I’ve been slow to go through Frost Bitten & Mutilated because I want to read it in print, rather than PDF. The book follows a format that seems common to many LotFP books, front loading the bestiary as a way to explain the world and what its crazy deal is. (Something to write about another time.) There is a small (8x8) wilderness map in the middle of the book with short descriptions for each region a party can visit—a hex crawl minus the hexes.
Zak’s writing in all his books is what I would describe as evocative and terse. (Terse being the real key to his style, I think.) This wilderness crawl is a good example of his style. Zak is able to jam the descriptions of the wilderness on the map of the wilderness itself because he keeps things short. What you sacrifice in a dope looking map, you get back in one that is more functional while playing.1
References to other hexes make a hex map good. Do that when possible.
You don’t have to prove you’re Grant Morrison in every hex, just make a usable map. It can say “Small inn. Well is empty.”
These constraints force you to be creative with what you write. You end up distilling your ideas to their core components. You’re forced to drop anything tangential, pushed to hint at your ideas through a liberal use of adjectives and open ended descriptions. Linking hexes together to tell a story about what’s going on is another way to build up an evocative setting while still keeping your individual descriptions short.
From Frostbitten & Mutilated:
Five crates rest on a cliff edge high above the sled that pulled them. One contains salted cod, one contains 650sp worth of aquavit, one contains an occult text with the names of 4 drowning demons and a map to the entrance to the Dim Fortress, one contains a sleeping snow leopard, one contains beets and Ribboned Jenny the champion rat. Her swarm is nearby
There is so much going on in this brief paragraph. How did the sled topple of the cliff? Was it the swarm of rats trying to retrieve Ribboned Jenny? What’ll they do when the players enter the scene. As the DM you can decide if the party come upon this scene from above, next to the crates, or from below, next to the toppled sled. Knowing the names for Drowning Demons might save your ass later, and of importance to this module, the location of the Dim Fortress is hard to come by.
This rat, Ribboned Jenny, is mentioned in the first wilderness description:
Tumbledown inn overrun by wharf rats in search of Ribboned Jenny, a fancy-rat from Rottingkroner (see H5).
A simpler wilderness blurb, but there is enough here for adventure and excitement. Will the party help the rats, be harried by them, etc. Tumbledown Inn itself is notable for being the only inn mentioned when describing this winter wasteland.
Both descriptions can be read in a few seconds. When playing the game you don’t need to root around trying to understand what’s going on in the hex. There are trade offs with having descriptions that are this short, but I much prefer short descriptions to long ones when running a game.
Frost Bitten & Mutilated is a good example of a simple functional wilderness adventure. Zak has learned the good lessons from Carcosa—easy to grok evocative description—and skipped over the bad lessons—easy to grok super boring descriptions. LotFP has a big stable of solid wilderness adventures at this point: World of the Lost, Qelong, Carcosa, and now this one.
Wife is now fooling around on the tablet I bought so I have email access when traveling. It has the Alice in Wonderland books preloaded on it and she is amazed.
Me, I’m suddenly struck by the idea of putting a young blonde in a blue dress on the cover of an adventure I’d call “Eat Me.” — James Raggi, August 23rd, 2012
A little over two years ago James Raggi mentioned in passing this idea of doing an Alice in Wonderland Adventure. Zak S replied with a phrase that became a bit of a joke on G+: “For a modest advance…” Presumably there was a modest advance, because here we are.
Zak would occasionally share bit and pieces of the book he was working on on his blog: artwork he had finished, or a table or set of rules he had written. I helped play test the module a few times: once with my OD&D group, a couple times with Zak himself, and most recently with Kiel just as the final layout for the book was wrapping up. Zak used a photograph of me as a reference for the Knave of Hearts, after asking for photographs on G+. I have been watching in real time as this book slowly came together. I bring this all up to try and highlight just how much I have been anticipating this book, how completely unrealistic and unfair the expectations I have placed on the final product are, and to suggest that I am perhaps too emotionally invested in this book to review it properly.
A Red and Pleasant Land is a setting book that describes Voivodja, the Land of Unreason. Rather than using the travel guide gazetteer format commonly used for these sorts of things—which, if we are being honest with one another, suck—A Red and Pleasant Land presents its world primarily via elements that are all usable at the gaming table: dungeons, monsters, new rules, and random tables. A Red and Pleasant Land is more about helping a DM build their own version of Voivodja than presenting some canonical version of the place. In this way is reminds me of Carcosa.
A Red and Pleasant Land begins with a brief overview Voivodja. It’s 18 pages long and is probably the only part of the book you’d be expected to read beforehand if you wanted to run things by the seat of your pants. The book starts off with a discussion of what makes this place different than your typical fantasy setting. The history, geography, and culture of Voivodja is examined at a very high level. Mixed in with all of this is advice on how to use the book and run a game in Voivodja: this is something more books should do. Much of this section of the book is adventure hook fodder. (Croquet, a staple of Alice in Wonderland, is presented as an obvious source of adventure: players might play to get an audience with the queen, be hired to track down a obscure wickets, etc.) Voivodja is a strange land where a king and queen have been waging war upon one another for time immemorial. Two other factions have decided to enter this fray, both deciding who to ally themselves with as the adventure begins. The setting is designed to support a game built around the conflict that comes from the players interacting with various NPCs with conflicting goals.
To go along with the new setting is a new character class, the Alice. The character is an interesting twist on the Specialist from LotFP. Every time the character gains a level a percentile die is rolled: this may lead to new powers or bonuses inspired by the events in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland rather than simply gaining more skill points or saving throw improvements. The Alice also has the ability to get exasperated. Doing so lets them roll on an exasperation table, which may lead to the sorts of strange events, again clearly inspired by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: a door appearing out of nowhere, something that normally wouldn’t be able to talk suddenly starts talking, etc. I played an Alice during the play test for A Red and Pleasant Land, but didn’t take advantage of this power—i’m boring I suppose.
A look at the new monsters and NPCs of this world is up next. There are 4 factions in Voivodja, led by: the Heart Queen, the Red King, the Pale King, and the Colourless Queen. Beyond your typical stat block, almost all the creatures in this book have relationships or alliances that could lead to adventure and conflict. This also helps present the setting to the players. Most of the monsters in the book are quite interesting. I particularly liked the Guests, which are basically demons. A Red and Pleasant Land features a great random demon generator that you could steal for any fantasy game. There is also a Brown vampire: trés fantastique! There is an illustration for almost every creature presented. Hopefully you know what a horse looks like.
There are two dungeons presented in detail in A Red and Pleasant Land: the Heart Queen’s palace, and the Red King’s castle. They are both fucking bonkers. Of the two I love the Heart Queen’s castle the most. The games I have played exploring that dungeon have been some of the most fun I’ve had playing D&D. I think they are both well executed and interesting: big enough and weird enough to support multiple sessions of play.
The book concludes with some new rules and then some random tables. (Of course it does.) As I mentioned in my last post about A Red and Pleasant Land, Kiel used these tables to generate an adventure for us to play more or less on the spot, without anyone really noticing what was going on. That seems like high praise for this portion of the book. My favourite title in the whole book is found in this section: “Idiotic Voivodja Filibuster Conversation Openers”. There are lots of great tables, many of which would work in other settings. All games need a “where have you been?” table for when a player shows up late or misses a session, and a good “I search the body” table can tell the players a lot about the world they playing in.
Like Vornheim, A Red and Pleasant Land is as much a book about a particular setting as it is a treatise on how one should go about writing and presenting a setting in general. Zak has clearly approached this problem from the perspective of someone sitting at a gaming table. How much information does the DM need to successfully run a campaign set in this world? How do you best present it all? What things need to be quickly referenced? These are questions that seem to be rarely asked by most authors and publishers, including Wizards of the Coast. This book is worth buying as an example of good graphic design, even if you aren’t interested in Dungeons and Dragons.
The two large dungeons presented in the books are a perfect example of this attention to detail when laying out a page of text. The map of the outer defences of the Red King’s castle, along with the descriptions of the rooms on the map, all fit on a two page spread. Most sections of this palace have cutaways maps along with descriptions that fit on one or two page spreads. Occasionally you will need to flip back a page to see a map, but this hardly feels onerous compared to the typical presentation of dungeons in most modules. Room descriptions are all bullet point rather than long paragraphs, making it easy to quickly figure out what’s going on. There is no superfluous text. This is true throughout the book. Blocks of text that might need to be looked at during a game are usually presented as bulleted lists, while sections of the book that will likely be read before or after a gaming session are often longer and more flowery.
This level of thoughtfulness permeates the whole book. There are next to no tables that don’t fit neatly on a single page, or aren’t part of a tidy two page spread. (The few tables that are too big for a two page spread are clearly marked as spilling over to the next page.) Beyond the dungeons and the rare monster, there is basically nothing in this book that would require you to flip a page to get all the information you need.
The layout of this book is really stunning. Jez Gordan has done an amazing job here. In addition to being so throughly functional the book looks beautiful.
This book is great. The artwork is amazing. The layout is amazing. The content is amazing. The physical book itself is amazing. I’m not sure why I even bothered writing this all up now. When it comes to gaming purchases this is a safe bet. Even if you have no interest in a D&D version of Alice in Wonderland, there is enough creativity here to steal or twist into something else.
Zak Smith made an art book that doubles as a D&D module. If nothing else it’d make a good coffee table book.
I started writing what follows weeks and weeks ago. I have been waiting—impatiently—for A Red and Pleasant Land, the new D&D supplement by Zak Smith. It’s here now, which makes dragging my feet to post this seem particularly dumb.
Several weeks ago I attended OSRCon 2014. I saw some familiar faces and met some new people. The event was low key and a lot of fun. There are lots of old school gamers in Toronto, but we rarely meet up.
The game began as many do: a rich and mysterious benefactor promised the party riches beyond their wildest dreams if they would perform a series of tasks:
Clear out the knothole dungeon (an abandoned hangman’s post).
Map as much of Castle Cachtice as possible.
Ruin the hatter’s trial (“not guilty”).
The characters could make sense of the first task, as they were aware of the the location of the dungeon. The others were confusing: there is no Castle Cachtice and they had no idea who the hatter was. Still, what player is going to say no to tremendous wealth—especially when you are playing a one-shot?
Since this was OSRCon we began the adventure by carefully searching the area surrounding the entrance to the knothole dungeon. A dice roll later and the specialist had discovered a tiny key. Satisfied we were safe enough, we ventured down into the dungeon. We moved cautiously, coming upon a room with 3 dead bodies: two man sized, and one halfling sized. A few more dice rolls and we had discovered a few more curiosities.
As players we quickly realized that this module featured a pretty great “I Search the Body…” table. As the game progressed we could see that a lot of the work Kiel was doing as a GM in this game involved working with random tables and interpreting their results for us. Since he didn’t have an actual book, but a giant ream of paper, this would sometimes slow things down as we waited for him to find his place or look up a result.
This sort of thing can be a lot of fun if the players understand what’s going on, and the delay adds something to the game. Rolling for random treasure is enjoyable because there is some anticipation about what you might find. We were making the rolls as players, so the flow of the game rested with us. By the time we finished futzing around with our dice Kiel would be ready to read off the results of our roll. On the other hand, when Kiel was rolling on random tables himself he doesn’t have this wiggle room and any delay stands out. I suspect he would have been fine had he added a few more post-it note bookmarks to his binder of paper. There seemed to be a few tables he was using regularly in the adventure. (An actual book is also much easier to flip through.) Depending on what tables were being consulted, rolling results before the game or simply reading the tables as lists might work as well to speed things up. I don’t think anyone found the delays particularly distracting. Most of the game moved smoothly so anything that didn’t is noticeable.
Re-reading the above, I was curious just how much or how little preparation work Kiel did for this session. So, I asked him: “I actually ran that adventure with almost no prep. The first knothole dungeon before the castle was randomly generated on the spot.” Impressive! I thought Kiel was using a table here or there, that I was catching every instance of him looking stuff up. Apparently I was just catching those moments where he wasn’t looking things up fast enough. Amazing. I’d have never guessed that first dungeon was something he hadn’t written up ahead of time. Of course, this books isn’t going to automatically make you better at improvisation and ad-libbing, but it certainly seems to be a good game aid to support that style of DMing.
We explored the dungeon, ended up “through the looking glass”, briefly met the Red Queen, and did manage to sabotage a trial—mostly, anyway. A lot of crazy stuff happened in between, but I really don’t want to spoil this setting for anyone else. There are a few elements of A Red and Pleasant Land that are so much fun when you first encounter them I would feel bad if I ruined that experience for anyone else who plans to play in this setting. I participated in the play tests that were happening when this book was in development, and it was a great experience because I knew almost nothing about what Zak was working on beyond the fact it was set in an Alice in Wonderland world. There is another big literary influence on this work, but I feel like not knowing what it is makes that reveal in the game all the more fun.
Kiel ran a great session. It felt very much like something he would run crossed with something Zak would run—which makes sense I suppose. Zak has a very distinct style to his conception of D&D, and it really shines through in this setting. It’s a testament to the work he has done here that the adventure Kiel ran and the adventure Zak ran during the playtest both had a similar vibe to them. Zak’s game didn’t feel anymore genuine or official than Kiel’s.
All in all I have played 4 different sessions set in this world. As a player I have nothing but good things to say A Red and Pleasant Land.
Vornheim: The Complete City Kit was the last book in my recent LotFP shipment I read.1Zak Smith has packaged some of the things he’s learned running city based adventures into this short treatise. The book is more or less clearly delineated in to two parts: the book begins with the Vornheim of Zak’s adventures, a crazy-ass city; the book ends with how to build your own Vornheim. Both sections work well together to produce a terse look at city adventuring.
To quote Zak, “This book is not about Vornheim, it’s about running Vornheim.” The city is described at a high level. After reading the book I know that Vornheim is a sprawling city of towers and bridges with a massive palace (called the Palace Massive!), a giant cathedral, and a wyvern that lives in a well who answers questions. There is the sort of detail about the city and its culture you might find covered in a few pages of a guide book. You learn enough about Vornheim to have a rough sense of what it’s like, but not so much you feel like you’re memorizing names and places.
The opening of the book is followed by a detailed look at three buildings/areas in the city: the home of a medusa, the Immortal Zoo of Ping Feng, and the Library of Zorlac. These are presented in much the same way a small dungeon would be presented in an old school D&D module: maps, room descriptions, monster stats, and some background. I feel these mini-modules serve two purposes: they provide more insight in to what Vornheim is like, and present good examples of what traditional dungeon crawl adventures would look like when moved to a city. All three set pieces are unique and interesting. Even if you have no interest in adventuring in the city, they’d probably bo worth stealing and injecting into your campaign.
Smith presents just enough flavour for the reader to extrapolate what other parts of the city would probably be like, how NPCs not mentioned probably would behave. If you want to play a game in Vornheim, there is enough information for you to make the city your own. You can have your own “official” Vornheim that grows organically from play.
What makes the book work is that Smith then goes on to show you how to go about running a city game. The later half of Vornheim is where it really shines. The book ends with procedures and tables to aid a GM when running a city adventure. It’s quite clear Vornheim is meant to be used at the gaming table: it’s nice and small; all the tables for the DM are at the very back of the book, one after another; the book’s cover itself is a gaming aid, meant to have diced rolled on it. In the D&D Next play test I participated in, our DM used the “I search the body” table to good effect. I’ll have more to say once about this side of things once i’ve actually used it in a game.
I actually can’t think of another book that fills this niche. The Advanced Fighting Fantasy book Blacksand is certainly similar. (It outlines a fictional city and discusses running city adventures.) Blacksand seemed to encourage building out your city before hand.2 As such, it doesn’t lend itself to helping you creating a realistic sprawling mess of a city the same way Vornheim does. Still, if you’re looking for something else about this subject it’s definitely worth a look.3
I do have one complaint with Vornheim, and that is its solid black margins.4 There are other layout choices that probably would have helped make the book more legible. It sometimes feels a bit too dense. Smith’s paintings also seem to be particularly dense, so in some ways one can view the book as an extension of his artwork. You can definitely tell it is his book.
I don’t think I’ve read a bad review of Vornheim. It’s something like $15 so i’m not sure why you wouldn’t have bought it already. If you’ve been waiting patiently for my opinion on the matter, now you have it: go buy this book.
I finished reading Carcosa a few days ago, and I feel like I have so many things I want to say about it I don’t know where to start. Vornheim is a much easier book to grok. Expect one or more posts about Carcosa in the coming days or weeks. ↩
I recall drawing out a small “city” and listing what each of its 100 or so buildings were back when I was a boy. ↩
The rights to this book, and others in the Advanced Fighting Fantasy series appear to be owned by Arion Games now. ↩