Tuesday 8 June 2021



“Venture into a rugged land of stamp-sized, steadfastly independent petty states, populated with robber bands, pious clergymen, wig-wearing philistines, adventurous countesses, and wily cheats: the cantons of Helvéczia, a territory of forbidding mountain ranges and endless forests betwixt rival empires. (…) A re-imagination of old-school fantasy role-playing in a late 17th century Switzerland that never was, Helvéczia is a fast-paced and colourful game of guns, dames, deviltry and steel, based on swashbuckling tales, penny dreadfuls, local legends, and the strange stories of the Brothers Grimm.”

After its debut at the North Texas RPG Con, I am pleased to announce the publication of my pseudo-historical RPG, Helvéczia. Published as a 204-page hardcover and a lavish boxed set (which contains the hardcover book, a regional adventure supplement, nine map sheets, and more), this is a self-contained game system taking you to a strange alternate-world Switzerland where danger lurks in the deep forests, and even weirder things are afoot in the high mountain valleys. In Helvéczia, you can…

  • get surrounded by a band of brigands, shoot your way out, and make your getaway on one of their horses…
  • seduce an adventurous countess, and lose all your money to her in a game of cards (how did she do it?!)…
  • get devoured by giant frogs lurking in an abandoned well…
  • blow up the Devil’s stagecoach and live to tell the tale…
  • die in an unlucky first aid attempt (many such cases!)…
  • hunt wolves from horseback with grenades…
  • learn useless sciences like Hermeneutics and Vacuum Theory, then find them surprisingly useful…
  • get captured by the Inquisition, and escape from their clutches with the aid of a Holy Bible they gave you for your final night…
  • team up with the Inquisition against a blasphemous nest of fishmen…
  • dig up the fingerbones of a hanged man for the Skeleton Key spell, and procure a tanned dogskin for Emilio Sciarelli’s Spectacle…
  • play cards with the Devil for your immortal soul!

All of these, and more have happened in Helvéczia games (although some took place in the land of Catalonia, for you can play the game in other pseudo-historical milieus with a little effort).

Look, ma! Very Irate Geese!

As it should be evident, this is not a game concerned overmuch with historical accuracy or physical realism; rather, it aims to be a fast, swingy, colourful romp with high stakes and a lot of fantastic detail. It is not grim, and not particularly dark (although the past, indeed, is a foreign country – do not expect 21st century America or Europe). You do not have to be a student of history to appreciate Helvéczia (although an interest in it does not hurt): if you like Grimm’s strange and bloody stories, swashbuckler romances by Dumas and others, or swords-and-stagecoaches films, you will be right at home. Above all, this game is a love letter to the penny dreadfuls and cheap picaresque novels describing the lives and changing fortunes of scoundrels, bravos and never-do-wells – adventurers in the truest sense!

A Miraculous Escape!

Unlike many “OSR” systems, Helvéczia departs somewhat from the usual B/X lineage, and uses a simple, heavily streamlined and modified version of the d20 System (abandoning its more cumbersome aspects, and subjecting it to a lot of tinkering and polish). Players will no doubt be familiar with the game’s four classes, spell memorisation, the procedures of the combat system, or saving throws and experience points. Helvéczia employs this familiar framework, and puts its own spin on it. Everything is altered to fit the game’s subject matter, and it all fits into a closed, six-level advancement scale: even the mightiest heroes or the most ferocious monsters are found in this range. Yet, even low-level characters can accomplish much, and you do not have to be high-level to make a difference. There is no level scaling in the world, or in the published adventures: it is up to the players how to navigate Helvéczia’s pitfalls and dangers, and succeed or fail by their own decisions (and the fickle dice). This is, also, a complete game: everything you need is found in the rulebook, from rules, spells, monsters, magic items (mostly new) to GM advice, random tables, a starting adventure, and a brief setting guide. The rules are intended to be easy to learn, and the book can be picked up by beginners rather quickly.

Version Comparison Chart

Helvéczia is available in two versions: a more affordable hardcover, and a complete boxed set. The hardcover version ($40) includes:

  • Helvéczia, a 204-page hardcover rulebook, with a cover by Peter Mullen, and interior art by a host of period artists;
  • an A3 overview map of Helvéczia by Sean Stone, providing an overview of Helvéczia’s geography on one side, and its main cantons, towns and territories on the other;
  • a deck of 32 cards in case you want to play a hand with the devil – according to Hungarian card sharp traditions, the tried and true blue Piatnik card set, NO IMITATIONS ACCEPTED!

Hardcover edition

The boxed version ($60) includes everything above, and then some in a sturdy, hand-made box filled to capacity with goodies. Thus:

  • Helvéczia, a 204-page hardcover rulebook, with a cover by Peter Mullen, and interior art by a host of period artists;
  • Ammertal and the Oberammsbund, a 72-page regional supplement describing two cantons in Helvéczia in a hex-crawl format, and containing three larger and two shorter adventures, along with other miscellance (this supplement is also available separately);
  • an A3 overview map of Helvéczia by Sean Stone, providing an overview of Helvéczia’s geography on one side, and its main cantons, towns and territories on the other;
  • eight more A3-sized, double-sided map sheets offering player and GM hex maps for the entire extent of Helvéczia, and some of the surrounding territories (two of each map included to last multiple campaigns);
  • a deck of 32 cards in case you want to play a hand with the devil – according to Hungarian card sharp traditions, the tried and true blue Piatnik card set, NO IMITATIONS ACCEPTED!;
  • a folder with character sheets, sample characters, and a calendar booklet to keep strict time records with for a meaningful campaign (the folder doubles as a collection of reference sheets).

Boxed edition (four-volume, antique edition of Gil Blas not included)

Is it fun? We think so. Judge by the results of last Sunday’s expedition to the tunnels and chambers beneath the small town of ___(Redacted to protect the place’s good reputation)____, which lead right to the very depths of HELL!

  • Angelo Rossi, the Italian Vagabond, fell into a pit, where he was torn apart by headless walking corpses.
  • Brother Jean-Ambrose Lazard, a very sinful Franciscan, was captured by devils, and boiled in a fiery cauldron.
  • Tristan de la Croix, a French Soldier, was captured by the beautiful but wicked Gudrun von Oberhöllen, one of the aristocrats of Hell, and for disrupting her wedding night, imprisoned in a cage for the lady's perverted fancies. (Some might not find this so bad.)
  • Ivan the One-Eyed, Cossack Champion, fled in panic, and in madness did he emerge from the depths below!
  • Finally, Werner Lösung, German Sharpshooter, rescued Gudrun's handmaiden, the beautiful and innocent Elsie Schreck (who went to Hell for swearing, once!), but had to ask the Devil's assistance through cards to return to the surface of Helvéczia while hiding in a wardrobe (dragged through a painted cupola sky by diabolical giant owls). Since he had nothing else to pay the Devil with, Werner had to sign the contract (but at least he got to marry Elsie).

Want to die horribly in HELL and suffer ETERNAL DAMNATION? This is your game. Want to become a brigand leader? That, too, can be arranged. Reach sixth level, defend your doctorate in theology, and retire in style to your very own abbey? Not impossible. Win the hand of a fiery Gypsy girl after forgiving your mortal enemies? Certainly! Die in the last round of the last combat of a long-running campaign, and get decapitated by a vampire lord you had loosed on the world several sessions before? Could be, could be. Such fates, and more are in store for those who brave dust, gunfire, weird beasts, secret societies, and stand fast in the eternal struggle between Heaven and Hell!

IMPORTANT SHIPPING NOTE: As you might guess, the boxed set is large, and heavy. Accordingly, every boxed copy ships separately from other ordered items, and – unlike the smaller zines and modules – every boxed set incurs a separate shipping charge. Please note also that boxed sets have been found to ship slightly slower than regular mail, so expect some extra time or delivery.

Kämpft weiter!

Monday 7 June 2021

[BEYONDE] Marcell Jankovics, Hungarian Animator

I came to praise Marcell Jankovics, not to bury him. After all, his visionary, psychedelic animation masterpiece, Fehérlófia [Son of the White Mare, 1981] is finally getting the US Blu-Ray treatment in a new, restored 4K edition, the sort of recognition it deserved many years ago. I already had part of this post written when I learned from the news that Jankovics was dead at the age of 79. The post, once a recommendation, had turned into an eulogy. We lose the greats, but at least this time, we have the work: the restoration (which Jankovics had closely overseen), the Blu-Ray, and – by incredible fortune – the finished version on Toldi, his final project, expected to debut in Hungary in late 2021, and worldwide somewhat later.

But first things first, Fehérlófia. If you are a fan of fantasy, myth, animation, or a combination of the three, this is a film you owe it to yourself to watch. Based on a Hungarian folk tale that exists in several variations, and is considered particularly archaic, this is a modern retelling of primordial myth, with bold visuals and heavy symbolism. It is a story of mythic heroes – archetypes – struggling with the forces of nature and an undefined evil. It is the story of Treeshaker, a great hero born of a white mare (who breastfeeds him for fourteen years, granting him sufficient strength to uproot trees); two mighty companions who are almost but not quite as strong (Stonecrumbler and Irontemperer); and their journey to the Mythical Underworld (really!) to defeat three dragons and rescue three princesses. It is a journey set against a backdrop of titanic forces of nature, archaic bestial horrors, and a world where simple human craft takes on the importance of religious ritual. The tale is universal: it is the tale of pre-historic, pre-modern man in his youth, finding his way in a dangerous and grand world. 

There are very few animations which look like Fehérlófia, and none that look exactly like it: Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen compares with its feverish visions and golden colours, and also with its modern yet deeply respectful treatment of its source material. Jankovics’ animation works with bold shapes and radiant colours. It is psychedelic, although without recourse to drug use: it aims to depict the unreal, and employs unreal visuals to this end. It is heavy with symbolism, from the spiritual to the psycho-sexual (of varying subtlety), and it is particularly rich in motifs taken from folk art: flowers and geometric patterns which shift, move and meld into each other; jagged shapes contrasted with flowing curves. There is a splendour to the film’s imagery, and it is a visual journey from start to finish. (Parenthetically, if you can’t obtain, or don’t want the Blu-Ray, there is a full, pre-restoration version with subtitles here: https://www.y outube.com/watch?v=Ohv88J2WKsg – link deliberately broken to safeguard it.)

Like most products of its time, the cartoon is laden with hidden meaning as well. In repressive cultural environments, art is filled with secret messages you have to decode to interpret properly. Well-known stories are used as vehicles to speak about current issues that cannot be spoken about in the open. Fehérlófia is a retelling of myth with a heavy use of symbols, but it is also an outraged, powerless cry about the devastation and wilful destruction of a society. The story’s setup, the White Mare’s flight from a mechanised an all-seeing terror, is easy to see as a vision of totalitarianism; the draconic chimeras fought by Treeshaker are embodiments not just of human vices, but also the more hateful aspects of over-consumption, modern warfare, and the faceless dread of the digital age. There is a haunting, mourning tone to the work that treats the age of myth as a distant echo, as something that has passed and shall never return. When the opening dedication reads, “In the memory of the Scythian, Hunnic, Avar, and other plains people”, the careful viewer knows that “other plains people” means “and Hungarian people”, past tense included. When the tale ends, with the customary “And they lived happily ever after, until they died” of Hungarian folktales, the “until they died” part seems to take on a peculiar significance.

Why did Jankovics see the world in apocalyptic tones, especially in the relatively permissive 1980s? Arch-pessimism is certainly the default stance of his works: in the bittersweet “happy ending” of Johnny Corncob, in the abstract shorts Sisyphus and The Struggle, and in his quixotic 28-year (1983 to 2011) journey to adapt The Tragedy of Man, Hungary’s grand 19th century play about the ultimate futility of history and human progress, to an animated movie. In Jankovics, personal experience met with the Hungarians’ baseline brooding nature. As a child of the 1940s, he was nine when his father, a member of the anti-nazi resistance, was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to lifelong forced labour on trumped-up charges; he was only released to go home to die. The point was not to punish a specific crime, but to humiliate and break what remained of the Christian middle class, and reallocate their belongings to regime loyalists: masses of families were deported with minimal belongings to the countryside for menial labour, and housed in chicken coops, pigsties and stables. Jankovics later studied at Pannonhalma, Hungary’s most ancient Benedictine school, the only one allowed to operate with heavy restrictions; in his class, the majority of pupils came from families where one or both parents were dead, in prison, or under police supervision. The students of this prestigious school could count on graduate to become outcasts from society. Jankovics’ applications for architect school were rejected year after year. It was clear he would never be allowed to obtain a higher degree. He worked various menial jobs to support himself, until Fortune, or perhaps Providence smiled on him: while he could not be an architect, he was hired as a phase animator for Pannonia Film, Hungary’s cartoon studio.

Of all inhabitants of an unhappy country that held the world record of per capita suicides and abortions, and whose inhabitants mostly died of preventable malaises much earlier than other, similarly developed states, children at least had it fairly good. The regime had exiled its undesirable authors, poets and playwrights into childrens’ literature; and the best artists of the time went on to produce amazing, literate works of art for the young generation. Pannonia was an isle of excellence in a system that pushed everyone into grey mediocrity; its director, while a party loyalist, was fairly reform-minded. Jankovics worked his way up through the ranks to direct shorts, and got his big break with Johnny Corncob (1973), a feature-length story of a young shepherd who becomes a hussar and a hero to win the hand of his love from an evil stepmother. Johnny Corncob was much influenced by George Dunning’s Yellow Submarine (you can spot the blue meanies if you look enough), but also began Jankovics’ lifelong infatuation with folk art and symbolism. The cartoon was a success, even on the international level. It was picked up by Hanna-Barbera for US distribution, and to the author’s colossal disappointment, put in a box and never shown to local audiences – raising the question whether HB had made a mistake, or was just trying to cheaply block overseas competition from its US markets.


It would be fair to say that Jankovics was to Hungary as Miyazaki is to Japan. In my childhood, he was one of the two giants of animation. Attila Dargay made Disney-style stories about cute talking animals (and well made ones, too – in this scene, you can even spot Yours Truly lording over various forest critters), while Jankovics made weirder and – at least on the level of subtext – mode adult fare. Around them were the lesser peaks of a golden age of animated films – from Zsolt Richly’s proto-Powerpuff Girls work in The Rabbit With the Checkered Ears; through my generation’s non-anime anime cult classic, Cat City; Gyorgy Kovasznai’s long-forgotten but recently restored, avant-garde Bubble Bath (which, unlike Fehérlófia, very much does involve hallucinogenic drugs); the Oscar-nominated The Fly (it is about politics, and its director got into serious trouble for it); and whatever the HELL Sandor Reisenbüchler was doing. But these two were at the top of the game – both great and prolific.

Me when I see a Twitter

For people my age, Jankovics’ most recognisable work is undoubtedly Hungarian Folk Tales, the long-running TV animation series (nine seasons from 1977 to 2011, 100 episodes). These shorts were collaborations with various other artists (particularly with dramaturgist Agnes Balint, the uncrowned queen of Hungarian child’s literature), but the vision bears the mark of the originator: they are abstract, economic in their animation style (for both stylistic and cost-cutting reasons), and the episodes each draw on the motifs and style of a specific Hungarian ethnographic region. As it tends to go, the first few seasons directed hands-on by Jankovics are superior in vision; the later ones are fun, but more conventional. As a kid, I accepted them at face value; it was on later rewatching that I discovered their excellence and visual power. In a great gift to international animation, the studio has made the episodes freely available on Youtube, in a dubbed version no less. It is easy to dig in at a random point, but as a starter, I can highly recommend:

S01E05: The Pork Pudding (comedy horror, featuring a black pudding mimic!)

S02E02: The Giant Tree (the local version of the well-known Jack and the Beanstalk story, featuring my favourite one of Jankovics’ decidedly non-reptilian dragons)

S02E03: The Princess, Three Pigs, and Three Birthmarks (cartoon nudity!)

S02E13: The Jackdaw Girls (eerie weird fantasy)

S03E01: Abeles-Kobeles (introducing a bunch of devils which look suspiciously like the blue meanies)

If the first half of Jankovics’ career was about projects which allowed him to hone his skills and develop his craft, much of the second half was dedicated to a single task: animating The Tragedy of Man, Hungary’s great 19th century “civilisation play”. “The Tragedy”, as it is often known, is a long, slightly ponderous, deeply philosophical and immensely quotable play spanning the history of human progress, from primitive man to modern capitalism, mankind’s future, and beyond. Featuring a striving Adam who wants to see mankind’s bold future, a mysterious Eve as an embodiment of femininity, and Lucifer in the role of the ultimate smartass cynic, it is very challenging to stage (there are relatively few players, but a tremendous amount of historical sets), but perfectly suited for the medium of animation with its grand visions and allegories.

Preliminary work on the Tragedy started in 1983, and actual animation began in 1988. The project would take almost thirty years to complete. Pannonia, once one of the world’s largest animation studios, crumbled and went to the dogs. The theft and plunder of public assets (mostly by former party insiders) would become more lucrative than creating capital-intensive cultural products; foreign investors and banks were disinterested in funding art. Animation was a profitable business, but the turnover was slow and initial investments were high. Everyone wanted to get rich overnight. Jankovics, who chafed under the restrictions of socialism, soon grew into a bitter critic of the new order. He wrote books on ethnography and solar myths, occupied himself with lesser projects, and filled positions in cultural policy (whose holders are always hated by the jealous beneficiaries), while trying to raise capital for newer and newer segements of his film. At one point, he worked on the early design stages of Disney’s Kingdom of the Sun, but the project was gutted and bowdlerised, and his work went unused. The Tragedy progressed. Corners were cut, which are more apparent in some scenes than others. In 2011, he was finally given a lump sum from the new conservative government to complete the film, on the condition that it be released without further delay.

An Old-School Revolution

The finished Tragedy of Man is a monumental 160-minute animation faithfully following the play’s 15 scenes, its philosophical poetry and its quips: what it adds is the visual dimension. This is a slower, statelier work than Fehérlófia, and it often animates ideas rather than things. Each scene in its historical journey uses a radically different animation style (some co-designed with colleagues). Egypt is seen as the two-dimensional flat world of tomb paintings (only the mighty Pharaoh is allowed to assume the third dimension), and Greece as figures on clay pottery. The Middle Ages follow the style of codex marginalia; the Modern age as engraved plates; and the carnivalesque Victorian scene in a Dickensian London as an ever-evolving tableaux of popular culture. By the play’s dystopian vision of a cold and rational future that destroys human endeavour in an age where mankind has exhausted its resources, we are in the realm of comic books. Against this are set the strivings of Adam, his longing to win the attentions of Eve, and his dialogue with Lucifer, “the ancient spirit of negation”. It is not as rawly inventive and powerful as Fehérlófia, and it starts rather slow – the first half-hour is the weakest section. It is the very definition of indulgent and pretentious. However, it has a grand sweep, and it is rich in a myriad small details, cultural citations, easter eggs, and subtle visual humour. It is not for everyone, but some will like it very much.

There is much of Jankovics’ legacy that points at unrealised plans: he published his ideas as picture books or turned them into book illustrations (Toldi, his yet-to-be-released swan song, is one that miraculously got made). At one point, he contemplated animating the Bible, a project that got to the stage of a painted animation screenplay, one finished episode, and a later art album in the style of Jodorowsky’s Dune. (A fairly crappy trailer is found here). Perhaps that was too much. It was certainly hubris. And yet, as the Lord tells an exhausted and dejected Adam at the end of the Tragedy: “I have told you, Man: strive on, and trust!”

* * *

Fehérlófia is now available for pre-order from Arbelos. Don’t miss it.

Thursday 3 June 2021

[REVIEW] Valley of the Lost

Valley of the Lost (2021)

by Allen Farr

Winterblight’s Challenge

No level range given

Valley of the Lost
How do you review something’s absence? It can be obvious, like a missing map or a conflict that leads to an NPC who should logically be described, but isn’t. Perhaps it is an epic investigative scenario leading you to a circle of conspirators who are then left out altogether. Or a vampiresploitation setting, but Strahd is out for lunch and his castle is left as a footnote. Instead of help to run your games, you gain a millstone around the neck. Valley of the Lost is this kind of product – it is a mini-setting that’s all promise and no delivery.

The promises are interesting, and they were the reason I bought the PDF. There is a great-looking hex sheet that’s catnip to hex map fans, and there are promises of a mysterious lost world setting in an isolated valley. Wonderful! True to form, the concept is rather cool. The valley is the result of a magical disaster, where five worlds spilled over into ours to collide in a single point, and create a valley ringed with impassable mountains. Ancient pilgrimage routes, “the Ascent of Kings”, converge from four sides to meet in a place of enormous power and mystery in the middle. Dimensional nodes linked to the five otherworlds disgorge creatures and men at various points, to be rid of them through these dimensional gateways. Sabretooth-men ride saurian beasts. Ruins litter the valley floor, the thunder of a myriad hooves haunts a plain, and a forest is alive with malign intelligence. This is great and imaginative, and even decently written for what it is.

Except what you get is not the Valley, not even an introduction to the Valley, but the preface to the introduction. What you get is the absence of a potentially great mini-setting. Sadly, Valley of the Lost is a mishmash of a few glittering idea fragments, linked only in the most superficial manner. For basic ideas, these fragments are wordy; for anything else – table use, or even a campaign toolkit – they are woefully underdeveloped and vague. Tremendously unhelpful “GM notes” advise the reader to come up with ideas himself. Who knew we could do that! There are two adventure hooks (“Every setting needs some adventure hooks”, the text declares), one of which is blatantly obvious (fetch some sabretooth-man tusks), and one of which is intriguing but left entirely undeveloped, the equivalent of ending G1 after telling the GM of the ongoing giant raids. There are “obligatory” parts like random generation tables, but they are vestigial, while something like a random encounter or rumours table, however general, might have been much more useful.

A Mini-Setting That's Larger than France 
Let us discuss the map. On the surface, it is an intriguing hex map of a valley ringed on all sides by impassable mountains. This is an excellent fantasy concept, and doubly so for lost world milieus. Hex-crawls, of course, are a wonderful game structure to litter the map with interesting ruins, lairs, and landmarks to explore, and to turn the wilderness into a game board filled with adventure. Valley of the Lost does not do any of these things, though, and you will discover that the map is at a scale of 40 miles per hex – or 440 miles by 520 miles (708 by 836 kilometres). With 591 888 square kilometres, we are talking of a land somewhere between the size of France and Ukraine, and not much smaller than Texas or the Colorado River Basin, Denver to Yuma. Some “valley”! Mike’s World: The Forsaken Wilderness, an excellent wilderness setting that does everything Valley of the Lost promises or implies, could fit into a single hex of this “valley” with its 260 square kilometres, and have generous room to spare. There are symbols of settlements on the map. What are they like? The supplement does not say. Who populate them? Hell if I know. What are their names? They have none. There are ruins… of what? How do they look like? Supplements like Wilderlands of High Fantasy or even Carcosa gave super-terse answers to these questions, but these answers were oracular and mysterious, usually enough to build on. In comparison, Valley of the Lost gives you nothing.

Once again, this is just an unfulfilled promise. “Let me tell you about my campaign” is a valid publication type, but there’d better be a campaign behind it, with more good stuff coming soon. Except… it is hard to believe that is the case here. The setting guide feels like the results of a brainstorming session. Places of power – yes – ancient pilgrimage paths built and trod by kings – sure – let’s add sabretooths – cool! – and so on. But, sparkly ideas and competent prose notwithstanding, it is not a game supplement, not even a gazetteer. It mixes and matches macro-scale description (the valley’s origin story) with non-functional game content (the badly scaled hex map and the all too specific tables). Lived-in settings are different. They may or may not be high-concept, but what they do have in common is depth: dots are connected, locales are developed beyond one-idea seeds, and they have a veneer of patina. There is substance, evidence of prolonged use (even if a campaign never covers every territory). This setting does not even have the factory smell. It is still raw, like buying a car to customise, and receiving a box of spark plugs, a wheel, and a transmission. Where is the rest? Hell if I know. Can you customise it? Well... you might, but at this rate, it is easier to just come up with something that’s all yours.

No playtesters are credited in this publication.

Rating: * / *****