Thursday 21 April 2022

[REVIEW] Wild Blue Yonder #01

Wild Blue Yonder
Wild Blue Yonder #01 (2021)

by Jon Davis

Published by Sivad’s Sanctum


Hello, and welcome to **ZINEMASSACRE*2021**! Last year, Kickstarter ran Zinequest 3, their third zine writing promotion campaign. This venture seemed to be ill-starred, as not only did many of the projects suffer from delays and disappearing authors (a.k.a. “the old cut and run”), but this may actually be the last significant venture under the name for reasons which are both funny and disappointing. These reviews will focus on the zines I funded AND which actually got released – let’s see how it goes.

* * *

If you want to start a weird game experiment, start a zine. It might just find an audience, and in the worst case, you are not out of too much money. Of course, Kickstarter changes the equation a little (once you are funded, the risk is firmly on the buyers’ side), but the basic idea stands. Wild Blue Yonder (also the title of a Werner Herzog movie – relation to this project unknown) takes the framework of Old School Essentials, and takes it somewhere entirely else than originally intended: the Yonder Mountains, a backwoods area on the edges of modern civilisation. The time and place is distinctly late 19th century America, perhaps somewhere along the Appalachians. The Yonderfolk, the rural inhabitants of the Mountains, possess simple, homespun wisdom, and know much about this territory. In contrast, Flatfoots are outsiders bringing new ideas and fashions from industry to the labour movement.  Deep and old forests hide small agrarian villages living by old customs, while early mines dig up the mountains, small-scale factories are springing up, and loggers are slowly starting to clear away the dense old growth forests. This model of industrialisation preceded massive big-city industries, and is best remembered through campfire songs like Sixteen Tons (quoted on the back cover) and such fare – dirty, brutish, and more beneficial in the long than the short run.

Free Candy Not Depicted
The zine is dedicated to presenting this world of wise old tramps, tradition-bound townsmen, industrial barons and them crazy city folks with their new gizmo fads. The strength of the setting lies in the telling: it makes a convincing argument that this is a setting worth visiting, with its own folklore, customs, and deeper mysteries. There are human conflicts, from love and hatred to Tradition vs. Progress, folkloric beings based on strange old men, chapters on local fare (Yonderfolk have a notorious sweet tooth for rock candy, enjoy fried pumpkin rinds fried in lard, and wash it down with apple beer or a swig of strong hooch) or types of wood (metal is scarce in the Yonder Mountains, so household items are made of maple, log cabins of poplar, and magic items of white ash). The issue also presents the Woodsman class, who are basically Rangers with a deep spiritual connection to trees, a town, and four critters (giant groundhogs and wampus cats are two of them).

As a flavourful presentation of a lovely rural setting, Wild Blue Yonder is a success. The question with these settings is always “So what am I supposed to do with this?” The answer in the zine is not entirely convincing (see below), but to its credit, a large rumour table offers 36 potential hooks, from “The feud between the Walshes and the Marshes was started over a misplaced stew pot if memory serves” to “The Moon-eyed People see better at night than in the day, often times you’ll see their eyes shining from the dark hillsides.” You might also get the idea that the right answer is “what everyone else is doing”, so probably situation-oriented scenarios (thwart the dastardly plans of those industrialists!) and some light dungeon crawling. The Kickstarter comes with two pamphlet dungeons (a format that makes one-page dungeons look downright respectable), which also serve as a practical demonstration (but see below). Big Rock Candy Mountain is an entirely linear expedition to a lost gem mine with seven keyed locations and a 2d6 random encounter chart, while I Remember Uncle Elijah is an investigative module in the sleepy village of No Pine, where children are disappearing. The pattern of disappearances is entirely random, and there are no meaningful clues to really “investigate” or “solve” the mystery, at least within the adventure’s scope as written. I don’t know, man. Perhaps it is one of those deep things. Volja?

Then there is the editorialising, which I suppose is to be expected with these NuSR things. Not only does the setting have Correct Politics, but we will be surprised that NPCs who share the Correct Politics are sympathetic, wise, and ultimately good of heart; while those who do not share the Correct Politics are greedy, unsympathetic, and Up to No Good. For example, Old-Timers are wise in the ways of healing, good advice, and a bit of folksy magick, while the Sons of Cludd are intolerant religious fanatics who “have a reputation as ruthless inquisitors and torturers of those they deem as heretics and witches”. Well, there’s a hard decision. Likewise, the Paimon Coal Company is a gang of obvious evildoers to the last clerk, company store employee, and Sherrif (all ~ are bastards), while good folks in town host secret labour union meetings and work as child preachers paying off a family debt. When they have character flaws, they are sympathetic character flaws or charming tics, or something they are not at fault for. Even the famed Paimon Prowler (a now extinct OSR critter) would be impressed.

The above weirdness notwithstanding, this is a decent “idea” zine, and a compelling setting crafted with vivid strokes and obvious love. The writing is good, and the ingredients are there for a campaign. You probably will not run a game here (and see below), but wouldn’t you like to? This is a quaint, timeless, and out of fashion world that feels a bit like home. When you read that “Some folk from Chat’nuga are in town, and they got themselves an automobile!”, wouldn’t you want to play a few tricks on them until they go right back to Chat’nuga with their gizmo widgets? Darn straight, sonny.

The zine is released as “UNPLAYTESTED WITH PRIDE”. Weird flex but OK.

Rating: *** / *****

"They even gave a strange little jump as they
fucked right back to wherever they came from!"

1 comment:

  1. The problem with deep things is that they're pretty hard to portray within the context of a roleplaying game in a satisfactory manner. Most rpg scenarios, even investigative ones, are clear-cut and goal-oriented by their very nature. Loot the dungeon, find the culprit, dig up the treasure or stop the alien invasion. You either reach your objective or you don't - but it is difficult to measure, to say the least, the amount of success in "evoke the tragic nature of love once known, but now lost forever" or "wallow in the heroic pessimism of fighting against impossible, cosmic odds". Your average CP2020 session will look like a futuristic heist or action movie, far from the streetwise melancholy of a Gibson short story. This is where Vampire got derailed as well, from the very first moment, I think. If you take the mission statement of the "storytelling game of personal horror" seriously, you'll have your own private mythology, your own heroes with tragic shortcomings from square one, and won't need the often tedious, contrived metaplot and Machiavellian shenanigans of the published material (what the publisher DOES need, on the other hand, at least in order to stay in business). Similarly, it's easy to mock up a Lynchian environment with looming supernatural threats, dwarves dancing the boogie in reverse and flickering lights above - but without an artist's vision to hold it all together and lend it meaning, it will fall flat and be exposed as what it is, a bunch of tropes thrown together without any depth. Can you have a "meaningful" game session in the Yonder Mountains, seeking lost children, if there's no explanation for them being lost, or even ways to rescue them? Do you need to announce beforehand: "okay gang, today we're going to roll around in the futility of man's actions in an uncaring universe"? You may, but it would be like a joke or a work of art explained without experienced in the first place. With a willing group of players, it might just work, if the stars are right, but it might just as well end up as an awkward pretense. Again, getting "deep" is difficult and there's the omnipresent danger of artistic posturing - but I still hold that rpgs may be more than tactical exercises or freeform boardgames.