Tuesday 22 January 2019

[REVIEW] Woodfall


Woodfall (2018)
by Shane Walshe

Woodfall is a “dark fantasy mini setting” designed to be dropped into a desolate corner of a campaign world, and use as a locale for your adventures. It covers a village of sympathetic outlaws menaced by a tyrannical king and his goons, the surrounding swamplands, and various locations and groups based therein. This is a system-neutral product devoid of stats, but obviously meant for rules-light D&D derivatives and sandbox play – the assumed principles of the intended play style are presented clearly and unambiguously at the beginning. This is a general feature of the setting book: it never wastes words, it gets good use out of layout, tables, and illustrations to convey information, and it is very solidly put together. The whole thing is profusely and expertly illustrated by the author, lending it a consistent tone. Everything is in place to enter an enchanted realm of fantasy populated by witches, necromancers, socialism, and swamp monsters.

Wait, did I just say socialism?

Wew lads. This is Tumblr Politics, The Setting. Consensual necromancy only? Fairy safe spaces? “The Faerie Liberation Front is a resistance movement among faeries which fights against the enslavement and exploitation of faeries. In Woodfall, the FLF’s base of operations is in the second biggest tree”? Intelligent undead living in Woodfall village because this is the one place in the kingdom where they are not persecuted? An intelligent undead whose main goal is to solve world hunger by cultivating mushrooms and “new super strains of edible plants”? A gender neutral troll tending to a small garden? (“They live alone, and have not been able to make friends with any of the other monsters or creatures in the swamp. Others tend to run and scream when they see them and this has encouraged the troll to become defensive and develop crippling social anxiety.”) A collectively run trading house where fenced goods are bought and sold, and the proceeds are reinvested into the village welfare system, and common causes? A Thieves Guild whose revenues are shared with a healing tent, the FLF, village welfare, donations to villages outside the swamp, and CAT (Crisis Action Team, an all-female association of witches running a women’s shelter)? Well, you get the idea. Woodfall is a setting book which is pretty thoroughly built on extolling the virtues of anarchism – I will not venture to guess which specific brand – and which infuses pretty much every aspect of the work.

No Kings, No GMs
Now, let us get this out of the way: fantasy is a great place for thought experiments (cue Swift, Heinlein and Lem), and thought experiments about placing weird ideologies in an anachronistic fantasy context and letting them run their course to their logical conclusions are excellent adventure fodder. Satirical or more straightforward, there are interesting dilemmas, what-ifs, and potential for conflict in placing a bunch of anarchists on the fringes of Furyondy. But then Woodfall, while written eminently well, reads a lot like a pamphlet. Woodfall Village is basically a squat (or protest camp) occupied by sympathetic oddballs fighting for justice and diversity, while the king’s soldiers watching them from outside and planning to put an end to their commune are basically Fuck The Cops, a monolithic evil regime whose main activities seem to involve oppression, witch-burning, wife-beating, and doing all kinds of bad things ever committed by The Man. There are other antagonists as well: the greens (a bunch of druids intending to destroy civilisation), goblin punks with a spiky fortress, and the Revolutionary Corpse Council, who are communist necromancers. Meanwhile, Woodfall Village consists of plucky rebels who operate co-ops, pay taxes on a voluntary basis (mainly for a collective welfare system), and live on a bunch of connected islands of equal size, each one an autonomous collective. Monsters are not-evil-just-misunderstood. NPCs are either allies or ideologically impure evildoers. Alex the leatherface monster is “very anxious, and worries endlessly about how they will survive outside their home” after they were evicted from their dungeon by the RCC. Meanwhile, Captain Blake, in charge of the soldier encampment, “totally obsessed with seeing Woodfall Village destroyed and all its residents put in dungeons or executed. He will stop at absolutely nothing, and is incredibly highstrung and prone to bursts of anger”. Dragonlance was more morally ambiguous.

Did I mention it is all a bait-and-switch, and none of this stuff got mentioned in either the Kickstarter pitch (“Explore a dark fairytale setting, wade through a misty swamp, get caught up in the fighting between warring monster clans, discover a strange town of witches and thieves, and search for forgotten treasure. Woodfall is a swamp belonging to a king where witches, thieves and outlaws are squatting. They have built a town on top of the swamp and have resisted several evictions. The town is a hub for black market activity and magical folk. The surrounding forest and swamp is a hexcrawl filled with various monster factions.”) or the present DriveThruRPG page? It would have been the polite thing to signpost this a little better. We can say everything is politics and Keep on the Borderlands is murder, but it does change things. For example, it is clear that Woodfall’s portability – illustrated with a helpful diagram, even – is vastly overstated. You could theoretically insert it into every campaign in the same way you could drop Darth Vader and a detachment of Tie-Fighters in the middle of the Wild Coast – sure, it is still Greyhawk, but it is probably going to be a different kind of campaign.

Typical RCC Meeting

But let’s put that aside, because it is what it is: you will either like the premise or not. How about the play, Mrs. Lincoln? Some of it is rather imaginative, even flavourful – the various shops, societies and inhabitants of Woodfall Village form a cohesive whole which is directly game-relevant while providing the GM with an idea of the bigger picture and good potential for further expansion. The information to run a game is mostly at your fingertips (once again, this does not include stats), exactly where and how you need it. The appendices on new monsters, magic items, wand and potion creation guidelines, monster component prices, and other bits and pieces are helpful. There is an “Appendix N” ranging from Vornheim to Burning Women: The European Witch Hunts, Enclosure and the Rise of Capitalism, a book (well, pamphlet) written by Lady Stardust, and available on Amazon.

On the other hand, the wilderness segment – where much of the presumed adventuring is likely to take place – is much weaker, suffering from a lack of depth despite trying to create a complex environment. The brief treatment of people and places works in the village, where the whole is greater than the sum of a dozen one- or two-page components, but it does not work that well with a range of mini-locales. Consequently, location-based adventures (like dungeons) consist of simplistic maps with a bare room key (“Drinking & Drumming Room, Doomsday Spore Device, Mushroom Cultivation, The Orb, Toilet/Mysterious Whole” – that’s all there is to the dungeon of the punk goblins), taking the extreme of the one page dungeon even further in a direction where functionality disappears up art’s ass. [I should have deleted this sentence, but Mr. Nixon told me to leave it in.] Hexes describing a faction of monsters or NPCs are generally better – the author seems to have a better eye for social conflict than location-based adventures. There is no scale to the wilderness areas – is the swampland a day’s rowing across? Multiple days? There are well-structured random encounter charts, but they aren’t telling either.
Yes It Is Art, But Is It A Game?
So that is Woodfall. It is compact, well put together in a way, and does accomplish what is trying. It is kinda “Crazy Activist GF The RPG Supplement”. Does great art, claims to be doing the right thing, but make the wrong move, and your name might be all over Twitter as a fascist pig and counter-revolutionary. As a cynical reactionary with deeply ingrained suspicions about ideology, and way too much into bourgeois conceits like “actually having stuff” and “liking it when the stores are stocking toilet paper”, I would rather observe it from beyond the reach of my trusty ten foot pole.

No bourgeois scum or playtesters were harmed during the production of this publication.

Rating: *** / ***** (Mr. Nixon was not too happy about this, but it is worth about this much.)


  1. Thanks for this review. I was thinking about picking this up but I really don't need this kind of political stuff at my table. I don't think a lot of reviewers would have taken on the political aspect of this product so directly in the current climate.

  2. Thank you for this quite funny review. Just what I needed today!

  3. Actually the 2-page spread about the goblin fortress looks quite functional. I can imagine an adventure just on that and some embellishment.

  4. An idle thought: how can you raise someone from the dead consensually?

    1. With written consent acquired before death.

    2. Maybe, but that's not very likely with random corpses you may stumble upon.

  5. Ha! I was surprised by this book as well. I am a bit more charmed an amused than you are by the politics of the book. I think it would be fun and entertaining in play, but I enjoy rpg situations as real world reference/satire. It gives a bit of logic to my DMing. I have to agree about the somewhat shallow nature of the hew crawl. Things are a bit empty in places. A scale I guess could be tacked on, but I really miss actual labels on the "relationships between factions table". It uses hex symbols that are not too easy to read.
    I guess I'm just happy something like this exists: crusty punk anarcho fantasy swamp book.

  6. As described it sounds like a pantomime village the standard D&D party would raze to the ground with derision, suspecting a hidden portal to the Land of Topsy-Turvy.

    Played as intended how could this serve a group as anything other than therapy?

  7. You sound like a dirtbag, but this book sounds great!

    1. Target audience, meet product. Product, meet target audience.

      Yet another successful review by Dr. Dirtbag!

  8. This read to me like if it took itself a little less seriously and poked more fun, it would be like the anarcho-syndicalist monty python peasants or The Life of Brian transposed into a d&d module. What made those work as satire of the left is that they were deeply familiar with the 70's far left and sympathetic to the people involved while recognizing the ridiculousness of it. It's a shame since "consensual necromancy by the council of marxist-lenninist necromancers" screams for a campy treatment.

  9. Thank you very much for your review. I really appreciate it.

  10. Cynical reactionary read fascist