Monday, 29 August 2016

[REVIEW] Underworld Kingdom, Volumes #1-3

Underworld Kingdom, Volumes #1-3 (2013, 2015)
by Albert Rakowski

Three thin booklets at 20 to 36 pages, using the “supplemental grab-bag” model to present a homebrew setting. The Underworld Kingdom feels most like a published collection of blog posts, and doesn’t try to provide a coherent or systematic overview of its subject. This was done successfully in the older and even thinner Towers of Krshal, while the results are less impressive here. Perhaps this is so because the materials are so disparate (they come from a long period between 1997 and the publication date, and it shows), or because some kind of unifying element or hook is missing.

Underworld Kingdom, Vol. 3
There are three booklets, one dealing with character options, one with gods and spells, and a third with monsters and magic items. The content follows a general D&D-compatible format, which would be easy to adapt to any OSR system. There are character options (e.g. tech levels, social classes, rules for playing the “dead ones” or dimensional/planetary travellers). This is the collection’s weakest section; the ideas are general and the execution remains on the surface level, without adding a genuinely intriguing spin. Length is a factor here. Brevity is the soul of wit, but here, the lack of additional thought leads to a feeling of barrenness. The tech level rule determines the kind of tools and items your character can use, influences starting money, and there is an expanded equipment list classified by TL, but that is all the booklet does with the concept. These are the kind of optional rules and random tables which are very common on blogs (“see, I’ve got this idea about...”), and if it wasn’t for the subject matter (weird technological fantasy), they would be entirely forgettable. This is, for lack of a better term, “lazy weird”.

The series improves with the second and third volumes. The Underworld Kingdom’s thirteen main gods are a dark and forbidding lot, and their peculiarities are presented in a game-friendly format. We learn about their dogmas, the kind of blessings and rewards they confer on believers, the curses they lay on the unfaithful, and even the miraculous signs they provide. This is a list of grim and even more grim folks like the Cockroach King (who can give you the power to digest even the foulest nourishment, but infect you with parasites if you don’t watch out), or Ctuar, a keeper of gates and secrets whose followers must never go first in a passage and never leave an opened door behind them. These are good ideas, although sometimes, the thought that comes to your mind is “screw this repulsive and thoroughly reprehensible lot”. I like flawed and questionable deities like anyone else, but sometimes it is just a bit too much. These guys try too hard, especially when we add the Cthulhu mythos (who are also active here) or the several minor deities, who are from the same general mould. The recently reviewed Yngarr’s gods were perhaps more fanciful and diverse, with a hint of genuine strangeness to them – here it is all grim, grim and even more grim. Since the new monsters and magic items also fit the same Metal Album Cover mould, with rune-covered rusty evil soul-killing stuff smeared with blood and stuff, it can be tiresome when taken together.

The majority of the spells are not particularly good, many of them dealing with machinery in none-too-interesting ways (you can use a spell to recharge them, or control them, or kill them digitally), dealing in necromantic gruesomeness, or being simple elementary damage / environmental effects. There are a few neat exceptions, which are however very high-level, and out of the reach of most parties, or tied to specific gods (and consequently, super-grim, like Brain Rot or Maggot Armour).

The monsters and magic items are perhaps the best part of the collection. They come with interesting imagery, including deadly fungus, degenerate subterranean dwellers, robots and multiple spider variants. This imagery does not translate very well to distinct game mechanics, which would be the next tier on the “good monsters” scale, but if you wish to populate a dark underworld with vile monstrosities, they are here. The magic items are varied and imaginative, although this is a rather short and sparse section that ends all too soon. There are black swords that’d make Elric proud, a jar of smoke that either lets you extend mental control around you or makes your targets attack, and so on. This is good.

Underworld Kingdom does not belong to the group of the really useful utility products (such as the now almost classic Monsters of Myth), while its setting elements are too minor and scattershot to treat it as a good systematic treatment of its game world (like Towers of Krshal did). Contrary to popular thought, it is not easy to write either of these product types, and this is just one of the many attempts that didn’t succeed, or at least it doesn’t have enough of the things where it does (mostly the sections with a strong flavour of the Underworld Kingdom setting). They are a catalogue you can leaf through and where you can find decent ideas, and for that, they are not a bad bargain in PDF. But when it comes to the print version, you can spend your money more wisely.

Rating: ** / *****

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