Thursday 19 January 2023

[REVIEW] The Cerulean Valley

Currently Smoking:
Wind Dragon Weed
The Cerulean Valley (2022)

by George Seibold

Published by Noisms Games

Low levels

Enjoy being lost In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard? If so, this new zine/anthology edited and published by David McGrogan might be of interest. The following reviews will focus on the adventures in the recently published first issue. As the call for papers (appropriate, as the book looks and feels like a scholarly journal) specified, submissions would be expected to be between 2000 and 10,000 words, and they tend to be on the brief side. This is both an opportunity and a hazard. Constraints can encourage efficient writing, but they may also limit the scope and complexity of an adventure. It is a fine balance to walk. Appropriately, some of these reviews will also be on the short side. It is a fine balance to walk.

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In 26 pages (so not quite brief here), The Cerulean Valley gives us a surprisingly thorough sandbox mini-setting describing a valley, its central conflicts, and points of interest. It is a good presentation of an interconnected milieu described in game-friendly terms, somewhere midway between a gazetteer and concrete adventure material. The specifics of the setting are mostly contained in the likes of encounter tables, rumours, an overview description of 15 keyed hexes, and finally a short section discussing dynamic goings-on in the valley. And there are a lot of things going on. Lord Hargrave, an evil lord, who has recently conquered a small kingdom and deposed its rightful rulers, is now scouring the land with his smog knights, looking for the survivors of his coup, as well as a secret that would allow him to consolidate his power. River pirates have started harassing shipping near the main port city, and it looks like they have larger plans than simply making off with a few boatloads of the good stuff. A forgotten prehistoric civilisation is stirring to reclaim its ancient lands. Smaller adventure hooks are integrated into the larger conflicts. There are multiple scales to the action.

The setting’s influences are fairly clearly drawn from Miyazaki and classic JRPGs. You can easily see the signs: a wind tower, themes of environmentalism vs. flamethrower-wielding industrial knights, a dwarf gadgeteer living in an eccentric cottage, a flamboyant headhunter, and a rebel movement called The Retrievers. Yup, those are tells. It comes as a surprise giant magic crystals didn’t make an appearance. This is an interesting combination. While nominally set in western feudal settings, and based on some reading of D&D, a lot of JRPGs are very far from old-school gaming – the aesthetics and preoccupations are different even if the formal elements are present. While enjoyable, JRPGs also tend to be highly linear affairs with massive lore dumps, elaborate custcenes, and very limited player choice. (Some, like Final Fantasy VI, transcend these limitations.) They also have a twee element that is not quite Frazetta. Here, though, the fusion works: the material works as an old-school sandbox setting while it also works as something built on Japanese fantasy. The setting has a compelling character, from weird forest ruins where elves practice some sort of elaborate calisthenics next to humans they barely interact with, to oddly specific details like harpies’ irresistible fondness for hard liquor.

Much is conveyed through the rumours chart and the encounter tables. Both are sufficiently integrated into the setting to serve as links leading the players deeper into interacting with interesting places and conflicts. There is just enough difference to the monsters to have local colour – the smog knights use flame-tipped lances, rock baboons are “disconcertingly sapient” and live in mockeries of human settlements. These elements introduce a local ecosystem of sorts, where the smog knights hunt for rebels, the rebels try to regain a sufficient foothold to overthrow the smog knights, and the saurian-led lizardmen grab captives to advance their rituals to awaken their god. There is a lot of small detail integrated here without feeling awkward or irrelevant – a good example of show, don’t tell.


The hexes are a sort of zoomed-out overview of a place. It is not room-by-room (for instance, monetary treasure is not noted, and there are multiple instances of “there is a two-level dungeon here” type things scattered around the place), nor a brief general summary, but a form that maximises adventure hooks via NPC, locale, and conflict descriptions. For example, the Wind Sage lives on a mountaintop, commanding numerous unseen servants and invisible stalkers, can help the party travel to far-flung corners of the valley via a “Zephyr Sling”, and can lead the party towards the brewing conflicts of the valley. The Smog Knights are cutting down and burning the surrounding forests, but their common servitors are growing demoralised, and the boss, Lasher Sledge (the names are also very JRPG), is too set on his course to change his failing strategy.

This is, in its own way, a well-constructed sandbox: a complex network of one thing leading to another, and being connected to a third thing which then leads to a fourth which somehow is related to the first again. There are some limitations to this approach. This is a sandbox with a built-in purpose: to place you in the middle of the Cerulean Valley’s brewing conflicts and play this to the hilt as things collide and blow up. There is plenty of player agency, but it is the core conceit. It is not the sandbox setting to go to if you want a more loosely defined milieu to develop adventures in. If you do not want to tie the whole thing to the plucky rebels-vs-oppressive empire theme (which seems to define Japanese fantasy conflicts), a lot of it suddenly becomes less valuable; and when the events run their course, there is really not much left to do (which seems to be another feature of classic JRPGs, come to think of it). This is a closed system with reduced reusability, a finely honed katana made of the best Japanese steel single-purpose tool – and specifically made that way. The value lies in its inwards focus.

Thus, The Cerulean Valley is an authentic expression of a certain kind of fantasy, which it turns successfully into an open-ended sandbox (thus eliminating the main flaw of the source materials). The appeal is not universal; in fact, it is the specificity that sells it, if you are in the market for it. However, it is also quite good as a practical example of how to do a small, self-contained mini-setting. It could be used as a launching board for developing your own adventures, or as is if you are a fan of improvisation.

No playtesters are credited in this mini-setting.

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

1 comment:

  1. I probably shouldn't comment on a review of my own zine but I did want to say thanks for identifying that there is a Ghibli vibe in this one - I hadn't thought about that but it's really true and such a useful observation.