|Cover to the David Perry edition|
[REVIEW] The Sea of Vipers (2018)
by Kyle Marquis
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: **** / *****