign world with some ideas that you yourself might not have thought about.