Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness (2021)
by Geoffrey McKinney
Levels 4 to 14 (really!)
following: between the Keep on the Borderlands and the Caves of Chaos
(or its “roll your own” cousin, the Cave of the Unknown) lies a peculiar
environment, a land of excitement and adventure; a hallowed locale. The wilderness
around the Caves of Chaos is the place where beginning adventurers go to die. Killed
by the insane hermit and his mountain lion companion, slaughtered by lizardmen,
or running into the raiders, they are slaughtered by the dozens. One of the
times I ran B2, the party never even reached the caves. Somewhere on their way,
they investigated an interesting collection of black pines, got into a fight
with two black widow spiders, were bitten, and died to the last man. Why did they
have to go in that direction? Hell if I remember; they picked up the idea at
the Keep, and kept going until they were in over their heads. The pine trees
were near the edge of the Keep’s surroundings, and if the adventures had lived,
they could have just kept walking. Beyond the map’s edge lies Mike’s World:
The Forsaken Wilderness.
Like most Geoffrey projects, this is an audacious one. Mike’s World expands on B2’s wilderness section, giving you a frontier area of 15 maps in a 5x3 configuration. Centre west lies the Keep and the rest of B2 on the original map sheet; all beyond is howling wilderness with only the occasional permanent habitation. In every direction lies danger and adventure. As the ad copy says, “This is the world you could have made when you were 12 years old, but were too lazy. There are no long-winded histories, complicated calendars, detailed weather charts, intricate genealogies, complex pantheons, or anything of the sort. This is a no-nonsense campaign setting for playing D&D.” Sometimes, there is truth in advertisement, and this 32-page pamphlet is true to its word. You get 14 extra map sheets described and stocked rather like B2’s wilderness, but scaled to the level of the Expert Set, and populated by “Mike”, an evil little killer DM. The Expert rules go from level 4 to level 14, and so do the encounters, getting progressively more dangerous the further one ventures from the Keep’s relative safety. (You can read about Geoffrey’s method in this forum post.) It can get bad, very-very bad; on the fringes, it is bad enough to make high-powered Lords and Wizards quake, and Patriarchs forsake their gods. Every map sheet but the final one gets exactly one facing page of text describing about 3 to 5 points of interest; the final sheet gets two pages.
The maps are meticulously and obsessively aligned with B2, not just in layout, but drawing style as well: Mike, the ostensible 12 years old prodigy went to considerable pains to use the same symbols and the same style of topography as the original cartographer. If you put together all the maps and do some colour corrections on the originals (which I did, and have gained Geoffrey’s blessings to publish them), they fit together so seamlessly it can be hard to tell at first glance which is old and which is new. The illusion, if not perfect, is at least convincing. And it is an enormous playing board, even if the overall area covered is only 11.35 miles by 8.85 miles (or 18.27 km by 14.24 km), or about two standard hexes. These are hiking distances, and that’s what forays into the wilderness will feel like: hilariously deadly hiking trips with the world’s most suicidal scout troop.
When I mention “howling wilderness”, it is no figure of speech. The howling is loud and clear. Robert Conley’s Blackmarsh and Points of Light are lands of competing petty kingdoms and tiny communities fending off monsters and nurturing their agendas, grudges and alliances. The Forsaken Wilderness is what lies beyond the Borderlands: the Keep is the final, tiny point of light, and beyond is only darkness. The road ends on the western edge of the next sheet, and from then on, there are no others. The introduction – very in medias res, no bullshitting here – drives it home that this is inhospitable terrain; even “clear” land is wild, and the forests are dark, thick, and miasmatic. A long conflict called the Glimmerstone Wars devastated the lands, leaving behind scattered population groups typically numbering in the dozens (if that), and no organised civilisation of note. In a very Geoffrey-style twist, we learn that the wars had rent the land: snaking through the fourteen maps are strange fracture lines, faults and zones where strange things happen and even magic is unreliable in its effects. The pamphlet is entirely play-oriented, so the historical background is one brief paragraph, but the setting offers a number of interconnected themes and mysteries, from the origin and fate of the fabled Glimmerstones, to the surviving demi-human and monster populations of the war itself. It is the Wilderlands all right, but not necessarily “of High Fantasy” – it owes as much, or even more in style to Rhovanion, Tolkien’s wilderness setting, which Geoffrey had already tried to map and gamify once (then with less success). It is a land of dark, deep forests; raging great rivers; wet fens; and other grandiose wonders of untamed nature which can appear to us as if wrought by the hand of God.
This is very much a “man vs. nature” setting, and it possesses a peculiar beauty that accompanies dangerous and bizarre elements. This is where the illusion wears a bit thin – no 12 years old is so precocious as to weave in these strong themes of devastation, strangeness, and loss – but Mike’s World is better for it. The keyed encounters are among the best Geoffrey has written; not as minimal as some of his prior work (such as even Isle of the Unknown) and not as forbiddingly negative as Carcosa, the entries are colourful, fantastic, and have great imagery. It is a slightly palette-shifted take on The Hobbit; goblins ride dark green giant spiders and evil treants ferment strange brews to offer by force to travellers; giants inhabit fantastic castles and prehistoric or interstellar monsters stomp around in blighted lands. It is varied and sometimes oddly specific in a way that suggests high randomness (the interior of an ice dome is an even 78° Fahrenheit – neither more nor less? Purple worm teeth are worth exactly 54 to 108 gp, not 51 to 105?), but in every described encounter, the handicraft comes through. When it is standard D&D, it is given a strange twist (they are orcs… but cycloptic orcs! they are gnolls… who are overeating on strange, overripe fruits from the stars!); and when it is sheer oddity, it is given hooks to fold them into the setting (a fallen starship is perfect material to forge magical arms or armour; a wondrous mineral cavern is inhabited by carrion crawlers). It is an excellent, balanced blend of Geoffrey’s sensibilities (cosmic strangeness and Tolkienesque adventure). There are hidden ties and ideas connecting the setting to its fantasy roots (if you consider what colour are the Glimmerstones, you might get a very peculiar and morbidly funny idea where these fabled gemstones might have come from). There is also a sly sense of humour coming through, with passages like “If the DM has a spare afternoon in which to design, map, stat, and detail an entire planet, he can rule that adventurers touching the weapons will be teleported naked to Barsoom, a planet full of other naked people of crazy skin colors.” Easy peasy!
The difficulty curve is real and sometimes seems very steep despite the intended gradation. I think you, the hypothetical GM using this setting, may benefit from populating it with more encounters and a few notable dungeons. And some encounters are plain assholish death-traps worthy of a teenage munchkin DM with a grudge, even with some basic foreshadowing (wyvern pit and “The Endless Labyrinth”, I am looking at you!). You might want to reconsider these.
There are many ways to use this wondrous and untamed wilderness, and for all its unassuming appearance, it is laden with more potential and expressive power that shall only encourage GMs to use and enrich it. It is not an adventure yet – it needs a little extra to motivate the party and get them going, such as a few rumours and perhaps a scattering of more detailed dungeon sites – but it has the good kind of vagueness that invites tinkering and opens up the mind. It is in this respect that Geoffrey hit the bullseye; for in the balance between what is there and what isn’t, he got it exactly right: this is “creativity aid, not creativity replacement”. The maps, of course, are the cream of the crop, and with a little juggling, would make for a great virtual tabletop game. All in all: for a product that’s all rough edges from a product design standpoint, and barely cares enough to make itself presentable as a PDF, it is a triumph of both the imagination and utility, and a real [redacted]-coloured Glimmerstone in the rough. A great gameable setting with a vision, even if you get the odd feeling Mike’s dad might have helped with his homework.
No playtesters are credited in this publication.
Rating: ***** / *****