Sunday, 17 March 2019

[REVIEW] The Sea of Vipers


Cover to the David Perry edition
[REVIEW] The Sea of Vipers (2018)
by Kyle Marquis
Self-published (kinda)

The foremost duties of game materials are to be inspiring and useful. Wilderlands of High Fantasy, Judges Guild’s setting is both: it is dynamite for the imagination, while remaining laser-focused on inspiring you to run a game. It does not always live up to its promise (its citadels and castles are a list of numbers; sometimes the randomisation shows through; not all parts of it are of the same quality as the core regions), but the idea is pure, and it continues to be inspiring after more than 40 years after its publication.

The Sea of Vipers, available for free online, is a modern-day campaign setting which captures some of the magic of the Wilderlands as seen in its original, cryptic and sketchy incarnation. It has a gimmick: it was originally published as a series of Twitter posts. That does not inspire much confidence. Twitter, generally speaking, is worse than useless – it actively makes our lives and world worse – but in this rare case, it serves a good purpose: it imposes a limit and structure on the setting information. The same way Judges Guild was struggling with primitive publishing technologies in its day, the author of The Sea of Vipers had to conform to an externally imposed, arbitrary character limit. In both cases, the creative tension has resulted in something intriguing, and perfectly structured for the needs of a game. (Note, there is a cool gazetteer-style online document here, made by David Perry – it is mostly excellent, except for using a different version of the map where all hex entries are off by one row).

Like its JG predecessor, this is a ground-level hex-crawl setting, with the barest minimum of overview information. A one-paragraph introduction, a list of three different pantheons, and some notes on power structures serve as a general framework (two pages of text with a very breezy layout, with room left to spare), followed by a hex-by hex description of the overland areas found on a 64x33 map sheet. These hex descriptions are one-liners; they consist of a hex code, a letter code for terrain type, and the hex description itself. Together, they describe a fantastic archipelago spread over two larger, two smaller, and maybe two dozen tiny islands.

The Sea of Vipers
The strength of the material lies partly in this structure, but the reason it has a zing is due to the author’s command of the written word. Consider the intro:
“The Sea of Vipers lies south of Gandavor. Since the rise of the Technogogic Implementer, who promulgated new theories of magic, the fractious, traditionalist Rootborn magicians have opposed his unification schemes. After years of low-key hostilities, the islands’ magicians agreed to a Conclave Arcane, but the Implementer betrayed them and spoke the Word of Serpents, which killed hundreds of Rootborn, devastated the Island of Tamera, and triggered the Word-of-Serpents war. The Rootborn fought back, but they had already lost, and now the Technogogic Implementer’s five satraps, the Enthroned, rule the islands.”
It is obscure, and it does not go into the particulars, but reading this much should already give you everything you really need to plan and run a campaign. The same sure hand is in evidence in the hex entries. For instance,
  • 2902 H Quartz hills create a tree made of moonlight on the 1st day of the crescent moon with magical healing quinces that grant prophecies.
  • 2903 HD Temple of Kell. The Archifex seeks the intelligent sword KODMOS (2801), which can yank out a person's skeleton (fatal) and control it.
  • 5402 LF Well full of martyrs' heads. Its water is poison to all save the righteous, who gain great powers and then die within 333 days.
  • 0516 DH DEAD LEOPARD HILLS. Leopards destroyed by the Word-of-Serpents; all that remains are their spots, teeth, and hunger.
  • 0523 D Lair of VEIS, Serpent of the Unclean Dance. Causes mania, tremors, the vomiting of worms; treasure includes the MANUAL OF SWANS.
  • 0524 D A bolt of lightning frozen in the sly, glowing faintly. All who touch it die; scorched avians and flying machines litter the dunes.
  • 5305 LF Elf demagogues argue the cultural significance of ear-sharpening cream. The issue is obscure; opinions are mandatory.
  • 1401 LF GOLGAMMANNAH, CITY OF PAINTED HANDS, pop 800. Near-ruined port city. Created magically as a glory, melting with so few to admire it.
  • 1402 P Herd of 22 displaced Bigby's Hands thunder across the plains, stalked by a small pack of 4 Mordenkainen's Hounds.
  • 0722 D An aarakocra desert druid cultivates mellified raptors, drowning birds of prey in honey to create potions of healing.
A lot has been said about terse expressiveness, expressive terseness and tersive expressness (never mind the rest, it has become a meme), but this is how it is done. The contents are mysterious, irrational and dreamlike – dreamlike in the sense that disparate elements are connected in ways that defy rational explanation but make a sort of deeper sense, and also dreamlike in the way it all feels like the images of a kaleidoscope, filled with strange colours and shapes. This is not an easy effect to reach; and you can see the parts where it does not work out.

Island of Alu Pan
Sometimes randomness is just randomness for its own sake, or it becomes lame by trying too hard. This problem can also be seen in The Sea of Vipers. For example:
  • 0913 D Broken 50' jade hoop once served as the phylactery of a storm giant lich. Nomads fear the jade's "poison light."
  • 2623 LF URMISH, the THRONE OF ANTLERS AND IRON. Has a 50' WICKER BEAR stuffed with drugged bears and ready to rampage if anyone ignites it.
  • 3131 P Wereseacucumber sea elf has fled his sahuagin masters to study Thousand Gut Style martial arts under the intestines of Du Mu in 3028

Here, the hex entries are not dreamlike, just dumb. There is in fact a point where AWSUM becomes too much. A long time ago, in edition wars now far away, the excesses of 3e were sometimes illustrated with the example of Thri’Tard the grell Monk, and some of these examples feel like good old Thri’Tard with a new lease on life. This impression is strengthened when the stranger-then-strange hexes keep piling on. The setting is thus utterly weird, without a baseline of normality. The Wilderlands works so well because it is an internally consistent Dark Ages / Late Antiquity setting with fallen flying saucers and mermaid palaces – the basic texture is what makes the weirdness stand out. Here, plate-armored gorillas (3823) live right next to a now-bodiless flowering treant who controls a dracolich (3924), and a fox-headed hydra seeking the foxtail flywhisk of the Throne of Antlers and Iron (3723). And I picked this hex cluster entirely randomly. The Sea of Vipers does not really have any normal inhabitants. Its dial is always cranked up to at least 9, and often 10 or 11.

How could you use this supplement? I envision a game that’s purely focused on hex-crawling and discovering this strange setting. There is not much to the hex entries without investing a ton of work into them, so the best way not to exhaust them is to keep moving. So you’d have something out of Marco Polo’s travels, Seven Cities of Gold or Italio Calvino’s Invisible Cities – lots of travel, quick engagement with the contents of various hexes, and moving on to the next place to see new sights. You could be traders looking for exotic and precious goods, messengers, bureaucrats sent to create catalogues of the archipelago’s wonders for the Technogogic Implementer, or your usual band of roving conquistadors and murder hoboes. You could also thin out the hexes just a little to let it breathe a little – perhaps keep every fifth or sixth one, the ones you personally like the best.

With all the previous criticism in mind, I really like this setting. The good parts are full of imagination and wonder, and while randomness is the key principle, there is a cohesive vision (or at least aesthetic) behind it all. It is also supremely game-friendly, and a good take on the organising principles behind the Wilderlands. Well worth a look.

Rating: **** / *****

Friday, 8 March 2019

[BLOG] The Conspiracy

The Conspiracy is a simple, play-friendly method to describe interaction and conflict between city-based interest groups or conspiracies, reusing the entries of random encounter tables. Individually, random encounters represent local colour, complications in an ongoing scenario, or the beginnings of mini-adventures. By placing three or four next to each other – whether by design or chance – the result is often an adventure that can fill much of a session. Yet cities are even more complex, and they are filled with hidden social structures with dangerous agendas. 

In the Conspiracy, the nexus points of a pre-drawn, blank “connection network” are populated with random or semi-random encounters, and once finished, a coherent design is created around the existing network.

Sample Networks
The resulting network has multiple benefits. It shows who is associated with whom, and it also shows which way clues lead from one point to the next while the characters are investigating the network. The links can, furthermore, represent command structures, dependencies, and especially the conduit of information. They can be one-sided (marked with an arrow) or mutual. Stronger links may be marked with bold lines, and weak, tentative ones with dashed ones. Some connections can be dead ends, but important nodes – the „heart” of the conspiracy – should be located close to the centre, approachable from multiple directions. The deeper details of a network usually follow logically from the connected nexus points.

These networks are individually fairly simple, but they are often well hidden, and a large city has several of them. They are often connected, too – but how? Does it all form an enormous spider web, with a particularly clever conspirator pulling all the strings? A hierarchy, with a leader or group on top of the all-seeing pyramid? A matrix that seemingly leads nowhere? Or multiple networks vying for power and influence? All configurations have their potential in the game.

Example: The Gamemaster wishes to develop a conspiracy centred around Prince Alkoor, a double-dealing aristocrat. Selecting the second basic layout, he rolls up seven encounters [these are drawn from The Nocturnal Table, a forthcoming supplement for running city campaigns, and are abridged here for demonstration purposes]:

  • 137 Bricks fallen from a nearby wall are all stamped with the mark of a cat’s eye, reveal entrance to forgotten part of house sealed up long ago.
  • 151 City guards: 1d4*5 militias (Fighter 1) battering down tenement door, suspected tax-dodgers.
  • 212 Hermit, an animalistic, nameless wreck, digging in street garbage. Cursed priest.
  • 239 Mob: 2d4*10 men looting neighbourhood
  • 312 Robbers: Yusuf Muraad Khusi (Illusionist 4) and 2d6 robbers (Fighter 2); the hunchbacked Yusuf, hiding in a curtained hiding place, creates the illusion of several more companions surrounding locale.
  • 110 Alchemist Multiphage of Lam (Illusionist 6) selling 1d6+1 potions from beaker of potions (01-40 delusion); also provides horoscopes (all ambiguous)
  • 356 Thief Smardis (Thief 4, deep blue turban, 4*opium), smoking a hookah and offering empty tower apartment for sale at 140 gp.


Prince Alkoor's Conspiracy
With some more rolling and interpretation, the random entries yield a decent criminal enterprise. It appears that Alkoor’s game is to expropriate plebeians through aggressive tax-collection (151), as well as inciting looters in the slum areas (239). He buys up properties on the cheap, and sells them through one of his agents, a skilled thief named Smardis (356). Alkoor is mostly careful to work through intermediaries, a loyal robber gang (312), placing his orders in a secret meeting room in a sealed house (137). However, a more immediate connection can also be established via the City Guard – perhaps he has been stepping up the collection efforts and leaning on the officials. This is only part of his racket, though – and perhaps an entirely lawful one!

We have two more entries to consider. It seems Alkoor is related to a nameless pariah (212), who could be a victim or a secret associate – the GM elects to make him an effective spy most characters would not suspect. Finally, the alchemist and potion-seller (110) is tentatively connected to both of Alkoor’s main activities, without being linked to the robber gang. Perhaps he is not even a formal part of the network – just someone who had made a fateful connection, and can offer the important information that the two activities are somehow connected… or someone who’d had his own fingers in the pie, but is now in over his head.

And how does it all unfold? Does Alkoor end up losing his head, or does he have an offer the players can’t refuse? Are those connections with the robbers and the City Guard good enough to hound the company out of the city before they jeopardise a perfectly good get-richer scheme? Well… The conspiracy described above should serve as a sufficient framework to provide the right kind of pointers, and let the characters connect the dots on their own. The adventure can take the shape of a mission, or arise spontaneously from the logic of the campaign: in any event, minor puzzle pieces can form a pattern; and patterns, a grander design.

Cloak, Dagger, and a Few Magic Missiles


Saturday, 2 March 2019

[REVIEW] Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers

Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers
Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers (2018)
by Aaron Fairbrook (Malrex)
Published by The Merciless Merchants
Level 5-8

Strong and compelling imagery is the foundation of good fantasy: start with a great image, and the rest will follow naturally. This is an image-based module. The bone toilers, stocky extraplanar Neanderthals, are excavating a series of jungle tar pits for the myriad fossilised bones trapped therein. Creaking primitive machinery, bone toilers dirty from the grime of their work and shouting incomprehensible gibberish at each other; sweltering tropical heat; and enormous piles of bones carted off for unknown purposes towards the bone toiler’s fortified camp. Hell yes there is a good potential for action in there! (As long as the players don’t start cracking non-stop Flintstones jokes, which is a credible threat.)

Images are not all. There is a good exploration-oriented adventure behind the core idea. A jungle canyon meanders through the landscape, opening into side areas forming their own mini-adventures. This is the hub-and-spokes structure so popular in CRPGs, and it works admirably well. It is satisfying to enter what amounts to an overland dungeon, and find it littered with smaller dungeons. There is a variety of places to explore, from ruined villages to interconnected cave systems. It is fairly combat-heavy, with large groups of powerful opponents almost everywhere.

The encounters are a good mixture of the naturalistic and fantastic: the module is well grounded in its jungle exploration themes, while offering wondrous magical enigmas on the side. There are also sufficient intelligent NPCs and monsters to interact with, from a camp of looters who are over their heads to the duskwalker, a company of mysterious beings opposed to the bone toilers’ plans. The central point of interest, the bone toiler’s bizarre mining operation, is an interesting challenge in the vein of the G series – the opposition is numerous and powerful, and a combination of action and stealth is needed to win the way. This place was perhaps a bit too heavy on the bone motif: when everything is made of skulls, they lose something in the bargain.

The module’s writing is an effective, tight mix of game information and catchy descriptive detail, but lacks the polish of The Red Prophet Rises. The maps are lacklustre. I got a printed copy from DriveThruRPG, but the print is blurry and the maps are hard to interpret (particularly the Canyon itself). The Canyon’s scale is off – a minor thing, but there is no way those squares are only 10’. Finally, while I am usually the last to complain about layout, the haphazard way in which (often barely related) stock art was dumped through the module is an eyesore. As a trade-off, the content is good, and there is a useful sheat sheet with monster statistics that fits on a single page.

Tar Pits of the Bone Toilers is a good sword&sorcery module that stays true to the themes of the genre while translating them to the language of games. It is well worth owning.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: **** / *****