Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Qelong - Review

Published last year by Lamentations of the Flame Princess written by Kenneth Hite, it's Qelong - the South East Asian sandbox of magical corruption.  Now whatever one may say about the contents of some Lamentations products, the products themselves are very nicely put together.  I am only looking at the PDF but it’s an excellent PDF, tagged and indexed with fine design throughout.  Lamentations hires good artists to, and Qelong is very well illustrated with modern looking unique pen and ink drawing.  I want to also add that there isn’t anything in the art that is especially gruesome, at least by the standards of cable television, and I shouldn’t have to add this, but with Lamentations' reputation in some circles I think it’s worth adding to set aside any misconception.

Qelong is fantasy South East Asia, with a nod to Heart of Darkness by way of Apocolypse Now but without the more cloying fantasy Vietnam tropes, where the party usually represents members of the occupying Western force.  Qelong also owes a fair amount to Glenn Cook’s later Black Company Novels, in fact, I think the Vargarian mercenaries trying to get rich stealing magic from irradiated farmers’ livers and ready to fly off in their skywhale/lich gardura are a slightly more mercenary version of the Black Company. There is also a nice reference to the Japanese movie “Onibaba” – which makes for a great RPG scenario - so certainly Qelong has wide ranging and solid influences. 
Rich Longmore - Inside Cover of Qelong - great art in this
Looking at certain games (early Warhammer 40K..) one sometimes wonders if there is a strong streak in RPG history of trying to make sense of the Western military involvement in South East Asia. This is fine, and Qelong isn’t really part of it, Qelong is more akin to the colonial chapters in Journey to the End of Night, or James Ellroy’s take on Vietnam in the “Cold Six Thousand” – maybe even Graham Green’s “Quite American”, then it is “Platoon” or “Coming Home in a Body Bag”.  Qelong places the characters as a band of fortune hunters in a fantasy Cambodia/Burma, which is far less clichéd (and/or offensive) then the hobgoblin sappers coming through the wire one usually sees in fantasy Vietnam scenarios.  More importantly, Qelong’s scenario is open enough that it actually leads to a great and unique sandbox for open exploration play and faction conflict rather than any sort of railroad military mission scenarios. 

That’s what Qelong is, not a module, but a sandbox or a setting. It provides enough information to run a party of 3rd - 6th level adventurers arriving from more standard Western Medieval fantasy lands, or perhaps to start up a funnel for a band of local refugees. Really it’s a hex map and a set of problems that mesh well with each other to create an environment rather than a classic module. This is Qelong’s greatest strength and the source of my biggest difficulties with the book.

Awesome Thing 1: Feel – The feel of Qelong is spot on, it’s not simply an exotic land, and indeed could be easily adapted to another sort of region. The humid, riverine environment is handled well, though perhaps not especially originally, but the magical apocalypse as a result of wasteful, careless demigods are what give motive force to the setting.  Pollution, mutation, corruption are highlighted in very smart ways.  The method of presentation is decent here, terrain types with a few special random encounters that really capture a feel and are themselves superb one paragraph adventures.  

I would like to see what the actual battlefield of the Asura/Acrhmages/demigods looks like. A less friendly Carcosa I suspect, but could be old Planescape modules I suppose. Might also be Fantasy Somme 1916 - which isn't a bad idea.

Awesome Thing 2: Monsters – Seems like Qelong is 90% new monsters, and the vast majority of them are humans or once were.  Myrmidons are especially great in this regard, a horrifying and disturbing take on the classic idea of ant warriors taken logically and combining the worst aspects of marauding foreign soldiers and army ants.  Yet the Myrmidons have a real sense of pointlessness and futility that really gives the idea of an unscrupulous demigod run amok rather then heartless evil.  Other creatures are also nice and include a few varieties of bandits, magic warped creatures and some great ghosts.  The creatures, the way they are encountered and the ways they relate to the setting are all very naturalistic feeling, which is lovely.  I also like the sheer number of encounters with normal people gone strange and desperate thanks to the horror that surrounds them.

Awesome Thing 3: Writing and Layout -  The writing and layout of Qelong are simply good.  Better then anything else I’ve read from a gaming publisher.  This might seem like a dumb thing to focus on, but really it makes the setting fun to read.  Hite is a good writer and his clear writing makes the ideas within really shine.  His word choice is sometimes evocative and never dull and more importantly he’s not writing a novel, not overly verbose, but instead clearly aiming at a game book with some artistry.  As mentioned above LOTFP has gotten the art of making good looking and functional game books down.  I only found one minor jarring page transition and one mangled sentence and neither was a layout problem.  Otherwise this layout is useful, functional and, fun - first introducing setting constants and feel first and then zooming in to specific locations.

Awesome Thing 4: Factions - The factions in Qelong are all bad news, but they are compelling.  Two of them (Monks and Mercenaries) might even work with the PCs, despite their ultimately selfish and destructive goals. The other two, naga and myrmidons, are horrible monsters.  Even as horrible monsters through their reasons and purposes makes sense, and in the case of the Naga are largely sympathetic (The Myrmidons aren't responsible for their evil even - they just are) – it’s their methods that make them horrible.  These factions are important, because they and the peasantry that an adventuring party will encounter are likely to distract the players from any starting goals, either with promises of wealth or the need to be rescued from their various tormentors. Whatever the player’s original goals are, there’s enough going on in Qelong that new or more interesting plans will arise organically.  Furthermore, there’s enough content in Qelong to provide a good basis for several different kinds of adventure based on these wild impulses.

Problem 1: Party Splitting Automatic Effects -  There are several strange effects in Qelong that will split the party across hexes or even across time.  These are very cool effects and puzzles (such as a lake shore that connects to all other lake shores in the province), but present playability problems.  Yes one can run two or more separate games as the party quests to find itself.  This leaves some of your players rather bored for much of the time.  Yet these encounters are really good, they are hard to resist.  I think the stupa that throws the characters out of synch with time might be salvageable, if one simply took aside the player of the time displaced PC(s) and gave them 5 minutes to figure out the problem or roll up new PCs for the session (revisit the lost PCs for 5 minutes next session or do an email escape and if they make it, the new PC is a henchman – everyone loves a competent henchmen).  The lake transport thing is harder, maybe just tell the player’s of lost characters to roll new ones and then place the lost folk as prisoners or lost somewhere on the map to maybe be found.  Both of these solutions require players who aren’t going to complain about “arbitrary GM fait” or “no win traps” because neither of these events really advertise themselves as dangerous. This isn’t to say these situations are bad, both fit with the murderous nightmare world of Qelong, and both are pretty interesting (though another, the animate stupa that eats people is a personal favorite).

Problem 2: Some Lazy Rules - Undead that unnaturally are hard to turn.  Yeah I totally understand the impulse to use undead and then the teeth grinding frustration of having them constantly turned.  This is what makes clerics great (okay clerics are really far too powerful) but randomly saying “all ghosts turn as 4HD higher” is an old jerk module writer dodge.  Maybe this is why adventuring clerics are in such demand – they can go toe to toe with the angry dead.  Well Qelong does the tough to turn dead, and it’s minor, and Qelong backs off a bit with “Local priests can turn them normally” but still it’s one of those things that personally annoys me.  The actual new ghosts are great, and based at least partially on Malay folk lore (names have been changed though to protect the mythical) making them creepy in a way that only a thousand years of story-telling can make a monster. 

The undead turning issue may be a personal shibboleth (10HD AC 4* ATK 3 maul/maul/bite DAM 2D6/2D6/2D6 SV CL 10 MV 20’ ML 10 *Immune to non-magical weapons, lightning, cold, poison and mutation or chaos effects), but there are some other clunky rules central to this adventure.  Specifically, one of the major elements of Qelong is a magical pollution system – and that’s cool.  The part about evil dead style animated hands is especially cool, but frankly the system requires an entire metric of detailed point tracking that I won't remember to do while GMing.  This sort of new metric for adventure specific stuff annoys me, because it asks the GM to work harder, GMs already have XP, HP, monsters and what not to track while providing vivid and exciting narration.  Qelong helps with a bit of this, by being vivid and exciting, but I really don’t want to be saddled with new mechanical hijinx just because I want to use a setting from a book.  I, and every other GM, will invent enough new house rules for ourselves.

Oh wait, the magical pollution? I can fix it. At the end of each session in Qelong, rolls a save v. magic. Failure means one is infected and suffers some penalties.  A second failure results in bad touching people, and if you cut of your hand it goes evil dead.  Some things like getting mauled by mutant beasties give penalties to that role. Some things (cure disease, evil drugs, becoming a lotus slave) mean the penalties are gone and one gets a +X to the save (or need not save).   Point is that it is lazy design not to think about mechanical consequences in a published game.  Also nice would have been a table for “long term effects of Magical Poisoning”  heck this would be generally useful and great for the setting.  This leads me into the next complaint – a lack of loving detail and the sort of thing that makes published adventures great, rather than good.

Problem 3: Lack of Area Maps - I get it, this is a setting not a module, but some village maps, a map of the Vargarians fort, the mines, some stupas etc would make running this far easier. As it is there is are no real maps, beyond the lovely hex map.  Maps take a lot of time, and they really help give a feel for a location.  I don’t need a lot, but when one sets up a couple of “combat only” core locations (here the town ruled by the Naga) or places where a siege/infiltration is the obvious choice (the black company fort) I want a damn map.  It’s a page, spend money on one less piece of art and give me some maps.  This isn’t just a GM ease issue, good maps provide a lot of sense about a place.  There’s a nice passage in Qelong about how villages are built on a spiral pattern.  Give me a map, show me what that looks like – it will help a GM a lot.  Likewise for forts and cities where combat is likely.  I don’t mean a keyed map – maybe a legend over a building or town “blacksmith”, “granary” “lab”, but really just a set of simple maps will cut hours of my prep time.

Perhaps asking for maps is asking for too much, but it’s asking the writer to understand how they will use the product, to give the reader a bit of affection.  Even if I hate Quelong, or find it impossible to fit into my campaign, I might have a great need for a random table of magical pollution effects or a map of jungle villages/fortresses.  This is the sort of thing one can take out of adventures one hates and makes it easy to run adventures one loves.  Qelong offers none of it. Still this isn’t a sin, it’s just not going the distance from turning a solid setting book into a great supplement.

All these minor complaints aside, Qelong is great, it really provides a lot of material to run a hot, stinking, irradiated and alien jungle or at least get the mind moving in that direction.  It’s absolutely worth $7 for the PDF.


  1. While I appreciate Bryce Lynch's tenfootpole reviews, and respect his prolificacy, YOUR review of Qelong puts each of his reviews to shame. (Not to pick on Bryce; your review puts my small handful of reviews to shame too.) Your review really tells *about* the product in a way that shows your opinion, without being overly judgmental. This review is really good at helping the would-be-purchaser decide whether Qelong is worth it for them! (The only nitpicks are that your review doesn't include a link to the product, nor does it describe some of the basic physical characteristics that are sometimes important: Physical size, page count, font size, etc.)

    1. I like Bryce's reviews a lot, and he reads everything (and I mean everything) very honestly and very in line with his clearly stated beliefs - most of which are mine as well. I am judgmental as hell and have the pretension that I (and many other GMs - certainly the GMs who's games I play in) can and regularlly make stuff up that is better then most published products up on the fly, I just liked Qelong, I liked vault of the Drow. I never did finish a review of Earthshaker and I despised Pharaoh.

      I don't review the product of the physical item because I only buy PDFs - I mentioned the Qelong PDF was quality - much easier to navigate and fitted well to a screen compared to anything in the old D&D line.

  2. Wishlisted---thanks for bringing this to my attention

  3. Personally, I found it overlong, had the same problem with maps that you did, was mystified as to why creature statblocks were buried in the text and found the designer's hand a bit too heavy. It has been a while, but I think the fact that PCs were automatically assumed to be from the "West" and that Pcs could not be lotus monks annoyed me. I know this stuff is easily changed, but it is the sort of thing that I think should just be left out in the first place, as they are decisions that should just be left to the DM. I liked the magical pollution idea; the myrmadons, and the naga, but felt the bulk of the art added nothing and over all the product was uneven.

    1. You're harsher then I am - I enjoyed Qelong, and think despite some problems it's better then most things I read from the Golden Era of modules. It's hard to make gaming material for others. I think it'd been a good couple of paragraphs to suggest a locals game, and note Lotus Monks are insane and brain rotted (I don't think lotus monk PCs would work). Introducing a monk class to LOTFP though - this would've been the place.