Friday, September 5, 2014

Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine - Review



Last Gasps First Product

Recently Logan from Last Gasp published his first commercial (not aggressively so - it’s pay what you want, but if you decide to get it - pay the man something) product “Sleeping Place of theFeathered Swine”.  I grabbed it right away based on the enjoyment I get from Logan’s blog, and especially from his play reports (including one from Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine).  Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine is a simple location based adventure with 13 keyed rooms, and a huge amount of flavor.  The adventure has a few piece of great art by the author (monster illustrations) and includes a wonderful map, along with a novel approach to using the map at the table.  Size or details aren’t what matters here, what matters is the evocative environment and setting, both the contemporary sort of body horror weirdness, late 80’s Warhammer Fantasy grottiness, and a great deal of late 70’s OD&D deadly. It's not a big adventure, but it will get you through a 2-3 hour session with a lot of flavor.


THE ADVENTURE
The Worm Tumor, a primary antagonist

The party finds a failed adventurer, a wizard of some sort, in the wilderness.  He’s lost his Grimore and he’s not well. He tells of an easy commission to surgically take some sort of larva sacks from some kind of horrible beasts that are hibernating in a nearby cave.  His companions were all killed by disgusting mutants in the cave, and one was carrying the frazzled wizard's spellbook at the time.  He can give the party directions, and proper instructions and warnings regarding the removal and care of the worm cysts, but he's nicely pathetic otherwise. Some alchemist creep will pay good money for the cysts.

Inside the cave things are gross, fungus and piles of rotten feathers everywhere, but worse, the victims of the larva (from improper removal of the monster cysts) turn into horrors ready to spread their plague in disgusting ways.  A dying adventurer can be rescued from the now infected previous explorers and provides more warnings (and monster tranquilizers), monstrous freaks lurch from hidden recesses, and all the while a room full of horrible pig/bear/owl things hibernate waiting to be badly tranquilized and have their larval cysts plundered.  Everything can go wrong, and going wrong is deadly and disgusting.

There are simple treasures (broken equipment mostly) suitable for a very desperate low level game, a very strange pearl that creates cave crabs and the lost wizard’s grimore of horrible spells (plus the Feathered Swine cysts – assuming the party doesn’t infect themselves gathering them).
GRIM AND GROTTY

The Sleeping place of the Feathered Swine is a small adventure really, good for a single session or maybe two.  It’s also a cave adventure of the most basic sort – go in, fight monsters, get quest items and incidental treasure.  Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine could be written as a one page dungeon, but it’ not – and that’s what makes the adventure wonderful.  There is so much detail, great situations, horrible obstacles that Feathered Swine transcends its simple cave adventure roots.   It’s not that the descriptions are long, most are quite short, but that the adventure successfully conveys why the Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine is not just another dangerous cave, and why desperate mercenaries are drawn to it.  The Sleeping Place has a lot of promise as a starting adventure because it creates an implied world as well as a location – a world where a broken sword is a nice find as a weapon.  The sort of place where characters are likely equipped from the Warhammer Fantasy random tables, and you start out as a street thug with filthy pants, a ball of twine and a cudgel rather than the standard D&D equipment.  I personally like this sort of world – I like the idea that the first few levels of gold should be spent on buying decent equipment.  Sleeping Place manages to capture this feel, and this alone is worth the price (hey I paid $5.00, I think you can also shell out a few dollars to encourage Logan to do more of these things).  The New Spells, gross monsters (dangerously contagious worm host zombies and the feathered swine [owlbears of a sort]), cursed and beneficial magic armor, and excellent map are nice additions.

The strange armor is a perfect example of the sort of baroque detail and clever description Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine is filled with.  The armor is found in the bottom of the cave, behind a small copse of mushrooms, still worn by an oddly mummified corpse.  Covered in disturbing engravings and clearly dire portents the suit is obviously magical.  Indeed, it is a very beneficial suit of plate armor (Plate +1, with the ability to convert some physical damage into temporary Constitution damage). It will save a character multiple times to be sure, but it is also hideous and cursed, melding with and feeding off its wearer in a viscerally nasty way. This sort of powerful boon and curse item is great, both because it creates character identity and makes magic feel special and weird.  Generally everything that could be mundane and dull in Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine (and it’s a 13 room cave lair) is so transformed into something strange, memorable and fascinating.  

Furthermore these details tell several stories that the party can unravel and explore.  The life cycle of the Feathered Swine and the failed expedition to exploit it by dead/dying/transformed mercenaries is one such tale, while the magical items (armor and pearl) and principle opponents (Worm tumors) offer an opportunity to expand and lead to future adventures.

THE LAYOUT

One of the most interesting elements of Sleeping Place is its layout.  There’s quite a bit of innovation and as with all novelty some of it is great, and some isn’t to my taste.

First I’ll cover the issues I have with the design, and then I’ll go into what’s great about it. I think it’s also worth noting that this is Logan’s first go at a published RPG product, and that there is far more design good then design bad here.  The PDF is largely split into half pages, zine style, with each page containing a single location.  This in itself isn’t bad, but it seems to be space intensive, especially as many of the locations only fill a portion of the page.  Another interesting choice, that I’m not sure I fully approve of, is the decision to use large one sentence key descriptions in each area.  In general I like the idea, of at a glance room descriptions, they can be super useful at the table to jog a GMs memory about a room, but they way they are presented in Sleeping Place is a bit disruptive as giant text, in a different font can be jarring and only adds to the page bloat that the decision about page size and content creates.  These are minor complaint really, and I have heard others praise these decisions, so I suspect it’s just my design preferences (Feel free to complain about my own PDF design proclivities - I think Road of Tombs and Kuelberg Flood might be the best examples of my current style).
There are other decisions in Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine that are very good, and quite new.  

Excellent linkage in the PDF (anytime an area of special object is mentioned you can click through to its description) is really nice, and something that I don’t see in a lot of larger more high profile products.  Likewise the entire PDF feels polished and well put together without the sort of editing and layout sloppiness that can sometimes plague amateur or solo creators. Finally, and most interestingly, there are some wonderful uses of the map.  The map (as with much of Logan’s work) is a wonderfully drawn Isometric beauty that does an enormous amount of the description for the adventure.  Rather then leave it as something for the GM’s eyes only, Sleeping Place includes a cut out version of the map so that individual rooms can be laid down, tile like on the table as they are explored.  This is novel, fun and really evocative.   It reminds me of the way many GMs are running their hangout games, using screenshare of a map and slowly erasing a masking layer as the dungeon is explored, but does it for a home-game.   Another nice use of the map is the small versions of each room included below each description, which makes for a nice reference to geographical features.

CONCLUSION

I unreservedly recommend Sleeping Place of the Feathered Swine, and it’s flavorful, dangerous and allows for in game world building through character decisions.  Sleeping Place is precisely the sort of adventure that small creators, amateurs and bloggers have been offering the hobby for the past few years and that now with the resurgence of D&D 5E will hopefully become all the more important as they represent different genres of the classic dungeon crawl, beyond the sort of heroic fantasy Tolkien pastiche currently favored by WOTC and Pathfinder.  So go get this thing, read it enjoy it and drop it into your game world.  It’s not especially level dependent as the monsters dangerous come mostly from special attacks, and since they  are all new monsters their statlines can be easily adjusted. 

1 comment:

  1. I completely agree with this review. Came upon the product he same way, had he same reaction to it. My players are too high level for it as is, so I'll be looking to adjust it without automatically dooming the world if some of the icky worm-ridden monsters escape (the Vord of the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, anyone?).
    To anybody reading this: go buy it.

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