Valley of the Lost (2021)
by Allen Farr
No level range given
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.
Valley of the Lost
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.
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.
A Mini-Setting That's Larger than France
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: * / *****