by Brian Richmond
Inspiration by way of random tables is a touchstone of old-school gaming, from supporting game prep to facilitating quick content generation during gameplay. Random tables and procedural design may as well be the principles to distinguish our design approach from the gaming mainstream – “here be random encounters”, “no fudging” and “roll with what the dice give you” are as old-school as it gets. It is a natural ambition after a while to extend the idea to presenting entire settings through random tables, to move random tables from support material to core material; Towers of Krshal and Yoon-Suin are probably the best modern examples where it is done well, and Rakehell is a product in the same vein.
This supplement is a product of the old-school-adjacent Knave community, presented as the first issue of a zine. As zines go, a 96-pager is fairly heavy, even if a lot of this is thanks to the breezy layout and abundance of white space. But to be fair: this is a whole lot of good, game-relevant and flavourful stuff in a single publication.
As the title suggests, Rakehell is focused on presenting the Rift of Mar-Milloir, “a perfidious wilderness setting”; that is, a lawless borderland wedged between two unnamed kingdoms (later referred to as “The Kingdom of Your Homeland” and “The Wretched Foreign Kingdom” in a tasteful Tom Gauld reference). Mar-Milloir is a poor, disorganised, and chaotic place that has been too inconsequential to conquer, but just important enough to use as a dumping ground for murder hobos, and plunder for whatever resources and wealth it may still possess. Accordingly, the milieu is a bit like a forgotten, particularly disreputable corner of rural France, filled with ruined villages and castles; an unmappable network of hills and valleys hiding uglier secrets; plus brigands, wild beasts and grotesque freaks of nature. Together with Knave itself, the supplement gives you tools to create characters for use in Mar-Milloir, and random inspiration to develop and run adventures therein.
The tone of Rakehell is closest to very early Warhammer Fantasy; not even post-Enemy Within WFRP, but the bizarre dark fantasy game you find in the original rulebook, and the first edition of the Warhammer Fantasy Battle rules (a slightly confused game which had a not very well known quasi-RPG section). It is a piece of John Blanche art brought to life – disposable freakshow characters sent into wretched locales and almost certain death by corrupt authorities; a deeply held suspicion of society and organised religion; an interest in all things corrupt, unwholesome, and moribund; and strong elements of social satire and low comedy. It is very much B-OSR in tone, and has the classic shitfarmer aesthetic down pat. Mar-Milloir’s barons are rapacious brigand lords, its villages decrepit hovels perched on scrub-covered hilltops, its bandits cruel brutes, and its famed bears ferocious man-eaters. It also possesses a rustic beauty: hearty food, herb-covered hillsides, abundant game, and the treasure of better times are in evidence.
The writing style in the zine is rich and expressive, making for great flavour, but less great reference: it is usually good, but sometimes just too much. At any rate, the entries on the random tables are excellent at conveying the genius loci – Mar-Milloir is a distinctive place, and there are no others like it. It is not always successful: if you read through the whole work, you might notice it is just a bit too one-note – as a lot of dark fantasy, it is all “nasty, brutish and short”, and the small spots of beauty don’t successfully add an alternative that would extend its appeal beyond a mini-campaign (even if it could be a great one-off).
Knave is an ultra-minimalist system with the barest degree of complexity, and not much in the way of character customisation beyond your starting equipment. Rakehell remedies this with a set of helpful tables to place your characters in the setting through brief backstory and motivation. For instance, our knave…
- …might have been sent to the Rift after having been cast out by his mother;
- …he might be working with his fellow miscreants because plundering is safer in a company;
- …he might have heard of the Giants roaming the Rift from before the dominion of the Heliopapacy;
- …he might be working as an agent of the Baron of Rendelvex, who desires the Rift for his own;
- ….he might know a little to distinguish the different families of the Rift;
- …and he might know of special, hard-to-find treasures found in the Rift’s village churches.
Such details are complex enough to develop a fairly motivated starting character; additionally, Rakehell adds some flavour to default equipment and weaponry as well (“snug doublet, overly padded and patterned with striped threads”, “griff-hilted arming sword with a basket guard and whalebone grip”).
The best aspect of character generation – and a standout point of the supplement – is found in the section on ten factions whose representatives are found throughout Mar-Milloir, and whose agendas shall make them both potential allies and antagonists. In their brief writeups, they perfectly capture the grotesque spirit of their time and place.
- For instance, The Academy of Gartentrush is a scholarly institution holding that “every book has a purpose, and the Academy believes most of those purposes involve fire”, and whose adherents, dressed in black frock coat and red chaperone hat, carry red notebooks listing the names of books they have burned (gaining XP for burning important books).
- On the other hand, the Bargestknecht are a mercenary knighthood whose “dog-soldiers” “wear toothed helmets that extend off the face in a strange cackling smile. They love their banners, their sashes, and their badges. Many of them are goblins, or make bed with them.” As a member of their order, you get XP “when you conquer a locale, perform a military junta, or take a goblin as a spouse.”
Encompassing religions (the old and the reformist Heliopapacy, and two more obscure orders), guilds, institutions and the two warring countries, these briefly described entities are a potent source of adventure hooks, character motivation and special rewards (mainly in the form of member-only items and magical powers). I would wholeheartedly suggest someone intending to develop factions in his campaign to study this section, for indeed, this is how it is done well.
The majority of Rakehell deals with the setting of Mar-Milloir. The presentation is halfway between the generic and the specific, in a way that is inspiring, but not always perfectly useful. A hex map is provided for play, but it is left unkeyed except for a few tiny symbols which may represent anything you might imagine – this could be a hidden blessing if you really like to create it all. Antévol, a gateway village (“little more than occupied ruins”) serves as the springboard for later adventures. It is described through nine local NPCs affiliated with the various factions, as well as a set of funny, but not entirely practical black market guidelines (it is the kind of game of chance PCs soon learn not to play unless they absolutely must – and not even then). Later sections deal with travel rules, camping sites, village generation, and the like. We may get results like…
Gundelmount, a wattle-and-daub village built around an almshouse at the top of a hill, surrounded by orchards and well-tended woods; held together by secret sacrificial rites but afraid of the wicked men lurking in the surrounding woods; producing excellent timber; and serving good pickle tarts at the tavern.
These tables are
good, although they could be longer and more general: throughout this “GM
section”, the random results are usually too specific and detailed to reuse,
defeating the purpose of ordering them into tables (instead of a list of
concrete entries). This is of particular concern in the case of random
encounters, which should be more properly called mini-adventures – good in
their own right, but lacking as a game development tool or a procedure. The
author’s descriptive ability ironically serves as a stumbling block here – and continues
to do so where he details Mar-Milloir’s main monster types (wyrms, giants, fiends,
and ancient undead) in a little bit too much detail. Certainly, these are
quibbles when it comes to a zine that presents an entire mini-setting, and is
cheap to boot, but there you go.
latest fad gizmo
The expanded, currently available version of Rakehell comes with two mini-adventures. These can be downloaded in the mini-pamphlet format that, as far as I am concerned, are an even worse way to publish an adventure than one-page dungeons, and like the random tables, they suffer from over-writing and limited scope. These are the less successful bits of an otherwise worthy supplement.
Altogether, I believe Rakehell is a fascinating setting book, although more as a semi-random grab-bag of inspiration than something successfully supported by integrated random procedures. Its ideas are more conductive to table use on the player’s side (which is impeccable in its own right), while the GM’s section has issues with the balance and presentation of content. Not everything has to be a random table; and if it is one, it’d better be a very good one. In Rakehell, some of the best parts are those sections which are not random tables – and by no accident. What makes it all worth reading, though, is its unique imagination and sense of place, which makes it a superb quasi-historical setting, and a wonderful source of inspiration. It is dirt cheap, well-written, and a lot of fun, and if you can spin it into a mini-campaign (in Knave or one of the more common old-school systems), you will be in for a treat.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: **** / *****